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The “shithouse defense,” explained: how Trump’s allies are trying to dig him out of his “shithole”

Publicly, they deny Trump said “shithole.” Privately, they claim he said “shithouse.” It’s bizarre.

Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

In the days following a report that President Trump disparaged immigration from “shithole countries” in an Oval Office meeting with lawmakers, the White House has settled on a bizarre response.

Publicly, they deny that Trump ever said “shithole countries.”

And then privately, they explain those hard-to-believe denials by claiming he said “shithouse countries” instead.

The strange spectacle made its way to Capitol Hill Tuesday morning, when Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen repeated that denial in sworn testimony before a Senate committee.

“I did not hear that word used,” Nielsen said under oath, about “shithole.” When asked if Trump used a similar term or vulgar language to describe certain countries, she wouldn’t deny it. “The conversation was very impassioned,” she said. “The president used tough language in general, as did other congressmen in the room.”

Anonymous Republican sources have pushed the story that Trump in fact used the phrase “shithouse countries.” According to the Washington Post’s Josh Dawsey, Robert Costa, and Ashley Parker, Sens. Tom Cotton (R-AR) and David Perdue (R-GA) told the White House that’s what they remember Trump saying in the meeting.

Trump has apparently decided that the controversy is hurting him politically, so his allies are using this minor discrepancy to justify public denials that he said “shithole.” This, the Post reporters wrote, was Cotton and Perdue’s private rationale for their Friday statement claiming they “do not recall the President saying those [shithole] comments specifically.”

Now, some anonymous Republican spinners are going even further, telling reporters that the term “shithouse” gets Trump off the hook from accusations of racism. Michael Isikoff said he was told that Trump was “thinking about real estate,” and Scott Wong said he was told Trump simply meant countries without plumbing.

But overall, the hole-versus-house controversy is a lesson in how politicians use hair-splitting over a detail to justify putting out a narrative designed to mislead the public.

The bigger picture: We have reports of Trump using either vulgar or racist language to disparage immigration from predominantly black or Muslim countries in the Oval Office — in two separate instances. (The New York Times reported a similar incident in December.)

Regardless of whether the disparaging term used in one of these cases was “shithole” or “shithouse,” our president’s private opinions are clear: He views certain countries as inferior and their people as unfit for immigration to the United States.

“I want them to come in from everywhere,” Trump told the White House press pool Tuesday afternoon. In private, though, he appears to say very different things.

This wasn’t the first report of Trump offensively disparaging immigrants’ home countries in private

Last week’s report of Trump’s vulgar language against certain immigrants’ home countries in the Oval Office shouldn’t have come as a surprise — because the New York Times published a remarkably similar report weeks earlier, in a separate meeting months before.

The Times’s Michael Shear and Julie Hirschfeld Davis wrote that Trump “stormed into the Oval Office one day in June, plainly enraged,” reading off a document his hardline adviser Stephen Miller had given him. What he reportedly said made him look like a crude, racist caricature:

The document listed how many immigrants had received visas to enter the United States in 2017. More than 2,500 were from Afghanistan, a terrorist haven, the president complained.

Haiti had sent 15,000 people. They “all have AIDS,” he grumbled, according to one person who attended the meeting and another person who was briefed about it by a different person who was there.

Forty thousand had come from Nigeria, Mr. Trump added. Once they had seen the United States, they would never “go back to their huts” in Africa, recalled the two officials, who asked for anonymity to discuss a sensitive conversation in the Oval Office.

Here, again, the White House press team didn’t deny the thrust of what Trump said, but they did deny whether he used the words “AIDS” or “huts.” However, the Times reporters wrote that two sources in the meeting recalled Trump using those words, and found them “so noteworthy that they related them to others at the time.”

With this background about how Trump talks about immigration in private, the “shithole”/”shithouse” report should come as no surprise.

Trump didn’t even deny the reported “shithole” comments at first — but later concluded they were a problem

Perhaps even more telling about the underlying truth of how Trump’s meeting last week was reported is the fact that he stayed publicly silent on the matter for many hours after the story first came out.

The Washington Post’s Josh Dawsey reported Thursday that at an Oval Office meeting with lawmakers earlier that day, Trump asked, “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?”

The report quickly drew an enormous amount of attention. Trump himself remained mum on the topic, despite tweeting about several other matters as Thursday night stretched on. Both NBC News and conservative commentator Erick Erickson report that Trump was calling friends and allies Thursday night to attempt to gauge how his comments would be received.

Finally, by Friday morning, Trump appeared to conclude that the comments were politically inconvenient for him, and hazily denied them. “This was not the language used,” he tweeted.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), who attended the meeting in question, publicly confirmed that “he said these hate-filled things and he said them repeatedly.”

Additionally, Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) told the Post and Courier that his South Carolina colleague Sen. Lindsey Graham, who attended the meeting, told him Trump’s reported comments were “basically accurate.”

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), who also didn’t attend the meeting, told the Washington Post he heard about Trump’s comments before they went public, and they matched the later reports.

No one but Trump seemed to be outright denying that he said these things. Others in the room would only dodge the question. So the president’s denial seemed absurd.

Enter the “shithouse defense”

Then on Friday afternoon, Sens. Cotton and Perdue, two allies of the White House who also attended the meeting, stood up to boldly try to defend Trump by way of misleading the public.

“In regards to Senator Durbin’s accusation, we do not recall the President saying these comments specifically,” the pair wrote.

Considering all the other reporting on the meeting, this was extremely hard to believe. But gradually, White House allies anonymously leaked what they claimed was a rationale for this baldly misleading statement — Durbin, and the Post’s sources, was one syllable off.

The Washington Post’s Dawsey, Costa, and Parker reported:

Three White House officials said Perdue and Cotton told the White House that they heard “shithouse” rather than “shithole,” allowing them to deny the president’s comments on television over the weekend.

This is likely what’s behind Nielsen’s sworn testimony as well.

And for all we know, it could be true. Perhaps the original sources for the Washington Post scoop on the comment really did mishear one syllable. It will likely be impossible to outright prove either way.

The quibbling over “hole” versus “house” has an absurdly transparent purpose — to allow Trump’s allies to publicly distance him from a reported comment he now thinks is politically damaging to him. They are mustering this weak defense despite the substantive accuracy of the report, and despite Trump’s comment being similar to things he’s said in the past.

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