WASHINGTON — After President Donald Trump canceled Tuesday's salute to the NFL champion Philadelphia Eagles, the White House accused the players of abandoning their fans because many had said they wouldn't show up. Trump quickly scheduled a "Celebration of America" with military bands in the event's place as he stoked fresh controversy over players who protest racial injustice by taking a knee during the national anthem.
Spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the team had notified the White House last Thursday that 81 members, including players, coaches and managers would be attending. But she said the team got back in touch late Friday and tried to reschedule, "citing the fact that many players would not be in attendance." They proposed a time when Trump would be overseas.
Sanders said the White House continued to work with the team over the weekend, but in the end, "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."
"In other words," she added, "the vast majority of the Eagles team decided to abandon their fans."
Eagles officials declined immediate comment on the White House's version of events. An earlier statement did not directly addressing the cancellation.
"Watching the entire Eagles community come together has been an inspiration," the team statement read. "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."
Fewer than 10 Eagles players planned to attend the White House ceremony, according to a team official familiar with the plans who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the issue.
Trump had originally said the event had been scrapped because some Eagles players "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" — even though none of the Super Bowl champion Eagles had taken a knee during the anthem in 2017.
"We will proudly be playing the National Anthem and other wonderful music celebrating our Country today at 3 P.M., The White House, with the United States Marine Band and the United States Army Chorus. Honoring America! NFL, no escaping to Locker Rooms!" he tweeted.
That was a challenge to a new NFL policy intended to quell the controversy surrounding the protests that began in 2016 when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began silently kneeling on the sidelines during the anthem. Kaepernick's protest was intended to raise awareness around racism and, specifically, the killing of black men by police.
The policy announced last month requires players protesting racial injustice to stand if they're on the field during the national anthem or else stay in the locker room. Trump tweeted that, "Staying in the Locker Room for the playing of our National Anthem is as disrespectful to our country as kneeling. Sorry!"
The National Football League Players Association, the union representing NFL players, said in a statement that it was disappointed by the decision to disinvite the players and said the reversal had led to the cancellation of several community service events for young people in the Washington area.
"NFL players love their country, support our troops, give back to their communities and strive to make America a better place," it said in a statement.
Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney on Tuesday suggested it was Trump's patriotism that should be questioned.
"When he had the opportunity to serve his country for real, his father got him out of it, and I think it's really disingenuous for him to talk about patriotism in any way shape or form," Kenney told CNN, referring to military draft deferments Trump obtained that kept him out of the service during the Vietnam War.
Trump had been leery of the Eagles' planned visit to the White House for some time because the team's owner, Jeffrey Lurie, has been a Trump critic and several of players have been outspoken against the anthem policy, according to an outside confidant and a White House official not authorized to discuss internal conversations publicly.
Trump was furious when he learned how few Eagles planned to attend Tuesday's event, and ordered aides to scrap the visit, believing a low turnout would reflect poorly on him. He had told aides last year that he was embarrassed when Tom Brady, the star quarterback of that season's champion New England Patriots, opted to skip a White House visit.
Trump instead ordered that Tuesday's event be turned into a "celebration of America" that would highlight his anthem stance. Senior counselor Kellyanne Conway, an Eagles fan, was helping organize the event.
It was another sign that Trump intends to continue to fan a culture war he has stoked and which he has long believed is a winning issue with his base.
Trump has long fixated on the NFL national anthem controversy and was pleased when last month's announcement of the league's new policy returned it to the news. He believes there is a significant overlap between football fans and his base and has told confidants that he believes his voters would enthusiastically take his side over football players whom Trump thinks have looked unpatriotic and greedy.
The president told one confidant Monday that he aimed to periodically revive the anthem issue in the months ahead, believing its return to the headlines would help Republicans as the midterm elections approached.
But Trump's attempt to drive a wedge between the team and its famously fervent fan base could have political consequences in swing state Pennsylvania, which Trump won by just 44,000 votes in 2016.
The politics were already playing out in the state's Senate race, where Republican Rep. Lou Barletta is challenging Democrat Bob Casey.
Barletta announced that he would be attending the White House ceremony sans Eagles, "representing the proud Pennsylvanians who stand for our flag." Casey tweeted Monday night that he would be "skipping this political stunt at the White House" and invited the Eagles on a tour of the Capitol instead.
G. Terry Madonna, an expert in Pennsylvania politics at Franklin and Marshall College, said he thought the president had made a mistake and that the cancellation was "a missed opportunity" for Trump to praise the team and even share his views on the anthem controversy.
And while 2020 is a long way away, he said, "I don't think there's any doubt that it's not going to be helpful to him politically in this state."