WASHINGTON — President Trump issued an executive order on Friday that instructed federal law enforcement authorities to prosecute people who damage federal monuments or statues and that threatened to withhold funding from local governments that fail to protect their own statues from vandals.
The order, which Mr. Trump announced on Twitter, comes as he seeks to seize on a cultural divide in the United States during his re-election campaign, suggesting that Democrats are waging an assault on the nation’s history.
“Anarchists and left-wing extremists have sought to advance a fringe ideology that paints the United States of America as fundamentally unjust,” Mr. Trump writes in the order, which is titled, “Protecting American Monuments, Memorials and Statues and Combating Recent Criminal Violence.”
The order adds: “Key targets in the violent extremists’ campaign against our country are public monuments, memorials and statues.”
It is a response to the toppling of statues and monuments in recent weeks after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis prompted protests for police reform and social justice.
But the order offers little in the way of new authority. It directs federal law enforcement officials to prosecute “to the fullest extent permitted” people who violate existing federal laws that already make it a crime to damage or destroy a monument or statue.
The order also urges prosecution of anyone who is caught “attacking, removing or defacing depictions of Jesus or other religious figures or religious artwork.”
Protesters across the country have knocked down monuments, mostly of Confederate generals. In Raleigh, N.C., the statues of two Confederate soldiers were torn down. And in San Francisco, a crowd toppled a bust of Ulysses S. Grant, despite the fact that he was a Union general who beat the Confederate Army. (Protesters noted that he was also a slave owner.)
In Washington, protesters knocked over a statue of Albert Pike, the only Confederate general honored in the city, and they tried — unsuccessfully — to take down a statue near the White House of Andrew Jackson, the nation’s seventh president.
In the order, Mr. Trump accuses local governments, like Washington’s, of having “surrendered to mob rule, imperiling community safety, allowing for the wholesale violation of our laws, and privileging the violent impulses of the mob over the rights of law-abiding citizens.”
In an attempt to punish those governments that the president claims have looked the other way during monument destruction, the order directs officials to consider holding back funding and grants.
But it is unclear whether the Trump administration could actually follow through on that threat. The president made a similar threat to withhold funds from so-called sanctuary cities, which limit their cooperation with federal immigration agents. This year, an appeals court blocked it.