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Trump upends own messaging with Black voters

President TrumpDonald John TrumpStephen Miller: Trump to further crackdown on illegal immigration if he wins US records 97,000 new COVID-19 cases, shattering daily record Biden leads Trump by 8 points nationally: poll MORE, trailing in polls and desperately needing to expand his voting base, potentially hamstrung his chances to do so by refusing to condemn white supremacy during Tuesday night’s presidential debate in Cleveland.

The president had a clear-cut opportunity to denounce — in front of a televised audience of millions  — the controversial, racist and violent movements and groups that have long backed his presidency. 

Instead, he did the opposite, telling the Proud Boys, a white supremacist neo-Nazi group, to “stand back and stand by.”

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The comment triggered outrage from Democratic lawmakers and elicited pushback from some of his staunchest congressional allies.

“Donald Trump is a white supremacist,” Rep. Alexandra Ocasio Cortez (D-N.Y.) tweeted Tuesday night. "People have been warning about this for a long time. ... This is fascism at our door.”

Tim ScottTimothy (Tim) Eugene ScottCould Blacks and Hispanics hand Trump a November victory? From HBCUs to Capitol Hill: How Congress can play an important role Democrats unveil bill to reduce police violence against people with mental illness MORE (S.C.), the only Black Republican in the Senate, said Wednesday that he thought Trump “misspoke” and should “correct it.” 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellTop Senate GOP super PAC makes final .6M investment in Michigan Senate race On The Money: McConnell says Congress will take up stimulus package at start of 2021 | Lawmakers see better prospects for COVID deal after election Overnight Health Care: House Dem report blasts Trump coronavirus response | Regeneron halts trial of antibody drug in sickest hospitalized patients | McConnell says Congress will take up stimulus package at start of 2021 MORE (R-Ky.) agreed with Scott, saying that it was “unacceptable” not to condemn white supremacists.

The president tried to clarify his statements Wednesday, telling reporters that he has “always denounced any form of any of that.”

However, the president’s words Tuesday night seemed to embolden the extremist group, which celebrated online. 

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“They have constantly been looking for the approval of the president, so for them this was incredibly thrilling,” Cassie Miller, senior research analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center, told The Hill.

The group has provided an incendiary presence at Black Lives Matter protests this summer, behavior which Miller explained as their M.O.

“They basically hold rallies in progressive cities such as Portland with the aim of inciting violent confrontation with counterprotesters and then they blame any resulting violence on the left and then use that to call for further repression and retaliation against the people that they think of as their adversaries,” Miller said.

At the very least, Trump’s failure to sufficiently disassociate himself with white supremacist groups detracted from the topics in the debate that the president views as his strengths: Jobs, the economy and law and order.

“I don’t think it surprises anybody who has been following Trump. This is consistent with what he has said about white supremacists, Alex Conant, a GOP strategist, told The Hill. “He needed the headlines this morning to be about Biden’s gaffes, not his own position on white supremacy. Trump desperately needs this election to be about Biden, but statements like the one he made at the debate keep the focus of the election on him, on Trump.”

Additionally, it put the president on the wrong side of racial tensions in the country that erupted numerous times this summer following the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, both Black Americans, at the hands of white police officers.

Republican presidential candidates in recent cycles have not done well with Black voters, but Trump had double-digit support from Black men in 2016, which saw Black voter participation drop to a 20-year low.

The GOP spent a hefty amount of time during the Republican National Convention fine-tuning Trump's image on race. It featured scores of speakers of color in an attempt to rehabilitate the narrative that the president is racist. The effort was aimed at both Black voters and other voters turned off by Trump's incendiary comments on race.

Trump has often said that he’s done more for the Black community than any president other than Abraham Lincoln, who dissolved the institution of slavery, pointing to the record low Black unemployment rate of 5.4 percent that was achieved in August 2019 prior to the coronavirus pandemic.

Late last week in Atlanta, he revealed his Platinum Plan, which would designate the KKK as a terrorist organization and invest heavily in Black communities, among other things.

“[Trump] needs to make very clear early on the various different things he has done to warrant African American support, whether it’s the Platinum Plan, the First Step Act, Opportunity Zones ... those are all things that should help him do better," Republican strategist Ford O’Connell told The Hill.

He added: “There are lessons learned and opportunities to take advantage of them, and he should do that in the next debate.” 

If Trump doesn't, the lasting image of the president on race ahead of Nov. 3 might just be his failure to forcefully denounce white supremacism from the debate stage. 

Morgan Chalfant contributed reporting