As the nation struggles to confront its complicated racial legacy, President Donald Trump preached unity to West Point graduates and told them never to forget the legacy of soldiers from generations ago who fought “a bloody war to extinguish the evil of slavery.”
His appeal to reconciliation and remembrance came at a time when his own relationship with the military is under strain, and the commander in chief and Pentagon leaders have faced unrelenting criticism over their response to the protests that overwhelmed the country after George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis.
Trump appeared to allude to those tensions as he addressed more than 1,100 graduates at an unusual outdoor ceremony held during a global pandemic.
“What has historically made America unique is the durability of its institutions against the passions and prejudices of the moment,” Trump said. “When times are turbulent, when the road is rough, what matters most is that which is permanent, timeless, enduring and eternal.”
In the past two weeks, Trump has yelled at Defense Secretary Mark Esper for publicly opposing his call to deploy active-duty troops to quell the protests stemming from the killing of Floyd, who was black, by a white Minneapolis police officer.
Trump then shut down Esper’s attempt to begin a public debate on removing the names of Confederate Army officers from military bases, an idea that is gaining momentum across the country.
Gen. Mark Milley, the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, risked Trump’s ire Thursday by declaring it had been a mistake for him to accompany him on a June 1 walk through Lafayette Square. The trip ended with the president posing with a Bible outside St. John’s Church, which was damaged by fire during the unrest.
Milley’s comments amounted to an extraordinary expression of regret by Trump’s chief military adviser, who said his appearance led to the perception of the military becoming embroiled in politics, which in his view — one shared by Esper — is a threat to democracy.
The events have stirred debate within the military and among retired officers. More than 500 West Point graduates from classes spanning six decades signed an open letter reminding the Class of 2020 of its commitment to avoid partisan politics.
The letter, published this week on Medium, also alluded to the problems Esper and Milley encountered at the White House after Floyd’s death.
“Sadly, the government has threatened to use the Army in which you serve as a weapon against fellow Americans engaging in these legitimate protests,” they wrote. “Worse, military leaders, who took the same oath you take today, have participated in politically charged events. The principle of civilian control is central to the military profession. But that principle does not imply blind obedience.”
During the commencement ceremony, protesters sailed along the nearby Hudson River in kayaks and sailboats to denounce the president.
In his 22-minute address, Trump thanked the newly commissioned officers for choosing to serve and reminded them of storied generals like Douglas McArthur and Dwight D. Eisenhower and the history of the West Point.
“It was on this soil that American patriots held the most vital fortress in our war for independence,” Trump said. It was the U.S. Military Academy, he said, that “gave us the men and women who fought and won a bloody war to extinguish the evil of slavery within one lifetime of our founding.”
“This is your history. This is the legacy that each of you inherits,” Trump continued, adding that it was bought with American blood spilled in battle. “You must never forget it.”
Yet, Trump leaned into his “America first” brand of foreign policy without using the phrase, telling the cadets their job is “not to rebuild foreign nations, but to defend and defend strongly our nation from our foreign enemies.”
“We are ending the era of endless wars,” he said. “It is not the duty of U.S. troops to solve ancient conflicts in faraway lands that many people have never heard of.” He said America is not the “policeman of the world,” but warned adversaries that the U.S. will “never, ever hesitate” to act when its people are threatened.
He also thanked those in the military who have helped the country respond to the coronavirus, what he once again called an “invisible enemy” that came from China.
The president stressed the unity of a graduating class that came from across the country “from every race, religion, color and creed.” The class also includes citizens of 11 other countries, including Bosnia-Herzegovina, South Korea and Tanzania.
Trump highlighted bigger defense budgets under his watch but falsely said he had destroyed 100% of the Islamic State caliphate in the Middle East; the group still poses a threat to the U.S. He noted he had directed the killing of two terrorist leaders and had created the Space Force.
Trump also remembered a cadet who died in an accident last year and whose father is a Secret Service agent, and noted that both he and the Army share a birthday Sunday. Trump will turn 74, while the Army marks its 254th year of existence.
Esper did not attend, but echoed the theme of unity in a video message.
“I expect you to remain committed to our core values: loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage,” Esper said. “These principles will guide you in challenging times and in the face of new and emerging threats.”
Trump’s appearance at West Point had been criticized as a political move that would put the graduates at risk. West Point is located just up the Hudson River from New York City, the epicenter of the U.S. coronavirus outbreak.
Army officials defended the move, saying the cadets had to travel back to campus anyway for their final medical checks, equipment and training. They had been home since spring break in early March..
For the ceremony, the recently commissioned second lieutenants wore their dress uniforms and face masks as they marched onto West Point’s parade field, instead of into Michie Stadium, the longtime commencement venue. They removed the masks during the ceremony as they sat apart in keeping with social-distancing guidelines.
Instead of shaking hands with the president, they exchanged salutes. Guests were not allowed to attend; family and friends had to watch online.
At the end of the ceremony, five hulking helicopters flew low and slow over the field as the graduates tossed their white dress caps into the air.