Around 8:30 p.m. - after President Donald Trump had already given his speech at the Lincoln Memorial as part of his "Salute to America" program, but before the nighttime fireworks display - T.J. Helmstetter headed to Hill Country, a restaurant that has been one of his favorite stops.
In a text-message interview on Friday, Helmstetter said that he, his partner and three other people found the place packed when they arrived.
"We had just walked in when I saw the guy sitting by the bar with the MAGA hat," Helmstetter wrote. "I said, 'Hey, are you from D.C.?'"
The man said no, and Helmstetter said he responded, "We don't tolerate racism in this city." The comment, according to Helmstetter, prompted the MAGA cap wearer's companion to get up and jab her fingers into his chest. "I'm sure I said more things then, don't remember what," Helmstetter texted.
Did he curse at the woman?
"I'm from New Jersey, I'm sure I did. I might have said get your . . . hands off of me or something like that," he texted, using an expletive.
That's when a Hill Country manager told Helmstetter, but not the target of his ire, to leave. On Twitter, Helmstetter said that Hill Country "chose to protect the Nazi's right but not mine" to dine at the restaurant. Helmstetter then walked outside and called a Hill Country manager, who supported his staff's decision to boot him.
In the cold accounting of Twitter, Helmstetter's comment was getting "ratioed," meaning his tweet had received more negative replies than likes. By Friday afternoon, before Helmstetter made his account private, his tweet had garnered nearly 2,300 likes compared to nearly 5,000 comments, many of them negative. Critics said Hill Country made the right call; they considered Helmstetter the aggressor and the intolerant one.
Leah Morgan, chief of staff for Hill Country Hospitality, emailed to say managers worked fast to de-escalate the situation.
"Last night our management team overheard a very loud verbal altercation in our bar area," Morgan emailed. "When two of our managers approached the area, they observed one of our guests being hostile towards another group of guests. Our team was simply trying to prevent a physical altercation as they are trained to do and asked the guest yelling at the group to leave the restaurant immediately. There was nothing more to it from our team's perspective and the incident was handled appropriately to ensure guest safety."
The confrontation is more of the same for Washington restaurateurs, who have had to navigate the choppy political waters of the city during the Trump era. In the recent past, protesters have targeted members of Trump's cabinet or inner circle, such as former Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen when she was heckled at a Mexican restaurant; or lawmakers such as Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee whose dinner at Fiola was interrupted during the height of the Supreme Court confirmation hearings on then-nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
The restaurants can quickly become targets themselves after such protests, even though they are merely the arenas in which the protests take place. Their Yelp pages get attacked. Their phone lines get tied up. The owners may even receive death threats. Hill Country, by contrast, has been mostly lauded online for its efforts to cool down a heated confrontation between patrons, not an organized protest of a Trump appointee or member of Congress.
Helmstetter texted that he felt compelled to confront the MAGA-hat-wearing diner. He added that "progressives and any concerned person who thinks that we shouldn't cage brown children in American concentration camps should respond vociferously to these people at every opportunity."
The problem, of course, is that "these people" respond vociferously in kind. Helmstetter's Twitter feed and private message inbox were flooded with comments, much of it questioning his manhood and recommending that he get therapy. Some even suggested that he was lucky to come out alive after confronting a Trump supporter in a barbecue joint.
The blowback came so fast and furious that Helmstetter decided to make his Twitter account private. He's now deciding whether he will ever go back to Hill Country, a business that he has supported since before owner Marc Glosserman opened the D.C. location in 2011.
But if Helmstetter isn't yet tired of Hill Country's barbecue, he's burned out on politics in Washington. After working for the DNC and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Helmstetter said he is starting a new business: a flower design studio.
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