White House officials defend Trump, say athletes 'can do free speech on their own time'

Dylan Stableford
Senior Editor

If White House officials were hoping to talk about health care, tax reform or North Korea on Sunday, President Trump undercut them by escalating his attack on the National Football League — calling on fans to boycott NFL games until players who refuse to stand for the national anthem are fired.

“If NFL fans refuse to go to games until players stop disrespecting our country, you will see change take place fast,” Trump tweeted early Sunday morning. “Fire or suspend!”

On ABC’s “This Week,” Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin defended Trump’s attack on the league.

“You know, the NFL has all different types of rules,” Mnuchin said. “You can’t have stickers on your helmet. You have to have your jerseys tucked in. I think what the president is saying is that the owners should have a rule that players should have to stand in respect for the national anthem. 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.”


At a rally in Huntsville, Ala., on Friday, Trump suggested NFL owners should fire players who kneel during the national anthem.

“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 said.

Mnuchin was asked whether that is the kind of language the commander in chief should be using, regardless of the issue.

“I think the president can use whatever language he wants to use,” Mnuchin said. “I think the issue is the topic, OK. And the topic — I agree with the president, why are the — why does the NFL have all these other rules that they enforce, that they fine players? This is about respect for the military, the first responders.”

“This is about respect for the military and so many people who put their lives at risk and what the country stands for,” Mnuchin said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “And the owners should meet and they should decide on this rule the way they decide on any other rule.”

“Is it not about the First Amendment?” ABC’s Martha Raddatz asked. “Is it not about their First Amendment rights?”

“No, it’s not,” Mnuchin replied. “They have the right to have the First Amendment off the field.”

On “Fox News Sunday,” White House director of legislative affairs Marc Short said players have the right to express themselves during the national anthem, but that NFL owners should hold them accountable.

“The president is pointing out that that shouldn’t be accepted,” Short said. “They have a First Amendment right to do that, but NFL owners also have a right to fire those players.”

That does not seem likely. Earlier Sunday, New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft, a longtime friend of Trump’s, released a statement in solidarity with the players.

“I am deeply disappointed by the tone of the comments made by the president on Friday,” Kraft said in a statement. “I am proud to be associated with so many players who make such tremendous contributions in positively impacting out communities. Their efforts, both on and off the field, help bring people together and make our community stronger.”

Kraft added: “I support their right to peacefully affect social change and raise awareness in a manner that they feel most impactful.”

In London, Baltimore Ravens and Jacksonville Jaguars players locked arms in unity during the national anthem on Sunday in the first NFL game since Trump’s comments. Jaguars owner Shad Khan, who contributed to Trump’s inaugural committee, joined them.

On Saturday, the president expanded his list of targets, saying he had disinvited the NBA champion Golden State Warriors from the traditional White House visit because star point guard Stephen Curry was considering a boycott.


NBA superstar LeBron James, whose Cleveland Cavaliers lost to the Warriors in the 2017 NBA finals, quickly came to Curry’s defense.


“Obviously, we all know what happened with Charlottesville and the divide that caused,” James said in a subsequent video posted to social media. “Now it’s hit home more for me because he’s now using sports as the platform to try and divide us.”

On NBC’s “Meet The Press,” Short said it’s “unfortunate” that the Warriors have chosen to politicize an invitation to the White House.

“This president has already hosted the New England Patriots, the Clemson Tigers — he’s hosted the Chicago Cubs,” Short said. “It’s not necessary to make this into a political argument.”

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said Trump brought the argument on himself.

“If the president’s going to say something condemning a person, an industry, a sport,” Cuban said in an interview that aired on “Meet The Press.” “Then he’s got to be able to take the blowback that’s going to come back. So LeBron and Steph and any athlete, any owner, it’s an open door now, and so they have every right for the same reasons to be able to say whatever’s on their mind. Now we’ll be able to see if he can take it.”

On CBS’ “Face The Nation,” Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., made a distinction between Trump’s criticism of NFL players protesting police brutality and his reluctance to unequivocally condemn white supremacists protesting the removal of a confederate statue in Charlottesville, Va., last month.

“I made it very clear in the aftermath of Charlottesville that there is no room in this country for hate, that the KKK, Neo-Nazis, white supremacist groups are hateful, that there’s no room for them, and we must call evil by its name,” Gardner said. “When it comes to this recent spat with the NFL, look, there are far more important things that we ought to be focusing on.”

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