Technically speaking, Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, didn’t drink toilet water. He just drank water from a toilet.
The controversial congressman raised eyebrows on Wednesday when he told constituents about his recent tour of a migrant detention facility where people in custody were allegedly told to drink from toilets. Months earlier, Democrats had cited those claims as evidence that detention centers were unsanitary and inhumane, but the Iowa Republican insisted on Wednesday that their concerns were overblown.
“I took a drink out of there,” King told the small crowd that had gathered at his town hall in Eagle Grove, Iowa. The water was “actually pretty good,” he said, adding, “I smacked my lips.”
That’s because it wasn’t actually toilet water. As King went on to explain, some detention center cells have an unusual setup where a sink doubling as a water fountain is attached to a toilet. Though it might not look appetizing, the water that comes from the sink isn’t coming from the toilet, making it theoretically safe to drink.
“It’s not drinking out of the toilet,” King said. “It’s drinking out of the water fountain that’s integral with the back of the toilet.”
King’s remarks, which were first reported by NBC News, resurfaced a months-old debate about conditions in Border Patrol stations near the U.S.-Mexico border. In July, amid reports that migrant children separated from their parents were living in squalor and developing preventable illnesses, Democratic lawmakers toured two Texas facilities and expressed serious concerns about the “appalling and disgusting” conditions they witnessed. One report, in particular, prompted a strong visceral response: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York, wrote on Twitter that migrant women were being held in cells without water and that Border Patrol agents had told them to drink out of the toilets instead.
Officials have repeatedly denied that claim, which was also made by several other Democratic lawmakers, and in King’s recent remarks, he suggested that had been a misunderstanding caused by the fact that the water fountain was attached to the toilet.
“I think there was a little language barrier there and so that’s how come we got that misinformation,” he said.
After NBC reporter Maura Barrett shared a transcript of King’s remarks on Twitter, the congressman responded with a video that shows him bending over to drink from the hybrid toilet fountain. While it’s hard to see if he actually smacks his lips, he does let out a sigh of satisfaction, smiling and declaring the water to be “not bad.” In his tweet, King accused Ocasio-Cortez of being dishonest, suggesting that the video debunked what he described as her “#FakeNews spin about the border.”
But King didn’t address the freshman congresswoman’s claims that the water fountain wasn’t working in the cell that she visited, and that Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Massachusetts, was unable to turn on the sink’s faucets. The migrant women, lacking any other source of water, “were told they could drink out of the bowl” instead, Ocasio-Cortez tweeted in July. She later reiterated those claims at a House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing.
On Wednesday night, the New York Democrat responded to King’s video, writing on Twitter that he and other Republicans who filmed themselves drinking out of the toilet-adjacent sinks “clearly didn’t read sworn testimony that detention sinks were broken.” She added: “They’re so anti-immigrant they risk pink eye to show off that they didn’t do the reading.”
Even when the combination toilet fountains, which are also sometimes found in jails and prisons, work as intended, advocates contend they’re still not an ideal solution. Most people don’t want to drink water while standing over an open toilet, and those trying to use the bathroom are left with no privacy. In July, when the issue first came up, Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, an immigration attorney and policy analyst at the American Immigration Council, shared photos of the combination toilet-sinks on Twitter, and asked his followers if they would be willing to drink from them. Many were not.
But King was willing to give it a shot. So was Rep. Jody Hice, R-Georgia, who posted a video similar to King’s in late July, claiming that Ocasio-Cortez and other freshman congresswomen had “deliberately misled the American people.”
While it’s not every day that a sitting member of Congress litigates the precise definition of “toilet water,” King’s remarks about detention centers were relatively mild compared to many offensive comments he’s made in the past. In August, he was widely criticized for claiming that the human race might no longer exist if it weren’t for rape and incest. Earlier this year, he was rebuked by his colleagues after he was quoted questioning how the term “white nationalist” had become offensive, and responded by comparing himself to Jesus.