Tuesday was not a good day for the Donald Trump administration.
Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort was found guilty on eight of 18 charges connected to financial fraud levied against him by special counsel Robert Mueller.
Earlier in the day, his former longtime personal attorney and fixer Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to eight charges in a federal court while admitting to making illegal campaign contributions “in coordination and at the direction of a candidate for federal office.”
Trump talks about NFL, not guilty pleas and verdicts
Meanwhile, Trump held a rally among his supporters in Charleston, West Virginia. Instead of addressing the scandal engulfing his administration, he brandished a familiar cudgel, attacking the NFL, its players and ESPN over the ongoing national anthem controversy that energizes his base.
This time, he chose to hone in on ESPN’s recent decision to decline to air the national anthem before “Monday Night Football” broadcasts.
“You’re proud of our country, you’re proud of our history, and unlike the NFL, you always honor and cherish our great American flag,” Trump said. “It was just announced by ESPN that rather than defending our anthem, our beautiful, beautiful national anthem and defending our flag, they’ve decided that they just won’t broadcast when they play the national anthem. We don’t like that.”
He did, however, take on football players who choose to kneel during the national anthem as a form of social justice protest.
“So while the players are kneeling — some of them, not all of them at all — you’re all proudly standing for out national anthem,” Trump said.
Trump effectively speaking to his base while ignoring scandal
His comments were met with cheers and applause from the West Virginia crowd.
As Trump continues to refer to the special counsel investigation into his administration as a “witch hunt,” — the same investigation that resulted in a guilty verdict on eight charges for Manafort in a U.S. District Court on Tuesday — he familiarly and effectively provides the distraction to his base that is the NFL anthem controversy.
As long as his most fervent supporters are responsive, Trump isn’t likely to remove the NFL from his crosshairs.
What’s next in anthem controversy?
By drawing attention from the actual playing of the national anthem, ESPN has taken the strategy that less exposure to the anthem controversy is better in a climate where a segment of its viewers demand that the network “stick to sports.”
While the decision put the network immediately in the line of Trump’s fire, it seems over the long run a decision that will reduce chances for flareups on the issue. Airing the anthem is far from standard practice, and the network only did so three times last season.
The decision seems unlikely to impact the NFL in its approach to the anthem. Some have suggested removing the anthem as a part of the pregame ritual as a means to rid the league of the controversy, pointing out that sports is the only entertainment venue where the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner is commonplace.
While the latter part of that argument is sensible, it is not feasible in today’s political climate for the league to end the ritual without significant uproar from the White House and its fan base. For now, the league is stuck with a largely self-created problem with no apparent fix.
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