For the second time in a week, President Donald Trump faced boos at a sports event, receiving a mixed reaction when he arrived at a mixed martial arts event Saturday night at Madison Square Garden in New York.
The episode underscored how infrequently Trump steps into uncontrolled environments since becoming president nearly three years ago, and how glaringly his unpopularity is on display when he does – despite the president’s assertions to the contrary.
In a tweet Sunday morning, Trump sought to highlight the positive, congratulating Ultimate Fighting Championship President Dana White for a job well done and likening the atmosphere at the event to a Trump campaign rally.
“Walking into Madison Square Garden last night with @danawhite for the big @ufc Championship fight was a little bit like walking into a Trump Rally. Plenty of MAGA & KAG present,” Trump tweeted, referring to his “Make America Great Again” and “Keep America Great” slogans. “Great energy. Fantastic job Dana!”
But, unlike at a campaign rally with enthusiastic fans, the reception Trump received Saturday night as a spectator at a sporting event was decidedly mixed.
Trump entered the arena shortly before the 10 p.m. event, with AC/DC’s “Back in Black” blaring, and stayed for the entire event, which ran more than four hours. As he took his seat on the floor, he greeted Roberto Durán, the boxer, and they posed for photos.
The attention then shifted from the president to the pay-per-view fights, with Jorge Masvidal beating Nate Diaz in a technical knockout before the fourth round in the main event.
Both boos and cheers can be heard in videos of the event, but the president and his adult sons disputed reports of the negative reception.
“Fake News!” Trump tweeted, and linked to a second-hand account from a supporter who said there was nothing but cheers.
In reply to a BBC tweet linking to a story on the boos, Eric Trump tweeted: “What a joke. You are the most dishonest people. The audience was chanting ‘Donald Trump, Donald Trump’ followed by ‘USA USA.'”
Donald Trump Jr. also responded to the BBC tweet, writing: “Fake News gonna fake. Why don’t you play the video you leftist hacks? I was there in the heart of NYC and it was overwhelmingly positive.”
In addition to his sons, Trump was joined by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.; Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C.; and Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., in a city where for decades he was one of its most prominent denizens. The president recently changed his permanent residence to Palm Beach, Florida.
The reception was more mixed than the one the president received a week ago, when he was booed and greeted with chants of “Lock him up” during Game 5 of the World Series at Nationals Park in Washington.
Opinion polls show Trump has remained unpopular since shortly after taking office in January 2017; he repeatedly dismisses those surveys as wrong or fake while countering with his strong support among Republicans.
Despite living in the nation’s capital for nearly three years, the president has seldom been seen in the city apart from at the White House, his own hotel and a few highly controlled settigs.
Away from Washington, too, instances of Trump venturing outside the comfort of events filled exclusively with supporters are rare and have largely consisted of appearances at sporting games.
In January 2018, Trump traveled to the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta for the national college football championship game. He was greeted with a mixture of boos and cheers, both inside and outside the stadium.
And on a trip to Japan in May, Trump prompted applause when he presented the “President’s Cup” at a sumo match in Tokyo – although there were also some scattered boos when he and first lady Melania Trump entered the arena with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife, Akie Abe.
Like Washington, New York is a Democratic stronghold, but UFC draws a different audience and has long, deep ties to Trump.
After the event, White talked about the league’s early days, when other venues shunned the sport. Trump reached out and offered the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, White said.
“Everything that ever happened to me in my career (as UFC grew into a billion-dollar business), Trump was the first guy to pick up the phone and reach out to me,” said White, who addressed the Republican National Convention in 2016.
White said the president’s attendance at Saturday night’s event came together during a Thursday meal at the White House.
Trump’s appearance Saturday night also drew protesters, who congregated outside the Garden. Demonstrators chanted “Danger, danger, there’s a fascist in the White House” over a bullhorn and held signs that read “Trump/Pence Out Now,” according to NJ.com.
White said that the Secret Service preferred that Trump watch from a suite but that the president “never listens to them anyway” and sat in a second-row seat. White likened Trump’s appearance, the first by a sitting president at a UFC event, to Barack Obama’s love of the NBA and George H.W. and George W. Bush’s love for baseball.
“It’s like we made it, you know?” White said. “It’s awesome.”
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The Washington Post’s Seung Min Kim in New York contributed to this report.