President Trump disinvited the Philadelphia Eagles late Monday from a planned White House celebration of the team’s Super Bowl championship, opening a new salvo in his culture war over National Football League players standing for the national anthem.
Less than 24 hours before the players were expected to arrive in the Rose Garden, Trump said he would appear with only the team’s fans and the United States Marine Band and Army Chorus, and the anthem would be played “loudly and proudly.”
The decision came after some Eagles players said they would skip the ceremony to protest the president and his rhetoric. In recent seasons, a number of NFL players — starting with former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick — have elected to take a knee during the playing of the national anthem to protest police brutality. Trump has repeatedly attacked those players, turning the controversy into a political cudgel that he sees as beneficial to his standing with supporters.
“They disagree with their President because he insists that they proudly stand for the National Anthem, hand on heart, in honor of the great men and women of our military and the people of our country,” Trump said in a statement, issued by the press secretary.
A spokesman for the NFL did not respond to a request for comment. While the Philadelphia franchise had several players who vocally supported the protests, no Eagles were among those who knelt during the national anthem last season.
The team put out a statement Monday night on Twitter saying, “It has been incredibly thrilling to celebrate our first Super Bowl Championship. Watching the entire Eagles community come together has been an inspiration. ”
A senior administration official said the Eagles promised to have about 70 people there last week. By Monday, the team said only 10 to 12 people might come, this person said, creating a meager celebration. Trump deemed the smaller crowd unsatisfactory, aides said.
The president plans a “very patriotic” celebration, this person said, and will highlight why it is important to stand for the national anthem to the Eagles fans.
Kellyanne Conway, the presidential counselor and a die-hard Eagles fan, was helping to plan the event, according to two White House officials.
A second senior administration official said some players had told the White House that they were angry about new NFL rules on the national anthem, and that spurred their skipping the event.
A number of star players — including Chris Long and Malcolm Jenkins — had already said they were not planning to attend the event in protest of Trump. Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie called the presidency “disastrous” and said many players did not want to support Trump, according to an audio recording of an owners’ meeting obtained by the New York Times.
Former Eagles wide receiver Torrey Smith ripped Trump on Twitter late Monday. “So many lies,” Smith wrote, adding: “1. Not many people were going to go 2. No one refused to go simply because Trump ‘insists’ folks stand for the anthem 3. The President continues to spread the false narrative that players are anti military.”
It is unclear how many fans will attend the celebration without the team present. Trump said he expected 1,000.
Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr., a Pennsylvania Democrat being challenged this year by a Trump-aligned Republican, tweeted late Monday that he had invited the Eagles to forgo the Rose Garden for a tour of the Capitol. “I’m skipping this political stunt at the White House and just invited the Eagles to Congress,” Casey wrote.
The president has repeatedly raised the national anthem issue after a raucous rally last fall during which he called for owners to fire “son of a bitch” players who don’t stand for the song before kickoff. Administration officials said Trump was surprised by the cacophonous and continuing cheers and became convinced that making players stand for the anthem — and repeatedly railing about the issue on Twitter — is a political winner. He watched the league’s approval ratings drop — particularly among his supporters — and frequently quizzed senior administration officials in the Oval Office about his ongoing feud. Polls consistently showed much of the country disagreed with the protests; 53 percent told The Washington Post in a poll last fall that it was “never appropriate” to kneel.
Trump looked for new ways to continue the cultural clash.
When some players continued to kneel during the anthem, Trump told White House officials they should punish the NFL as part of a GOP-tax plan, according to White House and Hill aides. Some aides even began researching how to punish the lucrative league, and ideas trickled over to Capitol Hill.
A White House spokeswoman declined to comment. Another White House official noted that Trump’s ideas were never implemented and described his orders more as venting.
Vice President Pence flew across the country to an Indianapolis Colts games only to leave minutes after entering the stadium when the players knelt. It was largely seen as a publicity stunt but earned the vice president credence from his boss.
In turn, locker room and board rooms have faced uncomfortable conversations. Many athletes, Democratic politicians, black activists and fans urged the league to take on Trump and back the players. At the first, the NFL stood by kneeling players and said they had a right to protest.
The NFL said last month that players on the field for the national anthem would have to stand; those not interested in standing for the patriotic tune could stay in the locker room, in a move widely seen as a capitulation to Trump to stem bad publicity and fears of declining attendance.
“He’s 100 percent beaten the NFL into submission,” said Sam Nunberg, a former Trump aide. “It’s quite a smart move for him because he opens the White House to the fans while making it about the national anthem.”
Trump critics say the decision by African American football players to skip a White House visit makes sense given the president’s history of racially charged positions, including frequently questioning the birth certificate of President Barack Obama, his campaign rhetoric on Muslims and immigrants, his handling of deadly protests in Charlottesville to his labeling African countries as “shithole countries” and saying he preferred Norwegian immigrants over Haitians during an Oval Office meeting in January.
“It shouldn’t be hard to understand why black players might not want to go to the house and shake the hand of or hang out with someone who made excuses for white supremacists in Charlottesville and has attacked their teammates,” said Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change, an online civil rights group which has supported the protesting NFL players.
Last year, the president also rescinded an invitation to the National Basketball Association’s Golden State Warriors, whose players were split on attending.
Trump grew angry in April 2017 when Tom Brady said he planned to skip the White House visit with the Patriots, huddling angrily with aides and even calling Patriots owner Robert Kraft. One former senior administration official described a chaotic scene unfolding over the heartlands of America, as Trump flew back from an event in Wisconsin. Trump made a number of calls and asked aides to help fix the situation, worried that Brady’s absence would reflect poorly on him.
Brady later said he skipped the event to be with his ailing mother, while another half-dozen Patriots skipped to protest Trump.
Eventually, Trump was calmed down, and the Patriots came to the White House.