President Trump on Thursday mourned the loss of “beautiful statues and monuments” in the wake of the violent clashes in Charlottesville during a white supremacist demonstration protesting the planned removal of a statue depicting Confederate military commander Robert E. Lee.
Some white supremacist leaders, including David Duke, the former KKK grand wizard, have praised Trump for his “honesty” and “courage.”
During his remarks Tuesday and again in his tweets Thursday, Trump argued that Lee and fellow Confederate general Stonewall Jackson, who commanded Southern forces in the Civil War to secede from the United States, are important and admired historical figures in the South. He said they could be equated to Founding Fathers George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who owned slaves and thus could potentially be subject to a modern-day backlash that would tarnish their legacies.
The political backlash to Trump's handling of the situation has left some White House advisers dispirited. But the president appears to have been emboldened to fight back against his critics and create a cultural wedge issue over the matter that could rally his base of hard-core supporters.
Trump's chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, said in interviews this week that he relishes a fight with Democrats over cultural issues because it will allow the president to "crush" his rivals by focusing on the economy.
“The Democrats, the longer they talk about identity politics, I got ’em," Bannon told the American Prospect. "I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.”
There is little polling of public opinion over what to do with Confederate monuments. An NPR/PBS survey conducted on Monday and Tuesday by Marist College found that 62 percent said statues honoring Confederate leaders should remain as a historical symbol; 27 percent said they should be removed because they are offensive to some people.
That poll found a large political divide: Republicans prefer to keep statues by 86 percent to 6 percent, while Democrats split 44 percent for keeping them and 47 percent for removing them. African Americans in the survey were roughly split on the question (44 percent keep, 40 percent remove).
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) announced late Wednesday that he intends to introduce legislation after Congress reconvenes next month calling for the removal of at least a dozen statues of Confederate soldiers and politicians located inside the U.S. Capitol.
The move follows similar action by many city officials around the country who are considering removal of Confederate statues and other memorials in an effort to avoid the kind of unrest that occurred in Charlottesville as alt-right and white nationalist groups across the country vow to stage more rallies.
Booker made the announcement on Twitter, writing: “This is just one step. We have much work to do.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) issued a statement calling on Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to join Democrats in efforts to remove Confederate statues from the halls of the Capitol. Those statues are generally selected by individual states to represent them.
"The statues in the Capitol should embody our highest ideals as Americans, expressing who we are and who we aspire to be as a nation," Pelosi said. “The Confederate statues in the halls of Congress have always been reprehensible."
But some Democratic leaders worried that Trump's tweet on the statues aimed to distract his opponents and shift the debate away from what they said was his support of a racist movement that marched in Charlottesville.
"President Trump and Steve Bannon are trying to divert attention away from the President’s refusal to unequivocally and full-throatedly denounce white supremacy, neo-Nazism, and other forms of bigotry," Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a statement. "While it is critical that we work towards the goal of Senator Cory Booker’s legislation, we must continue to denounce and resist President Trump for his reprehensible actions.”
Bannon, who ran the conservative, "alt-right" Breitbart News operation before joining Trump's campaign, has been at odds with other top White House advisers and grown increasingly isolated. Asked if he still had confidence in Bannon during a news conference Tuesday, Trump called him a "good man" and said he was not a racist. "We'll see what happens with Mr. Bannon," Trump said.
In an interview with the New York Times, Bannon defended Trump's comparison between the Confederate generals and the Founding Fathers, saying it "connects with the American people about their history, culture and traditions.
“The race-identity politics of the left wants to say it’s all racist,” Bannon added. “Just give me more. Tear down more statues. Say the revolution is coming. I can’t get enough of it.”
[Trump said he’s ‘sad’ to see Confederate statutes coming down. Descendants of Confederate leaders disagree.]
Trump is at his golf resort in Bedminster, N.J., on the second week of a working vacation. Aides said he will meet with Gov. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) and with Linda McMahon, head of the Small Business Administration. McMahon will provide the president an update on the agency's tax reform and deregulation initiative.
Trump has not yet spoken to the mayor of Charlottesville or Heyer's parents. The president is scheduled to spend Friday at Camp David with senior aides to discuss the administration's policy toward South Asia.
Charlottesville wasn't the first place that white supremacists had gathered to protest the removal of a Confederate statute. They have been doing this in several cities, including once before in Charlottesville, but this was the first one that erupted in mayhem and deadly violence. More rallies are planned for other cities as a show of force to pressure municipal officials into not removing the Civil War-era symbols.
On the campaign trail, Trump said he agreed with the decision in 2015 by then-South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley to remove a Confederate flag from the state house grounds following the mass shooting by Dylann Roof, a white supremacist who killed nine African Americans a a black church.
“I would take it down, yes,” Trump said at the time. Haley is now serving as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. “I think they should put it in a museum and respect whatever it is you have to respect.”
But Confederate flags increasingly appeared at Trump's rallies and were often sold by unaffiliated vendors outside his rally venues. On Saturday, in his first response to the Charlottesville violence, Trump blamed the actions coming from “many sides” and added: "We must love each other, respect each other and cherish our history and our future together. So important."
Some white supremacists interpreted that comment as proof that they are right in protesting, and Trump went further on Tuesday by saying many of the demonstrators were not white supremacists and that there were “fine people” among them.
Washington Post polling director Scott Clement contributed to this report.