The protesters, the president said, were being treated unfairly. The majority of them, he insisted, were there for a good reason—they did not want to see the statue of Lee removed.
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Turning to Sessions, the president asked whether he thought the statue should come down. Sessions said the decision should be up to the local community, in this case, the Charlottesville city council, which had voted to remove it.
But the president was just getting started.
According to the notes from the meeting, the president, sitting there at the table Grant used, declared Lee “the greatest strategic military mind perhaps ever.” He also praised the Confederate general Stonewall Jackson. He made clear that the Ku Klux Klan and the neo-Nazis were “bad,” but also seemed to dismiss it as too obvious a point. Instead, he was focused on the protesters’ right to be there, and the unfairness of the way they were being treated. To Trump, the protesters were taking up a good cause by fighting to keep the statue of Lee in a prominent place.
“Next will be Washington and Jefferson,” he said, then, looking around to everyone in the room, he asked, “Does anyone think this is fair?”
Nobody jumped in, either to agree with the president or to challenge him. Nobody in the room suggested to him that praising Confederate generals was inappropriate for a president to do under any circumstances, especially after all that had just taken place. In fact, Kelly chimed in to agree with him on the greatness of the Confederate generals and on his point about Washington and Jefferson.
The others sought to keep Trump focused on the need to make a clear statement condemning the violence and those who had started it. Wray tried several times to bring the conversation back to the subject of the briefing, telling the president it was imperative that he specifically name the Klan and the neo-Nazis as the groups behind the violence.
But nobody in the room was willing to confront the president and tell him the issue was not that the protesters were being mistreated. The protests had been led by virulently racist groups that had provoked the violence that killed Heyer; that’s what shocked the nation. Kelly was new to the job, as was Wray, who had just been named the FBI director two weeks earlier. Bossert had been in his role longer, but he wasn’t particularly close to Trump. And Sessions’s standing with the president had been precarious for months, since his decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation.
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As the meeting ended, the president looked to the two staffers standing by the door.
“Do you want to see the Lincoln Bedroom?” he asked.
And with that, the group walked out of the room, to the right, and into the Lincoln Bedroom. Just moments after praising two Confederate generals, the president was gushing about Abraham Lincoln. Pointing to the unusually large bed and the full-length mirror, he talked about how tall Lincoln was. He showed off the handwritten version of the Gettysburg Address, which he said was regarded as “the greatest speech ever,” and, with glee, told the group how newspapers at the time panned it as a terrible speech. The implication was clear: The “fake news” hated Lincoln then just like they hate Trump now. As he would later say in an interview with George Stephanopoulos: “Abraham Lincoln was treated supposedly very badly. But nobody’s been treated badly like me.”