As Many Seethe, Zeldin Defends Trump

One of four tweets Representative Lee Zeldin issued on Thursday in defense of President Trump's vulgar remarks on immigration. Twitter

While outrage over President Trump's reference on Thursday to Haiti and African nations as "shithole countries" has been widespread among lawmakers the world over, Representative Lee Zeldin was among the first United States lawmakers to jump to the president's defense that evening.

In a series of tweets from his @leezeldin account, Mr. Zeldin wrote, "Pres @realDonaldTrump wasn't elected for his ability or willingness to be politically correct," adding later in another tweet, he said, " I'm not [. . .] here to call for the President's mouth to be washed out w soap & then for him to be physically removed from office. He's not perfect, but no President has ever been perfect. I'm still very strongly rooting for his success & America's success in this great new year."

The "shithole" comment, which Mr. Trump denies, was said to come during a White House meeting on immigration with lawmakers from both sides of the aisle. Protections for people from Haiti and some African nations were on the agenda as was a deal that might bar deportation of immigrants brought to the United States as children, as detailed in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, initiative.

"The fact is that there are many nations in the world struggling mightily . . . politically & economically, w poor infrastructure, schools, physical security & more," Mr. Zeldin tweeted Thursday evening. "These third world nations have some of the worst possible challenges imaginable. They also have certain aspects of culture, tradition, values, & religion, that can be emulated the world over." While the United States "can & should help where we can," he wrote, it "also can & should prioritize many challenges we are facing right her at home. Our immigration policies must get stronger, our limited resources spent wiser, & our priorities placed smarter."

While Mr. Zeldin's tweets sought to shift the discussion from the President's language to his apparent underlying sentiments, criticism of the President was swift and unequivocal from Haiti to Nigeria to South Africa to Norway to the Vatican.

Here in the First Congressional District, where Mr. Zeldin is serving his second term, would-be Democratic challengers called him out for his support of Mr. Trump at a forum on Saturday at Stony Brook Southampton hosted by the Southampton Progressive Caucus.

Mr. Trump's remarks were bad, said Brendan Henry, one of the six candidates at the forum, but Mr. Zeldin's were worse. "I actually told him on his web page, 'This is why I'm going to beat you in November,' " he said to applause. "We can't become a nation that turns its back on people," Mr. Henry said. Immigrants, he said, are "hard-working people. They're families, people in your community. . . . I know these people, and all they want is a chance."

Mr. Trump's meeting with legislators could have led to a resolution as to undocumented immigrants brought into the country by their parents, "and Trump shot it down," said Perry Gershon, an East Hampton resident and candidate to challenge Mr. Zeldin. "And you can look at where Lee Zeldin has come out on this," he said, referring to the congressman's supportive statement. "He's not attacking Trump, he says we're not going to wash his mouth out with soap. That's not the way we fix our problems in America. We need our congressman to be pushing for immigration reform."

Vivian Viloria-Fisher, another candidate, said that for a time Suffolk County was "ground zero for immigrant issues," recalling incidents that she called shameful. In debating his predecessor, Tim Bishop, she recalled Mr. Zeldin "using immigration as a fear-mongering tactic to try to get votes." Immigrants applying for legal status under DACA "have had to put their lives on hold," while "there are young people who are already being detained . . . people who have a proven record of being great participants in our county's culture, in our country's communities." Mr. Trump has pulled the rug out from under them, she said, "and Lee Zeldin has not done anything to make their lives whole again. We must have a comprehensive immigration policy, because we can't continue to have 12 million people, maybe more, living in the shadows."

"Why are we still afraid that Lee Zeldin is going to succeed with this wedge issue?" another candidate, Elaine DiMasi, asked in reference to immigration. "It's because we know that he's going to pull out racism, that we now know exists, much greater than ever before."

David Pechefsky, another candidate, criticized Mr. Zeldin during a discussion about foreign policy. "That guy seems to want us to go to war with Iran," he said. Mr. Zeldin, he said, "seems eager. . . . We need to stop this right now."