The last three days have been consumed by this debate: Did President Donald Trump refer to several foreign countries as “shitholes” or not?
Trump insists he didn’t use that word. Republican Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia, who were in the meeting Thursday where the controversy arose, first said they didn’t recall Trump using the word but then shifted to straight denials.
Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat, said that Trump used term “shithole.” Sen. Lindsey Graham – via Sen. Tim Scott – has confirmed the reporting by The Washington Post, as has Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, a Republican who said he heard it directly from attendees of the meeting although he was not there in person.
The latest twist came Sunday night when the Post’s Josh Dawsey, who broke the original story, tweeted this:
“White House official told me tonight there is debate internally on whether Trump said ‘shithole’ or ‘shithouse.’ Perdue and Cotton seem to have heard latter, this person said, and are using to deny.”
What this big game of telephone misses is that it doesn’t really matter whether Trump said “shithole” or “shithouse” or “craphole” or any of the various other derogatory names in that vein.
The point, after all, is this: The President of the United States, in a meeting with a bipartisan group of senators and congressman, derided countries primarily populated by black and brown people and lauded a country (Norway) that is almost entirely white.
Think about it this way: Let’s say Trump had the same meeting with the same group of politicians. Rather than say “shithole” or “shithouse,” he referred to African or El Salvadoran immigrants coming into the US as hailing from “undesirable countries.” Would the fact that he didn’t use a curse word change anything? Of course it wouldn’t.
That’s what’s important. The sentiment. Not the word choice.
And, there is no dispute – not from Trump, his White House, his defenders or his detractors – over the sentiment Trump was trying to get across in the immigration meeting last Thursday.
“The language used by me at the DACA meeting was tough, but this was not the language used,” Trump tweeted Friday morning.
“Certain Washington politicians choose to fight for foreign countries, but President Trump will always fight for the American people,” White House spokesman Raj Shah said.
“We do not recall the President saying these comments specifically but what he did call out was the imbalance in our current immigration system, which does not protect American workers and our national interest,” said Cotton and Perdue in their statement.
Given that no one disputes the meaning and message of what Trump said about immigrants from foreign countries, what we are engaging in over the shithole-or-not debate is a semantic distraction.
Who cares what specific word he used? Sure, a president swearing in front of a group of politicians in the White House has a titillating appeal to it. (“He swears! Just like us!”)
But focusing on the specific words Trump used missed the broader – and much more important – point here. Trump’s message could not be clearer: Why are we taking in immigrants from places primarily populated by black and brown people when we should be taking in more white immigrants?
(Yes, Trump allies argue that his real message was about poor, less well educated countries versus wealthier better educated countries. But it’s impossible to ignore the color of the skin of the immigrants from these places – and you know Trump was not unaware of that.)
Throughout his presidency – and his life – Trump has trafficked in racial language, racial stereotyping and racial animus. This is who he is and what he does; the history is conclusive.
Given that, debating what exact word he used to further that long-standing practice is pointless. The real key here is that the sentiment expressed by Trump in that meeting – no matter what exact word(s) he chose – is one of intolerance. And that runs directly counter to America’s founding ideal.