WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump is indulging in his favorite kind of drama — personal, aggressive, culturally volatile and entirely of his own making.
And his feud with the NFL shows no signs of abating, with the president tweeting early Monday morning: “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!”
NFL spokesman Joe Lockhart fired back Monday in a conference call defending players’ rights to peacefully protest what they view as racial inequality and police brutality.
“Everyone should know, including the president, this is what real locker room talk is,” Lockhart said, in an apparent reference to the “Access Hollywood” tapes in which Trump bragged about sexually assaulting women.
Trump’s spat with athletes comes as the president prepares to sell a tax overhaul plan and revive health care legislation — his party’s top legislative priorities.
But instead of publicly prioritizing policy and courting votes, the provocateur president spent three days attacking the NFL players who kneel during the national anthem. On Friday night, during a rally in Huntsville, Alabama, 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.”
Trump also rescinded a White House invitation for basketball player Stephen Curry, a star player on the NBA champion Golden State Warriors.
The president’s words sparked a massive show of defiance this weekend, with more than 200 NFL players protesting by choosing not to stand for the national anthem and many coaches locking arms with the players.
Speaking to reporters on Sunday night in New Jersey, Trump said players and coaches locking arms was a display of “solidarity” that he approved of. But he pushed back against the suggestion that his critique could inflame racial tensions, arguing: “I never said anything about race.”
Trump’s feud with the NFL is nothing new. In the 1980s, Trump bought the New Jersey Generals team in the upstart United States Football League. He then led his fellow owners in suing the more established NFL in a high-stakes antitrust case. It ended up in front of a jury, with the NFL painting Trump as the villain.
Then, during last year’s presidential campaign, Trump claimed Hillary Clinton was “trying to rig” the debate schedule to coincide with football games and insisted the NFL wrote him a letter to complain. But the league said it sent no such letter.
New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, a longtime supporter of Trump, said Sunday 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 want him to do what he wants to do.”
In a statement Monday, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said:
“I have immense respect and admiration for our players, for how they conduct themselves professionally as New England Patriots and for how they represent themselves, their families and community as men. I have coached football for over four decades and one of the greatest things about being in this environment is the diversity of people, backgrounds, viewpoints and relationships we are fortunate to experience. As with any large group of people, there is a variety of perspectives and opinions on many topics. Discussions occur between myself, individual players, groups and the entire team on an ongoing basis. They concern the team and other issues surrounding the team. I am going to keep the specifics of those conversations private. I will do what I feel is best for the team in my role as head coach and collectively, we will work together to find the best way to proceed.”
Joe Trillo, a former Rhode Island representative who was the honorary chairman of Trump’s campaign in the state, released a statement in support of the president:
“President Trump is entirely correct when he criticizes those who refuse to stand for the National Anthem or the Pledge of Allegiance. While I support everyone’s right to protest peacefully, there are a million ways to protest. The National Anthem is where we the people of this great country give thanks to those who have given their lives for all the freedoms we enjoy. I support President Trump who is one man trying to emphasize the importance of this message. Athletes need to realize that young kids look up to them and the last thing we need is to have them mimic their athletic heroes and not fully understand what it means to not honor this country and the people who have given their lives for us.
“Athletes need to realize that people want to come to a game or event and get away from politics to just enjoy the game. Players and entertainers also need to realize that they have a diverse audience that does not come to an event to be preached to but just be entertained. People need to stand up and send a strong message to these folks. We are not going to contribute to your financial successes if you are going to disrespect this country.”
As NFL criticism rolled in, Trump 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.”
But critics of the president said Trump’s comments have a lot to do with race. Former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick initiated the protests last year to bring attention to police brutality against minorities.
“It just amazes me with everything else going on in this world, especially involving the U.S., that’s what you’re concerned about, my man? You’re the leader of the free world and this is what you’re talking about?” said Dolphins safety Michael Thomas. “So, as a man, as a father, as an African-American man, as somebody in the NFL and one of those ‘sons of bitches,’ yeah, I took it personally.”
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.
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.