Members of an honor guard prepare flags for a "Celebration of America" event with President Donald Trump on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, June 5, 2018. Trump was supposed to host the Philadelphia Eagles football team, but he called off a visit citing the dispute over whether NFL players protesting racial injustice must stand during the playing of the national anthem. Trump is hosting the "Celebration of America" event instead. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

WASHINGTON - US President Donald Trump prepared to throw his own flag-waving, tub-thumping "celebration of America" Tuesday after cancelling a reception for the NFL champion Philadelphia Eagles because only "a tiny handful" of players planned to attend.

Military honor guards rolled dozens of star-spangled flags onto the South Lawn of the White House ahead of his nationalist jamboree, as the Trump administration vented about the Eagles' "lack of good faith."

Trump on Monday abruptly cancelled a party for the Super Bowl LII champion team, on the eve of their trip to Washington, citing NFL players' protests during the pregame national anthem.

But it transpired Tuesday that the reception was cancelled because only a few of the 81 team members invited had actually planned to attend.

"Unfortunately, the Eagles offered to send only a tiny handful of representatives, while making clear that the great majority of players would not attend," press secretary Sarah Sanders said.  

"Upon learning these facts, the president decided to change the event so that it would be a celebration of the American flag with Eagles fans and performances by United States Marine Band and the United States Army Chorus."

The White House accused the Eagles team of deciding to "abandon their fans."

The spat reignited a Trump-fueled debate over national anthem protests. 

Trump set off widespread protests by mostly black NFL athletes last year after labeling players who knelt during the national anthem to protest racial injustice "sons of bitches" who should be fired.

Colin Kaepernick, the then-quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, began the kneeling protests in 2016 to draw attention to police brutality and racial inequality.

Kaepernick's protest followed a wave of deaths of black men during encounters with law enforcement.

The Eagles' roster contains several prominent figures from the NFL player protest movement, and some, including safety Malcolm Jenkins and defensive end Chris Long, had already indicated they planned not to attend.

Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie has also been critical of Trump, and reportedly described his presidency as "disastrous," according to a New York Times report earlier this year.

The US president has repeatedly tried to enflame political anger and find sensitive "wedge issues" to animate his supporters. 

- 'Political stunt' -
But picking a fight with a team from a political swing state could prove a risky bet.

Democratic Senator Bob Casey, from Pennsylvania, said he was skipping Trump's "political stunt" and instead invited the Eagles to tour the US Capitol.

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney said disinviting the Eagles "only proves the president is not a true patriot."

Presidential receptions for championship sport teams have been a regular occurrence throughout different presidencies.

Trump had a similar rift last year with the NBA champion Golden State Warriors -- also from a city with a large African American population.

The president had withdrawn an invitation to the team to attend a White House reception after star Stephen Curry and other players indicated a reluctance to attend.

The Warriors instead took a group of children on a visit to Washington's National Museum of African American History and Culture.

The Eagles put out a non-committal statement after Trump axed the event.

In the statement, they said it was thrilling to win the Super Bowl and "watching the entire Eagles community come together has been an inspiration. We are truly grateful for all of the support we have received and we are looking forward to continuing our preparations for the 2018 season."

arb/jm

© Agence France-Presse

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