White House

Fries with a side of politics: Tigers feted at White House with fanfare and fast food

The Clemson Tigers got a side of politics with their side of fries on Monday evening.

About the only ornate touch was the State Dining Room. At the White House to celebrate winning the national championship just one week earlier against the Alabama Crimson Tide, Domino’s Pizza slices were arranged on sterling silver platters. McDonald’s Quarter Pounders with Cheese were piled high. French fries were served in cups that bore the presidential seal alongside presidential seal-stamped napkins fanned out elaborately.

President Donald Trump made sure the team knew he paid for the dinner himself — because of the partial government shutdown, White House residential cooking staff is on furlough.

“The reason we did this is because of the shutdown,” Trump told the players. “The Republicans are really, really sticking together. It’s great to see it because we need border security. We have to have it.”

This was a different kind of celebration than the one the Tigers enjoyed two years ago.

In 2017, the last time Clemson won the NCAA championship — also against Alabama — it was June, five months after the victorious game. The team and its fans celebrated on the South Lawn under a sweltering hot sun. They had barbecue for lunch, which senior wide receiver and Myrtle Beach native Hunter Renfrow described at the time as “the best meal I’ve had in a year.”

Monday night’s celebration took place in the White House East Room as guests enjoyed drinks and samplings from fast food establishments such as Burger King and Wendy’s. Outside, Washington was recovering from a blizzard the day before. On Capitol Hill, elected officials remain locked in a partisan fight over whether to fund Trump’s wall at the U.S.-Mexico border.

But aside from Trump’s remarks boasting, he had defied the odds of a political stalemate to provide nourishment for the Clemson Tigers — likely to the chagrin of the team’s “culinary coach” who discourages unhealthy eating habits — the ceremony was a feel-good affair to celebrate the Tigers’ historic, undefeated season.

State Rep. Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville, who was in Washington for the celebration, said the players “loved” the fast food buffet.

“They all lived up ... They all grabbed several (Big Macs an Quarter Pounders) off the table. They all recognized this was a chow line and they were lining up, filling it up.”

Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-South Carolina, who represents the district that includes Clemson and was himself a member of the school’s football team as an undergraduate, warmed up the crowd with the official team chant.

Standing beside the championship trophy and flanked by Vice President Mike Pence, coach Dabo Swinney, Clemson President James Clements and university Athletic Director Dan Radakovich, Trump gave shoutouts to some of the team’s star players, including Renfrow and quarterback Trevor Lawrence.

“To all of the amazing athletes here today that wiped out more food than any human being has ever seen before ... thank you for inspiring America,” Trump said. “You really have. You have inspired our country.”

Turning to Swinney, Trump noted he was a “special guy,” a “unique guy.”

Swinney, as he did two years ago, reflected on what had been “literally a crazy week.”

“One week ago today, we all enjoyed a magical and historic moment as our team became the first 15-0 team in modern football history,” Swinney said. “We say all the time, greatness is not your destiny. Greatness is not your right. It’s a decision. You know, we always say, championships are won when the stands are empty. Champions are made when nobody’s watching. And this team, this team right here, made a decision to be great and special from Day One.”

At the event’s conclusion, Trump had one more surprise for the Tigers: A trip to the Oval Office.

To the Marine Band’s rendition of “Tiger Rag,” people slowly filtered out, leaving scraps of pizza crusts and hamburger buns scattered on cloth-draped cocktail tables behind them.

Bannister said Trump had a genuine commitment to ensuring the team had a good time: “I really believe that (Trump) and the vice president were pulling for Clemson to win.”

Tom Barton of The State contributed to this report.

Emma Dumain covers Congress and congressional leadership for McClatchy DC and the company’s newspapers around the country. She previously covered South Carolina politics out of McClatchy’s Washington bureau. From 2008-2015, Dumain was a congressional reporter for CQ Roll Call.