- Mike Pence left Sunday’s game between the Indianapolis Colts and San Francisco 49ers after some players took a knee during the national anthem. Critics claim that the move was a political stunt. Trump’s campaign is fundraising off the controversy, Pence changed his background photo to him standing during the anthem, and Trump said he “asked” Pence to leave if any players protested during the anthem.
The White House has pushed back hard against accusations that Vice President Mike Pence’s early exit from Sunday’s NFL game between the Indianapolis Colts and San Francisco 49ers was a political stunt.
But a number of actions before and in the day that followed Pence’s early exit – which he made after roughly 20 49ers players knelt for the national anthem – have made it appear to be such a stunt.
Pence initially said in a statement following his departure that he left “because President Trump and I will not dignify any event that disrespects our soldiers, our flag, or our national anthem.” But shortly after that, President Trump tweeted that he had in fact “asked” Pence to leave the game if any players knelt.
“I asked @VP Pence to leave stadium if any players kneeled, disrespecting our country,” Trump tweeted. “I am proud of him and @SecondLady Karen.”
The Colts’ opponents, the 49ers, happened to be the team that quarterback Colin Kaepernick played for when he began the kneeling protest roughly two seasons ago. Kaepernick first knelt during the national anthem as a way of protesting the treatment of black Americans in the US, and some 49ers players have continued to take a knee during the anthem since Kaepernick – who is no longer with the team – first did.
Following the game, Eric Reid, a safety on the 49ers, said Pence’s early exit looked “like a PR stunt to me,” adding that he “knew” 49ers players would kneel during the anthem.
“He knew our team has had the most players protest,” he said. “He knew that we were probably going to do it again.”
Additionally, observers noted following Pence’s departure that the exit appeared to be premeditated. As NBC News’ Peter Alexander reported, pool reporters were told to stay behind in the van because “there may be an early departure from the game.”
Shortly after Pence’s initial statement, his office promoted a photo of him holding his hand over his heart during the anthem. Pence soon made that photo the background picture on his official vice presidential Twitter account.
And on Monday, the Trump campaign solicited contributions in an email that highlighted the blowback Pence received for his early exit from the game.
In an email with the subject line “VP under fire for standing for ???????? ,” the Trump campaign wrote that the 49ers’ “stunt showed the world that they don’t believe our flag is worth standing for.”
“Your Vice President REFUSED to dignify their disrespect for our anthem, our flag, and the many brave soldiers who have died for their freedoms,” the email continued.
“Friend, I was so proud of the Vice President. But immediately after the Vice President’s honorable display of leadership and patriotism, the Fake News Media relentlessly ATTACKED him. The media is NOT going to win this fight, because we have the AMERICAN PEOPLE standing on our side.”
The campaign solicited contributions of $5, $35, $50, $75, $100, and $250 in the email.
Pence’s office told CNN that the vice president’s trip to the Colts game was planned far in advance because former Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning was set to be honored at the game.
Pushing back on claims that the move was a political stunt, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway told the hosts of the Fox News morning show “Fox & Friends” that the suggestion was “truly outrageous.”
“To refer to someone who’s standing up for the flag and all it represents to hundreds of millions of Americans and all it signals to the world, our veterans, our unity, the sounding of our great nation – to call that a political stunt is truly outrageous, egregious, and offensive,” she said.