WASHINGTON — Under fire for defending racist activist groups, President Donald Trump said on Twitter on Thursday that he was “sad” to see United States’ history torn apart by the removal of “our beautiful statues and monuments,” echoing a popular refrain of white supremacist groups that oppose the removal of Confederate monuments.
Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments. You.....— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 17, 2017
...can't change history, but you can learn from it. Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson - who's next, Washington, Jefferson? So foolish! Also...— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 17, 2017
...the beauty that is being taken out of our cities, towns and parks will be greatly missed and never able to be comparably replaced!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 17, 2017
Officials in several states have called for the removal of public monuments that have become symbols of the Confederacy.
The Twitter posts were the latest in his escalating remarks that critics contend validates white supremacist groups who led a bloody rally over the weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia. The proposed removal of a statute of the Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from a public park in Charlottesville spurred the demonstrations.
Trump’s comments on the Confederate monuments Thursday appeared to shift attention away from his remarks that “both sides” were to blame for the violence in Charlottesville, and instead focus the debate on the historical argument to keep the statues in place.
Many people who do not identify as white supremacists support keeping the monuments as a connection to their history and heritage.
A NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll on Monday and Tuesday of 1,125 adults showed 86 percent of the Republicans surveyed thought Confederate statues should remain in place as a symbol of history.
Trump’s tweets came the morning after his personal lawyer forwarded an email to conservative journalists, government officials and friends that painted Lee in glowing terms and echoed secessionist sentiment from the Civil War era.
On Saturday, the day of the protests, Trump did not condemn neo-Nazis or white supremacists in his public remarks about the violence, prompting criticism that his omission suggested support for the racist groups. An Ohio man with white supremacist ties is accused of driving his car into a crowd, killing one woman and injuring 19 other people.
Two days later, Trump bowed to pressure and said racism was “evil” and named racist organizations in his follow-up remarks about Charlottesville. But on Tuesday, Trump reverted to his initial public posture and blamed “both sides” for the violence.
Trump said many of those who opposed the statue’s removal were good people protesting the loss of their culture, and he questioned whether taking down statues of Lee could lead to monuments of George Washington also being removed.
Most of the statues were erected in the 1890s, as Jim Crow laws were being established, and in the 1950s, during a period of Southern resistance to the civil rights movement.
Some in favor of keeping the statues argue that the interpretation of the monuments could be revised to teach future generations about white privilege. But practically, that is unrealistic, said W. Fitzhugh Brundage, a history professor at the University of North Carolina. Brundage said it would be expensive to add explanatory plaques next to the Confederate monuments, and that may not be a prominent enough display of the reinterpretation.
To those who argue that the statues are not about hate but heritage, Brundage said relocating them to a museum would not erase the heritage.
“You’re not erasing history,” Brundage said. “You’re just transforming a landscape so that you can make it one you’re comfortable living in.”
Corey Stewart, a Republican who has said he plans to run against Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., in 2018, defended Trump on Thursday.
“The president is absolutely right,” Stewart, who was Trump’s campaign chairman in Virginia, said on CNN. “After they get done removing statues to Confederate generals because, arguably, they fought to preserve the institution of slavery, they are going right after slave owners, including the founders — Jefferson, Madison, Washington — and when you undermine the founding fathers, you undermine the founding documents, namely the Constitution of the United States.”