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A brief guide to the State of the Union guests

From Buzz Aldrin to Alice Johnson, these guests were meant to make a statement. 

President Trump Delivers State Of The Union Address To Joint Session Of Congress Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

The State of the Union address is upon us, and with it comes the annual tradition of trying to make a point by inviting special guests.

President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump compiled a guest list that channels the president’s agenda and touts his policy successes. Democrats, on the other hand, are hosting attendees who stand in rebuke of Trump. All lawmakers are using their selected guests to make a statement — whether that’s honoring a pet policy project or highlighting an activist’s work that they agree with.

Trump has the mic, so his guests get most of the spotlight. But here’s a guide to some of the more notable attendees at Trump’s 2019 State of the Union address.

Trump’s guests: “the very best of America”

Trump and his family’s guest list follows the formula of past presidents; he’s inviting Americans who embody national ideals. This includes veterans, public servants, and ordinary citizens who have engaged in acts of heroism, along with those who benefit, or stand to benefit, from the president’s policies.

Trump is delivering the State of the Union not long after a bruising shutdown fight over his border wall. With that comes the familiar themes of illegal immigration and security — and he’s invited a few guests to illustrate what he’s fighting for. He is also honoring a plant manager at a lumber mill, a survivor of opioid addiction, and a kid who’s been bullied because his last name is Trump. Here are the people the president invited to his speech, in no particular order:

Buzz Aldrin: the astronaut who served as a member of the Apollo 11 crew for the moon landing in 1969. He wasn’t on the initial guest list from the White House, but President Trump honored Aldrin in his address when he noted the 50th anniversary of the lunar mission this year — and promised that “this year, American astronauts will go back to space on American rockets.” Aldrin, in a very festive tie, got a standing ovation.

Debra Bissell, Heather Armstrong, and Madison Armstrong: the daughter, granddaughter, and great-granddaughter of a couple from Reno, Nevada, who were murdered in their home in January 2019. A 19-year-old undocumented immigrant who had reportedly worked for the couple as a landscaper was charged in the couple’s murder; he was also charged with other homicides in the area. Trump had tweeted about this case, claiming it’s a reason why he needs his “powerful” wall.

Elvin Hernandez: a Department of Homeland Security special agent with the trafficking in persons unit. The White House says Hernandez has “conducted numerous successful international human trafficking investigations involving transnational organized crime groups” over the course of his seven-year assignment. Trump has tried to make the case for his border wall as a way to curtail human trafficking, though his claims aren’t always grounded in reality.

Matthew Charles: a Tennessee man who was one of the first people released from prison through the First Step Act, the criminal justice reform bill signed into law late last year, which Trump touted as a signature achievement.

Charles has something of a wild story: He was sentenced to 35 years for selling crack cocaine in 1996 but had his sentence shortened in 2016 under Obama-era policy changes that reduced the sentencing disparities for crack. Charles was released from prison — but prosecutors fought it, and he was forced to return to prison to serve out the remainder of the term. He was finally released in January 2019 through the First Step Act.

Alice Johnson: a great-grandmother who was serving a life sentence for drug trafficking. She received a high-profile commutation from President Trump in June 2018 after Kim Kardashian West visited the White House and personally made a plea for her.

Roy James: a plant manager at a lumber mill in Vicksburg, Mississippi. James was about to lose his job at the mill after more than two decades when the plant planned to shut down. But investors came in and purchased it through a special provision in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, the GOP’s (somewhat unpopular) tax cut. James was then hired to oversee the plant.

Timothy Matson: a SWAT team member and first responder who was shot at least six times and injured during the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in October 2018. Matson exchanged fire with the shooter, who was motivated by anti-Semitism and left 11 people dead.

Judah Samet: a Holocaust survivor who also survived the Tree of Life synagogue shooting. Samet, who is 81, told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that the president “invited me, I was told, because I represented two of the biggest tragedies for the Jewish people in the last hundred years.”

Tom Wibberley: the father of Navy Seaman Craig Wibberley, one of 17 people killed in the al-Qaeda attack on the USS Cole in 2000. Trump said in January that the al-Qaeda operative tied to the attack, Jamal al-Badawi, was killed in an airstrike in Yemen.

Ashley Evans: a survivor of opioid addiction from Ohio, one of the states hit hardest by the opioid epidemic. According to the White House, Evans received treatment from Brigid’s Path, a medical care facility in Kettering, Ohio, where she gave birth to her daughter and began her recovery. February will mark a little more than a year into her recovery, and she’ll be reunited with her daughter on February 15.

Grace Eline: a 10-year-old cancer survivor from New Jersey who’s “determined to help other children who are fighting cancer,” according to the White House.

Joshua Trump: a sixth-grader from Wilmington, Delaware, who has apparently been bullied in school because of his last name, so much so that he had to be home-schooled for a year. Sounds like a case for Melania Trump’s anti-bullying initiative “Be Best.”

Democrats’ guests: shutdown stories, #MeToo survivors, transgender troops, and more

Trump is delivering his State of the Union address at the invitation of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who is sitting behind Trump as he speaks. She’s also invited a slew of people who seem like a direct rejoinder to Trump and his politics — and many other Democrats are following her lead. While Pelosi gets a large guest list, most other lawmakers just get a plus-one. But here’s a sample of people Pelosi and other Democrats invited:

Transgender troops: Pelosi invited Capt. Jennifer Peace and US Army Maj. Ian Brown, two active-duty transgender service members. Their attendance seems like a direct shot aimed at Trump’s ban on transgender troops. Peace and Brown are representing OutServe-Servicemembers Legal Defense Network and SPART*A, which advocate for LGBTQ service members, according to Pelosi’s office.

At least four other Democratic lawmakers also invited trans people who have served in the military, including New York senator and 2020 presidential candidate Kirsten Gillibrand. (Read a full explainer for more.)

Gun control advocates: Pelosi invited Charlie Mirsky, a co-founder of March for Our Lives, the gun control march and advocacy group; Mattie Scott, who leads the San Francisco Brady Campaign; and Fred Guttenberg, the father of Jaime Guttenberg, a Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student killed in the 2018 Parkland, Florida, shooting.

Next week will mark one year since the Parkland shooting that killed 17 reignited America’s gun debate, and others with ties to the high school attended the State of the Union.

Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL), whose district includes Stoneman Douglas, invited Manny Oliver, the father of another student, Joaquin, who was killed in the shooting. Cameron Kasky, a Parkland student and prominent advocate, attended as the guest of Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA).

Immigrants and immigration advocates: Pelosi invited Angelica Salas, a former undocumented immigrant who leads the California-based immigrant rights group Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights. Salas’s invitation is a direct pushback to Trump’s hardline immigration policy.

Pelosi isn’t the only one trying to make this point. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) brought Albertina Contreras Teletor and Yakelin Garcia Contreras, a mother and daughter separated at the southern border last year. Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-NY) invited a migrant from Guatemala, Yeni González, who was separated from her three children at the border.

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), a first-term representative and former Somali refugee, invited a Liberian refugee named Linda Clark, who faces possible deportation because of the Trump administration’s plan to end protected status for Liberians, which had been in place since the country’s 1991 civil war.

Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-TX) is bringing a DREAMer, and Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ) brought Victorina Morales, an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala who worked at Trump’s golf course in New Jersey.

Morales told Vox before the speech that she’s proud to attend and wants to talk to members of Congress about “what it’s like to be here without papers and why we need immigration reform.” (Read an interview with Morales here.)

Celebrity chefs: Pelosi invited José Andrés, a vocal immigrant rights advocate who volunteered in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria and set up a kitchen for furloughed federal workers during the shutdown. Chef Tyler Florence, who participated in the #ChefForFeds initiative, also attended on Pelosi’s invitation.

Union leaders: Pelosi invited a bunch of union leaders, which may be meant to counter Trump’s jobs and economy message in the State of the Union. They include Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, and Doug McCarron, president of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America.

Pelosi also asked Planned Parenthood president Leana Wen, as the battle over abortion rights heats up. It’s part of a larger theme: Many female Democratic lawmakers are wearing white in honor of suffragists and to call attention to issues such as equal pay. Some lawmakers also wore white in 2017 but wore black in 2018 in solidarity with #MeToo.

Lawmakers continue to honor the #MeToo movement and survivors of sexual assault this year. Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-MI) invited Amanda Thomashow, an advocate and survivor who brought the first Title IX complaint against disgraced former USA gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar in 2014. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) offered a seat to Ana María Archila, an advocate who confronted then-Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) in an elevator during the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. (Read more about that here.)

Democratic lawmakers also tried to make a point about last month’s government shutdown. Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Kamala Harris (D-CA), both 2020 presidential hopefuls, asked workers affected by the shutdown to attend. Warren invited a furloughed employee at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and Harris brought Trisha Pesiri-Dybvik, an air traffic controller who is also rebuilding her home following the devastating 2017 Thomas Fire in California. (Read an interview with Pesiri-Dybvik here.)

Other people invited by Democratic lawmakers include a farmer angry about Trump’s trade war, a climate scientist, and a mom whose son died from diabetes complications because he couldn’t afford insulin.

Republican lawmakers are bringing guests too

We can’t forget the Republican lawmakers in all this. While very few are probably looking to protest Trump or his policies, they are trying to promote their states or districts or back up the president’s agenda.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) invited an exile who fled Venezuela amid political turmoil in the Latin American country. The other senator from Florida, Rick Scott, who was governor at the time of the Parkland shooting, brought Andrew Pollack, the father of Parkland victim Meadow Pollack, who has advocated for tighter security measures in schools.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell asked the director of an opioid treatment center in Kentucky. Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) invited the director of a Border Patrol task force. (The other Texas senator, Ted Cruz, took his dad.)

And in what may be the oddest plus-one yet, Rep. Steve King (R-IA), who was recently stripped of his committee assignments for racist remarks, decided to invite Diamond and Silk, the viral Trump-supporting sisters from North Carolina. He could only have one guest, so he apparently flipped a coin. Diamond won.

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