Trump debate remark puts white supremacy at focus of campaign

Tribune Content Agency

ALLIANCE, Ohio — Donald Trump’s volcanic debate performance put the president’s sympathy for white supremacists in the campaign spotlight Wednesday, heightening a sense of menacing chaos in the campaign that threatens to undercut other Republicans up for reelection in a year that was already a challenge for the GOP.

By midday, the president distanced himself from his most inflammatory debate remark — a call to the Proud Boys, an extremist group to “stand back and stand by” — saying that he didn’t know the organization.

“Whoever they are, they need to stand down,” Trump said. He also said he “always denounced any form of white supremacy,” despite failing to unambiguously do so Tuesday night.

Trump’s debate performance unsettled his allies and gave his rival, Joe Biden, a springboard to return to the themes that propelled the former vice president’s bid — a restoration of the nation’s character that had been degraded by political coarseness and racial animus.

“Last night I think was a wake-up call for all Americans,” Biden said during a campaign event in Alliance, Ohio — one of seven stops in a train tour Wednesday through two key states, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

He blasted Trump for his “dog whistle to white supremacy,” particularly his words for the Proud Boys.

Biden issued his own message to the extremist group: “Cease and desist.”

Trump, speaking to reporters on the South Lawn of the White House on Wednesday afternoon, presented a generally upbeat review of the debate, saying he got “tremendous reviews.”

Few others enjoyed the helter-skelter nature of the debate, including the Commission on Presidential Debates, the nonpartisan nonprofit entity that has sponsored all general election presidential and vice presidential debates since 1988.

The commission, in a statement, acknowledged changes were needed to facilitate “a more orderly discussion of the issues,” and announced that the group plans to “ensure that additional tools to maintain order are in place for the remaining debates.” The organization did not specify what those changes would entail.

As Trump’s comment dominated post-debate news coverage, Republicans expressed concern about how fallout from the chaotic debate and the way the campaign is shaping up could affect the party’s candidates up and down the ballot.

“It feels like 2018 all over again,” said GOP pollster Neil Newhouse, referring to the midterm elections that delivered gigantic losses for the party and turned control of the House over to Democrats. That election “was a referendum on Donald Trump, and this year feels exactly the same way. Republicans don’t fare well in that kind of election environment.”

Trump spokesman Hogan Gidley defended Trump’s debate performance and insisted the president had actually condemned white supremacists.

“He said ‘sure’ three times,” Gidley said on CNN, referring to his response to questions about whether he would condemn supremacists. “The president does and he did call them out.”

But outside of Trump’s staff, even many of his staunch supporters struggled to make sense of his comments and spin them in a favorable light.

“I think he misspoke, I think he should correct it,” said Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the only Black Republican senator. “If he doesn’t correct it, I guess he didn’t misspeak.”

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, a Republican, said on CNN that “the Democrats owe a lot to Chris Wallace,” blaming the moderator for having asked the question that elicited Trump’s Proud Boys comment.

“He was asking the president to do something he knows the president doesn’t like to do, which is, say something bad about people who support him.”

The Trump campaign felt compelled to rehash in a video the times over the years that the president has condemned the Ku Klux Klan. “Here Are 7 Examples Of President Trump Condemning The KKK,” the campaign’s “Trump War Room” account tweeted.

The controversy echoed the blowback over Trump’s handling of white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, three years ago, when he said there were “very fine people on both sides.” Biden said those comments spurred him to run for president, and now he’s capitalizing on a sequel to fuel his campaign in the closing weeks.

Trump’s aides have been hoping to reshape the final weeks of the campaign in terms Republicans think work to his advantage — as a choice between himself and Biden, whom he portrays as a tool of the Democratic Party’s extreme left wing.

The reaction to Tuesday night’s debate, however, appeared to lock in the current framework of the race — a referendum on Trump, which has clearly favored the Democrats.

On network morning shows, a key source of information for swing voters who tend not to closely follow politics, Republicans had difficulty defending Trump.

On CBS’ “This Morning,” for example, former Republican Party chair Reince Priebus tried to avoid commenting on Trump’s remark about the Proud Boys, claiming he hadn’t heard him say it.

“You’ll have to ask him,” Priebus said when host Gayle King asked if Trump would condemn white supremacists Wednesday.

Even Brian Kilmeade, a Trump-friendly host on “Fox & Friends,” the president’s favorite television show, expressed sharp disappointment.

“Donald Trump ruined the biggest layup in the history of debates by not condemning white supremacists,” he said. “I don’t know if he didn’t hear it, but he’s gotta clarify that right away. That’s like, are you against evil? Why the president didn’t just knock it out of the park, I’m not sure.”

Trump was also rebuked by the sheriff of Portland, Oregon, whom the president claimed during the debate was a supporter.

“I have Florida, I have Texas, I have Ohio,” Trump said. “Excuse me, Portland, the sheriff there just came out today and said, ‘I support President Trump.’”

But Multnomah County Sheriff Mike Reese went on Twitter on Tuesday to deny any such support.

“As the Multnomah County Sheriff I have never supported Donald Trump and will never support him,” he tweeted.

The aftermath of the debate could pose a threat not only to the president, who has trailed Biden for months, but also to Republicans up for reelection in swing states, such as Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who are already struggling to keep the backing of Trump supporters while distancing themselves enough from the president to woo swing voters.

The debate could also hurt Republican efforts to hold onto swing congressional districts in the nation’s suburbs.

“Many found the entire debate disturbing,” said Sarah Chamberlain, president of the Republican Main Street Partnership PAC, a group that supports the dwindling band of GOP centrists in the House.

“Our polling shows he damaged the brand in suburban areas,” she said.

As the post-debate commentary swirled, Biden , underscored a theme he tried to get across in the din of Tuesday’s debate.

“Does your president understand at all what you’re going through?” he said.

“Does he see you where you are and where you want to be? Does he care? Has he tried to walk in your shoes to understand what’s going on in your life?”

Trump plans a rally later in the day in Minnesota.

Analysts were puzzled by what Trump was trying to accomplish in the debate. He needs to win over moderate Republicans and wavering independents to overcome Biden’s lead in polls. But instead he appears to have unnerved them.

Two public snap polls poll of debate viewers showed Biden winning the debate; 60%-28% in a poll by CNN; a closer outcome, 48%-41%, in one by CBS.

Jonathan Tasini, a progressive activist who backed Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential bid, predicted that the broader GOP price of a big Trump loss could be on par with what happened in 1980 when President Jimmy Carter’s loss swept a new Republican majority into the Senate, thanks in part to the defeat of longtime Democratic incumbents who had not been seen as vulnerable.

Jon Meacham, a presidential biographer and historian who spoke at the Democratic National Convention, said the debate was an emblem of how Trump has shattered political norms in the U.S. but should not be mistaken for a bipartisan breakdown even though Biden himself joined in the name-calling and insult-hurling.

“It wasn’t that chaos reigned last night; it was that Donald Trump’s chaos reigned,” Meacham said Wednesday on MSNBC. “If it was a dumpster fire, it was one that Donald Trump set.”


(Hook reported from Washington, D.C., Stokols from Alliance, Ohio, and Mason from Los Angeles. Los Angeles Times staff writers Evan Halper, Chris Megerian, Sarah D. Wire and David Lauter in Washington contributed to this report.)


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