Trump's commencement address comes as the president clashes with Pentagon leaders.
A previous United States Military Academy graduation. | Lee Celano/Getty Images
The general's portrait hangs in the cadet mess hall. One of the main barracks bears his name, as does an entrance gate and even an academic award for the highest grades in math.
The U.S. Military Academy at West Point is full of ghosts. But on Saturday, when President Donald Trump delivers the annual commencement address to graduating cadets, one specter that will loom especially large is Robert E. Lee’s.
The legacy of the most famous Confederate general is central to the public clash between Trump and the Pentagon this week over whether it’s time to revoke the honors bestowed on those officers who committed treason during the Civil War to defend slavery.
Many of the 1,100 graduating cadets slept in barracks named for Lee, who also served as superintendent of West Point before breaking with the Union. And Fort Lee in Virginia is one of the 10 Army bases that Trump this week said he would “not even consider” renaming after Pentagon leaders said they were open to the possibility.
The West Point speech comes as a growing number of military figures slam the president for politicizing the armed forces as he seeks reelection — in the clash over Confederate symbols, his recent threat to use federal troops to put down protests, and for staging a photo op with Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley after peaceful demonstrators were forcibly removed.
Esper said publicly he opposed the deployment of active troops and Milley on Thursday said his role in the June 1 episode in Lafayette Park outside the White House was a “mistake" that tarnished the military's hard-earned reputation as being divorced from politics.
While some express hope the president will use Saturday’s storied backdrop overlooking New York’s Hudson River to try to heal the rifts, others fear that for political gain he will stoke more division and further exacerbate a crisis in civil-military relations.
“I’d love to hear the president change his mind about a lot of things,” said retired Army Col. Joseph Collins, a former instructor at West Point who until last year taught at the National Defense University, where senior officers and Pentagon civilians are groomed. “This business of threatening protesters with military forces, there was a lot of emotion with that."
But he fears the president will strike back: "He was opposed by the secretary and the chairman. He doesn’t take those things lightly.”
Retired Gen. Wesley Clark, a West Point graduate who sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004, also worries the president could use the speech to try to score political points.
“He is not going to apologize for Lafayette Square and he is probably going to talk about the importance of loyalty and accuse Mattis and Mullen, at least implicitly, of being those people who stand on the wayside and criticize," Clark said. "He could try to make fun of them, to try to hurt them and damage their reputations."
Even worse, Clark fears, Trump could declare that he is standing up “for the heroes of West Point who served for the Confederacy and fought valiantly for a lost cause.” He could say “they were wrong but their generalship was outstanding and they learned their attributes at West Point.”
"He wraps himself in the credibility of the armed forces," Clark added. "That’s been his objective from the beginning and it’s even more important now that people like Mattis have spoken out. "
On Friday, Trump appeared to lower the temperature in his standoff with the Pentagon, telling Fox News that he was "fine" with Milley's statement of regret on Thursday, while defending his own actions. But he has also stoked the Confederate controversy, by tweeting that "THOSE THAT DENY THEIR HISTORY ARE DOOMED TO REPEAT IT!"
In that same interview, Trump said he has "done more for the black community than any other president," adding that Abraham Lincoln "did good, although it’s always questionable, you know, in other words, the end result." To which anchor Harris Faulkner responded: "Well, we are free, Mr. President. He did pretty well."
The commencement address was controversial from the start. When Trump announced in April he would be delivering his first graduation speech at West Point, it was at the height of the coronavirus outbreak and cadets had been released early.
They have been forced to return to campus, including some with the coronavirus. The festivities will be smaller than previous ceremonies, which usually take place in front of a capacity crowd in West Point's Mitchie Stadium. Even so, the gathering will violate New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's order to limit graduation crowds to 150. (As a federal facility, the academy is exempt from the state guidelines.)
The president is also being greeted at West Point by a backlash from hundreds of former cadets who issued an unusual public rebuke on Thursday of their fellow graduates who are serving the president, including Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The two are among a number of members of the class of 1986 in high levels of the administration.
"When leaders betray public faith through deceitful rhetoric, quibbling, or the appearance of unethical behavior, it erodes public trust," the Concerned Members of the Long Gray Line wrote in a post on Medium. "When fellow graduates acquiesce to bullying, and fail to defend honorable subordinates, it harms the nation and the Long Gray Line."
They also urged their fellow West Point graduates to resist the president's impulse to use the military as a political prop. "Politicization of the Armed Forces puts at risk the bond of trust between the American military and American society. Should this trust be ruptured, the damage to the nation would be incalculable," they wrote.
Some see the West Point visit as a perfect opportunity to change the tone of the conversation, starting with the military.
“It does seem the relationship between the White House and the Pentagon — the leadership in the Pentagon — is worsening,” said Chris Jenks, a retired Army officer who worked for the Defense Department’s general counsel under Trump and now teaches law at Southern Methodist University. “It’s now even public.”
Others said the setting offers a unique backdrop for easing tensions in a nation buffeted by historic challenges, ranging from economic hardship to disease and lingering racial inequality that has led to the recent nationwide protests.
The West Point Class of 2020 is one of the most diverse in the academy's history. Of the 1,105 graduates, 12 are international cadets, 229 are women, 132 are African American, 103 are Asian/Pacific Islander, 101 are Hispanic and 10 are Native American, the academy says.
"Ideally, a president speaking at a West Point graduation would offer positive, non-partisan messages about leadership and service," said Benjamin Haas, a former Army intelligence officer and West Point graduate who is now a human rights lawyer. "But Trump has no respect for civil-military norms, and he is notorious for politicizing the military. It would be wholly inappropriate for Trump to push domestic political messages or boast of his perception that the military supports him politically.
"And it would be indefensible," he added, "for Trump to further pit the military against protesters seeking racial justice or to advance his wrongheaded feelings about Confederate-named Army bases."
For the newly commissioned Army second lieutenants in the audience, what the president has to say has immediate implications.
The largest share of graduating cadets — more than 20 percent — will be heading to their first assignments at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, named after Gen. Braxton Bragg, and Fort Hood in Texas, which honors Gen. John Bell Hood, two other Confederate generals.