As an apparent rift between the White House and Pentagon appears to widen, President Donald Trump is poised to deliver the West Point commencement address at a socially distant event that is unprecedented in multiple ways.
Saturday’s ceremony summons back 1,110 cadets once scattered across the country to the New York campus after the military academy, like most education institutions, switched to online learning in March.
While concerns about Trump’s appearance were once focused on endangering cadets during the pandemic, it has unfolded into a debate about the politicization of the U.S. military.
The past two weeks have also sparked conversations about racism in the military, spurred by nationwide protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death, that have also brought disagreements between Trump and Defense Department officials into focus.
The government’s highest ranking military official, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley apologized for his role in Trump’s now infamous photo op in front of St. John’s Church last Monday, saying “I should not have been there,” in a prerecorded video commencement address to National Defense University released Thursday.
Moments before Milley, who was wearing combat fatigues, and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper joined Trump’s walk across Lafayette Park, law enforcement had used chemical irritants to forcibly disperse largely peaceful protesters.
Both believed they were accompanying Trump to thank National Guard troops, Esper said last week, but they have since faced widespread criticism for how the evening unfolded.
Asked on Thursday if he thinks Milley and Esper’s comments seeking to distance themselves from the photo op are significant, Trump told Fox News, “No, I don’t think so.”
“If that’s the way they feel, I think that’s fine,” he added, brushing off the critiques.
Their rare rebukes follow backlash of the current administration from retired officials, including Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, who served as Trump’s first defense secretary.
Hundreds of West Point alumni, two days before Trump’s address, also called out the top Pentagon leaders, they say, for failing to uphold the Constitution in their responses to nationwide protests.
In a letter to the graduating class, published on Medium, the coalition wrote: “Today, our Constitutional aspirations remain unfulfilled.”
“Worse, military leaders, who took the same oath you take today, have participated in politically charged events,” it continued, appearing to take aim at Esper, a West Point graduate himself. “Their actions threaten the credibility of an apolitical military.”
Late Thursday, Esper ordered an after-action review of the National Guard’s role in working with law enforcement over the past two weeks. Due at the end of July, the review “will address a range of issues, including training, equipping, organizing, manning, deployment, and employment of National Guard forces.”
The under-pressure defense secretary also diverged from Trump after the president threatened to invoke the Insurrection Act, which would allow the government to deploy troops to areas of civilian unrest in a law enforcement capacity, saying in a surprise news conference last week that he didn’t support its use in the current situation.
Trump’s speech Saturday also comes on the heels of his declaration that he “will not even consider” renaming military bases originally named after Confederate leaders, a day after the Army issued a statement saying top Army leaders and Defense Secretary Esper were “open” to the discussion.
The debate has resurfaced after the GOP-led Senate Armed Services Committee approved a new amendment that would require military bases named after Confederate soldiers to change their names — setting senators on a collision course with the president.
The amendment, proposed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and added to the 2021 Defense Authorization Bill, gives the Department of Defense three years to implement new names for installations bearing the names of Confederate soldiers and requires the Pentagon remove Confederate names and symbols from other military properties.
The bases are located in predominantly southern states that helped Trump secure his 2016 victory, and as Election Day approaches, he is once again relying on their support.
While Trump looks to 2020, his administration follows suit, shifting its focus from coronavirus to the country’s reopening — something he’s likely to tout at West Point.
Though the president never served in uniform, he attended the New York Military Academy, a college prep military school, and has been known to favor the pomp and circumstance and a show of force.
Perhaps offering a preview of what’s to come, Trump touted his efforts to increase military funding on Fox News Friday, saying, “the military was a joke” and “depleted” before he came to office.
“I have good relationships with the military. I have rebuilt our military,” he added.
The ceremony itself is certain to look different than in years past.
It won’t take place in the traditional Michie Stadium location but on “The Plain” Parade Field to accommodate COVID-19 protections. No family, friends, faculty or children will be on standby to run out after the caps of graduating cadets, referred to as members of “The Long Gray Line,” after they toss them up, as is tradition.
“They’ll have some big distance, and so it’ll be very different than it ever looked,” Trump said in April at a coronavirus task force briefing when he announced he’d be speaking at West Point, the only service academy where he has not yet spoken. The declaration came one day before Vice President Mike Pence traveled to Colorado to speak at the Air Force Academy’s commencement.
“We are honored to host the Commander-in-Chief as we celebrate the many accomplishments of our graduating class,” Lt. Gen. Darryl A. Williams, 60th Superintendent of the USMA, said in a statement, five days after the president’s annoucenment.
The ceremony flouts New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s social distancing directives for graduations in the state to be limited to 150 people, and more than a dozen in the graduating class tested positive for the coronavirus upon their return to campus. But as a military facility, it falls under the jurisdiction of the federal government and officials say they’re taking necessary precautions.
In contrast, the Naval Academy opted to hold its first-ever all virtual graduation ceremony last month.
President Trump is traveling to West Point from his golf club in Bedminister, New Jersey, where he’s spending the weekend.
The graduation will be live-streamed starting at 9:30 a.m. EDT Saturday.
ABC News’ Ben Gittleson, Luis Martinez Jordyn Phelps, Elizabeth Thomas and Allison Pecorin contributed to this report.