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DHS chief says she didn't hear Trump use a vulgar word, but admits he used "tough language"

Last Updated Jan 16, 2018 2:08 PM EST

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen on Tuesday claimed that she didn't hear President Trump use the word "sh*thole" when referring to certain countries in a meeting on immigration in the Oval Office last week.

"I did not hear that word used -- no, sir," Nielsen said after Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, asked at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing whether Mr. Trump used that word or a substantially similar word.

"I don't dispute that the president was using tough language," she said. "Others in the room were also using tough language."

Nielsen said that Mr. Trump was engaged in an impassioned debate with a group of senators in the room as they discussed the administration's priority to move to a merit-based immigration system.

Asked again if the president used vulgar language, Nielsen said, "The president used tough language in general, as did other congressmen in the room."

Nielsen said she didn't believe the president spoke about wanting to bring more people from Norway "specifically," but she said she used that nation as an example after the prime minister had told Mr. Trump that the people of Norway work very hard and Nielsen said the president would like to admit people with skills into the U.S.

She was also asked by Leahy whether Norway is predominantly white.

"I actually do not know that, sir, but I imagine that is the case," she said.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, who was the only Democrat in the meeting, asked Nielsen to recount what the president said. She said she remembers him saying that the U.S. should move away from a quota-based immigration system and toward a merit-based system. Nielsen said she doesn't "specifically remember a categorization" of countries in Africa by the president, saying that there were a lot of people in the room and a lot of "rough talk." 

Asked further about Mr. Trump's talk about wanting more Europeans in the U.S., Nielsen said she remembers him talking about the "concept of underepresented countries as a fix" during a conversation about removing the diversity lottery and reallocating it. 

"I think he did ask 'would it cover European countries?'" she said. 

Nielsen then admitted that "general profanity" was used in the room during the meeting. 

During a follow-up exchange with Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, Nielsen said, "anything is possible" when asked if it was possible that Mr. Trump used the word "sh*thole" but she didn't hear it. She said it was a meeting of 12 people and there was "crosstalk." 

Nielsen then said she was struck more by the fact that the conversation had gotten to a place where "inappropriate language" was used by other people in the Oval Office in front of the president. 

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, said he wanted to talk about "two Trumps: the Tuesday Trump and the Thursday Trump" of last week. On Tuesday, Graham said that the president said that the immigration deal had to be bipartisan, had to secure the border, had to institute a merit-based system and had to be fair to undocumented immigrants. Graham said he didn't know what happened on Thursday morning before the next immigration meeting. 

Graham said that Trump of last Tuesday was someone he was "proud to golf with, call my friend" and who understood immigration reform had to be bipartisan. 

"I don't know where that guy went," he said. "I want him back."

Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, said that the commander-in-chief referred to people from Africa and Haiti with "the most vile and vulgar language" and said "when ignorance and bigotry are allied with power, it is a dangerous force in our country. Your silence and your amnesia is complicity."

Mr. Trump issued a denial Friday that he used vulgar language in the Thursday Oval Office meeting where he reportedly referred to some of the nations being discussed as part of the immigration proposal as "sh*thole countries." The White House meeting on immigration included a bipartisan group of senators including Durbin. After The Washington Post first reported Mr. Trump's remarks, later confirmed by CBS News' Nancy Cordes, the White House did not deny the comment in a statement.

  • Rebecca Shabad

    Rebecca Shabad is a video reporter for CBS News Digital.