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What Trump’s response to white supremacist groups means

In the past, President Trump has failed to denounce far-right extremist and racist groups and sentiments when prompted. He did so again during Tuesday night’s first presidential debate, telling members of the white supremacist Proud Boys group to “stand by.” William Brangham talks to the University of Chicago’s Kathleen Belew and Janai Nelson of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It has happened before with President Trump, stopping short of clearly denouncing far right extremists and racist groups and sentiments when prompted.

    William Brangham has our deeper dive into that exchange from last night's debate.

  • Chris Wallace:

    You have repeatedly criticized the vice president.

  • William Brangham:

    This is the moment where the president, again, was unwilling to criticize racist groups in America:

  • Chris Wallace:

    Are you willing tonight to condemn white supremacists and militia groups…

  • President Donald Trump:

    Sure.

  • Chris Wallace:

    … 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?

  • President Donald Trump:

    Sure, I'm willing to do that, but …

  • Chris Wallace:

    Are you prepared to specifically …

  • Former Vice President Joe Biden:

    Then do it.

  • Chris Wallace:

    Well, go ahead, sir.

  • President Donald Trump:

    I would say — I would say almost everything I see is from the left wing, not from the right wing.

  • Chris Wallace:

    So what are you — what are you …

  • President Donald Trump:

    If you look …

  • Chris Wallace:

    What are you saying?

  • President Donald Trump:

    I'm — I'm willing to do anything. I want to see peace.

  • Chris Wallace:

    Well, then do it, sir.

  • Former Vice President Joe Biden:

    Say it. Do it. Say it.

  • President Donald Trump:

    Do you want to call them — what do you want to call them? Give me a name. Give me a name. Go ahead.

  • Chris Wallace:

    White supremacists and …

  • Former Vice President:

    White supremacists …

  • President Donald Trump:

    Well, who would like me condemn?

  • Chris Wallace:

    White supremacists and…

  • Former Vice President Joe Biden:

    The Proud Boys.

  • President Donald Trump:

    Who?

  • Chris Wallace:

    … right-wing militia.

  • President Donald Trump:

    Proud Boys, stand back and stand by.

    But I will tell you what. I will tell you what. Somebody's got to do something about Antifa and the left, because this is not a right-wing problem.

  • Former Vice President Joe Biden:

    His own …

  • William Brangham:

    The Proud Boys are part of a loose network of far right extremist and racist groups in the U.S., many of whom have aligned themselves closely with the president and his policies.

    Last night, New York Times reporter Mike Baker tweeted that some Proud Boys had modified their logo to include the president's words, "Stand back, stand by," seemingly taking them as their new motto.

    Leaving the White House today, President Trump said he didn't know who the Proud Boys were, but he urged restraint.

  • President Donald Trump:

    They have to stand down, let law enforcement do their work.

  • William Brangham:

    But last night was just the latest example of the president's reluctance to clearly rebuke extremist far right groups.

    In 2017, after clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia, at a white supremacist protest, where a woman was murdered, he said this:

  • President Donald Trump:

    You had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people on both sides.

  • William Brangham:

    Just two weeks ago, President Trump's FBI director, Christopher Wray, warned Congress of the threat posed by white supremacists.

  • Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich.:

    That white supremacists are the largest chunk of the racially motivated domestic terrorists.

  • Christopher Wray:

    Yes.

    But let me also say that racially motivated violent extremists over recent years have been responsible for the most lethal activity in the U.S.

  • William Brangham:

    Also this month, Brian Murphy, an official in the Department of Homeland Security, filed a whistle-blower complaint, claiming that other senior officials directed him to downplay the threat of white supremacy — quote — "in a manner that made the threat appear less severe."

    The Trump campaign pushed back, noting the president's new Platinum Plan for Black communities, which touches on economic and health care issues, but also calls for the Department of Justice to treat the Ku Klux Klan as a domestic terror organization.

    Biden addressed the president's remarks about the Proud Boys at an Ohio train stop today.

  • Former Vice President Joe Biden:

    My message to the Proud Boys and every other white supremacist group is, cease and desist. That's not who we are. This is not who we are as Americans.

  • William Brangham:

    Biden has said the president's words about Charlottesville spurred him to launch his 2020 bid. He said Mr. Trump's remarks last night were — quote — "a wakeup call for all Americans."

    For more on all of this, I am joined now by Janai Nelson — she is associate director counsel at the NAACP's Legal Defense and Education Fund — and by Kathleen Belew. She's a historian at the University of Chicago who studies the white power movement in America.

    Thank you both for being here.

    Kathleen Belew, to you first.

    For those who had never heard of the Proud Boys until last night, can you just tell us a bit, who are they and where do they fit in the constellation of white power groups in America?

  • Kathleen Belew:

    Sure. Absolutely.

    So, the Proud Boys are familiar to most of us, I think, from the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017. That's the rally where this resurgence of the white power movement really caught the public attention and sort of reentered our public consciousness for the first time in this cycle.

    Now, it's a movement that includes a wide variety of activists, ranging from groups like the Proud Boys that are interested mostly in public facing activism and sort of fight club get-out-the-vote activity, to groups with a more nefarious underground character, The Base, Atomwaffen, and a host of people who've been described erroneously as lone wolf actors.

  • William Brangham:

    Staying with you for a second, Kathleen.

    So, the president last night said — is asked to denounce them and other groups like them. And, instead, he says, "Stand back, stand by."

    What do you hear in those words?

  • Kathleen Belew:

    So the problem here is that, even in the most generous interpretation of Trump's comment in the debate in which he said people have argued he meant to say stand down, he didn't say stand down.

    So, the white power movement heard this as, stand back, stand by. And these activists will take that to mean, stand by for further action.

    Furthermore, we know that they heard it that way because this phrase has already been incorporated into Proud Boys logo design, and people have tweeted about it. And there's been a lot of activity around these words.

    But this is also a paramilitary movement that has been amassing in militias, that has been training in paramilitary camps, that has been preparing to do violence for quite a long time. When they hear, stand by, many people will hear a call to arms and a call to further action.

  • William Brangham:

    So, Janai Nelson, the same question to you. This is not, as we have said, the first time the president has been called upon to denounce groups like this.

    What did you think and hear last night?

  • Janai Nelson:

    What I heard was a blatant attack on our democracy.

    What we witnessed last night was the president of the United States, with all the country and all the world watching, stand in solidarity with white supremacy.

    And, unlike his previous comments, this time, he spoke directly to them. He told them to stand back and stand by. And, last night, I believe we reached a tipping point in our country. We witnessed an alliance between an elected head of state and a violent extremist organization on full display.

    And this is precisely how democracies unravel. And the failure to condemn this heinous behavior, as horrific as it is, creates a very clear choice for voters about the America they want to live in.

    And he simply revealed himself and revealed his plan for this country in those statements.

  • William Brangham:

    Kathleen Belew, can you help us understand the — when the president talks like this, how does this type of language matter? Does it actually change minds? Does it swell the numbers in these types of groups?

  • Kathleen Belew:

    Absolutely.

    I think that the danger here is that a call-to-arms statement like this is like a bell you cannot unring. It is a — this movement has organized across decades, if not generations.

    And many of these activists are intent not only on things like poll watching and voter suppression, although that's been in the playbook for decades, too, but, also, they're interested in attacks on civilians and mass casualty events as a way of provoking civil unrest.

    So these are serious stakes. This is not something that we can ignore. It's not something that we can casually gesture to, and think there will not be consequences.

    If Trump truly did not know who the Proud Boys are, that is a massive failure of his presidency. I mean, this is something that his intelligence agencies have been very concerned about. We have seen several whistle-blowers leaving the FBI and the DHS saying that white power violence is the largest threat of domestic terror, saying that we are seeing these huge upsurges and this rising wave of activity.

    The Trump administration not taking action is in many ways as good as complacency and as good as an alliance.

  • William Brangham:

    Janai Nelson, of course, one of the concerns, and all of this is what happens on the election and what groups like this might do to interact with the election.

    We know the president is calling for an army — those are his words — of people to show up and watch what happens on Election Day. Is that something you're particularly worried about?

  • Janai Nelson:

    Well, of course it raises very significant concerns. It hearkens back to the rank history of voter intimidation and violence against Black voters that undergirds this country's history of voting and elections.

    And a lot depends on what else President Trump does before this election, and, more importantly, whether other leaders continue to remain silent.

    We have asked, the Legal Defense Fund demanded that the Department of Justice investigate the rise in white nationalist violence. And that fell on deaf ears. The Department of Justice is not doing its job to investigate these types of crimes.

    And we have to appreciate how very extreme the president's conduct is. This is the first president in 70 years to publicly stand on the side of white supremacy and to refuse to denounce racism.

    Regardless of how any prior president may have felt privately, this public refusal to denounce it is absolutely stunning and disturbing, to say the least.

    But we have to be vocal about the fact that voter intimidation is illegal. It's illegal under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, under the Ku Klux Klan Act, and under myriad state and local laws.

    So people who want to follow the perilous call to disrupt our election process by intimidating voters or obstructing the election should be forewarned that there are many laws, there's an array of laws that can be used to prevent them from harming our election and to prosecute them.

  • William Brangham:

    Kathleen, I want to pick up on something that Janai Nelson was just talking about there with regards to the Department of Justice and the role that federal and local law enforcement has to play in this.

    We know we have seen some reporting that certain of these militia groups, like the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters have, in some cases, interacted and in cases coordinated with local law enforcement.

    This — we know the DHS is aware of this, the FBI is aware of this. How serious a threat is that, this possible coordination between these groups?

  • Kathleen Belew:

    This is an enormous problem.

    And one of the common misconceptions about the militia movement is that sometimes they present themselves as a neutral party. They say that they're there to keep order, to just sort of enforce the law. But they are not — they're — they can't enforce the law. They're not emboldened to enforce the law under any kind of governance.

    But we see things like militiamen holding protesters, so that police can arrest them. We see problems like, in Charlottesville, the governor of Virginia said that police couldn't enter to keep demonstrators safe because the militias that were there were more heavily armed than the local police.

    This is not neutral. The presence of people who are heavily armed has real impact in intimidating and in the potential for further violence.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Kathleen Belew and Janai Nelson, thank you both very much for being here.

  • Janai Nelson:

    Thank you.

  • Kathleen Belew:

    Thank you for having us.

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