WASHINGTON – This way madness lies.
I knew that Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, when she appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, would deny that Trump said what the whole world knows he said: that he wants immigrants from Norway rather than from “shithole” countries in Africa.
What I was not expecting was that Nielsen would raise a question about whether Norwegians are mostly white.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., displayed a poster from the dais proclaiming, in big letters, “Trump: Why allow immigrants from ‘Shithole Countries’?” An aide held the poster aloft right behind Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., who, along with Sen. Lindsey O. Graham, R-S.C., was at the infamous meeting with Trump and told others about his racist language.
Nielsen, who was also in that meeting, was now under oath, and she wiggled every which way to excuse Trump without perjuring herself: “I did not hear that word used. . I don’t dispute that the president was using tough language.”
Leahy moved on to Trump’s wish for more Norwegian immigrants. “Norway is a predominantly white country, isn’t it?” he asked, rhetorically.
“I actually do not know that, sir,” Nielsen replied. “But I imagine that is the case.”
Kirstjen Nielsen doesn’t know Norwegians are white?
Just as Nielsen “imagines” Norwegians are white, I imagine that she, in her denial of the obvious and defense of the indefensible, is the latest Trump sycophant to trash her reputation. She joins the two Republican senators, David Perdue of Georgia and Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who were in the room for the “shithole” moment but not only denied that it was said (Trump’s use of the vulgar word was widely confirmed, even by Fox News, and not denied by the White House until Trump tweeted a partial denial the next day) but also disparaged the integrity of Durbin for being truthful.
It’s clear they, like Nielsen, do this so they don’t get crosswise with the volatile president – but in the process shred their own integrity.
Now the federal government is hurtling toward a shutdown, entirely because of the president’s whim. Democrats and Republicans presented him last week with exactly the bipartisan deal he said he would sign – protecting the immigrant “Dreamers” while also providing funding for his border security “wall” – but Trump unexpectedly exploded with his racist attack and vulgar word.
“This has turned into an s-show,” said Graham, who co-wrote the bipartisan compromise Trump rejected, at the Nielsen hearing.
Nielsen surely would have preferred to be in the fjords of Norway, or just about anywhere, to where she was Tuesday: facing questions from both Durbin and Graham, whose integrity she had challenged with her dubious account.
“I hope you remember me,” Durbin began acidly.
He asked how Trump had characterized African countries.
“In – I don’t – I don’t specifically remember a category – categorization of countries in Africa,” she said, explaining that “there were a lot of cross conversations.”
Graham, who arrived two hours and 30 minutes into the hearing, told her that Durbin is “a decent, honest man” and that Trump was the real problem.
Graham said “something happened” to turn the president from “Tuesday Trump,” when he promised an immigration bill filled with “love” (Nielsen didn’t recall that word, either), to “Thursday Trump” with his “shithole” talk. “Tuesday we had a president that I was proud to golf with, call my friend, who understood immigration had to be bipartisan,” Graham said. “. I don’t know where that guy went. I want him back.”
For reasons unknown – perhaps even to Trump – the president blew up everything. And Nielsen appeared to realize her slavish defense of Trump was doing her no good. Finally, she announced that “I have nothing further to say on a meeting that happened over a week ago. I’d like to move forward and discuss ways in which we can protect our country.”
But you don’t just “move forward” after the president describes African countries as “shitholes” and proposes more white immigration. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., “seething with anger,” pounced on Nielsen for her convenient memory loss under oath and her attempt to “dismiss” questions about the episode.
“It was Martin Luther King that said there’s ‘nothing in this world more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity,’” Booker said. “. We know what happens when people sit by and are bystanders and say nothing.”
Do Nielsen, Cotton and Perdue see that? Or are they too far gone?
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.