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"This is about the President and millions of American being for something," Sanders said

"We certainly respect the rights that people have," she said

Washington CNN  — 

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders suggested Monday that NFL players protesting police brutality should focus their protests on police officers on the sidelines of NFL games rather than kneeling during the national anthem.

“I think if this – the debate is really for them about police brutality they should probably protest the officers on the field who are protecting them instead of the American flag,” Sanders said.

She later clarified that she wasn’t suggesting people protest police, but was pointing out that it is inappropriate to protest the flag over their concerns.

“No, no that’s not what I’m saying. I was kind of pointing out the hypocrisy of the fact that if the goal is and the message is one of police brutality, then that doesn’t seem very appropriate to protest the American flag. I’m not sure how those two things would be combined,” Sanders said.

She also defended President Donald Trump’s remarks criticizing NFL players who kneel for the national anthem.

“This isn’t about the President being against anyone,” Sanders said. “This is about the President and millions of American being for something,” like “honoring our flag.”

Sanders then cited an op-ed by former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey, who wrote that “what is right about America is worth defending, and if it’s worth defending then it’s worth honoring.”

Pressed about the President’s characterization of certain NFL players as “sons of bitches,” Sanders said she believes “it’s always appropriate for the President of the United States to defend our flag, to defend the national anthem and to defend” the men and women in the military who fought to defend what they stand for.

“We certainly respect the rights that people have,” Sanders said. “This is about the President being for respect in our country, through symbols like the American flag, like the national anthem.”

The rancor began Friday evening, when Trump used an expletive to describe players who took part in protesting the anthem during a campaign rally in Alabama. He threw gasoline on the flames Saturday and Sunday, writing on Twitter that the league was suffering a decline in viewership because of the political protests.

His remarks struck many as stoking racial resentments because the players he criticized were black and their protests were meant to highlight racial injustice. But Trump told reporters his objections had nothing to do with race.

CNN’s Kevin Liptak contributed to this report.