A career intelligence analyst who is an expert in hostage policy stood before President Donald Trump in the Oval Office last fall to brief him on the impending release of a family long held in Pakistan under uncertain circumstances.
It was her first time meeting the president, and when she was done briefing, he had a question for her.
“Where are you from?” the president asked, according to two officials with direct knowledge of the exchange.
New York, she replied.
Trump was unsatisfied and asked again, the officials said. Referring to the president’s hometown, she offered that she, too, was from Manhattan. But that’s not what the president was after.
He wanted to know where “your people” are from, according to the officials, who spoke under condition of anonymity due to the nature of the internal discussions.
After the analyst revealed that her parents are Korean, Trump turned to an adviser in the room and seemed to suggest her ethnicity should determine her career path, asking why the “pretty Korean lady” isn’t negotiating with North Korea on his administration’s behalf, the officials said.
The exchange was disclosed to NBC News amid backlash from reports that Trump used the phrase “shithole countries” in referring to African nations and questioned why the U.S. should allow in more people from Haiti — reviving charges he’s racist.
Although the White House did not initially deny the remark, Trump on Friday claimed he had not made the disparaging comments during a Thursday meeting on immigration with lawmakers. The president tweeted that he did not say anything derogatory about Haitians and never said “take them out.”
However, Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat who was present at the meeting, confirmed the “vile” phrase was used “repeatedly” when Trump was referring to Africa.
A source close to the president told NBC News “he frequently uses that kind of language,” and added that those around Trump frequently tell him he should not.
The officials who told NBC News of the fall exchange between Trump and the intelligence briefer in the Oval Office said the president likely meant no harm with his inquiry, but it raised concern of a lack of cultural sensitivity and decorum.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment about it.
NBC News did not interview the briefer for this story. This article withholds her name and agency to protect her privacy.
Trump has long been accused by his political rivals of promoting racist attitudes that fueled clashes at some of his campaign rallies in 2016 and emboldened white supremacist groups that viewed Trump’s general election win as an opportunity for empowerment.
For years, he suggested that former President Barack Obama was not born in the United States. During the campaign, he suggested that some Mexican immigrants are “rapists” and “bringing crime” across the border and vowed to deport “bad hombres” from the U.S.
At a March meeting with members of the Congressional Black Caucus, Trump asked the elected officials if they personally knew just one member of his incoming cabinet — Ben Carson — according to two people in the room.
Carson, the only black member of Trump’s Cabinet, had never served in Congress and spent his career as a surgeon. Trump found that surprising that no one said they knew him, the attendees said.
During that same meeting, a member relayed to Trump that potential welfare cuts would harm her constituents, “not all of whom are black.” The president replied: “Really? Then what are they?”
The participants spoke anonymously because they were not authorized to share details about the private meetings.
More recently, at a White House event honoring Navajo code talkers, the heroic Native Americans who helped the U.S. Marines send coded messages in the Pacific Theater, Trump took a swipe at Sen. Elizabeth Warren, referencing his designated nickname for the Massachusetts Democrat, “Pocahontas.”
Trump’s supporters have celebrated his departure from the politically correct approach of modern politicians and relish in what they see as his audacious “America First” rhetoric, even as it risks relationships with some of America’s closest foreign allies.
Trump declared on Twitter late Thursday that he called off his trip to London because “I am not a big fan of the Obama Administration having sold perhaps the best located and finest embassy in London for ‘peanuts,’ only to build a new one in an off location for 1.2 billion dollars. Bad deal. Wanted me to cut ribbon-NO!”
London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who has engaged in a public war of words with Trump over his divisive remarks against Muslims, responded that Trump’s decision to cancel his trip to the United Kingdom shows he “got the message” from Londoners who “find his policies and actions the polar opposite of our city’s values.”
Trump’s tweets and comments in presumably private meetings are increasingly coming back to haunt him and shaking up an administration fraught with controversy.
Already, the top U.S. diplomat in Haiti has been summoned to explain Trump’s remarks in Thursday’s meeting to Haiti’s president. The U.N. human rights office has also lashed out at Trump’s comments on Africa, calling them “shocking and shameful,” if confirmed.