Politics

Matt Gaetz evokes 'standing by' language adopted by Proud Boys as he attends court with Donald Trump

U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz evoked language adopted by the far-right Proud Boys extremist group as he appeared at court Thursday to support Donald Trump at his hush money trial, reflecting the undercurrent of activist elements present among the presumptive GOP nominee's supporters as he seeks a return to the White House.

“Standing back, and standing by, Mr. President," Gaetz wrote as he posted a photo on social media of him with other congressional Republicans standing behind Trump in a hallway outside the courtroom where the former president's felony case is in its fourth week of testimony.

The Proud Boys — whose leaders were convicted of seditious conspiracy after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol — have used that verbiage since Trump, during a 2020 campaign debate, said: "Proud Boys, stand back and stand by."

That came in response to a question from debate moderator Chris Wallace asking if Trump would condemn white supremacist and militia groups that had shown up at some social justice protests across the country that summer following the death of George Floyd.

“I don’t know who the Proud Boys are," Trump said a day later, after facing widespread criticism for his failure to condemn their actions specifically, adding: “Whoever they are, they have to stand down. Let law enforcement do their work.”

Proud Boys leaders and supporters later celebrated Trump’s initial words on social media. A channel on Telegram, an instant messaging service, with tens of thousands of the group’s members posted “Stand Back” and “Stand By” above and below the group’s logo.

After Trump's debate comment, membership for the Proud Boys "tripled, probably," member Jeremy Joseph Bertino told the House committee that investigated the Jan. 6 insurrection. Bertino pleaded guilty to plotting with other Proud Boys members to violently stop the transfer of presidential power after Trump lost the 2020 election to Democrat Joe Biden.

Members wearing the group's black and yellow insignia have shown up on the sidelines of Trump's rallies across the country this campaign cycle, in which Trump has made the Jan. 6 attack a cornerstone of his bid. Having previously vowed to pardon the rioters, Trump has at some rallies played a recorded chorus of prisoners jailed for their roles in the attack singing the national anthem and referred to them as "hostages."

Gaetz, of Florida, was part of a contingent of conservative lawmakers who showed up at court to support Trump on Thursday, the latest in a procession of elected Republicans journeying to the New York courthouse in recent days to defend the party's presumptive presidential nominee. Trump is accused of having arranged secret payments to a porn actress to hide negative stories during his successful 2016 campaign for president.

Asked in an email if Gaetz intentionally used the verbiage adopted by the Proud Boys, spokesman Joel Valdez said, “the tweet speaks for itself.”

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Kinnard reported from Columbia, South Carolina. Lisa Mascaro contributed from Washington.

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Meg Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP

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