Security Brief

Is Trump Downplaying the Proud Boys Threat?

The president’s call for the white supremacist group to “stand back and stand by” comes as intelligence agencies have growing concerns about right-wing militias.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during the first presidential debate against former Vice President Joe Biden at the Health Education Campus of Case Western Reserve University on Sept. 29 in Cleveland, Ohio.
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during the first presidential debate against former Vice President Joe Biden at the Health Education Campus of Case Western Reserve University on Sept. 29 in Cleveland, Ohio. Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Security Brief.

What’s on tap today: Homegrown right-wing militias fuel fears among the U.S. national security community, U.S. spies struggle to adapt to competition with China, and fresh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan upends the uneasy peace in the South Caucasus.

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Stand Back, Stand By, Brace for Impact

In the bar brawl that was the first U.S. presidential debate, President Donald Trump drew fire for refusing to denounce white supremacist groups. Top national security experts are now worried that homegrown right-wing militias pose an increasing danger to the United States, particularly in the run-up to the November elections.

Asked point blank by the moderator, Chris Wallace, to condemn militia groups and discourage violence, Trump insisted that violence in U.S. cities was caused by left-wing factions. “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by,” Trump said, naming an armed, far-right group that espouses racism, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia. “But I’ll tell you what, somebody’s got to do something about Antifa and the left,” the president added.

The comments caused an immediate firestorm. White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said on Thursday that Trump has repeatedly denounced white supremacy groups and said that “stand back” is a synonym for “stand down,” which is what the president meant.

Trump’s failure to offer a clear rebuke of white supremacist groups comes as current and former administration officials sound alarm bells about the growing threat of right-wing extremism. Raising further concerns, NBC News reported today that internal Department of Homeland Security talking points directed law enforcement officials to make sympathetic comments toward Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old charged with killing two protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, last month.

Flashpoint. A new FBI intelligence assessment leaked to the Nation warns about the growing threat of far-right militias in the United States, referring to the elections as “a potential flashpoint.” Last month, FBI Director Christopher Wray told Congress that racially motivated violent extremism made up the bulk of domestic terror threats. Acting Homeland Security Secretary and Trump loyalist Chad Wolf skipped the hearing, and Trump later attacked Wray on Twitter for his testimony.

Other former top administration officials are also slamming the president amid nationwide protests—some of which have turned violent and deadly. Speaking to the Atlantic, former National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster said that condemning white supremacists “should be a lay-up for any leader.”

Disinformation fodder. Russia’s disinformation machine isn’t letting a good opportunity go to waste and trying to add fuel to the fire. Ahead of the elections, a new report from the social media analysis firm Graphika found that Russian operators created far-right websites and accounts with pro-Trump and anti-Biden content aimed at sowing division.


What We’re Watching

Wake-up call for spooks. The US. House Intelligence Committee issued a sober assessment warning that the intelligence community isn’t prepared to meet the threat from China without adaptations and reforms, Foreign Policy’s Amy Mackinnon reports. “Absent a significant and immediate reprioritization and realignment of resources, we will be ill-prepared to compete with China—diplomatically, economically, and militarily—on the global stage for decades to come,” Rep. Adam Schiff, the chairman of the committee, warns in the report.

Not-so-frozen conflict. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan have rebuffed international calls for a cease-fire in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh territory, where the worst fighting in decades has flared in the past week with reports of at least 100 people killed. Russia, France, and the United States have called for an immediate cease-fire but Turkey, which backs Azerbaijan, has rejected those calls. Meanwhile, a top Azerbaijani official says his country is using Israeli-supplied “kamikaze drones” in clashes with Armenian forces.

Read more from FP’s James Palmer about the long-festering dispute between the two former Soviet bloc countries in the South Caucasus, and how the situation could worsen if fighting continues.

Not quiet on the Western front. The Trump administration’s proposals to reconfigure its military posture in Europe were met with unusually unified opposition on Capitol Hill this week, Military Times reports. During a House Armed Services Committee hearing, lawmakers tore into a Pentagon plan to remove some 12,000 troops from Germany following Trump’s threats to pare down the military footprint in Europe if NATO allies didn’t boost their defense spending.

“I don’t think this plan was particularly well thought out and I worry about a number of aspects of its implementation,” said Rep. Adam Smith, the chairman of the committee. “There needs to be an overall strategic plan that is coordinated with allies, rather than have a bunch of rationalizations after the fact,” said Rep. Mac Thornberry, the top Republican on the committee.


Movers and Shakers

Powerful group gets a new chair. The National Defense Industrial Association, a top trade association for the U.S. defense industry, has tapped Arnold Punaro as its new chairman of the board. Punaro is a retired U.S. Marine Corps major general and was a long-time staff director for the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Courting controversy. The White House officially sent Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Senate for the open seat in the U.S. Supreme Court. She faces a grueling nomination process amid an even more heated election. If confirmed, Coney would succeed the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She is expected to begin Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on Oct. 12.

Dino-mite. Imagine hitting pause on your job as a city manager for a small California town to run a new Pentagon office. Well, that’s what retired Col. Daniel “Dino” Pick did this week, when the Trump administration tapped the former Del Ray Oaks city official to become deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations policy and programs.

This time it’s personnel. Trump has tapped Brian Davis to be the Pentagon’s new assistant secretary of defense for manpower and readiness affairs. He is currently head of the Defense Personnel and Family Support Center.


What We’re Reading

Students, roommates, tourists, spies? A pair of University of Michigan college roommates from China were arrested on charges of spying when they visited Florida in January and ventured too close to a U.S. naval installation. Were they confused tourists who got lost on a drive, or spies for Beijing? Read Eric Fish’s deep dive for Foreign Policy into the murky, muddled world of espionage and counterintelligence in the age of U.S.-China global rivalry.


The Week Ahead

The United Nations hosts a high-level meeting on the situation in Libya Monday, Oct. 5.

On Wednesday, Oct. 7, Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris clash in the only vice presidential debate of the election cycle in Salt Lake City, Utah.


Odds and Ends

Hey kids, it’s defense budget night. Tired of having to constantly explain to your kids why China’s rise challenges the liberal international order and American strategic hegemony? Let them figure it out for themselves. RAND Corporation, the Pentagon’s favorite think tank, has released a new board game originally designed to teach military leaders how to deal with growing threats from Russia and China. It is RAND’s first commercial release.


That’s it for today.

For more from FP, subscribe here or sign up for our other newsletters. Send your tips, comments, questions, or typos to securitybrief@foreignpolicy.com.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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