Homeland Security chief Kirstjen Nielsen says she did not hear Trump use vulgarity during meeting

WASHINGTON, Jan 16 (Reuters) - U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, under intense questioning from Democratic senators, said on Tuesday she did not hear President Donald Trump use a vulgarity to describe African countries during an impassioned White House meeting last week.

Nielsen's testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee echoed statements she has made since the meeting on Thursday with Trump and Republican and Democratic legislators, which roiled the debate on an immigration law deal and generated accusations of racism toward Trump.

Democratic Senator Dick Durbin, who attended the meeting, said Trump used the word "shithole" to describe African countries but Nielsen, also who participated in the meeting, said she did not hear that.

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Kirstjen Nielsen testifies to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on her nomination to be secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in Washington, U.S., November 8, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
Kirstjen Nielsen is sworn in before testifying to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on her nomination to be secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in Washington, U.S., November 8, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
Kirstjen Nielsen testifies to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on her nomination to be secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in Washington, U.S., November 8, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
U.S. President Donald Trump listens to his Secretary of Homeland Security nominee Kirstjen Nielsen in the East Room of the White House in Washington, U.S., October 12, 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
Secretary of Homeland Security nominee Kirstjen Nielsen smiles after U.S. President Donald Trump introduced Nielsen in the East Room of the White House in Washington, U.S., October 12, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
REFILE - ADDING DETAIL: White House Chief of Staff John Kelly (R) walks with Kirstjen Nielsen, the chief of staff at the Department of Homeland Security, on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, U.S., before his departure with President Donald Trump to Yuma, Arizona, August 22, 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
U.S. President Donald Trump smiles as he introduces his Secretary of Homeland Security nominee Kirstjen Nielsen in the East Room of the White House in Washington, U.S., October 12, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
UNITED STATES - NOVEMBER 08: Kirstjen Nielsen, Homeland Security Department secretary nominee, is introduced by Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, left, and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., during her Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee confirmation hearing in Dirksen Building on November 8, 2017. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 12: White House Deputy Chief of Staff Kirstjen Nielsen speaks during a nomination announcement at the East Room of the White House October 12, 2017 in Washington, DC. President Donald Trump has nominated Nielsen to be the next homeland security secretary, the position that has left vacant by Chief of Staff John Kelly. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Kirstjen Nielsen, U.S. secretary of Homeland Security nominee, listens to an introduction from U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017. Trump�announced his nomination of Nielsen, a top aide to White House Chief of Staff�John Kelly, to succeed him as secretary of Homeland Security. Photographer: T.J. Kirkpatrick/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Kirstjen Nielsen listens as US President Donald Trump nominates her as next US Secretary of Homeland Security in the East Room of the White House October 12, 2017 in Washington, DC. / AFP PHOTO / Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 12: U.S. President Donald Trump shakes the hand of White House Deputy Chief of Staff Kirstjen Nielsen during a nomination announcement at the East Room of the White House October 12, 2017 in Washington, DC. President Trump has nominated Nielsen to be the next homeland security secretary, the position that has left vacant by Chief of Staff John Kelly. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
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In one of the hearing's most dramatic moments, Democratic Senator Cory Booker grew emphatic after Nielsen said she did not want to answer more questions about the language at the meeting.

"When Dick Durbin called me I had tears of rage when I heard about this experience in this meeting," Booker told her.

"Your silence and your amnesia is complicity," he said.

Trump has said Durbin misrepresented his comments. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who also was at the meeting, issued a statement last week that did not dispute news accounts that Trump used the vulgarity to describe African countries. During the hearing Graham did not ask Nielsen about Trump's comments, but described Durbin as a "decent, honest man."

Nielsen said she did not remember Trump categorizing African countries in a specific way.

"The conversation was very impassioned. I don't dispute that the president was using tough language," Nielsen said, adding that several people in the room were using profanity.

SEE ALSO: Congressman John Lewis harassed with Trump chants on airplane

The comments have complicated the debate over an immigration deal to protect immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children, and also overshadowed larger spending negotiations ahead of a possible federal government shutdown this week.

When asked about Trump's reported statements about preferring immigrants from Norway, Nielsen said Trump was using Norway as an example of a country whose citizens work hard.

Nielsen also was asked about the administration's decision to rescind Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the Obama-era policy to protect from deportation immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children. Trump ended the program in September, giving Congress six months to find a permanent solution.

Nielsen said she did not believe Trump would have the authority to extend the March 5 deadline for the ending of the program. On Saturday, the Department of Homeland Security said it would resume accepting DACA renewals, after a federal judge blocked Trump’s decision to end the program.

Nielsen also testified about a DHS study on the link between immigration and terrorism. The report, issued on Tuesday, said about 73 percent of the 549 individuals convicted of "international terrorism-related" charges in U.S. federal courts between Sept. 11, 2001, and Dec. 31, 2016, were born outside the United States.

In a briefing call with reporters, a senior administration official pointed to the report as evidence that the United States needs to reform its immigration system, including to eliminate the diversity visa lottery and extended family-based immigration, in favor of high-skilled immigrants.

But the official said the administration was not ready to release statistical information on the manner of entry of the individuals convicted.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey and Yeganeh Torbati; Editing by Bill Trott and Andrew Hay)

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President Trump reportedly used the word 'shithole' to describe African nations. Pundits and politicians were quick to respond ...
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.@realDonaldTrump, your mouth is the foulest shithole in the world. With what authority do you proclaim who’s welco… https://t.co/4iGagdJPk3
If the president can’t control himself and lead this country with the authority, dignity and leadership it requires… https://t.co/1otyo1CJh6
SHAME ON TRUMP! The world is witnessing a new low today with this #ShitholeNations remark! totally unacceptable! un… https://t.co/m4YxbnHaxz
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President @realDonaldTrump has called Africa a shithole. How America elected a narcissist, racist, white supremacis… https://t.co/KdATPCFq24
Paul Ryan on Trump’s remark: “First thing that came to my mind is, ‘Very unfortunate. Unhelpful.’” Then, he thought… https://t.co/FZfWMvfzwm
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