U.S. President Donald Trump was meant to spend the weekend at his golf course in New Jersey, but the White House on Friday abruptly cancelled the trip.
Trump later tweeted that he was staying in Washington to prevent chaos – apparently referencing attempts to tear down statues of historical figures – even as no major protests are planned.
The cancellation of the trip comes amid a spike in coronavirus cases across areas of the south and south-western U.S., raising sharp concerns among public health officials.
The country this week broke its own records for the single most daily new infections.
“I was going to go to Bedminster, New Jersey, this weekend, but wanted to stay in Washington, D.C. to make sure LAW & ORDER is enforced.
The arsonists, anarchists, looters, and agitators have been largely stopped,” Trump said.
“I am doing what is necessary to keep our communities safe — and these people will be brought to Justice!,” he added.
Trump later said he signed an executive order that would protect U.S. monuments, memorials, and statues and promised “long prison terms” for those who committed “lawless acts against our Great Country!”
Destroying federal property, including statues, is already a crime that faces a possible prison sentence of 10 years.
Statues and monuments with racist legacies have been toppled and destroyed by protesters across the country in recent weeks as the nation undergoes a reckoning with its history following the death of George Floyd, a black man, in police custody last month.
Earlier in the week, protesters had tried to tear down statues in Washington, including of former presidents Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln, but were thwarted by police.
Trump has been downplaying concerns over the coronavirus and has pivoted to presenting himself as an old-school tough-on-crime conservative in recent weeks.
Earlier in the day, the Democratic-dominated House of Representatives voted to grant Washington statehood, which would reduce Trump’s control over the federal territory, though the bill will die in the Republican-controlled Senate.