Trump’s War With NFL Threatens to Overshadow Rollout of Tax Plan

  • President draws bipartisan ire for criticizing player protests
  • Republicans, corporations counting on tax cut in overhaul

Trump's NFL Criticism Distracts From Tax Reform

The big thing Wall Street and corporate America really want from President Donald Trump is a tax cut. And on the week when that plan is being revealed, Trump instead is asking Americans to choose sides between kneeling football players and the U.S. flag.

“The issue of kneeling has nothing to do with race,” Trump tweeted Monday after players and some owners at stadiums across the U.S. on Sunday locked arms, refused to stand for the national anthem or participated in other forms of protest. “It is about respect for our Country, Flag and National Anthem. NFL must respect this!”

Trump opened the controversy by declaring that NFL players who protest police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem -- and who are mostly black -- should be fired, saying “get that son of a bitch off the field” at a political rally Friday. He followed it with a series of tweets. In response, NBA superstar LeBron James called Trump a “bum.” Robert Kraft, the owner of the NFL’s New England Patriots and a Trump confidant, said he was “deeply disappointed.”

The New York Jets lock arms prior to their NFL game against the Miami Dolphins on Sunday.

Photographer: Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s not the first time Trump has allowed unscripted attacks or personal slights to collide with his larger political goals. A week in August that was supposed to be focused on infrastructure development instead was consumed by the president’s on-and-off defense of white supremacists who violently rallied in Charlottesville, Virginia.

U.S. President Donald Trump

Photographer: Olivier Douliery/Pool via Bloomberg

But this may be the most consequential distraction yet. Stocks have surged and companies have drawn up expansion plans on the prospect of billions of dollars in extra profits from a cut in the corporate tax rate. Even as business and Republican leaders have grown dismayed with the president’s personal behavior, they’ve clung to the promise of a tax overhaul.

As after Charlottesville, some of these supporters -- like Kraft -- are once again saying enough is enough.

“When it comes to this recent spat with the NFL, look, there are far more important things that we ought to be focusing on,” Senator Cory Gardner, a Colorado Republican, said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday.

Karl Rove, the former political adviser to President George W. Bush, was even more blunt.

“The president has two very valuable assets, his time and his voice,” Rove said on Fox News Sunday. “And this president wastes it when he engages in things like this.”

Business Reaction

Two White House advisory councils comprised of U.S. corporate chiefs disbanded following Charlottesville after several of their members criticized Trump. The first sign of discontent in the business community over the president’s NFL remarks came from the owners and executives of sports teams, including some who are personal friends or donors to Trump.

“Let’s stop vilifying athletes who stand up for issues they deem important,” former Microsoft Corp. CEO Steve Ballmer, who now owns the Los Angeles Clippers NBA team, said on Twitter.

Former Buffalo Bills coach Rex Ryan, who supported Trump during the election, said he was “pissed off” and that Trump’s comments were “appalling to me and I’m sure it’s appalling to almost any other citizen in this country. It should be.”

Trump administration officials interviewed on Sunday morning news shows found themselves defending the president’s remarks on NFL player protests, rather than outlining the White House’s tax plan or boosting embattled legislation to repeal Obamacare.

‘Vast Majority’

“I think that the president is standing with the vast majority of Americans who believe that our flag should be respected,” Marc Short, the White House legislative director, said on Meet the Press.

“This is about respect for the military and the first responders and the country,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on ABC’s “This Week,” in remarks that drew particular scorn from Democrats. “They have the right to have their First Amendment off the field. This is a job and the employers have the right, when the players are working, to have rules.”

Larry Summers, the former director of President Barack Obama’s National Economic Council, said on Twitter that Mnuchin “may be the greatest sycophant in Cabinet history.”

“If I were president, I probably would not get involved in this,” Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Then came the visual retorts.

Locked Arms

Shahid Khan, the billionaire owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars who donated $1 million to Trump’s inauguration committee, locked arms with his players on the field for the national anthem before the kickoff of his team’s game in London. Daniel Snyder, the owner of the Washington Redskins and another $1 million inaugural donor, also locked arms with his players before his team’s nationally broadcast game on NBC’s Sunday Night Football. Neither owner kneeled, though several of their players did.

The Redskins’ opponents, the Oakland Raiders, sat on their bench with their arms locked, grim-faced. NBC sideline reporter Michelle Tafoya said the team had wanted to remain in the locker room during the anthem but were told they’d forfeit the coin toss and would face a 15-yard penalty.

“I would just ask the president to consider apologizing for the SOB line,” NBC’s Sunday Night Football commentator Cris Collinsworth said.

Don’t count on it. Inside the White House, the latest controversy wasn’t entirely unwelcome to some aides, who regarded the president as being on the right side of public opinion. Protesting players were booed at at least one game, in Detroit. Top administration officials showed no signs of trying to distance themselves from or walk back Trump’s statements, and some of Trump’s outside advisers predicted the fight wouldn’t hurt his support.

The White House will try to pivot off the subject by mid-week when Trump plans a trip to Indiana for a speech on tax issues. Trump and congressional Republican leaders are preparing for a strong push in the next few months to pass the tax legislation, which comes after a series of defeats including their continuing failure to repeal Obamacare.

Trump showed no sign of letting up on his criticism of the NFL on Monday.

“Many people booed the players who kneeled yesterday (which was a small percentage of total). These are fans who demand respect for our Flag!” he tweeted. “So proud of NASCAR and its supporters and fans. They won’t put up with disrespecting our Country or our Flag - they said it loud and clear!”

— With assistance by Jennifer Jacobs

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