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Why Trump's praise for Robert E. Lee is so very odd

Trump not only celebrated the slave-owning commander of a fighting force that killed Americans, he also seemed eager to excuse Robert E. Lee's defeat.

In 1890, in the former capital of the Confederacy, an enormous bronze statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee was unveiled in Richmond, Virginia. It took 131 years, but yesterday, the sculpture finally came down.

Donald Trump, who has long expressed a curious affinity for those who took up arms against the United States, was outraged. A written statement from the former president:

Robert E. Lee is considered by many Generals to be the greatest strategist of them all. President Lincoln wanted him to command the North, in which case the war would have been over in one day. Robert E. Lee instead chose the other side because of his great love of Virginia, and except for Gettysburg, would have won the war.

The Republican's statement went on to accuse "the Radical Left" of destroying "our culture" — though the former president wasn't explicit as to who counts as part of "our" society.

Trump concluded, "If only we had Robert E. Lee to command our troops in Afghanistan, that disaster would have ended in a complete and total victory many years ago. What an embarrassment we are suffering because we don’t have the genius of a Robert E. Lee!"

I'm mindful of the fact that not every nonsensical statement from the former president deserves scrutiny, but this one was especially egregious.

Lee abandoned the United States, took up arms against the American military, and helped lead a war that killed hundreds of thousands of Americans. Lee did so, not in pursuit of honorable goals, but because he, a slave owner, believed in fighting for the South's commitment to the institution of slavery.

What's more, evidence of Lee's strategic "genius" is hard to find. He did, after all, lose after making dubious decisions. And while Trump may believe that Lee could've prevailed as a military leader in Afghanistan, Lee's only relevant experience is failing badly in a protracted land war.

And yet, there was the former Republican president, not only celebrating the slave-owning commander of a fighting force that killed Americans, but also looking for ways to excuse Lee's defeat.

Even for Trump, this is tough to defend.