Donald Trump plans to teach the NFL's kneeling players a strongman's lesson, saying in effect, that all Americans should adopt their President's concept of patriotism.
Reigniting his base-pleasing, culture war feud with African-American players in a move that is certain to widen national divides on a deeply sensitive issue, Trump is telling the Philadelphia Eagles: Don't come to the White House Tuesday.
The President's abrupt gambit inflamed a debate about the protests that he has relished but that has dragged two rare unifying points of American life -- the NFL and the National Anthem -- into the treacherous politics of the Trump era.
Trump, angry that some Eagles players planned to skip their Super Bowl victory lap, is planning an event instead featuring the National Anthem in a jab at players who last season took a knee to protest racism when it was played before their games.
In a Tuesday morning tweet heralding the event, Trump warned the NFL about "escaping to locker rooms," a reference to a new league policy that allows players to remain off the field during the playing of the National Anthem if they choose not to stand for it.
Trump's move -- and the language he used to announce it -- will also renew concern among his critics about his sometimes dictatorial political instincts, especially since he is now insisting he has "absolute" power to pardon himself from any transgressions in the Russia investigation.
After all, dictating the meaning of patriotism is a classic device of autocratic rulers around the world, many of whom -- including Russian's Vladimir Putin and China's Xi Jinping -- Trump appears to admire.
"The Philadelphia Eagles are unable to come to the White House with their full team to be celebrated tomorrow," Trump said in a statement Monday evening.
"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," he said.
Political reasons to feud
The President has solid political reasons for reopening the feud with protesting NFL players.
To start with, Tuesday's event is all but certain to cause days of controversy that could help his perpetual efforts to cement his political foundation by playing into cultural, societal and racial questions that motivate his core voters.
While supporters of the take-a-knee protests believe the players are exercising their constitutional rights, the President has styled himself as a spokesman for other Americans, many on the right, who see the demonstrations as unpatriotic.
He has argued -- in comments that millions of Americans support -- that the protests are a gross insult to fighting men and women who have lain down their lives in wars abroad -- a campaign that has also drawn the military onto uncomfortable political ground.
And Trump is always willing to widen that divide and to cross into sensitive racial territory to take on black players who followed Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, who initiated the protest.
"This is a way of putting black players in their place," said Marc Lamont Hill, a professor of media studies and urban education at Temple University and a CNN political commentator, told CNN's Anderson Cooper.
"If you aren't going to stand the way I tell you to, then you are not allowed in my White House, not the people's White House but my White House," the BET host said, paraphrasing what he sees as the message Trump is implicitly sending.
The timing of Trump's move is also suspicious -- and potentially strategic.
After all, it's no surprise that many of the Eagles players never intended to attend the White House celebration because of Trump -- everyone's known about it almost since they hoisted the Vince Lombardi trophy in February.
Former Eagles wide receiver Torrey Smith, who was on the Super Bowl-winning team, hit out at the President in a series of tweets.
"So many lies," Smith tweeted.
"Here are some facts 1. Not many people were going to go 2. No one refused to go simply because Trump "insists" folks stand for the anthem 3. The President continues to spread the false narrative that players are anti military," he tweeted.
The President waited until a few hours before remaining team members were due to arrive to spring the cancellation, raising questions about his motivation.
The announcement also came on yet another day of damaging headlines over the Russia investigation, which may have given Trump an incentive to try to change the subject.
The White House struggled to explain why press secretary Sarah Sanders and one of the President's top lawyers had insisted the President had nothing to do with drafting a misleading statement about a meeting in Trump tower involving a Russian delegation before the 2016 election.
In a just-revealed letter to special counsel Robert Mueller that was sent in January, Trump's legal team admitted that the President had dictated the statement aboard Air Force One, raising questions of whether he was trying to cover up details of the meeting.
The President's intervention also represented a new headache for the NFL itself.
Just last week, the league's owners unanimously approved a new policy that requires players to stand during the anthem but allows them to remain in the locker room if they prefer.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said that the league wanted people to respect the anthem but also wanted to be "very sensitive" to give players choices.
It was the kind of politically intricate arrangement designed to defuse the kind of conflict that Trump barges through almost every day.
The President's intervention to stop the Eagles landing at the White House now all but insures the issue will be a hot topic when NFL pre-season camps open in less than two months.
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