White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany spent Thursday’s briefing refusing to definitively say that President Donald Trump condemns white supremacy, a frustrating response just days after Trump dodged the same question at the first presidential debate.
Several reporters pressed McEnany about whether she could say outright that Trump denounces white supremacists and far-right extremists ― groups of people who comprise some of the president’s base. The questions were first sparked by Fox News correspondent John Roberts.
“I would like to ask you for a definitive and declarative statement without ambiguity or deflection,” Roberts asked the press secretary. “As the person who speaks for the president, does the president denounce white supremacism, and groups that espouse it, in all its forms?”
“This has been answered yesterday by the president himself, the day before by the president himself on the debate stage,” McEnany said, even though that claim is false. The press secretary then read a series of quotes from Trump saying “sure” when asked if he would condemn white supremacy.
But despite continued questioning from Roberts, she never gave a declarative statement on whether the president denounces the ideology and its followers. Instead, she accused the reporter of “contriving a storyline and a narrative.”
Roberts spoke on Fox News after the briefing, visibly angry at McEnany’s refusal to give a clear denunciation of white supremacy.
“For all of you on Twitter who are hammering me for asking that question, I don’t care. It’s a question that needs to be asked, and clearly the president’s Republican colleagues a mile away from here are looking for an answer for it too,” he said. “So stop deflecting, stop blaming the media. I’m tired of it.”
Two other reporters followed Roberts in pushing for the press secretary to make a statement condemning white supremacy ― CBS News correspondent Paula Reid and CNN correspondent Kaitlan Collins.
In response to Reid’s question on what the White House is doing to combat white supremacy, McEnany said that Trump wants to prosecute the Ku Klux Klan as domestic terrorists, make lynching a national hate crime, and has pushed for the execution of a white supremacist. Reid pressed further, saying, “Saying you want to do it is different than actually doing it.” The press secretary continued repeating that Trump has condemned white supremacy, even though he hasn’t.
CNN’s Collins pointed out that the far-right extremist group the Proud Boys celebrated when Trump refused to condemn white supremacy during Tuesday’s debate and instead told the violent gang to “stand back and stand by.” When Collins asked how Trump’s statement could be considered “denouncing” white supremacy if the Proud Boys celebrated it, McEnany called her question a “partisan attack.”
“I just don’t understand why you knew you were going to get these questions and you don’t have a statement ready to just say, ‘We do unambiguously denounce these groups,’” Collins said, adding that even Republicans have called on the president to be more forceful in disavowing hate groups.
During the first presidential debate, moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News asked Trump if he was willing to condemn “white supremacists and militia groups” and tell them to “stand down” in cities like Kenosha, Wisconsin, and Portland, Oregon ― areas where heavily armed far-right extremists like the Proud Boys have shown up to counterprotest anti-racism demonstrations.
“Sure, I’m willing to do that,” Trump said, without actually doing it. “What do you want to call them? Give me a name, go ahead, who would you like me to condemn?”
When Wallace and Democratic nominee Joe Biden then repeated that they were asking to Trump to condemn white supremacists and right-wing hate groups like the Proud Boys, the president said: “Proud Boys? Stand back and stand by.” Members of the violent fascist gang then celebrated Trump’s comments, sharing the group’s logo with the president’s words.
“But I tell you what, somebody has got to do something about antifa and the left because this is not a right-wing problem, this is a left-wing problem,” Trump added on the debate stage, referring to anti-fascist activists.
McEnany also brought up antifa when pressed by reporters about denouncing white supremacy, accusing the media of not covering what she and the administration claims is a violent far-left group.
The FBI itself has said that “antifa” is an ideology and not an organization, dealing a blow to Trump’s repeated accusations against the left. Director Christopher Wray testified to Congress last month that antifa is not a group but “a movement,” and that racially motivated extremists like white supremacists have been “primary source of ideologically motivated” lethal attacks in recent years in the U.S.