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NCAA championship team’s plan to confront Trump mostly fizzles out during White House visit

Columbia celebrates after winning its 16th national title at the NCAA championships March 24 in Cleveland. (Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire/AP)

The Columbia University fencing team’s plan to confront President Trump over gender equity policies mostly fizzled out Friday after the athletes were not allowed to hand him a letter spelling out their concerns during a ceremonial photo opportunity.

Shortly before the athletes were escorted into the East Room, a White House aide told them that the Secret Service discourages visitors from handing items to the president, captains Nolen Scruggs and Elise Gout said. The aide took the letter and promised to deliver it to Trump, they said, and the athletes did not directly express their objections in their brief interactions with the president, which were part of a White House celebration of 22 college championship teams. Fencing team members later joined the other teams in a tour of the Oval Office at Trump’s invitation.

“Secret Service made it pretty clear that something could happen, and I don’t want to find out what that is,” Scruggs said of handing the letter to Trump.

Team members had revealed their plan to present the letter to Trump and hold copies aloft in the group photo with him in an interview with The Washington Post this week. The letter cited the Trump administration’s “continued acts of gender-based prejudice and partisanship," according to a copy obtained by The Post.

Despite turning over the letter, members of the team did take part in a silent protest of Trump’s policies by wearing a large white lapel pin, intended to signify gender equality, Scruggs and Gout said. The pins were inspired by the white suits and dresses, in honor of the suffrage movement, worn by female members of Congress during Trump’s State of the Union address in February.

Scruggs said the White House aide asked them to remove the pins, but the athletes declined. A White House spokesman declined to comment.

“The goal might not necessarily even be to communicate with the president but to communicate with the American people and get them to jump-start a conversation that might not already be happening,” Scruggs said after leaving the White House. “There’s physical evidence that we did this, and just that alone is important.”

White House spokesman Judd Deere declined to comment on the letter, citing a policy of not commenting on Secret Service protocols. In a statement, he said Trump congratulated the team on its NCAA title in March and took a group photograph, as the president did with the other teams.

“The team was cordial, and nothing was handed to the president,” Deere said, noting that the team presented Trump with a gift, as is customary for sports squads visiting the White House. “White House staff also spoke with members of the team and the coach and extended an invitation for them to come back to the White House to discuss any policy concerns they have.”

A staffer, Scruggs said, told the team that the White House would follow up with Coach Michael Aufrichtig to reach out to the athletes for a future meeting.

Reporters were not permitted to witness Trump’s interactions with the fencing team. Reporters were confined to the State Dining Room, where just four of the 22 teams were positioned. White House aides initially had planned to allow broader coverage, but rain forced some teams scheduled to meet Trump on the South Lawn to move inside, making many rooms too crowded, they said.

During interviews ahead of the event, the fencing team members said they opposed the Trump administration’s stances on reproductive health, its attempts to restructure Title IX and its changes to how college campuses handle cases of sexual assault.

They also objected to the president’s rhetoric and behavior toward women. Sixteen women have accused Trump of sexual misconduct before he took office and provided witnesses they told at the time about the incident. During the 2016 campaign, an audio recording from an “Access Hollywood” interview of Trump years earlier was made public in which Trump is heard talking in a lewd manner about women.

“The victory for which you mean to honor us today cannot be separated from the diversity that comprises our team," their letter stated.

“We as collegiate fencers have committed our athletic careers to understanding how our individual strengths, irrespective of gender, may be best leveraged for the advancement of the collective,” it continues. “But while ours is a victory born from values of gender equality, yours is one shadowed by continued acts of gender-based prejudice and partisanship.”

Read the letter from Columbia fencers to President Trump

Columbia fencers had described their plan to confront Trump as in line with recent examples of athlete protests.

“There is this larger conversation over whether athletes should have political views or use their platforms in political ways, but if we are being recognized for our success, we need to stand up for the things that allowed us to have that success in the first place,” Gout said earlier this week. “We have a responsibility to fight for the values that led us to become national champions. In my opinion, the values that allowed us to win are not valued by this administration.”

Sean Doolittle on declining White House invite: ‘I don’t want to hang out with somebody who talks like that’

In May 2018, Mandy Manning, who was being honored as national teacher of the year, brought letters from her immigrant and refugee students to the White House and gave them to Trump. During their photo op, she wore badges promoting equality, including one reading “Trans Equality Now.”

Trump’s staff has gone to great lengths to try to shield him from direct criticism. During a trip in 2018, Trump met with British leaders outside London, where mass protests of his visit were taking place. In May, when Trump visited Japan, the U.S. Navy received a request to minimize the visibility of the USS John McCain warship — named for the former senator and frequent Trump critic — during the president’s remarks at the Yokosuka base. He has attended three sporting events in recent weeks, receiving mixed reactions.

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