Almost 24 hours after reports that President Donald Trump disparaged immigrants from “shithole countries,” Sen. Lindsey Graham broke his public silence.
The South Carolina Republican, who was on hand Thursday for the president’s remarks, released a statement Friday afternoon explaining that he “said my piece directly to (Trump).
“The president and all those attending the meeting know what I said and how I feel,” Graham continued. “I’ve always believed that America is an idea, not defined by its people but by its ideals.”
Graham was at the Oval Office Thursday to present a bipartisan agreement to overhaul the nation’s immigration system to Trump.
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So was Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois, who told reporters separately on Friday morning that Graham stood up to the president after he reportedly made derogatory comments about Haiti, El Salvador and African countries, and wondered aloud why the United States couldn’t attract more immigrants from predominantly-white Norway.
“(Graham) spoke up and made a direct comment on what the president said,” Durbin told reporters. “For him to confront the president as he did, literally sitting next to him, took extraordinary political courage and I respect him for it.”
Having had his reaction to Trump’s remarks made public by Durbin, Graham felt little need to confirm or deny the reports himself.
“I appreciate Senator Durbin’s statements and have enjoyed working with him and many others on this important issue,” Graham said in his statement.
Graham went onto say, “The American ideal is embraced by people all over the globe. It was best said a long time ago, E Pluribus Unum — Out of Many, One. Diversity has always been our strength, not our weakness. In reforming immigration we cannot lose these American Ideals.”
Ultimately, Graham has plenty at stake in how he handles the controversy in the days ahead. He has emerged as a leader in negotiations over how to codify the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, a 2012 executive order from President Barack Obama protecting roughly 800,000 immigrants from deportation who were brought to the country illegally by their parents as young children.
Trump has said he will end the program in March unless Congress acts — and also authorizes strict border enforcement measures, too. So Graham and Durbin have been working tirelessly on a compromise bill that can win Republican and Democratic votes, and whether it can advance on Capitol Hill depends heavily on whether it receives Trump’s blessing.
Winning Trump’s endorsement, in turn, will depend on how lawmakers can navigate the whims of a president known for being volatile and demanding utmost loyalty.
Graham has managed to become an ally of Trump’s over the past year, even withstanding a few bumps along the way. Picking a new fight with the president as the deadline to make a deal looms larger, however, might not be the best strategy for success. At the same time, Graham needs to protect his own reputation and credibility on an issue he’s worked on for the last 12 years.
After the Thursday meeting at the White House — and a few hours before The Washington Post reported news of Trump’s “shithole” remarks — Graham was calm and composed when speaking with reporters about how his pitch had gone over with the president and his colleagues.
“We had a meeting,” Graham said from Capitol Hill, “and I will tell you that I’m hopeful.”
In his statement Friday, Graham indicated he would continue to focus on the work at hand, even as he is likely to be hounded for further comments on the incident.
There will also be efforts to get him to respond to the remarks more forcefully in public as he might have behind closed doors. His fellow South Carolina GOP Senator, Tim Scott, has called the comments “incredibly disappointing.”
His press office characterized his statement as being about “DACA” rather than about Trump, indicating Graham’s desire not to fan the flames more than necessary.
“The American people will ultimately judge us on the outcome we achieve,” Graham said, “not the process which led to it.”