President Trump and Republican allies are seizing on the defense of monuments and statues as a campaign strategy aimed at portraying Democrats as tolerating “mob rule,” even hoping that the issue of lawlessness and crime in cities across the U.S. will serve as a wedge between Black voters and the Democratic Party.
Speaking about the movement to pull down statues of historical figures in numerous cities, including Washington, the president on Wednesday vowed, “It’s not going to happen, not as long as I’m here.”
He added. “As far as Democrats are concerned, I think they could care less whether or not it happens.”
Republican attorney general candidates nationwide are joining the president in a campaign chorus demanding that Democratic governors and mayors restore law and order after the looting, destruction and violent protests over racial justice and police brutality.
In Washington, a showdown was looming between the administration and protesters who were vowing to tear down a statue near the Capitol of Lincoln emancipating slaves.
Republican operatives say the strategy favors the president in his battle with presumed Democratic nominee Joseph R. Biden after turbulent months with COVID-19 and economic shutdowns.
“The longer this goes on, the better off Trump is in terms of his campaign prospects,” said Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. “People won’t stomach property destruction, defacing property and arson for a long period of time.”
He said drawing a red line on monuments “could be a really powerful issue” for Mr. Trump in the critical battlegrounds of Arizona, Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, where the president is scheduled to visit Thursday.
“Who does he need to recapture? They are seniors, white working-class voters and conservative minorities,” Mr. O’Connell said. “These are not the people screaming that statues should be torn down.”
The president is preparing to issue an executive order this week on protecting monuments on federal property from “vandals and hoodlums,” as he calls them. Mr. Trump has warned that perpetrators will face harsh penalties, with prison terms of up to 10 years.
Administration officials said Wednesday that they activated 400 unarmed National Guard troops in Washington to protect federal monuments from vandalism. The troops could be used to support Park Service police “at key monuments to prevent any defacing or destruction,” the Pentagon said.
Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said he requested the National Guard troops and other resources.
“We will protect these places with dispatch and severity!” he tweeted.
Mr. Biden has disavowed the movement on the left to defund police departments. Now the Trump campaign is trying to link him to those who are destroying historical monuments.
“Around the country, lawless, left-wing radicals are targeting, destroying and defacing statues and monuments to American icons like Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson,” the Trump campaign said Wednesday. “Meanwhile, Joe Biden is hiding from questions and refusing to condemn this lawlessness.”
The Biden campaign had no immediate comment.
In recent days, the president has expanded his focus from liberals’ attempts to defund police departments to include their destruction of monuments and statues. Mr. Trump said Wednesday that the FBI is “investigating hundreds of people throughout the country for what they’ve done to monuments, statues and even buildings.”
“We have very strong laws already on the books. We have a law that’s 10 years — that’s a long time to have fun one night,” the president said at a White House press conference. “I think many of the people that are knocking down these statues don’t even have any idea what the statue is, what it means, who it is. When they want to knock down Grant. Now they’re looking at Jesus Christ. They’re looking at George Washington, they’re looking at Abraham Lincoln. Thomas Jefferson.”
At Lincoln Park, a few blocks from the Capitol, protesters are threatening to pull down the Lincoln Emancipation Statue on Thursday. The statue has stood since 1876 on property maintained by the National Park Service.
Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s nonvoting member of Congress, wants the statue moved to a museum. She said the statue, which depicts Lincoln standing next to a crouching freed slave, is “problematic.”
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, California Republican, spoke with Mr. Bernhardt on Wednesday. He said Mr. Trump “will not allow the Emancipation Memorial of President Lincoln to be destroyed by the left-wing mob.”
“Thank you to our law enforcement for protecting our national treasures,” Mr. McCarthy tweeted.
Mr. O’Connell said there was a “big turning point” politically in the leftist protests when vandals moved beyond attacking statues of Confederates to destroying memorials to figures such as Ulysses S. Grant and Christopher Columbus.
“It became clear that their problem wasn’t primarily the Confederacy, but America,” he said.
The president on Wednesday portrayed the destruction of monuments as part of the Democratic Party’s failure to address looters, rioters and violent demonstrators in major cities nationwide. He said Senate Democrats on Wednesday blocked a Republican bill on policing because “they want to weaken our police” with a measure revoking legal immunity for cops in the line of duty.
Of the 20 most dangerous cities in the U.S., the president said, “every one of them’s Democrat-run.” He pointed to Chicago and Seattle by name.
“These are cities within the United States, Democrat-run, radical-left-run,” Mr. Trump said. “The Democrats want to weaken very substantially our law enforcement and our police. There are some that want to defund and abolish our police, if you can believe that. We’re not letting that happen.”
Republicans believe the law-and-order appeal can be effective with some Black voters who are concerned about rioting and destruction in their cities. One Republican Party operative suggested that the Trump campaign or its allies should run ads calling into question Mr. Biden’s relationship with Black voters, such as his reference to Barack Obama as “articulate,” “bright” and “clean.”
“Remember, my goal is not necessarily to turn off people for me, but to depress turnout on the other side,” the operative said.
As Mr. Trump took a stand for statues and monuments, he received a boost Wednesday from an unexpected source: Polish President Andrzej Duda, who was visiting the White House. Mr. Duda praised the president for ensuring that a defaced monument to Polish hero Tadeusz Kosciuszko in Lafayette Square near the White House was restored before Mr. Duda’s visit.
Mr. Duda said it was “completely incomprehensible” to Poles and Polish Americans that the monument was “devastated.” He thanked Mr. Trump for having it “renewed” so quickly that he was able to honor the Polish national hero during his visit.
“That made it possible for me to lay flowers at that monument and pay tribute to the great soldier and a great commander,” he told Mr. Trump. “Thank you for that.”