A defiant President Trump said Sunday afternoon that the outrage over NFL players kneeling during the national anthem "has nothing to do with race," but rather is about "respect for our country."
Speaking on the tarmac in New Jersey before boarding Air Force One, Trump doubled down on his comments about the NFL and its players.
"This has nothing to do with race. I never said anything about race," Trump said. "This has to do with respect for our country and respect for our flag."
When asked if players who kneeled today should be fired as he suggested earlier, the president said, "I think the owners should do something about it. It's very disrespectful to our flag and our country."
Trump, however, noted that he "watched a little bit" of Sunday's football games, and said, "there was tremendous solidarity for our flag and for our country."
Top Trump administration officials defended the president's comments over the weekend.
"I think what the president is saying is that the owners should have a rule that players should have to stand in respect for the national anthem," Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told ABC News' "This Week." "This isn't about Democrats. It’s not about Republicans. It's not about race. It's not about free speech. They can do free speech on their own time.”
Trump touched off a firestorm Friday night at a political rally in Alabama when he said: "Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, 'Get that son of a b---- off the field right now.'"
NFL owners and league Commissioner Roger Goodell were among the first to disagree with Trump’s remarks.
But by Sunday, the overwhelming response by players was of full display, with many kneeling or locking arms during the playing of the anthem. Three teams chose to stay in their locker rooms.
On "Fox News Sunday," Marc Short, the White House director of legislative affairs, argued that players indeed have a First Amendment right to kneel, "but NFL owners also have the right to fire those players."
And he said he didn’t think Trump had "re-opened racial wounds."
Short also appeared to defend Trump for tweeting Saturday that he’d rescinded Golden State Warrior Stephen Curry’s invitation to a White House event honoring his team’s 2017 NBA championship, after Curry suggested a day earlier that he wouldn’t go.
"He’s the one who injected politics into the invitation to come to the White House," Short said. "That is what the president is reacting to. The president said fine, don’t come."
Short and Mnuchin each seemed to try to frame the issue as something larger than Trump’s views.
Short argued that high school coaches across the country are getting punished for leading their players in prayer.
"This is about respect for the military and first-responders in the country," Mnuchin argued.
Fox News' Jenn Bowman and Kristin Brown contributed to this report.