WASHINGTON — Taking on the NFL and football's Super Bowl champs, President Donald Trump gave the boot to a White House ceremony for the Philadelphia Eagles on Tuesday and instead threw his own brief "Celebration of America" after it became clear most players weren't going to show up.
Both sides traded hot accusations about who was to blame.
Trump tried to turn the fracas into a referendum on patriotism and tie it to the dispute over players who have taken a knee during the national anthem to protest racism and police brutality. However, Eagles players never knelt during the "Star-Spangled Banner," throughout the 2017 season and their march to the Super Bowl.
The White House accused Eagles team members of pulling a "political stunt" and abandoning their fans by backing out at the last minute. Indeed, few apparently were going to come, though some expressed disappointment that they'd been disinvited and complained Trump was unfairly painting them as anti-American.
Through it all, Trump appeared to revel in fanning the flames of a culture war that he believes revs up his political base.
Trump had long been leery of the Eagles' planned visit to the White House, in part because the team's owner, Jeffrey Lurie, has been a Trump critic, and because several players have been vocal critics of the league's new policy that requires players to stand if they're on the field during the national anthem or else stay in the locker room.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the team notified the White House last Thursday that 81 people, including players, coaches, managers and others would be attending the Super Bowl celebration. But she said the team got back in touch late Friday and tried to reschedule, "citing the fact that many players would not be in attendance." The Eagles proposed a time when Trump would be overseas.
Eagles officials declined comment on the White House version of events, sticking with a simple earlier statement: "We are truly grateful for all of the support we have received and we are looking forward to continuing our preparations for the 2018 season."
No one connected with the team said the players' reluctance to attend had anything to do with the national anthem, as Trump tried to portray the situation. And comments by star players in the current pro basketball finals indicated it's not about football.
"I know no matter who wins this series, no one wants the invite anyway. So it won't be Golden State or Cleveland going," said LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers. There was no disagreement from Stephen Curry, who angered Trump last year when he said he wouldn't go to the White House after the Warriors' NBA triumph, leading the president to disinvite him and his team.
Trump, furious about the small number of Eagles who were coming, scrapped Tuesday's visit, believing a low turnout would reflect poorly upon him. He had told aides last year he was embarrassed when Tom Brady, star quarterback of that season's champion New England Patriots, opted to skip a White House visit.
Instead, the president held what he dubbed a "patriotic celebration" that was short and spare. A military band and chorus delivered the Star-Spangled Banner and God Bless America, with brief Trump remarks sandwiched in between.
"We love our country, we respect our flag and we always proudly stand for the national anthem," Trump said.
The White House crowd of roughly 1,000, mostly dressed in business suits, was light on Pennsylvanians and heavy on administration and GOP Party officials. Several in attendance blamed the players, not the president, for torpedoing the Eagles event.
John Killion, a lifelong Eagles fan who now lives in Florida and traveled to Washington to see his team, said he was "devastated and infuriated" by a breakdown he blamed on the Eagles owners.
"I waited my whole life for the Eagles to win the Super Bowl and they were going to be congratulated at the White House. And I don't really care who you like or dislike, it shouldn't be about that," he said.
Bill Fey, a Republican state committeeman from southern New Jersey and an Eagles fan, called the decision "a black eye as far as I'm concerned with the NFL. I think that everyone should come to the White House. This is the peoples' house." Still, he said, "I think the Eagles did what they thought was necessary. I don't blame anyone."
Trump's own patriotic event was not without its controversy. Following the playing of the anthem, a heckler shouted from the audience: "Stop hiding behind the armed services and the national anthem!" prompting boos. A Swedish reporter posted video of a man kneeling as the anthem was played.
In a statement Monday, Trump placed the blame on Eagles players he said "disagree with their President because he insists that they proudly stand for the National Anthem, hand on heart, in honor of the great men and women of our military and the people of our country."
Besides the fact that none of the Eagles had taken a knee during the anthem in 2017, defensive end Chris Long said the NFL anthem policy change and Trump's reaction to it were not even discussed by the players in meetings about making the visit.
Those deciding to stay away had various reasons beyond Trump's opposition to the protests, including more general feelings of hostility toward the president, one official said.
Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins, who had planned to skip the ceremony "to avoid being used as any kind of pawn," said in a statement that at the White House a "decision was made to lie, and paint the picture that these players are anti-America, anti-flag and anti-military."
Trump has long railed against the protests that began in 2016 when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began silently kneeling on the sidelines during the anthem to raise awareness around racism and, specifically, the killing of black men by police.
At a rally last September, Trump suggested NFL owners fire "son of a bitch" players who "disrespect" the flag by kneeling.
As for politics, Trump believes the anthem controversy is a winning issue for him and was pleased that last month's announcement of the league's new policy returned it to the news, according to people familiar with the president's thinking but not authorized to discuss private conversations.
Even so, Trump made clear Tuesday he doesn't believe the policy goes far enough, tweeting: "Staying in the Locker Room for the playing of our National Anthem is as disrespectful to our country as kneeling. Sorry!"
The president told one confidant Monday that he aims to revive the issue in the months leading up to the midterm elections, believing its return to the headlines will help Republicans win votes.
Trump's attempt to drive a wedge between the team and its fervent fan base could have political consequences in Pennsylvania, which Trump won by just 44,000 votes in 2016.
The politics are already playing out in the state's Senate race, where Republican Rep. Lou Barletta is challenging Democratic incumbent Bob Casey.
Barletta attended the White House ceremony sans Eagles, "representing the proud Pennsylvanians who stand for our flag." Casey tweeted he would be "skipping this political stunt at the White House" and invited the Eagles on a tour of the Capitol instead.