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Washington — President Donald Trump on Friday offered a partial denial in public but privately defended his extraordinary remarks disparaging Haitians and African countries a day earlier.

Trump said he was only expressing what many people think but won’t say about immigrants from economically depressed countries, according to a person who spoke to the president as criticism of his comments ricocheted around the globe.

Trump spent Thursday evening making a flurry of calls to friends and outside advisers to judge their reaction to the tempest, said the confidant, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to disclose a private conversation. Trump wasn’t apologetic about his inflammatory remarks and denied he was racist, instead, blaming the media for distorting his meaning, the confidant said.

However, critics of the president, including some in his own Republican Party, spent Friday blasting the vulgar comments he made behind closed doors. In his meeting with a group of senators, he had questioned why the U.S. would accept more immigrants from Haiti and “s---hole countries” in Africa as he rejected a bipartisan immigration deal, according to one participant and people briefed on the remarkable Oval Office conversation.

As world leaders denounced the comments as racist, Trump’s ambassadors to Botswana and Senegal were both summoned to explain his remark, as was the top U.S. diplomat in Haiti, where there is no ambassador, State Department officials said. In addition to the Africa slur, Trump during a meeting Thursday with lawmakers questioned why the U.S. would need more Haitian immigrants.

Haitians at home and abroad were stunned, and internet message boards and radio stations were flooded with angry and anguished comments.

“It’s shocking he would say it on the anniversary,” said 28-year-old Natacha Joseph in downtown Port-au-Prince, referring the 2010 earthquake, one of the deadliest disasters in modern history. “I will ask Jesus to protect Haiti from the devil, and Trump is the devil.”

The comments roiled immigration talks that were already on tenuous footing.

“The language used by me at the DACA meeting was tough, but this was not the language used,” Trump insisted in a series of Friday morning tweets, pushing back on some depictions of the meeting.

But Trump and his advisers notably did not dispute the most controversial of his remarks: using the word “s---hole” to describe African nations and saying he would prefer immigrants from countries like Norway instead.

Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the only Democrat in the room, said Trump had indeed said what he was reported to have said. The remarks, Durbin said, were “vile, hate-filled and clearly racial in their content.”

He said Trump used the most vulgar term “more than once.”

“If that’s not racism, I don’t know how you can define it,” Florida GOP Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen told WPLG-TV in Miami.

Tweeted Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona: “The words used by the president, as related to me directly following the meeting by those in attendance, were not ‘tough,’ they were abhorrent and repulsive.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., called the comments “beneath the dignity of the presidency” and said Trump’s desire to see more immigrants from countries like Norway was “an effort to set this country back generations by promoting a homogenous, white society.”

Republican leaders were largely silent, though House Speaker Paul Ryan said the vulgar language was “very unfortunate, unhelpful.”

Trump’s insults — along with his rejection of the bipartisan immigration deal that six senators had drafted — also threatened to further complicate efforts to extend protections for hundreds of thousands of young immigrants, many of whom were brought to this country as children and now are here illegally.

Trump insisted Friday that he “never said anything derogatory about Haitians other than Haiti is, obviously, a very poor and troubled country. Never said ‘take them out.’ Made up by Dems.” Trump wrote, “I have a wonderful relationship with Haitians. Probably should record future meetings - unfortunately, no trust!”

Trump did not respond to questions about his comments as he signed a proclamation Friday honoring Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which is Monday.

Republican Sens. David Perdue of Georgia and Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who both attended the Thursday meeting, said in a statement that they “do not recall the president saying these comments specifically.” What Trump did do, they said, was “call out the imbalance in our current immigration system, which does not protect American workers and our national interest.”

But Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, whom Durbin said had voiced objection to Trump’s comments during the meeting, issued a statement that did not dispute the remarks.

“Following comments by the president, I said my piece directly to him yesterday. The president and all those attending the meeting know what I said and how I feel,” Graham said, adding: “I’ve always believed that America is an idea, not defined by its people but by its ideals.”

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