Just after arriving in Washington to work for President 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 employees of Donald Trump — the most 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 CityCenterDC 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, afraid that someone in the restaurant had spit in or otherwise tampered with his food, he later told colleagues.
On Saturday, as Stephen K. 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.”
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 embarrassing public spankings, a litany that began even before Trump took office.
Before Vice President Pence’s swearing-in, his neighbors in Chevy Chase, where he was renting a house, hung rainbow banners to protest his support for anti-LGBT policies. 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, a Sidwell Friends teacher 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 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. The president’s daughter and son-in-law 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.
On June 19, 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 in the country illegally.
“Shame!” the protesters shouted while Nielsen remained in her seat, her head down as she typed messages on her smartphone.
Newt Gingrich, a Trump ally and former Republican House speaker, said the way to end the public confrontations is “to call the police.”
“You file charges and you press them,” Gingrich said. “We have no reason to tolerate barbarians trying to impose totalitarian behavior by sheer force, and we have every right to defend ourselves.”
He described the president’s opponents as those who “went through a psychotic episode and are having the political equivalent of PTSD. And when they wake up in the morning to the genius that Trump is, he tweets and they say, ‘Oh, my God! He’s still president!’ And they get sicker.”
Referring to Trump’s advisers, Gingrich said, “They should take solace in the fact that we must be winning, since these people are so crazy. They used to be passive because they thought they were the future. Now they know we’re the future, and it’s driving them nuts.”
When she arrived in Washington, Conway said she expected that people “would help transition into the next administration. I wasn’t expecting people to try to undo the election and drive us out of town.”
For a time, Conway had Secret Service protection, though not because of anything that occurred in her travels around the city. She described her random encounters with Washingtonians as largely pleasant as she has shopped at the Giant on Wisconsin Avenue and bought a bridal shower gift at Bloomingdale’s in Friendship Heights. The other night, she said, she ate at Arucola on Connecticut Avenue, sitting at an outdoor table.
“It’s just endless selfies,” said George Conway, a lawyer who has set himself apart from his wife a bit by criticizing Trump on Twitter. “It makes it hard sometimes to leave when you have to go someplace.”
Referring to his wife, he said, “She has been getting a harder time from me about working for this administration than walking down the street.”
Still, there are plenty of moments that are not free from heckling.
When a stranger at a Baltimore Orioles game took her photo and mumbled that she was famous “for all the wrong reasons,” Conway said she walked over to him.
“I’m fluent in ignoramus,” she said. “What did you say?”
Then she took her own photo of him and announced that she was adding it to her “collection of underachieving men.”
During Bush’s presidency, Rove said, he generally ate at home, though he sometimes went to a nearby pizzeria for takeout or a restaurant in a shopping center in Bethesda where “the wait staff would put us in a corner so no one could see us.”
“We were very circumspect in Washington,” Rove said, especially because of moments such as a Sunday in 2004 when several hundred demonstrators surrounded his Palisades home to protest Bush’s immigration policies. Rove was inside with his wife and young son while the protesters banged on their windows.
“My wife was freaking out,” he recalled.
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?”