In a discussion about unrest in Portland, Oregon, in the first presidential debate on Tuesday, moderator Chris Wallace asked President Donald Trump directly whether he would condemn the white supremacists and related far-right groups who have been active there. Rather than jump on an easy opportunity to distance himself from the groups and meet a minimum anti-racism bar—earlier in the debate, Trump suggested racial sensitivity programs promote “reverse” racism—the president danced around the topic. He failed to condemn white supremacy as Joe Biden and Wallace requested.
The exchange is worth reading closely:
Wallace: You have repeatedly criticized the vice president for not specifically calling out antifa and other extremist groups. 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?
Trump: Sure, I’m willing to do that. But—
Wallace: Are you prepared to specifically—?
Biden: Do it.
Trump: I would say almost everything I see is from the left wing, not from the right wing.
Wallace: So what are you saying?
Trump: I’m willing to do anything. I want to see peace.
Wallace: Well, then do it, sir.
Biden: Say it. Do it. Say it.
Trump: You want to call them—what do you want to call them? Give me a name. Give me a name.
Wallace: White supremacists and—
Trump: Who would you like me to condemn?
Biden: Proud Boys.
Wallace: —and Proud Boys.
Biden: Proud Boys.
Trump: Proud Boys, stand back and stand by. 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. This is a left-wing problem.
For most viewers, the issue with this exchange would be Trump’s feet-dragging over the request to condemn violent white supremacists. But according to New York Times reporter Mike Baker, some of the people Trump was addressing came away with an entirely different understanding of the message, based on his words “stand by.”
“Stand by” may have been an accidental slip by the president. But given that so many of the conspiracy theorists who support Trump are already geared to find hidden messages in his statements, it’s not surprising that the president’s failure to unequivocally condemn white supremacists left room for those same white supremacists to grow even more confident of his support.
Support Slate’s politics coverage
Slate is covering the stories that matter to you. Join Slate Plus to support our work. You’ll get unlimited articles and a suite of great benefits.