"I can see controversy, but I can also see beauty in it," Trump said.
A bronze, God-like President Abraham Lincoln towers over a kneeling, newly-freed slave. With one fist clenched, the unnamed man wears only a loincloth and broken shackles at the president's feet.
The Emancipation Memorial -- with a design dating back to Lincoln’s assassination in 1865 -- is facing fresh criticism amid a national reckoning on race.
The original statue in Washington, D.C. and its replica in Boston have faced criticism not over Lincoln himself, who signed the proclamation to end slavery, but of his portrayal and that of the free slave.
But as protesters gathered to attempt to take down the statue near the U.S. Capitol Friday night -- and were met by heavily armed guards and a roughly 10-foot-tall barrier -- President Donald Trump signed an executive order on protecting monuments, a move he had teased all week.
"I just had the privilege of signing a very strong Executive Order protecting American Monuments, Memorials, and Statues - and combatting recent Criminal Violence," he tweeted Friday. "Long prison terms for these lawless acts against our Great Country!"
While President Trump has argued removing statues would force Americans to forget "our heritage," many Americans argue many of them are painful reminders of something else.
"This statue right here embodies the white supremacy and the disempowerment of black people that is forced upon us by white people. That is why we are tearing this statue down," said 20-year-old organizer Glenn Foster at an earlier protest this week.
According to the National Park Service, which maintains the park, an African American woman named Charlotte Scott of Virginia used the first $5 she earned in freedom to kick off a campaign as a way of paying homage to Lincoln after he was assassinated in 1865.
The funds to build the statue were collected exclusively from former slaves, NPS says, but the organization controlling the effort and keeping the funds was a white-run, war-relief agency based in St. Louis.
"Although formerly enslaved Americans paid for this statue to be built in 1876, the design and sculpting process was done without their input, and it shows. The statue fails to note in any way how enslaved African Americans pushed for their own emancipation,” said Democratic Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton of D.C., who is introducing legislation next week to remove the statue.
"Understandably, they were only recently liberated from slavery and were grateful for any recognition of their freedom. However, in his keynote address at the unveiling of this statue, Frederick Douglass also expressed his displeasure with the statue," she continued in a statement.
Trump defended the specific memorial in a town hall with Fox News’ Sean Hannity Thursday night, saying, "They’re after Abraham Lincoln" and offering his interpretation of the design.
"You’re signing the Emancipation Proclamation, and you have somebody -- I think that wasn’t free and he’s getting up -- it’s the position of he’s getting up. He’s being freed by Abraham Lincoln," he said.
"I can see controversy, but I can also see beauty in it," Trump said. "It was paid for by slaves. I don’t know if you know that. It was paid for because they were so grateful to the president."
Trump earlier Friday tweeted that he canceled a trip to New Jersey because he "wanted to stay in Washington, D.C. to make sure LAW & ORDER is enforced."
Four-hundred miles away in Boston, where the replica is publicly displayed, at least 12,000 people share the sentiment of statue critics in the nation’s capital.
In the hometown of the statue’s designer, a petition to remove the copy prompted officials to schedule a public hearing on next steps on June 30.
"I've been watching this man on his knees since I was a kid," the petition from Tory Bullock reads. "It's supposed to represent freedom but instead represents us still beneath someone else. I would always ask myself, 'If he's free, why is he still on his knees?' No kid should have to ask themselves that question anymore."