President Donald Trump threatened this week to imprison any protesters who dared to deface or tear down the statue of former President Andrew Jackson, which sits just outside the White House in nearby Lafayette Park.
Demonstrators had made attempts to remove the statue of Jackson, who was a slaveholder and led a genocidal campaign against Indigenous peoples in the South, from its pedestal on Monday evening. Efforts to do so failed, however, and according to the National Parks Service, protesters were removed from the area after being pepper sprayed.
“Numerous people arrested in D.C. for the disgraceful vandalism, in Lafayette Park, of the magnificent Statue of Andrew Jackson,” Trump noted in a tweet on Monday night. The president alluded to a punishment of “10 years in prison under the Veteran’s Memorial Preservation Act” in his post as well.
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That law, passed in 2003, makes it a crime to attempt to remove or destroy any monument, plaque, or statue that commemorates the “service of any person or persons in the armed forces.” Ten years in prison is the maximum sentencing allowed, according to the law’s text.
Trump on Tuesday reiterated his plans to prosecute individuals defacing statues to the fullest extent that the law allows.
“I have authorized the Federal Government to arrest anyone who vandalizes or destroys any monument, statue or other such Federal property in the U.S. with up to 10 years in prison, per the Veteran’s Memorial Preservation Act, or such other laws that may be pertinent,” he said in a series of tweets. “This action is taken effective immediately, but may also be used retroactively for destruction or vandalism already caused. There will be no exceptions!”
It is perhaps interesting to note that Trump’s threat to use the law against protesters came about after the defacement and attempts to tear down Jackson’s memorial occured. It’s a well-known fact that Trump views Jackson as his favorite historical presidential figure, as he’s frequently noted similarities between himself and the former president known as “Old Hickory.” Indeed, Trump once gave a speech in 2017 at Jackson’s Hermitage plantation estate, saying that the former president “confronted and defied an arrogant elite.”
“Does that sound familiar to you?” Trump said at the time, alluding to himself.
But Trump’s self-declared reverence for Jackson likely has ulterior motives.
Jackson was a slaveholder who had more than 150 enslaved Black Americans on his estate at the time of his death. He was also adamantly anti-Native American, working to remove thousands of Indigineous peoples east of the Mississippi River by signing the Indian Removal Act, and playing a pivotal role in what later became known as “The Trail of Tears.”
As an army general, too, prior to becoming president, Jackson led a number of military campaigns against Creeks and Seminoles in the south, taking a more direct role in their removal from their lands.
Trump’s idolizing of Jackson, even with this history being well-known, may not be accidental, as historian Matthew Clavin has pointed out. It may, in fact, be a signal to Trump’s base of white supremacist supporters.
“For any 21st-century politician to so explicitly align themselves intellectually with Andrew Jackson, it is, I think, another example of Trump using not-so-veiled attempts to stir racial division in the 21st century,” Clavin said in an interview with Salon. “It’s kind of hard to deny.”