President Trump's allies defended his refusal to condemn white supremacists during Tuesday night'swith Joe Biden on Tuesday, and his comment that the Proud Boys, a far-right extremist group, should "stand by."
When asked by moderator Chris Wallace if he would condemn white supremacist groups on Tuesday, Mr. Trump responded that he was "willing to do that" but then quickly blamed most of the recent unrest in cities across the country on "the left wing." Mr. Trump asked Wallace "who would you like me to condemn," and Biden jumped in asking the president to respond to the Proud Boys.
"The Proud Boys — stand back and stand by," Mr. Trump said. Members of the group took the president's words as encouragement, adding the phrase "stand back and stand by" to its logo on the social media platform Telegram. One of the group's leaders, Joe Biggs, wrote on the conservative social media platform Parler that Mr. Trump's comment "makes me so happy." The group has been suspended from many social media platforms, including and .
The Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights advocacy group, lists the Proud Boys as a hate group because its leaders "regularly spout White nationalist memes and maintain affiliations with known extremists," and the group is known for "anti-Muslim and misogynistic rhetoric." Former Proud Boys member Jason Kessler helped organize the "Unite the Right" white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017.
A representative for the Proud Boys told CBS News that the group does not consider Mr. Trump's comments at the debate an endorsement nor do they consider themselves white supremacists.
Mr. Trump's comments may inject some enthusiasm into the group, which has recently struggled with turnout at demonstrations. The Proud Boys hosted a rally in Portland, Oregon, on September 26, but only a few hundred people attended the event, far less than the 10,000 attendees the group was expecting.
Donald Trump Jr., the president's son, defended his father's comments to CBS News' Gayle King on Tuesday evening, arguing that Mr. Trump was asking the group to "stand down."
"I don't know if that was a misspeak, but he was talking about having them stand down," Trump Jr. said.
White House strategic communications director Alyssa Farah said in an interview with Fox News on Wednesday morning that Mr. Trump did not need to clarify his comments.
"I don't think there is anything to clarify. He told them to stand back," Farah said.
Republican Senator Mitt Romney, a frequent critic of the president, said on Wednesday that "of course" Mr. Trump should have explicitly condemned white supremacy. GOP Senator Mike Rounds told reporters that he was "hoping for more clarity" from the president.
Senator Tim Scott, the lone Black Republican in the Senate, told reporters that he believed Mr. Trump should "correct" his comments.
"I think he misspoke," Scott said. "I think he should correct it, and if he doesn't correct it, I guess he didn't misspeak."
Mr. Trump was more forcefully condemned by Democrats. Senator Kamala Harris, the Democratic vice presidential nominee, called Mr. Trump's equivocation "a dog whistle through a bullhorn." Senator Cory Booker called Mr. Trump's remarks "terrifying" and "chilling."
Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin said of the president's remark about the Proud Boys, "He's just afraid to confront them. I'm afraid he believes they're his followers, and he doesn't want to make them angry before an election."
On Wednesday afternoon, Mr. Trump went into clean-up mode on the White House South Lawn. The president claimed he didn't know who the Proud Boys were, even though he offered a message to them Tuesday night without asking for further clarification.
"I don't know who the Proud Boys are," the president claimed Wednesday, adding that, "whoever they are, they need to stand down" and let law enforcement do their job.
Asked about white supremacy, the president said, "I've always denounced any form of that."