Sep 30, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Trump's 2 chilling debate warnings

Photo: Morry Gash/Pool via Getty Images

One of the few groups in America with anything to celebrate after last night's loud, ugly, rowdy presidential "debate" was the violent, far-right Proud Boys, after President Trump pointedly refused to condemn white supremacist groups.

Why it matters: This was a for-the-history-books moment in a debate that was mostly headache-inducing noise. Trump failed to condemn racist groups after four months when millions marched for racial justice in the country's largest wave of activism in half a century.

Trump also telegraphed with clarity that there's unlikely to be a clean outcome to the Nov. 3 election: "We might not know for months, because these ballots are going to be all over. ... It's a fraud and it's a shame. ... It's a rigged election."

  • On the Supreme Court, Trump said: "I think I’m counting on them to look at the ballots, definitely. I hope we don’t need them, in terms of the election itself. But for the ballots, I think so, because what’s happening is incredible."
  • That could mean weeks or months of delay, even in a blowout.

Here's what happened: Toward the end of the opening presidential debate, Trump was asked: "Are you willing tonight to condemn white supremacists and militia groups, and to say that they need to stand down and not add to the violence ... we saw in Kenosha and as we've seen in Portland?"

  • "Sure. I'm willing to do that," Trump told the moderator, Fox News' Chris Wallace, who was so frustrated by the president's disregard for the rules that at one point he offered to switch places.
  • But then Trump never did. "I would say almost everything I see is from the left wing — not from the right wing," Trump said. "I'm willing to do anything — I want to see peace."
  • "Then do it, sir," Wallace repeated.

"What do you want to call them?" Trump said. "Give me a name. Who would you like me to condemn?"

  • Joe Biden, who called Trump a "clown" during the debate, stepped in and prompted "Proud Boys," one of the country's best known hate groups. The Anti-Defamation League describes the group as: "Misogynistic, Islamophobic, transphobic and anti-immigration."
  • Then, the line that will echo. "The Proud Boys — stand back and stand by," Trump said. "But I'll tell you what ... somebody's gotta do something about Antifa and the left. This is not a right-wing problem. This is a left-wing problem."

The Proud Boys account on the secure messaging platform Telegram turned "Stand back … stand by" into a logo right after the debate, Axios' Ina Fried reports.

  • "President Trump told the proud boys to stand by because someone needs to deal with ANTIFA ... well sir! we’re ready!!" Proud Boys organizer Joe Biggs wrote on Parler, a conservative social-media platform. "Trump basically said to go [eff] them up! this makes me so happy."
  • "STAND BACK ... STAND BY" was also emblazoned on a Proud Boys T-shirt.
  • The N.Y. Times reported that when asked what the president meant by "stand by," Trump campaign senior adviser Jason Miller said it was "very clear he wants them to knock it off."

As Trump tried to run away with the debate, Biden rarely looked at him and mostly addressed Wallace or spoke directly to the camera. Biden’s strategy: Ignore Trump and speak straight to the American public.

  • By contrast, Trump spent most of the night speaking directly at Biden, who either looked down or looked perplexed at Trump’s charges and claims.
  • Trump was Trump: indomitable, indiscriminate, incandescent.

The bottom line: Neither Democrats nor Republicans were convinced that their guy won. And it's hard to believe many Americans are eager to tune in to the next two debates.

  • Biden's campaign told Axios that he'll show up for the remaining debates — on Oct. 15 and Oct. 22, after next week's vice presidential debate — so he can continue to spotlight contrasts with Trump.

Go deeper: Watch all of the most-talked-about videos from last night's debate

Reporting was contributed by Stef Kight, David Nather, Jonathan Swan, Margaret Talev, Alayna Treene and Zach Basu.

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