White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked to leave a restaurant on Friday night on account of the owner objecting to her work with President Trump. Sanders was dining at the Red Hen, a 26-seat, farm-to-table restaurant in Lexington, Virginia, which serves “inspired Shenandoah cuisine.” Not long after she and her party sat down, however, the owner of the restaurant arrived and asked Sanders to leave, citing Sanders efforts to represent and defend the Trump administration. The incident makes Sanders the third Trump official to face public backlash while dining out in less than a week, suggesting that the social cost of working with the president may be going up following widespread outrage over the Trump administration separating thousands of migrant children from their parents at the southern U.S. border.
Sanders posted a tweet confirming the incident on Saturday morning, framing the confrontation as a matter of disrespect and intolerance:
On Friday night, Sanders’s waiter originally wrote on Facebook that, “I just served Sarah Huckabee Sanders for a total of 2 minutes before my owner kicked her out along with 7 of her other family members.” The news was then shared in a soon-viral tweet by Clean Virginia executive director Brennan Gilmore, before being eventually confirmed by Sanders herself on Saturday. The waiter’s Facebook post, as well as the restaurant’s Yelp page, were soon inundated with comments from both opponents and supporters of the decision. It got worse on Saturday, at which point the waiter revised and softened his original message, untagging the restaurant and attempting to clarify that Sanders had been asked to leave, complied, and that her family then joined her and “left on their own accord.” The restaurant “didn’t actually refuse service or ‘kick her out,’ ” he explained. He also said in subsequent comments to his post that Sanders “seemed pretty nice,” but that “she was asked to leave because the owner felt that [Sanders’s] moral decisions conflicted with her own.”
The owner of the Red Hen, Stephanie Wilkinson, explained to the Washington Post on Saturday that though she was “not a huge fan of confrontation,” she believed Sanders worked in the service and defense of an “inhumane and unethical” administration, and thought it was her responsibility to stand up to that. In addition, Lexington is a very blue college town of about 7,000 people in the middle of a very red part of Virginia, looking at how the 2016 election went.
“I have a business, and I want the business to thrive,” she continued, but added that, “This feels like the moment in our democracy when people have to make uncomfortable actions and decisions to uphold their morals.”
Wilkinson was not at the restaurant when Sanders arrived, but she went there after staff called to tell her. She consulted her employees and offered to ask Sanders to leave, which is what they said they wanted her to do. Wilkinson then took Sanders aside and explained that “the restaurant has certain standards that I feel it has to uphold, such as honesty, and compassion, and cooperation,” before asking Sanders to leave.
“That’s fine. I’ll go,” Trump’s spokeswoman apparently replied. She then collected her things and left the restaurant, soon followed by the rest of her party. Wilkinson covered the bill, even though the other party members offered to pay. She said all of the interactions with Sanders and her party had been polite and respectful on both sides.
The restaurant’s closing staff later wrote “86 Sarah Huckabee Sanders” on their note for the morning manager (“86” is restaurant shorthand for when a menu item is no longer available), and a photo of the note made it into the waiter’s Facebook post and onto Twitter.
Amid the inevitable online backlash to her decision, Wilkinson acknowledged that she didn’t know what the consequences would ultimately be, but promised the restaurant would “soldier on,” and insisted that she believes she did the right thing and would do it again. “We just felt there are moments in time when people need to live their convictions. This appeared to be one.”
Not surprisingly, an insufferable comment war has broken out on the restaurants’ Yelp and Facebook pages, with trolls supporting Trump and Sanders gaining the upper hand thus far. As CNN’s Andrew Kaczynski has noted, many high-profile conservatives who once applauded a Virginia bakery owner’s decision to decline a campaign stop by Vice-President Joe Biden over political differences are now hypocritically ganging up on the Red Hen:
Sanders’s father, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, also came to her defense on Saturday, calling out the restaurant owner’s “bigotry” hours after he had used an image of Salvadoran gang members to make a racist comment attacking House minority leader Nancy Pelosi.
Sanders is not the only Trump official now facing discomfort while dining out. Homeland Security secretary Kirstjen Nielson — seen by many as the face of Trump’s family separation policy — was heckled by protesters while eating at a Mexican restaurant in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday night. She eventually left the restaurant as as result. Protesters also assembled outside Nielson’s home in Washington on Friday morning, playing the now infamous ProPublica recording of migrant children crying after being separated from their parents by Border Patrol agents.
The other Trump official to reportedly face pushback in public this week was White House policy adviser Stephen Miller, who was the primary architect and advocate of the family separation policy. According to a witness who spoke with the New York Post, Miller was heckled while dining at a different Mexican restaurant in Washington last Sunday, when another patron said to him, “Hey look guys, whoever thought we’d be in a restaurant with a real-life fascist begging [for] money for new cages?” Per the Post, “Miller didn’t respond and scurried away, the witness said.”
At least 2,300 migrant children were separated from their parents under the haphazard Trump administration policy, which the president finally reversed this week — though without any plan to reunite the families his administration has already broken up. Now, instead of taking children away from parents, Trump wants to indefinitely — and illegally — detain whole families who cross the border instead, though no one is totally clear on what will happen next. Only 500 of the detained migrant children have been reunited with their parents, according to the administration, and many of the rest seem to be missing. A CNN report on Friday indicated that thousands of children remain unaccounted for, and that, according to a Customs and Border Protection memo, the actual number of children who were originally taken from their parents could be as high as 3,300.
It’s not clear if this trend of people confronting Trump officials in public will continue, but considering the high profile nature of these few incidents, as well as the ongoing fury over the family separations and the unknown number of missing migrant children, it seems possible.
This post has been updated to include comments from the Red Hen’s owner.