Trump heads to West Point amid fresh military tensions

President Trump will address a group of West Point Military Academy graduates Saturday against a backdrop of disagreements with current and former military officials over his handling of demonstrations against racial injustice.

Former military officials have increasingly spoken out to rebuke Trump over his response to recent protests against the police-involved death of George Floyd and the president’s threat to dispatch active-duty troops to cities to quell violence and looting that accompanied some of the demonstrations.

In an extraordinary statement Thursday, the top U.S. general expressed regret for his involvement in Trump’s photo opportunity at St. John’s Episcopal Church earlier this month that followed an aggressive clearing of protesters. The general, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley, noted that the military is traditionally apolitical.

Trump has consistently won strong support from military members and veterans, and some argue that the high-profile criticism from respected military leaders, like his former Defense Secretary James Mattis, could complicate his efforts to appeal to some military voters.

Still, polling experts say that past evidence suggests Trump’s support among veterans and active-duty members, who tend to lean Republican, is unlikely to be substantially moved by the recent criticism, and Saturday’s address gives him an opportunity to tout his support for the military.

It is unclear precisely what Trump will say in his address, though in previous military commencement speeches he has recognized the graduates’ achievements, cheered the might of the U.S. armed forces and touted his administration’s efforts to rebuild the military while largely steering clear of politics.

“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,” White House spokesman Judd Deere said.

Roughly 1,100 graduating cadets are expected to attend Saturday’s ceremony taking place at the West Point campus in upstate New York. Trump’s decision to deliver the commencement address sparked its own controversy, as graduates had to return to campus after being dismissed amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The ceremony is slated to take place outside and graduates, who were tested for COVID-19 upon returning to campus, will march out wearing masks before taking their places in socially distanced seating, a West Point official said. The ceremony will not include family or other guests and will be streamed live by West Point.

Trump has sought to tie himself closely to the military throughout his presidency. He has spoken in past years at the Naval Academy and Air Force Academy commencement ceremonies, attended multiple Army-Navy football games and repeatedly referred to his administration’s military leaders as “my generals.”

But Trump’s threats in recent weeks to use U.S. troops to maintain order on American streets prompted outcry from former military officials who had previously remained largely silent, with the threats ushering in a fresh debate about the politicization of the armed forces.

Hundreds of West Point graduates signed onto a letter this week criticizing top Defense officials in the Trump administration for their involvement in the clearing of protesters from Lafayette Square across from the White House as well as for their participation in Trump’s ensuing photo-op at St. John’s Episcopal Church.

Trump also drew flak this week when he opposed any discussion of renaming U.S. military bases that bear the names of Confederate leaders, days after Defense Secretary Mark Esper and the secretary of the Army signaled they were willing to discuss the idea.

Mattis, Mike Mullen, John Kelly and David Petraeus were among the high-ranking former military officials who took issue with Trump’s conduct toward protesters or who favored renaming the bases.

While a number of top commanders and widely respected retired leaders have spoken out against Trump, it remains to be seen whether that unease has trickled down to younger active-duty military like the cadets who will be at Saturday’s ceremony.

“I just think it was such a violation for those who were in the military … that I wouldn’t doubt he’s taken a hit in the military. I think you’ll get a sense of that [Saturday],” said Barbara Perry, a presidential scholar at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia.

Experts note that past controversial incidents have not had a large impact on Trump’s military support.

Ruth Igielnik, senior researcher at Pew Research Center, pointed to Trump’s decision to send troops along the U.S.-Mexico border to handle migrants months before the 2018 midterm elections, noting that Pew’s polling found that 6 in 10 veterans supported the decision.

“There was thought that it could be controversial in the military and we found no drop in support,” Igielnik said.

Trump also pointedly criticized Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) during the 2016 primary campaign, arguing he wasn’t a war hero because he had been captured and held during the Vietnam War, and continued disparaging him even after he died in 2018.

According to CNN exit polls from the 2016 election, 60 percent of those who served in the U.S. military and voted then cast ballots for Trump while 34 percent voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Still, there are considerable divisions within the military community, with veterans of color and female service members holding far less favorable views of Trump than white male counterparts.

Trump maintains that he has a strong relationship with the military and said in an interview that aired Friday on Fox News that he did not view recent remarks by Milley and Esper as significant.

“If that’s the way they feel, I think that’s fine. I have good relationships with the military. I’ve rebuilt our military,” Trump told host Harris Faulkner.

Even as he slides behind presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden in national and some battleground state polls, Trump maintains an edge with voters in military families.

A Morning Consult poll released last Monday found 49 percent of registered voters belonging to military households would vote for Trump while 41 percent said they would cast ballots for Biden.

Daniel Cox, a polling expert at the American Enterprise Institute, noted that many military and veteran voters tend to live in states that are not competitive electorally, meaning the voting bloc may not be as key to the president’s ultimate victory.

But Cox said that having military support is “symbolically” important for Trump, given the level of trust the public has in military figures. Recurring criticism from military figures, Cox said, would signal “a lack of trust in his leadership.”

Tags combat veterans Donald Trump Hillary Clinton James Mattis Joe Biden John Kelly John McCain Mark Esper Mark Milley West Point
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