Months removed from the extended back-and-forth, President Donald Trump talked with GOP senators behind closed doors on Tuesday about securing the release of UCLA basketball players detained in China for shoplifting.
Two sources in the room told CNN that Trump, in the context of explaining what he described as a positive relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping, regaled senators with the story of how he negotiated with Xi to secure the release of three college basketball players.
One source told CNN that Trump said he remains perplexed as to how the UCLA students “thought they could get away with it,” given they were clearly from the US and “significantly taller” than the average clientele in the Louis Vuitton store where they were caught in China.
Trump’s detailed play-by-play was part of an extended, mostly off-the-cuff riff that touched on everything from North Korea and Iran to the GOP’s midterm electoral prospects and his wife Melania Trump’s positive approval rating, the sources said.
The three players, LiAngelo Ball, Cody Riley and Jalen Hill, were accused of shoplifting in China last year and, for a time, were unable to leave. Trump, who was visiting China around the same time as UCLA’s team, said he spoke with Xi about helping them.
After their return to the US, Trump took credit for the release and tweeted, “Do you think the three UCLA Basketball Players will say thank you President Trump? They were headed for 10 years in jail!”
Later the same day, the three students read statements apologizing for shoplifting and thanking Trump. Trump went on to accept their thanks in a series of tweets, saying, “You’re welcome, go out and give a big Thank You to President Xi Jinping of China who made your release possible and, HAVE A GREAT LIFE!”
The exchange continued, however, with LaVar Ball, the father of one of the students, downplaying Trump’s role, and Trump responding that he “should have left them in jail!”
Trump spoke at length during his lunch on Tuesday with GOP senators, with members who attended saying that Trump did not address some key controversies of the moment, including the remark from one of his aides denigrating Arizona GOP Sen. John McCain and his declaration on Monday that he wanted to help a Chinese company.