The invitation came on Jan. 30, the day after her husband was killed in a raid on an al-Qaeda stronghold in Yemen.
“By the way,” Trump told Owens, according to the White House, “I’m going to be giving this speech in February. If you feel comfortable, I would love to have you as a guest.”
Owens was overcome with emotion from the past 24 hours. She told the president that she appreciated him asking, but was noncommittal. Trump directed a military aide to follow up with her until, ultimately, she accepted.
The story of how Owens made it to the balcony of the House chamber Tuesday night to create the emotional high point of Trump’s joint address to Congress was recounted Wednesday by White House press secretary Sean Spicer in his briefing with reporters.
Near the end of his 60-minute speech, Trump recounted the counterterrorism raid — his first as president — and recognized Carryn Owens, whose eyes were filling with tears. He said of her late husband, “Ryan’s legacy is etched into eternity,” as she looked to the heavens. The crowd of lawmakers, administration officials and military leaders stood to applaud her for two full minutes.
“I’ve been in this town 25 years, probably watched ‘State of the Unions’ for 30,” Spicer said. “I’ve never seen a sustained applause like that.”
Spicer said the past month has been an emotional roller coaster for the Owens family, but the White House staff worked closely with Carryn to arrange the visit.
“Our goal was to make sure that we respected her wishes and her privacy,” Spicer said. “Even with referencing her in the speech, that was her decision. We asked her, ‘The president would like to raise this,’ and she said, ‘I’d like that.’”
Trump’s aides kept Owens’ name off the list released to the media of guests who would be sitting in first lady Melania Trump’s box, so as to lessen the media attention on the family in the run-up to the speech, Spicer said.
Adding to the sensitivity was the public posture Ryan Owens’ father was taking. Bill Owens said in an interview last Friday with the Miami Herald that he had reservations about the decision to launch his son’s fatal mission in Yemen and called for an investigation. He also said he was troubled by Trump’s incendiary comments during last year’s campaign about another Gold Star family.
Bill Owens also said that when Trump and daughter Ivanka visited Dover Air Force Base to pay their respects to the Owens family as Ryan’s flag-draped casket was carried off a military jet, he declined to visit with the president.
“I’m sorry, I don’t want to see him,” Bill Owens recalled telling a chaplain in his interview with the Herald. “I told them, ‘I don’t want to meet the president.’”
Clearly, Carryn Owens felt differently. On Tuesday, she and her children visited the White House. They met privately with Trump and some of his senior aides. The kids ate lunch at the Navy mess, toured the White House and hung out for a bit with Spicer, who for years has been an officer in the Navy Reserve.
“They’re kids,” Spicer said. “They were happy. They were running around. I don’t know that they fully appreciate the sacrifice that their father made.”