Oksana Markarova, Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States, and Frances Haugen, the former Facebook employee who exposed what the company may have known about damage caused by its social media platforms, will sit with Jill Biden for President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address, the White House said Tuesday.
Also sitting with the first lady are Patrick Gelsinger, the CEO of Intel Corp., and several people she met during the past year of traveling around the country on behalf of the Biden administration. They include a community college student-parent, a military spouse, a middle school student, a nurse, a member of a Native American tribe and a labor union member.
The guest list marks a big change from last year when Biden delivered a speech — not called a State of the Union address — to a joint session of Congress a few months after he took office in 2021.
The coronavirus pandemic was raging at the time and attendance for the annual presidential appearance in the House chamber in the U.S. Capitol was severely limited so that lawmakers, who were required to wear face coverings, could spread out and be socially distant.
Guests that lawmakers usually bring to the speech were barred last year because of the pandemic. The first lady attended alone, after having a virtual meeting with a group of guests.
But the COVID-19 situation has improved in the year since.
The federal government recently made mask-wearing optional in much of the U.S., including Washington, and congressional leaders invited all members of the House and Senate to attend, thought a negative COVID-19 test result was required.
Lawmakers were not allowed to bring guests this year, but that prohibition apparently did not extend to the first lady.
Jill Biden followed up on her public show of support for Ukraine on Monday — when she wore a white mask with a sunflower, the country’s national flower, to a public event at the White House — by inviting Markarova to sit with her for the nationally televised speech.
Tradition holds that the first lady invite guests who help personify policies and positions that are important to the administration. President Biden has rallied Western nations in opposition to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision last week to launch a war against its smaller neighbor, Ukraine.
Haugen has said Facebook’s systems amplify online hate and extremism and fail to protect young people from harmful content, and said the company lacks any incentive to fix the problems. Her revelations last year shed light on an internal crisis at the company that provides free services to 3 billion people.
Haugen backed up her claims with a series of disclosures to the Securities and Exchange Commission that were also provided to Congress in redacted form by her legal team. The redacted versions given to Congress were obtained by a consortium of news organizations, including The Associated Press.
Gelsinger joined President Biden at the White House in January to announce that his company would build a $20 billion semiconductor manufacturing facility near Columbus, Ohio. The plant will help the U.S. produce semiconductor chips that are in high demand and short supply, contributing to supply chain disruptions. The plant will also create thousands of jobs, Biden and Gelsinger said.
The president’s sister, Valerie Biden Owens, and Doug Emhoff, the husband of Vice President Kamala Harris, will also sit in the first lady’s box.
But at least a half-dozen lawmakers were not expected in the House chamber after they reported positive COVID-19 tests. They include Reps. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., and Pete Aguilar, D-Calif., both members of the committee investigating last year’s Capitol riot, and Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Calif.
Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, cited a different reason for staying away from the speech.
“I’m just not taking any more COVID tests unless I’m sick,” he said.