Analysis | Republicans perform some lingual gymnastics to avoid confirming Trump’s ‘shithole countries’ remark

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Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) is said to have confronted President Trump over his vulgar description of some countries. (Rainier Ehrhardt, John Locher/AP)

It has been nearly 24 hours since The Washington Post first reported that President Trump had referred to “shithole countries” during a meeting with lawmakers. There were at least six Republicans in that meeting. Precisely zero of them have directly confirmed or denied the comment.

Politics has never been a job that rewards courage, but rarely do you see such carefully crafted, mealy-mouthed statements and reactions from all corners of the party. If you had any doubt that Republicans are terrified of their president and the base he commands, this episode should disabuse you of that.

Two Republicans have issued statements directly addressing what Trump said or didn’t say at the meeting, except that they said they couldn’t attest to it. Staunch Trump allies Sens. David Perdue (R-Ga.) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) said in a joint statement that they simply couldn’t remember Trump saying such a thing — “specifically,” at least.

“In regards to Senator [Dick] Durbin’s accusation,” they said, referring to the Democratic senator who was present and confirmed Trump’s comments Friday morning, “we do not recall the president saying these comments specifically.”

It was as if they were on the witness stand and wanted to issue as narrow a denial as possible. What wasn’t clear was how they might have missed such a comment. Durbin, after all, said Trump made it repeatedly and that, at one point, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) confronted him about it.

Graham apparently served as a source for one of two Republicans who have confirmed the comments secondhand. His South Carolina colleague, Sen. Tim Scott (R), told reporters that Graham confirmed the comments to him. Likewise, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a staunch Trump critic, said he heard about the remarks even before they were reported. Neither Scott nor Flake, of course, was actually in the room.

Which brings us to the central non-Trump character in all of this: Graham. He’s the one who reportedly confronted Trump. He’s also a former Trump critic who has rather remarkably warmed to the president in recent months.

After being conspicuously silent for most of the day, Graham finally released a statement Friday afternoon. But in doing so, he didn’t actually address what Trump said. Instead, his statement makes oblique references to confronting Trump and nods to Durbin in what would seem to be confirmation of Durbin’s version of events:

Following comments by the president, I said my piece directly to him yesterday. The president and all those attending the meeting know what I said and how I feel.  I’ve always believed that America is an idea, not defined by its people but by its ideals.

I appreciate Senator Durbin’s statements and have enjoyed working with him and many others on this important issue. I believe it is vitally important to come to a bipartisan solution to the immigration and border challenges we face today. I am committed to working with Republicans and Democrats to find common ground so we can move forward.

This is the kind of statement you put out when you want people to think you’re confirming that Trump said what he said, but you also don’t want to be the one to directly call your new friend a liar. Trump issued an ambiguous denial of his remarks, as reported, and Cotton and Perdue say they didn’t hear it. So we still have no firsthand confirmation of it apart from the Democrat in the room, Durbin.

That means people who are inclined to believe Trump’s denial and that the media are all liars are going to continue to believe that. Graham could have cleared it up with a TV interview or a more detailed statement, but he went another route. And two other Republicans in the room, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), haven’t said anything.

Then again, I wouldn’t hold my breath. These members seem more interested in hoping this whole thing blows over.

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