White House

Trump State of the Union guests highlight reelection messaging

Taxes, immigration, abortion among issues expected on campaign trail

Vice President Mike Pence claps while Speaker Nancy Pelosi rips up a copy of President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address after his remarks to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

The guest lists for the 2020 State of the Union underscored both the messages for President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign and the way in which congressional Democrats will be on offense against him and his GOP supporters on Capitol Hill.

From an appeal to his base through a typical hard line on immigration and Iran to a broader audience through talk of the benefits of 2017 Republican-led tax cuts and the state of the economy, the president’s guests set up a series of bullet points for the speech-writing team behind the teleprompter text.

“Many politicians came and went, pledging to change or replace NAFTA — only to do absolutely nothing. But unlike so many who came before me, I keep my promises. Six days ago, I replaced NAFTA and signed the brand new U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement into law,” Trump said in prepared remarks of the speech.

Adding to that, he touted another trade move, the first stage of a pact with China: “Days ago, we signed the groundbreaking new agreement with China that will defend our workers, protect our intellectual property, bring billions of dollars into our Treasury, and open vast new markets for products made and grown right here in the USA.”

Guests joining first lady Melania Trump in the House chamber Tuesday night included Cincinnati resident Tony Rankins, whose story senior administration officials have been highlighting since last week.

A U.S. Army veteran of the Afghanistan War, Rankins has battled post-traumatic stress disorder and for a time lived in his car. According to the White House, Rankins eventually got a job with a construction business that benefited from the Opportunity Zone program under the 2017 tax law.

Another beneficiary of the Opportunity Zone program on the guest list is Paul Morrow, an Army veteran and businessman who is currently building a new concrete plant in Alabama.

The Opportunity Zone program has not been without its critics. Senate Finance ranking member Ron Wyden of Oregon has sought to impose new standards to make sure funds are actually flowing to support low-income communities.

Hogan Gidley, the principal deputy White House press secretary, told reporters Tuesday that the president intended to use the guests to highlight the administration’s record.

“There’s a record of accomplishments now that he can tout, he can point to, that you know these are real policies that impact real people,” Gidley said.

The president’s guests also served as the frame for new or expanding policy proposals. That included the Davis family. Stephanie Davis and her fourth-grade daughter, Janiyah, from Philadelphia were picked as examples of those who would benefit from expanding school choice programs.

“The next step forward in building an inclusive society is making sure that every young American gets a great education and the opportunity to achieve the American Dream,” the prepared speech said, adding, “No parent should be forced to send their child to a failing government school.”

The president and first lady also invited Ellie and Robin Schneider of Kansas City, Missouri. Ellie, 2, was born at just 21 weeks and six days, which the administration is using to highlight its anti-abortion stance, and particularly its opposition to late-term abortion.

Democrats counter

Democrats, of course, sought to use their invited guests to illustrate what they say are the president’s wrongheaded policies.

Washington Sen. Patty Murray, the ranking Democrat on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, invited Emma Bosley, who has received medical care provided under Title X, which funds family planning services.

“From Vancouver to Seattle, families across Washington state and the country have been calling on Republicans to fight back against the Trump-Pence Administration’s efforts to undermine the historically bipartisan Title X family planning program and take needed health care away from millions of people. Republicans may be trying to shut these voices out, but I’m absolutely not going to let them,” Murray said in a statement. 

All told, more than 80 Democratic lawmakers invited health care advocates, seeking to focus on the ongoing legal efforts by the administration to roll back the 2010 health care overhaul, particularly the effect it would have on jeopardizing protections for those with preexisting health conditions. 

In keeping with the campaign season, the administration has been criticizing health care proposals being pushed by Democrats running for president in 2020. A senior administration official on Friday described Democratic policy blueprints like “Medicare For All” as “radical proposals being floated on the left.”

Borderline issue

Meanwhile, immigration, as it has been since Trump first announced his presidential run in 2015, will continue to be front and center.

Jody Jones, whose brother Rocky was killed in 2018 by a previously incarcerated and deported immigrant, made the guest list.

“He was behind bars for quite a few times but because of California’s sanctuary laws, very loose sanctuary laws, he was let out,” White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham said Tuesday on Fox News, referring to Gustavo Garcia, who had been deported in 2014. “And he went on a 24-hour crime spree.”

To that, Trump’s prepared address added a little boost for North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis, who faces a competitive 2020 reelection race. “Sen. Thom Tillis has introduced legislation to allow Americans like Jody to sue Sanctuary Cities and States when a loved one is hurt or killed as a result of these deadly policies. I ask the Congress to pass the Justice for Victims of Sanctuary Cities Act immediately,” Trump said. “The United States of America should be a sanctuary for law-abiding Americans -- not criminal aliens!”

Raul Ortiz, the deputy chief of the Border Patrol, also made the guest list. 

The administration’s highlighted guests also included Kelli Hake, whose husband, Army Staff Sgt. Christopher Hake, was killed in action in Iraq when his Bradley fighting vehicle struck a bomb that the administration has connected to Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani. 

Soleimani was killed last month in a drone strike, a particular point of pride for the president.

As the president was beginning his remarks, the White House formally announced several other special guests, headlined by Juan Guaidó, the man recognized by the United States as the legitimate interim president of Venezuela.

The appearance of Guaidó drew immediate praise from Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio.

“By inviting Interim President Juan Guaidó and the Special Envoy for Intelligence and Law Enforcement Mr. Iván Simonovis, one of Venezuela’s longest held political prisoners of the Maduro narco-dictatorship, the Trump Administration has sent a clear message that the U.S. will continue to stand with the Venezuelan people as they work towards a free and democratic Venezuela,” Rubio said in a statement.

And in one of the most notable moments of the speech, the first lady actually presented conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh with the Medal of Freedom. The presentation was made in the middle of the speech, one day after Limbaugh revealed he has advanced-stage lung cancer.

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