The White House accused the disinvited-Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles of “abandoning” their fans at a patriotic event hosted by President Trump Tuesday, as the clash of traditions honoring sports champions and showing respect for the flag took a bitter political turn.
Mr. Trump emceed a musical “Celebration of America” on the South Lawn after withdrawing his invitation to the Eagles, as the White House said the team offered to send only a “tiny” contingent of players and coaches to meet the president.
With the Marine Band behind him, Mr. Trump said he wanted to explain to the crowd of several hundred, including a few wearing Eagles hats and jerseys, “why young Americans stand for our national anthem.”
“Maybe it’s about time we understood,” Mr. Trump said. “We love our country, we respect our flag and we always proudly stand for the national anthem.”
But an unidentified heckler near the front of the crowd shouted at the president as he began his remarks, accusing Mr. Trump of “hiding” behind the military. Others in the crowd booed.
The brief ceremony concluded with the audience singing “God Bless America.”
Among those in the crowd were Jim Cawley of Newtown, Pa., and his 15-year-old nephew, Colin McDonald. Mr. Cawley said he was disappointed that the team wasn’t present, but added “nothing’s going to take away from the fact that the Eagles are world champions.”
“Obviously I, like everyone else, had hoped that the Eagles and the White House could come to an agreement,” Mr. Cawley said. “But such was not the case. The president of the United States asked my nephew and I to come on down and listen to some patriotic music, so we’re here.”
The White House said Tuesday that Mr. Trump bent over backwards to accommodate the Eagles for a celebration, but the team “decided to abandon their fans” by skipping the event while also planning to visit other sites in Washington.
Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the White House held “extensive discussions” with the team to work out a date “despite sensing a lack of good faith” from the Eagles.
“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,” she said. “In other words, the vast majority of the Eagles team decided to abandon their fans.”
She said the Eagles’ organization tried to pull a “political stunt” by sending a smaller group.
“If this wasn’t a political stunt by the Eagles’ franchise, then they wouldn’t have backed out at the last minute,” she said. “The Eagles are the ones that changed their commitment at the last minute.”
Mr. Trump canceled the celebration scheduled for Tuesday, saying Eagles’ fans “deserve better” than for 10 or so players and coaches to show up for the event.
The White House put out a timeline of sorts about the discussions with the team, beginning after the Eagles’ Super Bowl win in February. Mrs. Sanders said the team at first accepted an invitation to visit the White House on Tuesday.
Last Thursday, she said, the team notified the White House that 81 people, including players, coaches, management, and support personnel, would attend the event. On Friday, the Secret Service cleared them for participation.
“These individuals, along with more than 1,000 Eagles fans, were scheduled to attend the event,” she said.
But late Friday, “citing the fact that many players would not be in attendance, the team contacted the White House again, and attempted to reschedule the event,” she said. That conflicted with the travel plans of Mr. Trump, who is departing this Friday for a G-7 summit in Canada and then on to Singapore for denuclearization talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
“The president … had already announced that he would be traveling overseas on the dates the Eagles proposed,” Mrs. Sanders said. “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.”
In the end, Mr. Trump “decided to change the event so that it would be a celebration of the American flag with Eagles fans and performances by United States Marine Band and the United States Army Chorus,” Mrs. Sanders said.
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