President Donald Trump refused to condemn right-wing extremist groups when put on the spot during a segment about Black Lives Matter protests during the first presidential debate.
“I would say almost everything I see is from the left wing, not from the right wing. I’m willing to do anything, I want to see peace,” Trump said in Cleveland.
“Well, then do it sir,” Fox News moderator Chris Wallace replied, giving the president an ample opening to disavow such violent militias.
“Who would you like me to condemn? The Proud Boys? Stand back and stand by. But I’ll tell you what, I’ll tell you what. Somebody’s gotta do something about antifa and the left, because this is not a right-wing problem, this is a left-wing problem,” Trump said.
Democratic nominee Joe Biden then stepped in with an attempt to correct his opponent on stage. “Antifa is an idea, not an organization,” he said, before Trump cut in.
“You have to be kidding,” the president scoffed.
The former vice president was referencing comments made by FBI director Chris Wray, who said earlier this month during testimony that antifa is “not a group or an organization. It’s a movement or an ideology.” Wray also testified that white supremacist violence makes up the lion’s share of the U.S. domestic terrorism threat.
Outside of the debate, Proud Boys leader Joe Biggs saw Trump’s remarks as permission to “fuck” up the group’s foes.
— Alex Kaplan (@AlKapDC) September 30, 2020
“Trump basically said to go fuck them up!” Biggs wrote on Parler, an alternative social media network that courts conservatives. “This makes me so happy.”
Other Proud Boys leaders posted on Parler and Telegram, another social network popular with far-right figures banned, that they would follow Trump’s request to “stand down and stand by.”
“I will stand down sir!!!” Proud Boys national chairman Enrique Tarrio wrote on Parler. “Standing by sir. So Proud of my guys right now.”
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Tarrio predicted that “stand back, stand by,” would become a Proud Boys slogan. Earlier Proud Boys mottos have included “The West Is the Best” and “Fuck Around and Find Out,” a warning to the group’s perceived enemies.
“I think this ‘stand back, stand by” thing will be another Proud Boy saying,” Tarrio said.
Daryl Johnson, a former Department of Homeland Security intelligence analyst who in 2009 warned of the growing threat of far-right militias, told The Daily Beast that “within the context of Trump’s statements which insinuate future voter fraud, a rigged election, etc., [it] sounds like a subtle endorsement of future use violence by the Proud Boys. Again, another statement by the president that fans the flames of fear and seems to support violent far right groups, rather than condemn them.”
On a briefing call with reporters after the debate, Kate Bedingfield, the Biden campaign’s communications director, addressed the shock and significance of Trump’s failure to distance himself from the group.
“I think that was an incredibly critical moment in this debate,” Bedingfield said in the on-the-record call. “He had multiple opportunities to say he disowns white supremacy. He was asked explicitly to do so and once again he openly refused. Even after citing the Proud Boys by name, he refused to condemn that group and to condemn white supremacy.”
CNN political commentator Van Jones, who has worked with the White House in the past on criminal justice reform issues, tore into the president over his refusal to condemn far-right extremism and racism Tuesday night.
“Only three things happened for me tonight,” Jones noted during CNN’s post-debate show. “Number one, Donald Trump refused to condemn white supremacy. Number two, the President of the United States refused to condemn white supremacy.”
“Number three, the commander-in-chief refused to condemn white supremacy,” he continued, his voice rising. “On the global stage, in front of my children, in front of everybody’s families, and he was given the opportunity to condemn white supremacy and he gave a wink and a nod to a racist, Nazi, murderous organization that is now celebrating online!”
Trump also declined to pledge to accept the outcome of the election. Asked if he would instruct his followers to react calmly and avoid “any civil unrest,” he went in the opposite direction: “I’m urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully because that’s what has to happen.”
“I am urging my people… I hope it’s going to be a fair election… but if I see tens of thousands of ballots being manipulated, I can’t go along with that,” he said.
— Justin Baragona contributed reporting