WASHINGTON — The removal of Confederate statues amounts to the “history and culture of our great country being ripped apart,” President Donald Trump said Thursday while also striking back at fellow Republicans who criticized his handling of the Charlottesville, Virginia, clashes.
He defended “our beautiful statues and monuments” and said plans to take them down are a slippery slope.
“You can’t change history, but you can learn from it. Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson — who’s next, Washington, Jefferson?” he tweeted. “So foolish!”
Large numbers of white supremacists gathered last weekend in Charlottesville to protest the city’s plan to eventually remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Many brawled with counterprotesters in violent unrest.
Heather Heyer, 32, was killed Saturday when a car rammed into counterprotesters. The driver, a 20-year-old Ohio man described as an admirer of Adolf Hitler, was charged with murder and other offenses.
Trump said Tuesday that “both sides” should bear blame for the clashes and that “very fine people” could be found in either group.
It was a return to his initial statement Saturday that many sides were at fault, although he explicitly denounced white supremacists, the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis on Monday.
Republicans including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky; former presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush; and Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina; and John McCain of Arizona, issued unequivocal denunciations of racial bigotry.
U.S. military leaders and members of Trump business advisory groups echoed the sentiments.
On Thursday, Trump singled out Graham, who ran unsuccessfully against Trump in the Republican presidential primaries last year, saying he would pay at the polls for opposing him.
“Publicity seeking Lindsey Graham falsely stated that I said there is moral equivalency between the KKK, neo-Nazis & white supremacists and people like Ms. Heyer,” Trump posted on Twitter. “Such a disgusting lie. He just can’t forget his election trouncing. The people of South Carolina will remember!”
Trump had yet to call Heyer’s family to express his condolences and was trying to find a time convenient for them, White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters said Thursday afternoon.
Graham stood his ground, noting, “You are now receiving praise from some of the most racist and hate-filled individuals and groups in our country.”
Graham continued: “For the sake of our Nation — as our President — please fix this. History is watching us all.”
White supremacist figures, including Richard Spencer and David Duke, have said they feel vindicated by Trump’s condemnation of violence on other sides. They also reject efforts to remove Confederate monuments.
Trump then made clear to Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) that he is supporting his challenger in the GOP primary.
Flake wrote a book discussing Trump’s impact on the conservative movement and also criticized Trump for equivocating in condemning white supremacy.
“Great to see that Dr. Kelli Ward is running against Flake Jeff Flake, who is WEAK on borders, crime and a non-factor in Senate. He’s toxic!” Trump tweeted.
But other Republicans criticized Trump Thursday.
“The President has not yet been able to demonstrate the stability nor some of the competence that he needs to be successful,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) told reporters in his home state, according to video from local news website Nooga.com.
Separately, Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) blamed White House chief strategist Steve Bannon for leading Trump in the wrong direction. King tweeted a reference to an interview that Bannon gave to The American Prospect.
“How long can Trump Administration survive Bannon using race as political issue and undermining @POTUS and Cabinet on N Korea?” King posted.