The White House press corps grilled Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders Monday afternoon about President Trump’s claim that any NFL player who doesn’t stand for the national anthem is a “son of a bitch” who deserves to be fired. Over the course of several questions, Sanders insisted that Trump was simply defending the flag and that the controversy is not about race.
When first asked about the anthem protests, Sanders explained, “This is about the president and millions of Americans being for something, being for honoring our flag, honoring our national anthem, and honoring the men and women who fought to defend it.”
After specifically being asked whether someone expressing his First Amendment rights was a “son of a bitch”, however, Sanders deflected.
“It’s always appropriate for the president of this country to promote the flag, promote the national anthem and ask people to respect it,” she reiterated.
Sanders was then questioned over Trump’s claim that “the issue of kneeling has nothing to do with race.” (Colin Kaepernick first knelt in protest to raise awareness about the injustices that African Americans and other racial minorities experience, including police brutality.)
She responded, “I think the focus has long since changed.” Sanders did not specify what she or the White House now believed the focus to be.
That response prompted additional questions about the nature of the protests, specifically their goal of challenging police brutality, to which Sanders offered an off the cuff, haphazard response.
“If the debate for them is really about police brutality, they should probably protest the officers on the field that are protecting them rather than the American flag,” she said.
When asked whether she was encouraging NFL players to protest the police, she added, “No, no. That’s not what I’m saying. I was kind of pointing out the hypocrisy of the fact that, if the goal and the message is that of police brutality, which they’ve stated, then that doesn’t seem very appropriate to protest the American flag. I’m not sure how those two things would be combined.”
Before the press briefing was over, Sanders was again challenged as to whether Trump has a problem with the First Amendment. One reporter pointed out that the president had tweeted praise at NASCAR and noted that it tends to have a more white demographic compared to the African American athletes Trump had repeatedly attacked all weekend. “Is he trying to wage something of a culture war?”
“Not at all,” Sanders insisted. “The president is not talking about race. The president is talking about pride in our country.”
At that point, the press secretary abruptly ended the briefing.
Sanders’ responses follow a clear White House strategy of standing by everything Trump says and denying the clear context in which he says it. On Sunday morning’s political shows, two different White House officials did the same: Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said that Trump “can use whatever language he wants”; White House Director of Legislative Affairs Marc Short also denied that Trump’s comments had anything to do with race.
Meanwhile, as the administration continues to double down on its critiques of NFL players, more athletes continue to announce their intentions to join the protests during Monday night’s games, in solidarity.