Five Harley-Davidson motorcycles rolled onto the White House’s South Lawn Thursday afternoon, where they were greeted by President Trump. He praised the riders — Harley-Davidson executives and union members — for building their bikes in the United States.
“Harley-Davidson is a true American icon. One of the greats,” Trump said of the Milwaukee-based company. “You’ve given me tremendous support, your workers in particular.”
But earlier in the week, Harley-Davidson employees heard Trump would be coming to their heartland factory, and at least one alerted a group of local protesters. That call set in motion a series of events that ended with news reports that Trump’s Wisconsin appearance had been canceled and a White House announcement that he would meet with company executives in Washington.
Flight records show a presidential VIP flight was scheduled to touch down in the Rust Belt state, which flipped from blue to red in the 2016 election, on Thursday.
On Monday afternoon, a second-shift worker at Harley-Davidson’s powertrain factory in Wisconsin learned that President Trump was slated to visit the plant Thursday. Feeling sick to his stomach, he wrote a private Facebook message to a local protest group.
The demonstrators, who call themselves the Milwaukee Coalition Against Trump, contacted Harley-Davidson through Facebook, telling the company that they would gather outside the factory to protest the president's immigration policies. The group organized a call-in campaign, urging activists to flood Harley-Davison and chief executive Matt Levatich with messages, emails and phone calls condemning Trump's appearance.
On Tuesday night, CNN reported that an unnamed administration official said the trip had been canceled.
During a White House briefing Wednesday, press secretary Sean Spicer insisted that the trip was never set in stone and suggested that the planned protest had no bearing on whether Trump would make the appearance. Trump had considered his options, Spicer said, and ultimately decided to invite the Harley-Davidson executives to Washington for lunch.
“Look, it was easier for the executives to come here, considering the week and all of the activity that's been going on,” Spicer said. “No decision had been made about or announced as to what we were doing.”
Harley-Davidson officials on Tuesday released a statement, first reported by CNN, saying they “don't have, nor did we have, a scheduled visit from the President this week at any of our facilities.”
But workers said preparations for the president were well underway. Nearly a week after he signed an executive order barring citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries and refugees from entering the United States, Trump was quietly scheduled to touch down in the Rust Belt state, which flipped from blue to red in the 2016 election. Secret Service members had cleared rooms in a Hilton hotel in Milwaukee, and agents had already toured the Harley-Davidson facility in Menomonee Falls, said a hotel worker and two factory employees, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because their employers had not authorized them to talk to the media.
The Trump administration did not respond to requests for comment, nor did officials at Harley-Davidson and Hilton hotels.
The White House meeting between Trump and Harley-Davidson, set for noon Thursday, will focus on job creation, Spicer said during the news briefing. Harley-Davidson cut 225 jobs, mostly production positions, in October because of decreasing motorcycle sales, executives said at the time.
And in Wisconsin, signs of preparation for a presidential visit came to a halt.
An employee at the Hilton City Center in Milwaukee provided to The Washington Post a hotel document that informed staff members that Secret Service agents would arrive Monday. The note, which appeared to be sent from a manager of the hotel's restaurant, said to expect 100 Secret Service members by Wednesday. The employee said no plans had been shared for Thursday.
A “presidential” flight on Feb. 2 from Washington to the Milwaukee area, meanwhile, was canceled Wednesday, according to the National Business Aviation Association's website, which tracks temporary flight restrictions.
It would have been one of Trump's first appearances outside D.C. since he entered the White House. Such trips take a lot of planning, and it's possible that even a potential visit from the president would require businesses and the Secret Service to begin preparing days in advance.
Still, Harley-Davidson workers said the messages they received from management sounded definite. One worker, who talked to The Post on the condition of anonymity to protect his job, said he saw people who appeared to be Secret Service agents checking out the 92,000-square-foot grounds Monday. Then, he said, his boss told him Trump was coming to speak to them at 2 p.m. Thursday. The worker said he didn't want the president in his workplace, but didn’t say anything — he figured that most of his colleagues had voted for Trump.
“He’s against everything I stand for,” the worker said. “The way he talks about people, about women and immigrants, is unacceptable.”
Another employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the company had not authorized her to talk to the press, separately caught wind of Trump’s visit Monday. She said a team leader called her co-workers into a huddle at the start of the second shift and told her the president would stop by.
The employee, who builds engines, almost left the building. She thought Trump took credit for jobs he didn’t save and named as an example Chrysler Fiat, where she said her son is employed. (Earlier this month, Trump had thanked himself for the automaker’s upcoming U.S. expansion, but the company said it had planned the growth before the election.)
Nobody knew why Trump was coming, she said. Plenty of folks were excited because they liked his talk about keeping manufacturing jobs in the United States. She noticed the place looked cleaner than usual.
Then on Tuesday afternoon, the team leader gave the workers an update. Trump would no longer make the trip to the plant in Waukesha County, home to about 44,000 manufacturing jobs.
Wayne Ranick, communications director for the United Steelworkers’ international organization, heard the same account from some of the union's Milwaukee members. “We knew he was planning to visit the facility,” Ranick said. “Then we learned that visit had been canceled.”
Gregory Chambers, 32, co-founder of the Milwaukee Coalition Against Trump, said his group’s mission was to publicly oppose Trump’s travel ban, signed last Friday, and discriminatory measures, in general.
“After [Harley-Davidson] heard we were coming,” he said, “everything was canceled.”
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