On Sunday morning, senior officials in the Trump administration were strafing the Sunday political talk shows, forced to mount full-throated defenses of the president’s prolonged campaign of hate-tweeting the National Football League and its players.
These were top administration officials brought on to discuss tensions with North Korea and the White House’s tax reform efforts. Instead, they had to be prepared to play back-up to President Donald Trump’s latest, tweet-fueled cultural feud.
“Players have the right for free speech off the field. On the field, this is about respect for lots of people,” Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said on this week’s edition of CNN’s State of the Union.
“I think what the president is saying is that the [NFL] owners should have a rule that players should have to stand in respect for the national anthem,” Mnuchin also said on Sunday on ABC’s This Week. “This isn’t about Democrats, it’s not about Republicans, it’s not about race, it’s not about free speech. They can do free speech on their own time… This is about respect for the military and first responders in the country.”
When asked what he thought about President Trump recently using the term “son of a bitch” to describe NFL players, such as Colin Kaepernick, who take a knee during the national anthem to protest racial injustices, the Treasury secretary added that “the president can use whatever language he wants to use.”
Marc Short, White House director of Legislative Affairs, said on NBC’s Meet the Press that “the president is standing with the vast majority of Americans that our flag should be respected.”
On Fox News Sunday, Short defended Trump’s angry tweets as politically effective, and denied that the president has “re-opened… racial wounds” with them.
Within the Trump White House, senior aides and staff quickly formulated a clear path forward on the spin—that the American people, or at least the majority of them, agree wholeheartedly with the president about respecting the flag, first responders, and the U.S. military. Whatever the merits of the specific arguments on police brutality or freedom of speech, this is a “culture war”-type skirmish that could slightly aid President Trump, or at least not hurt him, according to White House officials speaking to The Daily Beast on the condition of anonymity in order to speak freely.
One senior official noted that though some of the president’s outbursts on the issue have seemed “nutty,” this kind of public behavior and feuding on the president’s part are all but expected and “standard.” Another official simply observed that @realDonaldTrump’s NFL-related tantrums were less likely to cause an international incident than tweets about Kim Jong Un.
On Sunday afternoon, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders simply told The Daily Beast that she had “nothing to add” regarding the president’s hate-tweets.
Trump’s days-long venting against the NFL—which was briefly interrupted by his parallel tiff with NBA stars—continued into Saturday night and early Sunday morning.
On Twitter, of course.
“Roger Goodell of NFL just put out a statement trying to justify the total disrespect certain players show to our country.Tell them to stand!” @realDonaldTrump posted.
A few hours later, the president took a break to threaten North Korea’s regime, tweeting, “Just heard Foreign Minister of North Korea speak at U.N. If he echoes thoughts of Little Rocket Man, they won't be around much longer!”
By morning, the president was back at it.
“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!” he wrote. “Boring games yes, but many stay away because they love our country. League should back U.S.”
The president’s recent salvos naturally provoked a backlash from NFL players, coaches, and owners, and even prompted a “deeply disappointed” response from New England Patriots chairman and CEO Robert Kraft, who had supported Trump and has been friendly with him for years.
“There is no greater unifier in this country than sports, and unfortunately, nothing more divisive than politics,” Kraft said in a statement on Sunday morning, praising his players and efforts to “peacefully affect social change and raise awareness in a manner that they feel is most impactful.”