At West Point on Saturday Donald Trump will deliver a speech controversial by its very occurrence and due to tensions between the president and leaders of the US armed forces.
With New York state only beginning its reopening after the coronavirus outbreak, Trump will address graduates at the United States Military Academy, 40 miles up the Hudson river from New York City.
The city has been a global hotspot for Covid-19, recording more than 213,000 cases and more than 21,000 deaths.
Across the US, graduation ceremonies and commencement speeches have taken place online. But the 1,100 graduating cadets at West Point, who had been at home since early March, just before lockdowns began, were brought back to campus late last month.
They immediately underwent coronavirus testing and more than 15 who tested positive were isolated for two weeks before rejoining their classmates.
Some have decried the decision to bring the graduating second lieutenants back to campus to hear the president speak during a public health crisis. A group called Veterans For Peace announced a protest outside West Point’s main gate on Saturday, against what it called “Trump’s dangerous narcissistic Photo-Op Stunt at the West Point Graduation”.
Further strain has been placed on what would normally be one of the showpiece events of US public life by Trump’s pronouncements and actions in regard to widespread civil unrest over the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis.
The president both threatened to use active duty troops against protesters and staged a controversial photo op at St John’s church, near the White House, before which peaceful demonstrators were teargassed and attacked by federal officers.
Gen Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the defense secretary, Mark Esper, joined Trump on his walk to the church. Both have said they should not have done so.
On Thursday, in a video address to graduates of the National Defense University, Milley said it had been “a mistake” to accompany Trump because his appearance fueled the perception of the military becoming embroiled in politics, in his view, shared by Esper, a threat to democracy itself.
An extraordinary expression of regret by the president’s chief military adviser, it came after extraordinary rebukes from senior soldiers including James Mattis, a former secretary of defense; Mike Mullen, a former chair of the joint chiefs; and John Allen, a former commander of forces in Afghanistan.
Trump also contradicted senior military leaders when he said he would not consider renaming military bases currently named for Confederate generals.
In the American civil war, from 1861 to 1865, the Confederacy fought against the federal government in an attempt to maintain slavery. It was defeated – a fact which didn’t stop Trump claiming the generals’ names stood for “Winning, Victory, and Freedom” – but major bases including Fort Hood, in Texas; Fort Bragg, in North Carolina; and Fort Benning, in Georgia, remain named for Confederate generals.
Neither Esper nor Milley was expected to accompany Trump on Saturday. Esper was scheduled to deliver videotaped remarks.
This week, more than 500 West Point graduates from classes spanning six decades signed an open letter reminding the class of 2020 of their commitment to avoiding partisan politics.
“Sadly, the government has threatened to use the army in which you serve as a weapon against fellow Americans engaging in these legitimate protests,” the graduates wrote in the letter, which was published on Medium.
“Worse, military leaders, who took the same oath you take today, have participated in politically charged events. The principle of civilian control is central to the military profession. But that principle does not imply blind obedience.”
On Saturday, Trump tweeted that he was “soon heading to West Point Graduation to give the Commencement Address … Enjoy!”
He then returned to tweeting abuse of Joe Biden, his presumptive opponent in the election in November; claims that protesters over Floyd’s death are from the radical left; and ridicule of hosts and pundits from CNN and MSNBC.
Trump has famously refused to wear a mask in public or follow other precautionary measures against the coronavirus. The West Point cadets will wear masks as they march on to the parade field, which will be used instead of Michie Stadium, the usual commencement venue.
They will sit 6ft apart, following federal social distancing guidelines. Instead of shaking hands with the president, graduates will salute from a platform before the main dais. Guests are not allowed.
White House spokesman Judd Deere said: “Saturday’s graduation is about these incredible cadets and their amazing accomplishments, and as the commander in chief, President Trump wants to celebrate that and thank them for their service to our country.”