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Trump 'beautiful statues' tweets roil Tampa Bay's own Confederate debate

It started Thursday at 9:07 a.m., as it does so often these days, with a tweet:

"Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments. You....." President Donald Trump tweeted.

The president's comments again roiled a nation still reeling from the violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville this past weekend and Trump's own failure to immediately condemn neo-Nazis.

His remarks hit close in Tampa Bay, where residents have spent weeks debating the fate of a Confederate statue sitting outside the old courthouse in downtown Tampa.

"Oh my God," said Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller, who has led the push to remove the monument. "He's supposed to be the leader of the free world, and he's trying to entice and incite more violence and segregation in the country. It's unbelievable."

The Hillsborough County Commission voted July 19 to move the statue to a private cemetery. But then on Wednesday they suddenly imposed a 30-day limit to raise $140,000 in private funds needed to move it. That raised the possibility that Memoria en Aeterna could remain after all.

That's why many were already on edge when the president started tweeting about Confederate statues Thursday morning. The community quickly rallied and raised the money by the afternoon.

But Wednesday morning, as the statue's fate remained uncertain, the president's tweets were jolting.

Trump also tweeted that it was "foolish" to remove statues of Confederate leaders such as Robert E. Lee and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, wondering if monuments to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson would be next. He also said " ...the beauty that is being taken out of our cities, towns and parks will be greatly missed and never able to be comparably replaced!"

Miller said he feared the president's tweets could be seen an invitation to violence.

"He just gave a segment of our community ammunition to do what they want to do," Miller said. "Hopefully we don't have what happened in Charlottesville, Va. happen here. He just opened the door. 'Do what you want, Nazis. Do what you want, Ku Klux Klan, I support you.'

"It could filter down to Hillsborough County. I truly hope it does not."

Reaction on the other side of the issue was, of course, far different. David McCallister, the Sons of Confederate Veterans commander who helped lead the campaign to keep the Hillsborough courthouse monument in place, said the president was standing up for history.

"Especially where he admonished us to cherish history by keeping the monuments up, educating about them and respecting them," he said. "They're monuments to veterans."

Local politicians quickly denounced the president's tweets.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who donated $1,000 to move the statue, said he hoped that instead of inspiring further unrest, the tweets would fuel efforts to move the monument.

"I think it will inspire those who want to remove it to dig deeper," he said. "I think people are going to respond appropriately and will provide by their actions, whether it's a dollar or $50,000, a great counterbalance to the rhetoric of the president of the United States and the actions of the haters and the hate groups."

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, who met with minority business owners in St. Petersburg on Thursday, also criticized the president.

"The president's comments did not bring us together," Nelson said. "It was more divisive. The president is in a unique role as a role model for the country. And he should clearly point out where there is racial hatred, where there is bigotry, where there is anti-Semitism, that is not to be tolerated in this country.

"When you see our home the planet from the window of a space craft, you don't see racial divisions and political divisions and religious divisions. You see we're all in this together."

In St. Petersburg's mayoral race, incumbent Mayor Rick Kriseman has spent the campaign tying his challenger, former Mayor Rick Baker, to the Trump presidency. Kriseman is a Democrat and Baker a Republican.

Both candidates said the Hillsborough statue should be removed, but only Kriseman criticized the president's latest remarks.

"By defending symbols of hate and hate groups and referring to white supremacists as 'fine people,' Donald Trump has moved the presidency into uncharted territory and has lost the moral authority to govern our nation," Kriseman said in a statement.

The Baker campaign emailed this statement: "As I have said before, I support the removal of such monuments in public spaces in St. Petersburg."

Hillsborough Community College employee Rebecca Morrison, who attended Nelson's meeting in St. Petersburg, didn't think there was anything wrong with the president's comments.

"It's not against anybody, but destroys part of our history," she said. "Most of the people doing the destruction probably don't know anything about it."

Miller said Confederate statues have nothing to do with history.

"They're divisive, they're hurtful and they should never be on public property," he said. "Now we have the guy who calls himself the president of the United States sounding just like David McCallister and the Save our Southern Heritage people talking about erasing history.

"No one's trying to erase history. History cannot be erased. But we need to get rid of monuments that are painful to the community."

Times staff writer Charlie Frago contributed to this report.

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