Washington — President Trump on Tuesday refused to unequivocally condemn white supremacists and far-right groups who have responded to ongoing protests against police brutality and racial injustice, instead pinning the blame for violent clashes on the “left wing.”
During the first presidential debate, moderator and “Fox News Sunday” anchor Chris Wallace asked Mr. Trump if he was “willing tonight to condemn white supremacists and militia groups and to say that they need to stand down and not add to the violence in a number of these cities as we saw in Kenosha and we’ve seen in Portland?”
In response, Mr. Trump said he was “willing to do that,” but claimed that “almost everything I see is from the left wing.”
“I’m willing to do anything. I want to see peace,” the president continued.
Amid prodding from Wallace and former Vice President Joe Biden to categorically denounce white supremacists, Mr. Trump asked, “What do you want me to call them? Give me a name. Who would you like me to condemn?”
Biden then referenced the Proud Boys, a far-right group, while Wallace said white supremacists.
“The Proud Boys,” Mr. Trump said. “Stand back and stand by. But I’ll tell you what, I’ll tell you what, somebody’s got to do something about Antifa and the left, because this is not a right-wing problem.”
After the debate, in the Proud Boys’ Telegram channel, members boasted of Mr. Trump’s reaction. They used “stand back” and “stand by” in the logo and posted videos from the debate with the caption “God. Family. Brotherhood.”
Biden responded to a tweet about the Proud Boys’ reaction by tweeting, “This is Donald Trump’s America.”
In an interview with CBS News after the debate, Donald Trump Jr., the president’s son, argued Mr. Trump only meant to call on the Proud Boys to “stand down,” and suggested “stand by” might have been said in error.
“I don’t know if that was a misspeak, but he was talking about having them stand down,” Trump Jr. told “CBS This Morning” co-host Gayle King. “He’s more than happy to condemn that.”
Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, which characterizes the Proud Boys as an extremist group, tweeted after the debate that he was unsure if Mr. Trump’s reaction to the Proud Boys was “an answer or an admission.” He called for Mr. Trump to apologize.
“And, in case anyone has any doubts, the Proud Boys are a virulent strain of American right-wing extremism,” Greenblatt wrote. “They have a long track record of violence, including in Portland this past weekend.”
In response to Mr. Trump’s remarks about Antifa, Biden called them “an idea, not an organization” and noted that FBI Director Chris Wray told the House Homeland Security Committee this month that Antifa is “more of an ideology or a movement than an organization.”
The president, however, called it a “dangerous, radical group.”
Christopher Brito contributed to this report.