WASHINGTON - US President Donald Trump desperately sought Friday to quell a growing storm triggered by his reported description of African nations, Haiti and El Salvador as "shithole" countries, in a slur denounced as "racist" by the United Nations.
Trump tweeted a convoluted denial early Friday but Democratic Senator Dick Durbin pushed back, saying the president repeatedly used the term "shithole" during a Thursday White House meeting on immigration reform.
"The language used by me at the DACA meeting was tough, but this was not the language used," Trump tweeted early Friday, apparently referring to the remarks quoted by the Washington Post and The New York Times.
The Post, which cited people briefed on the meeting, quoted Trump as asking why the United States attracted immigrants from "shithole countries" such as African nations, Haiti or El Salvador, rather than -- for instance -- wealthy and overwhelmingly white Norway.
The New York Times reported the same comment, citing unnamed people with direct knowledge of the meeting.
When a Democratic senator raised protections for Haitian immigrants, the Post said Trump responded: "Why do we need more Haitians?" adding: "Take them out."
In a second morning tweet, Trump specifically denied he ever said "anything derogatory" about the people of Haiti.
"Made up by Dems. I have a wonderful relationship with Haitians!" he posted.
But the government of Haiti -- which Friday was marking eight years since a devastating earthquake killed at least 200,000 people in the country -- declared itself "outraged and shocked."
Trump's reported comments drew similar protests from the 55-nation African Union, which called them "hurtful" and "clearly" racist, while the southern African state of Botswana hauled in the US ambassador to complain.
And they spurred a harsh reaction from the UN, with rights office spokesman Rupert Colville calling them "shocking and shameful."
"Sorry, but there is no other word one can use but 'racist'," he told reporters in Geneva.
"You cannot dismiss entire countries and continents as 'shitholes' whose entire populations, who are not white, are therefore not welcome", he added.
The White House meeting was held to discuss a proposed bipartisan deal that would limit immigrants from bringing family members into the country, and restrict the green card visa lottery in exchange for shielding hundreds of thousands of young immigrants from deportation.
- 'Encouraging racism, xenophobia' -
After making the "shithole" comment, Trump suggested the United States should instead welcome immigrants from places like Norway, whose prime minister he met on Wednesday.
"The positive comment on Norway makes the underlying sentiment very clear," Colville said, warning that Trump's comments should not merely be brushed aside as "vulgar language."
"It's about opening the door wider to humanity's worst side, about validating and encouraging racism and xenophobia that will potentially disrupt and destroy the lives of many people," he warned.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham and Durbin had come to the White House to outline their bipartisan compromise, but found themselves in the room with several Republican immigration hardliners.
Graham and Durbin are leading efforts to codify protections for so-called "Dreamers", immigrants who came to the United States illegally as children.
In exchange, the deal would end extended family "chain migration".
The president and lawmakers are in the midst of intense negotiations about how to shield nearly 800,000 "Dreamers" from deportation.
Last year, Trump scrapped the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that protected the immigrants, and set a deadline of March 5 for Congress to legislate a fix.
Colville, whose boss, UN rights chief Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein is a harsh Trump critic, urged Congress to "provide a durable solution" for the "Dreamers".
Their future, he insisted, "should not be used as a bargaining chip to negotiate the most severe and restrictive immigration and security measures possible. These are human beings, not commodities."
- Furious Democrats... and Republicans -
Trump's reported comments angered both Democrats and Republicans, and revived questions about his penchant for racially charged remarks.
He has denounced NFL players for kneeling during the national anthem in protest at police brutality against African Americans, and made questionable comments about a white supremacist rally in Virginia that turned violent.
The White House was previously forced to deny a New York Times report that Trump had said in a separate June meeting on immigration that Haitians "all have AIDS", citing a person who attended the meeting.
Democrats seized on Trump's latest slur to suggest he is anti-immigrant or worse.
"We can now say with 100% confidence that the president is a racist who does not share the values enshrined in our Constitution," congressman Luis Gutierrez said.
Some Republicans were also unhappy.
Mia Love, a congresswoman from Utah who is of Haitian descent, called Trump's reported comments "unkind" and "divisive", and demanded an apology.
South Carolina's Tim Scott, the only black Republican senator, said that if Trump really did use those words it would be "disappointing".