Return to Transcripts main page


NFL, NBA Players Blast Trump for Protest Criticism; Trump Threatens North Korea: "Won't Be Around Much Longer"; Trump: "Fire or Suspend" NFL Players Who Protest. Aired 7-8a ET

Aired September 24, 2017 - 07:00   ET


STEPHEN CURRY, NBA PLAYER: Just kind of beneath I think of a leader of a country to go that route.

[07:00:01] It's not what leaders do.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Black people, black athletes get attacked by people like you and the president of the United States when they have every right to be here!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Catcher Bruce Maxwell is believed to be the first Major League player to not stand during the national anthem.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Rocket man should have been handled a long time ago. We will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Now, he has tried to turn the U.N. arena into a gangster's nest where money is respected and bloodshed is the order of the day.

ANNOUNCER: This is NEW DAY WEEKEND with Victor Blackwell and Christi Paul.


VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning to you. Thanks for being with us.

Politics, patriotism and America's most popular support, they got all be together on the field when NFL Sunday kicks off in just a few hours in the NFL.

CHRISTI PAUL, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, it is the question swirling, not just in the sports world, but everywhere across the country. What's going to happen on the fields today before these games.

President Trump criticized players who, quote, take a knee during the national anthem and doing this in protest of racial inequality. That is the purpose of it. But this morning, as more NFL executives and athletes speak out, the controversial protest is spreading to another pro-sports league.

BLACKWELL: Also, listen to this from the president about North Korea. They won't be around much longer. The new threats coming after North Korea's foreign minister speaks out

at the U.N. saying President Trump's insults are pushing the countries closer to open war.

PAUL: And we're also following the latest on president's travel ban. It is set to expire today. There is a new ban on the day we're told. We're going to tell you how that could have impact your travel as well.

But, first, let's talk about President Trump addressing NFL players kneeling during the national anthem. He just issued this statement via Twitter. He said, if NFL fans refuse to go to games until players stop disrespecting our flag and country, you will see change take place fast, fire or suspend.

BLACKWELL: Coy Wire with CNN Sports joins us now.

A lot of people, of course, will be watching the moments before the games to see how many players will protest.

COY WIRE, CNN SPORTS CORRESPONDENT: Yes, and I reached out and talked to former players, current players, even general managers. And I could hear the discouragement in one of the general managers' voices to whom I spoke. He said his organization would never fire a player for kneeling as President Trump has seemingly suggested. His team has not had a player kneel in peaceful protest of racial injustice, but now, he says that might change. He said don't be surprised if there's entire sideline kneeling on NFL Sunday today.

So, let's take a look at the reaction that President Trump's profane remarks about athletes from the sports world yesterday. NBA star Chris Paul said, quote, with everything going on in our country, why are you focused on who's kneeling and visiting the White House? #stayinyourlane, unquote.

Now, CNN has obtained statements from 12 NFL franchises, a mix of owners and presidents who have spoken out in support of NFL players. San Francisco 49ers CEO Jed York said, in part, quote, in part: The callous ands offensive comments made by the president are contradictory to what his great country stands for. Our players have exercised their rights as United States in order to spark conversation and action to address social injustice, unquote.

Now, one of the biggest narratives among people with whom I've spoken and on social media, amongst athletes and celebrities yesterday is that President Trump referred to people marching in Charlottesville among whom were white supremacists as very fine people, yet called predominantly black athletes who have been peacefully protesting racial injustice, sons of you know what.

Here is NBA star Steph Curry commenting on that narrative.


CURRY: I don't know, you know, why he feels he needs to target certain individuals rather than others. I have an idea of why, but it's kind of -- just kind of beneath, I think, a leader of a country to go that route. It's not what leaders do.


WIRE: Those comments yesterday coming after, of course, President Trump uninviting the Warriors and Steph Curry from visiting the White House.

BLACKWELL: All right. So, Coy, we also saw NBA superstar LeBron James defend Steph Curry after the president revoked that White House visit.

WIRE: Yes. And let's remind our viewers of what LeBron James tweeted yesterday. He said, quote, going to a White House was a great honor until you showed up, unquote. Then later, yesterday, he explained in a video.


LEBRON JAMES, CLEVELAND CAVALIERS: It's basically at a point I'm kind of, you know, just a little frustrated, man. Just because this guy that we have put in charge has tried to divide us once again, and --


WIRE: So, there you have LeBron James and I think the theme here, we are seeing some of the biggest stars in the sports world going head- to-head with the biggest personality in politics, in world politics, guys.

[07:35:01] PAUL: All righty. Hey, Coy, I know the protests are spreading. Let's talk about a first we saw yesterday in Major League Baseball.

WIRE: Yes, it was Bruce Maxwell of the Oakland A's who kneeled with his hand over his heart before his game last night. Here he is commenting on that after the game.


BRUCE MAXWELL, OAKLAND ATHLETICS CATCHER: My hand over my heart symbolized the fact that I am and am forever an American citizen and more than grateful for being here. But my kneeling is getting the attention, because I'm kneeling for the people that don't have a voice. And this goes beyond the black community. This scope beyond the Hispanic community because right now, we are having an indifference and racial divide in all types of people.


WIRE: All right. We will keep our eye on reactions from the sports world as they come into us, specifically today. The NFL games, who will protest? How many will protest? How will they protest peacefully racial injustice in the NFL games? The first one at 9:30 playing in London in the NFL.

BLACKWELL: All right. Coy Wire, thank you very much. Joining me now, CNN politics reporter Stephen Collinson, and

Washington bureau chief of "The Chicago Sun-Times", Lynn Sweet.

Good morning to both of you.

All right. So, Steven, let me start with you. And I want to read again the president's first statement of the day via Twitter. If -- let me scroll up here, that was yesterday's statement.

He says: If NFL fans refuse to go to games until players stop disrespecting our flag and country, you will see change take place fast. Fire or suspend.

This sounds to me like the president of the United States is calling for a boycott of the NFL.

STEPHEN COLLINSON, CNN POLITICS REPORTER: I think that's exactly what it is, Victor. And I think the fact that he chose to begin his day with his tweet shows you that the president thinks this is a winning political issue for him, despite the controversy that he has whipped up over the last few days. I think what's interesting is that it shows us something about this president. First of all, when he likes to be in the thick of a fight, when he's in the fight, he never backs down.

But more broadly, this is the way that he -- this is his political method. Most presidents in the modern era have tried to use the presidency as a platform for unity or at least give the impression that they are blurring divisions. Throughout his campaign and throughout his presidency, Donald Trump has sort of settled over areas of racial or cultural discord and division in the country and used them to sort of, as a political tool, to reach out to his political base and to keep himself in the center of the news.

And I think that's something that's very interesting and something that's very different about this presidency.

BLACKWELL: Lynn, it's important also to, as we talk about what the president is tweeting, what he has not tweeted about. He has tweeted in the last, I guess, 24 hours three or four times now about this issue of protest during NFL games. I went and searched. The only time he tweeted about Nazis was not during or after what happened in Charlottesville, it was in comparing the U.S. intelligence community to Nazis.

He said nothing on Twitter about white supremacists to Nazis but he goes after the protests there in the NFL.

LYNN SWEET, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, CHICAGO SUN-TIMES: And also, let's say, you have -- you have turmoil in Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, the recovering hurricane victims in Texas and Florida, all of which might have been worthy of a tweet to try and at least rally some support, maybe some resources for them. Make a pitch to make a donation someplace. You know, I think the context of where and why he brought this up is also important to look at. There is a big election in Alabama to fill the seat of Jeff Sessions.

And there is a fight within the Republican Party going on. And President Trump took on the job of carrying a candidate who may not win Republican, Luther Strange, over the finish line. He was bringing this up at a rally to try and whip up his base, whip up the crowd for this Alabama election.

You know, I think if we look where this game -- this particular chapter of this -- if we could use the game analogy here started, it was getting this election done, you know, carrying his candidate. So, the -- what is -- what do we have as a result of this is this whole new divisive conversation that you're talking about and, yes, where he doesn't pay attention to the more important racially divisive issues stemming from Charlottesville than the peaceful protests over racial inequality by pro-football players.

BLACKWELL: So, Steven, unlike the broad, almost universal repudiation of the president saying that he saw some very fine people at a protest full of white supremacists and Nazis, in this attack on the players and their right to protest, he is invoking patriotism.

So, is there a political cost for the president in this back and forth with these athletes?

COLLINSON: There is a political cost because it makes it much more difficult for him to rise above that sort of 40 percent approval rating level that he's at, which could have political consequences down the road.

[07:10:09] But I think the president also believes that he is speaking for a large group of people who are concerned about these protests and people who do find them somewhat troubling. So, he believes, I suspect, that he is on solid political ground with people who are sympathetic toward him. But I think if you look at the polls the last few weeks, the president's approval rating has ticked up a little bit, basically, because of his handling of the hurricanes, signs that he was reaching out to Democrats on the debt ceiling issue, and the DACA bill.

So, I think there is evidence that people are prepared to give him a chance and actually there are some people that prefer the more moderate version of Donald Trump. But for either political reasons or temperamental reasons, the president doesn't believe that's the way it's best for him to conduct himself as a politician and as president.

BLACKWELL: Lynn, finally to you, and this is something that was brought up when Sarah Sanders, the White House press secretary, said that the comments from ESPN's Jemele Hill were viable offense, calling the president a white supremacist on Twitter. Is the president here breaking a law by calling for a boycott of the NFL or calling for the firing or suspension of the employees of a private company?

SWEET: He is not breaking the law, but he is seemingly not working, really understanding how these sports -- sports works with contracts. You have deals. He should understand there is a contract of employment and not standing during -- or kneeling or making some kind of protest, unless it's in a contract is not a fireable offense.

He shows either no understanding nor respect for the technical part, even if you wanted to fire someone, which I don't think really was his point. He wanted just to kind his signature, "you're fired", to fire up his base on this point.

But legal, I don't see how it could possibly be legal to fire an NBA, NFL, or Major League Baseball player over this unless it's in their contract. And so far, this is not a scenario I think really will happen. If anything, don't you think now that an owner would be loathe to discipline or fire any player just in the wake of what the president said?

BLACKWELL: And that's what our Coy Wire is hearing from some of these general managers and team owners.

Lynn Sweet, Stephen Collinson, thank you both.

SWEET: Thank you.

BLACKWELL: All right. So, this sparring verbally between the U.S. and North Korea, no signs of stopping there. President Trump tweets North Korean leaders won't be around much longer if they consider a strike against America. We are live with more of this, next.


[07:16:53] BLACKWELL: New this morning: President Trump and North Korea are continuing to trade this really tough talk. The president tweeting this threat after Pyongyang slammed him at the U.N. And here it is: Just heard foreign minister of North Korea speak at the U.N. If he echoes thoughts of little rocket man, they won't be around much longer.

PAUL: This is happening as U.S. bombers and fighters staged a show of force off the North Korean coast. And yesterday at the U.N., North Korea's foreign minister took issue with President Trump's threat to totally destroy North Korea. Listen to this.


RI YONG HO, NORTH KOREAN FOREIGN MINISTER (through translator): None other than Trump himself is on a suicide mission. If innocent lives in the U.S. are harmed because of this suicide attack, Trump will be held totally responsible.


PAUL: Joe Cirincione is president of Ploughshares Fund and author of a new book "Nuclear Nightmares".

We so appreciate you being here. Thank you.


PAUL: So, I want to ask you, first of all, about the president's tweet, they won't be around much longer. What exactly does that mean? Do we know what the president's plan for North Korea is?

CIRINCIONE: No. The president's strategy on North Korea is incoherent. It's hard to understand what he thinks he will gain from this course of action.

Look, I don't want to be alarmist here, but this is an extremely dangerous situation. We haven't been this close to war with North Korea in decades. The president's last four tweets attacked John McCain, the national football league, and North Korea. It seems to be a compulsion of his to act in this way.

The difference is, when he attacks football players, people will demonstrate. When he attacks North Korea, millions of people could die. It's getting worse, not because of what North Korea is doing, which is bad enough and which is -- which they shouldn't be doing, but because of the escalation that the president has introduced largely with his actions starting at the United Nations this week.

PAUL: Blaine Harden wrote an opinion piece today in "The New York Times" saying that North Korean offensive strike, that it's unlikely, unless they believe that their country's actual existence is at risk.


PAUL: How far do you think it will go? Do you really think that North Korea -- let me ask you that -- do you really think that North Korea would take a preemptive strike?

CIRINCIONE: No. And that's exactly right. Neither leader wants to strike the other. Neither leader wants to go to war.

It's similar to the situation in 1914 when great powers made military moves thinking it would cause the other side to back down and they didn't back down. And that's what's going on now.

These are two relatively inexperienced, impulsive military leaders in charge of a massive military force playing a game of nuclear chicken on the Korean peninsula. I don't think either one wants to start a war. The risk here is that we will stumble into a war. One of those American planes could stray too close to North Korea.

[07:20:01] There could be a North Korean commando who lets loose an artillery barrage at the wrong moment.

What if Kim Jong-un actually does fly a nuclear armed missile over Japan and explode an H-bomb in the Pacific as his foreign policy threatened to do this week? What's the Trump response?

It's this tit for tat is bringing the crisis up to a fever pitch that is what worries nuclear security experts around the world.

PAUL: Well, and it begs the question, how often can either of them, can President Trump or Kim Jong-un make threats like we are hearing without taking action? Because there is a credibility risk here.

CIRINCIONE: Big. That is exactly right. They call this the commitment trap. When you keep saying that you are going to do things, at some point, you have to do them or else you lose face, you lose credibility.

And so, the president -- I understand that in his briefings with his national security team, he keeps demanding military option. He thinks there is some quick option like his cruise missile strikes on Syria.

But North Korea is not Syria. You hit North Korea and they will strike back. The fear is that the president overrules his national security advisers and take a risk, just as he recovery overruled them in his speech at the U.N.

One of the most revealing stories is the one in "Los Angeles Times" yesterday. His senior aides did not want him to make these threats. They knew what would happen. They knew that this was risky behavior, but the president at the last minute put them back into the speech and made them at the U.N. podium and triggered this current, escalatory cycle.

PAUL: So, Joseph, is there a way to walk back from this for the president?

CIRINCIONE: Yes, but I have to tell you at this point the chance of negotiations are diminishing, particularly as he slams the Iran deal, an agreement that the United States made in good faith two years ago. The U.N. Security Council approved, he is threatening to pull out of the Iran deal, at the same time, he is, apparently, willing to still talk to North Korea. Why would you trust a president who would do those things?

So, the escalation, the attack on negotiated settlements make it very difficult for him to back down. Could he? Yes.

But you got to do this soon. If you have any intention of having a dialogue with North Korea, now would be a good time to start.

PAUL: All right. Joseph Cirincione, we so appreciate your input. Thank you for being with us.

CIRINCIONE: Thank you.

BLACKWELL: Well, here's the question: will it be prison or probation? Anthony Weiner's sentencing is scheduled for tomorrow for lewd sexual contact with a 15-year-old girl. Prosecutors are asking for 21 to 27 months in prison. Weiner admitted to sending graphic photos and having obscene video chats with the girl, but Weiner's attorney says that he is making progress and counseling and they're asking for probation.

PAUL: We'll be right back.


[07:27:21] PAUL: Hey. Thanks for spending time with us on this Sunday morning. I'm Christi Paul.

BLACKWELL: I'm Victor Blackwell. Good morning to you.

PAUL: So, the president of the United States appears to be hinting that fans should boycott the NFL. He is saying this morning.

BLACKWELL: Yes, issued a statement on Twitter early this morning: If NFL fans refuse to go to games until players stop disrespecting our flag and country, you will see change take place fast. Fire or suspend.

CNN White House correspondent Athena Jones live for us from Somerset, New Jersey, near where the president is spending the weekend.

Good morning to you, Athena.

And the president is quite vocal this morning about this fight with the NFL players.


That is exactly right. The president waking up a little over half an hour ago with the NFL and these anthem protests still on his mind. You just read the first tweet he sent out. He followed that tweet just a little while with another saying -- let's read the two tweets he put out.

If NFL fans refuse to go to games until players stopped disrespecting our flag and country, you will see change take place fast. Fire or suspend.

He followed up that tweet by the one you read earlier. NFL attendance and ratings are way down. Boring games but many stay away because they love our country. League should back U.S.

So, here you have the president waking up early, tweeting about this issue, continuing to press this issue. He is now encouraging protests against the NFL. And this is not something that is likely to make NFL team owners happy. He is encouraging people to protest the NFL peacefully in order to effect change and in this case, in order to get peaceful protesters who are players fired for protesting in a way he doesn't agree with.

So, he is doubling down on all of this. And this comes as the president is getting a lot of backlash, not just on social media, but also on the airwaves about this fight. He is picking with mostly black players who are protesting racial justice. You have a lot of folks saying, you know, why didn't we see this passion for him in response to the white supremacist who marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, last month? People are saying, why is the president cursing out these mostly black players in burglar terms while calling neo- Nazis and KKK supporters very fine people?

So, the big question for today is, will there be more protests in response to the president's actions? We saw a baseball player taking a knee for the first time in a recent game. We saw a performer, Stevie Wonder, taking two knees at a concert last night in solidarity with these protesters. And, of course, Victor, we can't read the president's mind or know his

motivations, but you have to believe he would not be pressing this issue if he didn't feel that it was somehow working in his favor.

[07:30:09] And despite all of the blowback he has gotten on social media, his fans, the folks in that Huntsville, Alabama, crowd, really seemed to eat up what he had to say on Friday night and seemed to be in agreement with his point of view. I think that's why or part of why we are seeing him continue to press this -- Victor.

VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Athena Jones there for us in Somerset, thanks so much.

CHRISTI PAUL, CNN ANCHOR: Here's a question: can an NFL player be fired for kneeling during the national anthem? Would it be legal? We're going to talk about that in just a moment. Stay close.


PAUL: All right. We want to get some clarity together for us here on what has been happening this morning.

[07:35:01] So, for that, let's go to Michael McCann, a legal analyst and writer for "Sports Illustrated", and CNN senior media correspondent Brian Stelter.

The president is tweeting, guys, about the NFL. Moments ago, this is what he said: If NFL fans refuse to go to games until players stop disrespecting our flag and country you will see the change take place fast. Fire or suspend.

First of all, Michael, is it legal for the president to entice a private entity to fire an employee?

MICHAEL MCCANN, LEGAL ANALYST & WRITER, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED: Well, I think the president ironically, has a First Amendment right here. He is complaining about another player exercising his First Amendment right but he, himself, has his own right to suggest changes. He can't compel the NFL to make that change or any team to --

PAUL: He can make the statements publicly but he couldn't go to the NFL and say you need to fire this person?

MCCANN: That's exactly right. It's a private company that's not under the discretion of the president or any elected official.

PAUL: So, that's first and foremost. The other tweet that he just put out there as well, a couple of minutes ago. NFL attendance and ratings are way down. Boring games, yes. But many stay away because they love our country. League should back the U.S.

Brian, is there any accuracy to that?

BRIAN STELTER, CNN SENIOR MEDIA CORRESPONDENT: I think it's false to say ratings are way down for the NFL. There have been some modest declines in the ratings in the last couple of years. It was actually the presidential election partially blamed last year. Folks were so interested in cable news coverage of the election.

Ratings might have been down a bit. Yes, some modest declines. The president said on Friday night the ratings are done massively. That's false. He said this morning way down. That's false.

The biggest shows on TV are all NFL games. So, yes, there are some issues for the NFL, but I don't think we can look at what's going on with the game or attendance and say, oh, yes, it's because fans hate those anthem protests, so many that they're fleeing by the millions. There are some things going on around the edges, but it's not a major disaster for the NFL.

PAUL: OK. Michael, if a player was fired for kneeling, is that legal?

MCCANN: It's probably legal because NFL teams have very broad discretion in terms of whether they can cut a player, but it's -- the analysis is deeper than that in the sense a player would have the right to arbitration to contest that, he could then file a federal lawsuit, trying to override an arbitrator's decision. There's also the EEOC, there maybe state laws that protect free speech, potentially defamation law plays a role. But the takeaway is that it's probably legal just because player contracts give teams so much discretion.

STELTER: And why is the president even bothering to tweet about this at all? I mean, Christi, I'm amazed that he is up tweeting about this this morning. He's got a health care bill that seems to be going down in flames again. Why isn't he spending 100 percent of his energy on that?

It's just -- it's a curious topic even though it's Sunday and everybody loves talk about football, for the president of the United States to be weighing in. It can have a chilling effect, even you can't compel a team to take action, it can have a chilling effect on free expression when you know the president is speaking out. Of course, the opposite is also true. We are going to see a lot of players today take a knee because they want to protest the president.

PAUL: Brian, I'll be honest with you. I notice the look on your face, victor. I think a minute ago when you were reading the tweets. We were telling you were trying to process what you were reading.

STELTER: We are always confused by his use of Twitter, right? Whether it's about North Korea or this. There are some big issues on the president's plate. He has got ongoing recovery efforts in Puerto Rico, for example.

I also oftentimes wonder if he is trying to get folks to talk about anything but Russia. But if I can just point out the president's Twitter power. His most prominent popular tweet about sports yesterday was about Steph Curry. It has 60,000 retweets and 188,000 likes. LeBron James responding, LeBron had 600,000 retweets so far and 1.2 million likes.

The president does have power on Twitter, but actually, these athletes I would argue they have even more power on Twitter. PAUL: Michael, to that you say what?

MCCANN: He's right. Brian is correct. This is not going to work for the president in the sense that if his goal is to get the NFL or teams to sanction or fire players for kneeling, the opposite is going to happen because teams have already come out on record embracing this and even the commissioner.

Roger Goodell is not very popular among players. This, oddly enough, I think, is linking him more closely to players in support of the right to protest, and as Brian mentioned, if the president's goal was to diminish this activity, the option is going to happen. We are going to see more players kneeling and protesting even if they're not certain they agree with the underlying point, they agree with the right to express views.

And I don't think this is really the right approach. If the president wants to discourage this, I don't think this is going to work.

[07:40:02] PAUL: All right. Brian Stelter and Brian McCann, so great to have both of you here this morning with us. Thank you, gentlemen.

STELTER: Thanks.

BLACKWELL: Also, the backlash to the president's comments about protesting athletes now spreading to the entertainment industry. Stevie Wonder last night said and did this.


STEVIE WONDER, SINGER: Tonight, I'm taking a knee for America. But not just one knee. I'm taking both knees! Both knees in prayer for our planet, our future, our leaders of the world, and our globe.


BLACKWELL: Stevie Wonder who made that gesture just before the appearance of the Global Citizens Festival told the people there that he didn't come to preach, his word, but that our spirits must be in the right place all the time.

PAUL: And, again, President Trump doubling down this morning, contending that if you're a professional athlete who protest, you need to be fired or suspended. His rhetoric bridging the divide between sports and politics here.

A look at the broader impact on American culture with our next panel. You see these two gentlemen there. We are happy to have them here and they have a lot to say on the other side of the break.


PAUL: Sometimes you need a breather, right? You think let me take a walk and get away from it all. Well, what about taking a walk while you speak with a therapist? This is a growing trend. Walk and talk therapy. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

EDWARD ADAMS, THERAPY CLIENT: I can't tell you how I feel about something in 140 characters. I can, kind of.

DENICE CLARK, MARRIAGE AND FAMILY THERAPIST: Walk and talk therapy is what it sounds like. Rather than being enclosed, in an office space, the therapy session takes place outside while we walk. I mean, you know this is how I should be approaching it, and yet I am shutting that out right now.

For some clients, coming to therapy in an office setting is intimidating, and walking side by side, clients are more free to express themselves.

ADAMS: It makes me open up a little differently and makes the conversation seem more natural.

CLARK: I maintain their confidentiality. If we are too close to others, we will stop for a minute and let people pass.

ADAMS: I'm an outdoors guy by nature. I like to garden and I like being active. And so, this is just a natural fit for me. The park itself is really part of the therapy process. When I had therapy in the past, and you go into an office, it just feels sterile.

CLARK: When we're out walking, we're moving forward and it's the exact same thing we're doing in the therapeutic process. We're moving forward.



[07:47:00] BLACKWELL: President Trump's criticism of professional athletes is now starting a conversation that's extending beyond the sports world. The #takeaknee now the top trending topic on Twitter as supporters of those athletes, as well as those who back the president, are weighing in.

So, let's talk about it. CNN political commentators Marc Lamont Hill and Ben Ferguson are with us this morning.

The president, Ben, has tweeted about this anthem protest a half dozen times the last 24 hours. Not once about the 3 million people in Puerto Rico who have no clean running water. But you agree with the president. Tell us why.

BEN FERGUSON, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, first, I think it's very clear that the U.S. government is very much involved people and others when it comes to those in Puerto Rico. He did the same thing in Florida. I think you can tweet about a social issue and also focus on national disasters, which the president has been able to do in Florida, as well as in Texas.

I think the president has hit a chord here with a lot of Americans who have a real problem with the NFL right now. This is the same league that refused the Dallas Cowboys' request to honor the police officers that were slaughtered in Dallas and said, sorry, you cannot put a little decal on the back of your helmet for the game on Sunday after those police officers were murdered. Yet, at the same time, the NFL allows their players to disrespect the flag of the United States of America and every one who has protected and served this country.

I think you're going to see a big backlash on the ratings here, Victor. I think people are underestimating the power of people who have a remote control saying I'm not support ago league that literally allows their employees -- this is not an issue, I want to make this clear because people have been confusing this. You have the right to protest. You have the right to do this.

But when you work for a company, a company has a right to say that you can or cannot do this during work hours. No one is trying to take away these players' rights to do this. I think the NFL, it's an embarrassment that they are supporting disrespecting in this country, all races who protect and defend this country and every race in this country has had someone die for this country serving in our military and it's sad.

BLACKWELL: Let's go to Marc.

MARC LAMONT HILL, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, you know, I think this again, as Ben said, this is not a question of First Amendment. I'm a little surprised that Ben has this position around Donald Trump weighing in on Twitter. When President Obama weighed in on the Skip Gates controversy when a Harvard professor was arrested outside of his home and the president said that the police behaved stupidly, Ben and others said that they should -- that a president shouldn't be weighing in on these private matters, that there are bigger fish to fry.

I would imagine given North Korea, given Puerto Rico, given these other things, Donald Trump wouldn't be obsessed with this topic. I don't have an issue with him mentioning it, but he seems to be obsessed with the topic and taunting players and really weighing in on private matters.

The other thing here, though, is again, Ben's right. It's not about First Amendment. They have a right to do it. But I don't see that as disrespectful to the country, disrespectful to soldiers, disrespectful to people who served, if anything, it's an affirmation of the freedoms for which they allegedly fought, that is to say we are here to fight for freedom and justice.

[07:50:05] Colin Kaepernick's stood up or kneeled and said, hey, there is not freedom and justice in this country for all people. The vulnerable are under attack, there's state violence and we need to do something about it. And I think that the players standing in solidarity with him is a necessary thing. I hope that every NFL player this Sunday takes a knee, to stand up and push back.

And there is a huge difference, Ben, between an entire team putting a decal on their helmet and individual players exercising their rights here to express their political conscience. (CROSSTALK)

BLACKWELL: Hold on, hold on. Finish, Marc, quickly, please?

HILL: People act as if politics is injected to the NFL the moment you take a knee. Politics happens the moment you make all the players stand for the flag. Politics happens the moment you reaffirm wars of aggression by saluting the military at halftime. It's all political. It's just a question of which politics you support.

BLACKWELL: All right. Ben?

FERGUSON: It's not political -- first of all, it's not political to support the country that you're a citizen of and you live in and to honor those who have fallen, to protect and defend this country.

The second point that I have to make here, that is just -- I can't believe we're even having this discussion, is the fact that I -- these players --

BLACKWELL: I can't believe we're having the discussion, either, because there's so many other things that the president probably could be tweeting about, like the people in Puerto Rico, his health care bill, North Korea --

FERGUSON: But, Victor --

BLACKWELL: -- but he started his day with these two statements about athletes who were protests. But go ahead, Ben.

FERGUSON: And you can tweet about something about athletes. This is a hot-button issue. That's the reason why we're having this discussion right now.

BLACKWELL: It's a hot-button issue? This has been going on for more than a year. The president just injected this in Alabama to help Luther Strange.

FERGUSON: I think he talked about it in Alabama because I think he sees it as literally starting to be more and more cool factor around disrespecting this country and the flag and those who protect it. That's what a lot of people are saying around the country, Victor.

There's one other thing here. If these players actually do believe in what they're saying right now, then maybe they should do a couple of basic things. For example, Colin Kaepernick's didn't even vote in the last election and isn't even registered to vote. How many of these players walk out there because the camera is on them and they see a moment to be in the limelight and they see a moment to jump on Twitter, who didn't even vote in the election.

If you want me to respect your opinion, then actually back it up with being a registered voter, voting against Donald Trump. How many of these guys taking a knee voted against Donald Trump?

BLACKWELL: CNN has actually reported on President Trump's spotty voting record, but that has never stopped him from opining about everything under the sun. Marc, let me come back to you.

FERGUSON: He's registered!

BLACKWELL: Does this now become solely about the president today. That it dilutes the initial reason that these athletes took a knee?

HILL: I think no, quite the opposite. It's a galvanizing effort. I've got to respond real quick. Ben says, yeah, but Donald Trump is registered. Ben's point was that you have to vote to matter. And Donald Trump didn't vote. I don't know how registering --

FERGUSON: He's voted quite a few times in his life, let's not act --


BLACKWELL: He's voted quite a few times in his life. He's 71. Go ahead, Marc.

FERGUSON: Colin is not even registered. Think about that. It's a little ridiculous.

HILL: Ben, let me answer uninterrupted. There are many ways to protest this country. I don't want to reinforce suddenly this narrative that these players aren't doing anything. These players, particularly Colin Kaepernick, has donated over $1 million, he's worked on causes behind the scenes and in front of the camera.

And to suggest it's somehow an act of grandstanding and self-interest to do what Colin Kaepernick has done to me borders on absurd. His entire career stands in jeopardy or stands in the balance now because of the choices he's made. So, he's not as if this is some career- affirming move to do it, if anything.

FERGUSON: He walked from this from a guaranteed contract, though.

BLACKWELL: Let him finish, let him finish, let him finish. Marc, go ahead and finish.

HILL: First of all, Ben, again, these are half-truths. Even the San Francisco 49ers acknowledge that he walked away from that contract, if he had not opted out, they would have released him anyway. It was obviously a strategic move by the team.

He didn't just quit the NFL. That's just not true. And you know that as well I think, Ben, because you know about football.

FERGUSON: He had guaranteed cash.

BLACKWELL: Ben, let me ask you this question. Let me ask you this, you say that the president is bringing this up pause it's a hot topic and it's becoming, as you say, cool to disrespect the country.

But is the president not bringing this up because you go to a rally, you have to say something? He can't say, hey, look at my wall. He can't say, boy, we've really repealed Obamacare and the infrastructure bill is moving along and the tax reform bill is moving along. That this is just the president shouting squirrel because some of his agenda items are suffering.

FERGUSON: I don't think so. I think this is an issue that he is seeing -- look. You even said it earlier, Victor. This has been going on now for what, a year, over a year now?

BLACKWELL: And the president brings it back up randomly in Alabama at a rally.

FERGUSON: It's not randomly, when you have -- when you have more and more players who continued to kneel on Sundays, and when you talk about when you're at a campaign rally and you're talking about issues and you're talking about the state of this country, a prime example of the state of the country right now is how many people are growing up and being taught that, all of a sudden, it's somehow cool to be dis -- un-American or disrespect this country or be ashamed of this country.

[07:55:08] And that's shameful.

BLACKWELL: Ben, Marc, we've got to wrap it there. Thank you very much. I'm up against the clock. We've got to get to the 8:00 hour. Gentlemen, thank you so much. Thanks.

HILL: Thank you.

PAUL: Yes, quick programming note to tell you about before we wrap things up. How will Senator Susan Collins vote on her party's last- ditch effort to end Obamacare? She's going to talk to you at "STATE OF THE UNION" with Jake Tapper. That is this morning at 9:00 Eastern and Pacific.

Thank you so much for being with us. We hope you make good memories today.

BLACKWELL: "INSIDE POLITICS" with John King starts after this short break.