Fact Check

Did Democrats Refuse to Stand for a Navy SEAL's Widow?

An unrelated image of Keith Ellison and Debbie Wasserman Schultz was apparently used to claim Democrats refused to honor a Navy SEAL's widow during a presidential speech.

Published Mar 1, 2017

Democrats Bernie Sanders, Keith Ellison, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, and Nancy Pelosi refused to stand and clap for Navy SEAL widow Carryn Owens during a presidential speech.

On 28 February 2017, President Donald Trump appeared before a joint session of Congress to deliver a speech similar to a State of the Union address, during the latter part of which he took time to introduce Carryn Owens, the widow of U.S. Navy Special Operator Senior Chief William 'Ryan' Owens. Ryan Owens died in a raid in Yemen, the first American combatant to die during the presidency of Donald Trump, and the introduction of his widow was met with a standing ovation by those present in the House chamber:

Among the reactions to President Trump's speech, and that particular portion of it, was a false and manufactured controversy holding that prominent Democrats Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Keith Ellison, Bernie Sanders, and Nancy Pelosi "refused to stand" to honor Mrs. Owens. For example, a Blaze article headlined "Meet the Democrats who refused to stand and applaud the widow of a fallen Navy SEAL" asserted that:

[C]ameras captured top Democrat Reps. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), and Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) staying firmly seated, seemingly emotionless, and refusing to clap for Owens.

A Daily Wire item headlined "AWFUL: Top Democrats Refuse to Stand, Clap for Navy SEAL Widow Honored by Trump" proclaimed that:

As [Owens'] widow wept and mouthed to heaven, “I love you, baby,” Trump led a round of applause that lasted two minutes.

And House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) apparently sat there and didn’t cheer as the incredible moment progressed, along with Senator Bernie Sanders and others — see this video at approximately three minutes in, as the cameras pan the crowd. Look at the right hand side of this screenshot.

A 100PercentFedUp piece headlined "HORRIBLE! TOP DEMOCRATS Refuse to Stand for Gold Star Widow" maintained that:

President Trump honored the widow of fallen Navy SEAL Ryan Owens with a beautiful acknowledgment. Carryn Owens was given a standing ovation we won’t soon forget. The big problem with this amazing moment is that half of the room sat in defiance of President Trump BUT this wasn’t about the president! The Democrats are so blinded by their hatred for Trump that they sat emotionless refusing to honor the fallen. Wow! A low moment for these haters just gave Trump four more years ...

But examination of multiple video and photographic sources (including the full video of President Trump's speech, embedded below) documents that the claim "DEMOCRATS Refuse to Stand for Gold Star Widow" was undeniably false.

The sequence of events began when President Trump introduced Mrs. Owens by saying "We are blessed to be joined tonight by Carryn Owens, the widow of U.S. Navy special operator, Senior Chief William 'Ryan' Owens. Ryan died as he lived: a warrior, and a hero — battling against terrorism and securing our nation." At that point, members from both sides of the aisle stood and applauded in acknowledgment of a teary-eyed Carryn Owens, who remained seated (and did not herself clap) in acknowledgment that the ovation was directed at her:

As we documented in a video we compiled (still frames from which are reproduced below), the visual evidence proves that, in fact, all four of the Democrats named did indeed stand and honor Mrs. Owens when she was introduced.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi was standing and applauding the introduction of Mrs. Owens:

Senator Bernie Sanders was likewise standing and clapping:

And Reps. Wasserman Schultz and Ellison could also be seen clearly standing at that point (but camera angle didn't capture their hands to document whether they were applauding):

Sites such as the Daily Wire misleadingly tried to make the false case that Democrats had remained seated and refused to stand or applaud Mrs. Owens' introduction by presenting images that were deceptively taken out of context from other portions of the speech. For example, the Daily Wire article's header image seemingly shows Reps. Wasserman Schultz and Ellison stubbornly remaining seated and unmoved during the introduction of the Gold Star widow — but that image actually depicted a portion of the speech that had taken place more than half an hour before the tribute to Mrs. Owens, while President Trump was speaking about inner cities:

A still image capturing a wider view of the chamber was touted as supposedly showing Democrats (including Rep. Nancy Pelosi) remaining seated while only Republicans cheered Mrs. Owens, but it was taken from much later in the sequence and depicted members of the audience who had begun sitting down again (not members who had never stood in the first place):

As usual, once the debunkings began, those who promulgated the original false claim began shifting the goalposts, moving off the demonstrably untrue assertion about four Democrats who supposedly "refused to stand for a Gold Star widow" and instead focusing on a different portion of the President's speech that was distinctly separate from the introduction of Mrs. Owens.

As documented above, after President Trump said "We are blessed to be joined tonight by Carryn Owens ...", everyone present (including Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Keith Ellison, Bernie Sanders, and Nancy Pelosi) all rose to give her a standing ovation. Afterwards, the entire audience sat down again as President Trump continued his speech. After Trump resumed talking about what he termed the "highly successful raid [in Yemen] that generated large amounts of vital intelligence" in which Ryan Owens was killed, the audience rose again and delivered a second round of applause. But that subsequent ovation was not for Mrs. Owens herself, who had already previously been introduced, who had not been mentioned again, and who this time also stood and joined in the applause (acknowledging that it was not directed at her):

Promulgators of the "Top Democrats Refuse to Stand, Clap for Navy SEAL Widow" headlines seized on this second, separate round of applause to support their inaccurate assertions, but those assertions were false on two counts: this second ovation was not directed at Mrs. Owens, and the visual evidence again shows that some of those accused of not standing (e.g. Bernie Sanders) were clearly on their feet and applauding even during this subsequent event:

The visual evidence shows Reps. Wasserman Schultz and Ellison seated during portions of that second round of applause, but because cameras were largely focused on Mrs. Owens and other audience members at that time it's difficult to definitively determine whether those two stood up and then sat down earlier than others did, or did not rise at all a second time. But even if the latter were the case, the claim that "Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Keith Ellison, Bernie Sanders, and Nancy Pelosi refused to stand for Navy SEAL Widow" is still false; the most that could be accurately asserted is that two of those four may not have stood during a second, subsequent round of applause that was not directed at Mrs. Owens. A more accurate description of events than the ones spread via outrage-provoking blog posts would have stated that "Democrats stood for Gold Star widow, but maybe some of them didn't stand and applaud as long or as much as some Republicans did afterwards," but of course such honesty wouldn't generate nearly as many click-throughs as false headlines such as "HORRIBLE! TOP DEMOCRATS Refuse to Stand for Gold Star Widow."

UPDATE: We changed the status of this page from UNPROVEN to FALSE after encountering additional visual evidence documenting the inaccuracy of the claim, we removed an embedded tweet from Benny Johnson and replaced it with more representative textual examples of the claim, and we added explanation of the sequence of events as depicted in video footage.


NBC News.   "Trump Honors Widow of Fallen Navy SEAL William 'Ryan' Owens in Address to Congress."     28 February 2017.

Gonzales, Sara.   "Meet the Democrats Who Refused to Stand and Applaud the Widow of a Fallen Navy SEAL."     The Blaze.   1 March 2017.

Shapiro, Ben.   "Top Democrats Refuse to Stand, Clap for Navy SEAL Widow Honored by Trump."     The Daily Wire.   28 February 2017.

100PercentFedUp.   "HORRIBLE! TOP DEMOCRATS Refuse to Stand for Gold Star Widow."     1 March 2017.

Kim LaCapria is a former writer for Snopes.

David Mikkelson founded the site now known as snopes.com back in 1994.

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