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Trump Defends 'Beauty' Of Confederate Memorials

Workers load a statue of Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson on a flatbed truck in the early hours of Wednesday in Baltimore. A campaign to remove symbols of the Civil War-era, pro-slavery secessionist republic is gathering momentum across the United States.
Alec MacGillis
AFP/Getty Images
Workers load a statue of Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson on a flatbed truck in the early hours of Wednesday in Baltimore. A campaign to remove symbols of the Civil War-era, pro-slavery secessionist republic is gathering momentum across the United States.

Updated at 4:59 p.m. ET

President Trump stood by his heavily criticized defense of monuments commemorating the Confederacy in a series of tweets Thursday morning. Trump said removing the statues of Confederate generals meant removing "beauty" — that would "never able to be comparably replaced" — from American cities. As he did in a Tuesday press conference, he also attempted to equate some Confederate generals with some of the Founding Fathers.

Strung together, the tweets read:

"Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments. You can't change history, but you can learn from it. Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson - who's next, Washington, Jefferson? So foolish! Also the beauty that is being taken out of our cities, towns and parks will be greatly missed and never able to be comparably replaced!" [Ellipses removed for clarity.]

White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters declined to discuss the tweets with reporters on Thursday morning, saying, "The tweets speak for themselves."

The online postings come after days of the president whipsawing back and forth on his response to the violence in Charlottesville, Va., that led to the death of 32-year-old Heather Heyer after a man who had attended the white supremacist rally drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters.

Shortly after that incident, Trump condemned both the white nationalist protesters and the counterprotesters, saying there was an "egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides."

After Democrats and Republicans alike castigated him for those remarks, the president came out more forcefully against racist groups on Monday, declaring that "racism is evil" and characterizing members of the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis as "criminals and thugs."

But Trump's impromptu remarks at a Tuesday press conference — originally intended to focus on infrastructure — represented a strong swing back to his original position, which suggested equivalency between white supremacist groups and the "alt-right," on one hand, and the groups that opposed them, like Black Lives Matter and leftist anti-fascist protesters, on the other.

Leadership from both parties in the House of Representatives also joined the growing debate over Confederate statues.

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called Thursday for Confederate statues to be removed from the halls of the Capitol building.

"If Republicans are serious about rejecting white supremacy, I call upon Speaker Ryan to join Democrats to remove the Confederate statues from the Capitol immediately," the California Democrat said, in a statement. "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."

The people portrayed in the statues in question are selected by the states. Each state government gets to pick two statues.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said the decision to rid the Capitol of Confederate heroes would be a decision "for those states to make," according to a statement from his spokesman provided to Bloomberg.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who has sometimes been a critic of the president, said in a series of tweets Thursday that Trump needs to act in a manner that doesn't garner praise from racist and hate-filled groups.

"History is watching us all," Graham said, responding to a dig Trump had made at him on Twitter Thursday morning.

Political journalist Ryan Lizza was even more pointed in his reaction, tweeting that Trump had effectively made himself the chief executive of "the Confederate States of America."

Around half of Americans — 52 percent — believe the president's response to the violence in Charlottesville was "not strong enough," according to an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll released Wednesday. Only 27 percent said it was strong enough (the remainder were unsure).

Those views shift heavily by party — a majority of Republicans, 59 percent, say the president's response was strong enough (compared with 10 percent of Democrats). Meanwhile, an overwhelming majority of Democrats — 79 percent — believe the response was not strong enough (compared with 19 percent of Republicans).

However, more than 60 percent of Americans also believe that statues honoring the Confederacy should "remain as a historical symbol," according to that NPR/ PBS NewsHour/Marist poll. And while there is also a partisan divide here, a sizable share of Democrats, 44 percent, believe those statues should remain (along with 86 percent of Republicans and 61 percent of independents).

Debate over removal of Confederate memorials has spread nationwide in recent years, and especially in recent days.

Officials in Lexington, Ky., are bracing for protests as that city moves forward in the process to remove two Confederate statues from its old courthouse. The mayor of Baltimore had three statues removed hastily, in the dead of night, earlier this week. And in Durham, N.C., a group of demonstrators took matters into their own hands to remove a Confederate memorial.

In Alabama, the state Attorney General's Office has filed a lawsuit against the city of Birmingham and Mayor William Bell for covering a Confederate monument in a park.

Speaking about a controversy surrounding the bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general who was also an early KKK leader, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said the bust belonged in a museum rather than in the state capitol where it is currently displayed.

"We want to keep our history. We don't want to wash away our history, but let's put it in a museum," Corker said Thursday. "And let's have the type of people at public buildings where we go to discuss aspiration things, let's have aspirational figures. Let's have people there who have brought out the best in our nation."

While defenders say that such memorials simply represent a part of the nation's history, the monuments and statues are for many Americans a reminder of the nation's painful history of slavery and the people who fought to defend it.

In a widely circulated May speech on his city's removal of four statues commemorating the Confederacy, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, a Democrat, explained why he believed that removing the memorials was necessary.

"These statues are not just stone and metal," he said. "They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Danielle Kurtzleben is a political reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.
Miles Parks is a reporter on NPR's Washington Desk. He covers election interference and voting infrastructure and reports on breaking news.
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