ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
President Trump is facing widespread condemnation at home and abroad after he used a vulgar slur to describe countries in Africa and made disparaging comments about people from Haiti. Foreign governments have demanded an explanation from U.S. diplomats, and the U.N. Human Rights Office says the president's comments go against universal values. Here in the U.S., both Republicans and Democrats have spoken out against the president's remarks which came during a White House meeting on immigration yesterday. We get details from NPR's Scott Horsley. And a warning - this story will include the president's own language.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: The uproar cast an awkward shadow over what should have been a routine photo op this morning - the president signing a proclamation to honor the late civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Today we celebrate Dr. King for standing up for the self-evident truth Americans hold so dear that no matter what the color of our skin or the place of our birth, we are all created equal by God.
HORSLEY: Just a day earlier, though, the president seemed to be arguing for very unequal treatment of would-be immigrants to the United States precisely because of where they're born and, it appears to some, the color of their skin. As the King event wrapped up, reporters tried to ask Trump about that.
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APRIL RYAN: Mr. President, are you a racist?
HORSLEY: Trump ignored the questions as he walked out of the room. Earlier, the president took to Twitter to acknowledge using what he called tough language during Thursday's immigration meeting. He denied uttering a vulgar slur. But Illinois Senator Dick Durbin who was in the meeting says that's exactly what the president said.
DICK DURBIN: He said these hate-filled things, and he said them repeatedly. When the question was raised about Haitians, for example, he said, Haitians - do we need more Haitians?
HORSLEY: Durbin says the conversation then turned to immigrants from Africa.
DURBIN: That's when he used these vile and vulgar comments, calling the nations they come from shitholes - the exact word used by the president, not more - not just once but repeatedly.
HORSLEY: Durbin is part of a bipartisan group of senators that's been working for months on a compromise to protect undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children. Traveling to the White House yesterday to present their tentative deal, Durbin was surprised to find other lawmakers there, including two Senate hard-liners on immigration, Tom Cotton and David Perdue.
Cotton and Perdue issued a statement today saying that they don't recall the president using a vulgar slur about African countries. They agreed with Trump that the current immigration system doesn't do enough to protect American workers or the national interest. Their position and the president's illustrates the challenge of striking a bipartisan deal on immigration, but Durbin believes a majority of lawmakers and the public are on his side.
DURBIN: Last night, several Republican senators said that they were embarrassed by what the president said, and they wanted to be more visible in their support of our bipartisan effort.
HORSLEY: GOP House Speaker Paul Ryan noted today anti-immigrant sentiment has a long, unfortunate history in this country. His own Irish ancestors faced similar opposition when they first arrived. Ryan says his family stayed and ultimately thrived, though, just like other waves of newcomers before and since.
PAUL RYAN: That is what makes this country so exceptional and unique in the first place. So I see this as a thing to celebrate. And I think it's a big part of our strength.
HORSLEY: Like the president, Ryan wants to adjust the legal immigration system to show less favor to family members and more to newcomers with in-demand skills. In that politically charged effort, though, Ryan calls the president's vulgar comments both unfortunate and unhelpful. Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House.
[EDITOR'S NOTE: NPR has decided in this case to spell out the vulgar word that the president reportedly used because it meets our standard for use of offensive language. It is "absolutely integral to the meaning and spirit of the story being told." ] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.