President Donald Trump at the first presidential debate Tuesday evening declined multiple times to condemn white supremacist movements that have supported his reelection, and he answered a question about encouraging calm in the aftermath of a surely contentious election in November by instead calling on his supporters to “go to into the polls and watch very carefully.”
“Are you willing, tonight, to condemn white supremacists and militia groups and to say that they need to stand down?” moderator Chris Wallace posed to Trump midway through the debate.
After pivoting to instead talk about violence from left-wing actors, Trump said he would be willing to denounce such groups and responded, “Give me a name. Who would you like me to condemn?”
The far right, “Western-chauvinist” militant group has overtly supported Trump and accounted for hate crimes and vandalism in jurisdictions where they have gathered to oppose his critics. The FBI considers the organization to have ties to white nationalism, to which the group’s leaders have objected.
In his response Tuesday, Trump also called on his supporters to combat Antifa, a loosely organized far-left militant group that the president has claimed poses as much of a threat as right-wing white nationalists, if not more.
In congressional testimony earlier this month, FBI Director Christopher Wray said that white supremacist movements represent the largest chunk of racially motivated domestic terrorism cases in the United States. Antifa is real, Wray told the House Homeland Security Committee on Sept. 17, but added it represents more of an ideology or movement than an organized group with clear leadership and members.
Trump’s responses were among the most noteworthy in an evening marked by bitter jabs, frequent interruptions and name-calling by both he and Democratic candidate Joe Biden, who during one attempt by Trump to shout over the former vice president’s answer called the president a “clown” and told him to shut up.
Wallace’s final question of both candidates centered on whether they would encourage their supporters to remain calm in the aftermath of the Nov. 3 election, which many experts believe may yield days if not weeks of indecision before officials can declare a winner due to close races and abnormal numbers of absentee and mail-in ballots.
“I’m urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully,” Trump said in a statement similar to prior assertions some have considered encouraging voter suppression.
He later insisted the election would be “rigged” and “phony,” though he also said he would win in a blowout.