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

President TrumpDonald TrumpNYT: Rep. Perry played role in alleged Trump plan to oust acting AG Arizona GOP censures top state Republicans McCain, Flake and Ducey Biden and UK prime minister discuss NATO, multilateralism during call 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 BidenDC residents jumped at opportunity to pay for meals for National Guardsmen Joe Biden might bring 'unity' – to the Middle East Biden shouldn't let defeating cancer take a backseat to COVID 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) WallaceChris Wallace: This was best inaugural address I've ever heard Fox News's DC managing editor Bill Sammon to retire Arkansas governor: Intelligence on state capitol protests 'not to the level that I'm bringing out the National Guard' 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 McConnellBiden leans on Obama-era appointees on climate Kentucky Republican committee rejects resolution urging McConnell to condemn Trump impeachment Calls grow for 9/11-style panel to probe Capitol attack MORE (R-Ky.) called it "unacceptable" not to condemn white supremacy.

Sen. Tim ScottTimothy (Tim) Eugene ScottGOP senator calls Biden's COVID-19 relief plan a 'non-starter' GOP senator questions constitutionality of an impeachment trial after Trump leaves office Biden's minimum wage push faces uphill battle with GOP MORE (R-S.C.), the lone Black Republican senator, said he believed Trump "misspoke."

Sen. Mike RoundsMike RoundsSunday shows preview: All eyes on Biden administration to tackle coronavirus Senate chaos threatens to slow Biden's agenda The GOP is in a fix: Gordian knot or existential crisis? 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.