President Trump on Tuesday led a crowd of hundreds in a rendition of the national anthem on the South Lawn of the White House as he sought to capitalize politically on the latest flash point in his racially charged culture war with the National Football League.
Trump’s decision to carry on with a “Celebration of America,” complete with a Marine Corps band in dress uniforms and miniature American flags — after abruptly canceling a traditional visit from the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles — drew intense backlash from high-profile professional athletes.
But White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders thrust blame on the Eagles’ organization for a “political stunt” intended to embarrass the president, who last fall disparaged African American players for kneeling in protest during the anthem and the NFL for allowing it.
Although the players said they were demonstrating against police brutality in black communities, Trump criticized them for disrespecting the flag, sparking a fierce public debate. No Eagles players had participated in anthem protests, however.
“We love our country. We respect our flag. We always proudly stand for the national anthem,” Trump said during brief remarks after the anthem was performed. A heckler attempted to disrupt the president but was drowned out by boos from the crowd.
The event marked another discordant moment in the tide of cultural disputes stoked by Trump, who has fanned controversies on issues including immigration, a deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville and last week’s flare-up over a racist tweet from comedian Roseanne Barr.
Rather than seek to defuse tensions, Trump again sought to magnify them — turning what has traditionally been an apolitical White House feting of a sports team into another divisive spectacle. The controversy prompted basketball star LeBron James, whose Cleveland Cavaliers are competing in the National Basketball Association Finals against the Golden State Warriors, to predict that neither team will want to visit the White House next year.
“The president has made it pretty clear he’s going to try to divide all of us in this country for political gain,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said Tuesday.
At the White House, Sanders issued a statement saying that the Eagles’ organization, after initially committing to sending 81 players and team officials to the ceremony, attempted to reschedule for next week when Trump will be traveling out of the country.
When the White House declined, she said, the Eagles then said only a “tiny handful” of players and team officials would attend the event, where up to 1,000 fans also were expected, prompting Trump to call it off.
“The vast majority of the Eagles team decided to abandon their fans,” she said.
The tradition of presidents regularly feting sports champions dates back to President Ronald Reagan, and his successors have typically used the events to lavish praise on the dedication of the athletes and make lighthearted, nonpolitical jokes. The teams have usually responded with bland thank yous and a team jersey for the president. During President Barack Obama’s tenure, the White House asked players to perform community service during their trips to Washington.
Over the years, some players have chosen to skip the events, sometimes for political reasons. But past presidents have typically not reacted to the no-shows.
That has changed in the Trump era. Last fall, after Warriors guard Stephen Curry said he did not want to attend his team’s White House visit, Trump canceled the event.
That prompted James to call Trump a “bum” on Twitter, adding: “Going to White House was a great honor until you showed up!”
Many Eagles players decided last week that they would spend the day in Washington visiting the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture instead of participating in the White House ceremony, according to a person familiar with the players’ plans.
Most of those who remained willing to participate in the White House ceremony had planned to meet up with their teammates at the museum afterward in a show of solidarity, said the source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.
Nate Boyer, a former NFL player and U.S. Army Green Beret, said Trump has successfully turned protests that the players had hoped would spark a conversation over criminal justice reform into a false debate over patriotism. Boyer had consulted with former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who initiated the protests two seasons ago, and helped convince him to take a knee in respect for U.S. troops instead of sitting on the bench during the anthem.
“We’re not even talking about what these protests were about,” Boyer said. “Trump’s winning in that regard.”
On the South Lawn, Trump, dressed in a dark suit and bright-red tie, placed his right hand over his heart and appeared to sing along as the Marine band played the anthem. A crowd mostly wearing business attire assembled for the event, with few signs of Eagles regalia in evidence.
In his remarks, Trump said that standing for the anthem is intended to honor the country, the military, troops who died in combat and “our magnificent Constitution.”
But Trump also used his speech to pay tribute to himself, touting low unemployment rates and asserting that the United States “has never done better than it’s doing right now. Never. We have record numbers at every outpost.”
The band played “God Bless America” after Trump finished speaking, with the president briefly mouthing a couple verses before switching to nodding along.
The flare-up in Trump’s fight with the NFL comes after the league announced a new policy that would require players to either stand for the anthem or remain in the locker room. The decision was widely interpreted as capitulating to Trump, who reacted last week by praising the team owners and, in an interview on Fox & Friends, suggesting that players who still wanted to protest “shouldn’t be in the country.”
“This was starting to quiet down, so to speak,” said Donté Stallworth, a former NFL wide receiver who has supported the protesting players and attended meetings on Capitol Hill to advocate criminal justice reform. “But the NFL brought it back to the forefront when they unilaterally made this decision without bringing the players to the table. Now it’s back on the front pages.”
The White House appeared eager to keep it there, reflecting confidence that Trump’s fight with the players is playing well with his core supporters.
“The Eagles are the ones who tried to change the commitment at the 11th hour,” Sanders said. “The president felt the fans deserved better than that.”