Trump Won't Let NFL Row Go, Drags In Chief of Staff Over CNN Report

Donald Trump continued his running battle with the NFL Monday night, dragging Chief of Staff John Kelly and CNN into the debate.

".@CNN is #FakeNews. Just reported COS (John Kelly) was opposed to my stance on NFL players disrespecting FLAG, ANTHEM, COUNTRY. Total lie!" Trump tweeted late Monday.

CNN had claimed in a report Monday evening that Kelly, a former United States Marine, was "not pleased" with the way Trump's comments erupted into a fight over the weekend between the president and the country's biggest sports leagues, including the NFL and NBA. At a rally in Alabama Friday, Trump spoke of his desire to see NFL owners "fire" NFL players who kneel during the national anthem, a gesture that has become widespread since former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick first performed it in a regular-season game last September in protest at the mistreatment of minorities in the United States.

Kelly, whose son Robert Michael was killed in combat in Afghanistan in 2010, told CNN Monday night he believed players should stand for the anthem. "I believe every American, when the national anthem is played, should cover their hearts and think about all the men and women who have been maimed and killed," Kelly said.

Trump's comments—he also attacked Stephen Curry, the Golden State Warriors point guard, on Twitter on Saturday by rescinding his invitation to visit the White House—have drawn widespread condemnation from inside the NFL. Commissioner Roger Goodell called them "divisive," while the players made their point during Sunday's games.

The Pittsburgh Steelers, with the exception of Alejandro Villanueva, refused to leave the locker room during the national anthem, while the Baltimore Ravens and Jacksonville Jaguars knelt for the Star Spangled Banner before their game at Wembley Stadium in London. On Monday Night Football, the Dallas Cowboys and owner Jerry Jones knelt briefly but stood for the anthem, with the Cowboys and home-town Arizona Cardinals linking arms during the anthem. Jones had previously voiced his belief in "respect for the American flag."

The White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, spent the first part of her press briefing Monday answering questions on Trump's row with the NFL. "It's always appropriate for the president of this country to promote our flag, to promote the National Anthem, and ask people to respect it," Sanders said in defense of Trump, who himself claimed Monday that his comments had "nothing to do with race."

Sanders also, somewhat confusingly, appeared to suggest NFL players should "protest officers on the field" rather than the American flag. "I think if the debate for them is really about police brutality they should protest the officers on the field that are protecting them instead of the American flag," she said in quotes reported by Variety, later clarifying, "That if the goal is and the message is police brutality which they have stated, then that doesn't seem very appropriate that they would protest the American flag."

Trump was not finished at one tweet, sending out another two minutes later refuting CNN's story. "General John Kelly totally agrees w/ my stance on NFL players and the fact that they should not be disrespecting our FLAG or GREAT COUNTRY!"

In a more general tweet returning to his theme of the NFL losing popularity over the protests, Trump ended his barrage with: "Tremendous backlash against the NFL and its players for disrespect of our Country." Trump vs. the National Football League shows no sign of abating any time soon.