Despite Tarrio’s comments, photographs of the rally in Portland on Saturday showed him and other members making the O.K. hand gesture, which has evolved in recent years from a 4chan hoax — intended to trick the media into reporting that it meant “white power” on the internet — into a symbol actually embraced by racists in real life.
Even if they don’t consider themselves racist, it is quite clear that the Proud Boys are openly antagonistic to racial justice protesters in Portland and other cities.
As my colleague Ryan Devereaux reported from the rally on Saturday, it was largely dedicated to praising two new martyrs of the far-right: Aaron Jay Danielson, a supporter of the far-right group Patriot Prayer, who was shot and killed by a self-described anti-fascist in Portland last month, and Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old Trump supporter who was charged with two counts of murder for killing two Black Lives Matter protesters and wounding a third in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
The debate moderator, Chris Wallace, had specifically referred to the way violent right-wing groups had stoked violence in both Kenosha and Portland.
Moments before he failed to condemn the Proud Boys in the debate, Trump had seemed to take credit for the police killing of Michael Reinoehl, the suspected left-wing gunman who had fatally shot Aaron Jay Danielson, a right-wing activist from a group allied to the Proud Boys, following a raucous pro-Trump caravan confronting Black Lives Matter protesters in downtown Portland.
“I sent in the U.S. Marshals to get the killer of a young man — in the middle of the street, they shot him, and for three days Portland wouldn’t do anything,” Trump claimed. “They took care of business,” he said with obvious satisfaction.
In fact, the new, progressive district attorney for Portland, Mike Schmidt, had charged Reinoehl with murder and obtained a warrant for his arrest hours before he was shot and killed by police officers in Washington state working with the U.S. Marshals Service to track down the fugitive. While the police said Reinoehl had a handgun, one witness told The Oregonian that the officers had made no attempt to arrest the suspect, who did not seem to be armed. Antifascist activists in Portland then accused law enforcement of carrying out an extrajudicial execution of a man who was wanted for killing a member of a pro-police group.
Trump also seemed to be overstating what role, if any, he had played in the effort to detain Reinoehl. In fact, on September 3, the president tweeted a public complaint about the case — demanding that the Portland Police arrest the suspect — a full hour and 40 minutes after he had already been killed by the federal fugitive task force. The president’s tweet was sent 13 minutes after the suspect’s death had been reported by The New York Times.
On Wednesday, District Attorney Schmidt announced that a member of the Proud Boys, “50-year-old Alan Swinney is in custody and is being charged with multiple offenses for alleged crimes and assaults that involved weapons.” Swinney was charged with assault, the unlawful use of mace, threatening a protester in Portland with a gun and using a paintball gun to wound people at recent demonstrations in the city.
Trump’s praise of Reinoehl’s shooting in the debate also echoed his own previous bloodthirsty remarks, in which he sounded more like a sectarian warlord than the president of a democracy. “U.S. Marshals killed him,” Trump said of the suspected left-wing gunman in an interview with the debate moderator’s Fox News colleague Jeanine Pirro. “And I’ll tell you something, that’s the way it has to be. There has to be retribution,” he added.
Trump’s rush to declare the killing of the left-wing gunman from Portland perfectly justified contrasted with the staunch defense he has offered of Kyle Rittenhouse, the right-wing gunman who has become a hero to neo-fascists worldwide for bringing a rifle to a Black Lives Matter protest and provoking a confrontation that left two men dead.
At a news conference last month, Trump was asked if he would disavow the provocative behavior of armed supporters like Rittenhouse, who was charged with six crimes based on evidence gathered by the Kenosha police department. Suddenly skeptical of the police, the president said that video of the teen gunman being pursued by protesters before the second and third shootings, which was played without context in heavy rotation on Fox News, suggested to him that the young vigilante had acted in self-defense.
What the president left out of his description of the video that showed Rittenhouse, in his words, “trying to get away from” protesters who were chasing him, who then “very violently attacked him,” is that those three men were trying to disarm him because he had just shot another man in the head, minutes earlier.
“I guess he was in very big trouble — he probably would’ve been killed,” Trump claimed, ignoring the sequence of events laid out in clear detail in the police complaint charging Rittenhouse with murder.
That context was mostly absent from Tucker Carlson’s selective presentation of the facts of what Rittenhouse did, but it was carefully detailed in the indictment based on the work of three Kenosha homicide detectives. It is not hard to imagine which source of information Trump had studied more carefully. So when Trump excused the reckless killing of protesters by Rittenhouse, a young man who had been in the front row at one of the president’s rallies in January, the self-described “law and order” candidate was choosing to disregard the actual work of law enforcement carried out by Kenosha’s police department because it was politically inconvenient for him.
At another point in the debate, Trump claimed that his provocative approach to the protests in Portland was endorsed by the city’s sheriff, “who just came out today and said, ‘I support President Trump.'” While the city of Portland does not, in fact, have a sheriff, the county it is in, Multnomah, does. Before the debate was over, Multnomah County Sheriff Mike Reese had tweeted to debunk the president. “I have never supported Donald Trump and will never support him,” Reese wrote. “Donald Trump has made my job a hell of a lot harder since he started talking about Portland,” he added, “but I never thought he’d try to turn my wife against me!”