WASHINGTON (NEXSTAR) — Hours after declining to condemn white supremacist groups and their role in violence in some American cities this summer, President Donald Trump told reporters Wednesday he’s always denounced white supremacist groups.
The president made headlines during Tuesday’s debate when he was challenged to denounce white supremacist groups and told the far-right extremist group called the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.”
“I don’t know who the Proud Boys are,” Trump told reports Wednesday. “They have to stand down. Let law enforcement do their work.”
“Proud Boys” is a male-only group of neo-fascists that describes themselves as “western chauvinists.” They have been known to incite street violence.
In his 40-second exchange with reporters Wednesday, Trump doubled down on changing the subject to antifa again saying “the problem is on the left.” He also called on Democratic rival Joe Biden to condemn the group.
Biden labeled antifa, which stands for the anti-fascist movement, “an idea, not an organization.”
Trump, a Republican, has tried to tie incidents of violence that have accompanied largely peaceful protests to Biden and the Democrats, running on a “law and order” message that warns people won’t be safe under a Democratic president. It’s a message aimed squarely at white suburban voters, including women who voted for Trump in 2016 but may not do so again.
“What we saw was a dog whistle through a bullhorn,” California Sen. Kamala Harris, Biden’s running mate, said on MSNBC after the debate. “Donald Trump is not pretending to be anything other than what he is: Someone who will not condemn white supremacists.”
Proud Boys leaders and supporters later celebrated the president’s words on social media. A channel on Telegram, an instant messaging service, with more than 5,000 of the group’s members posted “Stand Back” and “Stand By” above and below the group’s logo.
Biden has said he decided to run for president after Trump said there were “very fine people” on both sides of a 2017 protest led by white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a counterprotester was killed.
Trump said Tuesday that Biden was afraid to say the words “law and order” and pressed him to give examples of law enforcement groups that back his campaign. Biden didn’t name any, but said he’s in favor of “law and order with justice, where people get treated fairly.”
At another point in the debate, when discussing a Trump administration move to end racial sensitivity training in the federal government, Biden directly called Trump a racist. He also accused him of trying to sow racist hatred and racist division in the country.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.