Asked about Trump's vulgar comments, DHS secretary says, 'I did not hear that word used'
WASHINGTON - Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen confirmed on Tuesday that President Donald Trump used "tough language" in an Oval Office meeting last week, but she said she did not hear him describe some African countries and Haiti as "shithole countries," as has been reported.
Nielsen described Trump's tone at the meeting on immigration policy while testifying under oath to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday morning. She repeatedly declined to cite specific words used by the president but otherwise confirmed the general tenor of the exchange.
During the testimony, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., asked Nielsen whether Trump had used the vulgarity to describe the countries "or a substantially similar word."
"I did not hear that word used," Nielsen told members of the committee.
When Leahy asked again, Nielsen said: "The conversation was very impassioned. I don't dispute that the president was using tough language. Others in the room were also using tough language."
Later Leahy pressed her again. "The president used tough language in general, as did other congressmen in the room, yes sir," Nielsen responded.
A few minutes later, Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., began by telling Nielsen, "I hope you remember me. We were at two meetings together" last week.
Durbin noted that Nielsen arrived late to Thursday's meeting with Trump and other lawmakers to discuss a possible immigration deal. He asked her to describe what the president said about immigrants from African countries.
Nielsen said Trump told the group, "He'd like to move away from a country-based quota system to a merit-based quota system."
"How did he characterize those countries?" Durbin asked.
"I don't specifically remember categorization of countries in Africa," Nielsen said.
Durbin asked Nielsen to describe what Trump said about immigrants from European countries like Norway.
"I heard him repeating what he had said in a meeting before, that they are industrious, that they are a hard-working country, they don't have much crime there, they don't have much debt," Nielsen said
Then, Durbin pressed Nielsen to clarify recent comments to Fox News that Trump had used "strong language" in the meeting.
"Ah, let's see," Nielsen said. "Strong language, there was - I apologize, I don't remember a specific word." She added that "general profanity" was used by several attendees.
"Did you hear me use profanity?" Durbin asked.
"No, sir, nor did I," Nielsen said. But she said that Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., used "tough language" in response to Trump.
Durbin agreed, saying that Graham "Repeated exactly what the president had said prior to that." He thanked Graham for "countering what the president had said about Africa."
Durbin and Nielsen also said that part of Trump's frustrations during the meeting stemmed from his request that Congress immediately pay $20 billion to complete construction of a new southern border wall in one year. That's different than a request made earlier this month by the Trump administration for $18 billion to build a new border wall over the next decade.
Nielsen said Trump was frustrated that lawmakers were proposing to pay only part of the money for border wall construction and asked whether all of the money could be appropriated up front. Durbin said such a request was unrealistic.
During a later round of questioning from the panel, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., reminded Nielsen that she was testifying under oath. Taking a different tact, she asked, "Is it possible that he said the word?"
"Anything is possible, yes, ma'am," Nielsen said.
In the days since the meeting, some who attended or are familiar with it said that they heard Trump say "shithouse" rather than "shithole."
So, Klobuchar asked: "Did you hear him say s-house?"
"Again, it's possible," Nielsen said, noting that 12 people were in the room and that she arrived late.
The secretary's testimony was part of a long-scheduled oversight hearing on Homeland Security Department matters.
Hopes of a deal to keep the government open beyond a Friday deadline have been complicated by lingering mistrust following the Oval Office meeting, during which, according to several people familiar with the gathering, Trump used vulgar terms to describe poor countries sending immigrants to the United States.
The meeting was convened to consider a bipartisan immigration deal to protect the "dreamers" - young immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children, including the 690,000 currently enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that Trump has canceled.
Democratic leaders are demanding that protections for the dreamers be part of any spending deal. They have the leverage to do so because Senate Republicans would need at least nine Democratic votes to support any funding measure. Democrats also want Republicans to match military spending that Trump and many GOP lawmakers are seeking with an equal increase in nondefense funding.
In a separate interview with "CBS This Morning" earlier in the day, Nielsen also said she didn't recall Trump using vulgarity to describe African nations and Haiti.
"I just don't - I don't - that's - I don't - that's not a word that I remember being used. It was very impassioned," Nielsen said. "People on all sides feel very strongly about this issue, frankly, as well as they should. There were a lot of conversations happening at the same time. It's not a particular phrase that I heard."
Nielsen also told CBS that deporting dreamers will not be a priority for federal immigration agents if Congress fails to reach an agreement on the status of dreamers by the time DACA expires in early March.
"If you are a DACA that's compliant with your registration, meaning you haven't committed a crime and you in fact are registered, you're not priority of enforcement for ICE should the program end," she said.
During the hearing, Nielsen faced a barrage of questions on a variety of subjects that fall under the jurisdiction of DHS. Every Democrat on the panel attended the early hours of the hearing, but several Republican senators were absent.
Nielsen faced persistent questions from Leahy over Trump's claim to make Mexico pay for new construction along the U.S.-Mexico border.
"Have we opened an account that Mexico can put the money in to pay for it?" Leahy asked. "What arrangements do we have with Mexico to pay for it?"
"I know that we have arrangements with Mexico to secure our border . . ." Nielsen said, before Leahy cut her off.
"Do we have arrangements with them to pay for the wall, as President Trump promised the American people he would do?" he asked, raising his voice. "That's an easy answer, yes or no."
"I am not aware . . . I don't know what you mean by arrangement. We have a lot of agreements with them to increase border security," Nielsen replied.
"Are any of them to pay for a wall?"
"How do you mean pay sir?" Nielsen responded. "Do you mean fees? There are a variety of ways."
"Well usually when something is paid for you pay for it with money," Leahy said.
Nielsen did not directly answer the question about a bank account for Mexican border wall deposits but said her "priority was to increase border security," and build "that wall."
"That will work," she told Leahy.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., also pressed Nielsen to address the potential threat of Russian hacking to the country's electoral systems - and whether she believes the 2016 election was hacked.
When she told him Russia will "generally try to test our systems," he repeated the question.
"Yes there was interference, but to my knowledge no votes were changed," Nielsen said, adding she thought Russia and "other foreign actors" would try to undermine this year's elections.