President Donald Trump’s refusal to explicitly condemn a key far-right group has sparked outrage among opponents after a fierce and chaotic US election debate.
In the TV debate with rival Joe Biden, he instead called on the Proud Boys group to “stand back and stand by”.
Members of the Proud Boys said on social media that the comments were “historic” and an endorsement.
Mr Biden said Mr Trump had “refused to disavow white supremacists”.
The first of three televised debates between the two men ahead of the 3 November election descended into squabbling, bickering and insults, with US media describing it as chaotic, ugly and awful.
The commission that regulates the debates said it would introduce new measures for the next two to “maintain order”.
Not much was gleaned on policy and although one snap poll on the debate gave Mr Biden a slight edge, other opinion polls suggest 90% of Americans have already made up their mind on who to vote for and the debate may well have made little difference.
BBC North America reporter Anthony Zurcher says if one man emerged a winner it was Joe Biden as he was less covered in slop from the food fight. Anything resembling a substantive exchange was buried in bickering, so this was a missed opportunity for the president, he says.
Mr Biden appears to hold a single-digit lead over Mr Trump, but surveys in so-called battleground states suggest this could still be a close contest.
Why did the far-right issue arise?
It was raised by debate moderator Chris Wallace amid the backdrop of street violence in some cities this year, some of which flared over the issues of police killings and racism.
Wallace asked whether the president would condemn white supremacists and tell them to stand down during demonstrations.
“Sure, I’m willing to… but I would say almost everything I see is from the left wing, not from the right wing. I’m willing to do anything. I want to see peace,” Mr Trump said.
Mr Biden twice said “Proud Boys” when the president asked who it was he was being told to condemn.
The president said: “Proud Boys – stand back and stand by. But I’ll tell you what… Somebody’s got to do something about antifa and the left because this is not a right-wing problem.”
Founded in 2016, Proud Boys is a far-right, anti-immigrant, all-male group with a history of street violence against left-wing opponents. One Proud Boys social media account posts the logo “Stand Back, Stand By.”
Antifa, short for “anti-fascist”, is a loose affiliation of far-left activists that often clash with the far right at protests.
What has the reaction been?
Joe Biden returned to the issue in a tweet on Wednesday, saying: “There’s no other way to put it: the President of the United States refused to disavow white supremacists on the debate stage last night.”
In his tweet he quoted a comment, addressed to the president, from a Proud Boys online forum that read: “This makes me so happy. We’re ready! Standing by sir.”
Mr Biden’s Democratic running mate, Kamala Harris, told CNN: “I heard what we all heard. The president of the United States, in the year of our Lord 2020, refuses to condemn white supremacists.”
Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said Mr Trump’s words were “astonishing” and Rita Katz, of the SITE extremist watchdog, said Mr Trump had given “another nod to white supremacists”.
President Trump has tried to project a stance of being the law-and-order president. His response in a tweet on Wednesday read: “Biden REFUSED to use the term LAW & ORDER. There go the Suburbs.”
Trump campaign spokesman Hogan Gidley told CNN the president had said “sure” when asked if he would condemn extremist groups, adding Mr Trump had done so “many times just not last night, in the past as well”.
Mr Trump’s son, Donald Jnr, also said his father was “happy” to condemn such groups. “I don’t know if that was a misspeak, but he was talking about having them stand down,” he told CBS.
Mr Trump has downplayed the threat of white supremacy groups in the past, although the Department of Homeland Security says they will remain the most “persistent and lethal threat” in the United States into next year.
Proud Boys members certainly believed they had been supported by Mr Trump.
Organiser Joe Biggs wrote: “President Trump told the proud boys to stand because someone needs to deal with antifa… well sir! we’re ready!!”
One member said the group was already seeing a spike in new recruits.
What were the other key debate moments?
In the 90-minute debate in Cleveland, Ohio, both candidates talked over each other a lot. Mr Trump cut in some 73 times.
The main issues included:
- Abounding insults. Hectoring from Mr Trump saw Mr Biden call the president a “clown”. He told the president: “Will you shut up, man?” and later snapped “Keep yapping, man”
- Mr Trump said Mr Biden had “graduated either the lowest or almost the lowest in your class” and had done nothing in 47 years of politics
- Mr Biden said Mr Trump had “panicked” over the coronavirus epidemic and a “lot of people died”
- Mr Trump defended his effort to swiftly fill a US Supreme Court seat, while Joe Biden refused to answer when asked if he would try to expand the number of judges
- When asked if he would encourage his supporters to be peaceful if results of the election were unclear, Mr Trump said: “I’m encouraging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully”
- When Mr Trump said Mr Biden would be at the behest of the left of the Democratic Party over health and environmental policy, Mr Biden responded: “I am the Democratic Party right now”
What happens now?
The war of words following the debate lingered in exchanges on Wednesday.
On Twitter, Mr Trump said Mr Biden would destroy the country, claiming the challenger wishes to pack the Supreme Court with judges, end fracking and kill the Second Amendment of the Constitution, which includes the right to bear arms.
He said he was off to Minnesota on Wednesday.
Joe Biden is on an all-day train tour through eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania, while his campaign has also rolled out a digital advert onslaught against the president.
He said on his first tour stop that Mr Trump had “forgotten the forgotten Americans he said he was going to fight for. I will never forget”.
Mr Biden added: “I am not going to be a Democratic president. I am going to be an American president.”
The other TV debates between the two candidates are on 15 October in Florida and 22 October in Tennessee.