— -- At Tuesday's combative press conference in Trump Tower, President Donald Trump questioned the removal of statues of Confederate leaders, but at the start of his presidential campaign, Trump publicly expressed his approval of South Carolina's decision to remove the Confederate battle flag from the State Capitol.
“I would take it down, yes,” said Trump in June 2015 at his first news conference following the declaration of his presidential candidacy. “I think they should put it in the museum... respect whatever it is you have to respect because it was a point in time.”
The long-running debate over whether the Confederate flag should be flown over the South Carolina State House arose again after nine people were fatally shot in the historically black Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in a racially charged killing.
Then-South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who is now serving in Trump’s Cabinet as the United States’ ambassador to the United Nations, ultimately decided to order the removal of the flag on July 9, 2015.
Trump argued Tuesday that taking down the statue of Robert E. Lee, a civil war general who fought to keep slavery intact, would be “changing history.” A protest of the monument's removal spurred the white nationalist rally that ultimately turned violent Saturday.
“You’re changing culture,” Trump said during the news conference at Trump Tower Tuesday.
Asked whether statues of Lee should remain in place in the U.S., the president said the situation was one that should be handled on a case-by-case basis, depending on the location of the monument.
"I would say that's up to a local town, community, or the federal government, depending on where it is located," he said.
Trump then characterized removing Confederate memorials as a slippery slope, equating Lee to American Founding Fathers George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who both owned slaves.
“George Washington was a slave owner…. So will George Washington now lose his status? ... Are we going to take down statues to George Washington?” Trump wondered.
“How about Thomas Jefferson?” Trump asked. “... Because he was a major slave owner. Now, are we going to take down his statue?”
Trump later added, “So, this week it’s Robert E. Lee, I notice that Stonewall Jackson is coming down, I wonder is it George Washington next week? Is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You have to ask yourself, where does it stop?”