Donald Trump’s disputed “shithole” incident will not go away. During a congressional hearing on Tuesday (Jan. 16), his Homeland Security chief was grilled about whether the president used that word—or one similar to it—to refer to African countries during an Oval Office meeting last week.
Homeland Security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was present during the discussion, but has said repeatedly she did not hear whether her boss used the now infamous term. (Other attendees have confirmed he did; Trump has denied it.) “I did not hear that word used,” she said when asked by Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat who represents Vermont.
She did, however, have solid recollection of what Trump said about Norway, whose prime minister the president had met the day before the gathering to discuss immigration.
Leahy: “What does he mean when he says he wants more immigrants from Norway?”
Nielsen: “I don’t believe he said that specifically. What he was saying, he was using Norway as an example of a country that is… ah, what he specifically was referring to was 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’d like to have those with skills who can assimilate and contribute to the United States, moving away from country quotas and to an individual merit-based system.”
When asked whether Norway was a predominantly white country, she responded she didn’t know. “I imagine that’s the case,” she added.
Her comments did not go over well with several of the Democratic senators at the hearing. Senator Cory Booker, from New Jersey, gave her an emotional lecture about the dangers of failing to confront racism, at one point banging his fists on the table. “Your silence and your amnesia is complicity,” he said.
Senator Kamala Harris, of California, said that Nielsen’s answers were essentially a declaration, from a high-ranking government official, that white people are hard-working and black people are not. “You must understand… the reasonable inference that the American public is drawing from the words you speak,” Harris said.
But Nielsen brushed off any suggestions of racism. When talking about Norway, she was simply relaying what the Norwegian prime minister had told Trump, which he in turn told the group at the immigration meeting, she said. As for the contested term, she couldn’t hear the exact language because there was cross talk, she 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,” she said.
Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham, who was at both the meeting and Tuesday’s hearing, had a more colorful way to describe the “shithole” affair: “This has turned into an s-show,” he said. “We need to get back to being a great country where Democrats and Republicans work together.”