Trump speaks at West Point graduation as tensions with military leaders run high

Trump delivered the commencement address Saturday.

June 13, 2020, 12:06 PM

As an apparent rift between the White House and Pentagon appears to widen, President Donald Trump delivered the West Point commencement address at a socially distant event that was unprecedented in multiple ways.

Yet Trump made no direct mention of that rift or the protests that sparked the disagreements between the president and Defense Department officials. He alluded to the protests, which erupted after the death of George Floyd, by thanking the National Guard for their response to "recent challenges," including "ensuring peace, safety and the constitutional rule of law on our streets."

President Donald Trump, left, and United States Military Academy superintendent Darryl A. Williams, right, salute alongside graduating cadets as the national anthem is played during commencement ceremonies, June 13, 2020, in West Point, N.Y.
John Minchillo/AP

Trump congratulated and praised the graduating cadets, saying there was "no place on Earth I would rather be than right here with all of you."

"You became brothers and sisters, pledging allegiance to the same timeless principles but joined together in a common mission: to protect our country, to defend our people, and to carry on the traditions of freedom, equality and liberty, that so many gave their lives to secure," Trump said. "You exemplify the power of shared national purpose to transcend all differences and achieve true unity."

President Donald Trump speaks to cadets in the Class of 2020 at a commencement ceremony on the parade field, at the United States Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., June 13, 2020.
Alex Brandon/AP

He added, "It was this school that gave us the men and women who fought and won a bloody war to extinguish the evil of slavery within one lifetime of our founding."

When talking about the United States military presence, the president said "it is not the duty of U.S. troops to solve ancient conflicts in faraway lands that many people have never even heard of."

"We are not the policemen of the world, but let our enemies be on notice, if our people are threatened, we will never ever hesitate to act," Trump said. "And when we fight, from now on, we will only fight to win."

Saturday's ceremony summoned 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.

United States Military Academy graduating cadets salute during commencement ceremonies, June 13, 2020, in West Point, N.Y.
John Minchillo/AP

The class of 2020 West Point graduates entered their commencement ceremony on the Plain Parade Field wearing white face masks.

While concerns about Trump's appearance were once focused on endangering cadets during the pandemic, it 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 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.

President Donald Trump departs the White House to visit St. John's Church, along with Attorney General William Barr, left, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, center, and Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, right, June 1, 2020.
Patrick Semansky/AP

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 thought Milley and Esper's comments seeking to distance themselves from the photo op were 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.

President Donald Trump walks across the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, June 11, 2020, to board Marine One for a short trip to Andrews Air Force Base, Md., and then on to Dallas for a fundraiser.
Andrew Harnik/AP

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.

President Trump stands with Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Attorney General William Barr, national security adviser Robert O'Brien, press secretary Kayleigh McEnany and chief of staff Mark Meadows, at St. John's Church in Washington, June 1, 2020.
Patrick Semansky/AP

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."

PHOTO: Police officers wearing riot gear push back demonstrators in front of St. John's Episcopal Church  outside of the White House, June 1, 2020, in Washington D.C., during a protest over the death of George Floyd.
Police officers wearing riot gear push back demonstrators in front of St. John's Episcopal Church outside of the White House, June 1, 2020, in Washington D.C., during a protest over the death of George Floyd.
Jose Luis Magana/AFP via Getty Images

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 came 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.

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.

President Donald Trump addresses the 2019 graduation ceremony at the United States Air Force Academy, May 30, 2019, in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Chet Strange/AFP via Getty Images

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 looked different than in years past.

U.S. Military Academy cadets line up before receiving their diplomas and commissions into the officer corp of the U.S. Army June 1, 2002 at West Point in New York.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images, FILE

It didn'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 were on standby to run out after the caps of graduating cadets, referred to as members of "The Long Gray Line," after they tossed them up, as is tradition.

United States Military Academy graduating cadets celebrate at the end of their commencement ceremonies, June 13, 2020, in West Point, N.Y.
John Minchillo/AP

"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.

Spaced 8 feet apart, United States Air Force Academy cadets celebrate their graduation as a team of F-16 Air Force Thunderbirds fly over the academy on April 18, 2020 in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images

"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 flouted 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 said they were taking necessary precautions.

In contrast, the Naval Academy opted to hold its first-ever all virtual graduation ceremony last month.

President Trump travelled to West Point from his golf club in Bedminister, New Jersey, where he's spending the weekend.

ABC News' Ben Gittleson, Luis Martinez Jordyn Phelps, Elizabeth Thomas, Allison Pecorin and Ella Torres contributed to this report.