WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump saluted the service and sacrifice of West Point’s graduating class on Saturday, calling on cadets to be as visionary as military heroes of the past and encouraging them to stand strong against forces that are dividing the country.
“What has historically made America unique is the durability of its institutions against the passions and prejudices of the moment,” Trump said in delivering the commencement address for the Class of 2020. “When times are turbulent, when the road is rough, what matters most is that which is permanent, timeless, enduring and eternal.”
Trump’s address to the military academy came during an unconventional commencement ceremony reflecting the challenges facing Americans amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Gray-uniformed cadets wearing white face masks marched onto a field for the ceremony while practicing social distancing and sat in chairs spaced six feet apart. Diplomas were handed out in advance. Instead of walking across the stage, cadets saluted Trump and other members of the official party when their name was called.
No handshakes were permitted. Parents, relatives and friends weren’t allowed to attend.
Lt. Gen. Darryl A. Williams, superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy, noted the unusual nature of the ceremony. But, he said, “there’s still a celebration.”
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In his remarks, Trump congratulated the roughly 1,00 graduating cadets and praised West Point as “a universal symbol of American gallantry, loyalty, devotion, discipline and great skill.”
Trump, who was welcomed to the ceremony with the firing of a cannon and 21-gun salute, paid tribute to the diversity of the graduating class, noting they had come “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. “.You exemplify the power of shared national purpose to transcend all differences and achieve true unity.”
Trump announced in April that he would deliver the commencement address for the Class of 2020 – a decision met with swift condemnation from critics, who accused him of putting future military leaders’ lives at risk by forcing them to assemble during a deadly contagion.
Cadets were sent home in March when the pandemic hit and finished their studies through remote learning. Only the graduating seniors returned for Saturday’s event, which is being moved from the on-campus football stadium to an expansive parade field known as the Plain.
Presidents routinely speak at commencement addresses. Trump’s speech marks his first graduation address at West Point, although he has spoken in previous years to graduates at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut.
USA TODAY Network journalists across the country documented protests denouncing police brutality and racial bias in response to the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.
At West Point, Trump’s remarks to graduates come not only as the nation is still reeling from the deadly coronavirus pandemic but also at a time of racial tension, domestic unrest and turmoil between the White House and the nation’s military leaders.
Trump’s handpicked chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Mark Milley, admitted Thursday he’d erred by allowing the military to be drawn into the president’s politicized response to mostly peaceful protests following the death of George Floyd. Mark Esper, Trump’s defense secretary, has signaled his willingness to change the names of Army forts that honor Confederate generals, a stance Trump has rejected.
Meanwhile, West Point itself has been riven by the same racial tensions roiling the nation. Minority cadets, in a confidential survey obtained by USA TODAY, say they face blatant and subtle discrimination at the nation’s elite training ground for Army officers. The posting of racist videos in April by one their classmates prompted the survey.
The graduation ceremony will be livestreamed starting at 9:30 a.m. on the West Point Channel on YouTube.
Contributing: Tom Vanden Brook and The Associated Press.
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