By Steve Holland
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump insisted on Sunday "I'm not a racist" in response to reports that he had described immigrants from Haiti and African countries as coming from "shithole countries."
Trump also said he was "ready, willing and able" to reach a deal to protect illegal immigrants brought to the United States as children from being deported but that he did not believe Democrats wanted an agreement. He tweeted earlier on Sunday that the existing program would "probably" be discontinued.
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The debate over immigration policy became increasingly acrimonious after it was reported on Thursday that the Republican president used the word "shithole" to describe Haiti and African countries in a private meeting with lawmakers.
The comments led to harsh recriminations from Democrats and Republicans alike, with some critics accusing Trump of racism, even as bipartisan talks continued in the U.S. Congress to seek a bipartisan compromise to salvage the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.
Asked by a reporter in Florida whether he was a racist, Trump said: "No. I'm not a racist. I'm the least racist person you have ever interviewed."
Trump has threatened to end DACA, but he seemed to keep the door open for a deal when he told reporters before dinner on Sunday night: "We're ready, willing and able to make a deal on DACA, but I don't think the Democrats want to make a deal…. The Democrats are the ones that aren't going to make a deal."
Efforts to extend the program are further complicated because it could make a funding bill to avert a government shutdown due Friday more difficult.
"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," Trump said earlier on Twitter.
A U.S. judge ruled last Tuesday that DACA should remain in effect until legal challenges brought in multiple courts are resolved.
"I hope that we are actually going to work on fixing DACA," said Representative Mia Love on CNN's "State of the Union" program on Sunday. "We cannot let this derail us."
Love, whose parents are from Haiti, had criticized Trump for his remarks and called on him to apologize.
Trump denied making the disparaging remarks on Friday, although U.S. Senator Richard Durbin, who was in the White House meeting, said the president had used the term. One participant at the meeting on Sunday denied that Trump used the term and another said he did not recall Trump making such comments.
Asked on Sunday whether his inflammatory remarks made it harder to get a DACA deal, Trump said: "Did you see what various senators in the room say about my comments? They weren't bad."
Lawmakers hope to reach an immigration deal before Jan. 19, when Congress must pass a funding bill or the government will shut down. Some Democrats insist that the DACA question be addressed by then.
Lawmakers are trying to combine some form of relief for DACA immigrants along with enhanced border security, including a wall along the Mexican border, sought by Trump. The president's inflammatory comments left lawmakers struggling to find a path forward.
"I hope we can move beyond that. What was reported was unacceptable. But what we have to do is not let that define this moment," said Republican Senator Cory Gardner on CBS's "Face the Nation" program.
Republican Senator David Perdue, who was at the same White House meeting and had said he did not recall whether Trump made the comment, was more explicit on Sunday. He called the new stories a "gross misrepresentation."
"I'm telling you, he did not use that word," he said on ABC's "This Week" program.
However, Republicans and Democrats have both said they either heard Trump say it, or heard directly from colleagues who did.
Republican Senator Jeff Flake said on Sunday he was told about the remarks by colleagues who attended the meeting, before the news reports emerged.
"I heard that account before the account even went public," he said on "This Week."
One of Trump's top advisers, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, said on "Fox News Sunday" she did not recall if Trump used "that specific phrase."
She also appeared to rebut Trump's remarks from earlier in the day. "DACA is not dead," she said.
(Additional reporting by Lucia Mutikani, Pete Schroeder, David Lawder and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Sandra Maler)