Pittsburgh Penguins visit Trump at White House
Ever since they accepted an invitation to the White House to celebrate their 2017 Stanley Cup championship, the Penguins insisted their attendance did not constitute a political act.
On the surface, President Donald Trump appeared to agree with them.
Trump made no overtly partisan or political remarks during a 10-plus minute address congratulating them on their accomplishments Tuesday afternoon in the East Room.
In fact, Trump's remarks were not significantly different from the speech President Barack Obama made when he welcomed the Penguins last year to celebrate their 2016 championship.
Trump praised Sidney Crosby as a winner and Evgeni Malkin as big and strong. He asked Phil Kessel if his sister, Amanda, was really the best hockey player in the family, though he said he doubted it.
Trump spent a good portion of his speech offering condolences to the victims of and praising first responders to wild fires in California, last week's shooting in Las Vegas and recent hurricanes.
"Over the last couple of months, the New England Patriots, the Chicago Cubs and the NCAA champion Clemson Tigers football have all visited the White House to celebrate their great victories," Trump said. "It's been an honor to have them all here. Now, I want to proudly welcome the Pittsburgh Penguins."
The circumstances surrounding the visit, of course, were manifestly different.
Trump has engaged in public acrimony with professional athletes in recent months, saying that NFL players who kneel during the national anthem to protest police brutality and racial injustice should be fired.
As recently as Sunday, vice president Mike Pence walked out of an NFL game in Indianapolis when players took a knee during the national anthem.
Afterwards, coach Mike Sullivan was asked about the contention that merely appearing alongside Trump was an endorsement of the president's agenda.
"We don't believe that," Sullivan said. "We've stated clearly from the get-go that our visit to the White House is not political. Nobody's choosing a side. Nobody's taking a stand. We are simply honoring our championship and the accomplishments of this group of players over this last season, these last two seasons."
Sullivan was also asked if he would have a problem with any of his players kneeling during the national anthem.
"I would not," Sullivan said. "As we've stated all along, we understand the circumstance surrounding this visit. We're very respectful of anyone's right to protest or demonstrate as they see fit."
The Penguins did not make any players available for comment. Last year, Crosby and center Matt Cullen gave remarks after the team met Obama.
The most plainly political comment Trump made came when he introduced Penguins co-owner Ron Burkle as a great friend and a great negotiator.
"If you want to get involved in negotiating NAFTA, I like it," Trump said. "We're renegotiating NAFTA, Ron. Of course, he may not like that because maybe he's on the other side. That's what's happening. That's why it's so hard to re-do these trade deals. You're not on the other side of NAFTA, Ron, are you?"
"I am not," Burkle said.
Other Trump remarks could have been deemed partisan or political with a degree of reading between the lines.
In praising the team's fans, Trump might have made a veiled reference to his victory over Hillary Clinton in Pennsylvania last November.
"Great fans. Great state. Great place," Trump said.
In praising the charity efforts of the Pittsburgh Penguins Foundation, Trump complimented the team's patriotism.
"Just as much as your five Stanley Cup wins, your generosity has shown the true character of this incredible organization," Trump said. "You are true, true champions and incredible patriots."
Watch the entire event:
Big ovation when Kris Letang is introduced— Jonathan Bombulie (@BombulieTrib) October 10, 2017
Trump: Very handsome group of people. I don't like standing in front of them. We always like unattractive teams.— Jonathan Bombulie (@BombulieTrib) October 10, 2017
Trump to Murray: I hear you have good reflexes.— Jonathan Bombulie (@BombulieTrib) October 10, 2017
The Penguins have entered the East Room to an ovation.— Jonathan Bombulie (@BombulieTrib) October 10, 2017
Actual view from the press area. I just put the camera behind the fern for effect. pic.twitter.com/uGihFxzrns— Jonathan Bombulie (@BombulieTrib) October 10, 2017
Trump wraps up his remarks. Nothing overtly partisan or political.— Jonathan Bombulie (@BombulieTrib) October 10, 2017
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter at @BombulieTrib.