WASHINGTON (AP) — GOP leaders mostly stayed quiet but more moderate Republicans reacted sharply against President Donald Trump's incendiary comments about "shithole" countries in Africa during a White House meeting Thursday. Democrats howled with outrage.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., told an audience in Milwaukee that Trump's comments were "very unfortunate, unhelpful" but quickly changed the topic to his own family's history of emigrating from Ireland.
He called immigration "a beautiful story of America" and said Africans in his hometown of Janesville, Wisconsin, are "incredible citizens."
Meanwhile, spokesmen for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. — who was at the Oval Office session — declined to provide comment.
But some other Republicans, such as Florida GOP Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Cuban-American, reacted with revulsion. She said Trump's alleged comments were "completely unacceptable," telling WPLG-TV in Miami, "If that's not racism, I don't know how you can define it."
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who was at the meeting to try to sell the president on a compromise plan to protect about 800,000 mostly younger immigrants from deportation, chimed in at the meeting to defend immigrants.
"Following comments by the President, I said my piece directly to him yesterday," Graham said. "The President and all those attending the meeting know what I said and how I feel."
Graham added: "Diversity has always been our strength, not our weakness. In reforming immigration we cannot lose these American Ideals."
Moderate GOP Sen. Susan Collins of Maine chimed in on Twitter to call Trump's remarks "highly inappropriate & out of bounds." She said they are hurting prospects for a bipartisan agreement on immigration.
And Idaho Republican Mike Simpson told The Associated Press that Trump's remarks were "stupid and irresponsible and childish."
"He's president of the United States. That's not how a president behaves," Simpson said. "And for all of those people out there that are enamored with Trump's behavior and think this is no big deal, well shame on them. This is a big deal. America's influence and power in the world has really been about our ability to persuade because of our leadership, and he's just destroying that."
Reaction was even harsher on the Democratic side.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein said Trump "espouses racist views and gives a wink and a nod to the darkest elements in our society."
She added: "If the president can't control himself and lead this country with the authority, dignity and leadership it requires, then he shouldn't be the president. There's no room for racism in the Oval Office."
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who was at the meeting and confirmed Trump's comments publicly, said Trump's words "were vile, hateful, and clearly racial in their content. I'm sickened and it was heartbreaking."
At the same time, two Republicans who were in the Oval Office with Trump said they "do not recall" him talking about "shithole" countries in Africa.
Georgia Sen. David Perdue and Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton issued a joint statement Friday.
"We do not recall the president saying these comments specifically," Perdue and Cotton said. "But what he did call out was the imbalance in our current immigration system, which does not protect American workers."
South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, the chamber's lone black Republican, told the Charleston Post and Courier, "if that comment is accurate, the comment is incredibly disappointing."