President Donald Trump gestures to moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News during the first presidential debate Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020, at Case Western University and Cleveland Clinic, in Cleveland. Credit: Olivier Douliery / Pool via AP

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Condemning white supremacist groups, clearly and forcefully, is one of those things that should come easy to any decent person. It certainly should be easy for the leader of the free world. And yet, it continues to give our president trouble.

During Tuesday night’s presidential debate, moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News gave President Donald Trump an opportunity to make it clear to the American people that he condemns white supremacist and right-wing militia groups. And somehow, Trump missed that opportunity.

“Are you willing, tonight, to condemn white supremacists and militia groups?” Wallace asked. “And to say that they need to stand down and not add to the violence in a number of these cities, as we saw in Kenosha, as we’ve seen in Portland? Are you prepared specifically to do that?”

“Sure, I’m prepared to do it,” Trump responded. “… I’m willing to do anything. I want to see peace.”

“Then do it, sir,” Wallace said.

“What do you want to call them?” Trump said, asking for a name.

“The Proud Boys,” Biden offered.

“Proud Boys, stand back and stand by,” Trump then said. “But I’ll tell you what, I’ll tell you what, somebody’s got to do something about antifa and the left because this is not a right-wing problem. This is a left-wing problem.”

Not exactly a condemnation, is it?

“Donald Trump ruined the biggest layup in the history of debates by saying — not condemning white supremacists. I don’t know if he didn’t hear it, but he’s gotta clarify that right away,” Fox & Friends host Brian Kilmeade said the morning after the debate. “That’s like: Are you against evil?”

Asked again about white supremacists the next day, Trump told reporters that “any form of any of that, you have to denounce.” Certainly an improvement. But it still begs the question: Why didn’t he just say that the night before? If he truly and unequivocally denounces white supremacy, he had perhaps his best opportunity to do so Tuesday evening.

That’s not only because he had millions of Americans watching him during the debate. It’s also because Wallace’s questioning earlier that night connected to an often-repeated falsehood about Trump and the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where tiki torch-carrying white supremacists and neo-fascists spouted hate and a young counter-protester was killed after being run down by a car. While Trump’s comments that there were “very fine people on both sides” in Charlottesville have been rightfully eviscerated for false equivalency, Trump ultimately did condemn white supremacy following the rally.

“Racism is evil,” he said two days later. “And those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.”

That was a good, more direct statement than Trump’s initial comments about the rally. But there’s still been some understandable confusion about the strength and sincerity of Trump’s repudiation. Not only did it take him several days to get there, but he later reportedly expressed regret for taking that stand.

Tuesday night was Trump’s chance to clear all that up and make a strong statement against white supremacy, and he didn’t take it. That is telling. Again, this should be easy.

The pushback and unease from Trump’s fellow Republicans was swift Wednesday, with Maine. Sen. Susan Collins saying in a statement that intolerance and white supremacy “have no place in our country.”

“The president should always condemn any kind of hate, and he should have done so last night,” Collins said.

Maine’s other senator, independent Sen. Angus King, shared his own rebuke of sorts Wednesday on Twitter.

“I unequivocally condemn white supremacy — because the America I know is a country constantly striving to better fulfill the principle that all men and women are created equal,” King said. “See, it’s not that hard to say.”

Even if we give Trump the benefit of the doubt and take at face value his claim Wednesday that he didn’t know who the Proud Boys are, this was a terrible look for him that came with real impact. He was presented with a group and told they are white supremacists. And his response wasn’t to say that hatred has no place in America. It was, “Stand back and stand by.”

That’s more of a potential incitement than a condemnation, even with Trump pleading ignorance ( again) when it comes to the far-right. This approach has dangerous consequences, with members of the Proud Boys celebrating the remarks. Whether he meant to or not, Trump emboldened hate with his debate response.

Collins is right: the president should always condemn hate. That this is such a difficult and murky process for our current commander-in-chief is a serious problem that should not get lost in the overall chaos of Tuesday night’s disastrous debate.

The BDN Editorial Board

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Editorial Page Editor Susan Young, Assistant Editorial Page Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked...