During the first presidential debate Tuesday, Trump tried to do both.
“You have repeatedly criticized the vice president for not specifically calling out antifa and other left-wing extremist groups,” moderator Chris Wallace said, “but 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 in a number of these cities, as we saw in Kenosha and as we’ve seen in Portland?”
“Sure,” Trump replied a few times — although he notably didn’t offer any words of condemnation, despite Wallace and his opponent, former vice president Joe Biden, encouraging him to do so.
“I would say almost everything I see is from the left wing, not from the right wing,” the president added. “I’m willing to do anything. I want to see peace."
“Well, then, do it, sir,” Wallace pressed.
Trump asked for the name of a group to condemn, with Biden offering the name of the reactionary fascist group Proud Boys.
“Proud Boys, stand back and stand by,” Trump said. Then he quickly moved on: “But I’ll tell you what — I’ll tell you what, somebody’s got to do something about antifa and the left because this is not a right-wing problem.”
In fact, it is a right-wing problem. Last week, acting Homeland Security director Chad Wolf said at a Senate hearing that white supremacists pose “the most persistent and lethal threat when we talk about domestic violent extremists.” Draft reports from Wolf’s agency outlining significant terrorism threats indicate that white supremacists pose the greatest risk to the public, more so than international actors.
But Trump much prefers to suggest either equivalence between left-wing and right-wing groups or to imply that the actions of antifascists — antifa — are more dangerous. The president has often attributed recent incidents of violence to antifa, without justification. His team understands where he wants to focus, with the attorney general and, according to a whistleblower, DHS officials seeking to play down the threat that white supremacists pose in favor of the purported threat from antifa. And Trump on Tuesday made clear that this is the balance he favors.
Again, it’s not that he won’t denounce white supremacy in broad strokes if pressed. It’s that he understands that white supremacists generally support him and his administration, and that he’s therefore loath to criticize them. (See also: QAnon.) And it’s moreover that Trump simply doesn’t really consider white supremacy a problem to be addressed, beyond in the most obvious, Jim Crow-era sorts of manifestations of hooded Klansmen burning crosses. Trump doesn’t see significant structural racism in the United States — as he repeatedly has said publicly and as he told The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward in June — and, relatedly, won’t spontaneously criticize overt racists.
There have been times that Trump has offered criticism of white supremacists. It generally comes, though, in prepared remarks that he’s reading in response to some acute racial conflict.
After the death of a racism protester in Charlottesville in 2017, Trump read a statement declaring that “we must rediscover the bonds of love and loyalty that bring us together as Americans.”
“Racism is evil and those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs,” he continued, “including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacist and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear.”
The next day, though, when asked about the events, he responded without a script — suggesting that his comments the prior day should be sufficient.
“I've condemned neo-Nazis,” he said with obvious anger. “I've condemned many different groups, but not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me. Not all of those people were white supremacists by any stretch."
At a rally a few days after that, Trump was obviously incensed that the media was focused not on his scripted comments but, instead, on his obvious sympathy for pro-Confederacy protesters.
To a cheering crowd, he read parts of his statement.
“ ‘We must rediscover the bonds of love and loyalty that bring us together as Americans,’ right?” Trump read. “Then I said, ‘racism is evil.’ Do they report that I said that racism is evil? You know why? Because they are very dishonest people.”
He went on a riff about CNN having a bunch of critics on a panel and how the network fired his supporter Jeffrey Lord. He did not mention that Lord was fired for invoking a Nazi slogan on social media.
“ ‘And those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold true as Americans,’ ” he continued. “Now let me ask you, can it be any better than that, in all fairness?”
When a gunman in El Paso killed nearly two dozen people at a Walmart, Trump was again called upon to denounce racist rhetoric. The alleged shooter had published a screed online that specifically echoed Trump’s arguments about immigration.
“In one voice, our nation must condemn racism, bigotry and white supremacy,” Trump said in prepared remarks. “These sinister ideologies must be defeated. Hate has no place in America.”
Speaking to reporters before traveling to the city, though, he expressed agreement with the alleged shooter’s view of the need to restrict immigration. He was also asked whether he was concerned about an apparent increase in violence linked to white supremacists.
“I am concerned about the rise of any group of hate,” he said. “I don’t like it, any group of hate, whether it’s white supremacy, whether it’s any other kind of supremacy, whether it’s antifa, whether it’s any group of hate, I am very concerned about it, and I’ll do something about it.”
That equivalence between left and right appears over and over. Even when Trump decided to denounce racism on Twitter on the anniversary of the violence in Charlottesville, he denounced “all types of racism” — tacitly equating anti-Black racism with perceived racism targeting Whites. This is a common view among his supporters, in fact, that White Americans are also or more likely to be targets of racism and discrimination.
A poll conducted after Charlottesville found that 3 in 10 of Trump’s strongest backers supported or shrugged at the idea of white supremacy.
Trump’s obvious annoyance at having to denounce a group that supports his presidency and that he doesn’t consider something to be concerned about is not new. In February 2016, as he was fighting to win the Republican presidential nomination, he was asked why he had retweeted white supremacists. He declined to admit any mistake.
“I don't know about retweeting. I mean, you retweet somebody, and turns out to be a white supremacist,” he said. “I know nothing about these groups that are supporting me."
A few days later, he received the public support of David Duke, perhaps the country's most infamous white nationalist and someone who, in 2000, Trump had publicly condemned in an essay written for the New York Times.
But in 2016, Trump was more reluctant to condemn the former Ku Klux Klan leader.
“Well, just so you understand, I don’t know anything about David Duke, okay?” he told CNN’s Jake Tapper. “I don’t know anything about what you’re even talking about with white supremacy or white supremacists. So, I don’t know. I don’t know, did he endorse me or what’s going on, because, you know, I know nothing about David Duke. I know nothing about white supremacists.”
The annoyance is tangible. Trump wants the nation to worry about violence in the streets but violence from leftists, not his supporters. (After a 17-year-old allegedly shot and killed two Black Lives Matter protesters in Wisconsin, Trump described the incident as an act of self-defense.) He doesn’t want to be viewed as racist and will denounce the KKK in the abstract. But fundamentally, he doesn’t consider the white supremacist ideology a real concern.
After a man killed 49 Muslims at a mosque in New Zealand in early 2019, Trump was asked whether white nationalism posed a threat globally.
“I don’t, really,” he replied. “I think it’s a small group of people that have very, very serious problems.”
Shortly after that incident, the Pew Research Center released polling finding that most Americans, including a quarter of Republicans, thought Trump had done too little to distance himself from white nationalists. Similar numbers thought that, in fact, he had encouraged the ideology. After Tuesday night, white nationalists themselves indicated that they considered his debate response encouraging.
Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.), the only Black Republican in Congress, told reporters Wednesday that, with his failure to denounce white supremacists, Trump “misspoke.” The president, he said, “should correct it.”
“If he doesn't correct it,” Scott continued, “I guess he didn't misspeak."
In an interview with Fox News Channel, White House communications director Alyssa Farah said that Trump would in fact not refine his debate response.
“I don’t think that there’s anything to clarify,” Farah said — revealing a truth, however unintentionally.
Later, however, Trump did finally offer the direct rejection that he failed to provide Tuesday. In a way.
“White supremacists: they clearly love you and support you,” a reporter said.
“Do you welcome that?” the reporter asked.
Trump riffed on police for a bit.
“Do you denounce them?” the reporter asked.
“I’ve always denounced any form — any form, any form of any of that,” Trump replied, “you have to denounce.”
“But also,” he added, “Joe Biden has to say something about antifa.”