President Trump was quick to respond to the first player protests of the new football season, tweeting Friday morning that “the NFL players are at it again” after a few teams’ members knelt or performed other symbolic acts during the national anthem before preseason games Thursday night.
By his two tweets, the president signaled that for a third straight season, he would stoke the divisive issue he first fanned as a candidate just before the 2016 election. Yet again, Trump ignored both the complaints of racial injustice and police brutality that many African American players have sought to highlight by kneeling during the pre-game anthem, and their free-speech rights.
The president often has falsely suggested the players are protesting against the anthem, the American flag and the U.S. military. In his latest attack, however, he portrayed them as ungrateful for the opportunity to play in the NFL. In doing so, he exaggerated their overall share of league proceeds.
“The NFL players are at it again — taking a knee when they should be standing proudly for the National Anthem,” Trump tweeted. “Numerous players, from different teams, wanted to show their ‘outrage’ at something that most of them are unable to define. They make a fortune doing what they love......”
His second tweet continued: “....Be happy, be cool! A football game, that fans are paying soooo much money to watch and enjoy, is no place to protest. Most of that money goes to the players anyway. Find another way to protest. Stand proudly for your National Anthem or be Suspended Without Pay!”
At a time when the president faces a range of political and legal controversies — not least the ongoing Russia probe implicating him, his family and close associates — the new NFL season brings Trump an opportunity to heighten attention to his ongoing feud with the African American players, a wedge issue that animates a number of his white voters heading into the November midterm elections.
His latest tweets also come as the president has been facing renewed accusations of racism for other actions.
He drew widespread criticism last weekend after a tweet in which he attacked two prominent African Americans, NBA star LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers and CNN anchor Don Lemon, as dumb. And reports on Friday by the Washington Post and the Guardian said that former White House aide Omarosa Manigault-Newman, in her forthcoming memoir, asserts that Trump has used racial slurs. She writes that Trump is a “racist, misogynist and bigot,” according to the Post, which said it had access to excerpts of the book and to recordings Manigault-Newman made during her stint in the White House..
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, in a statement about the book, called it “riddled with lies and false accusations” by “a disgruntled former White House employee … trying to profit off these false attacks.”
Trump’s latest outburst against African American football players comes on the one-year anniversary of a violent clash between white nationalists and anti-racism counterprotesters in Charlottesville, Va., that is most remembered for his controversial response. Trump was widely assailed, including by Republican officials and business associates, when he initially declined to condemn the racists and then blamed people “on both sides” after a neo-Nazi drove a car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing a 32-year-old woman.
White nationalists are planning to commemorate the Charlottesville rally with a “Unite the Right” rally in Washington’s Lafayette Square, directly across from the White House, on Sunday. The president is not scheduled to return to the White House until Monday night, following an 11-day vacation.
Responding to Trump’s latest tweets, African American player Cameron Jordan of the New Orleans Saints wrote on Twitter, as if to Trump: “Guy who won the presidential election … how about we get a statement on the ‘unite the right’ rally 2 being held in DC this weekend … a yr after the first one in Charlottesville???”
Trump’s focus on the divisive tactic — at a rally last fall for a Republican candidate from Alabama he referred to a hypothetical protesting player as a “son of a ...” — has forced the NFL, a multibillion-dollar business, to react to satisfy a suddenly divided fan base as well as a president who’s a friend to several team owners.
In May, the league announced a policy that all players must stand during the anthem, or else remain in the locker room without penalty. Yet the policy, considered by many to be a concession to the president, was later put on hold after Trump mocked it on Twitter.
In July, the NFL Players Assn. and the league said in a joint statement that they agreed to halt enforcement of the anthem policy while the two sides work on a resolution.
While the president has continually ignored the players’ explanations of their protests, he has eagerly highlighted violence in mostly African American inner cities, especially in Chicago, often as a rationale for a stronger police response.
On Thursday, during a meeting at his Bedminster, N.J., golf resort that was focused mostly on criminal justice reform, Trump referred again to Chicago and a recent spate of shootings there, blaming the city’s Democratic leadership and citing it as reason to “strengthen community bonds with law enforcement.”
10:55 a.m.: This article was updated with a comment from the White House about Omarosa Manigault-Newman’s upcoming memoir.
This article was originally published at 9:20 a.m.