President Donald Trump directly addressed a far-right group, the Proud Boys, during Tuesday nights debate with Democrat Joe Biden, telling them to “stand back and stand by.”
But the president failed to answer a question about why Americans should trust him to deal with issues of racial justice.
For his part, Biden recalled Trump’s “both sides” response to a deadly neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017.
The questions during the debate at Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Clinic followed the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others this year, which have ushered in a civil rights movement calling for police reform and justice for Black Americans killed by law enforcement.
While Biden in the debate focused on his message of unity and community-based policing, Trump reinforced his position of “law and order” and the need to support law enforcement.
Biden said that a main reason he decided to run in the 2020 presidential election was Trump’s reaction after Heather Heyer, who was protesting a “Unite the Right” white supremacy rally, was killed by a neo-Nazi in Charlotesville. The president later said that there “were very fine people on both sides.”
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Proud Boys describe themselves “western chauvinists” who insist they are a fraternal group spreading an “anti-political correctness” and “anti-white guilt” agenda.
However, they also are known for misogyny and anti-Muslim bias, and helped organize the Charlotte rally, the center says.
Debate moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News asked the president whether he would condemn white supremacists and militia groups that incite violence.
“Are you willing tonight to condemn white supremacists and groups to say they need to stand down and not add to the violence and number of the cities as we saw in Kenosha and as we’ve seen in Portland?” Wallace asked Trump, referring to protests in Wisconsin and Oregon.
“I’m willing to do that,” Trump said, but then added that left groups were to blame for violence and unrest.
Wallace continued to ask the president whether he would condemn white supremacist groups.
“Proud Boys stand back and stand by,” Trump said.
The extremist organization in reaction quickly circulated that message on Twitter.
Biden said that “the only way we’re going to bring this country together is bringing everybody together — there’s nothing we cannot do.”
Trump did not answer Wallace’s initial question about why Americans should trust him to deal with race issues in the country. He instead brought up Biden’s support of a 1994 crime bill and stressed the need for police to contain protesters.
“You don’t want to say anything about law and order,” Trump said to Biden. “I’ll tell you what the people of this country want and demand, law and order, and you’re afraid to even say it.”
Biden responded that police “have to be held accountable” and that “violence in response is never appropriate.”
The next presidential debate is Oct. 15 in Miami.
Deputy Editor Michael Moline in Tallahassee contributed to this report.