WASHINGTON — In bluntly vulgar language, President Donald Trump questioned Thursday why the U.S. would accept more immigrants from Haiti and "shithole countries" in Africa rather than places like Norway, as he rejected a bipartisan immigration deal, according to people briefed on the extraordinary Oval Office conversation.
Trump's contemptuous description of an entire continent startled lawmakers in the meeting and immediately revived charges that the president is racist. The White House did not deny his remark but issued a statement saying Trump supports immigration policies that welcome "those who can contribute to our society."
Trump's comments came as two senators presented details of a bipartisan compromise that would extend protections against deportation for hundreds of thousands of young immigrants — and also strengthen border protections as Trump has insisted.
The lawmakers had hoped Trump would back their accord, an agreement among six senators evenly split among Republicans and Democrats, ending a months-long, bitter dispute over protecting the "Dreamers." But the White House later rejected it, plunging the issue back into uncertainty just eight days before a deadline that threatens a government shutdown.
Dick Durbin of Illinois, the Senate' s No. 2 Democrat, explained that as part of that deal, a lottery for visas that has benefited people from Africa and other nations would be ended, the sources said, though there could be another way for them to apply. Durbin said people would be allowed to stay in the U.S. who fled here after disasters hit their homes in places including El Salvador, Guatemala and Haiti.
Trump specifically questioned why the U.S. would want to admit more people from Haiti. As for Africa, he asked why more people from "shithole countries" should be allowed into the U.S., the sources said.
The president suggested that instead, the U.S. should allow more entrants from countries like Norway. Trump met this week with Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg.
Late Thursday, Trump was pushing for "a Great Wall" and criticizing Democrats' stance on immigration, highlighting the difficulties for any negotiations.
"The Democrats seem intent on having people and drugs pour into our country from the Southern Border, risking thousands of lives in the process. It is my duty to protect the lives and safety of all Americans," he said in a late-night tweet. "We must build a Great Wall ..."
Asked about the earlier remarks insulting other countries, White House spokesman Raj Shah did not deny them.
"Certain Washington politicians choose to fight for foreign countries, but President Trump will always fight for the American people," he said.
Trump's remarks were remarkable even by the standards of a president who has been accused by his foes of racist attitudes and has routinely smashed through public decorum that his modern predecessors have generally embraced.
Trump has claimed without evidence that Barack Obama, the nation's first black president, wasn't born in the United States, has said Mexican immigrants were "bringing crime" and were "rapists" and said there were "very fine people on both sides" after violence at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, left one counter-protester dead.
"Racist," tweeted Rep. Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y., after Thursday's story broke. But it wasn't just Democrats objecting.
Republican Rep. Mia Love of Utah, the daughter of Haitian immigrants, said Trump's comments were "unkind, divisive, elitist and fly in the face of our nation's values." She said, "This behavior is unacceptable from the leader of our nation" and Trump must apologize to the American people "and the nations he so wantonly maligned."
Trump has called himself the "least racist person that you've ever met." He plans to sign a proclamation today honoring Martin Luther King Day.
Critics also have questioned his mental fitness to serve as president, citing his inability to muster some policy details and his tweets asserting his "nuclear button" is bigger than North Korea's. He responded to such criticism with a recent tweet calling himself "a very stable genius" who is "like, really smart."
The sources spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to publicly describe the conversation. One said lawmakers in the room were taken aback by Trump's remarks.
The Trump administration announced late last year that it would end a temporary residency permit program that allowed nearly 60,000 citizens from Haiti to live and work in the United States following a devastating 2010 earthquake.
Trump has spoken positively about Haitians in public. During a 2016 campaign event in Miami, he said "the Haitian people deserve better" and told the audience of Haitian-Americans he wanted to "be your greatest champion, and I will be your champion."
The agreement that Durbin and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., described to Trump also includes his $1.6 billion request for a first installment on his long-sought border wall, aides familiar with the agreement said. They required anonymity because the agreement is not yet public.
Trump's request covers 74 miles of border wall as part of a 10-year, $18 billion proposal.
Democrats had long vowed they wouldn't fund the wall but are accepting the opening request as part of a broader plan that protects from deportation about 800,000 younger immigrants brought to the country as children and now here illegally.
The deal also would include restrictions on a program allowing immigrants to bring some relatives to the U.S.
In an afternoon of drama and confusing developments, four other GOP lawmakers — including hardliners on immigration — were also in Trump's office for Thursday's meeting, a development sources said Durbin and Graham did not expect. It was unclear why the four Republicans were there, and the session did not produce the results the two senators were hoping for.
"There has not been a deal reached yet," said White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders. But she added, "We feel like we're close."
The six senators have been meeting for months to find a way to revive protections for young immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children and are here illegally. Trump ended the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program last year but has given Congress until March 5 to find a way to keep it alive.
Federal agencies will run out of money and have to shut down if lawmakers don't pass legislation extending their financing by Jan. 19. Some Democrats are threatening to withhold their votes — which Republicans will need to push that legislation through Congress — unless an immigration accord is reached.
WATERLOO — Thursday’s snow day gave students in the Cedar Valley’s largest high schools another chance to cram for finals.
The Cedar Falls and Waterloo high schools were scheduled to finish first semester finals ahead of a long weekend. In both school districts, today is a teacher workday and no classes are held Monday because it’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The end of the semester is being pushed to Tuesday when finals will be completed.
School cancellations were widespread in Northeast Iowa on Thursday as dropping temperatures turned roads from wet to icy in the hour before classes were scheduled to start. The precipitation became snow later in the morning. Many other school districts in the region are also finishing up first semester this week.
Finals were a “mitigating factor” as Superintendent Andy Pattee decided to cancel classes for Cedar Falls Community Schools. But “student safety is always our priority and our first concern,” he noted.
“Weather-related decisions on days like today are extremely tough,” said Jane Lindaman, superintendent of Waterloo Community Schools. “We take the responsibility very seriously, as we know it’s best for all to hold school as scheduled.”
“We made the decision right around 6:30, I believe,” said Pattee, in consultation with transportation departments and area school superintendents. “Roads at that time became significantly slick.”
The call to cancel was a matter of timing for both districts.
“We knew that there was going to be falling temperatures throughout the day,” said Pattee. The hope was the mercury would hit freezing after students were safely at school, allowing roads crews time to deal with slippery conditions while they were in class. “Then dismissal wouldn’t have been an issue.”
Lindaman was also watching the weather.
“We worked throughout the night to monitor conditions, and when they changed quicker than anticipated we were faced with the dilemma of making a late decision or staying the course and risking safety,” she said.
Tara Thomas, the district’s director of school and community relations, explained some buses actually headed out on their routes. “The roads appeared to be safe enough to run the buses,” she said. Once on their routes, “drivers noted the slick conditions” and Lindaman decided to cancel.
“We felt a late call was better than the alternative,” said Lindaman, “but we absolutely recognize late calls cause inconveniences for families.”
Thomas said that did require some additional efforts to inform students and families of the decision. Some at the secondary level who don’t take the bus were already driving or walking to school before they learned of the cancellation.
“The administration in the buildings went out to their locations as much as possible to allow face-to-face communication.” she said.
Waterloo and Cedar Falls public works crews were out over night and early Thursday applying de-icing materials to streets and preparing to adjust when the freezing precipitation converted to snow.
“We’ve been salting and sanding streets since 7 a.m. and will continue until they’re safe,” Brian Heath, Cedar Falls public works and parks manager, said Thursday morning.
“The thing is monitoring it,” particularly with the rapid drop in temperatures, Heath said. “At 5:30 this morning it was 40 degrees. Everything was dripping wet from the rain we got, and 20 minutes later it was freezing. We got after it and have had very few complaints.”
Not having school buses on the roads as that change happened was a plus for the crews.
“With school being out, that helps a lot, said Tony Pauley, operations supervisor for the Waterloo Street Department. “Things are going well. We started at 7 a.m. when things started changing over” to freezing precipitation with the drop in temperatures. “We’re sanding and salting the priorities (arterial streets) and then moving into the residentials.
“By the end of the day, we should be in good shape,” Pauley said, particularly if the snow holds off. Whatever comes, “we’re ready to plow, or salt and sand.”
Waterloo Schools will make up the snow day April 2, which had been a scheduled day off. Cedar Falls Schools will push the last day of school to May 31.
News editor Pat Kinney contributed to this article.
DAVENPORT -- A coalition pushing for an increase in the state sales tax to pay for water quality initiatives says a new poll shows nearly 7 in 10 Iowans back the idea.
Iowa’s Water and Land Legacy, a coalition that includes conservation, outdoors and business groups, said support for the sales tax increase has grown.
“Iowans want clean water, productive agricultural soil and increased outdoor recreation opportunities. They overwhelmingly favor funding the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund as the solution,” said Joe McGovern, president of the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation.
The trust fund was created in 2010 when 63 percent of voters approved it in a statewide referendum.
For years, water quality advocates have pushed for a 3/8th cent sales tax increase to provide a revenue source for the fund, but the legislature hasn’t acted. This poll comes as lawmakers have just begun their 2018 session and water quality if a primary topic of discussion.
The new poll, conducted by Public Opinion Strategies between Nov. 12-16, sampled the opinions of 500 Iowans likely to vote in the 2018 election. The poll reported 69 percent support increasing the sales tax by 3/8ths of a cent to fund the trust in order to “protect water, land and wildlife, and ensuring strict accountability for all funds.”
That level of support, the group said, is higher than in 2014, when 66 percent supported it.
The group said its poll showed majority support across political party lines. The poll reported 88 percent of Democrats backed the increase and 55 percent of Republicans. Sixty-seven percent of independents did so, according to the poll.
The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.38 percent overall and higher for subgroups.
Last year, the House and Senate approved separate water quality measures, but did not include a sales tax increase. Instead, they would have diverted a smaller amount of existing tax revenues for water quality initiatives. The chambers could not come to an agreement on an individual proposal.
DAVENPORT -- The Trump administration took a significant step Thursday toward letting states set up work requirements for people on Medicaid, the program that covers health care for millions of Americans.
In a 10-page memo to state Medicaid directors, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services said it would support states that want to set up such requirements and provided guidelines for how to gain approval from the Trump administration.
“Our fundamental goal is to make a positive and lasting difference in the health and wellness of our beneficiaries, and today’s announcement is a step in that direction,” Seema Verma, administrator of the agency, said in a statement.
Ten states have asked for approval for demonstration projects that included work or other requirements, the agency said. Iowa is not among them. But about 600,000 people in the state are covered by the program, which has seen significant changes over the past year as management was turned over to private managed care companies.
Asked whether Gov. Kim Reynolds might pursue a work requirement, a spokesperson, Brenna Smith, said Thursday “the governor is reviewing and considering the guidelines that just came out today.”
“The governor believes that Medicaid is an important safety net for many Iowans, and her hope is that those on the program who are able-bodied are able to find a career and re-enter the workforce. That’s why the governor is introducing the Future Ready Iowa Act, which will provide scholarship and grant dollars for Iowans who want to receive training in high demand fields,” Smith said.
The Trump administration’s memo released Thursday says the move would be aimed at encouraging able-bodied, working age Medicaid recipients to work or get involved in what it called “community engagement.” That could include job training, career planning or volunteer activities.
Medicaid largely covers the poor and disabled, and about 1 in 5 Americans are covered by the program.
The new policy would not apply to people who qualify for the program because of a disability, the memo said.
Still, an official with the advocacy group Disability Rights Iowa expressed concern about the plan. Jane Hudson, executive director of the organization, said she is concerned about what would constitute a disability. She also asked, “will a person lose their Medicaid benefits if an employer refuses to provide reasonable accommodations even though it is required by law?”
The Obama administration had declined to offer waivers to states that requested a work requirement.
Conservatives have argued it would ensure Medicaid is only going to the truly needy. The Trump administration memo said a “growing body of evidence suggests that targeting certain health determinants, including productive work and community engagement, may improve health outcomes.”
But critics said this move would take health care away from people who are struggling and would be counterproductive. “Study after study shows that access to health care translates into higher earnings and better jobs,” Winnie Stachelberg, of the Center for American Progress, said.
Currently, about 8 in 10 non-elderly adults who are covered by Medicaid and don’t qualify because of a disability live in a working household, and a majority work themselves, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, a research organization.
A survey Kaiser conducted last year said those who weren’t working said it was because of an illness or disability, home or family responsibilities, pursuit of an education, retirement or inability to find a job. Kaiser also said a work requirement is popular. A survey it conducted said 70 percent of Americans support such a requirement.