WASHINGTON ― Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) says he ― and not Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) ― is to be believed on what was said at last week’s hotly contested meeting regarding immigration with President Donald Trump at the White House. But he’s refusing to clarify what exactly he did hear Trump say.
Durbin on Tuesday said he stood by “every word” of his account of the meeting, which he attended alongside Cotton, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.). The president, Durbin attested, referred to Haiti and African nations as “shithole countries” in the meeting and said that instead of immigrants from those areas, he would like more from places like Norway.
Addressing the controversy Tuesday on Capitol Hill, Cotton said that his prior remarks ― when he said in a Sunday interview that he “did not hear derogatory comments about individuals or persons” from the president and that the president was mischaracterized ― were accurate.
“I stand by every word I said,” Cotton said, echoing Durbin. “The difference is, I’m right.”
Cotton declined, however, to elaborate on what language Trump specifically used in the meeting. The Arkansas Republican disputed the notion that the president said anything “vile” or “racist.” Cotton dodged questions about whether the president expressed a preference for immigrants of some nations over others.
“The entire point the president made, and others of us made, is that we shouldn’t have any kind of country-of-origin quota,” Cotton said, adding that he and Trump supported a merit-based immigration system.
If Trump did use vulgar or racist language in the meeting, Cotton asked rhetorically, “why didn’t Sen. Durbin speak up in the meeting? Why didn’t he slam his papers down and walk out? Why did he wait to hold some random, impromptu press conference in Chicago?”
But Cotton’s response to the controversy hasn’t exactly been clear-cut, either. He initially released a joint statement with Perdue that said he could not recall whether the president used the word “shithole.” Later, Cotton said he didn’t hear any such language being used.
“My memory hasn’t evolved,” Graham said Monday, in what seemed like a dig at his GOP colleagues. “I know what was said, and I know what I said.”
While Graham has not directly confirmed Trump’s remarks in the meeting, the South Carolina Republican has praised Durbin repeatedly and noted that he told Trump in the meeting that America is “not defined by its people but by its ideals.” On Tuesday, Graham again defended his Democratic colleague, calling him “one of the best people you could ever hope to work with.”
Other GOP senators, however, said they believed Cotton and Perdue over Durbin.
“As far as I’m concerned, I have two very good friends that were there, standing within range, who said the statements were not made,” Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) told HuffPost. “And I believe them.”
Even Sen. Tim Scott, the junior senator from South Carolina, was careful not to get between Graham and the rest of his GOP colleagues on the matter of who said what at the White House.
“My primary objective is to make sure we’re not focusing on bad blood but focusing on the necessary policy decisions that we have to make,” Scott said.
Asked if he thought it was helpful for Cotton and Perdue to be attacking the credibility of a fellow senator, Scott said, “I think it’s always helpful to be accurate.”