US President Donald Trump threw his own flag-waving – if subdued – “celebration of America” Tuesday after cancelling a reception for the NFL champion Philadelphia Eagles because only “a tiny handful” of players planned to attend.
“We love our country. We respect our flag. We always proudly stand for the national anthem,” Trump said at a hastily organized nationalistic jamboree on the South Lawn of the White House.
Trump had planned a high-profile reception for the Super Bowl LII champion team, but cancelled on the eve of their trip, citing NFL players’ protests during the pregame national anthem.
But it transpired Tuesday that the reception was scrapped because only a few of the 81 team members invited had actually planned to attend.
Instead, Trump hosted an event featuring songs, flag waving and a brief four minutes of remarks in which he praised his own management of the economy and the familiar themes of American nationalism.
“We stand together for freedom. We stand together for patriotism. And we proudly stand for our glorious nation under God,” he said.
Flags fluttered and the Marine Band banged out patriotic tunes to the crowd of around hundreds, but the event was for the most part subdued.
A significant portion of the audience was made up of White House staff – who admitted to not being Eagles fans when asked – and Trump faced at least one protestor who demanded the divisive president “stop hiding behind the armed services and the national anthem!”
Trump himself appeared to struggle with the lyrics of “God Bless America,” which he mouthed, then nodded along to.
The run-up to the event had brought a very public spat between Trump and the champion team, which the White House accused of deciding to “abandon their fans.”
“Unfortunately, the Eagles offered to send only a tiny handful of representatives, while making clear that the great majority of players would not attend,” press secretary Sarah Sanders said.
“Upon learning these facts, the president decided to change the event.”
The spat reignited a Trump-fueled debate over national anthem protests.
Trump set off widespread protests by mostly black NFL athletes last year after labeling players who knelt during the national anthem to protest racial injustice “sons of bitches” who should be fired.
Colin Kaepernick, the then-quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, began the kneeling protests in 2016 to draw attention to police brutality and racial inequality.
Kaepernick’s protest followed a wave of deaths of black men during encounters with law enforcement.
The Eagles’ roster contains several prominent figures from the NFL player protest movement, and some, including safety Malcolm Jenkins and defensive end Chris Long, had already indicated they planned not to attend.
Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie has also been critical of Trump, and reportedly described his presidency as “disastrous,” according to a New York Times report earlier this year.
The US president has repeatedly tried to inflame political anger and find sensitive “wedge issues” to animate his supporters.
But picking a fight with a team from a political swing state could prove a risky bet.
Democratic Senator Bob Casey, from Pennsylvania, said he was skipping Trump’s “political stunt” and instead invited the Eagles to tour the US Capitol.
Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney said disinviting the Eagles “only proves the president is not a true patriot.”
Presidential receptions for championship sport teams have been a regular occurrence throughout different presidencies.
Trump had a similar rift last year with the NBA champion Golden State Warriors – also from a city with a large African American population.
The president had withdrawn an invitation to the team to attend a White House reception after star Stephen Curry and other players indicated a reluctance to attend.
The Warriors instead took a group of children on a visit to Washington’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.
This year Cleveland star LeBron James and Golden State’s Curry said Tuesday the NBA Finals champions will not be visiting the White House no matter whether the Cavaliers or Warriors win the crown.
The Eagles put out a non-committal statement after Trump axed the event.
In the statement, they said it was thrilling to win the Super Bowl and “watching the entire Eagles community come together has been an inspiration. We are truly grateful for all of the support we have received and we are looking forward to continuing our preparations for the 2018 season.”