The End of the Innocuous White House Visit

As the Boston Red Sox proved Thursday, even photo ops are political in the Trump era.

Donald Trump hosted the Boston Red Sox in a ceremony shrouded in controversy. ((Kevin Lamarque / Reuters))

The Boston Red Sox owner Tom Werner says he traveled to the White House on Thursday with an “apolitical” agenda in mind. It was neither a “red day” nor a “blue day,” he would stress later that afternoon to reporters—just a “great day” for honoring his franchise’s World Series victory last fall. “To a great degree possible,” Werner said, “people watch sports as a way to get away from their problems.”

The same might be said for presidents as they play host to such innocuous celebrations, at least historically. The chance to fete some of the nation’s finest athletes, to banter with the players, to awe them with a quick spin around the Oval Office—it’s about as good a getaway from the daily grind of politics as a president could hope for. In February 1987, Ronald Reagan tabled questions about the Iran-Contra affair to celebrate the recent Super Bowl victory of the New York Giants, the crowd cheering as the linebacker Harry Carson dumped a cooler full of popcorn on Reagan’s head. In May 2016, Barack Obama presumably enjoyed a breather from the ongoing election to name his successor by honoring the UConn women’s basketball team, whose players gifted him with an engraved wooden chair and invited him to join their Xbox 360 Rock Band group.

But in the Donald Trump era, not even sports receptions are immune to controversy—and Thursday was no exception. The apolitical day that Werner had hoped for was, naturally, anything but. And how could it not have been? In the lead-up to the ceremony, more than 10 Red Sox players, all Latino or African American, announced that they would not attend the ceremony. The manager, Alex Cora, who is from Puerto Rico, also opted out, citing the White House’s handling of the devastation of Hurricane Maria on his native territory. The former Red Sox slugger David Ortiz, one of the organization’s most beloved players of the past 50 years, told WEEI he supported Cora’s decision: “You don’t want to go and shake hands with a guy who is treating immigrants like shit because I’m an immigrant,” he said. Save for the outfielder J. D. Martinez, who is of Cuban descent, all the players who ultimately attended the event are white.

Those facts were hard to reconcile with Werner’s insistence to reporters that this was not a meaningful split. “We don’t see it as a racial divide,” he said. Nevertheless, the image of the overwhelmingly white group posing for photos with the president on the South Lawn, nearly all their teammates of color conspicuously absent, brought to bear the questions of identity—and of who feels welcome in Trump’s America—that have dogged this administration from the start.

Still, after a day of riffing on topics from North Korea to Robert Mueller to John Kerry, Trump managed to keep his ceremonial remarks mostly focused on the team. A light rain fell as the president welcomed the players and coaches and called out some of their fans, including EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler and Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas. “Over the course of the 2018 season, the Red Sox were—frankly, they were unstoppable,” Trump said.

He narrated the team’s path to victory and joked about his love of the game and his own allegiance to the rival New York Yankees. “It’s a special—it’s a special game, a special sport. I played on a slightly different level. It’s called ‘on high school.’ A little different level, but every spring I loved it,” he said. “The smell in the air, right? Does that make sense? The smell in the air, right? It’s an amazing feeling.”

Martinez and the pitcher Chris Sale delivered brief remarks, calling the visit a “high honor” and a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” before presenting the president with a Red Sox jersey that said “Trump” on the back.

Trump deviated from tradition by offering the group a tour of the Lincoln Bedroom, which Werner later recounted to reporters in front of the West Wing. “The president is a pretty good raconteur of history and he did say that, uh—he was talking about Abraham Lincoln losing the war, and said, ‘Well, I know you guys have lost a game or two, but this was a war.’” (It was unclear whether this meant Trump had implied Lincoln lost the Civil War. White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders did not return my request for clarification, but a Red Sox player told me Werner had misspoken. “He did not say that,” Steven Wright said in a tweet. “He was giving the history on how the North was losing the war and with the help of Ulysses S. Grant they were able to defeat the South.”)

Werner also emphasized that the divisions highlighted by the trip would “not at all” be an issue for the team going forward. “I think that Chris Sale said that this is something that is not going to divide the clubhouse, and those people who wanted to come were appreciative of the invitation.” He said that he had spoken with those who’d chosen not to come, and that he “certainly under[stood]” and “respect[ed]” those decisions. At the end of the day, Werner added, they were a team, and would play their next game the next day as a team.

The president, however, chose to end his day on a different note. Four hours after the team departed, he resumed his version of America’s pastime by stoking partisan rancor on social media. In a blizzard of tweets into the evening, he slammed Democrats for their proposed disaster supplemental bill and declared that Republicans, in the face of Democratic proposals, “must stick together!”