President Trump declined to criticize China’s handling of a free speech dispute with the N.B.A. on Wednesday, instead opting to blast two basketball coaches who have spoken out against the president in the past.
“They have to work out their own situation,” Trump said of the escalating dispute between the league and China, where two exhibition games were in danger of being canceled because of the country’s anger over a tweet from a Houston Rockets executive who expressed support for pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.
The issue touches on a familiar situation for American businesses trying to prosper in China: working with a government that does not tolerate dissent. When asked about the situation, Trump instead called out Golden State Warriors Coach Steve Kerr and San Antonio Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich, both of whom have been highly critical of Trump throughout his presidency.
“I watched this guy, Steve Kerr, and he was like a little boy who was so scared to be even answering the question,” Trump said, referring to the fact that Kerr declined to take a stance on an issue that could threaten the N.B.A.’s business in China, where the Warriors are the most popular team. “He couldn’t answer the question. He was shaking. ‘Oh, I don’t know. I don’t know.’ He didn’t know how to answer the question. And yet he’ll talk about the United States very badly.”
Trump then targeted Popovich, who criticized Trump when asked about the dispute on Tuesday night.
“I watched Popovich. Sort of the same thing, but he didn’t look quite as scared actually,” Trump said. “But they talk badly about the United States, but when it talks about China, they don’t want to say anything bad. I thought it was pretty sad actually. It’ll be very interesting.”
Trump accused Kerr and Popovich of “pandering to China” and suggested that they didn’t “respect” the United States. Popovich, a former member of the Air Force, was the head coach of the U.S.A. men’s basketball team this summer, when it played in the world championships in China. Kerr was his assistant.
“And yet to our own country, they don’t — it’s like they don’t respect it,” Trump told reporters at an event in the Roosevelt Room, after the signing of an executive order. “I said, ‘What a difference?’ Isn’t it sad?”
Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, was more critical of China during an interview with PBS NewsHour that aired on Wednesday.
“I think American businesses have the right to make the decisions that they make, as long as they’re lawful,” Pompeo said. “They will have to make their own business decisions, but I think not only what we saw this week, but this has been going on for some time; I think American businesses are waking up to the risks that attend to their company.”
Pompeo continued: “It may seem that it makes profit in the short run, but the cost, the reputational cost of these companies, I think, will prove to be higher and higher as Beijing’s long arm reaches out to them and destroys their capacity for them.”
Representatives for the Warriors, the Spurs and the league did not respond to a request for comment.
Trump became the highest-profile politician to weigh in on an unusual international row that began last Friday, when the general manager of the Rockets, Daryl Morey, posted and quickly deleted an image on Twitter that carried a slogan used by Hong Kong protesters, right as the league was preparing to play two exhibition games there a week later. For several months, demonstrators in the region have accused the Communist government of attempting to limit civil liberties. After Morey’s tweet, backlash from the mainland came quickly.
Several Chinese companies began to cut ties with the Rockets, as did the Chinese Basketball Association, which is led by Yao Ming, the former Rockets star. On Sunday, the league issued a written statement that was roundly condemned by several politicians in the United States, both Republicans and Democrats. The league called the reaction to Morey’s tweet “regrettable” and said that “the values of the league support individuals’ educating themselves and sharing their views on matters important to them.” Critics in the United States accused the league of caving to an authoritarian government.
The N.B.A. found itself in a defensive position — having to balance its public image as a sports league that encouraged political expression with the millions of revenue dollars at stake in China. Morey tried to clean up his comments, saying that said he did not intend to “cause any offense to Rockets fans and friends of mine in China.”
On Tuesday, Adam Silver, the N.B.A.’s commissioner, issued a new statement and spoke at a news conference in which he stood more firmly behind Morey, saying the league would not hinder the free speech rights of players and employees, even if it meant consequences for the sport.
Several community events involving the league and Chinese television broadcasts of the game were canceled, and the fate of the two contests — scheduled for Thursday and Saturday between the Brooklyn Nets and the Los Angeles Lakers — remained up in the air on Wednesday night.
On Wednesday, several lawmakers sent a letter to Silver calling on the N.B.A. to “suspend N.B.A. activities in China until government-controlled broadcasters and government-controlled commercial sponsors end their boycott of N.B.A. activities.” The signees included a bipartisan group of lawmakers who rarely agree, including Republicans like Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and Democrats like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.
The backlash extended to other basketball figures. James Harden, one of the best players in the N.B.A. and a Rockets star, apologized to China and was criticized. Other figures, like Kerr, who is typically outspoken on politics, declined to comment. “It’s a really bizarre international story, and I don’t know what to make of it,” Kerr said. “So it’s something I’m reading about just like everybody is but I’m not going to comment further than that.”
Popovich, however, praised Silver’s response on Tuesday, saying: “He came out strongly for freedom of speech today. I felt great again. He’s been a heck of a leader in that respect and very courageous.”
Popovich followed up by throwing a shot at Trump. “Then you compare it to what we’ve had to live through the past three years, it’s a big difference. A big gap there, leadership-wise and courage-wise,” Popovich said.
After the president belittled Kerr, Stephen Curry, the Warriors star, joked to reporters that he had to “welcome Steve to the club.” Curry himself has been a past target of Trump’s ire. But besides that, Curry declined to weigh in, calling it “an interesting situation” and adding, “I don’t know that history well enough to kind of speak on it or to form an opinion yet.”
Trump’s own comments on Hong Kong have been limited. In August, Trump said in a tweet, “China is not our problem, though Hong Kong is not helping.” He followed up with: “Of course China wants to make a deal. Let them work humanely with Hong Kong first!” He also referred to President Xi Jinping of China as a “great leader” and the next day said: “If President Xi would meet directly and personally with the protesters, there would be a happy and enlightened ending to the Hong Kong problem. I have no doubt!”
Last week, Trump tweeted a congratulatory message to China: “Congratulations to President Xi and the Chinese people on the 70th Anniversary of the People’s Republic of China!”
It is not surprising that Trump, known for punching at his critics, would bash Kerr and Popovich, given their past comments about him.
In July, Kerr tweeted: “Come on members of Congress, call out the president for his racist tweets this morning. Show some leadership. It’s the job you were elected to do,” in reference to Trump’s social media posts telling four Democratic congresswomen of color to go back to their own countries.
Popovich has also repeatedly criticized Trump, referring to him as a “bully” shortly after the 2016 election, and adding, “You can’t believe anything that comes out of his mouth.”