In a stunning walkback of his remarks during the 2020 presidential debate that the Proud Boys, a far-right extremist organization, should “stand back and stand by,” President Donald Trump claimed on Wednesday that he doesn’t even know who the Proud Boys are — yet he refused to explicitly condemn them.
In response to a question from a reporter outside the White House Wednesday afternoon requesting he clarify his remarks, Trump replied:
“I don’t know who the Proud Boys are. I mean, you’ll have to give me a definition because I don’t really know who they are. I can only say they have to stand down, let law enforcement do their work. Law enforcement will do the work more and more as people see how bad this radical liberal Democrat movement is, law enforcement is gonna come back stronger and stronger. But again, I don’t know who Proud Boys are, but whoever they are, they have to stand down. Let law enforcement do their work.”
In a follow-up question, another reporter said, “White supremacists clearly love you and support you. Do you welcome that?” Trump responded, “I want law and order to be a very important part — it’s a very important part of my campaign.” She asks, “Do you denounce them?” He responds, “I’ve always denounced any form — any form of any of that, you have to denounce, but I also — Joe Biden has to say something about antifa.”
There are many reasons why Trump’s claim that he doesn’t know who the Proud Boys are is, in a word, bullshit. For starters, in 2018 a report from law enforcement in southwestern Washington State, where the organization has done much of its recruitment, stated that the FBI “categorizes the Proud Boys as an extremist group with ties to White Nationalism,” though the FBI later walked this back. “Our focus is not on membership in particular groups but on individuals who commit violence and criminal activity that constitutes a federal crime or poses a threat to national security,” a spokesperson said, adding, “The FBI does not and will not police ideology.” (Presumably, the president would be briefed on this, as it’s sort of part of the job description to know about any domestic terror threats.)
Further, the Proud Boys regularly attend Trump rallies, and Proud Boy co-chairman Enrique Tarrio was photographed sitting behind Trump at a speech in Miami last year, though Tarrio insisted to the Washington Post that the Trump administration didn’t know of his presence. (The White House didn’t comment at the time.)
Trump has also previously tweeted about the supposed dangers of antifa, a loosely connected network of anti-fascist protesters, during events where the Proud Boys have been particularly active, which has been interpreted by members of the organization as a dog whistle. On August 17th, 2019, for instance, following a large far-right demonstration in Portland that saw nearly a dozen arrests, President Trump tweeted a condemnation of antifa that echoed similar remarks made by Proud Boy leaders: “Major consideration is being given to naming ANTIFA an ‘ORGANIZATION OF TERROR.’ Portland is being watched very closely. Hopefully the Mayor will be able to properly do his job!” He made no mention of violence on the far right. A 2019 post on a Telegram channel affiliated with the Proud Boys screenshotted the president’s tweet, viewing it as an implicit endorsement: “the President is with the boys today,” the caption of the screenshot read.
Moreover, Trump’s longtime crony Roger Stone has close ties to the organization, with Stone hiring them as security and repeating their slogans. He was also famously photographed with members of the group flashing the “OK” symbol, which has since been appropriated by some as a white power symbol. (It’s not clear whether Stone knew the meaning of the symbol, but the photo is indeed genuine.) As many on social media noted, Trump also has a history of denying awareness of far-right extremist figures, saying in 2016 that he knew “nothing” about former KKK grand wizard David Duke or about white supremacists in general.
Of course, it can’t be definitively proven one way or the other that Trump knows exactly who the Proud Boys are (although he definitely does, given his breadth of knowledge regarding his own supporters in other fringe groups) or the extent of the violent acts they’ve committed (although, by virtue of his own remarks on Tuesday night, he has implicitly condoned them). What is perhaps most chilling is that, even after being informed of the organization’s ties to white nationalism, he did not go out of his way to explicitly condemn them — and that says more than any smoking-gun piece of evidence definitively tying Trump to the Proud Boys.