WASHINGTON – Rekindling the firestorm over deadly violence in Charlottesville, President Trump on Thursday blasted two critical GOP senators and defended Confederate monuments – a new flashpoint in the debate over how to bridge the nation's racial divide.
"You can't change history, but you can learn from it," he said during a flurry of tweets protesting statue and monument removal. "Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson - who's next, Washington, Jefferson? So foolish!"
The white supremacists who gathered at the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville last weekend said they were there to protest the city's plans to remove a Robert E. Lee statue.
Trump is still facing a political firestorm for doubling down on Tuesday on his claims that "both sides" were at fault for the violence last weekend in Charlottesville, even after one alleged white nationalist was charged with murder after ramming his car into a crowd of protesters, killing a 32-year-old Heather Heyer.
The clashes have energized local movements to remove Confederate statues from public areas across the. country, who insist the monuments celebrate the Civil War defense of slavery and are a lasting symbol of white supremacy. Baltimore removed several Confederate statues from public areas early Wednesday. Another state at the center of the drive is Kentucky.
Trump contradicted his statement earlier this week that decisions should be left to the "local town, community or the federal government" that put up the monuments in the first place, by tweeting that "the beauty that is being taken out of our cities, towns and parks will be greatly missed and never able to be comparably replaced!"
It drew swift criticism on Twitter. "Should we honor John Wilkes Booth, the Kent State Guardsmen who shot students?" said ABC News political analyst Matthew Dowd. "Some times parts of our history don't deserve praise or honor."
Trump's response to Charlottesville has deepened divisions within the Republican party. Earlier Thursday, Trump attacked two sitting Republican senators who have criticized his response to the Charlottesville attack – and whose support he needs to get his agenda through Congress.
First, Trump went after Sen. Lindsey Graham, saying the South Carolinian falsely accused him of offering "moral equivalency" between the KKK, neo-Nazis, and and other white supremacist groups who counter-protested the hate groups.
"Such a disgusting lie," Trump tweeted. "He just can't forget his election trouncing. The people of South Carolina will remember!"
...and people like Ms. Heyer. Such a disgusting lie. He just can't forget his election trouncing.The people of South Carolina will remember!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 17, 2017
Trump made a more explicit threat to back a primary challenger for Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, praising the latter's Republican primary opponent, who has expressed support for the president.
"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," Trump tweeted. "He's toxic!"
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!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 17, 2017
Flake has also written a book criticizing Trump, saying his views and behavior are undercutting the Republican Party and its conservative philosophy.
Sen. John McCain came to the defense of his Arizona colleague Thursday morning saying Flake was a "principled legislator" who always does what's right for his state.
In a raucous press conference on Tuesday, Trump said that left wing groups were just as violent as white supremacists and declined to say whether one was worse than the other. "You had a group on one side that was bad and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent," Trump said. "And nobody wants to say that. But I’ll say it right now."
Many Republican lawmakers – including Graham and Flake – have distanced themselves from Trump's remarks, pointing out that white supremacist groups came armed with guns, torches, and Nazi flags, chanting racist and anti-Jewish slogans.
After Trump's remarks, Flake said there were no excuses for white supremacy.
We can't accept excuses for white supremacy & acts of domestic terrorism. We must condemn. Period.— Jeff Flake (@JeffFlake) August 15, 2017
We can’t claim to be the party of Lincoln if we equivocate in condemning white supremacy— Jeff Flake (@JeffFlake) August 16, 2017
In a statement to CNN, Graham cited Heyer and her mother as among those who opposed the white supremacist march.
"Through his statements yesterday, President Trump took a step backward by again suggesting there is moral equivalency between the white supremacist neo-Nazis and KKK members who attended the Charlottesville rally and people like Ms. Heyer," Graham said.
Graham has also been a frequent critic of Trump. While Graham did mount a presidential campaign in 2016, he dropped out well before the South Carolina primary that Trump won.
If the president now wants to back a primary challenger to Graham, he will have to wait: The South Carolina senator isn't up again until 2020.
Trump, who also said this week that "racism is evil" and condemned the KKK and neo-Nazis, also attacked news coverage during his tweet storm.
"The public is learning (even more so) how dishonest the Fake News is," the president tweeted. "They totally misrepresent what I say about hate, bigotry etc. Shame!"
To this, Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Katherine Clark noted cable news carried the remarks live.
The networks broadcast your comments live. Americans heard your disgusting comments directly from your own mouth. https://t.co/rdrNyUB5zl— Katherine Clark (@RepKClark) August 17, 2017