As a candidate, Trump said Confederate flag should be ‘put in a museum’

President Donald Trump supported banishing the Confederate battle flag when he was a candidate in 2015, saying then that the red-and-blue banner should be placed in a museum.

Nearly a year and a half before his election, then-candidate Trump called for the removal of the flag, widely seen as a potent symbol of American white supremacy, from the South Carolina statehouse a week after nine parishioners were shot to death in a racially motivated attack at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

The massacre happened on June 17, 2015, the day after Trump officially launched his 2016 campaign.

Nearly a week after the killings, reporters caught up with the candidate and asked where he stood on the battle flag as he made an appearance at his new golf course in the Washington, D.C., suburbs.

“I think they should put it in the museum and let it go,” Trump said on camera June 23. “Respect whatever it is you have to respect, because it was a point in time, and put it in a museum. But I would take it down. Yes.”

The old South Carolina state flag, raised in 1962 when white Southerners resisted calls for integration with Black people, was taken down on July 10, 2015, after Gov. Nikki Haley signed a bill into law that ordered it removed from Capitol grounds.

Like Trump at the time, other Republican candidates on the trail took a similar stance on the issue of the flag.

But now, four months from the November election, Trump’s position is opposite of where he stood five years ago.

Sea of change

Since George Floyd’s death on Memorial Day, Confederate flags and other Civil War monuments around the nation have been attacked and toppled by protesters amid a cultural shift against racism and police brutality.

The Pentagon is considering a ban on Confederate flags at all U.S. bases, while legislation in the U.S. House is also calling for the removal of Confederate names from all military bases.

Just last week, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves signed a bill to retire the last state flag in the country that includes the Confederate battle emblem.

Republican Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi said NASCAR’s ban on Confederate flags brought momentum to the effort to change his state’s flag. “It’s a symbol that more and more represents a day in the past that we don’t want to celebrate,” he said Monday.

Even some Republicans on Capitol Hill have been open to discussions about removing Confederate statues that remain in the rotunda.

President Donald Trump stands firm

In speeches over the weekend at Mount Rushmore and elsewhere, the president continued to defend historical figures and symbols, calling them a necessary part of American culture, while avoiding explicit references to totems of the Confederacy.

In recent weeks, Trump has sought to stoke white fear and resentment among his base, portraying himself as a protector of an old order that polls show much of America believes perpetuates entrenched racism, The New York Times reported.

At the same time, the president has called the phrase “Black Lives Matter” a “symbol of hate,” and he has repeatedly tried to blame violence during protests on the American militant anti-fascist movement Antifa.

Trump signed an executive order late last week that extensively protects monuments, memorials and statues, and threatened “anarchists” who tear them down with “long prison time.” Trump’s order also created a “National Garden of American Heroes” that will be built during the next few years.

The president’s action sparked criticism from Democrats who accused him of not prioritizing the pandemic, which has now killed more than 130,000 Americans.

Republicans have been watching the president’s effect on Senate races with alarm, his focus on racial and cultural flashpoints — and not on the surge of the coronavirus in many states — is being widely seen as distressing.

“This is part of the same selfish, divide-and-conquer strategy that helped the president get elected in 2016,” said Carlos Curbelo, a former Republican congressman from Florida who has been critical of Trump. “Of course, that strategy worked for much of the president’s base, and it certainly benefited him in the past, but it’s selfish in the sense that it is extremely damaging for Republicans in swing states, in swing districts.”

On Monday, Trump doubled down again on his criticism of NASCAR for banning the Confederate flag in the wake of Floyd’s death. The president also falsely accused the sport’s only full-time Black driver, Bubba Wallace, of perpetrating “a hoax” when it was actually a crew member who found a noose in the team garage stall last month, and NASCAR that announced it.

“Has @BubbaWallace apologized to all of those great NASCAR drivers & officials who came to his aid, stood by his side, & were willing to sacrifice everything for him, only to find out that the whole thing was just another HOAX?” Trump tweeted. “That & Flag decision has caused lowest ratings EVER!”

Wallace responded to the president with a Twitter message of his own, which read in part, “Love should come naturally as people are TAUGHT to hate. Even when it's HATE from the POTUS .. Love wins.”

NASCAR also released a statement supporting Wallace and praising his “courage” and “leadership.”

Asked whether Trump was defending the Confederate flag in his tweet, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said “the president has made clear he was not taking a position one way or the other in that tweet.”

— Information provided by The New York Times was used to supplement this report.