Shortly after 9:30 a.m. on Friday, Fox News host Sandra Smith noted that her network “has confirmed” that President Trump indeed called African countries “shitholes” during a meeting with lawmakers on Thursday.
“President Trump lamented ‘s—hole countries’ during immigration negotiations on Thursday with lawmakers in the Oval Office, Fox News has confirmed,” a story on the network’s website reads.
That put President Trump’s favorite network at odds with the word of the president. Earlier Friday, Trump personally denied reports he used racist language — a claim that was quickly refuted by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), who was in the room for the meeting, witnessed Trump’s remarks, and told reporters on Friday that Trump’s denial is “not true.”
Over the course of the next hour, Smith gradually walked back her own network’s confirmation. A few minutes after 10 a.m., she went out of her way to portray the whole thing as a he-said, she-said situation.
“I’ll remind everybody that the president says he did not use that language, Dick Durbin was in the room and says that he did,” she said.
And then, about 10 minutes later, Smith characterized the situation as a mere “language dispute.”
“And then we come to the end of this week, and we have this language dispute — did the president say it, did he not say it?” she said.
Sandra Smith 9:36- To be clear, Fox has confirmed Trumps choice of words
Smith 10:11- I'll remind everybody Trump says he didn't say it
Smith 10:20- Did he say it, did he not say it?
Fox's play is basically 'we confirmed this happened but will keep pretending it might not have' pic.twitter.com/63CQmH4pJ0
— Lis Power (@LisPower1) January 12, 2018
Trump’s belated decision to weakly deny reports he made racist comments appeared to be inspired by the Fox News show that airs immediately before Smith’s — Fox & Friends, a program that Trump has gotten in the habit of live-tweeting just about every day.
During Friday’s edition of the program, host Brian Kilmeade made the unusual decision to criticize Trump, saying with regard to the “shithole” comment that president “made a mistake” and should “walk it back.” And just over 20 minutes later, Trump tried to do just that, posting a tweet in which he said that while the language he used at the meeting with lawmakers was “tough,” the racist comment widely attributed to him “was not the language used.”
The language used by me at the DACA meeting was tough, but this was not the language used. What was really tough was the outlandish proposal made – a big setback for DACA!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 12, 2018
Not only is Trump’s tweet contradicted by Fox News’ reporting and by Durbin, but it’s also been contradicted by his own staff. On Thursday, the White House issued a statement that didn’t deny that Trump had called African countries “shitholes,” but said, “Certain Washington politicians choose to fight for foreign countries, but President Trump will always fight for the American people.”
Then on Friday, CNN reported that Trump spent Thursday night “phoning allies and friends, asking them how they thought the ‘shithole’ remark was playing out in the press,” in what one White House official referred to as a “victory lap.” That report came on the heels of others indicating Trump administration staffers were optimistic the president’s comments would “resonate with his base.”
But like Smith, White House staffers spent Friday morning trying to walk that back. Smith’s show on Friday featured an interview with Trump administration spokesperson Mercedes Schlapp in which she tried to dodge questions about the disconnect between the White House’s initial statement about Trump’s comment and the president’s subsequent denial.
“There’s been been selective leaks, there’s been inaccurate reporting on this,” Schlapp said, declining to delve into details. “I was not in that meeting, but what I can tell you is that [Trump] made it very clear that that language was not used, and it’s very clear that this is the Democrats trying to derail this process.”