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White House: Trump didn't mean what he said about leaving UCLA players in jail in China

On Sunday, Trump tweeted the following: "Now that the three basketball players are out of China and saved from years in jail, LaVar Ball, the father of LiAngelo, is unaccepting of what I did for his son and that shoplifting is no big deal. I should have left them in jail!"

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee SandersRead moreManuel Balce Ceneta / AP

At a briefing Monday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said President Donald Trump was merely making a "rhetorical response to a criticism" by LaVar Ball when he tweeted of Ball's son LiAngelo and two UCLA teammates that he "should have left them in jail" in China.

Sanders repeatedly claimed that Trump was "happy to intervene" on the players' behalf.

"I think it was less about the players than the father of one of the Americans really seemed to have a problem with it," Sanders said. "Frankly, it didn't seem like the father wanted the president to intervene, which I think would have been a sad thing if he hadn't, most likely."

On Sunday, Trump tweeted the following: "Now that the three basketball players are out of China and saved from years in jail, LaVar Ball, the father of LiAngelo, is unaccepting of what I did for his son and that shoplifting is no big deal. I should have left them in jail!"

A few hours later, he added this comment: "Shoplifting is a very big deal in China, as it should be (5-10 years in jail), but not to father LaVar. Should have gotten his son out during my next trip to China instead. China told them why they were released. Very ungrateful!"

As confirmed by Sanders, those remarks were in response to comments made by Ball, in which he downplayed Trump's role in helping get his son, as well as UCLA's Jalen Hill and Cody Riley, home and out of detainment in China. While on a team trip to that country earlier this month, one in which the Bruins were accompanied by Ball, the three players were arrested on suspicion of shoplifting designer sunglasses, and they were facing potential prison sentences.

When asked Friday about Trump's involvement in the episode, Ball told ESPN's Arash Markazi, "Who? What was he over there for? Don't tell me nothing. Everybody wants to make it seem like he helped me out."

"As long as my boy's back here, I'm fine," Ball told added. "I'm happy with how things were handled. A lot of people like to say a lot of things that they thought happened over there. Like I told him, 'They try to make a big deal out of nothing sometimes.' I'm from L.A. I've seen a lot worse things happen than a guy taking some glasses. My son has built up enough character that one bad decision doesn't define him."

Shortly after returning from China last week, the UCLA players held a news conference during which they apologized and expressed gratitude to Trump for his help. That morning, before they spoke, the president had tweeted, "Do you think the three UCLA Basketball Players will say thank you President Trump? They were headed for 10 years in jail!"

The next day, Trump said "You're welcome" to the players on Twitter, adding that they owed Chinese President Xi Jinping thanks, as well.

"HAVE A GREAT LIFE!" Trump told the three Bruins, who have been suspended indefinitely by their basketball program. "Be careful, there are many pitfalls on the long and winding road of life!"

"The president was certainly very glad and thankful to see the release of the three UCLA athletes by the Chinese government, and frankly, it's really fortunate that the president has built a strong enough relationship with President Xi of China that he was able to help secure the release of the three American citizens," Sanders said Monday. "Whenever the president is able to use his office and those relationships to help American citizens held overseas, he's certainly going to do that, and again, certainly the president was happy to intervene, and I think he's made that clear by taking that action upon himself to do that without being asked."

Sanders added of Trump that securing "the release of several American citizens" and bringing them home is "certainly something that he's done several times in these brief short 10 months that he's been in office." In July (via Time), Trump touted his "relationship" with Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi in negotiating the release from prison of Egyptian American social activist Aya Hijazi, and he noted that "President Obama tried and failed many times over three years" to do the same thing.

Asked Monday if Trump really believed that he should have left the "ungrateful" players in jail, Sanders replied, "No, I think if that's the case, he wouldn't have taken the action that he did, and certainly acted in order to help get those individuals released and brought back to the country."

Reached Sunday, after Trump's tweets, by "Good Morning America" producer Michael Del Moro, Ball reportedly wondered why the president wasn't focused on more pressing issues. "Did he go visit them in jail?" Ball said. "Did you go visit them in jail? If you went to visit them in jail, then I would say, 'Thank you.' "

Also confused about the amount of time Trump spends getting into online spats with sports figures was Detroit Pistons Coach Stan Van Gundy, who has taken issue with the president in the past. "Look, you're the President of the United States, the leader of the free world," Van Gundy told reporters Monday. "There has to be something more important than getting into it with LaVar Ball or Marshawn Lynch.

"There just has to be something else that you could be spending your time on as president. I don't know what it is, I don't know, North Korea, trade pacts – there just has to be something, it just can't be at the top of your priority list, I wouldn't think. But obviously it is."