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Trump tweets about UCLA players were 'rhetorical,' White House says

Trump was being "rhetorical" when he said that he should have left the three UCLA basketball players arrested in China in jail, the White House said Monday.
Image: Trump makes an official visit in Beijing, China
China's President Xi Jinping holds a welcome ceremony for U.S. President Donald Trump at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China Nov. 9, 2017.Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

WASHINGTON — A dispute between President Donald Trump and the father of a UCLA basketball player appeared to be calming Monday after the White House said the president was being "rhetorical" when he tweeted that he should have left the three UCLA players arrested in China in jail.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Monday afternoon that Trump was "happy to intervene" on behalf of the American student athletes detained on suspicion of shoplifting, and that his tweets were "less about the players" and instead focused on one of the players' father, LaVar Ball.

Then LaVar Ball gave a television interview.

Ball, the father of one of the accused and known for his bombastic public persona, for the second time questioned Trump's role in securing the players' release and attacked Trump for seeming to need a public "thank you" for any leverage he used in persuading Chinese President Xi Jinping.

"If you helped, you shouldn’t even have to say anything," Ball told CNN's Chris Cuomo. "If I helped somebody, I don’t walk around saying, ‘You know I helped you now. C’mon now, give me some love. I helped you.'"

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"Do I think the president helped? I don’t know," Ball said, adding that he had others helping him in China and that he personally thanked those people.

Ball, a former basketball player, seemed to question Trump's role in his son's release in an interview with ESPN on Friday.

"Who? What was he over there for? Don't tell me nothing. Everybody wants to make it seem like he helped me out," Ball said of Trump.

The apparent lack of praise seemed to trigger Trump's tweets on the issue on Sunday evening. Trump called Ball "very ungrateful" and said he "should have left [the players] in jail!"

Sanders said those tweets were "a rhetorical response" to Ball's criticisms and that Trump was "happy to see the release of these individuals."

Ball criticized Trump for focusing his attention on the aftermath of the incident. "I’m just saying, why is that on you’re mind?" Ball said Monday night. "All this stuff going on [in the world] and that’s on your mind, that a father didn’t say thank you. And you the head of the U.S. C’mon."

LiAngelo Ball, as well as Jalen Hill and Cody Riley, were detained in Hangzhou, about 100 miles southwest of Shanghai, prior to Trump's arrival in Beijing during his Asia tour. UCLA Athletic Director Dan Guerrero said the players had stolen items from three stores when students were given 90 minutes of free time to explore the city and relax.

Trump used Twitter to welcome the players back to the U.S. last week, urging them to "HAVE A GREAT LIFE!" and thanking Chinese President Xi Jinping for making their release possible.

Prior to that, however, he mused whether the players would be grateful for his efforts on their behalf.

"Do you think the three UCLA Basketball Players will say thank you President Trump? They were headed for 10 years in jail!" he tweeted.