Donald Trump refused to back down on his “tough” rhetoric about immigrants from poor, “high crime” countries on Friday, as furore spread about his reported dismissal of Haiti, El Salvador and African nations as “shithole countries”.
The backlash from leading political and business figures around the world was triggered by the president’s reported comments during a meeting on Thursday with lawmakers in which he also suggested he would prefer immigrants from Norway.
On Friday Mr Trump said “this was not the language used” but acknowledged he had said “tough” things. Richard Durbin, a Democratic senator from Illinois who attended the meeting, insisted on Friday that the president had repeatedly used the “hate-filled, vile and racist” language attributed to him.
Outrage about the president’s conduct built on recurrent accusations that the US president has stoked racial tensions and xenophobia as he pursues aggressive policies cracking down on immigration.
Earlier in the week Mr Trump had said he wanted to hammer out a bipartisan “bill of love” for roughly 800,000 people left in limbo by his decision to end a programme protecting young immigrants who illegally entered the US as children. On Friday, however, he appeared to play down hopes of a Senate deal on the issue, saying there had been a “big step backwards” in the talks.
Haiti’s government said it was “profoundly indignant and shocked” at the “hateful and abject comments” attributed to Mr Trump that “in no way reflect the virtues of wisdom, restraint and discernment that any high ranking politician should cultivate”.
Mr Trump said in a tweet that he had never said anything derogatory about Haitians other than that their country was “very poor and troubled”.
El Salvador’s government sent a formal letter of protest to the US government after waiting in vain for some clarification or denial. In it, San Salvador recalled its nationals’ contributions to the reconstruction of the Pentagon after the terrorist attacks of September 11 2001, and the rebuilding of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
It added: “El Salvador demands respect for the dignity of its noble and valiant people.”
Earlier in the week the Trump administration put nearly 200,000 Salvadorans legally in the US on notice that they are likely to be deported, as it revokes “temporary protected status” for residents from the country who were allowed to work in the US following devastating earthquakes in 2001.
A spokesperson for the African Union was reported as saying it was “frankly alarmed” by the comments. Jessie Duarte, deputy secretary-general of the African National Congress, South Africa’s ruling party, described the US president’s comments as extremely offensive, telling a press conference: “Ours is not a shithole country, neither is Haiti or any other country in distress.”
“He is normalising obscenity, chauvinism, racism,” said Mo Ibrahim, a Sudanese telecoms billionaire who has championed the cause of good governance in Africa with a $5m annual prize. “What worries us is how the US — which is supposed to be built on ideals — is losing its position as leader of the world, and backbone of the international order.”
Mr Ibrahim added that Mr Trump’s remarks carried no recognition that his own country had been built on genocide and slavery, as well as on ideals. “That’s one class of immigrants forcibly brought into the US from ‘shitholes’ to work as enforced labour, as slaves in the American south,” he said.
Mr Trump’s hardline stance on immigration was a key feature of an election campaign characterised by his willingness to denigrate foreigners, attacking Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists, and calling for a ban on Muslims entering the country. Last year the president was widely criticised for his handling of racial tensions after he failed to clearly denounce the white supremacists who rioted in Charlottesville.
The president’s belligerent approach to race relations has resonated with members of his electoral base who are motivated by his nationalistic “America First” rhetoric and policies, but they also put at risk the Republican party’s ability to broaden its appeal to other groups in upcoming elections.
Chris Jackson, vice-president at Ipsos Public Affairs, said the comments were unlikely to change many minds among diehard Trump supporters, but they will “really energise his opponents”. The president’s approval ratings were strikingly weak given the firm economy, he said. “This will make it harder for him to reach out to independents, whom Republicans will ultimately need to win elections.”
On Friday Mr Trump signed a proclamation honouring civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr, before walking away from shouted questions from reporters about his comments.