One day before Trump's first State of the Union (SOTU) address, the president and his wife, Melania, released a list of people who would be attending the speech as the official special guests of the First Family. Among the Trumps' special guests is Ashlee Leppert, who participated in special rescue efforts during 2017's devastating hurricane season.
A U.S. Coast Guard aviation electronics technician, Leppert is known for having rescued dozens of Americans during a hurricane season that battered the southern continental United States, as well as Puerto Rico. According to a White House press release, Leppert once lifted a woman to safety in a helicopter basket.
"The woman was clutching a few bags of what Ashlee thought were clothes," the White House said. "As she drew the woman near, however, Ashlee saw four sets of children’s eyes looking at her as their guardian angel."
Leppert's attendance at the SOTU comes after Trump has faced months of criticism for his handling of Hurricane Maria, a September storm that devastated Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, last fall. According to The Atlantic, four months after the storm struck, 450,000 Puerto Rican electrical customers are still without power. Those who do have power reportedly experience frequent blackouts. There are approximately 1.5 million electricity customers on the island in total.
Yet Trump has maintained that his administration responded appropriately to Hurricane Maria, awarding himself a 10 out of 10 for how the federal government handled the disaster. "I give ourselves a 10," he said a White House press conference in October. "We have provided so much, so fast."
Experts were quick to declare Hurricane Maria the strongest storm to hit Puerto Rico in 80 years, and many anticipated that the storm would be devastating days before it even made landfall. But, warnings aside, Trump appeared to do very little to prepare for the damage. At the time, he was accused of paying more attention to protests concurrently taking place in the NFL than he did to the estimated 3 million Americans affected by Hurricane Maria.
Over the next several months, Trump engaged in multiple PR battles about recovery efforts, including with San Juan's mayor, Carmen Yulín Cruz, who said that the Trump administration was not doing enough to help. In response to the mayor's criticism, Trump accused Cruz of appealing to Democrats and insisted that emergency responders were "doing a fantastic job." In a string of tweets on Sept. 30, he wrote:
The Mayor of San Juan, who was very complimentary only a few days ago, has now been told by the Democrats that you must be nasty to Trump. ...Such poor leadership ability by the Mayor of San Juan, and others in Puerto Rico, who are not able to get their workers to help. They.......want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort. 10,000 Federal workers now on Island doing a fantastic job. The military and first responders, despite no electric, roads, phones etc., have done an amazing job. Puerto Rico was totally destroyed.
In December, on the 100-day anniversary of the storm's landfall, Cruz described Trump's attitude as "disrespectful."
"He was disrespectful to the Puerto Rican people, he was disrespectful to the American people who were leaving their homes to come help us here,” Cruz told ABC. "Where he needed to be a commander in chief, he was a disaster-in-chief."
However, while the social media feud has cooled, Trump hasn't seen the last of Cruz. On Monday, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand announced that the mayor would be attending the SOTU as her own special guest, providing a stark contrast to Leppert. While the Coast Guard technician's life-saving efforts for victims of last year's hurricane season shouldn't be undercut, using her service as a symbol of the overall federal response to hurricanes doesn't undo the damage inflicted on Puerto Rico.