White House aides were demoralized on Thursday night, watching the word “shithole” slink across the cable news chyrons.
In the wake of the administration’s tax reform coup, Fiat Chrysler had just announced it planned to spend more than $1 billion to move its assembly plant for the Ram truck from Mexico to Michigan. Walmart touted a round of bonuses and a higher pay for its U.S. workers.
And the White House communications team had pre-planned a sit-down interview for the president with reporters from the Wall Street Journal on Thursday – an outlet they expected would focus on economic news and help drive the message of the day.
Instead, all of that was lost amid “shithole”-gate, after the president, frustrated that an immigration deal would include protections for people from Haiti, El Salvador and African countries, referred to those nations as “shithole countries” and expressed an interest in welcoming from Norway, instead.
“It’s very frustrating,” admitted one senior White House aide. “We keep going off the rails with this other stuff.”
The episode was just the latest example of the president pulling off a pivot — just not the one his aides had been hoping for. This was a week when the White House was simply trying to stabilize and put to bed a growing conversation about the president’s mental capabilities.
Instead, Trump’s “shithole” remark – one he half-heartedly tried to walk back on Twitter more than 12 hours after it was first reported by the Washington Post – replaced a national conversation about whether or not the president is mentally stable with a conversation about whether or not he is racist.
Earlier this week, the White House kept the cameras rolling during a 55-minute meeting on immigration with lawmakers. The goal was to show, rather than just tell, that Trump was up to the job of being president, and able to focus on one topic for an extended period of time. The Wall Street Journal interview was also considered a potential opportunity for Trump to shape his own message. But by the end of the week, the pivot wasn’t, ultimately, to a conversation about Trump’s dealmaking skills.
Thursday’s “shithole” comment was reminiscent of one of the darkest chapters of the Trump presidency: his blaming of “both sides” for violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, last summer – rather than condemning the actions of white supremacists and Ku Klux Klan members that resulted in the death of one protestor and opened up the country’s racial divide. And it reopened a question for some aides toiling away by Trump’s side: how do you continue to justify working for a president who appears eager to fan racial tensions, as well as America’s isolation in the world?
Even House Speaker Paul Ryan, in rare comments critical of the president, called the comment “very unfortunate” and “unhelpful.”
Trump’s defenders, however, dismissed the idea that the comment proved Trump is racist and turned back to an old-hat defense of the impolitic president: that’s simply the way he expresses himself.
“People might find it difficult to believe, but in all the private conversations I’ve had with him, he’s never said anything that’s racist, never said anything anti-Semitic,” said Chris Ruddy, the chief executive of NewsMax and a longtime friend of Trump. “It’s just not part of his DNA to be that way. I know he says sometimes insensitive things. I think it’s a generational thing – he speaks in a different generation.”
“If it’s true, it’s not appropriate,” Ruddy added of the “shithole” comment. “But everyone makes kitchen table talk. Sometimes he says things that are insensitive, but he’s ultimately going to be judged on his accomplishments and national security.”
Jaded Democrats agreed that the controversy would pass—and suggested that large portions of the Trump base would hardly find anything offensive about the “shithole” remark.
“Like countless other eruptions over the course of the last two years, it will come and go, only to be supplanted by the next controversy,” said David Axelrod, a former top adviser to President Barack Obama. “I have no doubt that there are many in the president’s base who will not read his words as offensive or racist but rather as sensible.”
Some White House aides and outside advisers who have been working with Trump for the past two years have also become indifferent to the bumps along the way. “We have had 18 million of these, and nothing came of it other than he won,” shrugged one Republican operative. “They can add up, and that becomes a risk, but on its own, and I don’t know that it’s a good thing for our country, but a lot of people kind of agree with what he said.”
A Republican strategist who serves as an outside adviser to the White House also waved off the whole controversy – and embraced the substance of the president’s argument about immigration to the U.S. “It’s not racist,” the strategist said. “There’s a reason why they all want to come here – these places are shitholes. If they were great and we were a shithole, we would want to go there. Trump says something stupid, two camps erupt, rinse and repeat.”
But Trump’s approval rating, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released this week, is stuck at a low of 36 percent – a sign that he has been unable to expand his coalition beyond the diehard base of voters who appear willing to stick with him no matter what. “The problem for him and the Republican Party is that this will not be the majority view,” said Axelrod. “In swing states and districts that will decide the midterm elections, this is one more burden for the GOP to carry.”
For now, the GOP was simply trying to blame the latest scandal on the opposition party.
“I think the media chooses to focus on these distracting issues and not on the policies that are helping the American people,” Ronna Romney McDaniel, chairman of the Republican National Committee, said in a radio interview Friday morning. “The president is focused on the policies that are focused on helping the American people.”
Eliana Johnson contributed to this story.