US President Donald Trump denounced white supremacists on Wednesday after skirting a request to do so during the previous night’s presidential debate, which sparked uproar from Democrats, Jewish groups and others across the political spectrum.
“I’ve always denounced any form… Any form of any of that, you have to denounce,” Trump told reporters after being asked whether he’d condemn white supremacists before he left the White House for a campaign rally in Minneapolis.
But asked by a reporter whether he welcomed the support of white supremacists who “clearly love you and support you,” Trump appeared to avoid answering the question, instead touting the importance of “law and order” to his campaign.
The president was also asked what he meant when he told the far-right group Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” at Tuesday night’s debate.
“I don’t know who the Proud Boys are. I mean, you’ll have to give me a definition, because I really don’t know who they are. I can only say they have to stand down, let law enforcement do their work,” Trump replied.
A self-described “western chauvinist” fraternal organization, Proud Boys was founded in 2016 by Trump supporter and far-right commentator Gavin McInnes. The group has engaged in and does not condone political violence. Anti-Semitism is not core to the group’s ideology, but according to the Anti-Defamation League, the group has allied with white supremacists, and McInnes has made a series of anti-Semitic statements. The ADL estimates that it has several hundred members.
A former member of the Proud Boys, Jason Kessler, was the primary organizer of the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, which Joe Biden again criticized for its anti-Semitism during the debate Tuesday. Chapters of the Proud Boys have marched with neo-Nazis on other occasions as well.
Pressing the president to explain his comments during the debate, a reporter asked Trump if he misspoke when he said Proud Boys should “stand by” — a response that critics characterized as a dog whistle and which members of the far-right group reveled in.
“Just stand by,” Trump repeated. “Whatever group you’re talking about, let law enforcement do the work.”
Following the president’s comments at the debate, Proud Boys leaders and supporters took to social media to celebrate, with over 5,000 of the group’s members posting “Stand Back” and “Stand By” above and below the group’s logo.
Similar to his debate performance, Trump subsequently pivoted to assert that “Antifa is a real problem,” blasting Biden for his refusal to condemn such extremist protesters and claiming his challenger was refusing to do so for fear of losing the support of fringe members of the Democratic Party.
During Tuesday’s debate, Biden noted FBI Director Chris Wray said Antifa is an ideology, not an organization, in an apparent effort to downplay the far-left movement’s significance.
“It’s not a philosophy,” Trump said Wednesday. “These are people that hit people over the head with baseball bats. He’s got to come out and he’s got to be strong, and he’s got to condemn Antifa.”
Wray told a congressional panel last week that it was white supremacists and anti-government extremists who have been responsible for most of the recent deadly attacks by extremist groups in the US.
Trump was also asked Wednesday whether he was concerned about right-wing militias taking to the streets. He responded affirmatively, adding that “any form of crime” concerns him.
The line of questioning from reporters was almost identical to what he faced a night earlier.
During the debate, moderator Chris Wallace asked Trump whether he would be willing to offer the same condemnation of white supremacists and urge them to “stand down and not add to the violence that we’ve seen in a number of cities.”
At first, Trump responded by saying, “sure I’m willing to do that.”
But asked to make the condemnation explicit, the president instead dodged the question: “I would say almost everything I see is from the left-wing, not from the right-wing,” he said.
Pressed again by Wallace to return to the earlier denunciation request, Trump said “I’m willing to do anything. I want to see peace.”
“Then do it sir,” Wallace responded as Biden could be heard in the background saying, “Do it. Say it.”
“What do you want to call them… give me a name, go ahead, who would you like me to condemn?” Trump asked, leading Wallace to respond, “white supremacists and right-wing militias.” But Trump appeared to have heard Biden pipe in with, “Proud Boys.”
“Proud Boys, stand back and stand by,” Trump said, before then appearing to change his mind.
“I’ll tell you what,” Trump continued. “Somebody’s got to do something about Antifa and the left because this is not a right-wing problem, this is a left-wing problem.”
The Proud Boys updated their logo to include Trump’s remarks. Trump empowers the radical right and encourages violence in our streets. pic.twitter.com/PlL5xWsqQp
— MeidasTouch.com (@MeidasTouch) September 30, 2020
Trump has blamed Antifa for violence that has erupted during anti-racism protests that have broken out across the country in recent months. The name, short for anti-fascist, refers to a loosely aligned umbrella group of far-left and anarchist protesters.
Federal law enforcement officials have offered little evidence that Antifa-aligned protesters are behind the protests seen in hundreds of cities and towns in all 50 states since the police killing of George Floyd in June.
AP contributed to this report.