Diaz-Balart wants no part of Trump 'shithole' controversy

South Florida congressman was in room, but says he won't comment

NAPLES, Fla. – As the controversy over President Donald Trump's comments about African and Haitian immigrants deepens, one South Florida lawmaker who was present at the contentious meeting is remaining out of the fray.  

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Miami Republican, was in the room Thursday when Trump reportedly described Haiti and some African nations as "shithole countries."

“This is a president that said things differently than clearly I would say them," Diaz-Balart told Local 10's Glenna Milberg Monday. "I will not comment on what may or may not have been said. The bottom line is I will not be in a position to solve this problem.”

The White House has confirmed that Trump suggested the US should accept fewer people from countries like Haiti in favor of more immigration from countries like Norway but has disputed the language used to convey the point.

Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois -- the lone Democrat at the meeting -- was the first to go public with the "shithole" comments. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, confirmed Durbin's version of events without directly criticizing the president.

On the Sunday morning talk shows, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and several lawmakers, who were present at the meeting, pushed back against the reports. 

"I'm telling you he did not use that word ... and I'm telling you it's a gross misrepresentation," Sen. David Perdue, a Georgia Republican, told ABC News.

Nielsen and Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, told interviewers that they did not recall Trump using the phrase.

The meeting was set up in part to negotiate a deal to extend the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy. Started in 2012 by the Obama administration, the policy allows people who came to the US illegally as children to work and go to school under certain conditions.

The Trump administration has said that the program should be phased out and has called on Congress to create a new policy by March.

Diaz-Balart supports extending the program, also known as DACA, and said he wants to avoid criticizing the president to keep the negotiations on track.

"I'm the only person from South Florida that has a seat at this table," Diaz-Balart said. "I am going to use it not to criticize, not to point fingers, but to stop the imminent deportation of 800,000 young people."

Visiting constituents in Naples Monday, he said he wants to help DACA participants, known as Dreamers, not call the president or other negotiators like Durbin names.

"How does it help to point fingers or say names to the very people I have to quietly negotiate with?" Diaz-Balart said.

However, Trump has called the DACA negotiations "probably dead," placing blame on Democrats.

"Deals can't get made when there is no trust," Trump said Monday on Twitter.

Democrats have sought to tie the DACA extension to a bill to fund the government. The government could shut down if a deal is not reached by Friday.

Other South Florida lawmakers, including Republicans, have been critical of Trump's comments.

"Under no circumstances is it acceptable to degrade, denigrate, or dehumanize TPS immigrants,"  Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo said, referring to the Temporary Protected Status applied to people from countries such as Haiti and El Salvador.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen was born in Cuba and her district includes many Haitian immigrants.

“Language like that shouldn't be heard in locker rooms and it shouldn't be heard in the White House,” she said.

This isn't the first time Trump has made racially charged statements about immigrants.

Trump began his presidential campaign in June 2015, saying Mexico was sending rapists and other criminals across the border.

In December, The New York Times reported that Trump said Haitians "all have AIDS" and said Nigerians should go back to "their huts." The White House disputed the report at the time.

About the Authors:

Glenna Milberg joined Local 10 News in September 1999 to report on South Florida's top stories and community issues. She also serves as co-host on Local 10's public affairs broadcast, "This Week in South Florida."