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Graham: 'My memory hasn't evolved' on meeting where others say Trump referred to 'shithole countries'

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Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. File/Andrew Harnik/AP

COLUMBIA — After taking the weekend to reflect on a combative White House meeting in which President Donald Trump reportedly referred to African countries as "shithole countries," U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham said Monday he is even more determined to reach an immigration deal with hardliners in his own party.

In his most extensive comments yet about Thursday's explosive Oval Office meeting, the Seneca Republican again declined to confirm whether Trump specifically used the term "shithole" to describe the countries.

But, in what appeared to be a direct jab at Sens. Tom Cotton and David Perdue, Graham said, "My memory hasn't evolved. I know what was said and I know what I said." Sen. Tim Scott, R-North Charleston, said Friday that Graham told him media reports of what Trump said were “basically accurate." 

After initially saying they could not recall what the president said, Perdue of Georgia and Cotton of Arkansas said Sunday that Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat who said he heard the "shithole countries" comment, was misrepresenting Trump's remarks. They also contradicted Graham, who has not denied reports about Trump's comment.

The senators were in the White House to discuss an agreement about the future of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the Obama-era program known as DACA that protects people brought into the country as minors from deportation.

When Trump made the incendiary remark, Graham spoke up, telling the president that "America is an idea, not a race."

"I tried to make it very clear to the president that when you say 'I’m an American,' what does that mean?" Graham said. "It doesn’t mean that they’re black or white, rich or poor. It means that you buy into an ideal of self-representation, compassion, tolerance, the ability to practice one’s religion without interference and the acceptance of those who are different.

"So at the end of the day, an American is a person who believes in ideals that have stood the test of time," Graham added. "It’s not where you come from that matters, it’s what you’re willing to do once you get here."

Trump tweeted over the weekend that he wants an immigration system "based on merit." Graham said he supports that idea in concept.

"But when I say merit-based, I don’t mean just Europe," Graham said. "I mean from every corner of the globe. One thing I can say about America is we’ve had people come from every corner of the globe and that’s what makes us great — different people from different places who somehow are better together than they are by themselves."

After speaking to the Columbia Urban League at West Columbia's Brookland Baptist Church, Graham told The Post and Courier the Oval Office meeting was "disappointing" and "a step backward." But he said he is continuing to negotiate with Trump.

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"We're not going to get there by the president tweeting. We're not going to get there by him trying to blame Democrats. That's not going to work," Graham said. "The only pathway forward is a bipartisan deal."

Trump, however, signaled that he does not see any path to a compromise. 

"DACA is probably dead because the Democrats don’t really want it, they just want to talk and take desperately needed money away from our military," he tweeted Sunday.

A longtime immigration moderate who has tried for years to reach a legislative compromise on the issue, Graham insisted his efforts are still alive and predicted he would get more lawmakers from both parties on board within the coming days.

"The American people will not tolerate leaving these kids out in the cold any longer," Graham said. "They’re not going to tolerate Congress not being able to address a broken immigration system. So we need the president’s leadership. I stand ready to work with him and we’ll see what happens by the end of the week."

By rebuking Trump in person while declining to pile on the wave of public condemnations, Graham appeared to be threading a delicate needle.

As a former GOP primary rival who once derided Trump as a "kook" and unfit for office, Graham has sought to build a friendlier relationship with the president in recent months, regularly golfing with him and bending his ear on a host of political issues.

Graham contrasted Trump's message in Thursday's Oval Office meeting with his more conciliatory approach in a bipartisan meeting two days earlier. In that earlier conversation, which was televised, Trump talked about bringing both parties together and finding a balance between security and compassion.

"That Donald Trump is someone who can lead this country in a very successful fashion," Graham said. "By Thursday, something had changed."

Now, with a long-elusive agreement on immigration seemingly within reach, Graham has gone out of his way to avoid ruining the chances of a deal by upsetting Trump.

"I will work with him and I will stand up to him, I will do both," Graham said of his relationship with Trump. "But at the end of the day there is no solution without him."

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

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