WASHINGTON — President Trump surrounded himself with New England Patriots Wednesday at the White House but pulled the focus away from the NFL champions by talking about himself as much as their come-from-behind Super Bowl victory.
Yes, Trump was presented with a silver Patriots helmet and a team jersey emblazoned with his name. A row of Lombardi Trophies stood shining on the South Lawn.
But overt politicking, the conspicuous absence of star quarterback Tom Brady and other players, and Aaron Hernandez’s shocking apparent suicide in prison Wednesday undermined the tone of an event that is typically much lighter and more positive.
Trump and team owner Robert Kraft ignored Hernandez’s death. And the president — apparently taking Brady’s absence as a personal snub — snubbed the superstar quarterback in turn by never mentioning his name or his phenomenal role in the Patriots’ success.
Instead, in brief and subdued remarks, Trump reminded the country about his own come-from-behind election victory from five months ago, name-dropped the late Yankees owner George Steinbrenner (calling him “a very good friend of mine”), made a joke about pundits being wrong, and offered a recycled anecdote about how Patriots coach Bill Belichick had written a fawning letter that helped him “do very well” in New Hampshire (Trump lost the state).
“Whether you’re trying to win a Super Bowl or rebuild our country, as coach Belichick would say, there are no days off,” Trump said, drawing winning parallels between his administration and the Patriots’ stunning run of championships.
“The Patriot coaches and these great players have delivered iconic American sports moments that will last forever. We’re going to watch that game over and over and over. That game will last forever,” Trump said. “No team has been this good for this long.”
The Patriots visit was part of a tradition of presidents welcoming championship teams to the White House, a fairly routine event that’s meant to be a break from the grind of Washington to recognize apolitical achievement. But the rituals and routines of the White House have been disrupted by Trump — sometimes intentionally, sometimes not.
Trump tweeted about the visit Wendesday night:
On Wednesday Trump heaped praise on the Patriots, but even as he recognized players by name, he sent a not-so-subtle message: He only mentioned the Super Bowl plays and accomplishments of players who were either at the event or expected to be there.
The Trump narrative included a call out to wide receiver Danny Amendola, who dropped out at the last minute for a funeral. “Where’s Danny? Where’s Danny?” Trump asked.
Amendola posted on social media a photo of himself working out at the gym. “Thanks for the shout out,” he wrote.
With his turn at the podium, Kraft gave Trump a political boost.
“This year’s championship was achieved after falling behind by 25 points,” said Patriots owner Robert Kraft. “In that same year, a very good friend of mine for over twenty-five years, a man who is mentally tough and hard-working as anyone I know, launched a campaign for the presidency against 16 career politicians facing odds almost as long as we faced.”
Kraft’s generosity to Trump extends beyond his glowing words. Federal disclosure documents filed Wednesday morning revealed that the team owner donated $1 million to Trump’s Presidential Inaugural Committee, which raised a jaw-dropping $106.7 million for the ceremonies, which was double President Obama’s 2009 mark.
Two players who spoke briefly to reporters after the ceremony declined to discuss the Hernandez death, saying they did not overlap on the team roster with him.
Malcolm Mitchell, a wide receiver, also declined to talk about the players who boycotted the ceremony for political reasons, saying simply that he made a different decision.
“I’ve never been to the White House,” Mitchell said. “I wanted to visit.”
At least five members of the team boycotted the ceremony because of Trump’s policies or practices. Thirty-four members of the 63-man roster attended.
Brady was the most surprising absence. He announced that he wouldn’t attend via a statement released Wednesday morning.
“In light of some recent developments I am unable to attend today’s ceremony as I am attending to some personal family matters,” Brady wrote. Brady’s mother has been sick.
But his wife, Gisele Bündchen, drew a strong hint of politics into the equation when she took to Twitter, shortly before the White House ceremony, and encouraged people to attend a march in Washington next weekend to protest Trump’s environmental policies.
“March for climate, jobs, and justice. To change everything, we need everyone,” Bündchen tweeted, including a link providing information for the People’s Climate March.
Brady also didn’t attend the 2015 White House ceremony when Barack Obama was president. The quarterback also cited family reasons that time, but he was spotted in Boston buying a watch that day. Obama, in 2015, recognized Brady despite his absence, calling him an “all-time great.”
Behind the scenes, the Patriots who did show up Wednesday received an apparently warm welcome. They were served lunch, got a tour of the White House, and met privately with Trump for about 30 minutes in the Oval Office.
Earlier in the day, as press secretary Sean Spicer was giving his daily briefing, Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski interrupted, entering the press room from a side door.
“Need some help?” Gronkowski asked Spicer.
Spicer, who grew up in Rhode Island and is a huge Patriots fan, looked genuinely surprised.
“I think I got this, but thank you,” Spicer said.
“Are you sure?” Gronkowski asked.
“All right, thanks, man. I’ll see you in a minute,” Spicer said.
The press secretary smiled from the podium and added, “OK, that was cool.”