WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) – President Donald Trump has signed an executive order that he says is intended to protect monuments and statues from “anarchists and left-wing extremists”.
“My administration will not allow violent mobs incited by a radical fringe to become the arbiters of the aspects of our history that can be celebrated in public spaces,” Mr Trump said in the order, which was released by the White House on Friday (June 26) night.
He added that “any person or any entity that destroys, damages, vandalises, or desecrates a monument, memorial, or statue within the United States or otherwise vandalises government property” would face prosecution to the fullest extent of the law.
The order calls on the Justice Department to make a priority of those cases and instructs US agencies to possibly withhold money from cities and states that did not protect memorials from “destruction of vandalism”.
The order cited the toppling of a statue of president Ulysses S. Grant in San Francisco as an example of the “violent extremists’ campaign against our country”, but didn’t say that many of the monuments singled out by protesters in the wake of the death of Mr George Floyd had been of Confederate leaders.
Mr Floyd, a black Minneapolis man who died in police custody, as well as the demands for racial justice since his death were also not mentioned.
The order also calls for charges involving damage to “depictions of Jesus or other religious figures or religious art work”.
The document and an accompanying White House press release echo rhetoric and comments Mr Trump has made as the protests unfolded – and as he faces an increasingly difficult campaign for re-election.
Mr Trump had warned of a law enforcement response earlier this week after protesters tried to pull down an equestrian statue of Andrew Jackson, a president whom Mr Trump admires, in Lafayette Park near the White House.
“I have authorised the federal government to arrest anyone who vandalises or destroys any monument, statue or other such federal property in the US with up to 10 years in prison, per the Veteran’s Memorial Preservation Act, or such other laws that may be pertinent,” Mr Trump tweeted on Tuesday morning.
In an interview with Fox News broadcast on Tuesday, the president said he was worried that the campaigns around the country to remove statues would lead Americans to forget the “heritage” and “culture” of the nation.
On Juneteenth, demonstrators tore down a statue of Albert Pike, a Confederate general, in Washington’s Judiciary Square neighbourhood. In Richmond, Virginia’s capital, statues honouring military leaders of the Confederacy on the city’s iconic Monument Avenue have been vandalised.
“Some of the things they are trying to destroy are magnificent pieces of art,” Mr Trump said.
NBC News reported that Mr Trump asked Interior Secretary David Bernhardt to restore the statue of Pike.
Mr Bernhardt branded the protesters as “criminals” and “anarchists”, saying in a statement he was thankful for police officers “who stand tall against these coordinated attacks and seek peace and justice for all”.