WASHINGTON (AP) — A day after scrubbing a White House visit by the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles, President Donald Trump appeared to challenge a new NFL policy that requires players to stand if they’re on the field during the national anthem or stay in the locker room.
Trump initially praised the policy after the NFL announced it last month.
Seizing an opportunity to fan a culture war he has stoked, Trump tweeted Tuesday: “Honoring America! NFL, no escaping to Locker Rooms!”
Instead of hailing Eagles players for their work on the field and in their community, the White House is staging a “Celebration of America” featuring music provided by U.S. military bands and choruses.
“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!” Trump tweeted.
In a separate tweet, he named the championship teams that have visited the White House during his presidency, including the Chicago Cubs, Houston Astros, Pittsburgh Penguins, New England Patriots and some college sports teams.
Trump’s announcement was the latest signal that tensions remain high around the NFL protests that began in 2016 when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began silently kneeling on the sidelines during the anthem. Kaepernick’s protest was intended to raise awareness around systemic racism and, specifically, the killing of black men by police.
Trump said in a statement Monday that some Eagles players “disagree with their President because he insists that they proudly stand for the National Anthem, hand on heart, in honor of the great men and women of our military and the people of our country.”
He said the team wanted to send a smaller delegation Tuesday, but “the 1,000 fans planning to attend the event deserve better.”
None of the Eagles took a knee during the anthem in 2017.
One person set to attend the ceremony told The Associated Press less than half of the team’s 53-man roster planned to go to the White House. The person spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the decision.
Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney on Tuesday criticized Trump’s decision and questioned Trump’s patriotism.
“When he had the opportunity to serve his country for real, his father got him out of it, and I think it’s really disingenuous for him to talk about patriotism in any way shape or form,” Kenney told CNN, referring to military deferments Trump obtained that kept him from being sent to Vietnam during the war.
Kenney earlier had called Trump “a fragile egomaniac obsessed with crowd size and afraid of the embarrassment of throwing a party to which no one wants to attend.”
Last week, Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins said he would not attend the ceremony and participate in a group photo to “to avoid being used as any kind of pawn.” In addition to Jenkins, defensive end Chris Long was the most outspoken player against going. Quarterback Carson Wentz had planned to attend.
The White House did not immediately respond to questions about what prompted the change of plans and why the circumstances were different from other events honoring winning teams, such as the NFL’s New England Patriots. Some Patriots players boycotted the visit.
Trump wrote on Twitter late Monday that “Unfortunately, only a small number of players decided to come, and we canceled the event.”
Several players asked about Trump’s decision declined to respond. A statement from the Eagles did not directly addressing the White House cancellation.
“Watching the entire Eagles community come together has been an inspiration,” the team statement read. “We are truly grateful for all of the support we have received and we are looking forward to continuing our preparations for the 2018 season.”
Wide receiver Torrey Smith, who said previously that he planned to skip the visit, responded with a series of tweets.
“So many lies,” he wrote, adding, “Not many people were going to go.”
Smith, who played with the Eagles before being traded to the Carolina Panthers in March, added: “No one refused to go simply because Trump ‘insists’ folks stand for the anthem. … The President continues to spread the false narrative that players are anti-military.”
He went on: “There are a lot of people on the team that have plenty of different views. The men and women that wanted to go should’ve been able to go. It’s a cowardly act to cancel the celebration because the majority of the people don’t want to see you. To make it about the anthem is foolish.”
Trump praised the NFL’s new anthem policy after the league announced it last month. The policy forbids players from sitting or taking a knee on the field during the anthem but allows them to stay in the locker room. Violations would result in fines against the teams.
“I think that’s good,” Trump told “Fox & Friends” in an interview last month. “I don’t think people should be staying in the locker rooms, but still I think it’s good. You have to stand proudly for the national anthem. Or you shouldn’t be playing, you shouldn’t be there. Maybe you shouldn’t be in the country.”
Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., invited the Eagles to visit Capitol Hill instead.
“I’m proud of what the @Eagles accomplished this year. I’m skipping this political stunt at the White House and just invited the Eagles to Congress. @Eagles How about a tour of the Capitol?” he wrote.
White House legislative director Marc Short told CNN he didn’t know who had canceled on whom, but said, “It’s unfortunate when politics gets in the middle of this.”