Donald Trump Proud Boys ‘stand by’ comment sets off firestorm, shakes up campaign

MILWAUKEE — President Trump’s remark telling the far-right Proud Boys group to “stand by” took on a life of its own Wednesday — setting off a firestorm of criticism that he was fanning the flames of white supremacists in America and opening the door to more violence in the nation’s cities.

The cryptic comments outraged liberals, put prominent Republicans on the defensive on Capitol Hill, and left voters in this crucial battleground state convinced Mr. Trump is doing a lot of the heavy lifting for Democratic presidential nominee Joseph R. Biden’s bid to re-take the White House.

Edward Winfrey, 68, said Mr. Trump’s unwillingness to take a firm stand against the controversial group left him aghast.

“It was asinine,” Mr. Winfrey, who is Black, told The Washington Times. “It was sickening.”

The first 2020 general election debate offered Mr. Trump a chance to change the trajectory of the race less than 40 days out from the election and Mr. Biden a chance to seal the deal with voters who abandoned the party four years ago.

The 90-minute showdown started with a friendly exchange before descending into a barrage of interruption, insults, and crosstalk.

It provided voters with a sense of the men’s temperaments but didn’t do much to illuminate their plans for leading a nation reeling from racial unrest, a public health crisis, and an economic downturn.

Mr. Trump slammed Mr. Biden, his family, the news media, the moderator, and the far-left. Mr. Biden fired back by labeling Mr. Trump as a “clown,” “liar,” and “racist.”

Analysis from both parties characterized the debate as an utter disaster and an embarrassment.

Mr. Trump faced particularly intense criticism over the way he responded when moderator Chris Wallace pressed him to condemn white supremacists and militia groups, and urge them to stop contributing to the violence in cities.

“Proud Boys, stand back and stand by,” Mr. Trump said. “But I’ll tell you what — somebody’s got to do something about Antifa and the left because this is not a right-wing problem. This is a left-wing [problem].”

The comment ignited a firestorm on social media and dominated much of the post-debate chatter Wednesday on the cable news networks.

Mr. Biden seized the flap as confirmation that Mr. Trump kowtows to racists.

During post-debate whistle-stop train tour through Ohio and Pennsylvania, he called Mr. Trump a “national embarrassment.”

“My message to the Proud Boys and every other white supremacist group is, ‘Cease and desist.’ That is not who we are. That is not who we are as Americans,” he said.

Chris Walton, chairman of the Milwaukee County Democrats, said Mr. Trump’s response, “confirms what we always knew: Donald Trump is a racist.”

“His policies, his words, his actions have been nothing but racially charged and incendiary every step of the way,” Mr. Walton said. “The best way to put it is: if he doesn’t think he racist, a lot of people believe he is, and the people who are racist, they sure think he is speaking for them.”

Mr. Walton said the episode should boost Mr. Biden in Wisconsin, which Mr. Trump won in 2016 and which has experienced violent unrest and protests over the police shooting of Jacob Blake

Back in Washington, Mr. Trump and his allies tried to stop the bleeding.

“I don’t know who the Proud Boys are,” Mr. Trump told reporters. “I mean, you will have to give me a definition because I don’t know who they are. I can only say they have to stand down, let law enforcement do their work.”

Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the only Black Republican in the Senate, said he believes Mr. Trump “misspoke.”

“I think he misspoke. I think he should correct it. If he doesn’t correct it, I guess he didn’t misspeak,” Mr. Scott said.

The debate exchange shined a bright light on the controversial Proud Boys group, which has grown in prominence through its clashes with Antifa and other left-wing activists.

Joe Biggs, a member of the group, celebrated Mr. Trump’s debate comments on social media.

“President Trump told the Proud Boys to stand by because someone needs to deal with ANTIFA … well sir! we’re ready!!” Mr. Biggs said.

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said Republican should be embarrassed.

“As much of the country was in despair last night at the president’s juvenile behavior, one group was celebrating: the Proud Boys,” Mr. Schumer, New York Democrat, said on the Senate floor. “Within minutes of the president’s comments, the Proud Boys were online, rejoicing at the tacit endorsement of their violent tactics by the president himself.”

It turns out, not everybody believes the Proud Boys are white supremacists, including a prominent Black professor at a historically Black university.

Wilfred Reilly, associate professor of political science at Kentucky State University, said Wednesday that “the Proud Boys aren’t white supremacists,” describing the right-wing group’s beliefs as “Western chauvinist” and noting that their international chairman, Enrique Tarrio, is Black.

“Gotta say: the Proud Boys aren’t white supremacists,” tweeted Mr. Reilly, author of “Hate Crime Hoax.”

“Enrique Tarrio, their overall leader, is a Black Cuban dude. The Proud Boys explicitly say they’re not racist,” Mr. Reilly told the Times. “They are an openly right-leaning group and they’ll openly fight you — they don’t deny any of this. But saying they’re White supremacist: If you’re talking about a group of people more than 10% people of color and headed by an Afro-Latino guy, that doesn’t make sense.”

Valerie Richardson contributed this report.

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