WASHINGTON — Crowd size still matters to President Donald Trump.
He rescinded his invitation for the NFL champion Philadelphia Eagles to visit the White House after learning that only a “tiny handful” of the team’s representatives planned to attend, according to White House press secretary Sarah Sanders.
“In other words, the vast majority of the Eagles team decided to abandon their fans,” she said Tuesday in a statement providing more context on the decision, which was announced by Trump Monday evening.
Sanders' explanation differed significantly from the one Trump offered a day earlier, when he rhetorically wrapped himself in the American flag to draw a contrast with professional athletes who kneel during the national anthem.
"They disagree with their president because he insists that they proudly stand for the national anthem, hand on heart, in honor of the great men and women of our military and the people of our country," Trump said in a statement. "The Eagles wanted to send a smaller delegation, but the 1,000 fans planning to attend the event deserve better."
The problem: None of the Eagles took a knee last year.
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But the president has long sought political advantage in waging a sustained campaign against players who do not stand for the anthem, which has exacerbated cultural divisions in the country and turned many of the nation’s top players against him.
On Tuesday, Sanders accused the Eagles of pulling a "political stunt" by trying to reschedule at the last minute and offering new dates on which it was widely known that the president would be traveling. And, though she had drawn attention to the fact that the Eagles were sending a small delegation in her own statement explaining the White House assessment leading up to the cancellation, Sanders told reporters that the president's position on the anthem "has been clear."
Instead of canceling Tuesday’s White House event altogether, Trump decided to invite fans to come to celebrate the flag. About 50 U.S. flags were set up on the South Lawn of the White House, and the “president’s own” Marine Corps played patriotic standards, including the national anthem and Irving Berlin's "God Bless America."
Trump shared his reasons for standing during the anthem.
"We love our country. We respect our flag. We always proudly stand for the national anthem," he said. "We stand to honor our military, and to honor our country and to remember the fallen heroes who never made it back home."
Then, citing economic data, he said the country is in the best shape it has ever been in.
During the playing of "The Star-Spangled Banner," an unidentified man knelt, according to video posted to Twitter by Carina Bergfeldt of Swedish news outlet SVT. When it was over, he applauded the band.
While none of the Eagles players joined NFL compatriots in refusing to stand last season, some found other ways to demonstrate their solidarity with players who sought to draw attention to what they say is police mistreatment of African-American suspects.
After intense pressure from Trump, the NFL announced last month that it would fine players who don’t stand for the national anthem if they are on the field when it is played. But the policy allows them to stay in the locker room during performances of "The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Trump said Tuesday that there’s no difference in his mind.
“Staying in the Locker Room for the playing of our National Anthem is as disrespectful to our country as kneeling. Sorry!” he tweeted.
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Sanders said the Eagles gave the White House a list of 81 members of the organization — players, coaches and other personnel — who planned to attend. But as the event drew closer, it became clear few players would be at the White House.
“The White House, despite sensing a lack of good faith, nonetheless attempted to work with the Eagles over the weekend to change the event format that could accommodate a smaller group of players,” she said. “Unfortunately, the Eagles offered to send only a tiny handful of representatives, while making clear that the great majority of players would not attend the event, despite planning to be in D.C. today.”
Rep. Brendan Boyle, D-Pa., slammed the president for pulling the invitation to the Eagles personnel who planned to attend.
“A championship team visiting the White House is a time-honored tradition, not something that was ever political,” he said in a text exchange with NBC News. “Unfortunately, Trump has now ruined this American tradition.”
The top stars for the teams currently competing in the NBA Finals, the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers, said Tuesday that the White House need not clear any time on the president's schedule for the victor. "I know no matter who wins this series," said the Cavaliers' LeBron James, "no one wants the invite anyways."
Steph Curry of Golden State, whose team had an invitation to the White House rescinded by Trump last year, also said the Warriors would avoid a visit with the president, should they win.
CORRECTION (June 5, 2018, 7:57 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misquoted LeBron James. He said, "I know no matter who wins the series, no one wants the invite anyways," not "I know whoever wins the series, no one wants an invite."