Billings West High School senior Tyler Linfesty learned Thursday morning during first period that he had been selected for VIP treatment at President Donald J. Trump's rally at MetraPark.
Linfesty had applied for tickets to the rally earlier in the week. After earning VIP treatment, he went to tell his friends.
Fellow seniors Erik Hovland and Christian Dunlap were walking to class when Linfesty "approached us in the hallway looking pretty frantic, talking about how he gets the opportunity to get a picture with the president," Hovland said.
Linfesty reached out to the Trump campaign and told them he was planning on bringing friends. He said they told him they would save three seats for them.
Not long after Trump took the podium Thursday night at MetraPark, social media cued into Linfesty's puzzled facial expressions, visible just over Trump's right shoulder.
All three West seniors were ultimately asked to vacate their seats midway through the event by people they believe are Trump campaign staffers. By the end of the rally, the 17-year-olds achieved viral fame on social media.
"I didn't really have a plan," Linfesty said. "I was just going to clap for things I agreed with and not clap for things I didn't agree with."
Students at West have been shocked, but mostly positive in their reaction to seeing the trio on TV and all over the internet, where Linfesty has been dubbed "#plaidshirtguy."
"It's still hard for me to believe that people are recognizing me in the hallways as 'plaid shirt guy' now," Linfesty said.
The three have been friends since they met during speech and debate sophomore year. All three are interested in going to college next year. Hovland said he's interested in art. For Linfesty, his major academic interest is physics.
“I don’t think any of us had any idea we were going to be that big on TV, because whenever I see a Trump rally, you see Trump, you see hundreds of people behind him — that’s my experience at least," Linfesty said. "In this case, there were like seven people (on screen). I did not know that I was going to be that big.”
Some of the reaction on social media has been negative and Hovland said in addition to being referred to as "MAGA hat girl," he's seen accusations that the trio were paid actors, or looked like school shooters.
"I'm still pretty nervous about it because I don't want people to take one instance of me not being super enthusiastic at a Trump rally to define me as a person," Hovland said.
Though the group's lack of enthusiasm was evident at times, all three did clap at various points during Trump's speech.
Early on in the Trump rally, a Billings Gazette reporter saw staffers in the press pen looking at a photo in which Linfesty was circled.
Later Linfesty pinned a stylized rose emblem representing the Democratic Socialists of America to his right breast. The same group of staffers reviewed a photo of the emblem and searched online for more information. A short while later, Linfesty was removed.
"I saw this woman walking toward me on the left," he said. "She just said to me, 'I'm going to replace you.'"
He said he recognized her as one of the staffers manning the VIP hand-shaking and photo opportunity.
He was escorted to a back room where police and Secret Service looked at his ID and then after about 10 minutes told him he could leave, Linfesty said. He said he didn't feel mistreated at all during the encounter with police and Secret Service.
"They treated me fine," he said. "They just told me not to come back."
A few minutes later another woman the trio believes is a campaign staffer replaced Hovland and Dunlap.
"She talked to me and she said like, 'OK, you can go now,'" Dunlap said. "And I was like 'What?' And then she said 'You can go join your friend.' So I grabbed my stuff and, like, shuffled out of there, and then they started smiling and waving, you know."
They were also escorted out of the arena by law enforcement and eventually shown the door.
Linfesty said he also had a picture taken by the Trump campaign before the rally while he was wearing the DSA rose and posing with the president. He has not seen the picture since, he said Friday. As a joke, he also gave a copy of the "Communist Manifesto" wrapped with an "Art of the Deal" cover to Secret Service in hopes of having the president sign it. Agents did not grant his request, and the president didn't sign the book, he said.
"I didn't do it because I'm a communist," Linfesty said. "I did it because I thought it was funny as a joke."
Dunlap said he had no part in the attempted signing of the book and only learned about it afterward.
Ultimately the group said they didn't want to pass on a rare opportunity to see the president.
"We just wanted to hear what he had to say," Hovland said.
“I don’t think we meant to make a joke of the rally or make fun of people there,” Dunlap said. “It wasn’t like we were making fun of Trump supporters.”
At the same time, they didn't want to misrepresent their views.
"They told us while we were sitting there, 'You guys have to keep clapping, you have to smile, you have to look enthusiastic,'" Linfesty said. "I had to be honest in my views."
Emails and calls to the campaign for comment were not immediately returned Friday.