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WASHINGTON — White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Saturday she was booted from a Virginia restaurant because she works for President Donald Trump, becoming the latest administration official to experience a brusque reception in a public setting.
Sanders tweeted that she was told by the owner of the Red Hen in Lexington, Virginia, that she had to "leave because I work for @POTUS and I politely left."
She said the event Friday evening said far more about the owner of the restaurant than it did about her.
"I always do my best to treat people, including those I disagree with, respectfully and will continue to do so," Sanders said in the tweet from her official account, which generated 22,000 replies in about an hour.
The restaurant's co-owner Stephanie Wilkinson told The Washington Post that her staff had called her to report Sanders was at the restaurant. She said several restaurant employees are gay and knew Sanders had defended Trump's desire to bar transgender people from the military.
"Tell me what you want me to do. I can ask her to leave," Wilkinson told her staff, she said. "They said yes."
Wilkinson said that she talked to Sanders privately and Sanders' response was immediate: "That's fine. I'll go."
No one answered the phone at the restaurant, which was not scheduled to open until the evening. Lexington is about a three-hour drive from the nation's capital and is in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley.
Sanders' treatment at the restaurant created a social media commotion with people on both sides weighing in with their critique, including her father, former Arkansas governor and Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee.
"Bigotry. On the menu at Red Hen Restaurant in Lexington VA. Or you can ask for the 'Hate Plate,'" Huckabee said in a tweet, quickly generating 2,000 replies in about 30 minutes. "And appetizers are 'small plates for small minds.'"
On Yelp, a responder from Los Angeles wrote: "Don't eat here if you're a Republican, wearing a MAGA hat or a patriot."
But many were also supportive of the restaurant owner's actions.
"12/10 would recommend. Bonus: this place is run by management who stuck up for their beliefs and who are true Americans. THANK YOU!!!!" said a comment from Commerce City, Colorado.
Politically, the town is a spot of blue in a sea of red. It sided with Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, 61.8 percent to 31.3 percent. It's the county seat of Rockbridge County, which went with Trump by a similar margin. And it is home to Virginia Military Institute and Washington and Lee University.
Tom Lomax, a local business owner, brought flowers to the restaurant Saturday afternoon as a show of support. He called Wilkinson, a "force of nature" and "one of the biggest drivers of the downtown."
"We support our own here, great little community we have," he said.
The separation of families trying to enter the U.S. at the southern border has intensified political differences and passions that were already at elevated levels during the Trump presidency.
Earlier in the week, Trump's homeland security secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, cut short a working dinner at a Mexican restaurant in Washington after protesters shouted, "Shame!" until she left.
Ari Fleischer, the press secretary for former President George W. Bush, tweeted: "I guess we're heading into an America with Democrat-only restaurants, which will lead to Republican-only restaurants. Do the fools who threw Sarah out, and the people who cheer them on, really want us to be that kind of country?"
Brian Tayback, of Shrewsbury, Pa. and Brandon Hintze, of Alexandria, Va., walked by the restaurant during a visit to Lexington on Saturday. Tayback said he believes the owner made the right decision.
"They're taking a stand against hate," Tayback said.