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‘I should have left them in jail!’: Trump fires back at LaVar Ball for saying he did nothing to help UCLA players in China

Three UCLA basketball players were arrested Nov. 7 in Hangzhou, China, on suspicion of shoplifting. (Video: Victoria Walker/The Washington Post)

President Trump chastised LaVar Ball, the father of one of three UCLA players who were released by Chinese authorities after efforts by Trump and his Chinese counterpart, tweeting that “I should have left them in jail!”

Trump was responding early Sunday afternoon to Ball’s comment that Trump had done little to help with the release of LiAngelo Ball and his teammates after their arrest for shoplifting while on a team trip to China. “Who?” Ball told ESPN’s Arash Markazi when asked about Trump’s involvement in the matter. “What was he over there [on the Asian trip] for? Don’t tell me nothing. Everybody wants to make it seem like he helped me out.”

Trump retorted: “Now that the three basketball players are out of China and saved from years in jail, LaVar Ball, the father of LiAngelo, is unaccepting of what I did for his son and that shoplifting is no big deal. I should have left them in jail!”

Several hours later, the president reiterated his animus toward the Ball patriarch in another tweet, writing, “Should have gotten his son out during my next trip to China instead. China told them why they were released. Very ungrateful!”

Ball hasn’t responded directly to Trump’s latest tweets, but did tell an ABC producer that he would have said thank you had the president visited the UCLA players in prison.

Last week, Trump made sure everyone knew that he personally intervened in the matter after the players’ arrest, asking that they thank him for pleading their case to Chinese President Xi Jinping while on his Asia trip:

By midweek, Ball, Jalen Hill and Cody Riley lauded for the president’s efforts in their remarks after returning to the U.S. and he seemed appreciative, telling them to “HAVE A GREAT LIFE!” on Twitter and warning them to be careful because “there are many pitfalls on the long and winding road of life!”

But those good feelings evaporated Sunday. The elder Ball also tried to minimize the crime committed by his son and his teammates, who were detained by Chinese authorities after they were caught shoplifting from some high-end stores near the team hotel ahead of UCLA’s season opener in China. The three have since been suspended indefinitely from the team.

“As long as my boy’s back here, I’m fine,” Ball said. “I’m happy with how things were handled. A lot of people like to say a lot of things that they thought happened over there. Like I told him, ‘They try to make a big deal out of nothing sometimes.’ I’m from L.A. I’ve seen a lot worse things happen than a guy taking some glasses. My son has built up enough character that one bad decision doesn’t define him. Now if you can go back and say when he was 12 years old he was shoplifting and stealing cars and going wild, then that’s a different thing.

“Everybody gets stuck on the negativity of some things, and they get stuck on them too long. That’s not me. I handle what’s going on and then we go from there.”

Trump was piqued because he has pointed to his record of freeing Americans held overseas as evidence of his dealmaking prowess and as a contrast with predecessor Barack Obama. Before the three basketball players, the Trump administration had successfully negotiated releases including American student Otto Warmbier from North Korea and charity worker Aya Hijazi from Egypt. Although those efforts earned bipartisan welcome, the apparent grievance that he has not gotten more credit or thanks in the UCLA case drew criticism.

Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic political strategist and former spokesman for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, tweeted: “TRANSLATION — The President of the USA says he should have left US CITIZENS in CHINESE PRISON b/c they didn’t kiss his [butt] enough. Think about that one.”

Steve Kerr, the Golden State Warriors’ coach who has been outspoken about his opposition to Trump’s policies, called Trump and Ball the elder “people seeking attention and they’re both getting it. I’m sure both guys are really happy. You know what would help? If all of you just stopped covering both of them. Is that possible? You could probably stop covering LaVar. I don’t think you could stop covering the president [laughing]. I don’t think that’ll work. … It might be nice for all of us if both of them would just be quiet. Wouldn’t that be great?”

The Post’s Anne Gearan contributed to this report.

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