House Speaker Paul Ryan became the highest ranking Republican to criticize President Donald Trump over reports that he referred to African nations as "s--thole countries" and disparaged Haitians.
Ryan on Friday called the comments "very unfortunate" and "unhelpful."
"First thing I thought about was my family - my family came from Ireland and came here and worked - the Irish were really looked down on," he added.
Lawmakers from both parties have fired back at Trump, who denied using certain "language" in Thursday's private meeting with lawmakers. Neither Trump nor the White House denied the most controversial of his comments: using the word "s--thole" to describe countries in Africa and saying he would prefer immigrants from countries like Norway instead.
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Utah Rep. Mia Love, the first black Republican woman elected to Congress and whose parents came from Haiti, called Trump's behavior "unacceptable from the leader of our nation." She said he should apologize.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, was among some Republicans who called for Trump to explain himself.
"If these comments are accurate, they are disappointing. I would not talk about nations like this, because I believe the people of those countries are made in the image of God and have worth and human dignity," Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., said.
And Sen. John McCain of Arizona said in his statement, "People have come to this country from everywhere, and people from everywhere have made America great. Our immigration policy should reflect that truth, and our elected officials, including our President, should respect it."
Among Democrats, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, said, "If the president can't control himself and lead this country with the authority, dignity and leadership it requires, then he shouldn't be the president. There's no room for racism in the Oval Office."
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said Trump's remarks "smack of blatant racism" that's "masquerading poorly as immigration policy."
"America is better than this and our president should be too," Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., said.
Trump made the remarks in a meeting as he was being briefed by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., on changes to the visa lottery program, according to an aide with knowledge of the meeting.
White House spokesman Raj Shad defended the president but did not directly deny his remarks.
"Certain Washington politicians choose to fight for foreign countries, but President Trump will always fight for the American people," Shad said.
Hours later, Trump said on Twitter Friday morning that, "the language used by me at the DACA meeting was tough, but this was not the language used. What was really tough was the outlandish proposal made - a big setback for DACA!"
Durbin said that reports of what Trump had said were accurate.
"He said these hate-filled things and he said them repeatedly," Durbin said during a press conference at an MLK breakfast Friday.
But two Republican senators who attended the meeting, Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia, said they did not recall Trump making the comments.
"In regards to Senator Durbin's accusation, we do not recall the President saying these comments specifically but what he did call out was the imbalance in our current immigration system, which does not protect American workers and our national interest," they said in a statement.
Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who also was at the meeting, said in a statement Friday, "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. I've always believed that America is an idea, not defined by its people but by its ideals."
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has not yet addressed the controversy.
Republicans House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California and Rep. Robert Goodlatte of Virginia, both of whom also were in the meeting, also have not commented publicly. Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida did not address the president's comments in his statement, saying only that he was committed to trying to stop deportations of the beneficiaries of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy or DACA.