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Donald Trump and his Republican allies scrambled on Wednesday to clean up comments the president made during Tuesday’s debate, when he declined to condemn far-right extremist groups like the Proud Boys, and even told them to “stand by.”
But the act seemed tricky for Trump, who continued to bristle at the notion that he needed to denounce those who supported his campaign, even if they hailed from the militant far-right.
“I don’t know who the Proud Boys are,” the president declared, in what constituted an admission that he was unaware of a group that the FBI has classified as an “extremist” org. “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. Law enforcement will do the work more and more.”
Asked plainly if he welcomed the support of white supremacists who “clearly love you,” Trump did not register the problem with that supposition. In fact, he bobbed his head in a seemingly knowing yes motion.
"I want law and order to be a very important part, it's a very important part of my campaign,” he said, taking no umbrage with the idea that he’d be loved by that community. Asked one more time, he finally gave an inch. “I’ve always denounced any form, any form, of any of that,” Trump said. “But Joe Biden has to say something about antifa.”
The remarks capped a frantic few hours, in which members of his own team insisted that he had either been set up by the debate moderator or been misunderstood, while elected Republicans—mainly Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott, both of South Carolina—called on him to recant his debate statement.
White House trade adviser Peter Navarro placed the lion’s share of the blame on debate moderator Chris Wallace, insisting on MSNBC that the Fox News Sunday anchor was acting as Biden’s “cut man” and didn’t give the president an opportunity to disavow extremists and set him up to shout out the Proud Boys.
“When he asked the president the question about that, the president said, ‘Of course,’ he started to say, of course he would denounce that, and Wallace cut him off,” Navarro asserted. “So I’m not—I think the president has made it clear that he wants no part of that kind of stuff, what the president also made clear, I think it is a good distinction between Joe Biden and the president is that the president is for law and order.”
Trump campaign spokesman Hogan Gidley, meanwhile, insisted that the president repeatedly condemned white supremacist and extremist groups during the debate, referencing the president saying “sure” when Wallace first asked him if he was “willing” to condemn those organizations.
Asked by CNN host John Berman what the president meant by asking the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by,” the Trump flack replied that the president “wants them to get out of the way” and “not do the things they say they want to do.”
Hours later on MSNBC, Trump senior campaign adviser Jason Miller gave his interpretation of what Trump meant with his “stand by” message to the far-right group. Asked by host Chuck Todd what the president wants the group to do following his message, Miller claimed Trump was calling for extremist groups to “stand by the wayside and get out of the way” of law enforcement.
“Let law enforcement do their job,” he added. “President Trump has condemned the violence from the left, from the right. He wanted them to get out of the way. He wants law enforcement to do their job."
The Proud Boys celebrated Trump’s remarks on Tuesday night, seeing Trump’s refusal to denounce them as a sign of his support. The group redesigned their logo on Tuesday night to incorporate “stand back, stand by” as a new slogan.
Others went further. Joe Biggs, a prominent Proud Boy who has worn shirts declaring “I’m Just Here for the Violence” and celebrating the executions of left-wing Chilean activists thrown from helicopters, posted that Trump’s remarks were permission to “go fuck them up.”
“Trump basically said to go fuck them up!” Biggs wrote on Parler, a social media network popular with conservatives. “This makes me so happy.”
Extremist groups like the Proud Boys saw Trump’s debate remarks as a “green light,” according to Lindsay Schubiner, a program director at the left-leaning Western States Center, which tracks the Proud Boys and other far-right groups.
“Trump is doing nothing short of setting the stage for election violence, and I think the scale of violence and voter intimidation that we could see from paramilitaries in the coming months is really frightening,” Schubiner said.
On Wednesday morning, Portland police arrested Alan Swinney, a far-right activist with a Proud Boys tattoo, on a series of felony charges related to an incident where he allegedly aimed a gun at left-wing protesters.
—Sam Stein contributed reporting.