WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Donald Trump on Tuesday pledged to take a hard line on anyone destroying or vandalizing U.S. historical monuments and threatened to use force on some protesters, as political activism against racial injustice sweeps the country and threatens his re-election chances.
“They’re not taking down our monuments,” Trump told reporters at the White House. “I will have an executive order very shortly and all it’s going to really do is reinforce what’s already there, but in a more uniform way.”
Trump also on Tuesday announced via Twitter an authorization “effective immediately” to arrest anyone caught hurting a commemoration to an armed services member on federal land, even though the government already had that power under the 2003 Veterans Memorial Act.
Many statues and monuments targeted by crowds in recent weeks pay homage to the rebel Confederacy from the nation’s Civil War and are seen as tributes to those who perpetuated slavery. The calls for their removal, along with massive Black Lives Matter protests earlier this month and local governments reforming police forces, were sparked by the May 25 death of George Floyd, a Black man killed in police custody.
Trump has been out of step with most of the country, blasting the protests even though a majority of Americans sympathize with them. At his Saturday rally in Oklahoma he said an “unhinged left-wing mob” wants to “desecrate” what he described as “beautiful monuments.”
Mixed with his rocky response to the coronavirus that has killed more than 120,000 Americans, the disconnect has put Trump behind former Vice President Joe Biden, his presumptive challenger in the Nov. 3 election, in opinion polls.
Late on Monday protesters tried to topple a statue of former President Andrew Jackson facing the White House, scrawling “killer scum” on the base and pulling at ropes around the figure of Jackson on a horse. Police in riot gear drove the crowd back and formed a protective ring around the statue.
Trump told reporters “numerous people” were in jail for the attempt and the government is “looking at long-term sentences.”
Jackson, a onetime Army general, enslaved Black people as a plantation owner and is remembered for the Trail of Tears, a forced removal of Native Americans from the South that killed thousands.
Trump also wrote on Twitter he was ready to use force on protesters. Earlier in the month he called in the National Guard and federal law enforcement to crack down on demonstrations near the White House, including using pepper spray and “flash bang” stun grenades to disperse peaceful protesters in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church.
Protesters on Monday declared a “Black House Autonomous Zone” - referencing a Seattle area known as the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone - near the church, taking over Black Lives Matter Plaza. Police cleared the area on Tuesday and physically blocked access.
“There will never be an ‘Autonomous Zone’ in Washington, D.C., as long as I’m your President,” Trump tweeted. “If they try they will be met with serious force!”
Additional reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Andrew Heavens, Steve Orlofsky and Jonathan Oatis