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'Fake news' might have saved Trump from an awkward confrontation over his vulgar remark about African countries

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Just a few months ago, President Trump grew frustrated during a meeting in the Oval Office about protections for immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador and African countries and asked, “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?”

The African Union condemned the remark at the time. On Monday, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari became the first of its members to visit the Trump White House.

“Did you address his reported comments from earlier this year, when he reportedly used vulgar language to describe African nations?” Jordan Fabian of the Hill asked Buhari during a joint news conference.

Buhari’s response showcased one possible effect of Trump’s “fake news” refrain.

“Well,” Buhari began, “I’m very careful with what the press says about others than myself. I’m not sure about, you know, the validity or whether that allegation against the president was true or not. So the best thing for me is to keep quiet.”

If he truly doubts that Trump made the statement, partly in reference to African countries, then Buhari may be one of the few. Even the White House initially did not dispute The Washington Post’s report on the comment in January.

Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), who attended the meeting, told reporters, “I cannot believe that in the history of the White House, in that Oval Office, any president has ever spoken the words that I personally heard our president speak yesterday.”

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), another attendee, also seemed to confirm Trump’s remark when he said in a statement that “following comments by the president, I said my piece directly to him.”

Trump’s media boosters generally accepted The Post’s report but defended the president’s remark as the kind of unvarnished rhetoric that got him elected.

Later, however, Trump denied saying the word.

The Post’s Josh Dawsey subsequently reported that there is disagreement within the White House about whether Trump said “shithole” or “shithouse.” The latter might not be any less offensive but would make Trump’s denial technically accurate.

Perhaps Buhari believes Trump’s denial. In that case, it is possible that Trump is successfully convincing world leaders that U.S. media accounts are often fake.

More likely, Buhari decided that a confrontation was not worthwhile.

“Security is the main issue,” he said during a photo op before a private meeting with Trump. “We are very grateful to the United States for agreeing to give us the aircraft we asked for — the spare parts. We are even more grateful for the physical presence of the United States military.”

Between the photo op and the news conference, Buhari had precisely 84 minutes with Trump. Why spend any of them on a subject that could send a meeting off the rails? Trump’s propensity for denials is so strong that he could not help but chime in during the news conference, even though he was not asked about the comment.

“We didn’t discuss it,” Trump said. “And you do have some countries that are in very bad shape and very tough places to live in. But we didn’t discuss it because the president knows me, and he knows where I’m coming from, and I appreciate that. We did not discuss it.”

Had Buhari gone there, Trump might have eaten up precious meeting time. Instead, Buhari put a smile on Trump’s face by questioning the “validity” of the reporting.

Trump has attempted to bond with other world leaders over “fake news.” Just last week, French President Emmanuel Macron addressed Congress and included a denunciation of “fake news” that could have been interpreted as an overture to Trump, who Macron said deserves “the fair copyright for this expression.”

Buhari may be the latest head of state to recognize that throwing a shot at the media is one way to get on Trump’s good side.

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