Brady started getting questions about Trump last fall when a red “Make America Great Again” cap was spotted in his Gillette Stadium locker, reportedly put there by Kraft. Brady at first gave sheepish, gee-whiz responses suggesting that it would be cool to have a golf pal as president. (“There’d be a putting green on the White House lawn,” he predicted.) But the questions took on an edgier urgency as Trump’s victories and offenses kept mounting — ending with Trump where he is now, and Brady dropping into a reflexive kneel-down every time Trump’s name is mentioned to him.
Brady, whose makeshift podium on the Minute Maid field on Monday night was swarmed with a few hundred reporters, was the central battlefield of incoming Trump-related questions. He countered with his most anodyne deflections. “I’m just a positive person” became Brady’s go-to blow off, which he also deployed in the face of several questions about Deflategate, the air-pressure-in-footballs scandal given new life this week by the prospect of Commissioner Roger Goodell’s having to award the Super Bowl trophy to the man he suspended for four games to begin this season.
Other Atlanta Falcons and Patriots players were also invited to weigh in on political matter but mostly demurred. The Falcons receiver Mohamed Sanu, a practicing Muslim, was asked to discuss Trump’s executive order banning immigration from seven majority-Muslim countries. He declined politely, other than to say that it was “ a very tough situation” and “hard for me to talk about right now.” I asked two of the more thoughtful members of the Patriots, the defensive linemen Alan Branch and Chris Long, if they had anything to say about these developments. They absolutely did, they said, and would speak out at some point later, but they did not want to create any “distractions” during Super Bowl week. The Patriots tight end Martellus Bennett did say that if the Patriots won on Sunday and were invited to the White House, he would probably not go, because “I don’t support the guy that’s in the [White] House.” And really, was that so distracting?
One enduring reason the Patriots are constantly being asked about their Trump connections is that the new president is hardly shy about reminding people of them.
He has been dropping Brady’s name — and Kraft’s, and Belichick’s — at every opportunity over the last several months. This first became evident to me in the fall of 2015 as Trump was enjoying his unlikely rise to front-runner status in the Republican primaries and I had several visits with him for a profile I was writing for the magazine. A few months earlier, I had written a story about Brady, who had just won his fourth Super Bowl and was then embroiled in the Deflategate fiasco, in which the league said it was “more probable than not” that Brady was “at least generally aware” that a minuscule amount of air pressure might have been removed from the footballs he used in the first half of the Patriots’ 45-7 blowout of the Indianapolis Colts in the A.F.C. championship game.
When Trump learned that I had recently spent time with Brady and around the Patriots, he became even more animated on the subject — and insistent that I enlist the star quarterback to say nice things about him for my story. “He’s a good friend of mine,” Trump said about Brady for the first of many times. “A really good friend of mine.” Trump declared himself “disgusted” by the N.F.L.’s treatment of Brady over Deflategate. “It’s so ridiculous what they’re doing to him.” He mentioned he had just spoken to Brady.
“He said: ‘Mr. Trump’ — he calls me Mr. Trump, which he shouldn’t, because we play golf all the time. Anyway, he says: ‘Mr. Trump — Donald,’ he doesn’t even know what the [expletive] to call me. It’s the craziest thing. He’s a friend of mine.”
Also, Kraft — great friend, great friend. George Steinbrenner — “big time winner” — was Trump’s best friend, he said, and now Kraft is right up there, too, as one of his favorite guys. Kraft had visited him a few days earlier, and Trump said he chastised the Patriots owner for not fighting harder against the league’s suspension of Brady, in addition to other sanctions levied by the N.F.L. against the Patriots (including the loss of a first-round draft pick and a record fine). “You know, Bob Kraft is also one of my best friends,” Trump told me. “I said, ‘Bob, you should have never made the deal.’”
“Bob said, ‘I had a wink from the commissioner,’” Trump added, meaning that Kraft seemed to think that by standing down and not fighting the N.F.L., the league would reduce Brady’s penalty on appeal.
Kraft was under pressure, Trump explained. “He choked, just like Romney choked. He said: ‘You know what? They winked at me.’ I said, ‘Bob when you make a deal, you should have gotten it all wrapped up.’ Who ever heard of making a deal like that? Now you got this mess.” Kraft should never have trusted Goodell, he said.
“The commissioner is a weak guy,” Trump said. “When he made the Ray Rice deal, everybody said: You’re stupid. You’re weak. And it was such a weak deal. So now he’s going overboard with their star, Brady.”
He added: “The commissioner is a dope. He’s a stupid guy.”
By far the best deal Kraft ever made was hiring Belichick, Trump said. Who, by the way, is also “a great, great friend” of Trump’s, even though everyone just assumes he’s “a really rough guy.”
“So I go to the Patriots game last year,” Trump said. “I’m on the sidelines with Kraft. He’s got Les Moonves right here. He’s got a lot of different people. And Belichick comes over in his Patriots sweatshirt and the hoodie and the whole thing. He hugs me, and he kisses me, and he said: ‘I love you. You’re the greatest.’” Trump sat at his cluttered desk and seemed almost dreamy at the memory, as if the reception from Belichick genuinely moved him. “He just feels warmly toward me, Belichick does,” Trump said. “Isn’t that the craziest thing?”
After the Deflategate ruling was handed down by the commissioner that spring, Trump said he tried to persuade Brady to sue the league personally. “I said, ‘Tom.’ — I gave him a lawyer. — I said: ‘Here’s what you do. Sue the N.F.L. for $500 million tomorrow. Sue ’em up in Boston, for everything. They’ll come to the table.’ He said, ‘Aw, man.’ He really was torn. He’s not Trump. He said, ‘I just want to win another Super Bowl.’” Trump told Brady that he understood.
A few weeks later, the future president was showing me around Trump National Golf Club in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif. We were accompanied by Damon Winter, a Times photographer who had, a few months earlier, photographed Brady for the profile that was published in February. At one point, as Trump showed me around his 7,242-yard golf Xanadu on the Pacific, he looked over at Winter. “Who’s got a better body, me or Tom Brady?” he asked. (No answer from Winter that I recall.)
In the course of my time with Trump, he kept urging me to call Brady and ask him about his great friendship with Trump. Brady would say great things, no doubt. “Ask him, ‘How is Trump as a golfer?’” Trump urged.
Brady had been particularly hunkered down during the Deflategate ordeal. N.F.L. politics can be brutal like the real-life kind. Plus, the flare-up in the press over his friendship with Trump was not making Brady any more eager to engage beyond his usual helpings of football platitudes. Finally, after Trump kept insisting, I reached out to Brady, fully expecting a polite stiff-arm from the quarterback, and who could blame him? “I really have no interest in political talk write now,” Brady wrote. “I have learned way too much about politics the last seven months.”