WEST POINT, N.Y. (CNN) — President Donald Trump on Saturday addressed 1,107 graduates who gathered at the US Military Academy at West Point for the academy’s annual commencement.
The ceremony looked very different from those in years past. Graduates socially distanced 6 feet from one another across the Plain Parade Field to accommodate Covid-19 public health requirements instead of at Michie Stadium, the ceremony’s traditional location. And family and friends were not allowed to attend the ceremony but could watch it online.
“This premier military academy produces only the best of the best — the strongest of the strong — and the bravest of the brave. West Point is a universal symbol of American gallantry, loyalty, devotion, discipline, and skill,” Trump began his address, reading from a teleprompter.
“To the 1,107 who today become the newest officers in the most exceptional Army ever to take the field of battle, I am here to offer America’s salute. Thank you for answering your nation’s call,” he added.
Later in his remarks, Trump thanked all of the branches of the military for their help to fight Covid-19 and calling the pandemic the “invisible enemy.” “We will vanquish the virus, we will extinguish this plague,” the President said.
He also thanked the National Guard for their contribution to “ensuring peace, safety and the constitutional rule of law on our streets.” The National Guard’s role in the Washington, DC, protests after George Floyd’s death has come under scrutiny and is under review by the Department of Defense. As of June 12, almost 19,000 members of the National Guard are still activated to help with social unrest across the country.
While much of the speech was congratulatory, the President did strike a more political tone at times, laying out his views on American military intervention and touting his administration’s support for the armed forces.
“It is not the duty of the US troops to solve ancient conflicts in far away lands that many people have never even heard of,” he told the graduates. He went on to say that “we are not the policemen of the world,” but warned “enemies” of the United States to “be on notice.”
“And when we fight from now on, we will only fight to win,” Trump said before praising his administration for increasing funding to the armed forces and the establishment of the Space Force.
Trump acknowledges ‘turbulent’ moment for America
It was also notable that Trump did not use his remarks Saturday as an opportunity to issue a direct and clear condemnation of racial injustice, an issue that has dominated the national conversation since Floyd’s death at the hands of white police officers in Minneapolis.
While the President did acknowledge that America is facing a “turbulent” moment, he did not address the issue of racism in the same way many of his top military leaders have done in recent weeks.
“What has historically made America unique is the durability of its institutions against the passions and prejudices of the moment. When times are turbulent, when the road is rough, what matters most is that which is permanent, timeless, enduring, and eternal,” Trump said.
Earlier this month, the Air Force’s top enlistee, Chief Master Sgt. Kaleth Wright, said his “greatest fear” is “not that I will be killed by a white police officer (believe me my heart starts racing like most other Black men in America when I see those blue lights behind me) … but that I will wake up to a report that one of our Black Airmen has died at the hands of a white police officer.”
He also outlined his struggle with the “Air Force’s own demons” of racial disparities in military justice and discipline and the “clear lack” of diversity in leadership.
Gen. Charles Q. Brown, who was confirmed by the Senate this week as the first black service member to lead an American military branch, has also spoken out.
In a moving, deeply personal video, Brown said he was “full with emotion” for “the many African Americans that have suffered the same fate as George Floyd.”
“I’m thinking about a history of racial issues and my own experiences that didn’t always sing of liberty,” Brown said. “I’m thinking about wearing the same flight suit with the same wings on my chest as my peers and then being questioned by another military member: ‘Are you a pilot?'”
“I’m thinking about the pressure I felt to perform error-free, especially for supervisors I perceived had expected less of me as an African American. I’m thinking about having to represent by working twice as hard to prove their expectations and perceptions of African Americans were invalid,” he added.
A socially distant graduation
West Point made every effort to keep Saturday’s commencement ceremony “as close to normal as possible,” Lt. Col. Chris Ophardt told CNN in an interview Friday.
“They’re seated at about 8-foot intervals across the parade field, so it’s an outdoor ceremony. Once they reach their seats, they will then take their masks off for the rest of the ceremony because they will be practicing social distancing and they’re outside, and they’ve all tested negative,” Ophardt said.
“Instead of being handed the diploma, they will render a salute from a small stage that’s about 15 feet in front of where the President will be standing,” Ophardt said. “So when their name gets read, instead of getting handed a diploma … they’ll step forward and they’ll salute President; President and Lt. Gen. Williams will salute back, and then they’ll leave the stage, and that will be their recognition.”
Traditionally, the students would have their commissioning ceremony the day they graduated, but due to the coronavirus pandemic, they received their commissions digitally and already hold the rank of second lieutenant.
Trump announced in April, surprising many, that he would speak at an in-person graduation ceremony despite the pandemic. Vice President Mike Pence spoke during the Air Force commencement ceremony in April.
Trump said at the time that he was looking forward to the event, adding that though he doesn’t like “the look” of a socially distanced crowd, “eventually, next year, they’ll have a commencement like it’s been … nice and tight.”
CNN reported last week that about 15 students had tested positive for Covid-19 when they returned to campus for commencement, according to an Army spokesperson. None of the infected students were symptomatic, the spokesperson said, adding, “no cadet has contracted through person-to-person contact while under the Army’s care” and that those infected had been isolated.
An Army official said those students have now rejoined their classmates and were expected to graduate on Saturday with the others.
The West Point superintendent, Army Lt. Gen. Darryl Williams, told NBC’s “Today” show in a segment Friday morning that “we’re happy that (Trump’s) coming.”
“We’ve been planning for the celebration for a year,” he added. “It was not a reaction to any request for — to move the graduation or anything like that.”
The move has not come without controversy. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, an Illinois Democrat who’s an Iraq War veteran, criticized the President’s decision to speak in April, urging him to “evaluate the potential consequences of this vanity speech.”
“Trump’s reckless decision to gather 1,000 Cadets at West Point for a speech puts our future military leaders at increased risk — all to stroke his own ego,” she said in a statement. “Our troops need stable, consistent leadership during volatile times like these, not a Commander-in-Chief who values his own photo ops and TV ratings over their health and safety.”
On Thursday, a group of US Military Academy graduates issued a message to the Class of 2020 outlining concerns that “fellow graduates serving in senior-level, public positions” are undermining the credibility of an apolitical military and betraying their “commitment to Duty, Honor, Country.”
West Point graduates occupy prominent roles in the Trump administration, including Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Pompeo’s two closest aides at the State Department, Brian Bulatao and Ulrich Brechbuhl.
Early this week, Williams had a town hall-style meeting with the senior class being invited, in which the superintendent allowed them to raise any concerns they had about what was happening in the world, Ophardt said.