WASHINGTON — President Trump reignited his feud with the NFL on Sunday by telling Vice President Mike Pence to walk out of a game in his home state of Indiana after nearly two dozen players from the visiting San Francisco 49ers knelt during the playing of the national anthem.
Pence lavishly documented his early departure in a series of tweets and an official statement issued by his office. On Twitter, he declared, “I left today’s Colts game because @POTUS and I will not dignify any event that disrespects our soldiers, our Flag, or our National Anthem.”
I left today's Colts game because @POTUS and I will not dignify any event that disrespects our soldiers, our Flag, or our National Anthem.— Vice President Pence (@VP) October 8, 2017
While the vice president portrayed his decision as a gesture of patriotic principle, it had the distinct appearance of a well-planned, if costly, political stunt. He doubled back from a trip to the West Coast to take a seat in the stands in Indianapolis, where the 49ers — the team most associated with the NFL protest movement against racial injustice — were suiting up to play the Colts.
Shortly after Pence issued his statement, Trump said on Twitter, “I asked @VP Pence to leave stadium if any players kneeled, disrespecting our country. I am proud of him and @SecondLady Karen.”
For Trump, the vice president’s walkout keeps alive a dispute that has proved popular with his political base, even if he has drawn criticism from the NFL and some of its owners for being divisive and politicizing professional sports. On Sunday, a spokesman for the NFL, Joe Lockhart, declined to comment.
Some criticized Pence’s walkout as transparently premeditated. The vice president did not take a pool reporter traveling with him into the stadium; a member of Pence’s staff told the reporter that the vice president might be leaving the game early.
“Manipulation of faux patriotism took new turn today with VP Pence. Preplanned early exit from Colts game after 49ers kneeled, then tweets,” Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, wrote on Twitter.
Others pointed out the expense involved: Pence flew to Indianapolis from Las Vegas, where he had attended a memorial service for victims of last Sunday’s mass shooting, and was immediately flying back to Los Angeles.