White House accuses Eagles of abandoning fans

Trump has told confidants that his base will take his side over football players.

Ian Bush
June 05, 2018 - 1:34 pm
Members of an honor guard prepare flags for a "Celebration of America" event with President Donald Trump on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, June 5, 2018.

AP Photo/Susan Walsh

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PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio, AP) — The White House insists the "vast majority" of the Eagles "decided to abandon their fans."

That's the reason White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders gave for President Donald Trump's decision to scrub Tuesday's planned celebration of the Super Bowl champions.

In a statement, the White House noted the team had been cleared on Friday by the Secret Service to attend the event, but later that day "attempted to reschedule... citing the fact that many players would not be in attendance."

The press office said "despite sensing a lack of good faith," Trump officials "attempted to work with the Eagles over the weekend to change the event format that could accomodate a smaller group of players." But the Eagles, the statement reads, "offered only to send a tiny handful of representatives."

The White House says the president then decided to change the event to be "a celebration of the American flag with Eagles fans."

"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!" he tweeted.

Before the celebration, Sanders led a White House briefing, adding that the Eagles pulled a "political stunt" leading up to the event.

"Look, if this wasn't a political stunt by the Eagles franchise, then they wouldn't have planned to attend the event and then backed out at the last minute," she said. "If it wasn't a political stunt, then they wouldn't have attempted to reschedule the visit when they knew the president was going to be overseas. If this wasn't a political stunt, they wouldn't have waited until Monday — well after 1,000 of their fans had traveled and taken time out of their schedules — to offer only a tiny handful of representatives to attend the event."

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This more recent statement from the White House marks a shift in Trump's original stated reason for canceling the event. On Monday night, he said he was canceling the event because too many Eagles players disagree with his stance against kneeling during the national anthem. 

The National Football League Players Association, the union representing NFL players, said in a statement that it was disappointed by the decision to disinvite the players and said the reversal had led to the cancellation of several community service events for young people in the Washington area.

"NFL players love their country, support our troops, give back to their communities and strive to make America a better place," it said in a statement.

In fact, no Eagles players actually knelt during the regular season and playoffs. Cornerback Ron Brooks knelt in the preseason, but he was eventually released from the team.

The updated and expanded statement from the White House makes no mention of the dispute over standing for the national anthem. 

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Eagles Zach Ertz and Chris Long called out Fox News Channel on Tuesday for showing photos of their teammates kneeling in prayer before games, giving the false impression they were protesting during the national anthem. 

The photos ran during a Fox News segment Monday night after Trump's disinvitaton was reported. 

Fox News apologized on Tuesday in an offical statement: "During our report about President Trump canceling the Philadelphia Eagles' trip to the White House to celebrate their Super Bowl win, we showed unrelated footage of players kneeling in prayer. To clarify, no members of the team knelt in protest during the national anthem throughout regular or post-season last year. We apologize for the error."

Trump was furious when he learned how few Eagles planned to attend Tuesday's event, and ordered aides to scrap the visit, believing a low turnout would reflect poorly on him. He had told aides last year that he was embarrassed when Tom Brady, the star quarterback of that season's champion New England Patriots, opted to skip a White House visit.

Trump instead ordered that Tuesday's event be turned into a "celebration of America" that would highlight his anthem stance. Senior counselor Kellyanne Conway, an Eagles fan, was helping organize the event.

It was another sign that Trump intends to continue to fan a culture war he has stoked and which he has long believed is a winning issue with his base.

Trump has long fixated on the NFL national anthem controversy and was thrilled when last month's announcement of the league's new policy on the issue returned it to the news, according to three people close to the White House familiar with the president's thinking. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss private conversations.

The president believes there is a significant overlap between football fans and his base and has told confidants that he believes his voters would enthusiastically take his side over football players whom Trump thinks have looked unpatriotic and greedy.

The president told one confidant Monday that he aimed to periodically revive the anthem issue in the months ahead, believing its return to the headlines would help Republicans as the midterm elections approached.

Last week, Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins said he would not attend the ceremony and participate in a group photo "to avoid being used as any kind of pawn." Quarterback Carson Wentz had planned to attend.

Instead of a sea of green, pool cameras showed mostly standard business attire, with one Eagles hat and a Carson Wentz jersey on the South Lawn.

During what the White House called a "celebration of America" Tuesday, held in lieu of the Eagles ceremony, a protestor yelled at Trump, "Stop hiding behind the national anthem and the armed services," before the man was booed. 

The president said the event was "even bigger than we had anticipated."

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.