WASHINGTON — President Trump threatened on Tuesday to use federal tax law to penalize the National Football League over players who kneel in protest during the national anthem as he sought to escalate a political fight that has resonated with his conservative base.
In one of a series of combative early morning tweets, Trump said that Congress should eliminate a law that has allowed the NFL central office to avoid paying taxes as a nonprofit entity. “Why is the NFL getting massive tax breaks while at the same time disrespecting our Anthem, Flag and Country?” he wrote. “Change tax law!”
The tax break for the NFL has been a point of controversy for years, and other conservatives have taken up the cause in recent weeks as the president has repeatedly assailed the league over the player protests. But the idea would be more about symbolism than impact. The tax break applies only to the central office, not the teams, which already pay taxes as for-profit organizations, and the NFL voluntarily gave up the tax exemption for its league office in 2015.
Trump on Tuesday also focused his fire again on Jemele Hill, the “SportsCenter” host on ESPN who previously called the president a white supremacist. Hill was suspended Monday for suggesting that fans boycott advertisers of the Dallas Cowboys after the team owner, Jerry Jones, threatened to bench players who knelt during the national anthem.
“With Jemele Hill at the mike, it is no wonder ESPN ratings have ‘tanked,’ in fact, tanked so badly it is the talk of the industry!” Trump wrote on Twitter.
ESPN has faced significant challenges recently and is now available in just under 88 million homes, compared to 100 million homes in 2011. In the first half of 2017, its prime-time ratings were up 1 percent compared to 2016, although its total day ratings were down more than 5 percent. But ESPN is still a ratings behemoth and still highly profitable. In the third quarter, it led full-time cable networks in total day and prime-time ratings among key demographics, men ages 18 to 54.
In a conference call with reporters Tuesday, Joe Lockhart, the NFL spokesman, said the league receives no “massive” tax breaks, as Trump contended.
Regarding the player protests, Lockhart said the league’s 260-page game operations manual has not changed and he highlighted the precise language governing the anthem. The players, he said, “must” be on the sidelines during the playing of the anthem and “should” stand for the anthem. The league, however, has “not chosen to discipline any of the players” who have not stood for the anthem, he said.
That might change next week, though, when the owners meet in New York, where the anthem protests will be on the agenda. Commissioner Roger Goodell and the owners want the players to stand “because we think it’s an important part of the game,” Lockhart said, and “there’s a strong feeling at every level that we ought to be getting back to football.”
Also Tuesday, the president honored the Stanley Cup winning Pittsburgh Penguins, calling them ‘‘true champions and incredible patriots.’’
He invited the Penguins a day after disinviting the Golden State Warriors of the NBA because its star, Stephen Curry, said he would vote against attending.
Meanwhile, Trump escalated his attack on Senator Bob Corker on Tuesday by ridiculing him for his height, even as advisers worried that the president was further fracturing his relationship with congressional Republicans just a week before a vote critical to his tax cutting plan.
Trump gave Corker, a two-term Republican from Tennessee and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a derogatory new nickname — “Liddle Bob” — after the two exchanged barbs in recent days. He suggested Corker was somehow tricked when he told a reporter from The New York Times that the president was reckless and could stumble into a nuclear war.
“The Failing @nytimes set Liddle’ Bob Corker up by recording his conversation,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “Was made to sound a fool, and that’s what I am dealing with!”
In labeling Corker “liddle,” the president was evidently returning to a theme. He considered Corker for secretary of state during the transition after last year’s election but was reported to have told associates that Corker, at 5-foot-7, was too short to be the nation’s top diplomat. Instead, Trump picked Rex Tillerson, who is several inches taller but whose own relationship with the president has deteriorated to the point that he was said to have called Trump a “moron.”
Tillerson initially did not deny it, but later had a spokeswoman insist he did not say it. The president, in an interview with Forbes magazine released on Tuesday, said that even if it were true, he was at least smarter than Tillerson.
“I think it’s fake news,” he said. “But if he did that, I guess we’ll have to compare IQ tests. And I can tell you who is going to win.”
The White House said Tuesday that Trump was joking when he appeared to question his secretary of state’s intelligence.