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Why Trump demanded on Twitter that 3 UCLA basketball players apologize

An international shoplifting saga.

UCLA Press Conference
UCLA players LiAngelo Ball (R) and Cody Riley.
Josh Lefkowitz/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

At least according to President Trump’s Twitter feed, his biggest achievement on his 12-day trip to Asia was the release of three UCLA basketball players who had been arrested on shoplifting charges in China last week.

Trump bragged about it on Twitter shortly after his return, the first specifics he’d offered about what he called his “very successful” trip: “Do you think the three UCLA Basketball Players will say thank you President Trump?” he wrote. “They were headed for 10 years in jail!”

Trump reportedly did bring up the incident with President Xi Jinping during his trip, and intervened on the Bruins’ behalf. (It also probably didn’t hurt that the e-commerce giant Alibaba sponsored the basketball tournament, or that one of the arrested players’ dads, the outspoken LaVar Ball, has become famous in his own right.)

Three college freshmen accused of stealing a pair of Louis Vuitton sunglasses ended up creating a minor international incident right before Trump landed in China — and the players did thank Trump publicly soon after returning home.

Here’s how the whole saga unfolded.

Three UCLA players were accused of shoplifting on a team trip to China

LiAngelo Ball, Cody Riley, and Jalen Hill, three freshmen expected to star on the UCLA basketball team, were accused of shoplifting a pair of Louis Vuitton sunglasses — priced at 4,900 yuan, or about $750 in US dollars — from a store in a luxury mall near their hotel in Hangzhou. The UCLA team was in China to play an exhibition basketball game, an annual tradition for the Pac-12 conference.

Ball, Riley, and Hill were held and then released on $2,200 bail on November 8 and with the condition that they surrender their passports. The three remained at the hotel in Hangzhou while the rest of their teammates traveled to Shanghai for the game Friday — which UCLA won, 63 to 60. The rest of the UCLA basketball team then departed for the US; their accused teammates stayed in China.

At the time, CNN reported they could be in China for “months.” Instead, the players returned to Los Angeles Tuesday night.

ESPN reports that it wasn’t exactly clear what consequences the young athletes would have faced should they have been convicted in China, but it likely would have involved some jail time — and Trump’s claim of 10 years is probably a high-end estimate.

The arrests made international headlines, and the arrest of Ball, in particular, added to the story’s intrigue. He is one of a trio of basketball brothers whose talents are aggressively promoted by their dad, LaVar Ball. LiAngelo’s older brother Lonzo also played for UCLA and is a rookie on the Los Angeles Lakers. Ball had been traveling in China with the team, along with his son and LiAngelo’s younger brother LaMelo, for their Ball in the Family reality show on Facebook, and to open pop-up shops for the Big Baller Brand.

The players apologized for the incident and thanked Trump in a press conference Wednesday, a day after they returned to California. They will avoid any punishment from the Chinese authorities, though they are now “suspended indefinitely” from the basketball team.

Trump talks with President Xi — after apparently seeing the story on CNN

CNN might be the reason the players got Trump’s help. According to the New York Times, Trump found out about the players’ arrest after his staff saw the story on the cable network, right ahead of his dinner with President Xi. (After his return, Trump also complained about being “forced” to watch CNN in the Philippines.)

Trump’s Chief of Staff John Kelly told reporters that Trump’s actions prompted the Chinese authorities to reduce the charges to misdemeanors and the release of the players:

“Our president said to Xi, ‘Do you know anything about these knuckleheads that got caught allegedly stealing?’” Mr. Kelly said. Unaware of the episode, the Chinese president dispatched an aide to get more information. “The president was saying, ‘It’s not too serious. We’d love to see this taken care of in an expeditious way,’” Mr. Kelly added.

Kelly stayed directly in touch with UCLA staff member and the players, letting them know Trump had stepped in. Kelly told the Times that the players might have faced between five and 10 years in prison given the crime.

Trump, for his part, avoided tweeting about the players’ arrest. He also didn’t spill the results of his discussion with Xi, telling reporters Tuesday, “I will tell you, when I heard about it two days ago, I had a great conversation with President Xi. He was terrific, and they’re working on it right now. And hopefully everything is going to work out.”

As it turned out, it did. Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott thanked the administration in a statement on Tuesday around the time the players returned home.

The three players apologized publicly for the incident and thanked the commander-in-chief for resolving the situation. “To President Trump, and the United States government, thank you for taking the time to intervene on our behalf,” Riley in a statement.

At the press conference, the players admitted — for the first time — to shoplifting and apologized for their lapse in judgment. “We're young men, but it's not an excuse for making a really stupid decision," Ball said.

In addition to Trump, the players thanked the Chinese government and authorities for how they’d been treated.

UCLA coach Steve Alford, who called the men’s decision “an inexcusable” lapse of judgment, also thanked “President Trump and his administration for the nonstop efforts to resolve this situation."

Alford said Wednesday afternoon that the players were “suspended indefinitely” as the university reviews their cases. "They will have to earn their way back," he said.

Trump seemed satisfied with the thanks. On Thursday morning, he tweeted a “you’re welcome,” and offered some sage life advice to the players:

China, on the other hand, has stayed relatively silent on the situation, and according to the Washington Post, the government wasn’t jumping to talk about Xi’s possible direct involvement in releasing the UCLA players. “I am not aware of the details,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said Wednesday, “But I believe the Chinese police would have handled the case in strict accordance with the law.”

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