The comments suggesting that NFL owners -- who are overwhelmingly white -- are afraid of their players -- the most prominent protesters are black -- prompted accusations that Trump is continuing to stoke a controversy with strong racial undertones.
"I have so many friends that are owners and they're in a box," Trump told Fox News. "I mean, I've spoken to a couple of them, and they say, 'We are in a situation where we need to do something.' I think they're afraid of their players, if you want to know the truth, and I think it's disgraceful."
Trump was referencing recent protests by NFL players who have kneeled during the National Anthem. The President and his aides argue that the protests are unpatriotic and disrespectful to the flag and those who have fought to protect the US. But the players, some of whom have said they are protesting social injustice and police brutality, argue that they are exercising free speech.
Trump first stirred up his feud with the NFL nearly a week ago and has since expressed satisfaction
with the response, telling conservative group leaders earlier this week that his remarks have "really caught on" and that he said "what millions of Americans were thinking."
But by wading into the debate about protests by mostly African-American players during pre-game National Anthem ceremonies, Trump is exacerbating questions about his own attitude toward race and his apparent determination to keep tugging at the societal and cultural fault lines in American politics.
The protests began after then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during the National Anthem last year, telling NFL media he was "not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color."
Other players have since followed suit. Trump said last week
NFL owners should fire any "son of a bitch" who protests during the anthem.
In response to Trump's comments Thursday, ESPN anchor Jemele Hill, who faced backlash after she labeled the President a "white supremacist" earlier this month, tweeted, "Oh my, we have reached peak racial demagoguery."
Seth Abramson, a professor at the University of New Hampshire, tweeted, "Trump says the white owners of the NFL are "afraid" of its black players. That's not 'racist dog-whistling.'It's a 'racist public rant.'"
And Mike Freeman, a football columnist for Bleacher Report, tweeted, "Trump saying NFL owners are afraid of players isn't dog whistle. It's a big ass bullhorn. You know what that bullhorn is blaring right?"
During the Fox News interview, Trump also suggested NFL ratings are down and less people are attending the games where players are kneeling during the National Anthem.
"Because you look at the ratings, the ratings are going way down ... the stadiums, there are a lot of empty seats, I couldn't even believe it," he said. "When it comes to the respect of our nation, when it comes to the respect of our anthem and our flag, we have no choice. We have to have people stand with respect."
Overall, according to the NFL, this year's Week 3 ratings were slightly higher than Week 3 in 2016. But it's unclear whether changes in the ratings are due to the protests, competition from other television programming or the level of interest in the matchups.
'Health care didn't go down'
Trump also reiterated his claim
that Republicans had the necessary votes to pass a bill overhauling health care, but didn't because they didn't have enough time.
"Health care didn't go down. We have the votes. Reconciliation is a disaster," Trump said, referring to budgetary measures that only requires the Senate to have 51 votes, or a simple majority, to pass a bill. "It ends on Friday (and) we don't have enough time."
Trump has said that he believes Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell needs to get rid of the filibuster, a rule that currently requires 60 votes to pass legislation in the chamber. McConnell has summarily rejected the idea. But it's unclear what votes Trump is referring to since Hill Republicans decided this week not to have a vote when it was clear the measure would not pass.
When asked if Trump still has confidence in McConnell, he responded, "I do."
"Look, I have dealt with Mitch for a long time. I think he has to get rid of the filibuster rule. It's a disaster for the Republican Party because it means you needs 60 votes on most pieces of legislation and you are not going to get it," Trump said. "In the meantime, I'm going to start negotiating with Democrats and we will see's what."
When asked if he can trust Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Trump responded, "it's not a question of trust."
"I have a nice relationship with them. It's not really trust. If we can do a great bipartisan health care bill, I'm OK with that. We have the the votes to get it done. You can't go do it when somebody is in the hospital," Trump said, referencing GOP Sen. Thad Cochran, who was recently treated for a urological issue -- even though he has said he is not in the hospital
. "When you have 52 votes and you need 51, it's, you know, it's very hard to get because you always have somebody and some cases they will want to grandstand."