Trump warns of 10 years in prison for monument vandalism under Veterans' Memorial Preservation Act

Abbie Bennett
June 23, 2020 - 12:13 pm
A No justice no peace sign stands at the Robert E. Lee monument on June 20, 2020 in Richmond, Virginia. Protesters for racial justice have called for statues of Confederate leaders, like Lee, be taken down.

Photo by Eze Amos/Getty Images

President Donald Trump warned that anyone who "vandalizes or destroys" any monument, in the United States will be arrested and imprisoned for up to 10 years under the Veterans' Memorial Preservation Act or other federal laws.

As more and more monuments to Confederate leaders, slaveholders or those with ties to racist policies, are toppled across the country -- and some in other nations -- the president took to Twitter on Tuesday threatening prison time under federal laws set up to protect veteran memorials. 

"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 Veterans' Memorial Preservation Act, or such other laws that may be pertinent," Trump wrote the day after an attempt tp remove the statue of President Andrew Jackson near the White House. "This action is taken effective immediately, but may also be used retroactively for destruction or vandalism already caused. There will be no exceptions!"

The Veterans' Memorial Preservation and Recognition Act of 2003 establishes criminal penalties for anyone who "willfully injures or destroys, or attempts to injure or destroy ...veterans' memorials" including "any structure, plaque, statue or other monument on public property commemorating the service of any person or persons in the armed forces of the United States." 

Under that statute, anyone convicted of those acts could be fined and/or imprisoned for no more than 10 years, or both. 

But since that federal law is already established, and has been for nearly two decades, no authorization from the president is needed to enforce it or prosecute someone under the law. 

Congress passed the law in 2003 in response to a string of vandalisms at national veterans' cemeteries. At the time, there were few laws protecting those cemeteries specifically, tied mostly to grave desecration, trespassing on federal property or destruction of government property. The bill passed into law generally without incident, signed by then-President George W. Bush.

Discussion of the proposal among lawmakers at the time did not include monuments to Confederate veterans, instead focusing on the recent vandalism of cemeteries and memorials. 

The president said he plans to sign an executive order on the monuments. 

"I will have an executive order very shortly," Trump said on the South Lawn Tuesday before a trip to Arizona, according to the White House. "And all it’s really going to do is reinforce what’s already there, but in a more uniform way." 

Trump mentioned "very weak" state governments, saying "if they need help, the federal government is willing to help them ... if the states can't handle it, we are ready, willing and able to help." 

The president mentioned the National Guard's role in Minnesota, where troops were deployed in response to civil unrest following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, which sparked the racial injustice protests that have swept the nation and the subsequent monument removal. 

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Reach Abbie Bennett: abbie@connectingvets.com or @AbbieRBennett.

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