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

President TrumpDonald John TrumpHillary Clinton responds to Chrissy Teigen tweet: 'I love you back' Police called after Florida moms refuse to wear face masks at school board meeting about mask policy Supreme Court rejects Trump effort to shorten North Carolina mail-ballot deadline 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 BidenHillary Clinton responds to Chrissy Teigen tweet: 'I love you back' Supreme Court rejects Trump effort to shorten North Carolina mail-ballot deadline Overnight Defense: Trump campaign's use of military helicopter raises ethics concerns | Air Force jets intercept aircraft over Trump rally | Senators introduce bill to expand visa screenings 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) WallaceTrump calls Fox 'disappointing' for airing Obama speech Fox News president, top anchors advised to quarantine after coronavirus exposure: report Republican National Committee chair warns of 'most progressive, radical takeover of our country' if Biden wins 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.

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

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.

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellMcConnell: Battle for Senate 'a 50-50 proposition' 'Packing' federal courts is already a serious problem What a Biden administration should look like MORE (R-Ky.) called it "unacceptable" not to condemn white supremacy.

Sen. Tim ScottTimothy (Tim) Eugene ScottFrom HBCUs to Capitol Hill: How Congress can play an important role Democrats unveil bill to reduce police violence against people with mental illness Liberals should embrace Trump's Supreme Court nominee MORE (R-S.C.), the lone Black Republican senator, said he believed Trump "misspoke."

Sen. Mike RoundsMarion (Mike) Michael RoundsDuring pandemic, 'telehealth' emerging as important lifeline to connect patients with caregivers The Hill's Campaign Report: Team Trump on defense over president's comments on white supremacy Trump says Proud Boys should 'stand down' after backlash to debate comments 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.