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During Toledo rally, Trump praises high school football players suspended for on-field ‘thin blue line/thin red line’ 9/11 tribute

Donald Trump speaking with supporters at a campaign rally at Veterans Memorial Coliseum at the Arizona State Fairgrounds in Phoenix, Arizona. (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

Two football players from Little Miami High School in Morrow, Ohio, initially suspended for carrying “thin blue line” and “thin red line” flags onto the field, found themselves receiving accolades from one of the most powerful people in the nation on Monday: Republican President Donald Trump.

In an address outside the Toledo International Airport, Trump touched on numerous subjects during his second stop of the day in Ohio. Trump has staked himself as firmly opposed to the Black Lives Matter movement and tried to make a campaign issue of “cancel culture” – perceived over-political correctness.

To that extent, the Little Miami football players’ suspension was a ready-made issue. Cornerback Brady Williams and linebacker Jared Bentley were suspended for carrying the flags onto the field after school officials told them not to do so.

The students said they wanted to honor police and firefighters on the 19th anniversary of Sept. 11, but the thin blue line flag has become divisive and sometimes criticized as a racist rebuke of Black Lives Matter.

Following public backlash, the players were reinstated the following day.

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“They became more famous than President Trump,” Trump said to the crowd of thousands at the outdoor airport rally. “They were beautiful. I watched them run through the crowds with those flags.”

Trump then called “Williams and Brady” on stage.

“Secret Service loves this,” Trump joked.

Trump asked the players how their team was doing (“Could be better,” they replied) before applauding them for taking the flag onto the field.

“You know what, you’re doing great and everybody out here loves you and appreciates you,” Trump said. “You really set something up that’s incredible.”

Trump’s hourlong speech was mostly well met by the crowd of a couple thousand. Attendees lined up for hours before the president’s scheduled 7 p.m. remarks – not delivered until 8 p.m. – with Air Force One used as a prop to the side of the stage.

The event was openly defiant of Republican Gov. Mike DeWine’s coronavirus health guidelines, with crowds packed tightly into risers behind the stage with a standing-room-only section flanking both sides.

DeWine has given Trump and other politicians who wish to hold rallies a reprieve from the statewide mandates, describing it as a First Amendment issue. Earlier in the day, he and Lt. Gov. Jon Husted greeted Trump in Dayton. Husted spoke before Trump’s earlier rally, with heckles and boos drowning out his request for supporters to wear masks.

Aside from the top of Trump’s speech, which mostly focused on his promise to nominate a justice to replace Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Friday or Saturday – a repeat from earlier in the day.

Most of the ire, predictably, was focused on Democrats, including presidential nominee Joe Biden. Trump predicted he would beat Biden in Ohio by a greater margin than the 8 percentage points he won the state by in 2016.

Polling in the state has consistently shown a close race, though both Trump and Biden have shifted some of their focus away from Ohio in recent weeks. Trump has pulled all his television advertising over the past three weeks and Biden has yet to make any significant purchase here.

“Ohio had the best year in its history last year,” Trump said, referring to the economy.

Trump said the same thing in January, though figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed the state lost jobs last year.

Economic growth in the state over the last decade has essentially been wiped out, largely because of the pandemic. The state is still down 450,000 jobs this year and the unemployment rate sits at 8.9%, putting both on par with where they were in Summer 2011.

Trump also said the United States was doing better than most of Europe and implying a quick resolution if he was elected and that a vaccine would be publicly available soon.

CDC Director Robert Redfield told Congress while a vaccine may be approved sometime this year, it would not be ready for the public until the middle of 2021.

Trump is scheduled to be back in the state, along with Biden, next week for the first presidential debate, which is being jointly hosted by the Cleveland Clinic and Case Western Reserve University at the Sheila and Eric Samson Pavilion.

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© 2020 The Plain Dealer