President Donald Trump will attend the national college football championship game on Monday in Atlanta, according to three people with direct knowledge of his plans, adding another wrinkle to Monday’s matchup between Georgia and Alabama.
Authorities scrambled to ratchet up security ahead of Trump’s visit to Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the venue that will host the event for the first time. Atlanta police spokesman Carlos Campos said the department is aware of the president’s plans and is coordinating with the Secret Service.
It could make for some awkward moments. Trump last year said Atlanta was in “horrible shape” in a series of tweets aimed at U.S. Rep. John Lewis. And the game’s halftime performer, Kendrick Lamar, is an outspoken critic of Trump’s and one of former President Barack Obama’s favorite artists.
Trump is set to attend the game with U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, a former Georgia Bulldog, and Nick Ayers, a Georgia native who is Vice President Mike Pence’s top aide. First lady Melania Trump is also expected to attend the game. It’s not immediately known whether one of Trump’s closest allies in Georgia — U.S. Sen. David Perdue — will join the group.
Trump routinely attracted thousands of voters at rallies in Atlanta, Macon and Valdosta during the presidential campaign. He won the state by 5 percentage points thanks to a surge of rural support that helped him withstand defeats in the cities and some suburbs.
But he sparked controversy across the city a year ago when he called the 5th Congressional District, which sweeps through the heart of Atlanta, a “crime infested” area that is in “horrible shape.” The tweets, which came after Lewis said he planned to boycott Trump’s inauguration, led to a torrent of criticism from residents who took up a “defend the fifth” hashtag.
It would be Trump’s second visit to Georgia since winning the presidency. He headlined the National Rifle Association’s convention in Atlanta in April and held a private fundraiser for Karen Handel, then a Republican candidate in Georgia’s nationally watched 6th Congressional District special election, which she won.
The day is shaping up to be a busy one for the president. He is set to attend an American Farm Bureau Federation meeting in Nashville, Tenn., with Sonny Perdue earlier that day. And he said he would disclose “awards” for what he deems to be the “most dishonest” reporting of the past year shortly before the game.
Trump and his aides have favored college football over the National Football League as he continues an ongoing feud with the professional league. The president sparked a contentious debate when he took aim at players who protested social injustice during the national anthem, saying any NFL player who knelt during the song should be fired.
In a sign of his regard for college football, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders opened her press briefing Tuesday by congratulating the Southeast Conference schools “from two great states, both in the heart of Trump country” for bowl victories that propelled them to the championship.
Trump carried both states in 2016, winning Alabama by nearly 30 points. But Alabama voters dealt Trump a blow in December by electing Democrat Doug Jones to the U.S. Senate over Republican Roy Moore, whom the president endorsed.
When pressed about what she meant by calling the two states “Trump country,” Sanders said she was simply trying to congratulate “two great football teams in the greatest conference in the country.”
As the room erupted into laughter, she added: “Which I’m sure that most of you will all agree, even those that don’t live in one of those lucky states.”