Members of the right-wing Proud Boys group attend a rally in Portland, Oregon, the US, September 26 2020. Picture: REUTERS/JIM URQUHART
Members of the right-wing Proud Boys group attend a rally in Portland, Oregon, the US, September 26 2020. Picture: REUTERS/JIM URQUHART

Washington — President Donald Trump on Wednesday claimed that he is unfamiliar with the Proud Boys, a right-wing vigilante group he advised to “stand back and stand by” during Tuesday’s debate, and said they should step aside to let police regulate protests.

“I don’t know who the Proud Boys are,” Trump told reporters before departing from the White House for a fundraiser and rally in Minnesota on Wednesday. “Whoever they are, they need to stand down, let law enforcement do their work.”

Trump has drawn criticism for declining to directly condemn white supremacy at the invitation of the debate moderator, Fox News host Chris Wallace. After Wallace suggested Trump tell groups such as the Proud Boys to “stand down”, Trump responded, “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by.”

Members of the group celebrated the remark on social media.

On Wednesday, the White House and some GOP allies backed Trump’s remarks on white supremacy, noting that he said “sure, I’m willing to do that” and “I’m willing to do anything” in response to Wallace’s entreaties to condemn the groups.

But the only black Republican senator called on the president to “correct” his comments.

“I think he misspoke,” Republican senator Tim Scott of South Carolina said on Wednesday at the Capitol. He added, “I think he should correct it. If he doesn’t correct it I guess he didn’t misspeak.”

Majority leader Mitch McConnell and senator Lindsey Graham supported Scott’s statement.

“It was not Lincoln-Douglas,” McConnell said about the debate. “With regard to the white supremacy issue, I want to associate myself with the remarks of Tim Scott that he put out earlier today.”

McConnell said Scott had “said it was unacceptable not to condemn white supremacists. I do so, in the strongest possible way.”

In a tweet Wednesday, Graham said: “I agree with @SenatorTimScott statement about President Trump needing to make it clear Proud Boys is a racist organisation antithetical to American ideals.”

After his remarks on the Proud Boys at the debate, Trump pivoted to blame the anti-fascist movement known as Antifa for violence, even though his nominee for homeland security secretary has said white supremacists are the “most persistent and lethal threat” to the US from within the country.

Trump campaign spokesperson Hogan Gidley and White House spokesperson Alyssa Farah both said Wednesday morning that Trump’s response — “sure” — to Wallace’s question amounted to a condemnation.

“He says ‘sure’ right out of the gate to that question,” Farah told Fox News.

“How many times, how many ways does he have to say it?” Gidley said in a Wednesday morning interview on CNN that focused largely on Trump’s views on white supremacy groups.

They also downplayed his remarks that the Proud Boys should “stand back and stand by”, which members of the group interpreted as a call to future action. “I don’t think that there’s anything to clarify. He’s told them to stand back,” Farah said.

Several Republican legislators sought to give the president the benefit of the doubt and used the same line of argument as Trump’s aides, saying extremists of all stripes should be condemned.

House minority leader Kevin McCarthy said during a news conference: “How many times does he have to say it? If the question is ‘Would you denounce it’ and the answer is ‘Yes,’ he did that.”

McCarthy didn’t answer a follow-up question about Trump’s “stand back and stand by” comment about the  Proud Boys group but countered by faulting former vice-president Joe Biden for not more forcefully condemning Antifa.

“It would be concerning to me that Joe Biden would not believe Antifa is a group,” McCarthy said.

FBI director Chris Wray recently testified to the House homeland Security committee that Antifa is an ideology not an organisation.

Trump on Wednesday tweeted a video of Fox News commentator Dan Bongino, who said the president “brilliantly” played to his core voters during the debate.

“Forget independents, it’s a base election,” Bongino said. “He’s the shark in the ocean and he acted like it. He lost no-one from his base. No-one.”

Indiana GOP senator Mike Braun said it’s important to denounce white supremacist groups, and he does not believe Trump intended to stop short of that. “I know for certain that he denounces that,” Braun said. “And I think it’s fair to say you can denounce both sides of radical elements.”

Senator Dick Durbin, the second-highest ranking Democrat, said he felt a sense of “outrage” similar to what he felt after the deadly 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, when the president appeared reluctant to condemn right-wing violence and suggested there were “fine people” on both sides.

“The president has to understand white nationalism, white supremacy is unfortunately the leading cause of a lot of domestic terrorism in the US and he’s just afraid to confront them,” Durbin said. “I’m afraid he believes they’re his followers and he doesn’t want to make them angry before an election.”

Speaking on the Senate floor on Wednesday morning, minority leader Chuck Schumer said Trump’s remarks in Tuesday’s forum was “one of the most disgraceful performances at a presidential debate that anyone has ever seen”.

“In an hour and a half that felt like a lifetime, the president managed to insult vice-president Biden’s deceased son and smear a living one, please a fringe white supremacist group and capped the night off by yet again casting doubt on our own elections, tarnishing our own democracy,” Schumer said. “Those were just his worst moments.”

Some Republicans suggested that the president should have taken a stronger stance by condemning more forcefully both white supremacists and other radical groups.

“He should have been very clear, and he should have made it very clear that there’s no room for people on the far left or the far more far right,” said senator Mike Rounds, a Republican. “When it comes to either an Antifa or these white supremacist groups, he should have been very clear.”

Separately, Reuters reports the group that manages the presidential election debates said on Wednesday it would take steps to bring order to the final two contests.

The Commission on Presidential Debates, a non-partisan group that has organised the events since 1988, said it would make unspecified changes to the format to prevent a repeat of Tuesday's chaotic debate. The changes will be announced in the next few days.

Bloomberg

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