WASHINGTON (AP) — Fuming over the risk of low turnout, President Donald Trump canceled a White House visit for the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles and eagerly stoked fresh drama Tuesday over players who protest racial injustice by taking a knee during the national anthem.
"Staying in the Locker Room for the playing of our National Anthem is as disrespectful to our country as kneeling. Sorry!" Trump tweeted Tuesday — even though none of the Super Bowl champion Eagles had taken a knee during the anthem in 2017.
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.
Trump had been leery of the Eagles' planned visit to the White House because the team's owner, Jeffrey Lurie, has been a Trump critic and several players have been outspoken against the anthem policy, according to an outside confidant and a White House official not authorized to discuss internal conversations publicly.
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, a huge Eagles fan, was helping organize the event. 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.
Trump's tweets on Tuesday appeared to challenge a new NFL policy that requires players protesting racial injustice to stand if they're on the field during the national anthem or stay in the locker room.
It was the latest 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 who 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.
Trump had initially praised the NFL's new policy, which was intended to quell the controversy surrounding 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.
But Trump accused the players of being unpatriotic, and suggested they be fired for their actions.
Late Monday, the White House released a statement from Trump announcing the Eagles event had been scrapped because 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 to the White House Tuesday, but "the 1,000 fans planning to attend the event deserve better."
Instead of hailing Eagles players for their work on the field and in their community, the White House is staging an alternative "Celebration of America" featuring music provided by U.S. military bands and choruses.
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 because the person wasn't authorized to speak on the record.
"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.
Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney on Tuesday criticized Trump's decision and questioned his 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.
A statement from the Eagles did not directly address 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.
"No one refused to go simply because Trump 'insists' folks stand for the anthem," he tweeted. "The President continues to spread the false narrative that players are anti-military."
Lemire reported from New York. Associated Press writer Errin Haines Whack in Philadelphia and Associated Press Pro Football writer Rob Maaddi contributed to this report. Follow Colvin on Twitter at https://twitter.com/colvinj.