When Department of Homeland Security chief Kirstjen Nielsen agreed to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, she could have never imagined she would find herself in the middle of a, well, shitstorm over "shithole."
But, that's where she was as official Washington continued to debate whether or not President Donald Trump described African and Central American countries using the term in a meeting last Thursday on immigration.
Nielsen, who attended that meeting at the White House, had said she didn't recall the exact language Trump used in describing immigrants from certain countries. That failure to recollect put her in direct conflict with the likes of South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican, and Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat -- both of whom have made clear that Trump used the word "shithole" (or something very like it) to describe immigrants from certain countries.
Which brings us to Durbin's questioning of Nielsen just before noon on Tuesday. I've broken their full exchange into a handful of sections with some commentary after each.
WARNING: This gets super awkward super fast. Read on at your own peril and watch the full thing below.
Durbin: I'm going to ask you as best you can to recall what you heard the President say when it came to those priorities. What do you remember the President saying about immigration from African countries to the United States?
Nielsen: What I heard him saying was that he'd like to move away from a country-based quote system to a merit-based system. So, it shouldn't matter where you come, it should matter what you can contribute to the United States.
The dance begins! Durbin is giving Nielsen the chance to come clean about what she knew -- knowing she won't, possibly because she wants to keep her job. And, as expected, Nielsen tries to pivot from what Trump said about African immigrants to the need to institute a merit-based immigration system. Which is, um, not the question at hand.
Durbin: How did he characterize those countries from Africa?
Nielsen: I don't -- I don't specifically remember a categorization of countries from Africa. I think what he was saying is -- as far as best I can tell, and as you know, there were about a dozen people in the room, there were a lot of cross conversations, there was a lot of rough talk by a lot of people in the room, but what I understood him to be saying is, let's move away from the countries, and let's look at the individual and make sure that those we bring here can contribute to society.
What Nielsen is trying to do is translate Trump. "I think what he was saying" is the give-away. She knows that she can't say he didn't say "shithole" (hence the "I don't recall") and, therefore, has only one option: To try to re-state what Trump actually meant -- even if it's not really what he said.
Durbin: Do you remember the President saying expressly, I want more Europeans, why can't we have more immigrants from Norway?
Nielsen: I do remember what he -- I do remember him asking about the concept of underrepresented countries as a fix -- this was in the conversation about removing the diversity lottery and how we could reallocate that, and I do remember him asking, if we do that and then assign those to countries that are unrepresented, aren't we just continuing non-merit based immigration? So from that perspective, I think he did ask, would that cover European countries, or by its nature would that mean we are further establishing immigration to purposefully exclude Europeans?
I can sum Nielsen's answer up in one word: "Yes." As in: Yes the President said he wanted more immigrants from Norway. (Related: Nielsen's answer was 91 words long.)
Durbin: What did the President say about immigrants from Norway?
Nielsen: I heard him repeating what he had learned in a meeting before, that they are industrious, that they are a hardworking country, that they don't have much crime there, they don't have much debt. I think in general, I just heard him giving compliments to Norway.
Notice the "I heard him" construction that Nielsen is using here. This isn't: The President said. It's: Here's what I heard the President say. Not the same thing. Also, Nielsen's list of Norway's characteristics leaves out one key thing that differentiates it from African countries: The overwhelming majority of the people in it are white. By the way, at another point in the hearing, Nielsen was asked if most people in Norway are white and she said, "I actually do not know that, sir, but I imagine that's the case."
Durbin: You said on Fox News that the President used strong language. What was that strong language?
Nielsen: Uh, let's see. Strong language -- there was -- apologies, I don't remember specific words. What I was struck with, frankly, as I'm sure you were as well, was just the general profanity that was used in the room by almost everyone.
AWKWARD. Nielsen knows that if she says what the President actually said then it's the lead news story for the rest of the day (week?). But, she is also under oath and doesn't want to lie. So, she, sort of "um, wells" her way through this answer. Also: Lots of people were swearing, so how could she possibly remember what curse word the President used in particular????
Durbin: Did you hear me use profanity?
Nielsen: No, sir.
Durbin: Did you hear Senator Graham use profanity?
Nielsen: I did hear tough language from Senator Graham, yes sir.
Durbin: What did he say?
Nielsen: He used tough language. He was impassioned, I think he was feeling very strongly about the issue, as was everyone in the room. And to underscore a point I think he was using some strong language.
"Tough language" should be given immediate enshrinement in the Euphemism Hall of Fame.
Durbin: Do you recall that the strong language he used repeated exactly what the President had said prior to that?
Nielsen: I remember specific cuss words being used by a variety of members.
Durbin gives us some news here -- that Graham repeated back Trump's expletive during his scolding of the President. And, to say it strains credulity that Nielsen remembers that "tough language" was used but is incapable of remembering who said what is to do a disservice to the phrase "strains credulity."
Durbin: I'm not going to ask you to say those words here. But I will just say for the record, Senator Graham spoke up in a way that I respect very much. Countering what the President had said about countries in Africa. Reminding the President that his family did not come to America with great skills or wealth, but they came here as most families do. Looking for a chance to prove themselves and make this a better nation. And in a defense of Senator Graham, his strong words repeated exactly the words used by the President, which you cannot remember --
Nielsen: If I just could, sir, I do want to say that I greatly appreciate not only Senator Graham's leadership but yours as well. I know you are both very passionate about this. As you know, afterward, I approached you and asked that I am happy to come talk to you at any time, to try to work on this deal. I do think that Senator Graham very impassionately described what he believes America is about, and what we should move towards. Yes. I agree with that.
Nielsen, defeated, just wants to make sure everyone knows Lindsay Graham is a good dude. Who uses "tough language" although she doesn't exactly remember what the specifics of that tough language are. Still, good dude, that Lindsey Graham.
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