President Donald Trump’s feud with the NFL over players kneeling during the national anthem continued Monday, threatening to overshadow his domestic agenda as several legislative matters approach crucial milestones.
White House officials wanted to focus on policy this week, with time dedicated to health care, taxes, and a new science, technology, engineering and mathematics education initiative led by the president’s daughter and senior adviser Ivanka Trump.
What’s more, a senior North Korean official said Monday that Trump’s remarks last week before the United Nations General Assembly about destroying the isolated nation if it attacked America or its allies amounted to a declaration of war.
Two hours after those crisis-escalating remarks and after Trump’s oldest daughter briefed reporters during a call about spending at least $200 million annually on STEM education grants, the president’s press secretary was pelted with questions about his war of words with professional athletes, which his critics say have been tinged with racial buzzwords.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, in her first appearance at the White House podium in 12 days, faced queries about Trump’s Friday night declaration that any NFL player — the majority of whom are African-American — who kneels during the national anthem should be fired or suspended.
She said Trump’s comments and subsequent weekend tweets knocking players were about being “for something” rather than “against anyone.”
It is “always appropriate for [the] president of the United States to defend the [American] flag” and troops who fought to defend it, she said.
Trump’s critics have said those same forces also fought to keep intact players’ First Amendment rights to voice what they see as social ills.
Sanders later added that it is “always appropriate for the president of this country to promote our flag and national anthem.”
During her opening remarks, she praised the “Little Rock Nine” on the 60th anniversary of nine African-American students, escorted by federal troops, desegregating the Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas. Sanders called them “American heroes who courageously advanced racial equality.”
Trump’s feud likely will play well with his political base, as it did during his Friday night rally in Huntsville, Alabama.
“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, out, he’s fired. He’s fired!’” the president said. “You know, some owner is going to do that. He’s going to say, ‘That guy that disrespects our flag, he’s fired.’”
It wasn't all about the NFL on Monday, though.
Sanders announced Trump will travel to Indianapolis on Wednesday to stump for the still-in-development GOP tax package.
One day after, Marc Short, White House legislative affairs director, said he expected the Senate to vote Wednesday on a health care overhaul measure from GOP Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Sanders would not say when White House officials anticipate it hitting the floor. “Whether or not there’s a vote, we sure hope so,” she said.
But even as other topics came up, the focus kept coming back to football, and whether the president was singling out black athletes, even as owners are pushing back on his criticism.
“The president is not talking about race,” she said near the end of the briefing, adding that Trump is standing up for those who have “pride” in their country.