Former CIA Director John Brennan on Saturday defended football players who take a knee during the national anthem in what they say is a protest of racial inequality, and seemed to suggest President Donald Trump's focus on the issue is misplaced.
"Taking a knee during the national anthem shows respect for the flag and for all those who fought and died for it and, at the same time, concern about problems within American society that need to be addressed,” Brennan said in a statement released by former deputy chief of staff Nick Shapiro.
"Pejorative and caustic comments about the practice show a disregard for one of the most important foundational principles of our great nation — freedom of expression — as well as ignorance of the corrosive impact of conscious and unconscious racial and class bias within our society," Brennan said.
Trump on Saturday interrupted a string of tweets defending the federal response in hurricane-hit Puerto Rico by posting: "Very important that NFL players STAND tomorrow, and always, for the playing of our National Anthem. Respect our Flag and our Country!"
Trump on Sept. 22 attacked the NFL protests and told a crowd in Alabama "Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, 'Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He's fired!'"
Players from around the league last weekend kneeled or stood-arm-in-arm during the anthem in a gesture widely seen as a rebuke to Trump's comments.
"It is at times like this that government officials demonstrate that they either have or sorely lack the leadership qualities and values that are needed and expected by the American people," Brennan said the statement.
"And at all times, the primary responsibility of the President of the United States is to do everything possible to safeguard the lives of American citizens, which is why Mr. Trump should have laser-like focus on mitigating the catastrophic damage of Hurricane Maria on the people of Puerto Rico," Brennan said.
Trump has defended the government's response to the disaster on Puerto Rico, and said Saturday on Twitter: "Doing everything we can to help great people of PR!" Trump said he will travel to Puerto Rico on Tuesday.
Brennan, who served under President George W. Bush and as CIA director under President Barack Obama, has been critical of Trump before.
Brennan called Trump's speech in January before a wall of stars memorializing fallen CIA officers as a "despicable display of self-aggrandizement in front of CIA's Memorial Wall of Agency heroes."
Brennan also criticized Trump's comments after the deadly violence surrounding a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville in August as "dangerous" and "ugly" in a letter to CNN host Wolf Blitzer.
The letter followed Trump’s press conference on Aug. 16 in which the president blamed "both sides" for the violence between white nationalists and some of those protesting them. A woman was killed in Charlottesville when a car was deliberately driven into counter-protesters demonstrating against white supremacists and neo-Nazis. Blitzer's grandparents were murdered in the Holocaust.
Brennan in the letter to Blitzer said "Mr. Trump's words, and the beliefs they reflect, are a national disgrace, and all Americans of conscience need to repudiate his ugly and dangerous comments."
Trump has said that he clearly condemned racism and hate groups in his response to Charlottesville.