The refusal of a Virginia restaurant owner to serve White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders is the latest incident in the escalating public hostility directed at President Trump and his aides, raising concerns among some conservatives about the potential for partisan-inspired violence.
Leading Democrats largely failed to condemn the actions of the Red Hen restaurant in Lexington, Virginia, where owner Stephanie Wilkinson asked Mrs. Sanders to leave Friday night because her liberal staff detests the administration and didn’t want to serve her party.
Mrs. Sanders agreed to leave, saying of the restaurant owner later on Twitter, “Her actions say far more about her than about me.”
The incident has sparked outrage among Trump supporters as another example of intolerance on the left and increasingly aggressive partisan confrontation, especially in the wake of the president’s rescinded policy on separating illegal immigrant children from their parents.
Possible 2020 Democratic presidential contenders Joseph R. Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts have done little to discourage the hostile rhetoric. Ms. Warren has accused the president of “taking America to a dark and ugly place,” and at least one of her colleagues went further, calling for total social ostracism and perpetual public confrontations.
In recent days, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen has been heckled and booed at a Mexican restaurant by activists and faced demonstrators outside her home. White House senior adviser Stephen Miller was called a “real-life fascist” by another patron at a Mexican restaurant in Washington.
A congressional intern screamed at Mr. Trump, “Mr. President, f—- you!” as the president arrived at the Capitol last week for a meeting with House Republicans on immigration policy.
An openly gay Democratic Pennsylvania legislator greeted Vice President Mike Pence’s visit to Philadelphia on Thursday by posting an Instagram photo of himself giving the middle finger to Mr. Pence. “Get bent, then get out!” wrote state Rep. Brian Sims of Philadelphia.
Hollywood is encouraging the public nastiness. Actor Robert De Niro got a standing ovation at the Tony Awards this month for saying onstage at Radio City Music Hall: “F—- Trump.” Actor Peter Fonda called for the president’s 12-year-old son, Barron, to be “thrown into a cage with pedophiles.” He later apologized.
Comedian Seth Rogen bragged on TV about refusing to pose for a photo with Republican House Speaker Paul D. Ryan in front of the lawmaker’s sons. Actor Tom Arnold vowed to protest at the school attended by the children of presidential daughter and adviser Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner.
Trump allies say liberals are increasingly targeting administration officials with open hostility because minority-party Democrats can’t stop the administration’s policies in Congress.
“The increasing personal nastiness toward people who work for President Trump reflects the left’s understanding that they are losing,” tweeted former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. “Nastiness reflects desperation, not strength. They can’t win the argument, so they use nastiness. Sad and dangerous.”
Rush Limbaugh worried aloud on his syndicated show that the increasingly hostile rhetoric and confrontations are heading toward violence. He blamed the media for what he called incendiary coverage of the family separation issue at the border.
“If the media keeps this up — if they keep up generating this hysteria — somebody’s going to get killed,” Mr. Limbaugh said on his show. “I think we’re pretty close to somebody getting killed already, and I’m not being hyperbolic, and I’m not trying to call attention to myself. I’m genuinely worried about the out-of-control aspect of this. The news media’s fanning the flames.”
The episode that may have crystalized the extent of the partisan animosity came not at the gates of the White House but in bucolic Lexington, Virginia, a historic town of about 7,000 that is a three-hour drive outside the Beltway in the Shenandoah Valley.
Mrs. Sanders sat down to dinner there around 8 p.m. Friday with her husband, Brian, and several others at the Red Hen, a cozy, 26-seat restaurant known for its farm-to-table menu.
Shortly after Mrs. Sanders and her group arrived, a restaurant employee called the owner at her home nearby to complain about the White House staffer’s presence. Ms. Wilkinson drove to the restaurant, huddled with her staff, pulled Mrs. Sanders aside and asked her to leave.
“I was babbling a little, but I got my point across in a polite and direct fashion,” Ms. Wilkinson told The Washington Post. “I explained that the restaurant has certain standards that I feel it has to uphold, such as honesty and compassion and cooperation. I said, ‘I’d like to ask you to leave,’” and Ms. Sanders didn’t hesitate, replying, ‘That’s fine. I’ll go.’”
The restaurant owner said she would do the same thing all over again.
“We just felt there are moments in time when people need to live their convictions. This appeared to be one,” she said.
She said several of her employees are gay, and she cited the press secretary’s work for the “inhumane and unethical” Trump administration.
“I’m not a huge fan of confrontation,” Ms. Wilkinson said. “I have a business, and I want the business to thrive. This feels like the moment in our democracy when people have to make uncomfortable actions and decisions to uphold their morals.”
After a flurry of news reports based on a waiter’s account on Facebook, Mrs. Sanders confirmed Saturday that she agreed to leave after being confronted by the owner.
“I was told by the owner of Red Hen in Lexington, VA to leave because I work for @POTUS and I politely left,” she tweeted. “Her actions say far more about her than about me. I always do my best to treat people, including those I disagree with, respectfully and will continue to do so.”
The Red Hen, which is not affiliated with the Red Hen restaurant in the District of Columbia, was promptly “Yelp-bombed” as thousands of commentators went online to post politically motivated one- and five-star reviews based on the Sanders incident.
The Red Hen’s Facebook page and Twitter account were also deluged with comments including “Thank you for standing up to the fascists” to “Nobody wants to eat at a place that bases service on politics.”
Lexington voted for Hillary Clinton by a 2-1 margin in the 2016 presidential election, while surrounding Rockbridge County voted overwhelmingly for Mr. Trump. It is home to the Virginia Military Institute and Washington and Lee University.
Mrs. Sanders’ father, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, tweeted of the incident, “Bigotry. On the menu at Red Hen Restaurant in Lexington VA. Or you can ask for the ‘Hate Plate.’ And appetizers are ‘small plates for small minds.’”
Mr. Huckabee received heavy criticism on the left over the weekend for tweeting a photo of MS-13 gang members with the comment, “Nancy Pelosi introduces her campaign committee for the take back of the House.”
Some said the confrontation at the Red Hen was evidence that political discourse in the U.S. has crossed an extreme line.
Ari Fleischer, who served as press secretary for President George W. Bush, tweeted Saturday: “I guess we’re heading into an America with Democrat-only restaurants, which will lead to Republican-only restaurants. Do the fools who threw Sarah out, and the people who cheer them on, really want us to be that kind of country?”
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, a frequent critic of the Trump administration, was one of the few Democrats to speak out against the restaurant owner’s actions.
“I think the restaurant owner should have served her. I really do,” Mr. Cummings said on CBS-TV’s “Face the Nation.”
At the same time, he blamed the increasingly vicious political climate in large part on Mr. Trump.
“This tone is horrible,” Mr. Cummings said. “I think President Trump has created this. Since he’s become president and even before, he’s basically given people license to state things that are ugly, and those things then turn into actions, as we can now see.”
However, Rep. Maxine Waters, California Democrat, took a different tack and called for more public confrontations. She told a cheering crowd that Trump administration officials should not be allowed anywhere in public.
“Let’s stay the course, let’s make sure we show up wherever we have to show up,” she said at a speech, the video of which was posted Sunday on social media. “If you see anybody from that Cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd and you push back on them, and you tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere.”
Rep. Barbara Lee, California Democrat, said Mrs. Sanders should be reported to the Office of Government Ethics for tweeting about a private business on her government Twitter account.
“If you use a government account to attack a private business on personal time, I mean, that’s not right,” she said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Democrats routinely blame Mr. Trump for lowering the public discourse through his name-calling of political adversaries, including Ms. Warren (“Pocahontas”) and former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter (“a crude dope”).
Former CIA Director Michael V. Hayden even compared the family separation issue to death camps in Nazi Germany. That brought a rebuke from others, including University of Pennsylvania history professor Jonathan Zimmerman, writing at SFChronicle.com.
“If I engage in the same violent and irresponsible rhetoric as Donald Trump, I’m not ‘resisting’ him,” Mr. Zimmerman wrote. “To the contrary, I’m going into the muck with him. That’s not resistance; it’s capitulation.”
Public anger directed at Mr. Trump and top administration officials is increasing as the White House proposes to assign protection duties for Cabinet-level officials to the already stretched-thin U.S. Marshals Service. The Office of Management and Budget announced the plan Thursday as part of a proposed major overhaul of the federal government, including the merger of some Cabinet agencies.
Marshals around the country were alerted in a memo on Wednesday that the service was preparing for the move.
“Consolidate protective details at certain civilian Executive Branch agencies under the US Marshals Service in order to more effectively and efficiently monitor and respond to potential threats,” stated the White House’s recommendation. “Threat assessments would be conducted with support from the U.S. Secret Service.”
Rep. Bob Goodlatte, Virginia Republican, invited Mrs. Sanders back to Lexington, saying the rude reception she received at the Red Hen restaurant didn’t reflect the “kind and caring people” of his 6th Congressional District.
“What @PressSec experienced in Lexington [Friday] night is very unfortunate and doesn’t reflect accurately upon the kind and caring people of Lexington that I know,” tweeted Mr. Goodlatte. “There are many great innovative businesses in #VA06 that I hope you’ll come to back to visit.”
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