This was supposed to be a big week for President Trump.
His hopes of repealing and replacing Obamacare hang in the balance. He’s set to push a major tax reform plan. He’s campaigned hard for a Republican candidate whose Alabama primary race is on Tuesday. And he’s trying to project strength and efficiency as his administration grapples with the aftermath of hurricanes in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico – and the nuclear threat from North Korea.
So what’s Trump talking about at the start of this critical week?
More from USA Today:
Analysis: Trump’s approach to sports breaks with long bipartisan tradition
Sanders on Trump’s NFL insults: ‘It’s always appropriate’ for president to defend flag
Equifax CEO retiring amid cyberbreach fallout
So far, Trump appears to be forgoing a closing argument on his policy proposals – and instead escalating his feud with the National Football League and superstar athletes. Ever since he called football players who sit or kneel during the national anthem “sons of b—–” at a rally on Friday and encouraged the NFL to fire them for their political protest, Trump has perpetuated the controversy – for four straight days.
Trump has tweeted or retweeted comments about the NFL flap at least 18 times since Saturday morning. Star football and basketball athletes have in turn accused Trump of racially charged threats to free speech – and the squabble playing out over Twitter and the news media is dwarfing his message on the rest of his agenda.
That may be the plan, some analysts said, because many of those other issues aren’t going so well.
“Trump will always change the subject if there’s something bad going on,” said Republican strategist Rich Galen.
Others said it’s just Trump being Trump – responding to whatever catches his eye. “I think it’s classic Trump, listening to his gut and letting it rip,” said Ari Fleischer, former press secretary to Republican President George W. Bush.
Whatever his motivation, Trump is ensuring that his feud with pro sports is getting a stadium full of attention at a pivotal time for an administration facing low approval ratings, political divisions among Republicans, and even threats of war over North Korea.
In the Senate, Republicans are struggling to round up enough votes behind a plan to repeal and replace President Barack Obama’s health care law. The Republicans are racing against the clock. After Sept. 30, the chamber’s rules change and lawmakers won’t be able to pass a new bill with just 50 votes. This is critical, since past health care efforts to overhaul health care have failed even with 52 Republicans.
A health care success could give Trump legislative momentum as he lobbies for a tax reform; a defeat could make it that much tougher. Trump is launching a national tour of political battleground states to promote a package to reduce the corporate tax rate and simplify the tax code. On Wednesday, he is scheduled to visit Indiana to discuss tax reform.
Trump himself faces a big political test on Tuesday, in a political primary race taking place in a hotbed for college football: Alabama.
The president has gone out of his way to back Sen. Luther Strange, who was appointed to the seat after Trump named Jeff Sessions as attorney general. Strange is opposed Roy Moore, who is backed by prominent Trump supporters such as former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin and former White House senior adviser Steve Bannon.
Polls give Moore an edge – and a Strange loss would deal Trump a defeat in his personal efforts to reshape the Republican Party.
In his remarks to at the rally, Trump said he was taking a “big risk” with his endorsement of Strange “because if Luther doesn’t make it they’re going to go after me” and argue he has no political strength.
“I might have made a mistake and I’ll be honest I might have made a mistake. Because, you know, here’s a story, if Luther doesn’t win, they’re not going to say we picked up 25 points in a very short period of time,” he said. “They’re going to say Donald Trump, the president of the United States, was unable to pull his candidate across the line. It is a terrible, terrible moment for Trump. This is total embarrassment. I mean, these are bad people.”
Yet Trump’s support for Strange on Friday night in Huntsville were not what generated the headlines from the rally. Instead, there was one epic line that’s still circulating on the media: “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say get that son of a bitch off the field right now? Out! He’s fired! he’s fired!” Trump told a cheering crowd.
Trump’s follow-up tweets throughout the weekend – including one in which he uninvited pro basketball champions Golden State Warriors to the White House – drew hits from a succession of pro athletes. They ranged from basketball’s LeBron James, who called Trump a “bum,” to football’s Tom Brady, who said Trump’s comments were “just divisive.”
The sports question dominated the White House press briefing on Monday. Pressed about whether Trump went too far by using the words “sons of b—-,” spokeswoman Sarah Sanders repeatedly deflected, insisting it was “always appropriate” for the president of the United States to defend the American flag and national anthem.
“Look, this isn’t about the president being against anyone,” she said. “But this is about the president and millions of Americans being for something, being for honoring our flag, honoring our national anthem and honoring the men and women who fought to defend it.”
It’s not just domestic policy challenges that Trump is facing this week. Trump went to the United Nations last week to confront North Korea over its nuclear weapons program. Describing Kim Jong Un as “Rocket Man,” Trump said the North Korean leader is risking “suicide” if it attacks the United States or its allies in Asia – and raised the specter of nuclear warfare.
On Monday in New York, North Korean foreign minister Ri Yong Ho told reporters his country regards Trump’s comments as a declaration of war. “Since the U.S. declared war on our country, we will have every right to make countermeasures, including the right to shoot down the U.S. bombers even when they are not yet inside the airspace border of our country,” he said.
Also hovering over the administration: An ongoing investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller into possible links between Trump’s team and Russians who sought to influence last year’s presidential election, and whether the president sought to obstruct justice by firing FBI Director James Comey.
“Don’t forget he’s got Mueller breathing down his neck,” Republican strategist Galen said.
Changing the subject has been a habit for Trump, whether it’s holding a 77-minute news conference in order to generate new headlines after firing National Security Adviser Michael Flynn or claiming there were millions of illegal voters after he lost the popular vote to Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Republican consultant Liz Mair, who worked with “Never Trump” organizations during last year’s campaign, said the bottom line is whether Trump has “successfully distracted his base” from bad news stories.
The NFL flap may look “stupid and ham-handed to a lot of Beltway consultant types,” Mair said, but remember: It could work for him because millions of Americans agree with his position.
“Ultimately, there’s a lot of data out there showing that sports fans really do rally to the national anthem,” Mair said. “If the numbers of players who take a knee rises and that’s perceived as anti-national anthem or anti-flag, it could become a big repetitional problem for the NFL and individual teams, fairly or not.”
Fleischer, who now runs a sports communications company, said Trump made a valid point in bad way, particularly with the reference to “sons of b—-.”
The flap surrounding his comments is the kind of thing that has happened before, he said, and will likely happen again.
“This has been the Trump candidacy and the Trump presidency for two years now,” he said. “It’s his style.”