Trump fans the flames with Confederate defense

President Trump on Thursday fanned the flames of a controversy engulfing his administration, expressing his disgust at the national movement to take down statues honoring Confederate soldiers and politicians.

In a string of early morning tweets, Trump went even further than he did during his turbulent press conference on Tuesday, when he claimed some demonstrators in Virginia were “fine people” upset at Charlottesville’s decision to pull down a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and that there was “blame on both sides” for an attack that left one dead and 19 injured. 

“You can't change history, but you can learn from it,” Trump tweeted. “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!” 

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In doubling down, Trump appeared to embrace the thinking of his chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, who suggested in an interview this week that the president would “crush the Democrats” as long as “they stay focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism.”

Polls suggest that shifting the focus onto the debate over Confederate landmarks — and away from the violence in Charlottesville — could play to the president’s base.

Republican voters overwhelmingly support preserving memorials to the Confederacy, with 86 percent in an NPR/PBS News Hour/Marist poll this week saying Confederate statues should “remain as a historical symbol.” Overall, six in 10 votes said the same.

Yet Trump continued to take fire Thursday from Republicans for his comments about the violence at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville.

The White House saw the focus shift away from Trump's comments on Thursday afternoon after a car drove into a crowd in Barcelona, Spain, in a terrorist attack that killed at least 12 and injured dozens more. Cable news channels, which had covered Charlottesville nonstop since a rally Friday evening, quickly shifted their coverage to Spain.

But the debate over whether to keep Confederate monuments seems poised to continue — especially if the president decides to keep pressing the issue. 

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Two days ago, the president said the decision to tear down a statue should be "up to a local town, community or the federal government, depending on where it is located." 

Statements like that could help bolster Trump’s standing with his core supporters.

“President Trump, by asking, ‘Where does this all end’ — Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln — connects with the American people about their history, culture and traditions,” Bannon said in an interview with The New York Times.

“The race-identity politics of the left wants to say it’s all racist. Just give me more. Tear down more statues. Say the revolution is coming. I can’t get enough of it,” he added.  

But while Trump is now focused on historical monuments, Republican lawmakers aren’t ready to move past his controversial remarks about Charlottesville. Some say the president is heading down a dangerous path and want him to change course.

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamThe Hill's Campaign Report: Trump's visit to battleground Ohio overshadowed by coronavirus New polls show tight races for Graham, McConnell Yates spars with GOP at testy hearing MORE (R-S.C.) said that Trump is “receiving praise from some of the most racist and hate-filled individuals and groups in our country” and urged him to “please fix this” because “history is watching us all.”

Before that statement, Trump had assailed Graham in a tweet, accusing the “publicity seeking” senator of misstating his views.

Sen. Tim ScottTimothy (Tim) Eugene ScottLobbyists see wins, losses in GOP coronavirus bill Revered civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis lies in state in the Capitol GOP plan would boost deduction for business meals MORE (S.C.), the only African-American Republican in the Senate, warned that Trump’s ability to lead had been compromised by his response to Charlottesville.

"What we want to see from our president is clarity and moral authority," Scott told Vice News. "And that moral authority is compromised when Tuesday happened. There’s no question about that.” 

Trump’s latest comments about the Confederate memorials could prove reassuring to Bannon, who had been seen as in danger of losing his job. Democrats this week have renewed their campaign for Bannon’s firing, calling him a supporter of the “alt-right” groups that rallied in Charlottesville.

Bannon in an interview with the liberal American Prospect dismissed the white nationalists at the rally as “clowns” and “losers.”

Yet even some voices in the GOP are expressing anxiety about the White House’s direction.

"I do think there need to be some radical changes. The president has not yet ... been able to demonstrate the stability, nor some of the competence that he needs to demonstrate in order to be successful, and we need for him to be successful," Sen. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerTennessee primary battle turns nasty for Republicans Cheney clashes with Trump Sessions-Tuberville Senate runoff heats up in Alabama MORE (R-Tenn.), who has worked closely with Trump in the White House, told reporters in Tennessee.

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Trump’s fights on race and culture have irked Republicans who believe he should focus on the economy in order to get his stalled agenda back on track in Congress. 

The president's unruly, impromptu news conference Tuesday at Trump Tower drowned out an event that was supposed to promote his plan to speed up the approval process for road, bridge and railway projects.

David Winston, a veteran Republican pollster, said Trump’s presidency will ultimately be judged on whether he boosts jobs and sparks wage growth.

“That’s what Tuesday’s press conference was in theory supposed to be about before he went in another direction,” he said. “If those numbers improve, he’ll go up, but he needs to stay focused on that.”

Jonathan Easley contributed.