President Donald Trump has tangled with House Freedom Caucus members opposed to his health plan, with Democrats eager to see him flop and with foreign leaders skeptical he has the chops to be a commander in chief.
But there’s one group that really gets under his skin — protesters.
The latest flare-up came this past weekend, when Trump’s motorcade took an unexpected detour on Saturday as he returned to his Mar-a-Lago resort from the Trump International Golf Club. The longer route bypassed a throng of protesters, participating in a nationwide demonstration calling for Trump to release his tax returns, as past presidents have done.
The president also vented on Twitter.
“I did what was an almost an impossible thing to do for a Republican-easily won the Electoral College! Now Tax Returns are brought up again?” Trump wrote on Twitter Sunday after Saturday’s tax marches. “Someone should look into who paid for the small organized rallies yesterday. The election is over!”
For all the pleasure the president takes in the adulation of massive crowds, he seems to take special umbrage with mass demonstrators who oppose his agenda. President Lyndon B. Johnson may have been quietly pained by chants outside the White House of “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” and Ronald Reagan may have once lost his cool with a heckler (“Oh shut up,” the Gipper said, drawing cheers from the crowd and silencing the interrupter), but Trump appears to be unique among modern presidents for just how clearly he wears his disdain for protesters.
Administration officials used to Trump’s Twitter riffs — which have at turns included accusations that President Barack Obama illegally wiretapped him and evidence-free allegations of massive voter fraud — try to brush off the president’s reactions to protests.
“I don’t think there was much consternation” about the tax march tweets, said one administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
“There are bigger battles for us to fight right now,” the official added.
Trump’s campaign rallies often drew protesters, who clashed — sometimes violently — with the real estate mogul’s hard-core supporters. They also often caught flak from the candidate himself, with Trump often yelling, “Get ‘em out of here,” and offering on at least one occasion to bankroll legal bills for attendees who confronted the protesters.
Even with Trump in the White House, he hasn’t eased up.
“Watched protests yesterday but was under the impression that we just had an election! Why didn’t these people vote? Celebs hurt cause badly,” Trump wrote about the massive Women’s Marches that took place the day after his inauguration, referencing the fact that prominent celebrities spoke at a handful of the events.
Kellyanne Conway, who managed Trump’s campaign and now serves in the White House, on Monday explained the president’s frustration with demonstrators and placed blame on Democrats for not discouraging the protests.
"I would love to hear the new DNC chairman, Tom Perez, Bernie Sanders, the Democratic senator from Vermont, who are going out on the road starting today, and I would love to hear Hillary Clinton, who lost to Donald Trump handily. I would love to hear them come forward as leaders of the Democratic Party and tell the people to stop,” Conway told "Fox & Friends." “They have a right to express their first amendment beliefs but at the same time, violence is not going to get us anywhere.”
The vast majority of anti-Trump protests have been conducted peacefully, but there were 21 arrests at a Berkeley, California, event over the weekend when protesters and Trump supporters clashed in the streets. Focusing on instances of protester violence and suggesting without evidence that the protesters are paid has become part of the GOP playbook in responding to recent demonstrations, which have popped up frequently ever since Trump’s election.
Trump’s griping started soon after the polls closed, with him taking to Twitter on Nov. 10 — two days after the election — to dismiss demonstrators as “professional protesters, incited by the media.”
“Very unfair!” he added.
Trump also went after protesters in early February after demonstrations at the University of California at Berkeley turned violent, prompting the cancellation of a speaking event featuring the controversial Breitbart writer Milo Yiannopoulos. “Professional anarchists, thugs and paid protesters are proving the point of the millions of people who voted to MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!” Trump wrote on Twitter.
And a trip to a Harley-Davidson plant in Wisconsin that was scheduled for early February was yanked, with some reports citing concerns about a swarm of protests.
Trump has tempered his overt dislike for protests only occasionally, usually soon after belittling demonstrators. He praised those same post-election protesters for their “passion for our great country” the day after calling them paid, and he lauded protests as “a hallmark of our democracy” the same day he dismissed the Women’s March.
For Trump’s antagonists, irking the commander in chief is an added bonus to protesting.
“The reality is that a majority of the country opposed Trump on Election Day and continue to oppose Trump,” Neera Tanden, the president of the leading liberal think tank Center for American Progress, said in an interview.
Part of the problem for Trump, Tanden said, is fixation on crowd size, especially during the campaign. She admits that Trump in many ways turned out to be right during the presidential race in using crowd size as a barometer for enthusiasm. But now that same calculus works against him.
“People are more motivated than I’ve ever seen them,” Tanden said. And Trump’s complaining about protesters, Tanden said, “prods people to protest more.”
“It strengthens the resolve,” she added.