From the NFL to San Juan and back to the NFL: Trump's week of Twitter chaos comes full circle

Washington Post

You know the old line about the hard worker who burns a candle at both ends. President Donald Trump's candle might look more like a forest fire last week.

Last weekend in his @realdonaldtrump avatar, the president ignited the smoldering issue of NFL players who protest police violence during the national anthem. What had been a small, scattered movement turned into a national spectacle as dozens of players knelt to defy Trump on game day, followed by days of caustic national argument.

The outrage had just begun to subside when, late in the week, Trump attacked an outspoken mayor in Puerto Rico and what he called "politically motivated ingrates" on a U.S. island crippled by a hurricane.

Trump fueled the Puerto Rico furor as he had the NFL furor: tweet by tweet, for hours at a stretch.

And then, just in time for the Sunday games, Trump returned his focus to NFL players - as if the country had forgotten, as if one fire at a time was not enough.

Here's how a week of extraordinary chaos unfolded, tweet by lurching tweet.

1. Trump demands NFL players be punished for protesting

"If NFL fans refuse to go to games until players stop disrespecting our Flag & Country, you will see change take place fast. Fire or suspend!" —Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) Sept. 24, 2017

In a sort of preseason to the confrontations to come, Trump picked a fight with the NFL at a political rally two nights before game day. As The Washington Post recounted, the president was speaking in Alabama on Sept. 22 in support of a Senate candidate, which led him to the topic of "America values," which led him to football.

"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,' " Trump asked the crowd. "Out. He's fired. He's FIRED!"

In some ways, this was a strange topic to insert into the rally.

Some players had been kneeling during the pregame national anthem since the beginning of last season. The demonstrations were no longer the spectacle they were when 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick inspired them a year ago to protest police killings of unarmed black people.

Nevertheless, Trump repeated his demand on Sunday, just before sunrise at the New Jersey resort where he was weekending, in his first tweet of game day.

"Fire or suspend!"

2. Trump faces down the backlash he provoked

"Great solidarity for our National Anthem and for our Country. Standing with locked arms is good, kneeling is not acceptable. Bad ratings!" —Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) Sept. 24, 2017

The rest of that Sunday resembled theater more than football.

Hundreds of players — nearly entire teams in two cases — locked arms or bent a knee that evening. Interest in the kneeling players spiked massively, both on the news and in web searches.

Executives, owners, coaches and most of the NFL's 1,664 players "scrambled to figure out an appropriate response," wrote ESPN: "A small protest ... had now become a leaguewide, nationally polarizing crisis under Trump."

And the president oversaw it all from a Twitter app, sometimes spinning the backlash, sometimes egging the furor on.

3. Trump triples down on the NFL

"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!" —Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) Sept. 25, 2017

Trump woke up Monday and praised NASCAR owners who condemned the protests. "They won't put up with disrespecting our Country or our Flag," he wrote at 7:25 a.m.

Six minutes later, he claimed that "many people booed the players who knelt yesterday (which was a small percentage of total)."

"The issue of kneeling has nothing to do with race. It is about respect for our Country, Flag and National Anthem," Trump wrote Monday evening, contradicting not just the stated reasons of the kneeling players but a decades-long tradition of protesting racial injustice from the football field.

"Ratings for NFL football are way down except before game starts, when people tune in to see whether or not our country will be disrespected!" —Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) Sept. 26, 2017

Trump kept tweeting about football for days, and his arguments became ever more esoteric. He promoted the hashtag #StandForOurAnthem as an alternative to the megaviral #TakeAKnee. He claimed his chief of staff, John Kelly, "totally agrees w/ my stance on NFL players."

On Tuesday, Trump wrote that he'd never heard boos as loud as when the Dallas Cowboys took a knee.

On Wednesday, he praised the team's owner, Jerry Jones: "Players will stand for Country!"

4. Trump pivots to a fight in Puerto Rico

"We have done a great job with the almost impossible situation in Puerto Rico. Outside of the Fake News or politically motivated ingrates ..." —Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) Oct. 1, 2017

As Trump castigated football players, a humanitarian crisis unfolded in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, which had been left without power and isolated by a hurricane the previous week.

As The Washington Post reported, top White House aides had gone dark for days as the island's residents struggled to survive — as Trump "fixated on his escalating public feuds with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, with fellow Republicans in Congress and with the National Football League."

By Thursday, the administration was defending itself against accusations of negligence. The acting homeland security secretary spoke of Puerto Rico's recovery as a "good news story" on TV.

With the NFL spat apparently behind him, Trump did likewise on Twitter.

"Puerto Rico is devastated. Phone system, electric grid many roads, gone. FEMA and First Responders are amazing. Governor said "great job!" —Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) Sept. 29, 2017

But the White House messaging angered some on the island, which had waited more than a week for Trump to allow foreign ships to deliver aid.

"I am asking the president of the United States to make sure somebody is in charge that is up to the task of saving lives," Carmen Yulín Cruz, the frustrated mayor of San Juan, said at a news conference Friday.

In his first tweet the next morning, Trump attacked her.

"The Mayor of San Juan, who was very complimentary only a few days ago, has now been told by the Democrats that you must be nasty to Trump." —Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) Sept. 30, 2017

And he kept attacking Cruz for hours — along with others in Puerto Rico in whom Trump found "poor leadership ability;" who "want everything to be done for them;" who are "politically motivated ingrates."

And for all that, as she oversaw relief operation in San Juan, a once-obscure mayor became something of a star.

5. Trump returns to football

"19,000 RESPECTING our National Anthem!" —Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) Oct. 1, 2017

And on Saturday evening, even as his feud with the mayor spiraled through the news shows, Trump cycled back to his main theme from earlier in the week.

"Very important that NFL players STAND tomorrow, and always, for the playing of our National Anthem. Respect our Flag and our Country!" he wrote. And a few hours later, he posted a video to demonstrate what standing for the anthem looked like.

Come Sunday morning, again weekending at his resort in New Jersey, Trump lurched between topics. His administration's "great job with the almost impossible situation in Puerto Rico." His "wonderful Secretary of State," who was "wasting his time" trying to negotiate with North Korea.

The president had not mentioned the NFL again by noon, as football fans across the country prepared for pregames, and perhaps more knee-drops.

But his tweets had done their work. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., was pushed to weigh in on the protests on a Sunday news show.


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