McEnany defends Trump comments on white supremacy at combative briefing

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany sparred with reporters Thursday over President Trump’s recent comments on white supremacists, arguing Trump denounced hate groups at this week’s presidential debate and denying that he has a mixed record on the issue.

McEnany fielded questions from several journalists about the president’s record on condemning white supremacy, but largely parried them away by dismissing the inquiries as “partisan.” It marked the second consecutive day where the White House has struggled to answer questions about the president’s remarks from Tuesday night.

Fox News correspondent John Roberts asked McEnany for a “definitive and declarative statement” that the president denounces white supremacy and groups that espouse it. McEnany pointed to Trump’s previous comments condemning that ideology, including remarks from Wednesday and in the aftermath of a mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, in August 2019, but she would not offer a fresh condemnation from the podium.

“Can you right now denounce white supremacy and the groups that espouse it?” Roberts asked.

“I just did,” McEnany responded, accusing Roberts of contriving a story.

When CBS News reporter Paula Reid clashed with McEnany over the president’s “mixed” record on the issue, the press secretary pointed to Trump’s support for the federal execution of a white supremacist. When the two began talking over each other, McEnany declared it was not a “debate.”

“It is quite funny that the media goes haywire about interrupting in debates and then chooses to pursue that very same tactic themselves,” McEnany said. “This is a White House briefing. You ask a question, and you give me time to answer.”

CNN’s Kaitlan Collins asked McEnany why the Proud Boys, a far-right militia group, would celebrate the president’s call for them to “stand back and stand by” during Tuesday’s debate if he had denounced them as the press secretary had claimed. McEnany argued that “stand back” was a “synonym” for “stand down” and brushed off Collins’s question as a “partisan attack.”

Trump has faced widespread criticism, including from Republicans, for not denouncing white supremacy when given the opportunity during Tuesday evening’s debate in Cleveland. 

When Fox News host and moderator Chris Wallace asked Trump if he was willing to condemn white supremacy and militia groups, Trump said “sure” but insisted “left-wing” groups were to blame for most violence. When Democratic nominee Joe Biden asked Trump to condemn the Proud Boys, Trump told them to “stand back and stand by.”

“I’ll tell you what, somebody has got to do something about antifa and the left,” Trump continued. 

Trump shifted his rhetoric on Wednesday in an exchange with reporters, claiming he didn’t know who the Proud Boys are and that they should “stand down.” Pressed on whether he would denounce white supremacists, Trump at first tried to turn the conversation to his support for law enforcement before saying that he has “always denounced any form of that.”

Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), the only Black Republican in the Senate, told reporters Wednesday that he believed Trump misspoke during the debate and that the president “needs to correct it” if that were the case. McEnany insisted, however, that Trump did not misspeak during the debate.

“When the president denounced white supremacy and said ‘sure,’ no, he didn’t misspeak,” McEnany said Thursday.

Trump has at times condemned white supremacists and hate groups, but other times has offered cover for such groups or provided fodder for their beliefs.

The president was slow to disavow the endorsement of Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke during the 2016 GOP primaries, and before running for office he was a leading proponent of the birther conspiracy that former President Obama was not born in the United States.

As president, Trump drew sharp criticism from Democrats and Republicans after the violent “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., when he argued there “were very fine people on both sides.” More recently, Trump defended a teenager accused of killing two people in late August during a protest in Kenosha, Wis., over the police shooting of a Black man.

The press briefing represented one of the most contentious of its kind for McEnany, who has held semi-regular briefings since she was brought into the role in April. She also faced a barrage of questions about Trump’s comments on mail-in voting, coronavirus stimulus negotiations and other topics.

At one point, a reporter corrected McEnany’s opening statement when she described Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett as a Rhodes Scholar. Barrett attended Rhodes College in Memphis, but was not a recipient of the prestigious scholarship.

Another reporter asked McEnany for more information about a vague claim from Trump that he purported showed the dangers of using mail-in ballots. Jon Decker of Fox News Radio raised the president’s claim that “they found a lot of ballots in a river,” and pressed McEnany to answer “who is ‘they’ ” and “where the river is.”

McEnany complained about a “lack of journalistic curiosity” on the issue of mail-in voting and accused Decker of “shameful filibustering.”

“I’m very curious. Where’s the river?” Decker asked. “That’s curiosity.”

Tags Chris Wallace Donald Trump Joe Biden Tim Scott

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