Reporting from Washington — President Trump complained Sunday that the father of one of the three UCLA basketball players who were arrested in China for shoplifting had played down his role in winning their release, and that he therefore should not have interceded with China’s president.
“I should have left them in jail!” the president tweeted.
Trump’s tweet drew a quick backlash on social media. Many expressed incredulity that a sitting U.S. president would publicly regret having come to the aid of American citizens being held by an authoritarian government.
Among Trump’s sharper critics was Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), who tweeted back, “How can someone in such a big office be so small?
The popular sports website Deadspin headlined its account of the presidential tweet: “Donald Trump Wishes He’d Left UCLA Teens in Chinese Prison Because His Feelings Are Hurt.”
The release of the three players by Chinese authorities represented one of the most tangible achievements of Trump’s 12-day visit to five countries in Asia this month.
During his trip, the president was greeted with lavish shows of pomp, especially in China, and he announced an array of potential business deals. But he did not negotiate any clear trade gains or other diplomatic concessions from the leaders he met.
But the quick resolution of what could have been a drawn-out diplomatic incident over the arrests swiftly took on sour overtones as the president prodded the three UCLA athletes, who returned to Los Angeles last week, to express their gratitude.
After they publicly expressed thanks, Trump appeared to consider the matter closed, tweeting that he hoped they would have a "great life" and be careful of their actions in the future.
But on Sunday, Trump appeared irate that the father of one of the players, LiAngelo Ball, had played down his involvement in an interview with ESPN.
“Everybody wants to make it seem like he helped me out,” LaVar Ball told the sports channel on Friday when asked about Trump claiming credit for raising the arrests with Chinese President Xi Jinping when they met last week in Beijing.
Trump said in his tweet that the players had been saved from “years in jail.” He also accused the elder Ball of saying that “shoplifting is no big deal.”
In the ESPN interview, the elder Ball seemed to question the seriousness of the incident, saying “they try to make a big deal out of nothing sometimes.”
LiAngelo Ball, along with fellow freshmen Jalen Hill and Cody Riley, is on indefinite suspension from the Bruins basketball team.
Chinese authorities took the three into custody after they were questioned, and their luggage was searched, for designer sunglasses and other goods allegedly stolen from three stores near their hotel in Hangzhou, where the Bruins were staying prior to a game in Shanghai against Georgia Tech.
UCLA’s athletic director, Dan Guerrero, later acknowledged the shoplifting.
Previously, Trump has called attention to his administration’s efforts to free other Americans imprisoned overseas even as he has largely avoided publicly urging repressive regimes to be more respectful of human rights.
After he met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi in April, for example, Egypt released Aya Hijazi, an Egyptian American from Virginia who had been imprisoned on what human rights activists said were spurious accusations stemming from her work with a charity that aided Egyptian street children.
The Trump administration also secured the release of Otto Warmbier, a 22-year-old college student who was jailed during a tourist trip to North Korea in 2016 and sentenced to 15 years prison in prison for allegedly stealing a propaganda poster from his hotel.
Warmbier was finally freed on medical grounds in June, after 18 months, but he was in a coma from an unspecified injury or illness. He died soon after he taken to his home in Ohio.
The flap over the UCLA players was not the first time that Trump has leapt into a Twitter-fueled controversy involving sports figures.
He engaged in a lengthy feud with professional football players who took part in “take a knee” protests during the playing of the national anthem in order to protest racial injustice. Trump railed against the show of dissent and demanded that league owners fire players who took part.