• Politics

Why President Trump Picked a Fight with Athletes

5 minute read

You’d need to be living under a rock to have missed this weekend’s latest Trump-driven controversy, as he inserted himself into debates over the national anthem and picked a fight with professional athletes. The ensuing firestorm infected what had previously been one of the glaring holdouts from the present “all about politics” culture. (The tech industry lost its immunity a year ago, or longer, and is proving to be poorly adept at navigating the new political landscape.) The presidential escalation in the freshly heated culture wars was notable not for its novelty — Trump has played this card before — but by the organized nature of the backlash from professional athletes and team owners.

The dual attacks on critical NBA players and those looking to make a political statement on the NFL sidelines highlighted the dual motivations at the heart of most of President Trump’s actions — in many cases for decades. He seeks respect and attention. In the basketball case, he felt attacked as Steph Curry indicated he didn’t wish to visit the White House. In the case of the NFL, he found a wedge issue that guaranteed he would be at the center of the conversation — and then spun it to his political advantage.

Terry Sullivan, Marco Rubio’s former campaign manager, expanded on those themes in an interview with TIME. As much of the focus has been on race, it would be ignoring the simplest explanation to suggest that was Trump’s primary motivation. “Steph Curry could be black, white, Hispanic or Asian. It was someone who was mean or disrespectful to Donald Trump, so you weren’t invited to his house. It was really like a first grader,” Sullivan said. “The one thing that he has a natural talent for is basically trolling the media and the left,” he continued. “He’s talented at it — and it makes him look better to the big block in the center.” Trump picks his opponents largely instinctively, but expertly, provoking reaction and overreaction. In the case of standing for the national anthem, it’s a popular but low-priority issue for nearly all Americans, but stirs up vocal minorities on both sides. Trump sensed that on stage Friday night in Alabama, and before that through his voluminous watching of cable news, and then doubled- and tripled-down. As the firestorm raged, it all-but-forced those who aren’t moved by the issue to make a choice — and Trump was on the slightly more popular side. “He has a unique ability to bring down the discourse and to drag down his opponents to his level so their arguments seem even more ridiculous than his,” Sullivan added.

The controversies have overshadowed the vastly more important issues of devastation in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria and the escalating war of words — and prospect of a real war — with North Korea. It also comes as the Administration is hoping to finalize its tax cut plan this week and Republicans in Congress appear set to make a final, likely doomed, effort at replacing much of the Affordable Care Act. But Trump has never been one to play second-fiddle even to his own agenda.

Here are your must reads:

Must Reads

Puerto Rico Governor: ‘We Still Need Some More Help’ From Washington
Catastrophe on island territory after back-to-back storms [Washington Post]

Kushner Used Private Email to Conduct White House Business
The senior adviser set up the account after the election. Other West Wing officials have also used private email accounts for official business. [Politico]

Athletes Beat Donald Trump In the Sport of Trash Talk
TIME’s Sean Gregory on Trump’s war of words with sports stars

President Trump Has a New Travel Ban
Administration limits travel from eight countries [Associated Press]

Sound Off

“The issue of kneeling has nothing to do with race. It is about respect for our Country, Flag and National Anthem. NFL must respect this!” — President Trump on Twitter Monday

“This isn’t about Democrats. It’s not about Republicans. It’s not about race; it’s not about free speech. They can do free speech on their own time.” — Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin to ABC Sunday

Bits and Bites

Graham, Cassidy revise Obamacare repeal bill, appealing to holdouts [Politico]

Warriors release statement in response to Trump rescinding White House invitation [CBS]

NFL players can have the ‘First Amendment off the field’: Treasury chief Mnuchin says [ABC]

Donald Trump’s Allies Join His Crusade Against The NFL [BuzzFeed]

Obama tried to give Zuckerberg a wake-up call over fake news on Facebook [Washington Post]

Here’s the new Graham-Cassidy bill [Axios]

NFL airing unity ad in prime time on Sunday [CNN]

‘It’s a Very Poor Prognosis.’ John McCain Opens Up About Cancer Diagnosis [TIME]

McCain talks to 60 Minutes [CBS]

Tom Brady: ‘I certainly disagree with what [Donald Trump] said’ [WEII]

Response to President Trump Made Roger Goodell ‘Proud of Our League’ [Sports Illustrated]

Trump campaign associates to talk to House intelligence [Associated Press]

Ted Cruz: I Can’t Support the Obamacare Repeal Bill ‘Right Now’ [Associated Press]

Donald Trump to Stephen Curry: Consider Your White House Invitation ‘Withdrawn’ [TIME]

US strikes Libya for first time under Trump [CNN]

Ben Carson Breaks With President Trump and Endorses Roy Moore in Alabama Senate Race [TIME]

Strange in trouble in Alabama, White House and GOP fear [Politico]


More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com