WASHINGTON — Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, under grilling Tuesday by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and others admitted hearing some “cusswords” at an immigration meeting where Durbin said President Donald Trump referred to “shithole” countries.
Nielsen told Durbin and others in dramatic exchanges at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing she heard “profanity” but would not be pinned down to exactly what she heard the president say.
Nielsen told Durbin and other senators pressing her repeated versions of “I don’t specifically remember.”
Asked Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., “Now, Madam Secretary, you were in the room, you’re under oath. Did President Trump use this word, or a substantially similar word, to describe certain countries?
Parsed Nielsen, “I did not hear that word used. No, sir.”
Leahy replied, “That’s not the question. Did he use anything similar to that describing certain countries?
“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,” she said.
THE STAKES: This controversy, spawned at an Oval Office meeting last Thursday spills into a week when Congress must approve a budget by Friday or face a federal government shutdown.
Democrats and some Republicans are trying to use this as leverage to make a deal to save “Dreamers” – youths in the U.S. illegally through no fault of their own. Under orders from Trump, Dreamers lose their legal protections in March.
MORE BACKGROUND: Durbin and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., are the leaders of a six-member bipartisan Senate group trying to forge an immigration deal. A meeting last Tuesday with Trump seemed promising. Durbin and Graham came up with a plan a short time later.
Chances of a deal diminished at a hastily called Thursday Oval Office meeting where Trump used vulgar language — either “shithole” or perhaps “shithouse” in talking about immigrants from African nations, Haiti and El Salvador — all with black or brown-skinned populations. Trump spoke favorably about immigrants from Norway — a nation overwhelmingly white.
After the Washington Post wrote about Trump’s “shithole” statement, Durbin confirmed it last Friday, talking to reporters in Chicago.
Durbin, the lead Democrat on immigration negotiations, has been in the spotlight ever since.
THE HEARING: Durbin did not repeat the profanity at the hearing.
When it was his turn to quiz Nielsen, Durbin introduced a “Dreamer” in the hearing room, Alejandra Duran Arriola, a second-year student at Loyola University School of Medicine in Chicago.
Durbin is the founder of the Dreamer movement and has been crusading for more than 16 years to find legal protections for youths in the U.S. illegally through no fault of their own.
Durbin told the Sun-Times on Sunday he went public after Trump in a Tweet denied his race-based comments.
Quizzing Nielsen, Durbin asked her, “You said on Fox News that the president used strong language. What was that strong language?
She replied “apologies, I don’t remember a specific word.”
Nielsen did not disagree with Durbin to the terms of the deal Trump wanted: Protections for Dreamers in exchange for $20 billion “so he could build this wall in one year,” Durbin said, a reference to Trump’s signature southern border promise.
“The president is insisting on something that is physically, legally impossible as a condition for him to give (Dreamers) a chance to be here in the United States legally,” Durbin said.
Trump rejected an offer from Durbin and Graham for $1.6 billion to cover costs for a barrier or a fence over the next year.
“To put the entire burden of immigration reform on the shoulders of these DACA recipients is fundamentally unfair, not practical, and jeopardizes their future and their lives,” Durbin said.
BOOKER EXPLODES: While there is much debate over immigration policy, often Dreamers elicit sympathy – since they have not done anything wrong.
Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., got attention for his fiery blast at Nielsen — but in a lesser noticed exchange he asked her if she ever met with Dreamers before.
“Not as self-identifed, no,” she said.
Said Booker to Nielsen about her lack of recall, “The commander-in-chief, in an Oval Office meeting, referring to people from African countries and Haitians with the most vile and vulgar language. The language festers.
“When ignorance and bigotry is allied with power, it is a dangerous force in our country. Your silence and your amnesia is complicity. I hurt,” he said.
GRAHAM’S DIPLOMACY: Graham has indirectly confirmed Durbin’s version of what Trump said. As the lead Republican who has been trying to develop a relationship with Trump on this immigration issue, he wants to keep his channel to the president open.
Graham said at the hearing, “This has turned into a S show and we need to get back to being a great country where Democrats and Republicans have worked together to do something that we should have done years ago.
Promised Graham, “To the 700,000 young people; some young, some older, we’re not going to leave you behind.
“I don’t know how this movie ends, but you’re going to be taken care of.”