US President Donald Trump appeared to give up for dead a bipartisan deal on immigration on Sunday (Jan 14), blaming Democrats as the aftershocks of his vulgar disparagement of African countries and Haiti rumbled Washington's political battlegrounds.
"I'm not a racist. I am the least racist person you have ever interviewed," Trump told reporters at the Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach, Florida, where he was having dinner with Republican House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy.
Trump came back on the issue in a pair of early morning tweets three days after reportedly referring to African and Haitian immigrants as coming from "shithole countries," triggering global condemnation.
"DACA is probably dead because the Democrats don't really want it," Trump tweeted, referring to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program at the heart of the immigration impasse.
Hundreds of thousands of immigrants brought to the country illegally as children - so-called "dreamers" - face deportation unless a compromise can be reached that would grant them rights to stay.
A bipartisan deal to resolve the dreamers problem in return for changes demanded by Republicans in the way visas are allocated collapsed in acrimony Thursday with Trump's remarks, which were widely denounced as racist.
"I think this man, this president, is taking us back to another place," John Lewis, a Georgia congressman who was on the front lines of the 1960s civil rights movement, said Sunday on ABC's "This Week." "I think he is a racist."
'DEFEND THE INDEFENSIBLE'
Senator David Purdue, a Republican from Georgia, called charges that Trump is racist "ridiculous" and his reported remarks a "gross misrepresentation" of the White House meeting on immigration.
But other Republicans, pained by the turn of events, spoke out against the president as debate over the slur spilled into Sunday television talk shows.
"I can't defend the indefensible," said Mia Love, a Haitian-American congresswoman from Utah who campaigned on Trump's behalf in the country's Haitian community.
"I still think that he should apologise," she said on CNN's "State of the Union." "I think that there are people that are looking for an apology. And I think that that would show real leadership."
Trump's "shithole countries" remarks were confirmed by Senator Dick Durbin, a Democrat who attended the White House meeting, after it was reported by the Washington Post and other media.
But Trump has stuck with a vague denial that he used such language, and so far has made no move to apologize, hurting prospects for a deal on DACA and making life uncomfortable for Republicans as they look ahead to mid-term elections this year.
The president sought to shift from the defensive by portraying Democrats as not truly interested in an immigration deal.
"They just want to talk and take desperately needed money away from our Military," he tweeted.
"I, as President, want people coming into our Country who are going to help us become strong and great again, people coming in through a system based on MERIT. No more Lotteries! #AMERICA FIRST," he said.
'A DEAL TO BE HAD'
Senator Jeff Flake, a Republican who has been critical of Trump, said Democrats were serious about a bipartisan deal on immigration.
He said the compromise presented to the White House Thursday would end a visa lottery system and so-called chain migration under which legal immigrants can bring in family members. The dreamers would be allowed to stay but not become US citizens, according to Flake.
The senator from Arizona said Trump's remarks came in reaction to an element of the deal that would reallocate the visas given out in a lottery to immigrants who are currently in a protected status, like Haitians and the dreamers.
"I believe there is a deal to be had," he said.
Trump announced in September he was scrapping the DACA program but delayed enforcement to give Congress six months - until March - to craft a lasting solution.
On Tuesday, however, a federal judge ordered the government to keep DACA going pending resolution of court challenges to the president's decision.
Meanwhile, dimming prospects for a 2018 spending agreement means lawmakers will have to resort to a temporary funding extension to avert a government shutdown on Jan 19.