US President Donald Trump refused to condemn white supremacists at Tuesday evening’s presidential debate with Democrat Joe Biden, instead insisting that the more serious problem of extremism in the US is coming from the antifa movement and the left-wing.
The debate, a bruising affair mostly focused on the coronavirus, domestic policy and racism, also saw Biden attempt to hammer Trump for his alleged support for white nationalists and anti-Semites, harkening back to the president’s comments following a weekend of deadly violence in Charlottesville, Virginia three years ago.
Noting that Trump has attacked Biden for not “calling out” the antifa protest movement, moderator Chris Wallace asked Trump at the debate 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 chiming in, “say it. 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,” a far-right group that has endorsed violence and marched with neo-Nazis in Charlottesville in 2017.
“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.”
Proud Boys leaders and supporters later celebrated the president’s words on social media. A channel on Telegram, an instant messaging service, with more than 5,000 of the group’s members posted “Stand Back” and “Stand By” above and below the group’s logo.
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
Reacting to Trump’s remarks in real time on Twitter, Anti Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt called them “astonishing” and said that the president “owes America an apology or an explanation. Now.”
It's astonishing that, when asked a simple question, will you condemn white supremacists, @POTUS responded – "The Proud Boys should stand back and stand by." Trying to determine if this was an answer or an admission. @POTUS owes America an apology or an explanation. Now. https://t.co/9tgufXom9K
— Jonathan Greenblatt (@JGreenblattADL) 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.
Biden went on to point out that Trump’s FBI Director Chris Wray has maintained that antifa is an ideology, not an organization, in an apparent effort to downplay the movement’s significance.
The issue of white nationalism was raised in an earlier segment of the debate when the candidates were asked to explain why the public should trust them to address the country’s growing racial divides.
Biden highlighted how the 2017 footage of neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville along with Trump’s subsequent assertion that there had been ““very fine people on both sides” were “the reason I got in the race” — a point he has reiterated throughout the campaign.
He asked viewers to “close [their] eyes, remember what those people looked like coming out of the fields carrying torches, their veins bulging, just spewing anti-Semitic bile and accompanied by the Ku Klux Klan.”
“A young woman got killed, and they asked the president what he thought and he said ‘there were very fine people on both sides.’ No president has ever said anything like that,” Biden said in disgust.
He also accused Trump of ordering the National Guard to teargas peaceful protesters outside the White House in order “to walk across to church and hold up a Bible.”
“This is a president who’s used everything as a dog whistle, to divide, to generate racist hatred,” Biden claimed, after Trump mentioned crime in the suburbs.
Given the opportunity to respond, Trump chose to attack Biden’s legislative record on the issue, highlighting his role in the passing of a landmark 1994 crime bill that critics have cited as a catalyst for the mass incarceration of Blacks and other racial minorities over the past two decades. The law targeted “Super Predators,” who were allegedly involved in gangs and drugs.
Trump said Biden has called African Americans “super predators and a lot worse.”
“You did that. I’m letting people out of jail. You have treated the Black community about as bad as anybody in this country,” said Trump, who then pointed to poll numbers that he claimed showed that he has done “better than a lot of other Republicans.”
Biden called Trump “the racist” in the Oval Office.
AP contributed to this report.