WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump on Monday reiterated his criticism of NFL players who knelt during the national anthem, pushing back against suggestions that race drove his calls for those football players to be fired.
Trump wrote on Twitter that his objection “has nothing to do with race. It is about respect for our Country, Flag and National Anthem. NFL must respect this!” The president also used his favorite social media platform to point to fans who booed players who knelt during Sunday’s NFL games along with auto racing fans of NASCAR who “won’t put up with disrespecting our Country or our Flag.”
With his attacks on activist athletes, Trump again plunged into the middle of his favorite kind of drama – personal, aggressive, culturally volatile and entirely of his own making. For four days, the provocateur president has drawn criticism from the worlds of politics and sports for saying that football players who kneel during the national anthem should be fired. The conflict peaked Sunday with Trump’s remarks, which had the effect of uniting a newly minted opposition coalition that included a growing number of players and coaches, as well as some owners who have backed the president.
On Monday morning, Trump continued to defend the scrap – which prompted about 200 players to stand, kneel or raise their fists during the national anthem at games – writing, “Many people booed the players who kneeled yesterday (which was a small percentage of total). These are fans who demand respect for our Flag!”
Speaking to reporters on Sunday night in New Jersey, Trump also offered his own take on the players and coaches who chose to lock arms on the field during the anthem, describing it as a display of “solidarity” that he approved of. And he pushed back against the suggestion that his critique could inflame racial tensions, arguing: “I never said anything about race.”
After a week dealing with weighty international issues at the United Nations General Assembly, Trump seemed to relish the moment, which he started with comments at a rally Friday night and continued on Twitter throughout the weekend.
In addition to attacks on NFL players, he also rescinded a White House invitation for basketball player Stephen Curry, a star player on the NBA champion Golden State Warriors.
Trump’s feud with athletes came as the president prepared to sell a tax overhaul plan this week, aiming to build support for his top legislative priority, and health care legislation brought forward by Republicans in the Senate edge to the brink of failure.
White House aides and allies said Trump remains confident that his supporters are strongly behind his attacks on kneeling players, a practice that started with a handful of players to protest a number of issues, including police brutality against black people. As criticism rolled in, supporters argued the president was not targeting African-Americans, but simply expressing patriotism.
“It’s a perfect example of where the president gets it right,” said Christopher Ruddy, the CEO of Newsmax and a longtime Trump friend, who said team officials and the news media were not in line with much of the country. “It’s a win for him at the end of the day.”
Some allied groups were quick to take action. The pro-Trump political non-profit America First Policies released a Facebook ad with the tagline “Turn off the NFL.”
Trump has had a history of engaging in racially fraught battles, from his promotion of the false story that the nation’s first black president, Barack Obama was not born in the United States, to his campaign proposal to temporarily ban Muslims from the United States. He drew condemnation last month for saying “both sides” were to blame for violence between white supremacists and their opposing demonstrators during clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Some longtime supporters of Trump distanced themselves this time, notably New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft. In a statement Sunday, Kraft said he was “deeply disappointed by the tone of the comments made by the president.”
He added that there is “nothing more divisive than politics” and said he supported players’ “right to peacefully affect social change and raise awareness in a manner that they feel is most impactful.”
Trump shrugged off the comments, saying: “he’s a good friend of mine.”
Trump began his latest tirade during a raucous campaign rally in Huntsville, Alabama Friday evening before thousands of cheering fans. Amid comments about a Senate candidate and his agenda, Trump said: “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, out, he’s fired, he’s fired.”
The crowd chanted: “U.S.A, U.S.A.”
Trump continued: “that’s a total disrespect of everything that we stand for, OK? Everything that we stand for.”
Top administration officials backed the president on Sunday talk shows, saying he just wanted players to show patriotism and respect. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on ABC’s “This Week” that players have “the right to have the First Amendment off the field.”
Associated Press writer Tom LoBianco contributed to this report from Silver Spring, Maryland.