The morning after a rancorous debate punctuated by President Donald Trump’s refusal to condemn white supremacy, his advisers offered effusive public praise even as some privately worried his performance would alienate voters and others – including the Senate’s lone Black Republican – implored him explicitly to denounce groups who interpreted his comments as tacit approval.
“I think he misspoke,” Sen. Tim Scott, R-South Carolina, a supporter of the President’s, told reporters on Capitol Hill.
“I think he should correct it,” Scott said. “If he doesn’t correct it, I guess he didn’t misspeak.”
Later, Trump made an attempt at clarification, telling reporters at the White House he’d never heard of the extremist group Proud Boys, whom he told to “stand by” the previous evening.
“I don’t know who Proud Boys are,” he said, departing for a campaign rally in Minnesota. “But whoever they are they have to stand down, let law enforcement do their work.”
But pressed on whether he welcomes support from white supremacists, Trump said only, “I want law and order – it’s a very important part of my campaign.”
And he continued to insist it was his rival Joe Biden who refused to condemn violence – “the problem is on the left,” he claimed – and declared victory in a debate even many of his closest allies believe went poorly.
As Americans woke up dazed from a bruising debate in which the President badgered and interrupted over the course of a chaotic 90-minute spectacle, it was Trump’s refusal to explicitly condemn white supremacist groups the night before that emerged as the night’s principal takeaway.
While Trump, according to his spokeswoman, was in “very good spirits” following the debate and his campaign insisted he “turned in the greatest debate performance in presidential history,” others around the President appeared less sure.
A number of the President’s advisers voiced concern he appeared overly aggressive and said the debating style he demonstrated Tuesday was not the tactic discussed among advisers during preparatory sessions beforehand.
Some of the President’s allies said Wednesday they believe he crashed and burned on a night that mattered to his reelection.
A source familiar with the President’s debate prep told CNN’s Dana Bash that they wanted him to be aggressive, but not act like Jason Voorhees from the “Friday the 13th” movies.
Trump had rehearsed an answer on race with his debate team in the likely event a question on the deadly 2017 protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, was asked, a person involved in the prep said. But when Wallace brought up the incident, Trump did not deploy the defense that was suggested to him, missing what the person described as a “perfect opportunity” because the question closely resembled what was discussed privately.
In conversations with several people who work for Trump, advise him or support him, all acknowledged Trump was too aggressive, touted few of his accomplishments and likely turned off the moderate voters he desperately needs to improve his standing.
In private conversations, Trump’s performance was described as obnoxious, unprepared and lacking a cogent line of attack on Biden, like he did with Hillary Clinton in 2016.
“A disaster,” one adviser called it.
The performance left aides struggling to consider ways to improve in the final stretch of the campaign as time runs short.
Among the most charitable interpretations was that the debate “doesn’t move the needle one way or the other,” an adviser said – benefiting Biden, who is far and away the frontrunner at this stage in the race.
Talk has already begun among some aides over how to communicate a potential change in approach to Trump for his next debate, a town-hall style event on October 15 in Miami. Both the Trump and Biden campaigns affirmed late Tuesday they planned to participate.
One adviser said that Trump was most effective when he confronted Biden about his record and asked him questions.
“Do more of that,” the Trump adviser said.
Trump offered little indication he viewed his performance as anything but stellar.
“I thought it was a great evening,” Trump told reporters at the White House. “I think the ratings were very high. And it was good to be there, felt very comfortable and I appreciate all the good words.”
He also pinned blame on Wallace, the Fox News host who moderated the debate.
“Two on one was not surprising, but fun,” he wrote on Twitter, one in a string of morning-after messages that framed Biden’s performance as a losing one.
“Nobody wants Sleepy Joe as a leader, including the Radical Left (which he lost last night!),” he wrote.
A source familiar with the President’s thinking told CNN that when Trump heard pushback on Wednesday on the notion that he was too aggressive, and that he interrupted way too much, he was surprised. He was also told that by interrupting as much as he did, he stepped on moments that could have hurt Biden.
The source said it may take a few days of Trump digesting his steady diet of cable news to really understand that he was way too aggressive. The plan is to let Trump rest this weekend, and revisit prep for the second debate sometime next week.
In his messages, however, Trump did not address the issue causing some consternation even among his allies: his refusal, when pressed, to deliver an explicit rebuke of white nationalist groups, including the far-right Proud Boys.
“Proud Boys? Stand back and stand by,” Trump said, turning the question back to what he says is far-left extremist: “Somebody’s got to do something about Antifa and the left.”
That answer proved sufficiently vague for allies such as Scott, who encouraged him to clarify.
“I’ve already sent my comments to the chief of staff,” Scott said when asked on Capitol Hill whether he intended to direct his concerns to Trump himself. Scott said Trump’s top aide Mark Meadows had no specific response other than saying thank you.
Others in Trump’s orbit said he should move quickly to head off more negative coverage.
“The next opportunity the President has to clarify that answer – because folks like you and others are confused by it – then he should do that,” former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said on ABC News. Christie was among the small group of advisers who helped Trump prepare for Tuesday’s debate.
He said moments after it wrapped that Trump came out “too hot,” and said his performance did not reflect the type of debate he and other advisers had help him prepare for in the days leading up to the encounter.
In those sessions, a premium had been placed on turning the election away from a referendum on Trump and more into a choice between himself and Biden. Aides had prepared the President with a long list of examples for him to use in defining Biden, including misstatements and policy discrepancies.
While Trump did use some of those, his appearance was defined more by his sour demeanor and rude interruptions, which led at one point to Wallace shouting at him to be quiet.
Trump has insisted his supporters are thrilled by watching him spar with reporters and rivals. But the nastiness is part of why he’s lost support among critical voting blocs, including suburban women and senior citizens.
Another reason, according to polls, are his views on race and his willingness to entrench in rhetoric and policy designed to aggravate racial divides. His reluctance to condemn white supremacy on Tuesday did little to ease those concerns.
“He should have been very clear,” Sen. Mike Rounds, a South Dakota Republican, said the morning after. “And he should have made it very clear that there’s no room for people on the far left, or the far right, when it comes to either Antifa or these white supremacist groups. He should have been very clear.”
Trump’s aides at the White House insisted the President was clear when speaking about Proud Boys and other extremist groups.
Peter Navarro, the President’s pugnacious trade adviser, cast blame on Wallace.
“I think that moment for me underscored just how poor Chris Wallace did as a debate moderator,” Navarro said during an appearance on MSNBC.
“The President said of course – he started to say, of course he would denounce that, and Wallace cut him off.”
Yet Trump never returned to his answer, leaving his call to “stand back and stand by” to speak for itself. To the Proud Boys, the response signaled affirmation: at least one social media account associated with the group used Trump’s words as part of a new logo.
Still, even that reaction hasn’t prompted widespread discussions inside the White House about issuing a clarifying statement.
“I don’t think that there’s anything to clarify. He’s told them to stand back” White House communications director Alyssa Farah said Wednesday morning, without mentioning Trump’s other call for them to “stand by.”
CNN’s Sarah Westwood and Dana Bash contributed to this report.