White House Chief of Staff John Kelly lauded Confederate general Robert E. Lee and said the Civil War began as a result of “lack of compromise,” inserting himself into a debate over the value of Confederate statues and monuments around the country.
President Donald Trump’s chief of staff made the comments on conservative commentator Laura Ingraham’s new Fox News show on Monday evening.
“I would tell you that Robert E. Lee was an honorable man,” Kelly said. “He was a man that gave up his country to fight for his state, which 150 years ago was more important than country. It was always loyalty to state first back in those days. Now it’s different today. But the lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War, and men and women of good faith on both sides made their stand where their conscience had them make their stand.”
In the interview, which also touched on the indictments made Monday by a federal grand jury of Paul Manafort, the Trump campaign’s former chairman, and his longtime business partner, Kelly shared his thoughts on how Americans view events from the past.
“I think we make a mistake, though, and as a society and certainly as individuals, when we take what is today accepted as right and wrong and go back 100, 200, 300 years or more and say what those, you know, what Christopher Columbus did was wrong,” Kelly said. “You know, 500 years later, it’s inconceivable to me that you would take what we think now and apply it back then.”
The former Marine general’s comments were met with criticism on social media, where some said there is no “compromise” with slavery and others compared his remarks with those made by the president in the past.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, a prominent writer and MacArthur Genius grant recipient, posted a thread on Twitter analyzing the different “compromises made on enslavement from America’s founding,” including, among others, the Three-Fifths Compromise.
“Shocking that someone charged with defending their country, in some profound way, does not comprehend the country they claim to defend,” Coates wrote. “Notion that we are putting today’s standards on the past is, in itself, racist—implies only white, slave-holding, opinions matter.”
Bernice King, the youngest daughter of Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote that what Kelly said was “irresponsible & dangerous.”
Others pointed out how they echoed Trump’s comments following the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., in August, where one woman died after a man drove his car into a group of counter-protesters. Then, Trump cited violence “on many sides” as white nationalists rallied to protect the Confederate statue of Robert E. Lee. In his comments following the aftermath of the violent clash, Trump also said “racism is evil.”
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