The first time that Donald Trump said the words “Proud Boys” out loud — at least in public — came during the first presidential debate of the 2020 election cycle.
That was the moment in which moderator Chris Wallace challenged Trump to “condemn white supremacists and militia groups” and tell them to “stand down” — offered in response to Trump’s repeated demand that his opponent Joe Biden condemn “antifa.” Trump rejected the idea that the political right was a source of political violence before simply ceding the point.
“Who would you like me to condemn?” he said, with Biden offering up the Proud Boys.
“Proud Boys,” Trump said, “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.”
That “stand back and stand by” was not “stand down,” certainly, and the Proud Boys celebrated it. It’s likely that Trump was trying to say what Wallace had asked; he’ll often fix a verbal misstatement by tacking on the word “and” and saying what he’d meant to say in the first place.
In the days that followed, he was more pointed.
“I don’t know who Proud Boys are,” he said to reporters the day after. “But whoever they are, they have to stand down. Let law enforcement do their work.”
Speaking to Sean Hannity the day after that, he lumped the Proud Boys in with the KKK and white supremacists, condemning them all — although he again said that he didn’t “know much about the Proud Boys, almost nothing.”
The Proud Boys, though, were unfazed.
“Proud Boys activity has been strongly correlated with the fortunes of former President Trump. Ninety-seven of the 152 demonstration events in which Proud Boys participated [in 2020] — or nearly two-thirds — were explicitly in support of then-President Trump,” a 2021 analysis of the group from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project stated. “Over 90% of these pro-Trump demonstrations occurred after the former president called for the Proud Boys to ‘stand back and stand by’ at the first presidential debate on 29 September 2020.”
“Proud Boys activity saw a massive spike when Trump officially lost the election to Joe Biden,” the analysis added, “a dynamic that once more invigorated the group’s involvement in violent demonstrations.”
Although the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, has understandably attracted the most attention and analysis, there were other protests in Washington after the 2020 election, including ones in November and December. Each of those was followed by violent incidents involving the Proud Boys.
The group was also actively involved at the Capitol, of course. Trump’s mid-December 2020 tweet encouraging people to attend the “wild” protest in Washington that day sparked a push within the group to show up. Over the next few weeks, senior Proud Boys leaders formed a plan of action.
One of them was Joe Biggs. Before joining the organization, Biggs was a cameraman and interviewer for the fringe media outlet Infowars. In 2014, he was filming at the protests in Ferguson, Mo., when a police officer threatened to kill him, earning him national media attention.
“I can’t believe that that happened in America,” Biggs told HuffPost. “That’s something I’ve seen in Iraq and Afghanistan. In our country? Mind-blowing.”
Six years later, Biggs and other Proud Boys leaders exchanged messages before Jan. 6 in which they criticized police and expressed a willingness to engage in violence against them, according to federal prosecutors. The day of the riot, Biggs twice entered the Capitol, helping to lead the initial push into the building. He was arrested on Inauguration Day and convicted of several felonies earlier this year, including seditious conspiracy. Among the revelations from the trial: Biggs and others had been in contact with InfoWars’s Alex Jones before the riot.
Last week, Biggs was sentenced to 17 years in prison — far less than the government had sought. The sentencing judge, U.S. District Judge Timothy J. Kelly, remarked that he thought the application of a terrorism enhancement to the charge “overstated” what Biggs had done.
The day after Biggs’s conviction alongside other members of the Proud Boys, Trump decried the government’s handling of Jan. 6 cases.
“The DOJ and FBI are destroying the lives of so many Great American Patriots, right before our very eyes,” he wrote on social media. “The Court System is a RUBBER STAMP for their conviction and imprisonment.”
Trump had already embraced the idea of offering pardons to those convicted of their roles in the Capitol riot. Last year, even before announcing his candidacy for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, he pledged that he would offer “full pardons with an apology to many.”
Biggs appears to think that he’d be included in that group. Speaking from prison to Alex Jones on Infowars last week, Biggs complained about his conviction for “shaking a fence.”
“They want to send a message to Americans that if you go to these events, if you are part of a political group, they’re going to throw you in prison for a long time,” Biggs said. “They want you scared.” (He claimed that he knew there was going to be a “hit on us” as soon as Biden mentioned the group in that debate.)
Jones asked Biggs whether he expected a pardon should Trump be reelected.
“Oh, I know he’ll pardon us,” Biggs replied. “I believe that with all my heart.”
During a CNN town hall in May, though, Trump was asked specifically about pardoning Proud Boys. He was noncommittal.
“I don’t know. I’d have to look at their case,” Trump said. “But I will say in Washington, D.C., you cannot get a fair trial. You cannot — just like in New York City, you can’t get a fair trial.” (This was a reference to his own indictment in the city a few weeks before.)
A review of Biggs’s case from a sympathetic president might bear fruit. That the judge sentencing Biggs suggested that he had qualms about the case, however narrowly articulated, could make it easier for Trump to scale back Biggs’s punishment.
While he was president, Trump was remarkably generous in granting pardons and commutations to his political allies. Several came in the early years of his presidency, but far more occurred when he was already a lame duck. Key allies such as Paul Manafort, Roger Stone and Stephen K. Bannon were granted reprieves only after Trump had lost to Biden.
That those controversial pardons came after the voting was done is telling. Trump recognizes the value in hyping the Jan. 6 convictions as political; it fits nicely into his rhetoric about being unfairly targeted himself. But he also seems to recognize that giving someone like Manafort a pass was the sort of thing that was better done after voters went to the polls.
For that reason, it seems unlikely that Trump would commit to pardoning Biggs or other members of extremist groups before the 2024 election, should he be the nominee. There’s little additional political upside and a lot of downside. As president, though — and as a president who can’t stand for reelection? Biggs’s confidence may be justified.
That Trump now unquestionably knows who the Proud Boys are and what they stand for may not serve as much of a deterrent.