Mother confronts EPA Director Scott Pruitt at Washington restaurant
Three times in the last two weeks, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been confronted after meals by immigration protesters. Scott Pruitt headed into what would be his final week as director of the Environmental Protection Agency sitting through a lunchtime confrontation with a mother and her child that produced a viral online video.
Two weeks ago in Washington, protesters caught up with the Kentucky Senator and his wife as they returned to their vehicle near Washington, D.C. Protesters were on hand last week during McConnell’s appearance in Danville. On Saturday, he was heckled outside of a Louisville restaurant. On Sunday, another restaurant for McConnell, another protest.
Increasingly, members of the administration of President Donald Trump and legislative supporters of his policies are facing public protests. It began with occasional confrontations dating back even to the weeks before Trump’s inauguration, only to pick up steam.
Just after arriving in Washington to work for President Donald Trump, Kellyanne Conway found herself in a downtown supermarket, where a man rushing by with his shopping cart sneered, "You ought to be ashamed of yourself! Go look in the mirror!"
"Mirrors are in aisle 9 — I'll go get one now," Conway recalled replying. She brushed off the dart with the swagger of someone raised in the ever-attitudinal trenches of South Jersey."What am I gonna do? Fall apart in the canned vegetable aisle?"
For any new presidential team, the challenges of adapting to Washington include navigating a capital with its own unceasing rhythms and high-pitched atmospherics, not to mention a maze of madness-inducing traffic circles.
Yet for the employees and congressional allies of Donald J. Trump — the most singularly combative president of the modern era, a man who exists in his own tweet-driven ecosystem — the challenges are magnified exponentially, particularly in a predominantly Democratic city where he won only 4 percent of the vote.
For as long as the White House has existed, its star occupants have inspired a voluble mix of demonstrations, insults and satire. On occasion, protesters have besieged the homes of presidential underlings, such as Karl Rove, George W. Bush's political strategist, who once looked out his living room window to find several hundred protesters on his lawn.
Yet what distinguishes the Trump era's turbulence is the sheer number of his deputies — many of them largely anonymous before his inauguration — who have become the focus of planned and sometimes spontaneous public fury.
"Better be better!" a stranger shouted at Stephen Miller, a senior Trump adviser and the architect of his zero-tolerance immigration policy, as he walked through Dupont Circle a few months ago. Miller's visage subsequently appeared on "Wanted" posters someone placed on lampposts ringing his City Center apartment building.
One night, after Miller ordered $80 of takeout sushi from a restaurant near his apartment, a bartender followed him into the street and shouted, "Stephen!" When Miller turned around, the bartender raised both middle fingers and cursed at him, according to an account Miller has shared with White House colleagues.
Outraged, Miller threw the sushi away, he later told his colleagues.
On Saturday, as Stephen Bannon, Trump's former strategist, browsed at an antiquarian bookstore in Richmond, a woman in the shop called him a "piece of trash." The woman left after Nick Cooke, owner of Black Swan Books, told her he would call the police.
"We are a bookshop. Bookshops are all about ideas and tolerating different opinions and not about verbally assaulting somebody, which is what was happening," Cooke told the Richmond Times-Dispatch, which first reported the incident.
"Steve Bannon was simply standing, looking at books, minding his own business," Cooke told the paper.
While he was a part of the president's team, Bannon dealt with life in Washington, a city he freely described as enemy territory, by hiring security and rarely venturing out in public. When Bannon traveled, it was usually aboard a private plane.
For a time, a sign on the front steps of his Capitol Hill address read, "STOP."
Protesters confronted Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and her husband, Senate Majority Leader McConnell in June near Washington over migrant family separations at the U.S.-Mexico border. Chao and McConnell were about to climb into a black SUV when they were approached by a small group of young men at Georgetown University. One started repeating, "Why are you separating families?"
A short confrontation ensued. "Why you don't leave my husband alone? Why you don't leave my husband alone?" Chao responded as McConnell got into the SUV.
"I'm not trying to disrespect you, but why is he separating families?" the young man said. "I'm not trying to disrespect you. He's separating families."
An angry Chao told the protesters to "leave him alone" as she tried to walk to the other side of the SUV with the help of security guards.
"No, he's not" separating families, she said. "You leave my husband alone," she added, pointing at the group.
"How does he sleep at night? How does he sleep at night?" one protester said.
This past Saturday, a group of Democratic Socialists and other angry protesters pursued McConnell through the parking lot at Bristol Bar & Grille in Louisville, berating him with a mixture of immigration rhetoric and personal insults.
As McConnell’s party turned a corner into the parking lot, a woman with an ankle-length dress and a backpack tried to block their path. She walked a step ahead of the Senate’s top Republican, and the rest of the crowd followed close behind, still chanting and shouting.
“Where are the babies, Mitch?” he was asked, on several occasions.
“We did good, fellow citizens,” one of group congratulated the rest as the Highlander headed toward the alley. And true enough, video of the impromptu protest would be seen by hundreds of thousands of people, and make national news, and be praised by those on the left who think Trump’s allies deserve no peaceful meals while hundreds of migrant children are still being held from their parents.
Most of the interactions that Trump's well-known aides have with strangers amount to nothing more than posing for selfies. But his advisers have also found themselves subjected to a string of embarrassing public spankings, a litany that began even before he took office.
Before Vice President Mike Pence's swearing-in, his neighbors in Chevy Chase, where he was renting a house, hung rainbow banners to protest his opposition to equal rights for gay men and lesbians. When Pence went to the musical "Hamilton" in New York, the actor playing Aaron Burr concluded the evening by announcing from the stage that he was afraid that Trump wouldn't "uphold our inalienable rights."
A White House reporter, once on the phone with Sean Spicer while the then-press secretary was standing in his yard in Alexandria, said he could hear a passing motorist shouting curses at him. By then, Spicer had become a regular inspiration for mockery on "Saturday Night Live," along with Trump, Conway, and Bannon.
Spicer said he spent his free time at home in those days because he didn't want to deal with strangers' interruptions — friendly or not.
"We were very deliberate about what we did and where we went because of the increasing notoriety," Spicer said. "When we went out, the goal was not to make a spectacle."
More recently, Trump appointees have starred in a flurry of in-your-face encounters that ricochet around social media for days on end.
A week ago, it was a Sidwell Friends teacher who interrupted her lunch at Teaism in Penn Quarter to tell Scott Pruitt — eating with an aide a few feet away — that he should resign as head of the Environmental Protection Agency.
By last Thursday morning, nearly half a million viewers had clicked on a video of the confrontation that the teacher, Kristin Mink, had posted on Facebook. By late Thursday afternoon, Pruitt quit.
"I would say it's burning people out," said Anthony Scaramucci, Trump's former communications director. "I just think there's so much meanness, it's causing some level of, 'What do I need this for?' And I think it's a recruiting speed bump for the administration. To be part of it, you've got to deal with the incoming of some of this viciousness."
On at least two occasions, demonstrators have assembled outside the Kalorama home of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner. Both like to attend early-morning spin classes at Flywheel, a nearby studio, where the room goes dark when the class starts — the better to pedal unobserved.
At the conclusion of a recent session, Kushner, a baseball cap pulled down over his face, headed quickly outside to a chauffeur-driven SUV that whisked him away.
The president himself leads a cloistered existence, never visiting a restaurant or golf club other than the ones he owns or controls. Reared in New York's indelicate political culture, Trump does not like to appear meek, using rallies and his Twitter account to lacerate rivals.
In recent weeks, say senior administration officials, Trump has voiced dissatisfaction with aides who have backed down during public confrontations, including his spokeswoman, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who was asked to leave the Red Hen restaurant in Virginia last month by the establishment's owner.
Two weeks ago, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen walked out of a downtown Mexican restaurant after demonstrators followed her inside to rail against the administration for separating children from migrant parents.
"Shame!" the protesters shouted while Nielsen remained in her seat, her head down as she typed messages on her smartphone.
Tom Davis, a Virginia Republican who spent 13 years in Congress, said Washington has always been a hotbed of dissent. What has changed, he said, is that aggressive tactics "are becoming more normalized."
"We're in a situation where bad behavior is being rewarded," he said. "There are no filters. I don't know where it ends."
After Mink, the schoolteacher, confronted Pruitt on Monday, television news shows sent chauffeur-driven cars to deliver her to their studios. On social media, Mink found herself applauded and chided.
She did not appear to mind the attention.
After Pruitt resigned, she tweeted: "Hey @realDonaldTrump where are you going for lunch tomorrow?"