- The Washington Times - Monday, September 25, 2017

President Trump and his aides said Monday that he is motivated by respect for the country, not by racism, when he criticizes professional athletes for protesting the national anthem as a furor raged for a fourth straight day in the sports world, in Congress and in the media over his comments.

“This isn’t about the president being against anyone,” said White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. “This is about the president and millions of Americans being for something, being for honoring our flag, honoring our national anthem and honoring the men and women who fought to defend it.”

Mr. Trump, who said Friday at a political rally that NFL owners should fire any “son of a bitch” who kneels during the “Star-Spangled Banner,” said Monday that his criticism of players kneeling “has nothing to do with race.”

“It is about respect for our Country, Flag and National Anthem. NFL must respect this!” the president said on Twitter, the morning after hundreds of NFL players sat, knelt or locked arms during the anthem.

By comparison, Mr. Trump said he was proud of NASCAR and its fans, who he said showed proper respect at Sunday’s race in New Hampshire. Several high-profile car owners said they would fire employees who didn’t show respect.

“They won’t put up with disrespecting our Country or our Flag - they said it loud and clear!” the president tweeted.

But Dale Earnhardt Jr., a NASCAR driver, did tweet his disagreement with Mr. Trump’s condemnation of NFL players who protest.

“All Americans R granted rights 2 peaceful protests,” tweeted Earnhardt, who also quoted former President John F. Kennedy. “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable-JFK.”

The issue is also dividing Capitol Hill and electoral politics.

West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, a Republican, called on Sen. Joe Manchin III, a Democrat, to take a stand on NFL players’ kneeling. A spokesman for Mr. Morrisey, who is running for the Republican Party nomination to challenge Mr. Manchin in next year’s election, said if the senator doesn’t oppose the players he is betraying “West Virginia’s conservative values.”

Rep. Brian J. Mast, a Florida Republican and former Army staff sergeant who lost both of his legs while deployed to Afghanistan, posted a photo on Facebook of himself standing on his prosthetic legs to salute the flag.

“I have taken a knee after jumping out of a helicopter as we looked for the enemy, taken a knee in front of the Soldiers Cross as we mourned a fallen brother and taken a knee in church. Any player who has taken a knee to protest this great country during its anthem should already be gone,” Mr. Mast said.

But Rep. Hakeem S. Jeffries, New York Democrat, took to the House floor to blast Mr. Trump and the White House.

“How dare you lecture us about what’s patriotic?” Mr. Jeffries said.

He said there are “some in this country who want to sugarcoat the African-American experience in the great United States of America.”

“The African-American community has been forced to endure slavery, rape, kidnap, lynching, Jim Crow segregation, mass incarceration and a police brutality epidemic that continues to this very day,” Mr. Jeffries said.

Mrs. Sanders was peppered with questions from the media about the president’s motives. A CNN reporter asked whether Mr. Trump was trying to wage a “culture war” by praising NASCAR, whose drivers and supporters are predominantly white.

“The president’s not talking about race,” Mrs. Sanders said. “The president’s talking about pride in our country.”

The president indicated that he believes most of the country is with him on the issue, noting that many fans booed the players who knelt on Sunday. “These are fans who demand respect for our Flag!” he tweeted.

The president on Monday night rebutted a report by CNN that White House chief of staff John F. Kelly, a retired Marine whose son was killed in Afghanistan in 2010, was “not pleased” with Mr. Trump’s feud with the NFL.

“General John Kelly totally agrees w/ my stance on NFL players and the fact that they should not be disrespecting our FLAG or GREAT COUNTRY!” Mr. Trump tweeted, calling the CNN report a “total lie!”

The president added that he saw a “tremendous backlash against the NFL and its players for disrespect of our Country.”

Mr. Kelly told CNN he is “appalled” by what he sees as a lack of respect for the flag and national anthem.

“I believe every American, when the national anthem is played, should cover their hearts and think about all the men and women who have been maimed and killed,” he said. “Every American should stand up and think for three lousy minutes.”

The White House also came in for criticism that Mr. Trump was devoting too much attention on Twitter to the NFL and not enough to the plight of Puerto Ricans suffering from the devastation from Hurricane Maria.

Asked if the president regrets calling a player who kneels during the national anthem a “son of a bitch,” Mrs. Sanders said, “I think that it’s always appropriate for the president of the United States to defend our flag, to defend the national anthem and to defend the men and women who fought and died to defend it.”

The White House also pushed back in more subtle ways against accusations of racism. At an education event at the White House, Mr. Trump signed a presidential memorandum directing Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to devote at least $200 million per year in grant funds toward science and math instruction, with a focus on computer science.

Mrs. Sanders said the action “will be so important to America’s underserved communities” and that Mr. Trump signed it on the 60th anniversary of the Little Rock Nine desegregation of Central High School in Arkansas.

The press secretary noted that she also attended Central High School and that in 1997 she witnessed President Clinton and her father, then-Gov. Mike Huckabee, welcome back the nine former students to “the same doors that had been closed to them because they were black.”

“As President Trump has said, racism is evil,” Mrs. Sanders said. “It has no place in our country. It’s not lost on the president or his administration that there is more work to do. We need better schools and we need better jobs to provide a safer, stronger, more prosperous future for every American. President Trump is working to make America great again for all of our citizens, and his actions continue to show just how committed he is.”

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said after the weekend’s games that he was proud of the league. He said the players’ demonstrations “reflected the frustration, the disappointment, of the players over the divisive rhetoric we heard [from Mr. Trump].”

“I just think we need more understanding,” Mr. Goodell told Peter King of Sports Illustrated. “I think we have to be focused on what the NFL is doing — staying true to our values, unifying people, and continuing an effort to understand and help improve our communities. People love coming together around football. I think the public loves our game and recognizes the efforts we’re making with it.”

Sally Persons contributed to this report.

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