Donald Trump has appeared to deny that he referred to immigrants from Africa and Haiti as coming from “s—hole” countries after reports of the remark led to widespread condemnation.
“The language used by me at the DACA meeting was tough, but this was not the language used,” he tweeted on Friday morning.
It came after the United Nations human rights office decried the remarks – which were reported by the Washington Post – as “racist”.
In an extraordinary rebuke, UN human rights spokesman Rupert Colville told a Geneva news briefing on Friday morning that the US president’s alleged comments “encouraged racism and xenophobia”.
“These are shocking and shameful comments from the President of the United States. There is no other word one can use but ‘racist’,” Mr Colville said.
“You cannot dismiss entire countries and continents as ‘s—holes’, whose entire populations, who are not white, are therefore not welcome,” he added.
The issue was more than “vulgar language”, Mr Colville said.
“It’s about opening the door to humanity’s worst side, about validating and encouraging racism and xenophobia that will potentially disrupt and destroy lives of many people.”
Mr Trump had also failed to clearly condemn the “anti-Semitic and racist actions of white supremacists in Charlottesville” at a rally in Virginia last August, Mr Colville said
Mr Trump convened Thursday’s meeting at the White House to discuss reforming immigration policy, and one of the politicians inside the Oval Office suggested that a deal could be reached if Mr Trump agreed to restore protection for immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador and African countries.
“Why are we having all these people from s—hole countries come here?” the president responded, according to two people who spoke to The Washington Post. The paper said he was referring to African countries and Haiti.
He then reportedly suggested that the United States should instead bring more people from countries like Norway, whose prime minister he met on Wednesday.
The White House earlier issued a statement saying Mr Trump supports immigration policies that welcome “those who can contribute to our society.”
His remarks reportedly left the assembled politicians “taken aback”, the paper said, with Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator for South Carolina, and Richard Durbin, Democratic senator for Illinois, among those in the room.
The two were reportedly surprised to be joined by immigration hardliners Bob Goodlatte, a Republican congressman for Virginia, and Tom Cotton, senator for Arkansas.
The meeting was impromptu and came after phone calls on Thursday morning, Capitol Hill aides said.
They had raised the issue of reducing the visa lottery, and restoring protections for countries that have been removed from the temporary protected status programme, in return for an additional $1.5 billion for a border wall.
Asked about the remarks, White House spokesman Raj Shah said:
“Certain Washington politicians choose to fight for foreign countries, but President Trump will always fight for the American people,” he said.
However, the president’s reported language was widely condemned.
“Racist,” tweeted Democratic Congresswoman Kathleen Rice after Thursday’s story broke.
Congressman Luis Gutierrez said: “We always knew that President Trump doesn’t like people from certain countries or people or certain colours.
“We can now we say with 100 per cent confidence that the president is a racist who does not share the values enshrined in our Constitution.”
Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky chimed in: “Just when you thought Donald Trump could not get any more racist, he digs down to an even deeper low.”
But it wasn’t just Democrats objecting. Some Republicans were also unhappy.
Republican Rep. Mia Love of Utah, the daughter of Haitian immigrants, said Mr Trump’s comments were “unkind, divisive, elitist and fly in the face of our nation’s values.”
Haiti’s ambassador to the United States, Paul G. Altidor, said that “the president was either misinformed or miseducated about Haiti and its people.”
Mr Trump has called himself the “least racist person that you’ve ever met.” On Friday he plans to sign a proclamation honoring Martin Luther King Day.
Mr Colville, the UN human rights spokesman, said the future of the Dreamers should not be “used as a bargaining chip” to negotiate “the most severe and restrictive immigration and security measures possible”.
“These are human beings, not commodities,” Mr Colville said.
William Spindler, a UN refugee agency spokesman, declined to comment directly on Trump’s purported remarks:
“But what I can say is that UNHCR’s position is always that people forced to flee war or persecution, and needing asylum, should be given protection by whichever country they are in, irrespective of race, religion, ethnicity or place or country of origin,” Mr Spindler said.
Earlier in the day Mr Trump spoke to The Wall Street Journal, and claimed that he has developed a positive relationship with North Korea’s leader.
“I probably have a very good relationship with Kim Jong-un, ”said Mr Trump, despite there being no formal contact between US and North Korean officials in decades.
Asked if he has spoken with Mr Kim, Mr Trump replied: “I don’t want to comment on it. I’m not saying I have or haven’t. I just don’t want to comment.”
The president has called the nation’s leader a “maniac,” a “bad dude,” mocked him as “short and fat,” and referred to him repeatedly as “rocket man.” Mr Kim in response has warned he would “tame the mentally deranged US dotard with fire”.
Mr Trump told the paper, however, that his Twitter insults were simply part of his game plan.
“You’ll see that a lot with me,” he said about combative tweets. “And then all of the sudden somebody’s my best friend. I could give you 20 examples. You could give me 30. I’m a very flexible person.”
The president said he approved of North Korea’s participation in next month’s Olympic Games, and acknowledged that Pyongyang may be trying to separate Washington and Seoul.
“If I were them, I would try,” he said. “The difference is I’m president, other people aren’t. And I know more about wedges than any human being that’s lived.”
Mr Trump also announced for the first time that Mexico could pay for the border wall through negotiations to revise the North American Free Trade Agreement.
“They can pay for it indirectly through Nafta,” he said. “We make a good deal on Nafta, and, say, I’m going to take a small percentage of that money and it’s going toward the wall. Guess what? Mexico’s paying.”