WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump on Sunday upbraided the father of one of the three UCLA basketball players who had been detained in China on suspicion of shoplifting, tweeting he "should have left them in jail!"
Trump's comments on Twitter came the day after LaVar Ball, the father of LiAngelo Ball, downplayed Trump's involvement in the three athletes' release.
"Now that the three basketball players are out of China and saved from years in jail, LaVar Ball, the father of LiAngelo, is unaccepting of what I did for his son and that shoplifting is no big deal. I should have left them in jail!" the president tweeted.
Hours after the first tweet, Trump posted again on Twitter, saying Chinese officials told the students why they had been released.
"Shoplifting is a very big deal in China, as it should be (5-10 years in jail), but not to father LaVar. Should have gotten his son out during my next trip to China instead. China told them why they were released. Very ungrateful!" Trump wrote in the second tweet.
The three players from the University of California, Los Angeles, apologized last week and thanked Trump for helping secure their release by raising the issue with Chinese President Xi Jinping during his visit.
All three players have been suspended indefinitely from the UCLA basketball team.
But LaVar Ball told the ESPN TV network on Saturday: "Don't tell me nothing. Everybody wants to make it seem like he helped me out," referring to Trump.
The White House declined to comment on Sunday on the president’s tweet. Attempts to reach LaVar Ball for comment were unsuccessful. Ball has stirred controversy with comments promoting the careers of his three basketball-playing sons, including Los Angeles Lakers rookie and former UCLA star Lonzo Ball.
The Republican president, while finishing up a 12-day, five-nation trip to Asia, said he had sought the help of the Chinese president in the case.
"What they did was unfortunate," Trump told reporters in Manila last week, while describing Xi's response as "terrific."
The three players - Ball, Cody Riley and Jalen Hill - admitted to stealing items from three stores during a team trip to China. Before they thanked Trump on Wednesday for intervening with Xi, Trump had wondered whether they would express gratitude to him.
"Do you think the three UCLA Basketball Players will say thank you President Trump? They were headed for 10 years in jail!," Trump tweeted on Wednesday.
Trump's remarks on Sunday provoked strong reactions on Twitter, including from one Democratic lawmaker who accused the president of personal pettiness.
"The President would have left American students in a foreign jail because their families didn't lavish sufficient praise on him. How can someone in such a big office be so small?" U.S. Representative Adam Schiff wrote on Twitter.
(Reporting by Ginger Gibson, Valerie Volcovici and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Grant McCool and Peter Cooney)