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President Donald Trump declined to clearly condemn white supremacist groups and their role in violence during Tuesday’s first presidential debate, at one point telling the neo-fascist group “Proud Boys” to “stand back and stand by.” (Sept. 29)

AP Domestic

WASHINGTON – Explaining a response on white supremacism that has drawn bipartisan fire, President Donald Trump asserted Wednesday he wasn’t aware of the “Proud Boys” group he referred to during the first presidential debate. 

“I don’t know who Proud Boys are, but whoever they are, they have to stand down. Let law enforcement do their work,” Trump told reporters as he departed for a series of campaign events in Minnesota, offering his first remarks on the controversy since the debate on Tuesday.

Facing widespread criticism for not denouncing white supremacist groups when directly asked to do so, Trump told reporters that he’s “always denounced any form of any of that.”

The president again tried to equivocate white supremacists to extremism on the left, adding that “antifa is a real problem because the problem is on the left,” referring to the 

In perhaps the most controversial moment from Tuesday’s debate, Trump was pressed by moderator Chris Wallace to condemn white supremacy and militia groups. When asked for the name of a specific group, Biden said “Proud Boys,” which the Southern Poverty Law Center, a liberal advocacy organization, has labeled a hate group. 

“Proud Boys – stand back and stand by,” the president responded, before pivoting to violence on the left. “Somebody’s got to do something about antifa and the left.”

More: Trump sidesteps call to condemn white supremacists 

Trump drew fire from both Democrats and some Republicans for not explicitly denouncing white supremacy when he had a chance. Trump aides pointed to the president’s initial response to Wallace, when he said “sure” and added that he was “willing to do anything” because he wants “to see peace.”

His “stand by” comment was quickly embraced by the Proud Boys, an extremist group that took to social media to tout the validation.

FBI director Christoper Wray told a congressional panel last week that white supremacists were among several movements driving violent clashes at recent protests.

But even as Trump aides argued the story was a media creation, several Republicans who are usually close to the White House criticized the response. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said it was “unacceptable not to condemn white supremacists.” McConnell referred to a statement earlier from Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., who encouraged Trump to “correct it.” Fox and Friends, usually friendly territory for Trump, took issue with the response. Host Brian Kilmeade said Trump “blew the biggest layup in the history of debates by … not condemning white supremacists.”

From the formal announcement of his campaign in April 2019, Biden has hammered Trump for saying after a violent rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that there were “very fine people on both sides.” But Trump’s campaign has argued the comments were taken out of context and said Biden smears the president by cherry-picking his remarks.

Facing similar criticism at the time for those remarks, Trump did condemn white supremacy and hate groups in remarks.

“As I said on Saturday, we condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence. It has no place in America,” Trump said on Aug. 14, 2017.

“Racism is evil.  And those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.”

Trump employed a similar excuse in 2016 when asked whether he would publicly reject the support of former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke, to which the then-Republican presidential front-runner said: “I just don’t know anything about him.”

Days later Trump disavowed the endorsement when pressed by reporters at a press conference.

“David Duke endorsed me? OK. Alright. I disavow. OK?” he said.

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