President Donald Trump refused to condemn white supremacist violence on Tuesday night, insisting without evidence that violence is a left-wing problem.
During the first presidential debate, moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News asked Trump if he was willing to condemn “white supremacists and militia groups” and tell them to “stand down” in places like Kenosha, Wisconsin, and Portland, Oregon — cities where heavily armed far-right extremists have shown up to anti-racism demonstrations as counterprotesters.
“Sure, I’m willing to do that,” Trump said, “but I would say almost everything I see is from the left-wing, not from the right-wing.”
“What are you saying?” Wallace asked.
“I’m willing to do anything. I want to see peace,” Trump said.
“Well, then do it, sir,” Wallace pressed.
“Say it. Do it,” Democratic nominee Joe Biden added.
“What do you want to call them?” Trump asked. “Give me a name, go ahead, who would you like me to condemn?
Wallace again asked Trump to condemn white supremacists and right-wing militias. Biden told Trump to condemn the Proud Boys, a violent neo-fascist street gang. At this point, Trump demurred.
“Proud Boys? Stand back and stand by,” Trump said before changing the subject.
“But I tell you what, somebody has got to do something about antifa and the left because this is not a right-wing problem, this is a left-wing problem,” Trump added, referring to a loosely organised group of anti-fascist activists.
At an official Trump campaign debate watch party on a farm in Lititz, Pennsyvania, a Proud Boys member reacted with glee when the president mentioned the group.
“Uhuru!” the Proud Boys member — who wore the group’s signature black and yellow polo shirt and would identify himself to HuffPost only as OJ from West Virginia — shouted at the TV screen while laughing. “Uhuru,” is a common Proud Boys chant.
Proud Boys members celebrated Trump’s response as a directive from above. “Trump basically said to go fuck them up! this makes me so happy,” Proud Boys member Joe Biggs posted on Parler, a right-wing social media site. “Standing down and standing by sir,” the group wrote on Telegram, an encrypted messaging platform.
Federal law enforcement officials have repeatedly cited white supremacist violence as the top terror threat to the US. But for years, Trump has downplayed the threat posed by white supremacists. During the 2016 presidential campaign, he refused several times to disavow the endorsement from former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. When white supremacists organised a deadly rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, the following year, Trump responded by insisting there were “very fine people on both sides” of the event. Trump has defended 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, who killed two Black Lives Matter protesters, by saying he acted in self-defence.
Christopher Mathias contributed reporting.