The recent public shaming of Trump administration officials in restaurants has triggered an internal debate among Democrats over how far they should go in confronting the president and his policies.
The boisterous protests against Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Trump advisor Stephen Miller as they dined in different Mexican restaurants, and the ejection of White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders by the owner of a Virginia eatery, caused some Democrats to embrace the strategy as an effective way to rally supporters and hold officials responsible.
Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), a frequent critic of the administration, gave a high-profile boost to the tactic by saying members of the Trump administration should be repeatedly confronted in their everyday lives.
“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 are not welcome anymore, anywhere,” Waters said at a rally in Los Angeles on Saturday.
On MSNBC the next day, she doubled down, saying that Americans are fed up. “The people are going to turn on them, they are going to protest, they are going to absolutely harass them,” she said.
But on Monday, several Democrats warned that such actions could backfire by eliciting sympathy for Trump officials, rallying Republicans to the polls in midterms or leading to similar protests against liberals by Trump supporters.
President Trump quickly tried to use the protests to portray his administration as a victim, falsely claiming on Twitter that Waters had advocated for his supporters to be harmed.
The Democrats’ debate is not unlike the one raging over whether to openly call for the impeachment of Trump, something party leaders like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi say is not appropriate at this time, especially as Democrats are trying to regain control of the House.
Pelosi urged caution Monday about expanding the protests against Trump Cabinet members beyond official events. Linking to an article about Waters’ comments, Pelosi took to Twitter to urge civility.
“Trump’s daily lack of civility has provoked responses that are predictable but unacceptable. As we go forward, we must conduct elections in a way that achieves unity from sea to shining sea," she said.
Other high-profile Democrats, like former Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod, called it counter-productive.
“Disgusted with this admin’s policies? Organize, donate, volunteer, VOTE! Rousting Cabinet members from restaurants is an empty and, ultimately, counter-productive gesture that won’t change a thing,” he said in a tweet.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York went even further on the Senate floor Monday, saying that copying the president’s abusive tactics isn’t the answer.
"No one should call for the harassment of political opponents. That's not right. That's not American," he said. “The president's tactics and behavior should never be emulated. It should be repudiated by organized, well informed and passionate advocacy."
The recent confrontations marked an escalation of ongoing progressive political protests. For months activists have protested outside the home offices of members of Congress, with some voyaging to their homes as well. They’ve marched in cities across the country, flooded Capitol Hill with phone calls and emails.
"Some folks feel that this [escalation] is justified because the normal routes of protest don't seem to have an effect on this administration,” Menlo College political science professor Melissa Michelson said.
But Michelson said there’s always the chance that undecided voters might be turned off by such aggressive tactics, or that Republicans will be inspired to vote to counteract it.
“If you are a Republican or you are a supporter of the Trump administration, and you see your team being attacked, then you want to come out and defend them,” she said.
But national Democratic strategist Tom Bonier said few voters are likely to be swayed by whether a Cabinet official gets to finish a meal or not. “These incidents may drive chatter inside the Beltway and with voters who are already dug in, but their impact on the broader electorate is nominal, if not nonexistent,” Bonier said.
Democratic leaders now must find a way to avoid extinguishing the passionate progressive backlash against Trump that they will need in the next election, without allowing the outrage to divide or define the entire party. That was the lesson of the GOP tea party wave, when conservative protesters filled town halls to oppose passage of the 2010 Affordable Care Act. Eventually Republican leaders lost control of the movement, partly clearing a path for Trump’s populist takeover of the party.
Protesters chanting “shame, shame, shame” drove DHS Secretary Nielsen from a Mexican restaurant in Washington last week. A larger group continued the chants outside her Virginia home, decrying the Trump administration for separating families at the Southern border, and loudly playing audio of children begging for their parents in Spanish.
Heidi Hess, co-director of the progressive group CREDO Action, which led the action at Nielsen’s house, said protesting outside an administration official’s home is not “outside the realm of what seems absolutely necessary at this point.”
“If you are ripping 4-month-olds from their moms, you have made a decision that there is almost nothing sacred,” Hess said. “I don’t think that ICE is terrorizing families only during the workday.”
Hess disagreed with the Democratic leaders who are pushing back against the protests, saying they want the party to do whatever it can to halt Trump’s policies.
"I think they are scared [that] it’s not going to play well in some kind of contested political landscape, but I think they are wrong,” Hess said.
A restaurant owner in Lexington, Va., pulled Sanders aside during her meal Friday evening, and asked her to leave. The owner told the Washington Post that she and her staff disagree with the administration’s stance on several LGBTQ issues, including the attempt to ban transgender people from serving in the military.
Sanders has seemed eager to draw attention to the incident, tweeting about it over the weekend and opening her White House briefing Monday with a statement about the encounter. Some Democrats feared the White House was using the issue to distract from the administration’s separation of more than 2,000 children from their parents when they crossed the border illegally in recent weeks.
“The calls for harassment and push for any Trump supporter to avoid the public is unacceptable,” she said.
Even when asked a question about why Democrats haven’t been brought to the table to help pass an immigration bill, Sanders found a way to pivot back to Waters.
"They'd rather rant and rave about not allowing members of the Trump administration to step foot in public," Sanders said.