Trump calls NFL kneeling 'disgraceful,' disrespectful to veterans

President Trump doubled down Tuesday on his criticism of NFL players kneeling during the national anthem, calling the protests “disgraceful” and blatantly disrespectful to veterans who fought for flag and country.

“I don’t think you can disrespect our country, our flag, our national anthem,” Trump said at a Rose Garden press conference.

The president, in response to criticism in the media, insisted he was not preoccupied with the controversy – and is focusing instead on the federal government’s hurricane response in the Caribbean.

But explaining his decision to speak out on the anthem protests, Trump cited all those who have died or been injured fighting for the United States.  

“They were fighting for our country, they were fighting for our flag, they were fighting for our national anthem,” he said, referring to injured soldiers he’s visited at Walter Reed. “For people to disrespect that by kneeling during the playing of our national anthem I think is disgraceful.”

Echoing an earlier tweet, he said the NFL should not allow players to kneel, saying he was “ashamed” by the protests.  

Meanwhile, Trump said “we are totally focused” on storm recovery.

After announcing earlier in the day he’ll head to storm-ravaged Puerto Rico next Tuesday, he said in the Rose Garden that he’ll also visit the U.S. Virgin Islands.

“We’re doing everything in our power to help the hard-hit people in both places,” Trump said. “… We will get through this.”

The president spoke during a joint press conference with visiting Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.

His comments on the NFL mark the latest turn in a rapid-fire debate over anthem protesters that kicked up last Friday when Trump said football players disrespecting the flag should be “fired.” Specifically, he said NFL owners should push to “get that son of a b---- off the field.”

The president’s remarks touched off an escalating standoff with team owners and players alike, with hundreds kneeling or locking arms or even sitting out the anthem entirely since Friday.

Earlier Tuesday, Trump called on the NFL to change its own rules to prohibit kneeling during the national anthem, while swiping at the Dallas Cowboys after the team -- along with owner Jerry Jones -- kneeled before the anthem ahead of their game against the Arizona Cardinals on Monday night.

Trump said there is "great anger" in the stands over these spectacles. 

The president covered a wide range of other topics in Tuesday’s press conference, including North Korea.

Following a new series of threats from Pyongyang, Trump warned that the U.S. is “totally prepared” for a military option, though that is not the preferred course.

“If we take that option, it will be devastating … for North Korea. That’s called a military option, if we have to take it, we will,” he said.

Of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Trump said, “He’s saying things that should never, ever be said.”

Trump was meeting with Rajoy, meanwhile, to discuss several common concerns including trade and the fight against terrorism.

Spain last month was the victim of attacks that killed 16 people in the tourist haven of Barcelona and a nearby town. The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attacks.

Trump said Tuesday they are "very, very unified in the fight."

Trump also mentioned his desire to renegotiate trade deals the U.S. has with other countries, but suggested that isn't the case with Spain.

On trade, Trump says he's had a "good nine months" with Spain.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.