Senate Republicans have distanced themselves from Donald Trump’s refusal at the first presidential debate on Tuesday to outright condemn a far-right white supremacist group, saying that while they believe the president “misspoke,” he should have been unequivocal in his denunciation.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell directed reporters on Wednesday to comments from Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, the lone black Republican in the chamber.
“I think he said it exactly correctly, and that's exactly how I would express myself on that issue,” Mr McConnell said.
“He said it was unacceptable not to condemn white supremacists, and so I do so in the strongest possible way,” the majority leader said.
Earlier in the day, Mr Scott appeared to give Mr Trump some benefit of the doubt for telling the Proud Boys, an all-male gang known for violence at public rallies and a misogynistic, racist philosophy, to “stand back and stand by,” which several members of the group took to be a ringing endorsement of their recent actions confronting left-wing activists at racial justice demonstrations.
A right-wing group that sprung up after Mr Trump was elected, The Proud Boys have evolved from pseudo-intellectual hipster origins into a more thuggish, openly extremist group that calls for violence increasingly openly.
“I think he misspoke,” Mr Scott told reporters of Mr Trump’s choice of words when asked about the group.
“I think he should correct it. If he doesn't correct it, I guess he didn't misspeak,” he said.
But he also stressed that “white supremacy should be denounced at every turn.”
Other Republicans on Capitol Hill expressed similar dismay at the president’s decision not to seize the opportunity to categorically denounce white supremacists.
North Dakota Senator John Thune, Mr McConnell’s top deputy in the chamber, said Mr Trump ought to “clear it up,” referring to the Proud Boys comments.
“He should unequivocally condemn white supremacy,” Louisiana Republican Senator Bill Cassidy said.
Mr Trump on Wednesday clarified that he did not know anything about the group.
“I don’t know who Proud Boys are, but whoever they are, they have to stand down, let law enforcement do their work,” the president said.
But his aides both in the White House and on his re-election campaign declined to add to or contextualise the president’s remarks from the debate.
Senior campaign adviser Jason Miller told USA Today that Mr Trump’s phrase from Tuesday’s debate, “Stand back and stand by,” constituted a message to “knock it off.”
White House communications director Alyssa Farah declined the opportunity to clarify the president’s remarks in an interview with Fox News on Wednesday.
“I don’t think that there’s anything to clarify. He's told them to stand back,” she said.
Democrats have skewered the president for not more forcefully denouncing white supremacists or the Proud Boys.
“Donald Trump is a white supremacist,” New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted on Wednesday.
“People have been warning about this for a long time. They were ridiculed, called hyperbolic [and] radical — not [because] they were wrong, but [because] others couldn't accept that our country elected a supremacist as President. This is fascism at our door,” she wrote.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said white supremacists were the only Americans “celebrating” the debate last night, which has been widely ridiculed as the most disgraceful in US history due to constant interruptions from the president and his unwillingness to defer to the moderator, Fox News’ Chris Wallace.
“President Obama once wondered, rhetorically: ‘How hard is it to say that Nazis are bad?’” Mr Schumer said on the Senate floor on Wednesday.
“Apparently, for President Trump, it is beyond his capacity. In a national debate, he not only refused to condemn a far-right group of violent, white supremacists, he told them to ‘stand by,’” the minority leader said.
He continued: “I just want to ask my Republican colleagues: How are you not embarrassed that President Trump represents your party? How can you possibly, possibly, support anyone who behaves this way? Are you watching the same person that we are? Are you listening?”