U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to West Point graduating cadets during commencement ceremonies at Plain Parade Field at the United States Military Academy on June 13, 2020 in West Point, New York.
WEST POINT, N.Y. — In his first graduation address to the cadets of the United States Military Academy, President Donald Trump touted the colossal defense budget and the creation of the U.S. Space Force while avoiding the recent debate over the administration’s politicization of troops.
“You came to West Point because you know the truth: America is the greatest country in human history. And the United States military is the greatest force for peace and justice the world has ever known,” Trump told the more than 1,100 seated cadets at the academy’s historic parade field.
“As commander-in-chief, I never forget for one instant the immense sacrifices we ask of those who wear the nation’s uniform,” he said during the Saturday ceremony, which was altered for social distancing measures. “What has historically made America unique is the durability of its institutions against the passions and prejudices of the moment,” he added.
Trump’s speech to the Army’s new second lieutenants at an in-person ceremony at West Point, comes at a particularly tumultuous time. More than 114,000 Americans have died from the coronavirus pandemic, double-digit unemployment plagues the nation, top defense officials face criticism for a political photo-op and widespread protests over police brutality have swept the country.
“When times are turbulent, when the road is rough, what matters most is that which is permanent, timeless, enduring and eternal,” Trump said, appearing to acknowledge the palpable tensions of the past two weeks.
Trump has faced criticism for his handling of the protests sparked by the death last month of George Floyd at the hands of police. The unarmed black man died after a white Minneapolis police officer held his knee on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes. The officer has been charged with second-degree murder.
The president took a moment during the ceremony to recognize the National Guard and its efforts of “ensuring peace, safety and the constitutional rule of law on our streets.”
Trump’s address follows an extraordinary letter to the U.S. Military Academy’s graduating class penned by a coalition of several hundred West Point alumni.
“Sadly, the government has threatened to use the Army in which you serve as a weapon against fellow Americans engaging in these legitimate protests. Worse, military leaders, who took the same oath you take today, have participated in politically charged events,” some alumni wrote in a letter posted on Medium.
“The oath taken by those who choose to serve in America’s military is aspirational. We pledge service to no monarch; no government; no political party; no tyrant,” the group wrote, adding that they were “concerned that fellow graduates serving in senior-level, public positions are failing to uphold their oath of office and their commitment to Duty, Honor, Country.”
A cadet graduating from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point stands amidst other cadets socially distanced because of the coronavirus disease pandemic, as President Donald Trump arrives with other top military officers to deliver the commencement address at the 2020 United States Military Academy Graduation Ceremony in West Point, New York, U.S., June 13, 2020.
Mike Segar | Reuters
During a White House address on June 1, Trump stopped short of invoking the Insurrection Act but threatened to deploy active-duty U.S. military if states failed to quell demonstrations.
Trump said he was taking “swift and decisive action to protect our great capital, Washington, D.C.,” adding, “What happened in this city last night was a total disgrace.”
“As we speak, I am dispatching thousands and thousands of heavily armed soldiers, military personnel and law enforcement officers to stop the rioting, looting, vandalism, assaults and the wanton destruction of property.”
Following his speech, Trump posed with a Bible outside St. John’s Episcopal Church after protesters were forcibly cleared from Lafayette Square across from the White House. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and U.S. Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were among the officials present in Trump’s entourage.
President Donald Trump walks with US Attorney General William Barr (L), US Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper (C), Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark A. Milley (R), and others from the White House to visit St. John’s Church after the area was cleared of people protesting the death of George Floyd June 1, 2020, in Washington, DC.
Brendan Smialowski | AFP via Getty Images
Milley, the nation’s highest-ranking military officer, apologized Thursday for his participation in the photograph.
“I should not have been there,” he said in a video commencement address to National Defense University. “My presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics.”
Esper also publicly broke with Trump during a Pentagon press briefing by saying he did not support invoking the Insurrection Act — a law that would allow the president to use active-duty forces to respond to civil unrest stemming from protests against police brutality.
“I say this not only as secretary of Defense, but also as a former soldier and a former member of the National Guard, the option to use active-duty forces in a law enforcement role should only be used as a matter of last resort, and only in the most urgent and dire situations. We are not in one of those situations now,” Esper said on June 3.
“I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act,” he added.
Hours later, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany gave a lukewarm endorsement of Esper when asked if Trump was upset with his Defense secretary.
“As of right now, Secretary Esper is still Secretary Esper, and should the president lose faith, we will all learn about that in the future,” McEnany added.
On the heels of Esper’s comments, Trump nearly fired the Pentagon chief but was talked out of it, The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday, citing officials. The president decided not to immediately fire Esper after talking with confidants, including White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, Sens. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and James Inhofe, R., Okla., and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.