President Donald Trump on Monday took to Twitter to attack the Lexington restaurant that asked his press secretary to leave and the Republican Party of Virginia circulated an online petition urging Virginians to boycott the eatery.
“The Red Hen Restaurant should focus more on cleaning its filthy canopies, doors and windows (badly needs a paint job) rather than refusing to serve a fine person like Sarah Huckabee Sanders,” Trump tweeted. “I always had a rule, if a restaurant is dirty on the outside, it is dirty on the inside!”
The Associated Press reported that photographs of the restaurant appear to show no evidence of serious disrepair to the red building with hunter green awnings and white doors and trim, though recent images appear to show some awning wear.
The restaurant’s most recent health inspection, reported by the local news site Patch and available online, includes no record of violations. Inspectors noted “good food/unit temperatures,” said staff members had clean uniforms and aprons, and observed “excellent job on code-dating.”
The Republican Party of Virginia tweeted Monday: “Once again, the intolerant left has shown its true colors.” It urged people to sign a boycott petition “to show the Red Hen that patriotic Trump supporters are the silent majority in Virginia!”
Corey Stewart, the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate, sought to tie the incident to immigration. “Leftists are OK kicking public servants out of restaurants but won’t remove illegal aliens from the U.S.” he tweeted.
Ian Sams, a campaign spokesman for Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said: “Senator Kaine believes civility and respect — from everyone — are important to a functioning democracy and adheres to the biblical wisdom not to repay evil with evil or insult with insult.”
Robert Denton, a longtime Virginia political analyst and head of the Department of Communications at Virginia Tech, said he was alarmed by the Lexington incident and by a Saturday rally at which Rep. Maxine Waters, a California Democrat, urged people to harass members of Trump’s Cabinet when they encounter them at places such as restaurants, department stores and gas stations.
“I certainly think it reflects the intensity of the polarization that we’re seeing,” across ideologies, across parties, “across our dinner tables,” said Denton, who last year wrote a book called “Social Fragmentation and the Decline of American Democracy” with Ben Voth, an associate professor at Southern Methodist University.
As for the state of politics, Denton said: “I think we’re getting to a dangerous point — tribalism almost at its worst.”
The Republican who represents Lexington in Congress and the delegate who hopes to succeed him tweeted regret over the incident.
“What @PressSec experienced in Lexington last night is very unfortunate and doesn’t reflect accurately upon the kind and caring people of Lexington that I know,” Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-6th, tweeted on Saturday. “There are many great and innovative businesses in #VA06 that I hope you’ll come back to visit.”
Del. Ben Cline, R-Rockbridge, the GOP nominee to succeed Goodlatte, tweeted: “On behalf of my hometown of Lexington, I want to apologize for the rudeness of one liberal New York transplant (who also happens to be Meryl Streep’s cousin). We hope you will come back and enjoy our area’s true southern hospitality.”
Jennifer Lewis, the Democratic nominee in the 6th District, said in a statement Monday: “While so many families can barely afford to put food on the table — and Republicans in Congress are prepared to cut Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid — I find it a distraction to focus on an official’s experience dining out. It’s time to focus on the issues directly affecting the lives of everyday people.”
Given the 6th District’s conservative leanings, the incident could help Cline campaign and raise money against Democrats in general, Denton said.
Gov. Ralph Northam’s office did not respond to two requests for comment on the incident.
Other Virginia Democrats and Republicans traded barbs on Twitter.
Democrat Tom Perriello, a former 5th District congressman who sought his party’s nomination for governor last year, urged “friends in DC/NOVA looking for a beautiful weekend” to “come to see the beautiful Blue Ridge and have a meal (with generous tip)” at the restaurant.
To which House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, tweeted: “Stay classy.”
Matt Moran, chief of staff to Speaker of the House Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, tweeted: “Don’t think this has ever happened at Chick-fil-A.”
Chick-fil-A, founded by S. Truett Cathy, a Southern Baptist, is closed on Sundays and its foundation has donated money to groups that oppose same-sex marriage.
Sanders tweeted Saturday morning that she was told by the owner of The Red Hen that she had to “leave because I work for @POTUS and I politely left.” She said the episode said far more about the owner of the restaurant than it did about her.
“I always do my best to treat people, including those I disagree with, respectfully and will continue to do so,” Sanders said in the tweet from her official account.
Restaurant co-owner Stephanie Wilkinson told The Washington Post that her staff had called her to report that Sanders was in the restaurant.
“Tell me what you want me to do. I can ask her to leave,” Wilkinson told her staff, she said. “They said yes.”
She cited several reasons for the decision to ask Sanders to leave, including the concerns of several restaurant employees who were gay and knew Sanders had defended Trump’s desire to bar transgender people from the military.
Wilkinson said that she talked to Sanders privately and that Sanders’ response was immediate: “That’s fine. I’ll go.”
“I’m not a huge fan of confrontation,” 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.”