WASHINGTON — What was meant to be a White House rally on Tuesday to celebrate the Philadelphia Eagles’ Super Bowl victory instead became the latest round in President Donald Trump’s battle with athletes protesting the national anthem.
After abruptly disinviting the Eagles to the White House on Monday, citing an expected low turnout of players, Trump hosted a brief “Celebration of America” on the South Lawn Tuesday.
Trump said he wanted “to take this opportunity to explain why young Americans stand” for the national anthem.
“We stand to honor our military and to honor our country, and to remember the fallen heroes who never made it back home,” Trump said in a four-minute speech capped by a medley of patriotic songs played by the U.S. Marine Band.
On Twitter, Trump denounced NFL players who have knelt during the Anthem to protest cases of police brutality against minorities.
Trump also took aim at a new NFL policy barring players from protesting while on the field, but giving them the option to sit out the Anthem in their locker rooms.
“NFL, no escaping to Locker Rooms!,” Trump tweeted Tuesday morning. That prompted several Eagles players to note on Twitter that no one on the team knelt, or skipped out on the Anthem in the team locker room during their championship season.
Trump did not mention the Eagles by name during the ten- minute rally. But White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, speaking at the daily news briefing, accused the team of pulling a “political stunt” by trying to reschedule the event at the “eleventh hour.”
Sanders said the Eagles initially told the White House that 81 players, personnel, coaches and support staff would attend the event, alongside more than 1,000 die-hard fans.
But the team last Friday asked to reschedule the rally because fewer team members than originally anticipated could make the event. According to news media reports, fewer than a dozen Eagles were planning to attend the celebration.
“The Eagles are the ones that tried to change their commitment at the eleventh hour and the President frankly thinks that the fans deserve better than that and, therefore, we changed the ceremony to be a focus on celebrating our great country,” Sanders said.
The Eagles did not immediately respond to Sanders’ account. In a statement Monday night the team said “watching the entire Eagles community come together has been an inspiration.”
At Tuesday’s subdued ceremony one man in the crowd was observed taking a knee as the president spoke. Another person was heard heckling Trump at the start of the event, prompting others to boo and jeer to drown the protester out.