By Steve Holland and Susan Heavey


BRIDGEWATER, N.J/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump dug in defiantly on Thursday in his response to racial violence in Virginia, echoing the position of white nationalists by intensifying his opposition to the removal of monuments to the pro-slavery Civil War Confederacy.


In a series of Twitter posts, Trump also sharply criticized two fellow Republicans in the U.S. Senate, Jeff Flake and Lindsey Graham, while denying he had spoken of "moral equivalency" between white supremacists, neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan, and anti-racism activists.


Trump's presidency has been further engulfed in controversy over his response to last Saturday's events in the Virginia college town of Charlottesville.


Violence erupted when white nationalists marched in protest over the planned removal of a statute of Robert E. Lee, the Confederate army commander in the Civil War that ended in 1865. A woman was killed when a man described as a white nationalist crashed his car into the counter-protesters.


Trump blamed the violence on not just the white nationalist rally organizers but the anti-racism counter-protesters, and said there were "very fine people" among both groups. He has been sharply rebuked by lawmakers of both parties, numerous American business leaders and U.S. allies abroad.

On Thursday, Trump showed no sign of backing down.

He took aim at the removal or consideration for removal of Confederate statues and monuments in a long list of cities in states such as California, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, New York, North Carolina, Massachusetts, Missouri, Montana, Tennessee, Virginia and Texas.

Opponents call the statues a festering symbol of racism, while supporters say they honor American history. Some of the monuments have become rallying points for white nationalists.

"Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments. You can't change history, but you can learn from it," Trump wrote on Twitter.

"Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson - who's next, Washington, Jefferson? So foolish!" Trump added. He was referring to Confederate General Jackson, and to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who owned slaves but whose legacy as early U.S. presidents is overwhelmingly honored.

Trump also expressed distaste for removing statues of Confederate commanders in a heated news conference on Tuesday.

The crisis around Trump has rocked his administration, leading to rising speculation that some top officials may be looking for a way out.

Rumors that White House economic adviser Gary Cohn might depart rattled Wall Street and hit U.S. stocks and the dollar on Thursday until the rumors were dismissed. A White House official said Cohn is staying in his post.

"Gary intends to remain in his position as NEC (National Economic Council) director at the White House. Nothing's changed," the official told Reuters.

Since taking office in January, Trump has periodically feuded with lawmakers in his own party. The latest spats could hinder his efforts to work with the Republican-controlled Congress on a legislative agenda that includes tax cuts and spending bills when lawmakers return next month from their summer break.


Trump took aim at Graham after the senator said on Wednesday that Trump's words on Tuesday had suggested "moral equivalency" between the white nationalists and anti-racism demonstrators and called on the president to use his words to heal Americans.

"Publicity seeking Lindsey Graham falsely stated that I said there is moral equivalency between the KKK, neo-Nazis & white supremacists and people like Ms. Heyer. Such a disgusting lie. He just can't forget his election trouncing. The people of South Carolina will remember!" Trump wrote.

Trump was referring to Heather Heyer, the 32-year-old woman killed in Charlottesville.

In a separate tweet, Trump called Flake "WEAK on borders, crime and a non-factor in Senate. He's toxic!" and appeared to endorse Kelli Ward, Flake's Republican challenger in his 2018 re-election race.

Graham, one of Trump's rivals for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, responded in a statement.

"Because of the manner in which you have handled the Charlottesville tragedy you are now receiving praise from some of the most racist and hate-filled individuals and groups in our country. For the sake of our Nation -- as our President -- please fix this," Graham said. "History is watching us all."

Trump's response to the violence in Charlottesville led to the disbanding of two CEO advisory panels on Wednesday as a growing number of chief executives from major U.S. companies pulled out in protest against Trump's response.

Apple Inc CEO Tim Cook joined a chorus of business leaders who have rebuked Trump.

"I disagree with the president and others who believe that there is a moral equivalence between white supremacists and Nazis, and those who oppose them by standing up for human rights. Equating the two runs counter to our ideals as Americans," Cook wrote in a note late on Wednesday to employees, according to technology news website Recode.

Top White House adviser Steve Bannon, in an interview published late on Wednesday, appeared to blast white nationalists as well as Democrats over racial issues.

"Ethno-nationalism - it's losers. It's a fringe element," Bannon told the American Prospect magazine. "These guys are a collection of clowns."

Of Democrats, he said, "I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats."

Democratic U.S. Senator Cory Booker wrote on Twitter he would introduce legislation to remove Confederate statues standing inside the U.S. Capitol, saying, "This is just one step. We have much work to do."

(Reporting by Steve Holland and Susan Heavey; Additional reporting by Makini Brice, Caroline Valetkevitch, Gina Cherelus; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Frances Kerry)