Trump, who reportedly made the comment during a meeting with legislators Thursday on immigration reform, drew charges of racism.
“Why are we having all these people from sh**hole countries come here?” Trump said, people briefed on the meeting told The Washington Post.
The New York Times later reported the same comment, citing unnamed people with direct knowledge of the meeting.
“The language used by me at the DACA meeting was tough, but this was not the language used,” Trump tweeted early Friday.
The reference was to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which shields from deportation nearly 800,000 immigrants brought to the country illegally as children.
Thursday’s meeting was to discuss a compromise under which DACA would be preserved but a visa lottery and a policy allowing legal immigrants to bring family members into the country would be ended.
“I want a merit based system of immigration and people who will help take our country to the next level,” Trump said in another tweet.
“I want safety and security for our people,” he added, criticizing the proposed bipartisan deal.
“USA would be forced to take large numbers of people from high crime countries which are doing badly,” Trump tweeted.
The Post and the Times said Trump’s vulgar remark on Thursday was in reference to African countries and Haiti. The Post included El Salvador on its list.
Trump suggested the US should instead welcome immigrants from places like Norway, whose prime minister met with Trump on Wednesday.
UN rights office spokesman Rupert Colville said “there is no other word one can use but ‘racist’” to describe Trump’s remarks.
Democratic Congressman Luis Gutierrez called Trump “a racist who does not share the values enshrined in our Constitution.”
The 55-nation African Union condemned Trump’s reported remarks while the southern African state of Botswana hauled in the US ambassador to complain.
The comment “truly flies in the face of accepted behavior and practice,” said Ebba Kalondo, spokeswoman for AU chief Moussa Faki.
“This is even more hurtful given the historical reality of just how many Africans arrived in the United States as slaves, and also terribly surprising as the United States remains a massively positive example as just how migration can give birth to a nation,” Kalondo said.
The comments were “clearly” racist, Kalondo said, but stressed the US was “much stronger than the sum total of one man.”
Botswana summoned the US ambassador to the country to “clarify if Botswana is regarded as a ‘sh**hole’ country,” according to a Foreign Ministry statement which called Trump’s comments “irresponsible, reprehensible and racist.”
This is not the first time Trump has rubbed Africans up the wrong way — he was widely derided last year after he twice referred to Namibia as “Nambia.”
Many Africans reminded the US of its historic role in the continent’s woes.