Trump Speaks to West Point Grads About ‘Turbulent’ Times
U.S. President Donald Trump arrives to speak during the Commander-in-Chief’s trophy award presentation to the U.S. Military Academy football team in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S. (Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Trump Speaks to West Point Grads About ‘Turbulent’ Times

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump highlighted unity and America’s core values in remarks to 1,107 graduating cadets of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point on Saturday, steering clear of overt references to current controversies.

The ceremony, months in the planning, comes as the backlash to the president’s threat to use active-duty service members to quell domestic political protests continues to roil the Pentagon, and coronavirus alters the landscape.

“What has historically made America unique is the durability of its institutions against the passions and prejudices of the moment. When times are turbulent,” Trump said. “What matters most is that which is permanent, timeless, enduring and eternal.”

Trump said that the 2020 graduates of the nation’s oldest service academy “have come from the farms and the cities, from states big and small, and from every race, religion, color, and creed.”

“But when you entered these grounds, you became part of one team and one family, proudly serving one American nation,” he said.

Trump ran through some of the achievements of this year’s class, from football wins to attainment of a Rhodes scholarship by one. He also checked off his own actions toward the military, including increased budgets, creation of the Space Force, and withdrawal from conflict zones.

“It is not the duty of U.S. troops to solve ancient conflicts in faraway places,” Trump said. “When we fight, from now on, we will only fight to win.”

Both Sides

Trump highlighted West Point graduates as among those who “fought and won a bloody war to extinguish the evil of slavery” -- although Confederate leaders including Robert E. Lee and Braxton Bragg also attended the U.S. Military Academy.

The cadets were mostly stoic during Trump’s speech, facing forward and listening quietly. They leapt to their feet, cheering, when Chase T. Miller -- the so-called “goat” -- received his diploma. Miller completed all the requirements but graduated last in the class of 2020. By tradition, each graduating cadet gives the goat a dollar.

After the ceremony, Trump, who turns 74 on Sunday, took a nostalgic detour in the presidential helicopter, said two people with knowledge of the situation.

Marine One traveled north to fly over Trump’s old high school, the New York Military Academy, in Cornwall-on-Hudson, about 8 miles from West Point, before turning south toward Bedminster, New Jersey, where the president is spending the weekend at his golf club.

Controversial Photo-Op

Trump’s appearance on Saturday was meant to signal a return to normalcy after the coronavirus pandemic. Instead, it retrained attention on his handling of protests sparked by the death of George Floyd, a black Minnesota man who died in police custody.

The president’s nearly 30-minute remarks didn’t touch on current controversies about Mark Milley’s apology for a Washington photo-op, or efforts to rename military bases that now honor Confederate military leaders.

He did, however, thank all branches of the U.S. military for their help for fighting the coronavirus pandemic, which he called “the invisible enemy.” Trump briefly rapped China for its role in allowing the virus to spread across the globe.

Milley’s Mea Culpa

On Thursday, Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, apologized for participating in the walk from the White House to an historic church in Washington earlier this month, which occurred after law enforcement forcibly cleared a largely peaceful protest outside the White House.

“I should not have been there,” Milley said during a taped graduation address to the National Defense University. “My presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics.”

Milley’s presence at the June 1 incident, dressed in combat fatigues, has been criticized for giving tacit approval to Trump’s claim that he could use the armed forces against protesters on American soil. The photo-op, quickly spun into a campaign video, came immediately after Trump threatened the use of military force in a Rose Garden address.

Trump said in an interview with Fox News on Thursday that he didn’t see Milley’s apology as significant, and defended the photo-op as a “beautiful picture.”

Trump continues to grapple with how to respond to the deaths of Floyd and other black Americans at the hands of law enforcement, which have sparked protests against police brutality across the U.S.

The president exposed distance between himself and military leaders again this week on the issue, announcing he would block any attempt by the Pentagon to rename U.S. bases honoring Confederate military leaders.

The Pentagon had said Defense Secretary Mark Esper was open to a discussion about such a change. Trump, though, called the bases “part of a Great American Heritage, and a history of Winning, Victory, and Freedom,” and White House officials said he would veto any legislation mandating the renaming of installations.

In his West Point remarks Trump paid tribute to a cadet killed in an accident in June 2019. Christopher Morgan, who died in a military vehicle roll-over during a training exercise, would have graduated today.

Separately, Esper had earlier distanced himself from the church photo-op by saying that he was “not aware” that it was happening. Esper also told reporters that he didn’t support the notion -- repeatedly raised by Trump -- that active-duty troops should be used to control protests in U.S. cities. Esper’s comments prompted consternation within the White House and speculation that Trump could ultimately fire his defense chief.

Esper wasn’t among the dignitaries gathered at West Point on Saturday but made short remarks by video.

Social Distancing

Trump is also facing criticism over his decision to speak at Saturday’s ceremony despite current social-distancing directives in New York that limit graduation gatherings to 150 people.

West Point said the ceremony would be conducted safely, and that cadets -- who were sent home in March as Covid-19 swept through the state -- would have needed to return to campus anyway to gather their belongings.

The class of 2020 quarantined in groups of about 250 for two weeks ahead of Saturday’s event. All were tested for coronavirus; at least 15 returning cadets tested positive.

The graduating class was socially distanced for the ceremony, sitting in single chairs on the Plain Parade Field spaced about 6 feet apart. Family and friends watched online.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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