With his attacks on activist athletes, President Donald Trump plunged into the middle of his favorite kind of drama — personal, aggressive, culturally volatile and entirely of his own making.
For three 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.
Late Sunday, Trump continued to defend the scrap — which prompted about 200 players to stand, kneel or raise their fists during the national anthem at games — telling reporters in New Jersey that kneeling was “very disrespectful to our flag and to our country” and that “owners should do something.”
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 In addition to attacks on NFL players, he also rescinded a White House invitation for basketball player Stephen Curry, a star player on the NBA champion Golden State Warriors.
On Twitter Sunday night, Trump continued to press his case against politically charged athletes, saying: “sports fans should never condone players that do not stand proud for their National Anthem or their Country. NFL should change policy!”
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 and I what him to do what he wants to do.”
Critics argued the president had waded into an unnecessary — and potentially damaging —battle.
“There’s no upside here except he may stimulate some excitement by the base,” said former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele. “I think it’s the president’s way of continuing his reality TV presidency.”
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.”
Still, Republican strategist Karl Rove said Trump had missed an opportunity. Rove said there is support for the president’s overall argument about patriotism and the flag, but he could have offered a more unifying message.
Said Rove: “the president, in the middle of huge battles that are so consequential to the future of his presidency, gets involved in this dispute and does it in a way that makes him look smaller not bigger.”