Trump defends Confederate statues, berates his critics

President Donald Trump speaks to the media in the lobby of Trump Tower, Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2017 in New York. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

BRIDGEWATER, N.J. (AP) — With prominent Republicans openly questioning his competence and moral leadership, President Donald Trump burrowed deeper into the racially charged debate over Confederate memorials and lashed out at members of his own party in the latest controversy to engulf his presidency.

Out of sight but still online, Trump tweeted his defense of monuments to Confederate icons — bemoaning rising efforts to remove them as an attack on America’s “history and culture.”

And he berated his critics who, with increasingly sharper language, have denounced his initially slow and then ultimately combative comments on the racial violence at a white supremacist rally last weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Trump was much quicker Thursday to condemn violence in Barcelona, where more than a dozen people were killed when a van veered onto a sidewalk and sped down a busy pedestrian zone in what authorities called a terror attack.

He then added to his expression of support by reviving a debunked legend about a U.S. general subduing Muslim rebels a century ago in the Philippines by shooting them with bullets dipped in pig blood.

“Study what General Pershing of the United States did to terrorists when caught. There was no more Radical Islamic Terror for 35 years!” Trump tweeted.

Trump’s unpredictable, defiant and, critics claim, racially provocative behavior has clearly begun to wear on his Republican allies — and also has upset the mother of Heather Heyer, the young woman killed in the Charlottesville violence.

Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, told ABC’s “Good Morning America” on Friday that she initially missed the first few calls to her from the White House. But she said “now I will not” talk to the president after a news conference in which Trump equated violence by white supremacists at the rally with violence by those protesting the rally.

Heyer was killed when a driver rammed a car into a crowd of demonstrators protesting the white nationalists.

Trump found no comfort in his own party, either. Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, whom Trump had considered for a Cabinet post, declared Thursday that “the president has not yet been able to demonstrate the stability nor some of the competence that he needs to” in dealing with crises. And Sen. Dan Sullivan of Alaska tweeted, “Anything less than complete & unambiguous condemnation of white supremacists, neo-Nazis and the KKK by the @POTUS is unacceptable. Period.”

Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina said Trump’s “moral authority is compromised.”

Trump, who is known to try to change the focus of news coverage with an attention-grabbing declaration, sought to shift Thursday from the white supremacists to the future of statues.

“You can’t change history, but you can learn from it,” he 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!”

“Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments,” he tweeted.

Trump met separately Thursday at his golf club in nearby Bedminster with the administrator of the Small Business Administration and Florida Gov. Rick Scott. Trump also prepared for an unusual meeting Friday at the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland with his national security team to discuss strategy for South Asia, including India, Pakistan and the way forward in Afghanistan.

Vice President Mike Pence cut short a long-planned Latin America tour to attend.

Before the trip to Camp David, Trump tweeted Friday morning that “Radical Islamic Terrorism must be stopped by whatever means necessary!” In a separate tweet, he added that the Department of Homeland Security and law enforcement are “on alert & closely watching for any sign of trouble.”

Though out of public view for two consecutive days, Trump sought to make his voice heard on Twitter as he found himself increasingly under siege and alone while fanning the controversy over race and politics toward a full-fledged national conflagration.

He dissolved two business councils Wednesday after the CEO members began quitting, damaging his central campaign promise to be a business-savvy chief executive in the Oval Office.

And the White House said Thursday that it was abandoning plans to form an infrastructure advisory council.

Two major charities, the Cleveland Clinic and the American Cancer Society, announced they are canceling fundraisers scheduled for Trump’s resort in Palm Beach, Florida, amid the continuing backlash over Trump’s remarks.

And the CEO of 21st Century Fox, James Murdoch, has denounced racism and terrorists while expressing concern over Trump’s statements.

Murdoch writes that the event in Charlottesville and Trump’s response is a concern for all people. “I can’t believe I have to write this: standing up to Nazis is essential; there are no good Nazis. Or Klansmen, or terrorists.”

Murdoch is the son of the company’s co-executive chairman, Rupert Murdoch, a Trump confidant.

Meanwhile, rumblings of discontent from Trump’s staff grew so loud that the White House was forced to release a statement saying that Trump’s chief economic adviser wasn’t quitting. And the president remained on the receiving end of bipartisan criticism for his handling of the aftermath of the Charlottesville clashes.

On Thursday, he hit back hard — against Republicans.

He accused “publicity-seeking” Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina of falsely stating Trump’s position on the demonstrators. He called Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake “toxic” and praised Flake’s potential primary election opponent.

Graham said Wednesday that Trump “took a step backward by again suggesting there is moral equivalency” between the marching white supremacists and the people who had been demonstrating against them. Flake has been increasingly critical of Trump in recent weeks.

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Lemire reported from New York. Associated Press writer Julie Bykowicz in Washington contributed to this report.