LOS ANGELES — In the packed auditorium at the Creative Artists Agency, a vortex of entertainment industry power and current progressive political woe, comedian Kathy Griffin — tiny, insistently red-tressed — erupts in full-throttle rasp at the man in the boxy gray suit as he finishes up onstage.
“I saw you on the Joy Reid show on MSNBC,” Griffin says, coming up from the audience to address Rep. Ted Lieu, a California Democrat speaking at the CAA Foundation’s Take Action Day. “You’re giving us hope!”
A trio of sleek female agents surrounds Lieu, as if he’s some TV heartthrob like actor Joshua Jackson, who is on the same environmental panel yet attracting far less attention.
“You’re a rock star,” they gasp. “We love your tweets.”
With Lieu, it’s all about the tweets. Since the inauguration of Donald Trump, Lieu has become a tweeting demon, famous as the man, as the Los Angeles Times put it, “trolling the Tweeter in Chief.”
After Nov. 8, Lieu, like many congressional Democrats, was dispirited at the thought of controlling nothing and constantly having to play defense. “Honestly,” says the 48-year-old second-termer, “I felt hopeless for many weeks after the election.”
Then he reached for his phone.
And out came:
“ ‘President’ @realDonaldTrump: You truly are an evil man. Your job is to help Americans. Not intentionally try to destroy their lives.”
“Dear @realDonaldTrump: I don’t agree much with Sen @RandPaul, but we do agree that your #Trumpcare sucks.”
“I love #irony. Dr. Evil, aka Steve Bannon, is under criminal investigation for voter registration fraud.”
“Don’t be fooled: an expensive, wasteful & stupid border wall with a happy face on it is still an expensive, wasteful and stupid border wall.”
Since the beginning of the year, followers of his personal @tedlieu account have exploded, going from fewer than 10,000 to more than 122,000. (The official @reptedlieu account, managed by his staff, is generally more cautious, like Lieu’s former public profile.)
His frequent barbs have gotten the far right’s attention. Breitbart News has wondered whether, as a colonel in the Air Force Reserve, he could be court-martialed for persistent criticism of the commander in chief. (He can’t be, and he doesn’t tweet on duty.)
In conversation, Lieu is far more cautious and earnest than he is in his Twitter ripostes, and polite to a fault. Born in Taiwan, he projects a conservatism in manner and dress that seems at odds with many of his constituents.
After a dozen years serving in local and state politics, he succeeded Democrat Henry Waxman, who retired in 2014 after representing California’s 33rd District for four decades, more than three-quarters of Lieu’s life. The district is among the nation’s wealthiest and includes Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, Malibu and Lieu’s more middle-class home of Torrance.
Lieu was elected president of his Democratic freshman class, but his first two years in Congress were comparatively quiet on social media. “We had a Democratic president who could stop stupid ideas and unconstitutional ideas,” he says. Now, Democratic members of Congress “are basically the last line of defense.”
Trump and his administration unleashed Lieu’s mojo. “Was charged $2.99 for coffee listed at $2.59,” ran one tweet. “That’s why I have trust issues. Oh, and the fact that @seanspicer at #WhiteHouse makes s--- up.”
The expletive came as a shock, as do the barbed critiques, to people who know him well.
“He’s a very serious man. Very polite, very cordial. He doesn’t say any bad words,” says Betty Lieu, his wife of 15 years. “He was raised to be an obedient, dutiful Chinese immigrant son. He does what he’s supposed to do. He is very clean-cut with the perfect record, the perfect résumé. When he’s angry, he’s usually controlled. But Ted said there was no better way to say this.”
Rep. Karen Bass, a fellow Democrat who served with Lieu in the California state assembly, where she was speaker, says: “A lot of my colleagues would be surprised by Ted’s recent tweets. Ted is quiet, very levelheaded and thoughtful. He’s not shy, but he’s not one of those people always jumping up to be seen and heard.”
However, Bass notes, “Ted’s become more creative since Trump. We’re all trying to figure out how to manage this time period.”
Little in Lieu’s bio suggests that he would become the House Dem to troll Trump.
His family moved from Taiwan to the United States when Ted was 3. “Of all places, my parents said, ‘We’re going to Cleveland,’ ” Lieu says. They first lived in the basement of a woman’s home. Lieu’s parents scoured flea markets and swap meets, then resold their purchases, living on the markups. That business grew into Eastern Art, a mall gift-and-jewelry store.
“They saved their money and worked seven days,” says Lieu, whose first language was Mandarin. One store grew into six. Lieu and his brother helped on weekends and during school vacations.
Computers were his first love. “One of the coolest days of my life was when I bought a 16K memory card upgrade and stuck it in my Apple II,” he says. “I was kind of a geek.”
Not kind of, his wife says. “Sometimes his humor can be quite dorky, given the nerd that he is,” she says.
Lieu studied computer science at Stanford and attended Georgetown Law School, where he served as editor in chief of the law journal.
“It occurred to me that my family had achieved the American Dream, from being poor to starting a business to giving me and my brother an amazing education,” says Lieu. (His brother, John, is a radiologist.) “It’s one reason I joined the Air Force, because I believed I can never give back to America what America has given to my family and me.” He served four years of active duty and now averages about four weeks annually in the reserve at the Los Angeles Air Force Base, which was where he spent Inauguration Day.
He met his wife, the child of Taiwanese and Korean immigrants, at a bar association function. “One of the reasons I married him was his sense of humor,” says Betty Lieu, a former deputy state attorney general. “And that he looked great in that military uniform. I was living the fantasy of ‘An Officer and a Gentleman.’ ” The couple has two sons, ages 11 and 13.
During his first term in Washington, Lieu crashed in hotel rooms. “He would make a great travel agent,” his wife says. “Somehow he can find the best rates.”
He recently purchased a condo. “Ted is a very smart man,” says Betty. “But he is not good around the home. He can’t make his own bed, do his own laundry. He can’t cook. I actually worry about his having his own place.”
But Lieu can tweet.
“Yes, I am not well-behaved,” he says. “I concluded that if I’m going to be doing this, I should be doing something that’s right and important. Otherwise, I should just quit and be with my family.”
Lieu’s caustic social media presence has won him increased popularity among his constituents. In his first term, a telephone town hall drew 1,200 callers. More than 6,600 dialed in to a recent one. During the February recess, Lieu’s days were swamped with meetings. He’s recognized everywhere, thanked constantly. “I can’t go out with messed-up hair and sweatpants like I used to,” he says.
“I remember when Trump got elected, I thought ‘Oh, I’m going to have a lot more time on my hands,’ and it’s exactly the opposite,” he says. “Constituents are upset. And I’m upset.” He adds, “I realize the most patriotic thing I could do is resist Donald Trump.”
He makes clear that it is specifically Trump as president, not just any Republican in the White House, that has ignited his fury. “I would not be doing this if we were talking about President Rubio,” Lieu says. “We disagree on many things, but I don’t think ‘President Rubio’ is a danger to the republic.”
Lieu’s official website includes a “Cloud of Illegitimacy Clock,” tracking how long he believes Trump has been in violation of the Constitution’s emoluments clause, which prohibits government officials from accepting payments from foreign governments. The website also offers a guide for government employees who wish to share crucial information and “break the administration’s communications blackout on federal agencies.”
During a Judiciary Committee hearing, Lieu branded Trump “a pathological liar.” He has said that “our leader is potentially unhinged” and questioned his mental health. Unsurprisingly, the invitations to appear on television have notably increased. Lieu has been on national and California news programs more than 30 times since the inauguration.
Office news releases sometimes place an asterisk next to Trump’s name, questioning his legitimacy, noting his loss of the popular vote and “Vladimir Putin ordering a multifaceted and brazen Russian influence and cyber hacking campaign with the goals of undermining faith in the U.S. democratic process.”
Posted beside the door to Lieu’s office in the Cannon House Office Building is a paper sign that reads “This office is an #AlternativeFacts Free Zone. Period.” He has no plans to take it down anytime soon.