Seeking to limit the fallout from the reported comments that triggered outrage around the world, the US President described his language as “tough” but denied using a vulgar slur.
However, asked if he was “a racist”, the US leader stormed out of the White House’s Roosevelt Room where he had been attending a Martin Luther King Jr Day event.
The question was posed by American Urban Radio Network’s White House Correspondent and CNN contributor April Ryan, who initially asked if he was going to “give an apology for the statement yesterday?”
She followed up with: “Mr President, are you a racist?”
He did not answer as he hurriedly left the room.
Mr Trump has been widely criticised for the comments he reportedly made during a discussion about immigration from African nations.
“Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” he said, according to the Washington Post, after being presented with a proposal to restore protections for immigrants from those countries as part of a bipartisan immigration deal.
He added that the US should admit more people from places like Norway.
Mr Trump did not initially challenge the comments, which were heavily criticised by diplomats and both rival politicians and members of his own party.
He later took to Twitter to deny that he had used the phrase.
“The language used by me at the DACA meeting was tough, but this was not the language used,” he wrote, referring to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) programme, an Obama-era action that gives people brought to the US illegally as children the temporary right to live, study and work in America.
He added: “What was really tough was the outlandish proposal made – a big setback for DACA!”
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!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 12, 2018
Never said anything derogatory about Haitians other than Haiti is, obviously, a very poor and troubled country. Never said “take them out.” Made up by Dems. I have a wonderful relationship with Haitians. Probably should record future meetings – unfortunately, no trust!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 12, 2018
A separate tweet said that he “never said anything derogatory about Haitians other than Haiti is, obviously, a very poor and troubled country”.
He claimed his comments had been “made up” by his Democratic rivals, adding: ”I have a wonderful relationship with Haitians. Probably should record future meetings – unfortunately, no trust!”
But Dick Durbin, a top Democratic senator, said Mr Trump “repeatedly” said “these hate-filled things”. The White House has not denied the President’s use of racially-tinged rhetoric, either.
Mr Durbin added: “The president erupted several times with questions, and in the course of his comments, said things which were hate-filled, vile and racist.
“I use those words advisably. I understand how powerful they are. But I cannot believe that in the history of the White House and in that Oval Office, any president has ever spoken the words that I personally heard our president speak yesterday.
He said: “You’ve seen the comments in the press. I’ve not read one of them that’s inaccurate.”
Rupert Colville, a UN human rights spokesman, called Mr Trump’s offensive remarks about Haiti, El Salvador and unspecified African nations “racist”, saying “there is no other word you can use”.
Mr Trump’s reported comments have also forced his own diplomats to go on the defensive.
“The US deeply respects the people of #Africa & values partnerships w/ them. There has been no change in our dedication to partners & friends across the Continent,” the US embassy in South Africa tweeted following the reports. “We remain committed to working together to realise the promise of a more prosperous 21st century Africa.”
The US’s most senior official in Haiti was also reportedly summoned to meet with country’s president Jovenel Moise, to explain Mr Trump’s remarks.
Former Haitian President Laurent Lamothe said the “world is witnessing a new low today” and called the US leader’s remarks “totally unacceptable!”
“It shows a lack of respect and ignorance never seen before in the recent history of the US by any President,” Mr Lamothe tweeted.
Republican Congresswoman Mia Love, the nation’s first Haitian-American representative, said the president’s remarks were “unkind, divisive, elitist, and fly in the face of our nation’s values”.
“This behaviour is unacceptable from the leader of our nation,” Ms Love said in a statement. “My parents came from one of those countries but proudly took an oath of allegiance to the United States and took on the responsibilities of everything that being a citizen comes with.”
Mr Trump’s administration announced last year that it would end the Temporary Protected Status designation for Haiti by July 2019 – a move that could force tens of thousands of Haitian immigrants to either leave the US or live in the shadows.
TPS is offered to legal US residents and undocumented immigrants when war, natural disaster, an epidemic or other “extraordinary” conditions temporarily make return to their native country unsafe. It protects individuals from deportation and authorises them to work in the US.
This week, the Trump administration also announced that TPS protections for nearly 200,000 immigrants from El Salvador would end in 2019.
Responding to Mr Trump’s reported comments, El Salvador’s Foreign Minister Hugo Martinez tweeted about Salvadoran contributions to the US, saying “a good part of those who helped rebuild New Orleans after Katrina were Salvadoran. I feel proud to be Salvadoran”.
Former UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband, currently president of the International Rescue Committee, said the “Trump Administration (is) leading a race to the bottom on refugees and immigrants that is a betrayal of America’s future as well as of its history”.