On the day that the Philadelphia Eagles were supposed to visit the White House after having won the Super Bowl, a long-held tradition, President Donald Trump held a “Celebration of America” on the South Lawn. Instead of meeting Eagles players, the president praised his economy, mouthed some of “God Bless America,” and promoted standing for the national anthem.
Standing under a hot sun over the South Lawn and in front of the Marine Band and the Army Chorus, Trump delivered an ode to standing for the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
The reason for this event was that the White House had canceled the Super Bowl–winning Philadelphia Eagles’ visit, saying in a statement attributed to Trump on Monday, “They 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. The Eagles wanted to send a smaller delegation, but the 1,000 fans planning to attend the event deserve better.” The White House later added that the Eagles tried to reschedule the event to when Trump will be overseas; he is scheduled to meet Kim Jong Un in Singapore next week. During the press briefing on Tuesday, held just before the South Lawn event, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders called the Eagles’ decision a “political stunt.”
Trump has been harping on the issue of NFL players’ taking a knee in protest during the anthem consistently since it first became widespread in the league last fall. The movement was started by the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and led by other black players; after Trump attacked the players during a rally in Alabama, more players joined in. It’s the type of culture-war issue he naturally warms to, an us-versus-them dividing line that helps him commune with his core supporters by propping up a cultural bogeyman to rail against. And he has gotten results: The NFL announced last month that it will now require players who are on the field during the anthem to stand while it is being played.
The Eagles did not kneel during the national anthem this past season. But this event revolved around kneeling anyway. It revolved around patriotism for patriotism’s sake.
“I want to take this opportunity to explain why young Americans stand for our national anthem. Maybe it’s about time that we understood,” Trump said, citing honoring the military and fallen veterans and loving fellow Americans and the Constitution.
He also took the opportunity to plug his administration’s economic performance. “Our country has never done better than it’s doing right now,” he said. “Never. Record numbers at every outpost. You take a look at what’s going on: Lowest unemployment numbers we’ve had.
“Lowest African American unemployment in the history of our country,” Trump continued. “Lowest Hispanic numbers in the history of our country. Lowest numbers for women in 21 years.”
The band then played “God Bless America” and invited the crowd to sing along. Trump stood and appeared to sing some of the words, but not the whole time. Video shows him standing with his mouth closed during the “through the night with the light from above” part.
The president walked past reporters without taking questions about whether he would meet with the football players, the initial reason this event was held in the first place, back when it was supposed to be the standard affair of Super Bowl winners visiting the White House. Vice President Mike Pence also left without taking questions. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke did stop for a moment to say, “I love the Eagles.”
“Standing for our flag is important,” Zinke said. “I have fought for flags—flags mean a lot to me.”
A crowd was assembled on the South Lawn. The White House had billed 1,000 Eagles fans in its statement, but it’s unclear how many staff were in attendance as well. One man I tried to speak with said he was an Eagles fan, but couldn’t talk because he worked there. A reporter for NBC’s Philadelphia affiliate tweeted that he had asked six people who the Eagles quarterback was during the Super Bowl, and they didn’t know.
White House Deputy Press Secretary Lindsay Walters said the list of invitees had remained the same since before the event had been changed into a non-Eagles event.
Among the fans that were present, there was some disappointment.
“I’m disappointed being a lifelong Eagles fan. I would have liked to have them show up,” said Steve Woods, 69, a retiree who lives in Alexandria. “They made a statement and the president made his political statement.”
“So who dissed who?” he said.
Woods said he had gotten an invite to the event through a connection at his former workplace, a small-business lobbying organization. “I knew somebody who knew somebody,” he said.
John Killion, 62, a Philly native who now lives in Cape Coral, Florida, spoke with several reporters. He was one of the few fans I saw wearing Eagles gear.
He said he was “both devastated and kind of infuriated” with the Eagles.
“Honestly, yeah, it was more the Eagles’ decision,” he said. “I’m a big Trump supporter. I’m not gonna lie to you, I like what he’s doing for this country … I think politics should be kept out of business, period.”
At the briefing on Tuesday, NBC’s Peter Alexander asked Sanders why, since the president supports the right to free speech for the Colorado baker who refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple, he doesn’t support the NFL players’ right to free speech. “The president doesn’t think that this is an issue simply of free speech,” Sanders said. “It’s about respecting the men and women of our military, it’s about respecting our national anthem, and it’s about standing out of pride for that.”
One man exercised his right to free speech in the midst of the Celebration of America event, taking a knee on the grass while the military musicians played the national anthem.