Under fire — from GOP — Trump digs in on Confederate icons

President Donald Trump speaks in front of a portrait of George Washington, in the Diplomatic Room of the White House in Washington.
President Donald Trump speaks in front of a portrait of George Washington, in the Diplomatic Room of the White House in Washington.(Associated Press Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

WASHINGTON — With prominent Republicans openly questioning his competence and moral leadership, President Trump defiantly returned to his campaign’s nativist themes on Thursday. He lamented an assault on American “culture,” revived a bogus, century-old story about killing Muslim extremists, and attacked Republicans with a renewed vigor.

Hours after a terrorist attack in Spain, Trump recalled a debunked event in which General John J. Pershing supposedly killed Muslim rebels in the Philippines by shooting them with bullets dipped in the blood of pigs, which Muslims are forbidden to eat. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack in Barcelona, where a van was driven into a busy tourist boulevard, killing 13.


“Study what Gen. Pershing of the United States did to terrorists when caught,” Trump tweeted, spreading a mythical story even as he again accused the news media of being “Fake News” in another tweet. “There was no more Radical Islamic Terror for 35 years!”

As when he trafficked in the same unproven legend during the presidential campaign, Trump ignored the conclusions of historians, who repeatedly have said it did not happen. Additionally, his claim that Pershing ended terrorism in the Philippines for 35 years is refuted by the violence that continued for decades after the rebellion that ended in 1913.

Trump also appeared in peril of losing support from key Republicans he will need to advance his agenda in Congress. Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, questioned the president’s “stability,” and Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, the only black Republican in the Senate, declared Trump’s ‘‘moral authority is compromised.’’

Another GOP Senator, 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.’’

Corker, a sober voice on foreign policy and a frequent ally of the Trump administration, bluntly questioned the president’s ability to perform the duties of his office.


“The president has not yet been able to demonstrate the stability, nor some of the competence that he needs to demonstrate in order to be successful,” Corker told reporters. He said Trump had not “appropriately spoken to the nation” about Charlottesville, Va.

Scott insisted that he would not “defend the indefensible” when it came to the president’s comments about “both sides” in Charlottesville being responsible for the violence last Saturday.

Earlier in the day, Trump made it clear that he has no intention of stepping back from his assertions about the Charlottesville rally. In three tweets, Trump defended Civil War-era statues, using language very similar to that of white supremacists to argue the statues should remain in place.

On Twitter, Trump called it “foolish” to remove statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson and mused that monuments to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson would be next. “Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments,” the president wrote.

Trump also lashed out at two senior Republican senators who have been unsparing in their criticism during the past week.

The president accused Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina of “publicity seeking” and said that Graham had uttered a “disgusting lie” when he said — accurately — that the president had equated the white nationalist protesters in Charlottesville with the counterprotesters who were there to oppose them.


“He just can’t forget his election trouncing,” the president said of Graham, who waged a losing bid against Trump for the Republican presidential nomination. “The people of South Carolina will remember!”

Trump also called Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona “toxic” and “WEAK on borders, crime and a non-factor” in the Senate. He praised Flake’s Republican primary race opponent.

There was new evidence on Thursday that the political crisis created by the president’s Charlottesville remarks was having an effect on Trump’s business. The Cleveland Clinic announced it was pulling out of a 2018 fund-raiser at his Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Fla., and the head of the Palm Beach Chamber of Commerce urged businesses not to host events there.

The American Cancer Society, which had planned to hold its 2018 gala at Mar-a-Lago, announced it, too, would change the venue, citing its “values and commitment to diversity.”

Meanwhile, Carmen de Lavallade, a dancer and choreographer who will be honored by the Kennedy Center in December, announced on Thursday that she will forgo the related reception at the White House, citing the “socially divisive and morally caustic narrative that our current leadership is choosing to engage in.’’

Even so, White House officials said Trump was in good spirits on Thursday as he continued a working vacation at his estate in Bedminster, N.J.

Trump held meetings with Governor Rick Scott, a Florida Republican, and Linda McMahon, the head of the Small Business Administration.


Within his administration, his chief of staff, John F. Kelly, was said to be deeply frustrated and unsure how to contain his boss. And pressure mounted on Gary D. Cohn, the director of the White House National Economic Council, who is Jewish and had privately expressed dismay about the president’s remarks.

Not all of Trump’s aides were unhappy with his performance. Adviser Steve Bannon’s job security in the White House has become tenuous — Trump offered only a ‘‘we’ll see’’ on Tuesday when asked if his chief strategist would remain in his post — but Bannon has been telling allies that the president’s news conference would electrify the GOP base.

And in a pair of interviews Wednesday, Bannon cheered on the president’s nationalist tendencies and suggested that a fight over Confederate monuments was a political fight he welcomes.

‘‘The race-identity politics of the left wants to say it’s all racist,’’ Bannon told The New York Times. ‘‘Just give me more. Tear down more statues. Say the revolution is coming. I can’t get enough of it.’’

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.