Former CIA Director John Brennan released a statement on Saturday through his former deputy chief of staff, Nick Shapiro, defending National Football League players who kneel during the national anthem.

Shapiro tweeted the statement from Brennan that addressed both anthem protests and President Donald Trump’s response to the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico. The former director, who worked under the Obama administration, has been openly critical of Trump in the past. 

“Taking a knee during the national anthem shows respect for the flag and for all those who fought and died for it and, at the same time, concern about problems within American society that need to be addressed,” Brennan wrote.

Kneeling during the anthem began last year with then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick as a protest against racial injustice. Kaepernick was using his platform to highlight the disparity between racial divides in the United States. 

Since then, kneeling has been a controversial protest that some complained was disrespectful of the military and the American flag. 

Brennan goes on to defend the act of kneeling, a form of freedom of expression, as one of the “the most important foundational principles of our great nation.” The head of the CIA said how officials respond to kneeling is a sign of leadership qualities. 

Trump’s response to the protests has been overtly critical, calling the players who kneel “sons of bitches” and suggesting fans boycott games at a rally. His criticisms continued on Twitter, where many faulted the president for limiting free speech.

“And at all times, the primary responsibility of the President of the United States is to do everything possible to safeguard the lives of American citizens, which is why Mr. Trump should have laser-like focus on mitigating the catastrophic damage of Hurricane Maria on the people of Puerto Rico,” Brennan writes.

Brennan is likely referring to the widespread criticism of Trump’s slow response to the devastation in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. When San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz addressed the president’s lack of aid, Trump attacked the “nasty” mayor on his Twitter account.

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