WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump on Thursday condemned the "foolish" removal of Confederate statues whose preservation has become a rallying cry for white supremacists, saying US culture and history were being "ripped apart."
Shrugging off a barrage of bipartisan criticism, Trump waded back into the charged racial debate over monuments to the pro-slavery Civil War South with a volley of early morning tweets.
"Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments," Trump said.
Trump has come under fire from Republicans and Democrats alike for insisting that anti-racism protesters were equally to blame for violence last weekend at a rally staged by neo-Nazis and white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the planned removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee.
A 32-year-old woman was killed and 19 other people injured when an Ohio man suspected of being a white nationalist drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters.
Trump -- who rose to political prominence by casting doubt on whether Barack Obama, America's first black president, was born in the United States -- has been deluged with demands to unambiguously disavow white hate groups, whose members have been emboldened by his election.
Trump did condemn neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan on several occasions this week but many say he did not go far enough. He has earned rebukes from across the political spectrum, even from former presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush.
Please fix this
World leaders also criticized Trump's response and the president was forced to scrap two White House economic advisory councils on Wednesday as top businessmen began abandoning him in protest.
Confederate statues in cities across America are being taken down: pic.twitter.com/pWfWKUwH6f— AJ+ (@ajplus) August 17, 2017
"Because of the manner in which you have handled the Charlottesville tragedy you are now receiving praise from some of the most racist and hate-filled individuals in our country," Senator Lindsey Graham said Thursday.
"For the sake of our Nation -- as our President -- please fix this," said the Republican senator from South Carolina, which was the first southern state to secede from the Union in 1861.
With moves to dismantle Confederate monuments gaining momentum, Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader in the House of Representatives, called for Confederate statues to be removed from the US Capitol.
"The Confederate statues in the halls of Congress have always been reprehensible," Pelosi said.
"There is no room for celebrating the violent bigotry of the men of the Confederacy in the hallowed halls of the United States Capitol."
Trump made it clear though on Thursday that he opposed such a move.
"You can't change history, but you can learn from it. Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson - who's next, Washington, Jefferson? So foolish!" Trump said.
"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!"
Lee commanded the Army of Northern Virginia and General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson was one of his top lieutenants, while George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were among the Founding Fathers of the United States.
Trump hits critics, media
Trump's chief strategist, Steve Bannon, told The New York Times meanwhile that he believed the president's views were shared by many Americans.
"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.
"The race-identity politics of the left wants to say it's all racist," Bannon said. "Just give me more. Tear down more statues. Say the revolution is coming. I can't get enough of it."
A poll released Thursday would appear to support the view that many Americans oppose removing the monuments to the Confederacy.
The NPR/PBS/NewsHour/Marist poll of 1,125 adults asked whether Confederate statues should remain as a historical symbol or be removed because they offend some people.
Sixty-two percent said they should remain while 27 percent said they should be taken down.
Trump on Thursday also lashed out at Graham and accused the media of distorting his views.
"The public is learning (even more so) how dishonest the Fake News is," he said. "They totally misrepresent what I say about hate, bigotry. etc. Shame!"
"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 added.
Heather Heyer, 32, was the woman killed by the suspected white nationalist in Charlottesville.
In a report published in April 2016, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) -- a civil rights advocacy group -- found that more than 1,500 symbols of the Confederacy are located on US public lands, mostly in the South.
According to historians and the SPLC report, most Confederate monuments were erected during the Jim Crow era of racial segregation and in response to the civil rights movement.
Defenders of preserving the Confederate symbols argue that they serve as a reminder of a proud Southern heritage, and that removing them is effectively a way of erasing history.