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Trump says Proud Boys should 'stand down' after backlash to debate comments

President TrumpDonald TrumpThe Memo: The Obamas unbound, on race Iran says onus is on US to rejoin nuclear deal on third anniversary of withdrawal Assaults on Roe v Wade increasing MORE on Wednesday said he didn't know about the Proud Boys but that the group should "stand down" amid intense criticism of his remarks at the previous night's presidential debate that the far-right group should "stand back and stand by."

Trump on Wednesday faced blowback from a number of Republicans who said he should have forcefully denounced white supremacy when he was given the chance.

"I don't know who the Proud Boys are," Trump told reporters when departing for a campaign trip to Minnesota. "I can only say they have to stand down. Let law enforcement do their work."

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Trump, however, again tried to equivocate on the matter, saying "the problem is on the left" while railing against antifa, a loosely affiliated collection of left-wing protesters.

Pressed on whether he would denounce white supremacists, including those who support him, Trump tried to shift the conversation to his support for law enforcement before claiming he has "always denounced any form of that."

"But... Joe BidenJoe BidenDefense lawyers for alleged Capitol rioters to get tours of U.S. Capitol Sasse to introduce legislation giving new hires signing bonuses after negative jobs report Three questions about Biden's conservation goals MORE has to say something about antifa," he added.

FBI Director Christopher Wray in a hearing earlier this month pointed out that antifa refers to an ideology, not an organization.

Trump's comments about how the Proud Boys should "stand back and stand by" came after debate moderator Chris WallaceChristopher (Chris) WallaceRepublicans hammer Biden on infrastructure while administration defends plan GOP senator: Two sides 'far apart' on infrastructure compromise Biden economic adviser frames infrastructure plan as necessary investment MORE asked if Trump would be willing to condemn white supremacists. The president said "sure," but when pressed to actually do so, he did not.

It immediately became one of the most talked-about moments of the debate and a headache for those tasked with defending his remarks.

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The group immediately celebrated Trump's comments. One social media account affiliated with the self-described "white chauvinist" organization added "stand back and stand by" to the Proud Boys logo.

The Proud Boys are known for their white nationalist pandering, blatant anti-Muslim rhetoric and close ties with more publicly violent extremists.

The group gained national prominence for its involvement in the 2016 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., and it has staged multiple counter-rallies aimed at disrupting the anti-police brutality protests that have swept the country since the police killing of George Floyd in May.

Republican lawmakers and conservative allies widely panned Trump's debate comments, saying the president should have clearly denounced white supremacists.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellAssaults on Roe v Wade increasing Trump spokesman says defeating Cheney a top priority Biden to meet with GOP senators amid infrastructure push MORE (R-Ky.) called it "unacceptable" not to condemn white supremacy.

Sen. Tim ScottTimothy (Tim) Eugene ScottUpdating the aging infrastructure in Historically Black Colleges and Universities McConnell amid Trump criticism: 'I'm looking forward, not backward' The instructive popularity of Biden's 'New Deal' for the middle class MORE (R-S.C.), the lone Black Republican senator, said he believed Trump "misspoke."

Sen. Mike RoundsMike RoundsSenate GOP keeps symbolic earmark ban Senate confirms SEC chief Gensler to full five-year term Congress looks to rein in Biden's war powers MORE (R-S.D.) added that Trump should have "made it very clear that there's no room for people on the far left or the far more far right."

The president's surrogates at the White House and on his campaign spent the morning struggling to defend his comments about the far-right group. They argued that Trump has in the past denounced white supremacist groups, and pointed to his initial response of "sure" as a sign that he did so again on Tuesday.

Trump has previously condemned white supremacists, but typically only after facing pressure to do so. He spoke out after a mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, last year, and last week pledged to have the Ku Klux Klan prosecuted as a hate group.

But he has also equivocated between different groups, including after the 2017 violence in Charlottesville, when he said "you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides." 

Updated at 3:19 p.m.