President Donald Trump welcomed the first leader from sub-Saharan Africa to the White House on Monday nearly 15 months into his term.
The discussions with Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari centered around security challenges, including the nearly decade-long insurgency by Boko Haram terrorists in Nigeria’s northeast. But the meeting’s tricky subtext was Trump’s broader view of Africa, including his description of some African nations as “shithole countries” during a private meeting earlier this year.
At the time, Trump denied making the comment and insisted to reporters afterward that he wasn’t a racist.
During a news conference on Monday, Trump made no such denial.
“You do have some countries that are in very bad shape and very tough places to live in,” he said in the Rose Garden. “We didn’t discuss it, because the President knows me, and he knows where I’m coming from and I appreciate that.”
For his part, Buhari insisted he didn’t know whether to believe press reports about Trump’s language.
“The best thing for me is to keep quiet,” he said.
The crude remark, along with another reported conversation in which Trump mused Nigerians wouldn’t want to return to their “huts” if they came to the US, remain the President’s most well-known views of Africa, a place he talks about rarely and hasn’t visited.
The White House had hoped Monday’s meeting would help shift those perceptions, at least slightly. The two leaders held talks in the Oval Office before moving to a working lunch and the joint news conference.
“We have many things that we do together, as you know, especially on terrorism, terrorism-related,” Trump said in the Oval Office before the meeting began. “It’s a hotbed, and we’re going to be stopping that.”
Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country and a leading crude oil exporter, so economic matters were on the agenda, particularly as China makes major investments across Africa. Trump said trade barriers must come down since the US sends substantial foreign aid to Nigeria.
“We think that we are owed that,” Trump said.
But it’s the fragile security situation and ongoing fight against the Boko Haram jihadists that dominated talks. The violent insurgency has killed thousands and group abductions of schoolgirls have caused international outrage. Neighboring countries have been drawn into the terror group’s attempt to carve out an Islamic state, including Niger, where four American servicemen were killed last year.
Trump touted the recent sale of military aircraft to Nigeria meant to aid its bid to counter extremists, a move previous administrations refused citing human rights concerns. Buhari, who faces re-election next year, is planning to ask for additional assistance during the talks.
“Part of the problem is you weren’t allowed to buy helicopters in our country and now you are. I worked that out,” Trump said. “They weren’t allowed to buy the helicopters in our country for various reasons. They weren’t good reasons. We make the best military equipment in the world. And our friends can now buy that equipment.”