Then-White House press secretary Sarah Sanders denied the report in unflinching terms.
“General [John] Kelly, General [Henry] McMaster, Secretary [Rex] Tillerson, Secretary [Kirstjen] Nielsen and all other senior staff actually in the meeting deny these outrageous claims,” she said. “It’s both sad and telling the New York Times would print the lies of their anonymous ‘sources’ anyway.”
It’s likely that few people actually believed this denial. Trump’s critics saw the language as very much in line with the president’s standard fare; many of his supporters would not be worried that he had said it. When The Washington Post reported in January 2018 that he again had disparaged African countries and wondered why the United States “needed” more Haitians (“Take them out,” he reportedly said), it simply reinforced the hollowness of the denial.
Back then, Trump was still new to politics broadly and the presidency specifically. He still had a team around him — Chief of Staff Kelly, Secretary of State Tillerson — who were not die-hard adherents to his worldview and who often worked to contain his more reckless impulses. He was, to some extent, still constrained.
Since his impeachments, election loss and renewed confidence in his political support, Trump is no longer constrained. And so there’s no more pretense, no more politically softened insistence that the Times and Post were wrong and that claims Trump said anything so cruel about Haitians were “outrageous.” Now, he just goes on Fox News and says it.
“You know,” he said to the network’s Sean Hannity on Thursday night, “there’s one other thing that nobody talks about. So we have hundreds of thousands of people flowing in from Haiti. Haiti has a tremendous AIDS problem.”
“AIDS is a step beyond. AIDS is a real bad problem,” he continued. “So, hundreds of thousands of people are coming into our country. And if you look at the stats, if you look at the numbers, if you look at just — take a look at what’s happening in Haiti, a tremendous problem with AIDS. Many of those people will probably have AIDS, and they’re coming into our country. And we don’t do anything about it. We let everybody come in. Sean, it’s like a death wish. It’s like a death wish for our country.”
Hannity, ever a loyal political ally of Trump’s, quickly changed the subject.
But there it is, the explicit claim reported repeatedly from the White House and denied by Trump’s aides. Even now, even after it repeatedly prompted alarms from outside observers, Trump reiterates this insistence. It’s almost surprising that he didn’t then pivot to a wish for more immigrants from Northern Europe as he did in that 2018 meeting.
What’s remarkable about this outburst, too, is how illogical it is. This is not a new argument from Trump, that migrants arriving in the United States are disease-ridden. He made it as a candidate in 2015 in advocating for building a border wall during his presidency, and he has suggested that migrants are contributing to the coronavirus pandemic this year. (They were not to any significant extent.)
AIDS is not like the coronavirus, happily; our understanding of it has evolved since the mid-1980s. It is a dangerous disease, but it is not the unchecked threat that it was 20 years ago. By Dec. 31 of last year, 345,000 people had died of covid-19; in 2019, about 16,000 people who had AIDS died, not all of them from the disease. While rates of the disease in Haiti are high, 2020 saw the lowest number of new infections on record, according to U.N. estimates. About 1 in 1,500 Haitians age 15 to 49 are infected with HIV, compared to 1 in 7,900 people in the United States. Even if individuals carrying HIV came to the United States, the risk of transmission is much lower than with the coronavirus for obvious reasons.
Trump is not concerned with any of those details, of course. He’s just trying to disparage President Biden’s administration in the most alarming terms he can imagine. Black people with AIDS slipping into our country, watch out! But even setting aside those insinuations, Trump is wrong about the migration pattern. “Hundreds of thousands of people” came into the country, but most were then quickly removed — thanks to Biden deploying a process that Trump’s administration initiated. (A process that is very much frustrating Biden’s allies.)
As The Post’s Nick Miroff recently reported, most of the Haitian migrants who crossed into Texas recently, prompting cable-news howling from Hannity-types, have since been returned to Haiti or crossed back into Mexico. There is no flood of migrants from Haiti entering the country unchecked, healthy or not.
What this interview reveals is that Trump is who he always was and who his allies often tried to pretend he wasn’t. He did say those things about those migrants, offering no apparent sympathy for the reasons for their migration and, as president, revoking protected status for immigrants from that country.
What it reveals, too, is that a Trump who runs for president in 2024 will be little different than the one who ran in 2016 or 2020, with one exception: He’s not going to pretend he isn’t who he is.