The White House's shifting narrative on Trump's 's---hole' comment

Going from non-denials to denials.

ByABC News
January 15, 2018, 4:15 PM

— -- A public he-said, they-said debate has been unfolding for days in the wake of last week’s Oval Office meeting where President Donald Trump reportedly used a derogatory term to refer to certain countries.

The White House initially offered no denial of the charge that Trump questioned why the United States would want to accept immigrants from "s---hole countries.” But Trump is now denying that he made that specific remark, also citing claims from two people at the meeting that he says support his version of events.

Here is a timeline of how the issue has unfolded:

Thursday Jan. 11

In an immigration meeting at the White House Thursday afternoon, Trump grew frustrated at a proposed bipartisan immigration plan that would scale back the visa lottery program, but not eliminate it, asking those in the room why they would want people from "s---hole countries" like some in Africa coming to the United States, according to multiple sources either briefed on or familiar with the discussion.

The president suggested instead that the United States should welcome more people from places like Norway, whose prime minister he had met with the day before, according to the sources.

The White House did not deny that the president made the remarks.

Deputy White House Press Secretary Raj Shah issued this statement to ABC News, saying, "Certain Washington politicians choose to fight for foreign countries, but President Trump will always fight for the American people. The President will only accept an immigration deal that adequately addresses the visa lottery system and chain migration – two programs that hurt our economy and allow terrorists into our country. Like other nations that have merit-based immigration, President Trump is fighting for permanent solutions that make our country stronger by welcoming those who can contribute to our society, grow our economy and assimilate into our great nation. He will always reject temporary, weak and dangerous stopgap measures that threaten the lives of hardworking Americans, and undercut immigrants who seek a better life in the United States through a legal pathway.”

A senior White House official acknowledged to ABC News that the president "grew frustrated when the conversation turned to the issue of the visa lottery deal," which allows a certain number of immigrants from qualifying countries every year.

White House aides appeared unfazed, with some there arguing the remark could actually help the president despite drawing bipartisan condemnation.

But it was “not the best way” for the president to convey his position, a senior White House official conceded, calling it a “classic Trump moment,” though arguing, “he’s making a point that people agree with, with words that are controversial.”

“This is a gaffe,” the official said. “It may not have been the best way to convey his position.”

Another White House official told ABC News the comment reflects the president’s “America First” policy.

“I don't think anyone is worried about it,” the official said. “I haven't seen or heard anyone worried about it. In this instance, our statement reflects our thinking here. America First."

Friday Jan. 12

PHOTO: Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson, Vice President Mike Pence and Isaac Newton Farris Jr. listen while President Donald Trump speaks about Martin Luther King Jr. in the White House Jan. 12, 2018 in Washington.
Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson, Vice President Mike Pence and Isaac Newton Farris Jr. listen while President Donald Trump speaks about Martin Luther King Jr. in the Roosevelt Room of the White House Jan. 12, 2018 in Washington.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Trump posted a tweet, making a vague denial of something that was being reported but not specifying the language with which he took issue.

"The language used by me at the DACA meeting was tough, but this was not the language used. What was really tough was the outlandish proposal made - a big setback for DACA!" he tweeted.

In the first public, on-camera reaction from someone in the room, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said there is no question the president said these "hate-filled things."

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., speaks at a news conference as he visits students of Year Up Chicago, a one-year long job training program that provides low-income young adults, Jan. 12, 2018, in Chicago.
Kiichiro Sato/AP

"To no surprise, the president started tweeting this morning, denying that he used those words,” he said. “It is not true."

"When I mentioned that fact to him, he said, ‘Haitians, do we need more Haitians?’ Then he went on and started to describe the immigration from Africa that was being protected in this bipartisan measure. That's when he used these vile and vulgar comments, calling the nations they come from shitholes. The exact word used by the president. Not just once but repeatedly."

Two Republican senators who were also in the meeting, Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia, issued a joint statement saying they did not “recall” the president’s use of the derogatory word.

“In regards to Senator Durbin’s accusation, we do not recall the resident saying these comments specifically but what he did call out was the imbalance in our current immigration system, which does not protect American workers and our national interest,” the joint statement read.

Another Republican senator, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, weighed in but revealed little about what was or wasn’t said.

“Following comments by the president, I said my piece directly to him yesterday,” he said in a statement. “The president and all those attending the meeting know what I said and how I feel. I’ve always believed that America is an idea, not defined by its people but by its ideals.”

Sunday Jan. 15

In addition to Cotton, who again denied the use of the word during an interview on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” another person who was in the room during the meeting came to Trump’s defense.

The newly appointed Department of Homeland Security secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, said on “Fox News Sunday” she didn’t remember hearing the word used.

"I don't recall him saying that exact phrase. I think he has been clear and I would certainly say undoubtedly the president will use, continue to use strong language when it comes to this issue. He feels very passionate about it," she said.

During an interview on ABC News’ “This Week,” Perdue doubled down on his earlier claims that he didn’t recall hearing the word used.

“I’m telling you he did not use that word, George,” Perdue told host George Stephanopoulos. “And I’m telling you it’s a gross misrepresentation.”

Before a dinner with Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., at Trump’s golf club in West Palm Beach, Florida, the president denied making the “s---hole” remark.

President Donald Trump speaks beside California Republican Congressman Kevin McCarthy at Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach, Jan. 14, 2018.
Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

“Did you see what various senators in the room said about my comments? They weren’t made,” Trump said.

Asked about those who accuse him of being a racist, Trump replied: “No, no, I’m not a racist. I am the least racist person you have ever interviewed. That I can tell you.”

Monday Jan. 15

While attending an event in Chicago to honor Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Durbin dismissed questions that have been raised by some who said that Trump didn't say "s---hole" but actually said "s---house" instead.

"I don’t know that changing the word from “hole” to “house” changes the impact which this has. This speaks to America and its view toward immigration and his message to the world," Durbin said. "I don’t believe the majority of America agrees with the president, whichever word was used."

Durbin said "I stick with my original interpretation. I am stunned that this is their defense" of suggesting that it was a slightly different word used.

In an interview with the Charleston Post & Courier, Sen. Lindsey Graham said his memory "hasn't evolved" since Thursday's controversial Oval Office meeting.

He told fellow South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott last week that media accounts of Trump's remarks were "basically accurate."

ABC News’ Katherine Faulders and Ali Rogin contributed to this report.

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