For years members of Congress have used their State of the Union guests to send a silent message to the president. More and more, they are sending a different message by sitting it out entirely.
Some have publicly struggled with the decision of whether to attend, especially members in the California delegation who represent a state that positions itself as the face of the resistance to Trump’s policies.
“I don't want to pretend in any way that I support this president,” Democratic San Diego Rep. Juan Vargas said on “KPBS Midday Edition” on Monday. “I don't want to be two-faced. I'd like to, if he started acting presidential. I'd be happy to go again, but I'm not going to do that until he starts acting presidential, respecting women, respecting people of color and immigrants.”
Rep. Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) said she’s not sure she can subject herself to the speech and hasn’t decided whether to go.
“If I don’t go it’s not as an act of protest,” Bass told CNN. “If I choose not to go it’s really because I don’t know whether or not I feel like subjecting myself to listen to the president lie, which I believe he will do, and also to insult everybody under the sun.”
She’ll keep an eye on the speech if she doesn’t go, her staff said, and either way plans to hold a telephone town hall with constituents afterward.
She’s not the only one struggling to decide what to do. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose) was still wavering Tuesday morning.
“I wouldn’t waste my time sitting in that House listening to what he has to say,” the Los Angeles Democrat said on MSNBC. “He does not deserve my attention.”
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) is instead going to a gender and racial equity event held at the same time across town.
Democratic Reps. Mike Thompson of St. Helena and Doris Matsui of Sacramento were chosen as designated survivors by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, meaning they will skip the event in order to ensure a legislative line of succession in case of an attack on the Capitol.
Members of the president’s Cabinet have long been tasked with sitting out the speech at a secure undisclosed location, but legislative leaders only began the little-known similar process following the 9/11 attacks.
Compelled to attend
“I don’t plan to clap for the things the president says with which I disagree, or welcome him with enthusiasm. But my job is to be present and also to respond to what he says. I think that’s part of the constitutional duty, and we should make it about vehement opposition to what he says,” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Fremont) said in a statement. “We shouldn’t give him a platform without response in my view.”
Rep. Adam Schiff of Burbank, who is leading the Democrats’ side of the House probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election, said his “presence at the State of the Union, an address provided for in the Constitution, will be out of respect for the office.”
Members of Congress get one ticket for a seat in the House Gallery during the speech, and while a lot of the tickets go to family, lawmakers often use them as a way to highlight issues they care about.
As Congress debates how to address people brought to the country illegally as children, at least seven California Democrats, including Pelosi, are bringing so-called Dreamers from California to the speech.
Trump set a March deadline for the program to end, though that has been placed on hold by a federal judge.
This is the second time Rep. Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana) has brought a Dreamer: UC Irvine student Leslie Martinez will be his guest.
“I will bring a Dreamer to the State of the Union every year until Dreamers have the solution they deserve. America needs to see who these young men and women are and why they have earned a spot at our table,” he said in a statement.
Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough) and others are rallying colleagues to wear black to the speech to recognize sexual harassment and assault, similar to the visual statement actors and musicians have made at award shows this year.
Speier, who has championed changes to the sexual harassment policies on Capitol Hill, is bringing Fatima Goss Graves, CEO of the National Women’s Law Center.
Rep. Susan A. Davis (D-San Diego) is giving her extra ticket to former State Department official Jenna Ben-Yehuda, who has helped bring attention to sexual harassment in the national security industry.
Rep. Mark DeSaulnier (D-Concord) is bringing Army Master Sgt. Linda Ray, who was was sexually assaulted by a superior in her unit. Both of them plan to wear black.
Transgender military ban
Trump’s announced ban on transgender people serving in the military has been blocked so far by the courts, and Rep. Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael) wants the issue front and center for the speech.
His guest is Lynda Bengtsson-Davis, a transgender Marine Corps veteran who wants to reenlist in the Air National Guard.
“I have a right as an American to be given the opportunity to defend my country. After all, shouldn’t a nation’s military look like the people it defends?” Bengtsson-Davis said in a statement.