President Trump declined to condemn white supremacist groups during Tuesday night’s presidential debate, even when repeatedly pressed to do so.
In a discussion of protests and violence in cities, moderator Chris Wallace asked Trump if he was willing to condemn white supremacists and militia groups and tell them to stand down and not contribute to the violence.
“What do you want to call it?” asked Trump, seeking clarification on what he was supposed to be condemning.
“White supremacists and right-wing militia,” said Wallace.
Former Vice President Joe Biden suggested that Trump specifically condemn the Proud Boys, a group of self-described “Western chauvinists” whose members appeared alongside white supremacist groups at the 2017 Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville and have been a consistent presence during more recent clashes in Portland, Ore.
“Proud Boys? Stand back and stand by,” Trump said, before immediately pivoting, “But I’ll tell you what, somebody’s got to do something about antifa and the left.” The Proud Boys quickly embraced the moment on Telegram, an encrypted messaging service popular among extremist groups, posting clips of the president’s comment and even circulating an image with Trump’s quote superimposed over their logo.
Trump has in the past sought to blame violence stemming from some recent protests on antifa, an umbrella term for radical left-wing activist groups that sometimes engage in street brawls. He repeated that claim during the debate, saying most of the violence he’s seen is from the left.
Antifa, short for anti-fascist, refers to a movement of combative leftists, including many self-described anarchists, who are ready and willing to use violence in order to fight white supremacists, neo-Nazis and others they deem to be “fascists.” On Tuesday night, Biden said that "antifa is an idea, not an organization."
Contrary to the narrative promoted by Trump, experts who study domestic extremism as well as FBI Director Christopher Wray and acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf have both testified to Congress that white supremacist violence is the most persistent and deadly domestic terror threat facing the country. Biden pointed out Wray’s comments during the debate, to which Trump said, “Well, you know what? He’s wrong.”
In July, Wray told Congress that the majority of domestic terrorism arrests since last October had been linked to white supremacy. Earlier this month, the FBI director reiterated that while some people claiming ties to antifa have been responsible for violence, the more consistent and lethal threat in recent years has come from racially motivated extremists.
One of the most high-profile acts of violence during the protests was the killing of federal officer Dave Patrick Underwood in Oakland, Calif. Air Force Staff Sgt. Steven Carrillo, a member of the right-wing “boogaloo” movement — which seeks the destruction of society via a second American Civil War — was charged in June in Underwood's killing. At the Republican National Convention, Vice President Mike Pence implied the shooting was done by an anti-racism protester, but authorities said Carrillo hoped the large social justice demonstrations would provide cover for the shooting.
In June, the Center for Strategic and International Studies published a report stating that “far-right terrorism has significantly outpaced terrorism from other types of perpetrators, including from far-left networks and individuals inspired by the Islamic State and al-Qaeda.” The database assembled by CSIS found no murders tied to the left-wing antifa movement in the United States over the last 25 years.
Biden said that while he supported peaceful protests, he condemned violence of all kinds. He also said that Trump was putting fuel on the fire because violence was good for him politically.
“His own former spokesperson said riots and chaos and violence help his cause,” Biden said. “That’s what this is all about.”
“I don’t know who said that,” Trump said.
“I do,” Biden replied. “I think - Kellyanne Conway. She said that.”
In August, Conway, a longtime Trump aide who has since left the White House, told Fox News, “The more chaos and anarchy and vandalism and violence reigns, the better it is for the very clear choice on who’s best on public safety and law and order.”
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