In the aftermath of neo-Nazi-led violence in Charlottesville that left one woman dead, Mr Trump was slow to blame the white supremacists who triggered the clashes and said there was blame on “many sides”.
He also defended the “fine people” who were protesting over plans to remove the statue of the general. “I wonder, is it George Washington next week,” he told reporters during an rumbustious press conference in Trump Tower.
Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments. You.....
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 17, 2017
Yet Karen Finney, a descendant of Lee and a one-time spokesman for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, said Mr Trump does not know what he is talking about and was not “intellectually interested” in learning about the difficult, complex history he was diving into.
“President Trump, how dare you. You have no idea,” she told MSNBC.
There were two periods in US history - between 1880 to 1920, and during the 1950s and 1960s - when most of the statues of figures such as Lee were erected. They were put up by white communities trying to impose control on black people and to push back against the progress being made by the civil rights campaign.
“[It was] to say to blacks, ‘guess who’s still charge’,” said Ms Finney, a great-great-great grandniece of Lee.
“This is the system of the Confederacy that Donald Trump was defending, so when he throws those kinds of terms around he doesn’t really understand the history.”
Ms Finney, whose mother is white and whose father was black, said it was essential for the country to have a sober conversation about what such statues represented. Otherwise, the country was failing to tell the truth about a period that represented “real terrorism”.
At a rally this week in Arizona, Mr Trump again spoke out in defence of retaining such statues, which many cities and states are rushing to remove.
Speaking in Phoenix on Tuesday, he said those trying to get rid of the statues were “trying to take away our culture. They’re trying to take away our history”.
“And our weak leaders, they do it overnight. These things have been there for one hundred-and-fifty years, for a hundred years,” said Mr Trump. “You go back to a university and it’s gone. Weak, weak people.”
Ms Finney is not the only descendant of Lee to have denounced the violence that broke out in Charlottesville and left 32-year-old Heather Heyer dead. A 20-year-old man has been charged with her murder.
“There's no place for that,” Robert E Lee V told Newsweek of the violence. “There’s no place for that hate.”
He added: “Our belief is that General Lee would not tolerate that sort of behaviour either. His first thing to do after the Civil War was to bring the Union back together, so we could become a more unified country.”