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Trump addresses West Point grads amid tension with military

President Donald Trump gestures as he steps off Air Force One at Dallas Love Field, Thursday, June 11, 2020, in Dallas with Senate candidate Tommy Tuberville.(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

BRIDGEWATER, N.J. (AP) — His relationship with top military officials strained, President Donald Trump on Saturday will address the graduating class at the U.S. Military Academy against a backdrop of urgent questions about the role of soldiers in a civil society.

Trump’s commencement speech to the 1,100 graduating cadets during a global pandemic will be delivered as arguments continue to rage over his threat to use American troops on U.S. soil to quell protests stemming from the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.

Tensions between the White House and the military have escalated since nationwide protests began over the death of Floyd, a black man who was pinned by the neck by a white police officer for several minutes despite saying he couldn’t breathe.

In the past two weeks, Trump yelled at Defense Secretary Mark Esper for publicly opposing Trump’s call to use active-duty troops to crack down on the demonstrations. Trump then shut down Esper’s attempt to open a public debate on removing the names of Confederate Army officers from military bases.

Gen. Mark Milley, the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, further risked Trump’s ire Thursday by declaring it had been “a mistake” for him to accompany Trump on a June 1 walk through Lafayette Square. The trip ended with the president holding up a Bible and posing for the news media outside St. John’s Church, which was damaged by fire during the unrest.

Milley’s comments amounted to an extraordinary expression of regret by Trump’s chief military adviser, who said his appearance led to the perception of the military becoming embroiled in politics, which in his view — one shared by Esper — is a threat to democracy.

The events have stirred debate within the military and among retired officers. More than 500 West Point graduates from classes spanning six decades signed an open letter reminding the Class of 2020 of its commitment to avoid partisan politics.

The letter, published this week on Medium, also alluded to the problems Esper and Milley encountered at the White House after Floyd’s death.

“Sadly, the government has threatened to use the Army in which you serve as a weapon against fellow Americans engaging in these legitimate protests,” they wrote. “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.”

They added: “We are concerned that fellow graduates serving in senior-level, public positions are failing to uphold their oath of office and their commitment to duty, honor, country. Their actions threaten the credibility of an apolitical military.”

Trump announced in April that he would deliver the commencement address at West Point. Neither Esper nor Milley is expected to accompany Trump. Esper will deliver videotaped remarks.

“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,” said White House spokesman Judd Deere.

Trump’s appearance had been criticized as a political move that would put the graduates at risk in order to put Trump on a grand stage in a picturesque part of New York, the one remaining military service academy where he had yet to give a graduation address. Historic West Point is located 40 miles (65 kilometers) up the Hudson River from New York City, the epicenter of the U.S. coronavirus outbreak.

Army officials defended the move, saying the cadets would have had to brave the health risks of traveling back to campus anyway for their final medical checks, equipment and training.

The cadets had been home since spring break in early March, just before the coronavirus was declared a pandemic and Trump announced a national emergency. They returned to campus in late May.

A group called Veterans For Peace announced a protest outside West Point’s main gate Saturday against what it called “Trump’s dangerous narcissistic Photo-Op Stunt at the West Point Graduation.”

Meanwhile, the ceremony Saturday will look drastically different from past years’ events.

The recently commissioned second lieutenants will wear masks as they march onto West Point’s parade field, instead of into Mitchie Stadium, the longtime commencement venue. They will sit 6 feet (1.8 meters) apart, in keeping with federal guidelines to practice social distancing during the outbreak.

Instead of shaking hands with the president, graduates will step up on a platform before the main dais and salute. Guests are not allowed; family and friends will have to watch online.

Some cadets said they welcomed the chance to see their classmates again.

“We’re going to be scattered all across the world, and it might be years, or tens of years, until we get to see some of our classmates again,” said 2nd Lt. Daine Van de Wall, of West Friendship, Maryland. “And so coming back and getting to have closure for our West Point experience, I think, is extremely important.”

The graduating class immediately underwent coronavirus testing when they returned to campus in late May. More than 15 class members who tested positive were isolated for two weeks before they were allowed to rejoin their classmates.

Cheryl Connors, a 1983 West Point alum whose son Cameron graduates Saturday, said the moment is “bittersweet.” Her three older children graduated from the academy, too.

“I’m super proud of him and his classmates. It’s a great accomplishment,” she said. “And it’s heartbreaking at the same time to not be able to be there and celebrate with him.”