White House disputes report of disparaging comments allegedly made by Trump about black immigrants

US President Donald Trump prepares to speak briefly to the media as he departs the White House in Washington on Dec 21.
US President Donald Trump prepares to speak briefly to the media as he departs the White House in Washington on Dec 21. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

WASHINGTON (WASHINGTON POST) - The White House is disputing a New York Times report that President Donald Trump allegedly made offensive comments about black immigrants - specifically Haitians and Nigerians.

But low confidence in the president combined with his history of controversial comments about immigrants and black people have led some to approach the White House's denial with disbelief.

During a June Oval Office meeting attended by top White House officials, the President was supposedly angered by just how many immigrants had received visas to enter the US in 2017, according to six officials who attended or were briefed about the meeting.

Mr Trump had won the 2016 presidential election after promising to be tough on immigration, and his immigration ban was constantly facing pushback and criticism from activists, some members of his own party and the courts.

The Times reported that Mr Trump had read a list revealing the number of immigrants that had entered the country: "Haiti had sent 15,000 people. They 'all have AIDS,' he grumbled," according to one person who attended the meeting and another person who was briefed about it by a different person who was there.

Forty thousand had come from Nigeria, Mr Trump added. Once they had seen the United States, they would never "go back to their huts" in Africa, recalled the two officials, who asked for anonymity to discuss a sensitive conversation in the Oval Office.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders attacked the Times reporting on Saturday in the White House denial.

"General Kelly, General McMaster, Secretary Tillerson, Secretary Nielsen and all other senior staff actually in the meeting deny these outrageous claims. It's both sad and telling the New York Times would print the lies of their anonymous 'sources' anyway," the Times reported.

But the denial did not keep activists who have been critical of Mr Trump's policies toward immigrants from criticising the reported comments.

Nigerian American Opal Tometi said Mr Trump's past comments about immigration and black people make the Times report believable.

Ms Tometi, executive director of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration and a co-founder of Black Lives Matter, told the Fix via e-mail:"Unfortunately, it is all too believable that this is how our president speaks behind closed doors because his very public policies have been driven by racism and hatred since Day 1. From his xenophobic Muslim ban to his cruel and immoral treatment of immigrant dreamers, this merely adds crass words to the racist policies this administration has been pushing for a year."

"President Trump is mentally incapable of imagining the humanity of anyone who looks different from him or hails from a different nation," Ms Tometi added. "This is perhaps nowhere more true than of his treatment of black immigrants."

Mr Jonathan Jayes-Green, co-creator of UndocuBlack Network, a group of black immigrant community organisers, told the Fix:"I am disgusted but not surprised... it's consistent with the racist, anti-black, queerphobic xenophobe Donald J Trump truly is. It was evident from his decision to end TPS (temporary protected status) for Haiti that he's both willingly ignorant of who Haitian immigrants are and deeply committed to ending migration of Black and Brown immigrants to this country."

Ms Candis Watts Smith, who teaches in the University of North Carolina's Department of African, African American and Diaspora Studies, told the Fix that the president's reported comments reinforce "inaccurate" stereotypes about black immigrants.

"The sentiments that the president allegedly voiced about these two groups are in line with common stereotypes and inaccurate, harmful narratives about immigrants of African descent," she said. "Generally speaking, stereotypes of all sorts have a purpose. For instance, 'positive' stereotypes (e.g. hard working, entrepreneurial, highly intelligent) about Black immigrants are often used to suggest that African Americans use racism as 'an excuse'. Meanwhile, negative stereotypes (e.g. uncivilised, 'all have AIDS') are used to denigrate the group and develop or maintain a justification for preventing immigrants from becoming full members of American society."

Nigerian American activist Tia Oso has worked on immigration issues in Los Angeles, Phoenix and other areas with large Latino populations. She told the Fix she sees a correlation between Mr Trump's views on Latino immigrants and black immigrants.

"I am not surprised that the President holds these views. I also find it really interesting that, while he knew he could use his hate for Mexicans and Muslims to boost his campaign support, that he kept his hate for specific Black immigrants illicit. This is especially telling because he paid lip service to Haitians as a way to detract support from Hillary. But his comments show how he really feels."

Others reacting to the alleged comments wonder why Mr Trump would possibly single out Haitians for having AIDS, but author and former Clinton administration aide Keith Boykin said the reported comments reflect a period of great ignorance about the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

The president was criticised earlier this month for his World AIDS Day announcement that did not acknowledge how blacks in America are disproportionately affected by the illness.

Nearly half - 48 per cent - of those diagnosed with AIDS in the United States are African Americans, according to 2015 statistics from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

And Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, a senior policy adviser in the Bush White House, wrote that the Trump administration's approach to addressing the AIDS epidemic in Africa falls short of his predecessor: "During the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, the strategy on AIDS was pretty consistent: Put as many people on treatment as possible. Use economies within the programme, and falling drug prices, to increase that number even further. Focus on the places and groups where transmission is highest, but act broadly enough to block transmission routes across the continent."

But that legacy is now at risk. The Trump administration's 2018 Budget proposes cutting US$800 million (S$1.07 billion) in America's bilateral HIV/AIDS programmes.

And neither South Africa nor Nigeria would be in the "priority" category in the State Department's new AIDS strategy, despite together being home to about a quarter of the AIDS cases in the world.