Trump says NFL players protesting racial injustice don’t have ‘a real issue’

Colin Kaepernick #7 and Eric Reid #35 of the San Francisco 49ers kneel in protest during the national anthem prior to playing the Los Angeles Rams in their NFL game at Levi's Stadium on September 12, 2016 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump has spent the better part of a year trying to demonize NFL players who kneel during the National Anthem, and on Friday, he opened a new line of attack, telling Fox News the protesters, who are trying to raise awareness about racial injustice, don’t “have a real issue.”

Since late last summer, Trump has threatened the league over the protests, suggested the players shouldn’t be in the country, praised sports he says are more patriotic. The list goes on.

The league recently addressed his criticism with a new policy that mandates said players not wishing to stand must stay in the locker room or subject their whole team to a fine.

Trump kept on his criticism anyway, saying players shouldn’t be allowed to “escape to the locker room.”

When several Philadelphia Eagles were not going to visit the White House to celebrate their Super Bowl championship, he disinvited the team and tried to make it because of Anthem protests, even though no Eagles knelt last year (some did raise fists).

Last week, after he commuted the sentence of a nonviolent drug trafficker who had the backing of reality show doyenne Kim Kardashian West, Trump invited NFL players to offer their own suggestions as to who he should let out of jail. That’s beside the point of a larger criminal justice reform effort that seeks to reduce sentence guidelines. In fact, Trump’s attorney general has tried to crack down and pursue the harshest sentences possible under current law.

Regardless, Trump likes the power of being able to wipe someone’s slate clean and he complained to Fox News anchor Steve Doocy on Friday that he hasn’t heard from any players nominating people to be pardoned.

But he went a step further and offered a window into his thinking on the entire issue of racial justice when he explained he doesn’t think the NFL players have “a real issue” in the first place.

The entire exchange is worth reading because it illustrates exactly the disconnect between the players, who are protesting the systemic treatment of people of color, and Trump, who wants to do favors for an individual:

Doocy: You mentioned NFL players, some taking a knee. Would you like to hear some of the stories of people who you should pardon? You mentioned professional athletes. Have you heard from any of them?

Trump: No, I haven’t heard. They are all saying it has nothing to do with the flag. The way we’ve been treated. Meantime they’re making $15 million a year. I’m all for the athletes. I think it is great. I love athletics, I love sports, but shouldn’t get politics involved. When you’re in a stadium, broadcast national — you should be proud and have your hand up, do everything that is right and play really tough football. Once you leave the stadium, go do whatever you want to do. Run for office, do whatever. But I did say, you know I have this tremendous power of pardon and Kim Kardashian came in and woman 22 years in jail.

Doocy: People can’t believe you would be listening to Kim Kardashian.

Trump: I did. I don’t know her. I met her. She is really nice, I have to say, and very capable. But she came in and she said this is very unfair situation. I looked at (Alice Johnson). I agree. She is in there for 22 years. She got another 20 years to serve. You have drug dealers doing big stuff and they get two month sentence. It was just unfair. And I thought it was a beautiful scene when that woman left prison and ran over to, looked like her grandkids. A couple of big strong guys, big strong guys. Some wonderful women. They’re all hugging, kissing everyone is crying. To me that was a beautiful scene. She thanked but you know, thank Kim because I wouldn’t have known about it.

I told the NFL players indirectly, I said you have somebody — they’re saying people are aggrieved. Let me know about it I will look at it. If they’re aggrieved I will pardon them. Steve: I’m shocked you haven’t heard.

Trump: Maybe they called the staff I have not personally heard from one. I don’t think it’s a real issue. I don’t think it’s a real issue.

The thing is, anthem protest provocateur Colin Kaepernick, who hasn’t been able to find work as a quarterback since Trump set his sights on the NFL, never explained them as being to get freedom from prison for a single — or even 3,000 — drug offenders. It was much larger than that.

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick said back in August of 2016 at the beginning of his effort. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

The teams and players that took up the baton similarly were not advocating for individuals.

“We will not stand for the injustice that has plagued people of color in this country. Out of love for our country and in honor of the sacrifices made on our behalf, we unite to oppose those that would deny our most basic freedoms,” Seattle Seahawks players said in a joint statement when they stayed in the locker room during the locker room a year later.

In October last year, a group of activist players, including the Eagles’ Malcolm Jenkins wrote a very strong piece for CNN under the headline Behind ‘take a knee’ lies this racial injustice.

It’s about a specific element of racial injustice related to criminal justice and bail. They cited statistics that show people of color are more likely to be kept in jail awaiting trial because they can’t afford to get out.

“A system that keeps people locked up because of poverty is morally reprehensible,” wrote Jenkins, Anquan Boldin, Doug Baldwin and Eric Reid. “It also has outsized effects. As people sit in jail awaiting trial, they lose their jobs. When they don’t earn an income, they can’t pay their rent, buy their family food or make car payments.”

That’s advocating for a specific policy change that has nothing to do with pardons. But to Trump, apparently, it isn’t a real issue.

When he invited NFL players to nominate candidates for his clemency, he said the White House is looking at 3,000 potential applications.

There were more than 2 million adults in state and federal prisons in 2016, according to federal statistics. The number jumps to more than 6 million when you add in those on parole and probation.

And Trump, by his previous actions and those of the people in his White House, should know that this is a real issue.

There’s a real bipartisan effort underway to do something about the criminal justice aspect of this and his son-in-law Jared Kushner is supposed to be playing a big role in it. Trump has even appeared to speak at a White House summit on prison reform. His remarks focused on helping former prisoners get jobs rather than easing sentencing, however.

This debate isn’t going anywhere.

NFL players are training for next season, which will kick off at the end of the summer. Meantime, you can bet Trump will continue bringing it up again and again, as he has been for more than a year. Defending the anthem from these racial injustice protests is, for Trump, an issue that is extremely real.

By Z. Byron Wolf, CNN