(WASHINGTON) — Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen faced intense questioning about her memory of the Oval Office immigration reform meeting last week in which President Donald Trump referred to several nations as “s—hole countries,” including by one of the senators also present for the meeting.
Nielsen, appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday, said she “did not hear” the word “s—hole,” or one similar, as she was asked about her recollection of the bipartisan White House meeting, but did say she remembered “rough talk” and “tough language.”
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who was singled out by Trump Monday for “misrepresenting what was said” during the conversation after he confirmed reports last week about the president’s description of Haiti, El Salvador and several African countries pressed Nielsen for specific detail, but the secretary did not specifically assign attribution to Trump.
Trump previously acknowledged “tough” language was used during the meeting but denied making “derogatory” remarks about Haiti. A pair of senators also present last week — Sens. David Perdue, R-Ga., and Tom Cotton, R-Ark., — claimed over the weekend that the media misrepresented the president’s comments.
“Apologies. I don’t remember [a] specific word,” Nielsen said. “What I was struck with, frankly, I’m sure you were as well, the general profanity used in the room by almost everyone.”
Earlier during the hearing, Nielsen was asked by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. about Trump’s reported preference for European immigrants, including those from Norway. The president had met the day of the Oval Office meeting with Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg.
“Being from Norway is not a skill,” Leahy said. “And with the standard of living in Norway better than ours, what does he mean when he says he wants more immigrants from Norway?”
“I don’t believe he said that specifically,” responded Nielsen, adding, “What he was specifically referring to is the prime minister telling him that the people of Norway work very hard. And so what he was referencing is from a merit-based perspective, we like to have those with skills who can assimilate to the United States.”
“Norway is a predominantly white country, isn’t it?” followed Leahy.
“I actually do not know that, sir,” Nielsen said. “But I imagine that is the case.”
Nielsen’s answers faced criticism later during the hearing from Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., who called it “unacceptable” that she could not “remember the words of your commander-in-chief.”
“Your silence and your amnesia is complicity,” Booker said.
The reports of the meeting, which came amid continued debate over the country’s immigration policies, renewed accusations by critics of the president on issues of race. In response, Trump told reporters Sunday he is “not racist.”
“I am the least racist person you have ever interviewed,” he said. “That I can tell you.”
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