clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

“Shithole” countries, Donald Trump’s latest racist tirade, explained

This is who the president is.

Cheriss May/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Dylan Scott covers health care for Vox. He has reported on health policy for more than 10 years, writing for Governing magazine, Talking Points Memo and STAT before joining Vox in 2017.

He did it again: President Donald Trump said something derogatory about poor countries populated by people who are not white.

During an immigration meeting with a bipartisan group of senators Thursday, the Washington Post reported, Trump described some countries populated by black and Latino people as “shithole” countries.

“Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” the president said, according to the Post, citing people briefed on the meeting. The Post said Trump was referring to Haiti, El Salvador and African countries.

The White House didn’t quite deny it on Thursday; Trump sort of denied on Twitter Friday morning; and one Democratic senator is now on the record confirming this is what Trump said. It’s clear that Trump said something that can only be construed as racist about these countries, and he probably called it at least some of them “shithole” countries. Everything else is semantics.

This is who Trump is: He elevated his political profile by claiming President Barack Obama wasn’t born in America, he announced his presidential campaign by calling Mexicans rapists and murderers, and he has continued to disparage nonwhite people since entering the White House.

He isn’t going to change. But his xenophobia, as the leader of the Republican Party, is also making it harder for Congress to figure out a deal to protect the 690,000 people in the United States at risk of losing their DACA protections.

“Shithole” countries, explained

This is what the Washington Post reported to set off this maelstrom: Trump had called some collection of countries with black and Latino people “shitholes,” he said that the United States shouldn’t be accepting more Haitians, and it should instead be bringing more Scandinavian people into the country:

“Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” Trump said, according to these people, referring to countries mentioned by the lawmakers.

Trump then suggested that the United States should instead bring more people from countries such as Norway, whose prime minister he met with Wednesday. The president, according to a White House official, also suggested he would be open to more immigrants from Asian countries because he felt that they help the United States economically.

In addition, the president singled out Haiti, telling lawmakers that immigrants from that country must be left out of any deal, these people said.

“Why do we need more Haitians?” Trump said, according to people familiar with the meeting. “Take them out.”

Once that report dropped, the White House didn’t really deny it. Instead, they tried to change the subject, arguing that Trump was rightly focused on America, not foreign nations. Even if he did call other countries shitholes, the implication was, this is just a part of Trump’s America First ideology.

“Certain Washington politicians choose to fight for foreign countries, but President Trump will always fight for the American people,” White House spokesperson Raj Shah said in a statement.

Several White House reporters noted that Trump aides actually thought the comment would play well with the president’s supporters — and on Thursday night, some Fox News personalities argued that either the news about Trump’s comment was fake or, if it was real, “this is how the forgotten men and women in America talk at the bar.”

On Friday morning, Trump was sort of denying that he had made the “shithole” comment.

Likely not by coincidence, during a segment on “Fox and Friends” — the president’s favorite show — the hosts said Trump had made a mistake and that he should walk the comments back.

A few minutes later, Trump tweeted that “the language used by me at the DACA meeting was tough but this was not the language used.”

He then specifically denied saying “anything derogatory” about the Haitian people.

But Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), one of the leading Democrats trying to negotiate a DACA deal, was at the Thursday meeting and went on the record to confirm that Trump had said what the Washington Post reported.

CNN’s Jake Tapper tweeted some clarifying reporting that might have found a way to reconcile all of these contradictory statements: Trump said during the meeting that Haitians should not have protected status in the United States — “take them out,” he said — and then later also referred to African nations as “shithole” countries.

In a way, this is all a semantic debate: Trump clearly said something racist about countries where nonwhite people live during a meeting with US senators on Thursday. He called some of them “shithole countries.” He said he didn’t want more nonwhite people being let into the country and would prefer more white people come here instead.

Trump has a long history of racist remarks

It really isn’t a mystery how Trump feels about people who aren’t white, especially brown people who don’t live in America. He peddled a racist conspiracy theory that the first African-American president wasn’t actually born in the United States. (Trump notably never apologized for spreading the conspiracy, instead holding a press conference for his new hotel in which he simply said Hillary Clinton “started” the conspiracy theory.)

As he stood in Trump Tower to announce his White House bid in 2015, he said that Mexicans were pouring into the country and they were “rapists and murderers” — while some of them, Trump assumed, were good people.

He hasn’t changed since entering the White House. He’s not going to change.

The New York Times reported last month that, during a different White House meeting, Trump had said that Haitians “all have AIDS” and that people from Nigeria would never “go back to their huts” if they came to the United States.

According to six officials who attended or were briefed about the meeting, Mr. Trump then began reading aloud from the document, which his domestic policy adviser, Stephen Miller, had given him just before the meeting. 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.

Trump’s comments during Thursday’s meeting are perfectly in line with what he’s said before. Vox’s German Lopez compiled a list going back to the 1970s of Trump’s history of racism.

Trump’s xenophobia has huge policy consequences too

Trump’s comments are shocking and ugly enough on their own, but they also set the tone for the White House’s agenda.

The president announced last year he would eventually end the DACA program, putting protections for 690,000 people who came to the United States as children at risk. He has tried and finally succeeded to ban people from certain Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. He ended protections for 260,000 El Salvadoran immigrants who fled to America after a devastating earthquake and who have been here for decades.

The White House’s ever-shifting goalposts have made it all the more difficult for senators to strike a deal to provide a permanent solution for DACA recipients — which everyone, even allegedly Trump, wants to do.

As Bloomberg’s Sahil Kapur reported:

The struggle for an immigration deal is intensifying after President Donald Trump rejected a bipartisan compromise proposal and questioned why the U.S. accepts immigrants from “shithole countries.”

The debate is turning into a three-way skirmish, as a small group of senators offered the compromise that Trump spurned on Thursday over objections from Republican hardliners, with some Democrats fearing that their leaders may be conceding too much.

The proposal, by both Republican and Democratic senators, was designed to protect young undocumented immigrants from deportation and bolster border security, but the White House said it needed more work.


Trump inflamed the already emotionally charged debate by questioning senators at an Oval Office meeting on why the U.S. takes in immigrants from “shithole countries” like Haiti, El Salvador and African nations rather than places like Norway, according to three people briefed on the conversation. The White House didn’t dispute the quotation, which prompted denunciations from members of Congress on both sides of the aisle.

Trump’s comments also breathed life into immigration hardliners in Congress who don’t want a DACA deal at all.

So in the process of reminding us yet again exactly who he is, the president is also toying with the lives of hundreds of thousands of people who have lived in the United States for years. That’s why this matters.