President Trump praised Robert E. Lee as a “great general” during a campaign-style rally in Ohio on Friday night, providing just the latest installment in a long line of controversial comments about Civil War history.
Trump’s comments came amid a speech in which he lauded several historical figures from Ohio. In context, the anecdote about Lee served as a set-up to praise Union General Ulysses S. Grant — who was an Ohioan — and explain why Grant was tasked with taking on Lee to eventually win the Civil War.
WATCH: President Trump says "Robert E. Lee was a great general" during Ohio rally, calling the Confederate leader "incredible." pic.twitter.com/HhsLI1Mk05
— NBC News (@NBCNews) October 13, 2018
“So Robert E. Lee was a great general and Abraham Lincoln developed a phobia, he couldn’t beat Robert E. Lee,” Trump said. “Robert E. Lee was winning battle after battle after battle and Abraham Lincoln came home and he said, ‘I can’t beat Robert E. Lee.'”
Despite the context, the comments fit into a larger pattern of Trump White House figures praising the Confederacy and expressing sympathy for historical figures who were responsible for horrific acts of racism and ethnic cleansing.
Last year, for example, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly straightforwardly praised Lee — referring to him as “an honorable man,” and suggesting the Civil War resulted from the “lack of an ability to compromise” rather than Southern states aligning themselves with the institution of slavery.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders defended Kelly’s comments by doubling down, insisting his remarks were not historically inaccurate.
Trump himself has also cast doubt on the origins of the Civil War, suggesting it stemmed from a simple disagreement rather than Confederate leaders’ insistence that the practice of owning black people as slaves should be preserved.
“People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War, if you think about it, why?” he said in a radio interview that aired last year. “People don’t ask the question, but why was there the Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?”
In the same interview, Trump lavished praise on President Andrew Jackson, whose legacy includes the genocide of thousands of Native American people. “He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart,” Trump said.
Trump has also fought to preserve Confederate monuments across the country, and downplayed gathering of neo-Nazis as merely attempts to honor the United States’ history, closely mimicking arguments put forth by white supremacists.
There’s evidence that Trump’s rhetoric over the past several years has emboldened white supremacists and other Americans with anti-democratic ideals.
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