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President Donald Trump pauses during a statement on the deadly protests in Charlottesville, at the White House in Washington. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst(reuters_tickers)
By Steve Holland and Susan Heavey
BRIDGEWATER, N.J./WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Donald Trump decried on Thursday the removal of monuments to the pro-slavery Civil War Confederacy, echoing white nationalists and drawing stinging rebukes from fellow Republicans in a controversy that has inflamed racial tensions.
Trump has alienated Republicans, corporate leaders and U.S. allies, rattled markets and prompted speculation about possible White House resignations with his comments since Saturday's violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, which came in the aftermath of a white nationalist protest against the removal of a Confederate statue.
Republican Senator Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, questioned Trump's capacity to govern.
"The president has not yet been able to demonstrate the ability or the competence that he needs to be successful," said Corker, who Trump had considered for the job of secretary of state. Corker said Trump needed to make "radical changes."
Trump unleashed attacks on two Republican U.S. senators, Jeff Flake and Lindsey Graham, in a series of Twitter posts on Thursday, raising fresh doubts about his ability to work with lawmakers in his own party to win passage of his legislative agenda, which includes tax cuts and infrastructure spending.
He took aim at the removal or consideration for removal of Confederate statues and monuments in a long list of cities in California, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, New York, North Carolina, Massachusetts, Missouri, Montana, Tennessee, Virginia, and Texas, as well as Washington, D.C.
"Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments. You can't change history, but you can learn from it," Trump wrote on Twitter, refusing to move past the controversy.
"Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson - who's next, Washington, Jefferson? So foolish!" Trump said. He was referring to two Confederate generals in the Civil War that ended in 1865, and to early U.S. presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who owned slaves but whose legacies are overwhelmingly honoured.
Opponents call the statues a festering symbol of racism, while supporters say they honour American history. Some of the monuments have become rallying points for white nationalists but also have the support of some people interested in historical preservation.
Trump also denied he had spoken of "moral equivalency" between white supremacists, neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members who clashed with anti-racism activists in Charlottesville.
U.S. stocks suffered their biggest drop in three months on Thursday as the turmoil surrounding the White House sapped investor confidence that Trump's ambitious economic agenda would become reality. Equity index futures fell a bit further after the close of regular trading, with S&P 500 emini futures <ESv1> heading into the overnight trading session about 2 points lower.
The U.S. stock market has not followed a 1 percent-down day with a second straight day of losses since Trump was elected in November, so Friday’s session is being watched as a significant test of the market’s resilience.
Amid the controversy, the White House knocked down rumours that Trump economic adviser Gary Cohn might resign. An official said Cohn "intends to remain in his position" as National Economic Council director at the White House.
Trump announced the disbanding of two high-profile business advisory councils on Wednesday after the resignation of several corporate executives over his Charlottesville remarks. On Thursday, a White House official said Trump had dropped plans for an advisory council on infrastructure.
In another indication of businesses not wanting to be associated with the president, the world-renowned Cleveland Clinic cancelled a planned 2018 Florida fundraiser at Trump's Mar-a-Lago Florida resort, where it had held such events for seven straight years. Spokeswoman Eileen Sheil said the Cleveland Clinic considered "a variety of factors" in deciding to cancel an event that typically generates $1 million a year.
The clinic's chief executive, Toby Cosgrove, was a member of a one of the two councils that disbanded on Wednesday.
James Murdoch, chairman of Twenty-First Century Fox Inc <FOXA.O> and son of media mogul Rupert Murdoch, slammed Trump’s response to Charlottesville in an email to friends and pledged to donate $1 million to the Anti-Defamation League, the New York Times reported.
James Murdoch wrote that Trump’s comments should "concern all of us as Americans and free people," the Times said. Twenty-First Century Fox owns Fox News Channel, a favourite with Trump and his conservative supporters.
The Charlottesville violence erupted when white nationalists marched to protest against the planned removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. A 32-year-old woman, Heather Heyer, was killed when a man described as a white nationalist crashed his car into the counter-protesters.
Trump has blamed the Charlottesville violence on not just the white nationalist rally organizers but also the counter-protesters, and said there were "very fine people" among both groups. He also expressed distaste for removing Confederate statues in a heated news conference on Tuesday.
After Trump blasted Graham on Twitter, the senator who was one of Trump's rivals for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination fired back.
"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 and groups in our country. For the sake of our Nation - as our President - please fix this," Graham said. "History is watching us all."
Another Republican senator, Dan Sullivan, also said on Twitter: "Anything less than complete & unambiguous condemnation of white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and the KKK by (Trump) is unacceptable. Period."
Graham had said on Wednesday Trump's remarks at his news conference the day before had suggested "moral equivalency" between the white nationalists and anti-racism demonstrators and called on the president to use his words to heal Americans.
"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. Such a disgusting lie. He just can't forget his election trouncing. The people of South Carolina will remember!" Trump wrote.
In a separate tweet, Trump called Flake "WEAK on borders, crime and a non-factor in Senate. He's toxic!" and appeared to endorse Kelli Ward, Flake's Republican challenger in his 2018 re-election race.
Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives, called for the immediate removal of Confederate statues from the U.S. Capitol. U.S. Senator Cory Booker, also a Democrat, said he would introduce legislation so that could be done.
"There is no room for celebrating the violent bigotry of the men of the Confederacy in the hallowed halls of the United States Capitol or in places of honour across the country," Pelosi said in a statement.
A spokesman for Republican U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan said it was up to U.S. states to determine which statues were displayed on their behalf in the Capitol building.
(Reporting by Steve Holland and Susan Heavey; Additional reporting by Makini Brice, Richard Cowan, Caroline Valetkevitch, Deena Beasley and Gina Cherelus; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Francis Kerry, Howard Goller, Grant McCool and Paul Tait)