WASHINGTON — Hours after canceling a White House celebration for the Eagles, President Trump and his aides accused the Philadelphia football team Tuesday of backing out as "a political stunt," and said the players had "abandoned" their fans, escalating a feud that turned a routine event into a divisive clash.
Instead of gathering with players, the Lombardi Trophy, and smiling team executives, the president spent about 15 minutes on the White House south lawn with Republican Party faithful, listening to patriotic songs from the Marine Corps Band and Army Chorus in an event billed as a "Celebration of America."
"We love our country, we respect our flag, and we always proudly stand for the national anthem," Trump said in brief remarks.
It was an implicit dig at NFL players who have protested during the playing of the national anthem, and it added one more note to a surreal back-and-forth over what is usually a lighthearted and apolitical ceremonial duty. It came near the end of a day's worth of sharp-edged criticism from the White House that added fuel to the running conflict between Trump and NFL players, and supporters of each — and the broader cultural battles central to much of the president's political appeal.
The Eagles' front office remained silent in the face of the barrage, but some players fired back, accusing the president of distorting their messages and inflaming tensions for his political benefit.
"Everyone, regardless of race or socioeconomic status, deserves to be treated equally. We are fighting for racial and social equality," Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins said in a post on Twitter. "Instead, the decision was made to lie and paint the picture that these players are anti-America, anti-flag and anti-military."
His remarks came after Trump's press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said that 81 Eagles players, personnel, coaches and support staff had been slated late last week to attend Tuesday's gathering on the White House lawn, along with more than 1,000 fans — but that the team tried to reschedule when it became clear many players wouldn't attend. She said the White House tried to work with the team, but learned that only a small group would show up in the end.
"In other words, the vast majority of the Eagles team decided to abandon their fans," Sanders said in a statement.
At an afternoon media briefing, she went further, repeatedly accusing the team of orchestrating the last-minute pullout.
"If this wasn't a political stunt by the Eagles franchise, then they wouldn't have planned to attend the event and then back out at the last minute," Sanders told reporters. "The Eagles are the ones who decided to change at the eleventh hour, and the president thinks the fans deserves better."
The fight became a topic on news shows, the front pages of national newspapers, and social media, where fans who typically cheer the same team clashed over how to respond to the president.
Fewer than 10 of the more than 50 Eagles players had been expected to attend the White House ceremony. Many were angered last year by Trump's harsh criticism of those who protested during the national anthem at games: He called one a "son of a bitch" and asked for demonstrators to lose their jobs at an Alabama rally last fall.
Eagles players noted that none of them had knelt or stayed in the locker room during the anthem at games last season.
Jenkins, one of the most outspoken of NFL players, has silently raised his fist during the anthem, while others in the league have knelt. He also previously said he did not want to be a prop in a Trump photo.
Other athletes rallied to the Eagles' side Tuesday, including NBA superstars LeBron James and Steph Curry, who both said they would not attend a White House celebration for their league's championship. Their teams, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors, are competing in the NBA Finals. (Trump revoked an invitation to Curry's Warriors last season after he said he would skip the event.)
"I think the president has made it pretty clear he's going to try to divide all of us in this country for political gain," said Steve Kerr, the Warriors' coach.
Some of the athletes see racial implications in Trump's attack on largely African American players, raising questions about the treatment of minorities. Trump and his supporters see millionaires who are not properly respecting the flag. And the president is said to also see a political upside in a fight that, in his framing, pits patriotism against wealthy athletes.
Rep. Ryan Costello, an Eagles fan and a Republican from Chester County, tweeted that "POTUS handled poorly," referring to the president.
"This is a depressing commentary on our political culture, very deflating to me. Was really excited for today. As a fan who bleeds green. Not going to WH. Disappointed in all of this," wrote Costello, who is retiring.
Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) also said he and his family had been looking forward to celebrating the Eagles' victory.
"Unfortunately, it wouldn't have been such a great celebration with only a fraction of the roster in attendance," Toomey said in a statement to the Inquirer and Daily News.
Democrats blasted Trump as dividing people. Mayor Kenney called him a "tyrant."
At Trump's alternative event, the military bands played and sung the national anthem, "God Bless America" and "America the Beautiful" in a display aimed at turning the fight into one over patriotism, not social issues or free speech.
Trump spoke for around four minutes and some fans let out the familiar "E-A-G-L-E-S" chant. There was a smattering of boos — though it was unclear whether they were targeting the president or the team. At least one person knelt. The entire event lasted well under 30 minutes. Some in the crowd were Republican insiders, consultants and former White House aides from Pennsylvania, or Trump supporters like Reps. Mike Kelly and Lou Barletta.
Reporters milled about the crowd, seeking Eagles fans or Philadelphians. Many people responded with blank stares or said they were neither. One was a Republican National Committee intern who told a reporter she was invited Tuesday via a mass email from the White House.
Others, however, wore green ties or Eagles paraphernalia, and at least one carried an Eagles jersey. Several said they were Eagles fans who enjoyed the event, even if the shadow of politics diminished the fun.
"It was fine, it was very patriotic, and I appreciate it all, but it was very disappointing not to have the Eagles here, at least some representation," said John DeFinnis, a season-ticket holder from Berwick, Pa. "Sports are supposed to bring us together, not apart."