Donald Trump is not the first politician to bask in the reflected glory of a winning sports team. But as ever with the 45th president, it’s complicated.
Trump welcomed an American football team, the New England Patriots, to the White House on Wednesday, declaring: “No team has been this good for this long.” Inevitable comparisons were made between his shock election victory and the Patriots’ come-from-behind win in this year’s Super Bowl.
Yet star quarterback Tom Brady was a no-show, lending the occasion a Hamlet-without-the-prince air. Brady cited a “personal family matter” and posted a photo of his parents on Instagram, wishing them a happy anniversary.
Trump has often described Brady as a friend, and one of his campaign’s “Make America Great Again” hats was spotted in the player’s locker in 2015, though Brady never explicitly endorsed him. Trump mentioned several players by name but did not cite Brady during a 19-minute reception.
Numerous other team members stayed away, some for overt political reasons. Defensive back Devin McCourty, for example, had told Time magazine: “I don’t feel accepted in the White House. With the president having so many strong opinions and prejudices I believe certain people might feel accepted there while others won’t.”
The boycott illustrated the difficulties facing Trump as he takes on a less scrutinised aspect of the presidency, that of a social host; on Monday he and his wife, Melania, welcomed thousands of people to the annual Easter egg roll. His personality and policies are so incendiary that it is hard to imagine writers or Hollywood actors flocking to the White House as they did under Barack Obama.
That said, with sport Trump is on surer footing. During the election he was endorsed by the head of Nascar and retired basketball coach Bob Knight. Patriots owner Bob Kraft was one of at least seven NFL team owners who gave $1m each to Trump’s inaugural committee, according to the Associated Press. He has spent a decent chunk of his presidency on the golf course.
Speaking on the South Lawn on a grey day, with Patriots players standing behind him in suits and ties, Trump recalled how the team rallied from 25 points down to defeat the Atlanta Falcons in February. It was their fifth Super Bowl title since 2002.
“With your backs against the wall, and the pundits – good old pundits; boy, they’re wrong a lot, aren’t they – saying you couldn’t do it, the game was over, you pulled off the greatest Super Bowl comeback of all time, one of the greatest comebacks of all time – but the greatest Super Bowl comeback of all time,” he said. “And that was just special. I think I looked at odds and they gave you less than one half of 1% of winning the game.”
Trump said Kraft, an old friend, and longtime coach Bill Belichick, had “built a culture dedicated to winning”. He added: “Whether you’re trying to win a Super Bowl or rebuild our country, as coach Belichick would say, there are no days off.”
As so often at public events, Trump made reference to his own election battle and told how Belichick had sent him a “beautiful letter” congratulating him on his success in the Republican primaries. Trump called Belichick, he recalled, to ask if he could read out the letter at a stadium rally. Belichick said no, he would give the candidate a new one.
“Now, immediately to me, that means he’s going to tone it down because what he said was so nice. And you know what he did? He toned it way up. It was much better. It was much better. He made that the greatest letter, and I did very well in that state. Thank you, coach. That was very good.
“So the Patriot coaches and these great players have delivered iconic American sports moments that will last forever. We’re going to watch that game over and over and over. That game will last forever.”
Kraft then came to the lectern with Trump standing directly behind him. The Patriots owner said: “A very good friend of mine for over 25 years, a man who is as mentally tough and hard-working as anybody I know, launched a campaign for the presidency against 16 career politicians, facing odds almost as long as we faced in the fourth quarter.”
Kraft turned to look at Trump, who smiled. “He persevered to become the 45th president of the United States.”
There was polite applause. Kraft added: “It’s a distinct honour for us to celebrate what was unequivocally our sweetest championship with a very good friend and somebody whose mental toughness and strength I greatly admire.”
He then presented the commander-in-chief with a Patriots jersey that said “Trump 45”. The president held it and grinned.
It is not the first such event that Brady has missed. He was also absent in 2015, making reference to a “family commitment”. There was speculation he declined because of comments an Obama spokesman made about the so-called “deflategate” scandal.
Earlier, Patriots player Rob Gronkowski paid a surprise visit to the West Wing briefing room during the televised press conference. The tight end jokingly asked the press secretary, Sean Spicer, if he needed help. Looking startled for a moment, Spicer, a Patriots fan, replied: “I think I got this. But thank you.”
The Patriots’ visit to the White House coincided with the news that Aaron Hernandez, the team’s former star tight end, had been found dead in his prison cell. Hernandez, who played for the Patriots from 2010 to 2012, was serving a life sentence for a murder conviction. The 27-year-old former tight end was recently acquitted in a second murder case.