WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump said Wednesday he didn't know about the far-right group Proud Boys mentioned during this week's presidential debate, his first response to backlash he received for not condemning hate groups.
Organizers of the male-only organization have described themselves as "western chauvinists.” The Southern Poverty Law Center, a liberal advocacy organization, labeled the organization a hate group. During Tuesday's debate, Trump told them to "stand back and stand by."
Trump's comments – along with his failure to condemn white supremacists – drew bipartisan backlash.
"I don't know who Proud Boys are, but whoever they are, they have to stand down. Let law enforcement do their work," Trump said as he departed for campaign events in Minnesota.
Trump said he's "always denounced any form of any of that."
Debate moderator Chris Wallace pressed Trump on Tuesday to condemn white supremacy and militia groups. When Trump asked for the name of a specific group, Biden mentioned the Proud Boys.
"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."
Trump drew fire from Democrats and Republicans for not explicitly denouncing white supremacy. Trump aides pointed to the president's initial response to Wallace, when he said he was "willing to do anything" because he wants "to see peace."
His "stand by" comment was embraced by the Proud Boys, who took to social media to tout what they saw as validation.
FBI Director Christoper Wray told a congressional panel last week that white supremacists were among several movements driving violent clashes at protests.
Even as Trump aides argued the story was a media creation, several Republicans who are usually close to the White House criticized the president's response.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said it was "unacceptable not to condemn white supremacists." McConnell referred to a statement from Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., who encouraged Trump to "correct it." On "Fox and Friends," a TV show that's usually friendly territory for Trump, host Brian Kilmeade said Trump "blew the biggest layup in the history of debates by ... not condemning white supremacists."
Tim Miller, anti-Trump political strategist, noted that when Trump wants to condemn someone, "you know it."
"He calls them losers, suckers, crazy, psychos, disgusting," Miller said. "He never seems to have these kind of condemnations for white supremacists though because they support him. And they are getting the message.”
Since the formal announcement of his campaign in April 2019, Biden has hammered Trump for saying after a violent white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that there were “very fine people on both sides.” At the Unite the Right rally in 2017, a white supremacist killed a woman by driving his car into a crowd of counterprotesters.
Trump’s campaign argued that his comments were taken out of context and that Biden smears the president by cherry-picking his remarks.
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Facing similar criticism after the rally, Trump did condemn white supremacy and hate groups.
“We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence. It has no place in America,” Trump said 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.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump says he doesn't know Proud Boys after criticism of debate