President Donald Trump on Monday dug in on his feud with professional athletes, declaring on Twitter that “many people” booed the NFL players who kneeled during the national anthem, and denying that he’s stoking racial tensions with his attacks.
Trump’s clash with the NFL is extending into its fourth day, and while it’s pulling attention from heated debates on health care and tax reform, those around the president say he sees the issue as a way to reconnect with his base.
“He knows it’ll get people stirred up and talking about it,” a senior administration official said.
The official added the Trump fears his supporters may be feeling neglected after he decided to not immediately cut off protections for undocumented young immigrants known as Dreamers and after he cut a deal with Democrats on the debt ceiling and government funding.
Chris Ruddy, the CEO of Newsmax and a longtime Trump friend, said on Monday that the president is focused on the patriotism angle of the debate and is brushing off the charges of racism.
“He’s in a bubble here because he knows he’s not a racist. His friends know he isn’t,” Ruddy said in an interview. “He sees himself standing on the high ground of the truth. But the media are telling the rest of the country a different story about him.”
Trump first stoked the issue on Friday at a rally in Alabama, where he told the crowd “wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘get that son of a bitch off the field right now — he’s fired.’” Trump’s Twitter account was peppered with similar sentiments throughout the weekend, including one post in which he suggested that NFL ratings and attendance had dipped in part because “many stay away because they love our country.”
On Monday, Trump showed no signs of backing down.
“Many people booed the players who kneeled yesterday (which was a small percentage of total). These are fans who demand respect for our Flag!” Trump tweeted. “The issue of kneeling has nothing to do with race. It is about respect for our Country, Flag and National Anthem. NFL must respect this!”
Trump’s attention to the kneeling of NFL players during the national anthem — a silent protest against racial inequality in the U.S. — comes at the start of a week already brimming with other issues likely to require the president’s attention, including last-ditch efforts on Capitol Hill to repeal and replace Obamacare, Tuesday’s Senate primary runoff in Alabama, nuclear saber-rattling by North Korea and the ongoing recovery in Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria.
Nonetheless, Trump is doubling down on his claims, and his aides have been defending him as a patriot, who is standing up against those who are disrespecting the millions of Americans who have fought to keep the country free.
“This isn’t about the president being against anyone, but this is about the president and millions of Americans being for something, being for honoring our flag, honoring our national anthem and honoring the men and women who fought to defend it,” press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said during the White House briefing on Monday.
Asked if the president regretted referring to a player who takes a knee during the national anthem as a “son of a bitch,” the press secretary said, “I think that it’s always appropriate for the president of the United States to defend our flag, to defend the national anthem and to defend the men and women who fought and died to defend it.”
Sanders also denied that Trump is trying to start a culture war, and indicated that protests against racial inequality may be better directed at the law enforcement officials on the field.
“I think if the debate is really for them about police brutality, they should probably protest the officers on the field that are protecting them instead of the American flag,” Sanders said.
She later clarified that she was not being literal with the remark. “I was kind of pointing out the hypocrisy of the fact that if the goal is and the message is that of police brutality, which they’ve stated, then that doesn’t seem very appropriate to protest the American flag. I’m not sure how those two things would be combined.”
The president’s attacks only fueled protests across the league, with at least some players from nearly every team taking a knee during the anthem. Some stood with locked arms on the sidelines during the anthem, while the Seattle Seahawks, Tennessee Titans and Pittsburgh Steelers stayed in their locker rooms during the song. From the Steelers, only offensive lineman Alejandro Villanueva, a former Army Ranger who served in Afghanistan, stood in the tunnel with his hand on his heart during the anthem.
And while the NFL has borne the brunt of Trump’s criticism, the president’s national anthem-related focus wandered Monday morning to NASCAR, with the president praising the stock car racing league “and its supporters and fans. They won’t put up with disrespecting our Country or our Flag – they said it loud and clear!”
Multiple team owners from NASCAR, which is especially popular in the South and in more rural parts of the U.S., took a tougher stance than those from the NFL, warning that they would fire crew members or drivers who protest during the anthem. The Associated Press reported that Sunday’s race in New Hampshire appeared to be protest-free during the anthem.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., the recently retired NASCAR driver who nonetheless remains perhaps the sport’s biggest star, weighed in Monday morning, writing on Twitter that “all Americans R granted rights 2 peaceful protests” and quoting former President John F. Kennedy, “those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”
In a statement, NASCAR affirmed the “right to peacefully express one’s opinion.”
“Our respect for the national anthem has always been a hallmark of our pre-race events. Thanks to the sacrifices of many, we live in a country of unparalleled freedoms and countless liberties, including the right to peacefully express one’s opinion.”
Trump’s controversial remarks were met with an almost unanimously chilly reception from the NFL, including from league commissioner Roger Goodell, who called the president’s message “divisive,” and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who said he was “deeply disappointed” by the president’s comments. Kraft is a longtime friend of Trump’s who donated money to his inaugural committee and had dinner with him and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last February at Mar-a-Lago.
Patriots star quarterback Tom Brady, who has said his friendship with Trump dates back to 2002 but who skipped a White House visit in April, called the president’s remarks “just divisive.” But Brady was unwilling to blame New England fans who booed his kneeling teammates before the Patriots’ Sunday afternoon game against Houston, telling Boston sports talk radio station WEEI that “everyone has the right to do whatever they want to do. If you don’t agree, that is fine. You can voice your disagreement, I think that is great.”
“It’s part of our democracy. As long as it is done in a peaceful, respectful way, that is what our country has been all about,” Brady continued.
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