But Trump could not quite bring himself to denounce the group.
He feigned ignorance. (“I know nothing about QAnon.”) He offered light praise. (“I do know they are very much against pedophilia.”) He tried to change the topic. (“Why aren’t you asking me about the radical left?”)
Then, finally, the president offered more mild approbation for the group, many of whose members support him and are visible at his rallies with their QAnon signs and homemade T-shirts.
“What I do hear about it is they are very strongly against pedophilia, and I agree with that,” Trump said. “I do agree with that, and I agree with it very strongly.”
Denouncing white supremacy and groups like QAnon, which the FBI has deemed a domestic terrorism threat, used to be considered Politics 101 — akin to kissing babies and posing with the butter cow at the Iowa State Fair. But since announcing himself as a presidential candidate more than five years ago, Trump has struggled to condemn everyone from white supremacists to dictators and global strongmen.
Instead, Trump’s approach is almost purely transactional, guided by a quid-pro-quo embrace of just about anyone who embraces him back.
“Not only does he absolutely and unequivocally embrace anyone who will say anything nice about him at any time — Hello Kim Jong Un! Hello Vladmir Putin! — but the moment that person says something even just mildly critical, that’s the end of Trump’s celebration,” said Tony Schwartz, who co-wrote Trump’s 1987 bestseller, “The Art of the Deal,” but has since become a vocal Trump critic. “He’s always puffing his chest out, because the alternative is for it to collapse.”
David Axelrod — who served as senior adviser to former president Barack Obama — offered a pithy distillation on Twitter: “Every major television event these days, the @POTUS gives a veiled shout out to some whacko extremist group. Why? Because they say nice things about HIM. Everyone from Putin and Kim Jung Un to the Proud Boys and QAnon have figured it out.”
Trump’s reluctance to disavow or condemn controversial figures dates back to at least his 2016 campaign, when he repeatedly offered less-than-forceful condemnations of former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke.
Asked in 2015 to repudiate Duke, who had offered Trump what a Bloomberg News reporter described as a “quasi-endorsement,” Trump offered a lukewarm rebuke.
“Sure, I would do that, if it made you feel better,” Trump said, before adding that while he didn’t know anything about Duke, he had heard that Duke has praised him.
“He said I was absolutely the best of all the candidates,” Trump said, with apparent pride.
Later, in a lengthy exchange with CNN’s Jake Tapper in early 2016, Trump again seemed hesitant to offer an unequivocal condemnation of Duke and the KKK.
“Well, I have to look at the group,” Trump said. “I mean, I don’t know what group you’re talking about. You wouldn’t want me to condemn a group that I know nothing about. I would have to look.”
Once in office, the problematic tendency continued. In 2017, after a rally in Charlottesville organized by white supremacists and neo-Nazis turned violent — leaving one woman dead and 19 people injured — Trump was slow to condemn white supremacists, offering three head-spinning statements in four days.
First, he denounced “this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides,” repeating “on many sides” a second time for emphasis. Then — in response to widespread criticism that his initial remarks were insufficient — Trump issued a second scripted statement during a last-minute news conference: “Racism is evil, and those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups,” he said. And finally, the president summed up the incident by arguing that “there’s blame on both sides” and “very fine people on both sides.”
Tim O’Brien, a senior columnist for Bloomberg Opinion and a Trump biographer who is critical of the president, said Trump’s seeming support of controversial groups stems from his own self-doubt.
“He’s so deeply insecure and has this grab bag of uncertainties about his own abilities that anyone who shows him fealty or loyalty, he returns that in spades,” said O’Brien, who worked for former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg’s Democratic presidential campaign this year.
“Donald Trump has never had an ounce of morality,” he added. “There’s no moral compass there; there’s only a cult of personality.”
In 2018, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a Trump ally, tried to push back on allegations that Trump is racist by arguing that the president is simply pro-Trump.
“You can be as dark as charcoal and lily white; it doesn’t matter as long as you’re nice to him,” Graham told CNN’s Dana Bash. “You can be the pope and criticize him; it doesn’t matter. He’ll go after the pope.” (In fact, Trump has sparred with Pope Francis.)
“What you say about him matters more than anything else,” Graham concluded.
Trump has frequently expressed support and admiration for strongman leaders — including Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi — in no small part because those leaders have flattered him.
Asked by the debate moderator, Fox News’s Chris Wallace, to condemn the group, Trump offered words that were as much a call to action as condemnation. “Proud Boys — stand back and stand by,” the president said.
Schwartz, who is also the author of a new book, “Dealing with the Devil: My Mother, Trump and Me,” recalled that when he was working with Trump on “The Art of the Deal,” Trump would call him every night and end nearly all of their conversations with, “Tony, you’re the greatest.”
In listening to Trump talk to others, Schwartz said, he would conclude roughly 70 percent of conversations in a similar manner — and end the rest by slamming down the phone.
“So he lives in this utterly binary world in which you’re either all good because you’re for him or you’re all bad because you’re against him, and there is no in-between,” Schwartz explained. “He is without nuance, he is without subtlety, he is without shades of gray.”