President Donald Trump on Tuesday brought his feud with the NFL and some of its players over national anthem protests to his backdoor — literally. And that’s when something rare happened that shows just how polarizing his presidency and the racially tinged anthem debate has been.
A sitting president of the United States, flanked by Army and Marine Corps personnel, was heckled while standing just steps from the Oval Office.
As Trump retrieved his prepared remarks from inside his suit jacket, a man appeared to ask about the rights to free speech of professional football players. The president straightened his printed remarks on the familiar blue podium and glanced toward the source of the jeer. Some of the invited guests booed the heckler, who tried again.
But by the second attempt to engage the president, Trump had already started his brief remarks about “patriotism” and “freedom.”
He spoke for just four minutes despite his and his team’s promotion of the event put together after the president disinvited the NFL Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles. Ignoring the heckler, who was promptly escorted off the South Lawn, Trump stressed what he described as a requirement to “always” stand when the national anthem is played. (The heckler declined to disclose his identity as he was led away.)
There were administration officials on hand, including Vice President Mike Pence, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. Also in attendance was Rep. Lou Barletta, a Pennsylvania Republican congressman hoping to oust Democratic Sen. Bob Casey in November. He got a shoutout from Trump, who said he hopes Barletta wins.
(Notably absent from the event that was once about the Philadelphia Eagles Super Bowl win and was still ostensibly about fans of that team were two other Keystone State Republicans: Sen. Patrick J. Toomey and retiring Rep. Ryan A. Costello.)
What Trump hailed as a “beautiful, big celebration” lasted all of about 10 minutes.
Watch: What the President Wants to Talk About
“I want to take this opportunity to explain why young Americans stand for our national anthem,” he said. “Maybe it was about time we understood.”
That was the closest Trump, who recently said kneeling athletes “maybe shouldn’t be in the country,” came to directly addressing the NFL or the Eagles players who had chosen not to attend. (Notably, none of the Eagles last year declined to stand for the anthem.)
“We love our country. We respect our flag. We always proudly stand for the national anthem,” the president said. “We stand to honor our military, and to honor our country, and to remember the fallen heroes who never made it back home.”
But when viewed alongside Trump’s eyebrow-raising Monday morning tweet declaring he can pardon himself, what the White House dubbed a “Celebration of America” took on a much different tone, according to Democratic lawmakers and scholars.
“I worry about behaviors that make us seem like an authoritarian regime or dictatorship rather than the democracy that we are,” said Sen. Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat and potential 2020 presidential candidate. “Part of being a democracy is not only tolerating disagreements and differences, but finding ways to bridge them.”
Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2016, noted to reporters Tuesday that he once lived in Honduras under a hard-line government. “I know dictator behavior when I see it,” Kaine said of Trump’s assessment he can pardon himself, just hours before the president stood on the White House’s South Portico surrounded by military personnel and over 20 American flags.
“You don’t think the laws apply to you, and you basically shred any rule or law that you think gets in your way,” Kaine said. “If the president thinks he can get away with it, he’s wrong.”
House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland called the canceling of the earlier Eagles event “typical of the president,” noting that Trump was spinning reality by claiming he nixed the event when most of the Eagles had decided not to come by the time the plug was pulled Monday afternoon.
Barbara Perry, presidential studies director at the University of Virginia's Miller Center, said Trump “didn’t want to be embarrassed by only a small group of players showing up, so he told them to not come.”
“It’s a thumb in the eye of the players who didn’t want to come, and it’s a thumb in the eye of those who support them kneeling,” she said. “It’s not the first time a president has used the military like this. But this time, there are partisan, racial and emotional aspects that’s just beyond the pale as someone who cares about the office and what it has stood for.”
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders would not say Tuesday whether the president is aware that some African-American players began kneeling to protest what they call unjust police-involved shootings in their communities.
“It sure feels Nixonian,” Perry said. “The pardon power tweet reminds those of us who were coming of age then of Nixon saying nothing is illegal if the president does it. And then the use of the military like this certainly conjures images of Nixon’s ‘imperial presidency’ with the military trumpeters on the South Portico.”
The event — with its red, white and blue overtones — showed again how Trump often leaps at opportunities to play to his political base. A recent Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll found 86 percent of Republicans said it was never acceptable to kneel during the national anthem.
The White House fanned the flames all day Tuesday, with the president tweeting several times before 8 a.m. Eastern time about the Eagles’ being uninvited. In one he alluded to the NFL’s new policy of allowing players to remain in the locker room during the anthem as a means of protest, writing: “NFL, no escaping to Locker Rooms!”
We will proudly be playing the National Anthem and other wonderful music celebrating our Country today at 3 P.M., The White House, with the United States Marine Band and the United States Army Chorus. Honoring America! NFL, no escaping to Locker Rooms!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 5, 2018
He also wrote that his White House would “proudly be playing the National Anthem and other wonderful music celebrating our Country today,” and noting later in another tweet that NASCAR championship driver Martin Truex Jr., and his team had recently visited. He dubbed the stock car racing league “a great sport.”
A few hours later, the White House kept promoting the event via a statement criticizing how the Eagles organization and its players handled the situation. After several days of back and forth between the two sides, “the White House, despite sensing a lack of good faith, nonetheless attempted to work with the Eagles over the weekend to change the event format that could accommodate a smaller group of players,” Sanders said in the statement.
“Unfortunately, the Eagles offered to send only a tiny handful of representatives, while making clear that the great majority of players would not attend the event, despite planning to be in D.C. today,” she said. “In other words, the vast majority of the Eagles team decided to abandon their fans.”
Eagles star safety Malcolm Jenkins sharply disagreed in a social media post: “The decision was made to lie, and paint the picture that these players are anti-America, anti-flag, anti-military. … We will continue to fight for impacted citizens and give a voice to those who never had one.”
A handful of lawmakers — Republicans and Democrats — declined to comment on Trump’s use of the military to help him make a political point about the national anthem and protests.
But experts questioned whether any commander in chief should use military groups for political purposes.
“Just to be clear, there are scores of military bands, and we question their utility from a taxpayer perspective already,” said Steve Ellis of the nonpartisan Taxpayers for Common Sense. “Only objective here seems to be to have an event that isn’t Super Bowl or football related and score a political point. That’s not just a bad use of the military band, but a bad use of White House resources in general.”
And Perry said it seemed like the military was “being forced into this by the commander in chief.”
Although the White House did not bill the event a political one, Sanders referred to the Eagles’ “political stunt” during her press briefing. And the president used part of his remarks to extol the health of the economy under his watch.
“Our country has never done better than it is doing right now. Never,” Trump said.
Toward the end of his address, the commander in chief — for the second time in recent weeks — channeled the memory of deceased U.S. military personnel to tout his performance since taking office.
“All of those people that we honor, many of them are looking down,” he said, “at our country and they are very, very proud.”