WASHINGTON – Heidi Cruz stood frozen in the middle of the restaurant, hands clenched beneath her shawl, teeth bared in what might have started as a grin before it changed to something else.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, had not yet removed his overcoat. He and his wife had not yet reached their table, which sat set and ready for them just a few paces away: a cream-cushioned booth, as reserved. But the Cruzes had not ordered all this chanting.
“We believe the survivors. We believe the survivors,” sang the crowd that had materialized around the couple. There were perhaps a dozen of them. A moment earlier, they had been any other patrons at Fiola, a $145 set-price Italian restaurant a mile from the U.S. Senate building. Now they were a Monday night flash mob with cellphone cameras.
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Smash Racism DC tweeted “Sexual assault survivor questioned Cruz during disruption at fancy Washington DC restaurant. Cruz ignores her.”
“We believe the survivors,” the crowd kept singing, as Heidi Cruz continued to not-grin.
“Hiiiiii!” said a woman behind one of the cameras. She stretched the syllable out as if she had it on rack. “I’d love to talk to you about Brett Kavanaugh tonight.”
The woman was addressing the senator, not his wife – the two men are known to be old friends. More pertinently, Ted Cruz is a Republican on the Senate’s Judiciary Committee, and Kavanaugh is a Supreme Court nominee whose confirmation process had been interrupted by allegations that he sexually assaulted one woman and engaged in sexual misconduct with another as a teenager.
The chanting never stopped. “We believe the survivors!”
Organizers of this protest would later identify themselves as members of various left-wing organizations: a local anti-fascist group and a branch of the Democratic Socialists of America, among others. One of them told The Washington Post they had been tipped off to the Cruzes’ reservation that evening and sat covertly at Fiola’s bar for more than an hour to await his arrival.
Ted Cruz didn’t want to talk about Kavanaugh with a dozen strangers in the middle of a restaurant. Heidi Cruz eventually unfroze and slid into the booth.
“I’d love to know what your vote is going to be tonight,” the woman pressed. “I know that you’re very close friends with Mr. Kavanaugh. Do you believe in survivors, sir?”
The camera frame suddenly jostled. “Please don’t touch me,” the woman said.
The restaurant staff stared from the perimeter of the crowd, unwilling and perhaps unable to interfere with the escalating spectacle. “We’re not trained to deal with this,” Fiola’s co-owner, Maria Trabocchi, later told The Post. “How do you deal with things like this? It’s crazy times.”
Trabocchi was aware that flash protests such as this have beset the hospitality industry for months – Trump’s press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, was refused a table at a tiny restaurant in rural Virginia; Florida Gov. Rick Scott, R, was chased out of a Cuban place last week. The possibility is a risk almost anywhere a prominent Republican shows up to eat.
Trabocchi had nevertheless hoped that her restaurant was exempt. Politicians from both parties come into Fiola all the time, Trabocchi said. “Everyone except Donald Trump. We’re very bipartisan by nature.”
That made no difference Monday, of course. Fiola may be bipartisan, but the country isn’t.
“Senator, we have a right to know what your position is on Brett Kavanaugh,” the woman said, now encompassed by the chanting throng.
Cruz looked straight into the camera and smiled. “God bless you, ma’am,” he said, and took his coat off and sat down – very briefly.
“God bless you, as well,” the woman said, louder now. “I’m a survivor of sexual assault, ma’am. I believe all survivors. There are now three people who have come forward and said that Brett Kavanaugh has attacked them. Would you talk to him about that?”
He might. Ted Cruz is one of 21 members of the Judiciary Committee expected to question Kavanaugh when he returns to the Senate on Thursday to defend himself against his accusers, one of whom is also scheduled to testify. “These allegations are serious and deserve to be treated with respect,” Cruz said in a statement last week, a few days before a second woman went public with accusations against the nominee.
But Cruz also faces a tough reelection fight in Texas against Democrat Beto O’Rourke. And Kavanaugh’s nomination is historically unpopular with the public, and it’s uncertain how long his support among Republican senators will hold.
Cruz did not respond to his interrogators at Fiola, except to offer pleasantries wildly out of sync with the shouts and screams around him.
“We would like to leave in private,” he said as he stood up from the table. “Excuse me.”
“Beto looks way hotter than you do!” someone shouted. Another raised a middle finger as the couple shuffled past. O’Rourke condemned the protest the next morning.
Beto O’Rourke tweeted “Not right that Senator Cruz and his wife Heidi were surrounded and forced to leave a restaurant last night because of protesters. The Cruz family should be treated with respect.”
“God bless,” Cruz told the crowd, again. “Can you let my wife through?”
Questions followed them, mostly indistinguishable beneath the chants. White-jacketed staff remained standing, motionless, as the Cruzes were slowly pursued to the door. A manager had already called the police by then, Trabocchi told The Post. Other than that, all they could do was hope the scene did not turn violent.
When the Cruzes reached the door, a waiter tried to open it. The door stuck, so he pushed again. Then again, and again, and harder each time.
“We believe the survivors!” a dozen voices screamed in unison.
“Fascist, racist, anti-gay!” one of them said.
Finally the door swung open, and the Cruzes walked out into the night. The waiter closed it immediately behind them, and the crowd inside whooped.
“This is what’ll happen to you if you support Kavanaugh,” a man warned the other patrons as the crowd passed back into the bar.
“Leave the premises,” a staff member finally told them. “This is a private space.”
The intruders were gone by the time the police arrived, Trabocchi said. The Cruzes were long gone.
Someone from the restaurant phoned the senator’s office Tuesday morning, Trabbochi said. She did not reveal what they discussed but said the senator is welcome back any time, though she does not know how she can prevent another ambush.
Those who planned it appear to have achieved their purpose, anyway. Videos of the encounter were published on the Smash Racism DC social media accounts in the middle of the night, along with a statement that the group said would be its only comment on the incident.
“This is a message to Ted Cruz, Brett Kavanaugh, Donald Trump and the rest of the racist, sexist, transphobic, and homophobic right-wing scum,” the statement reads, in part. “You are not safe. We will find you. We will expose you. We will take from you the peace you have taken from so many others.”