The fans who paid top dollar to watch Georgia face Alabama at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Monday may not see President Donald Trump. But his presence should be obvious.
His decision to catch the championship game adds a twist to the biggest college football contest in Georgia’s history — and a host of soon-to-be answered questions.
How will the ramped-up security affect the game’s atmosphere? Will his arrival further strangle traffic already expected to be horrendous? And will he be greeted by protests in Atlanta and at the game?
What’s certain is that police will be out in force. Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields said to expect a “pronounced” law enforcement presence around the downtown Atlanta stadium, and that off days have been canceled through Tuesday for every one of the department’s 1,800 officers.
City officials also scrambled to rework their traffic plans to accommodate Trump’s arrival, though the route he’ll take to get to the brand-new stadium may not be finalized until game day. Gov. Nathan Deal and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, anticipating brutal traffic, are shuttering government offices early.
As for protests, a few liberal groups have talked about massing in downtown Atlanta. But it’s not yet clear whether there will be any large-scale demonstrations against Trump. Still, some groups are trying to marshal pushback against the president.
The Democratic Party of Georgia polled supporters on ideas about how to greet him on the tarmac Monday. One of the responses: A “No one’s home” sign.
Trump will fly in from an appearance at the American Farm Bureau Federation’s annual meeting in Nashville, Tenn., with U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, a former Georgia governor who was a walk-on Bulldogs football player. They’ll be joined by Nick Ayers, a Georgia native and top aide to Vice President Mike Pence.
Trump has embraced college football amid an ongoing feud with the National Football League over players who protest during the national anthem against social injustice. His spokeswoman opened her first press conference this year celebrating Georgia and Alabama — “both in the heart of Trump country” — for playoff victories.
It’s unlikely anyone from either team would be involved in a protest Monday — the national anthem usually plays before the players and their coaches take the field — but Trump’s supporters and opponents could have other opportunities to voice their feelings about the president.
They include the halftime show starring Kendrick Lamar, an outspoken Trump critic and supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement.
It’s also about one year since Trump infuriated many Atlanta residents by saying the congressional district that spans the city is in “horrible shape and falling apart.” He was assailing U.S. Rep. John Lewis, whose territory includes Mercedes-Benz Stadium, after the congressman said he would boycott Trump’s inauguration.
“Given his disrespect for Congressman Lewis and the city of Atlanta, I’d imagine that Trump is about as welcome here as a ‘Roll Tide’ shirt,” said Michael Smith, the state Democratic Party’s spokesman.
‘One heck of a football game’
Trump will be joined in the crowd by many of the state’s biggest stars for what could be the toughest sports ticket in Atlanta’s history. So will a host of Georgia politicians and officials, some of them enjoying free tickets from the University of Georgia.
Stacey Evans, a Democratic candidate for governor, offered Trump a few tips before the all-Southeastern Conference matchup.
“Given how you been pickin’ em,” wrote the Georgia graduate, “I hope you’re a Bama guy.”
Also watching from a luxury box will be state House Speaker David Ralston, who attended Georgia’s unforgettable Rose Bowl victory with his son Matt in California. The Republican is a die-hard Bulldogs fan, so much so that he’s floated the prospect of giving lawmakers a day off Tuesday.
Asked about Trump’s plans to attend the game, Ralston was blunt about his priorities.
“My focus is going to be on the game. With all due respect to the president, I doubt I’ll be invited to watch it with him,” he said with a chuckle.
“He’s going to see one heck of a football game,” Ralston added. “And I hope he’s going to be as happy to see Georgia win as I am.”
Staff writer Christian Boone contributed to this report. Never miss a minute of what’s happening in Georgia Politics. Subscribe to PoliticallyGeorgia.com.