Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
FILE - Lt. Gov. Spencer J. Cox speaks at a vigil for the victims and survivors of the mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, outside the Salt Lake City-County Building on Monday, June 13, 2016. Utah's Republican lieutenant governor says President Donald Trump was dividing the country and campaigning to his base with his comments and insults about NFL players who kneel in protest.

OREM — Utah's Republican lieutenant governor said Tuesday that President Donald Trump's comments about NFL players who protest during the national anthem was divisive and an attempt to campaign to the president's base.

Spencer Cox used a speech to students at Utah Valley University to urge more understanding and unity, and to respond to the weekend controversy.

More than 200 NFL players kneeled, sat or prayed during the national anthem after Trump implored NFL owners to fire players who did not stand, saying "get that son of a (expletive) off the field."

"I will stand and I will salute the flag until my feet bleed," Cox said. "But I'm so grateful that we live in a country where people don't have to if they don't choose to."

Cox, a rising Republican star who earned praise from around the country last year for apologizing to the LGBT community after the Orlando nightclub massacre, was originally asked to speak about how public officials should respond to extremism and white supremacists.

"The response isn't that there are good people on both sides," he said. "The response is that it's evil and it's wrong, and we should stop it now. There is no place in the public square or public discourse for white supremacy. Period. End of statement."

Cox, 42, is a former telecommunications executive, county commissioner, mayor and city council member from Fairview who has carved out a moderate reputation and hasn't shied away from calling out members of his own party.

As a freshman state lawmaker in 2013, Cox was picked by Utah's governor to serve as the state's second in command when former Lt. Gov. Greg Bell resigned to work in the private sector.

In making his choice, Gov. Gary Herbert cited an essay Cox penned where he became one of the first public officials to call for the resignation of then-Attorney General John Swallow, a fellow Republican who was under multiple state and local investigations in a pay-to-play scheme.

Last year, Cox did not support Trump during the presidential campaign and was openly critical of him, saying he didn't represent the GOP's values.

On Tuesday, Cox used his roughly hourlong address to discuss how candidates send messages to their most extreme bases of support to get elected and the motivations of those on both sides of the NFL protest debate.

The lieutenant governor said past presidents made comments that divided people and fed their political bases what they want to hear. He cited President Barack Obama's 2008 comments as a candidate when he told donors in San Francisco that small-town voters "cling to guns or religion."

But Trump "has kind of weaponized it in a way that we haven't seen," Cox said. "He's just kind of openly trying to divide us. That worries me."

The protest that NFL players made is problematic because there is no direct link between the national anthem and police brutality against minorities, he said.

Most people who are angered by the protest do not understand why the athletes are protesting, Cox said, and instead mistake it as a demonstration against the military, including those who died for their country, and America as a whole.

Cox spoke of a recent funeral he attended for a Utah soldier killed in Afghanistan, saying he sees the American flag and the national anthem as symbols honoring those who died fighting for the country.

But the lieutenant governor said he has never been to a funeral for an unarmed black person who was killed by police and cannot imagine what that would feel like.

Cox told reporters that if he was an NFL player on the field during the national anthem this past weekend, "I would be standing, but I would be linking arms with my friends who weren't."