BY CATHERINE LUCEY
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Trump also rescinded a White House invitation for basketball player Stephen Curry, a star player on the NBA champion Golden State Warriors.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.”
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.
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