Donald Trump has said he has authorised police to arrest anyone who vandalises or destroys statues – and threatened them with 10 years in prison.
The US president announced he will issue an executive order to protect monuments after a wave of demonstrations by Black Lives Matter supporters across the US, sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May.
On Monday night, anti-racism protesters tried to pull down a statue of Andrew Jackson near the White House.
He was America’s president from 1829 to 1837 and was a Tennessee slave owner – and he is also thought to be one of Mr Trump‘s favourite former US leaders.
Demonstrators scaled the bronze monument in Lafayette Park and wrapped ropes around it, while chanting: “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Andrew Jackson’s got to go.”
Officers in riot gear moved in and used pepper spray to disperse the activists before they were able to topple it.
Mr Trump has been clear that he opposes the removal of monuments of leaders of the Confederacy, or from other distasteful aspects of American history.
Federal law already says anyone who vandalises monuments can be punishable with 10 years in jail.
The president told reporters he would “have an executive order shortly that will reinforce what is already there but in a more unified way”.
“Last night we stopped the attack on Andrew Jackson in Lafayette Park,” said Mr Trump on Tuesday.
“I want to thank the police. Numerous people are in jail or will go to jail. We are looking at long-term sentences.
“These are anarchists and other things. If the states can’t handle it, we are willing and able to help.”
Earlier on Twitter, Mr Trump wrote: “I have authorised the federal government to arrest anyone who vandalises or destroys any monument, statue or other such federal property in the US with up to 10 years in prison, per the veteran’s memorial preservation act, or such other laws that may be pertinent.
“This action is taken effective immediately, but may also be used retroactively for destruction or vandalism already caused. There will be no exceptions!”
Four police officers were hurt on Monday evening while they tried to clear protester tents near Lafayette Square.
Two men were arrested during the unrest.
Mr Jackson signed a law that led to the expulsion of Native Americans east of the Mississippi River in which they were forcibly moved west by the federal government.
According to the Library of Congress, about 4,000 people died on the march that became known as the “Trail of Tears”.
Mr Trump has expressed admiration for Mr Jackson, who was a populist, including during a 2017 visit to the Hermitage, which was the site of Mr Jackson’s plantation.
Mr Jackson owned about 150 slaves at the time of his death, according to the Hermitage.