Tonight’s State of the Union guests represent a deeply divided America

Deep divides.
Deep divides.
Image: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst
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President Donald Trump’s second State of the Union address tonight is supposed to focus on “unity.” 

“We can bridge old divisions, heal old wounds, build new coalitions, forge new solutions and unlock the extraordinary promise of America’s future,” Trump plans to say, according to an excerpt distributed by the White House. 

But the audience in the House chamber of the US Capitol tonight will reflect the country’s seemingly intractable divisions, which have deepened after two years of a Trump presidency. Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle, and the US president himself, have invited dozens of guests who represent some of the most polarizing issues in the United States, and the most debilitating problems the world’s largest economy faces.

US representatives, senators, and chief justices will sit on the floor of the chamber, while the guests will sit in hundreds of seats in a viewing galleries above them. While public, political displays from the galleries are verboten, Congressional aides are bracing themselves for a potentially tumultuous night, based on conversations in the halls of Congress this morning. 

With their invitations, Democrats seem to be presenting a pointed rebuke of the Trump administration’s policies and shortcomings: There are multiple gun violence victims attending; asylum-seeking parents whose children were taken from them on the border with Mexico; and several transgender members of the US military. 

The guests of Republicans, including Trump and first lady Melania Trump, meanwhile, are the embodiment of some of his most controversial positions: family members of murders carried out by illegal immigrants; pro-Trump police chiefs; and a boy bullied because his last name happens to be “Trump.” 

Here’s a rundown of some of the most striking guests who will be in the galleries tonight:

Gun violence victims

Nearly 40,000 people were killed by gun violence in the US in 2017, the highest figure in 20 years. After pledging to the victims of the 2018 Parkland shooting that he’d do more to stop school shootings, and calling Republicans “scared” of the powerful gun lobby, Trump has not pushed for gun law reform.

Jeff Binkley, father of Maura Binkley, a 21-year old shot during a yoga class in Tallahassee, Florida in November, will be the guest of Lucy McBath, the Georgia Democratic Congresswoman whose son was fatally shot in 2012.

Cameron Kasky, survivor of the Parkland school shooting in which 17 were killed last February, will be a guest of California Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell.

Andrew Pollack, father of a Parkland shooting victim, will be the guest of Sen. Rick Scott, a Florida Republican.

Fred Guttenberg, father of a Parkland shooting victim, will be the guest of Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House and a California Democrat. 

Alexandra Goddard, a Portland, Oregon student and anti-gun violence advocate, will be the guest of Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, a Democrat from Oregon.

Jami Amo, a survivor of the 1999 Columbine shooting and Moms Demand Action activist, will be the guest of Rep. Madeleine Dean, a Democrat from Pennsylvania.

Family separation

The Trump administration has separated thousands of asylum-seeking children from their parents at the US’s southern border, part of an attempt to dissuade Central American migrants from coming to the US. The practice has been called a “moral disaster” by childcare experts. Two children have died in US custody in recent months, and an unknown number more remain in the system.

Albertina Contreras Teletor and her daughter Yakelin Garcia Contreras, who were separated for months by the administration, will attend as the guests of Sen. Jeff Merkley, a Democrat from Oregon.

Yeni González-Garcia, who was separated from her three children on the US-Mexico border for a month and half, after fleeing gang violence in Central America, will be the guest of Adriano Espaillat, a New York Democrat, who is himself a formerly undocumented immigrant. 

Regina Moller, head of Noank Community Support Services, a nonprofit that has provided shelter and services to migrant children separated from their families at the border, will be the guest of Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut. 

White supremacy

Right-wing extremism, including white supremacy and anti-semitism, is on the rise in America, and all of the extremist murders in the country in 2018 were by right-wing actors. Some experts in terrorism and extremist violence believe Trump’s anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim rhetoric could be contributing to the rise. 

Iowa representative Steve King, a Republican, was stripped of his committee assignments after wondering recently in a published interview “white nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization—how did that language become offensive?”

Judah Samet and Timothy Matson, survivors of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting that killed 11 people, will be guests of first lady Melania Trump. The shooter railed online against Jews, as well as the synagogue’s practice of helping immigrants.

Lynnette Hardaway, aka “Diamond,” an African-American pro-Trump commentator, will attend as King’s guest.

Government shutdown

The federal government was partially shut for 35 days after Trump refused to sign bill to keep it open that didn’t include funding for a border wall in the last session of Congress. Some 800,000 federal employees didn’t get a paycheck for a month, and thousands more contractors were affected.

Lila Johnson, a USDA cleaning contractor who will get no back pay, will be the guest of Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat from Maryland.

Shyan Lasater-Bailey, an air traffic controller who went 35 days without pay, will be the guest of Rep. Mark Takano, a Democrat from California.

Sajid Shahriar, a federal worker and union leader who was furloughed from his job at the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, will be the guest of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat from Massachusetts and contender for the Democratic presidential nomination.  

Kenneth Krebs, an EPA scientist who was furloughed during the shutdown, will be the guest of Rep. David Price, a Democrat from North Carolina.

Toby Hauck, an air traffic controller who worked without pay during the shutdown, will be the guest of Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois.


Trump and vice president Pence alleged this year that the Islamic State terrorism movement has been eradicated, just as four US soldiers were killed by an ISIS attack in Syria. Republicans and Democrats alike have been concerned by the White House’s failure to grasp the complicated situation in the Middle East. 

Nadia Murad, a Yazidi human rights campaigner (and Nobel Prize winner) who was enslaved by ISIS, will be the guest of Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, a Republican from Nebraska.

Kavanaugh assault accusations  

The nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court kicked off one of the nastiest partisan fights of the Trump presidency, after a woman testified to Congress that he had sexually assaulted her when she was 15. Apart from the serious allegations, his angry testimony denying the claims sparked questions about his general fitness for the bench. Kavanaugh was ultimately confirmed by the lowest margin since 1881, but his position on the Supreme Court bench remains controversial. Democrats have said they may investigate him for perjury.

Ana Maria Archila, a sexual assault survivor who confronted Senator Jeff Flake, the Arizona Republican, about his vote in an elevator in the Capitol Building, will be the guest of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat from New York.

Reproductive rights

House speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat from California, has invited Planned Parenthood president Dr. Leana Wen. “Dr. Wen’s attendance is significant at a time when women’s reproductive rights are under constant threat, and is a symbolic reminder that majority of Americans support access to safe and legal abortion,” her office said.

Criminal justice reform

The president’s backing of the First Step Act, a piece of legislation passed by Congress in December, is a rare bipartisan bright spot in Trump’s tenure so far. “This was a groundbreaking bill and a lot of people worked for many years to get to this point,” Holly Harris, executive director of the Justice Action Network, told USA Today. “(But) we can’t take our eyes off the prize, which is actually impacting lives. In order for that to happen in a real significant way we’ve got to make sure implementation is happening swiftly and appropriately.”

Cedric Dean, who spent 28 years in prison before he was released thanks to last year’s First STEP Act, will be the guest of Rep. Alma Adams, a Democrat from North Carolina.

Matthew Charles, the very first person to be released as a result of the First Step Act, will be the guest of president Trump and the First Lady.

Trump’s undocumented workers 

While Trump has railed against illegal immigration, his company reportedly employed illegal immigrants for years. Several of these employees came forward in 2018, and some will be in the House chamber tonight.

Sandra Diaz, one of president Trump’s former housekeepers, will be the guest of: Rep. Jimmy Gomez, a Democrat from California.

Victorina Morales, an undocumented immigrant fired from Trump National Golf Club, will be the guest of Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, a Democrat from New Jersey.

“Be Best”

First lady Melania Trump launched her “Be Best” campaign in May 2018 which the White House described as having “three main pillars: well-being, social media use, and opioid abuse.”

Joshua Trump, a Delaware 6th grader reportedly bullied by classmates over his last name, will be a guest of the president and the first lady as part of the Be Best initiative.

Illegal immigration

Criticizing illegal immigrants has been a mainstay of the Trump White House, and it has held several events to honor the US family members of people killed by people illegally in the country.

Debra Bissell; Heather Armstrong; Madison Armstrong, children and grandchildren of a Nevada couple “tragically murdered in their home…by an illegal immigrant,” as the White House says, will be the president’s guests. 

Opioid crisis

Opioid deaths continue to skyrocket in the United States even after the White House declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency in 2017, and Americans are now more likely to be killed by an opioid overdose than a car crash.

Ashley Evans, who is recovering from an opioid addiction, will be a guest of the president and First Lady.

Transgender service members

When the president first issued a ban in 2017 on transgender Americans joining the military via tweet, his top commanders were taken by surprise. Federal courts stopped it from being carried out, but the Trump administration issued a revised version of the policy in March 2018 which the Supreme Court allowed to take effect in an unsigned January 2019 order. The rule blocks those diagnosed with “gender dysphoria” from joining the service. People without a diagnosis of gender dysphoria may serve, but only if they present as whatever gender they were assigned at birth. There has been no timeline set for the ban to take effect, and the fates of the 8,980 current members of the military who identify as transgender are still unknown.

Logan Ireland, a transgender US Air Force Staff Sgt., will be the guest of Rep. Jackie Speier, a Democrat from California.

Tavion Dignard, a transgender Navy veteran, will be the guest of Rep. Chris Pappas, a Democrat from New Hampshire and one of 10 openly LGBTQ members of Congress.

Blake Dremann, a transgender Lt. Commander in the US Navy, will be the guest of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat from New York.

Megan Winters, a transgender petty officer in the US Navy, will be the guest of Rep. A. Donald McEachin, a Democrat from Virginia.

Climate change

Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords and rollback of anti-greenhouse gas measures come as concern over the impacts of climate change rise in the United States. “One of the problems that a lot of people like myself, we have very high levels of intelligence but we’re not necessarily such believers,” Trump said after his own administration’s National Climate Assessment warned of catastrophic effects from warming effects caused by human activity. He tweeted recently that cold temperatures in the Midwest disproved the phenomena.

Varshini Prakash, a Massachusetts climate change activist, will be the guest of Sen. Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts.

Lisa Graumlich, a climatologist and dean of the University of Washington’s College of the Environment, will be the guest of Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Democrat from Washington.

Joel Clement, a former US government scientist who said his bosses at the Department of the Interior retaliated against him for speaking out about the threat of climate change, will be the guest of Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat from Maine.

Underpaid educators 

The US was swept by teachers strikes in 2018, and they’re expected to continue in 2019, after years of Tea Party-inspired tax cuts stripped public school budgets while states tried to recover from the 2008 recession. US teachers remain some of the worst-paid in the developed world.

Jean Buller, a retired science teacher from Walled Lake, Michigan, will be the guest of Rep. Haley Stevens, a Democrat from Michigan, who made education a distinct part of her platform

Trade war

The US’s escalating trade tariffs actually widened the America’s trade deficit with China last year, the opposite of Trump’s intention. It is hitting some US farmers hard, and the government shutdown delayed payments they were supposed to get from the federal government.

Tom Mueller, an Illinois soybean farmer whose business has suffered due to the president’s supposedly “good and easy to win” trade war, will be the guest of Rep. Cheri Bustos, a Democrat from Illinois.


Americans’ out-of-control medical costs have sparked new calls for universal healthcare insurance, and more regulation of drug makers and hospitals. The Trump White House is working with Republicans and Democrats to put limits on drug price increases but failed to repeal and replace the health care act known as Obamacare.

Nicole Smith-Holt, mother of a 26-year-old who died because he couldn’t afford his insulin, will be a guest of Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota.

Donna Beckman, a Maine resident who received a surprise $1,648 bill after being treated by an out-of-network doctor at an in-network emergency room, will be the guest of Sen. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat from Maine.

Blue Lives Matter

Robert Chody, the sheriff of Williamson County, Texas who won a court decision last year that preserved his right to continue tweeting in an official capacity, will be the guest of Rep. John Carter, a Republican from Texas.

Rodney Muterspaw, the police chief of Middletown, Ohio, will be the guest of Rep. Warren Davidson, a Republican from Ohio, a vocal Trump supporter

Elvin Hernandez, a special agent in the Trafficking in Persons Unit of the Department of Homeland Security’s Homeland Security Investigations division, will be a guest of the president and first lady.


Some 700,000 US residents brought to the country illegally as children have been in limbo since Trump repealed an Obama-era act, Deferred Action Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) that temporarily blocked them from being deported. While US courts blocked Trump’s repeal, these residents, many of them young adults, are being used as a political bargaining chip in the ongoing immigration debate

Jin Park, a Harvard student and the first Dreamer to become a Rhodes Scholar, will be the guest of Rep. Grace Meng, a Democrat from New York.

Devani Nallely Gonzalez Barboza, a Dreamer and substitute teacher in Texas, will be the guest of Rep. Sylvia Garcia, a Democrat from Texas.

Kennya Lilibeth Sanchez Chavez, a DACA recipient and Colorado kindergarten teacher, will be the guest of Rep. Diana DeGette, a Democrat from Colorado.

Carlos Hernandez, here under the DACA program and a mechanical engineering student at Texas A&M University, will be the guest of Rep. Joaquin Castro, a Democrat from Texas.

Samantha Ramirez Herrera, a Dreamer and entrepreneur, will be a guest of Rep. Hank Johnson, a Democrat from Georgia.

Senaida Navar, a DACA recipient who is now a professor at the University of Texas at El Paso, will be the guest of Rep. Veronica Escobar, a Democrat from Texas.