Congressional Democrats are taking aim at a host of statues of Confederate figures standing in the U.S. Capitol, escalating demands for their removal after violent clashes at a white-nationalist march in Virginia over the weekend.
While some Democrats have sought to keep attention focused on President Trump and his equivocal response to a rally where a counterprotester was killed, hit by a car allegedly driven by a Nazi sympathizer, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called for the immediate removal of a dozen statues of Confederate figures included in the National Statuary Hall Collection.
That collection includes two statues selected by each state, and the presence of Confederate political and military leaders among them — as well as other figures with well-known discriminatory views — has previously attracted protests.
But the events in Charlottesville have galvanized activists who have pushed for the removal of those symbols from public spaces, and Trump’s tweets Thursday decrying the effort put the debate over iconography front and center for many Democrats.
“There is no room for celebrating the violent bigotry of the men of the Confederacy in the hallowed halls of the United States Capitol or in places of honor across the country,” Pelosi said.
A spokesman for House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) indicated that congressional Republicans would not intervene to remove the statues without the states’ consent. “These are decisions for those states to make,” said the spokesman, Doug Andres.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) said Wednesday he would introduce legislation that would mandate the removal of those statues, saying they “should not be afforded such a rare honor in this sacred space.”
“They are, unequivocally, not only statues of treasonous Americans but are symbolic to some who seek to revise history and advance hate and division,” he said.
Booker’s proposal comes after other calls for the elimination of Confederate iconography from the Capitol and other federal property. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus, for instance, successfully petitioned last year to have the state flag of Mississippi, which includes the Confederate battle herald, removed from display in a tunnel in the Capitol complex.
Separate efforts have been aimed at removing the display of Confederate flags at federal cemeteries and renaming military posts that carry the names of Confederate generals.
Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), who has previously led efforts to attach a provision to spending legislation to prevent the display of Confederate flags at federal cemeteries, said Thursday that he anticipated that push would expand to other places under federal purview.
The deadly violence in Charlottesville “reminds us how dangerous it is to indulge in revisionist history or euphemisms about what these symbols mean,” he said. “There’s an interest at looking at all of it, not just the statues or the military bases, but all of it.”
But the top Democrat in the Senate struck a wary note Thursday, warning members of his party to keep their focus on Trump rather than on efforts to scrub Confederate monuments. At a news conference Tuesday, Trump said “both sides” were to blame for the violence in Virginia and that some “very fine people” were among the white-nationalist marchers, who were drawn to Charlottesville by an effort to relocate a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a statement that Trump’s tweets Thursday attacking efforts to remove the Confederate statues represented an attempt to “divert attention away from the President’s refusal to unequivocally and full-throatedly denounce white supremacy, neo-Nazism, and other forms of bigotry. 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.”
A spokesman for Pelosi said House Democrats remain trained on Trump despite Pelosi’s focus Thursday on the statues.
“Whether it’s the adulation of Confederate statues, the hiring of white supremacists as staff in the White House, or his confusion in knowing right from wrong, true from false or American patriotism from white nationalism, Democrats are united in continuing to hold President Trump accountable for his actions and statements,” said Drew Hammill, the spokesman.
A poll released Thursday showed reasons for Democrats to proceed carefully. A NPR-“PBS NewsHour”-Marist poll indicated that more Americans are dismayed by Trump’s response to the violent march than are supportive of efforts to remove or relocate Confederate monuments.
Just over half of poll respondents said Trump’s response to Charlottesville was not strong enough, compared with 27 percent who felt it was sufficient. But 62 percent of respondents said statues of Confederate leaders should remain as historical symbols — including 44 percent of Democrats.
Democrats have taken aim at Trump. More than 60 House Democrats signed on to a censure resolution floated Wednesday, and one member, Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), said he would introduce articles of impeachment over Trump’s Charlottesville response.
Pelosi on Thursday endorsed only the push to remove the statues, though she and other top leaders have previously handled the issue with kid gloves.
When Pelosi served as speaker, she had a Lee statue moved from Statuary Hall, just off the House chamber, to a less prominent place in the Capitol crypt. But other statues remained in the hall, including that of Alexander Stephens, a Georgian who fiercely defended slavery and famously invoked the “peculiar institution” as the basis for the secession of the Confederate states.
“Our new government,” he said in 1861, “is founded upon . . . the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.”
In 2015, when the issue of the Confederate statues was last thrust into the spotlight by the murder of nine South Carolina churchgoers at the hands of a white supremacist, top Democrats pushed to remove the Confederate flag from public places but stopped short when it came to the statues.
“I think that we need to make sure the states understand who they have here,” said then-Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.).
Kimberly Kindy and Ed O’Keefe contributed to this report.