Republican lawmakers found President Donald Trump’s performance in the first presidential debate against Democratic nominee Joe Biden lacking, especially when it came to his refusal to unequivocally condemn white supremacists and militia groups.
Debate moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News asked Trump on Tuesday night if he was willing to condemn white supremacists and tell them to “stand down” in cities such as Kenosha, Wisconsin, and Portland, Oregon, where heavily armed far-right extremists have shown up to anti-racism demonstrations as counterprotesters.
“I’m willing to do that,” Trump said.
But after prodding from both Wallace and Biden, who suggested he condemn a violent neo-fascist street gang known as the Proud Boys, the president appeared to be unwilling after all. Instead, he said the group should “stand back and stand by,” a comment that stirred widespread criticism from both sides of the aisle and caused celebration among the group’s members.
GOP senators on Wednesday gingerly urged Trump to rectify his statement.
“I think he misspoke. I think he should correct it,” Tim Scott of South Carolina, the only Black Republican senator, told reporters on Capitol Hill.
“If he doesn’t correct it, I guess he didn’t misspeak,” he added.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he agreed with Scott.
“He said it was unacceptable not to condemn white supremacists. And so I do so in the strongest possible way,” McConnell said during a press conference on Capitol Hill.
As he left the White House on Wednesday for a campaign event in Minnesota, Trump claimed he was unfamiliar with the Proud Boys.
“Whoever they are, they need to stand down,” the president told reporters.
Earlier on Wednesday, Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) said he was “hoping for more clarity” from Trump about his views regarding extremists and militia groups.
“He should have made it very clear that there’s no room for people on the far-left or the far-right when it comes to either antifa or these white supremacist groups,” Rounds said.
“Of course, of course,” Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah said when asked if the president should have condemned white supremacists during the debate.
Asked for his opinion on what was perhaps the ugliest debate in modern history, featuring near-constant interruptions and lying by Trump, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee observed that it “was not a Lincoln-Douglas debate, that’s for sure,” referring to the series of lengthy debates Abraham Lincoln took part in before becoming president. He called it an “embarrassment.”
Other GOP senators also lamented the toxic nature of the debate. But they, too, refrained from pinning the blame on Trump, who was primarily responsible for derailing it. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, for example, called the debate a “shitshow.” Lisa Murkowski of Alaska said it was “awful.” And Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia said it was “rough.”
“I think that the interrupting on both sides, the name-calling, was very unbecoming for a presidential debate,” added Sen. Susan Collins of Maine.