White House defends Trump against NFL backlash

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders speaks during the daily press briefing, Monday, Sept. 25, 2017, in Washington.

Evan Vucci / AP

Last Updated Sep 26, 2017 12:00 AM EDT

In a press briefing Monday afternoon, the White House defended President Trump's comments and tweets condemning NFL players who refuse to stand for the national anthem.

"I think that it's always appropriate for the president of the United States to defend our flag, to defend the national anthem and to the defend the men and women who fought and died to defend it," said White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

Since Friday, the president has tweeted or retweeted 16 criticisms of athletes in the NFL and other sports leagues who protest "The Star-Spangled Banner." Mr. Trump also spoke out against these players at a rally held in Alabama on Friday.

"Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, 'Get that son of a b---- off the field right now. Out. He's fired. He's fired!" Trump said to the rally.

Despite the president's comments, several NFL players sat, kneeled, raised fists or stayed inside locker rooms as the anthem played before their Sunday games.

When asked if Mr. Trump's focus on athletes' actions was distracting from his administration's policy-related goals, Sanders asserted that "he's not emphasizing sports."

"He's emphasizing something that should be unifying: celebrating and promoting patriotism in our country is something that should bring everybody together," she said.

Sanders continued to defend Mr. Trump on the issue, adding that the White House "certainly respects the rights that people have" to freedom of speech and freedom of expression, while still denouncing their protests.

"If the debate is really -- for them -- about police brutality, they should probably protest the officers on the field that are protecting them instead of the American flag," Sanders said Monday.

She later clarified this message, but pointed out the "hypocrisy" of the NFL players' efforts.

"If the goal is, and the message, is that of police brutality, which they've stated, then that doesn't seem very appropriate to protest the American flag," Sanders told reporters. "I'm not sure how those two things would be combined."

As Mr. Trump has continued to comment on the issue, several team owners and individual players -- even some who support him -- have released statements critical of him. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell also responded to Mr. Trump, calling his words "divisive" on Saturday.

"The president is not talking about race -- the president is talking about pride in our country," Sanders said.