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Trump Defends Criticism Of NFL Players For National Anthem Protests


President Trump is not backing down from the controversy he fueled when he criticized football players who knelt during the national anthem. And he rejects the idea that attention to that issue has distracted him from adequately responding to the needs of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. The president spoke at a joint press conference at the White House today with the leader of Spain, and NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson was there. She joins us now. Hi, Mara.


CHANG: So what did the president have to say about the NFL?

LIASSON: Well, true to form, he did not back away from the controversy. He said kneeling was disgraceful. And he is reported to be very happy about the way this latest us-versus-them controversy is working out for him. He continues to frame it as an issue of patriotism, not as a First Amendment issue, which is the way the NFL players and owners are framing it. And as he tweeted this morning, he thinks the NFL should have a rule preventing kneeling. So he set up the conflict. Now he's laying down some red lines for it. Here he is.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I think it's a very important thing for the NFL to not allow people to kneel during the playing of our national anthem to respect our country and to respect our flag.

LIASSON: So it's unclear where this goes from here. Will the owners do what he asks, or will fans walk out of the games where players take a knee during the anthem, as the president has also suggested? That's not clear. But he did reject the idea that this fight over the NFL that he's been stoking has kept him from focusing on hurricane response efforts.

CHANG: About those hurricane response efforts, the president said earlier today he is going to Puerto Rico next week.

LIASSON: Yes, he's going on Tuesday to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. And today he seemed to go out of his way to tout the federal government's efforts. He talked over and over again about how happy everyone in the hurricane-hit areas are with his administrations.


TRUMP: The governor of Puerto Rico is so thankful for the great job that we're doing. We did a great job in Texas, a great job in Florida, a great job in Louisiana.

LIASSON: He even said we've, quote, "gotten great reviews from the governor of Puerto Rico." As usual with the president, it's all about the box office.

CHANG: Right.

LIASSON: But the administration as well as the news media has been criticized for a slow response to the devastation in Puerto Rico and being more concerned about Florida and Texas. But now the administration is pulling out all the stops to help Puerto Rico. After all, Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens. And today the FEMA director, Brock Long, at the White House said there are thousands of relief workers in Puerto Rico, and there will be emergency funding request for the island.

CHANG: What about North Korea? Did the president weigh in on that today?

LIASSON: Yes. He said he was totally prepared for a military option, although he said that's not his preference. He said Kim Jong Un was saying bad things that he shouldn't be saying, and the U.S. is merely replying, not originating the statements. Remember; the president has been making this conflict with North Korea very personal...

CHANG: Yeah.

LIASSON: ...Against the advice of some of his top aides, calling Kim Jong Un Little Rocket Man. Today he said previous administrations have left him a big mess, but he's going to fix it.

CHANG: And as the president was having this press conference, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced he will not go ahead with a vote on the latest effort to repeal and replace Obamacare. Did Trump react to that?

LIASSON: He certainly did - not at the press conference but at a meeting with members of Congress earlier in the day. Here's what he said.


TRUMP: We were very disappointed by a couple of senators - Republican senators, I must say. We're very disappointed that they would take the attitude that they did. We don't know why they did it.

LIASSON: The president went on to call those senators certain so-called Republicans. And this is just a little taste of what Republicans can expect - how the president is going to blame them for this latest failed attempt...

CHANG: Yeah.

LIASSON: ...To repeal Obamacare. You know, he's given them a real tongue lashing on this issue before for failing to make good on the No. 1 promise they've made for the last seven years. And this really has been the source of the biggest rift between the president and the leaders of his own party in Congress. They promised him they would pass this bill, get it to his desk. They haven't delivered.

And this all comes on a day when Republicans are going to the polls in Alabama to choose between an establishment candidate, Luther Strange, backed by the president and Senate Leader McConnell and a populist, nationalist outsider candidate, Roy Moore, backed by the president's former political adviser Steve Bannon.

CHANG: That's NPR's Mara Liasson. Thank you, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.