Trump to deliver West Point commencement address amid racial tensions, coronavirus fears

WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump will deliver the commencement address for West Point’s graduating class on Saturday during an unconventional ceremony that will reflect the challenges facing Americans amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The military academy’s roughly 1,100 graduating class members will practice social distancing. Gray-uniformed cadets will sit in chairs spaced six feet apart. Diplomas will be handed out in advance, and cadets will salute the official party instead of crossing the stage when their name is called.

No handshakes will be permitted. Parents, relatives and friends won’t be allowed to attend.

One important tradition will continue: Cadets will still toss their caps in the air when the ceremony is over.

Trump announced in April that he would deliver the commencement address for the Class of 2020 – a decision met with swift condemnation from critics, who accused him of putting future military leaders’ lives at risk by forcing them to assemble during a deadly contagion.

Cadets were sent home in March when the pandemic hit and finished their studies through remote learning. Only the graduating seniors returned for Saturday’s event, which is being moved from the on-campus football stadium to an expansive parade field known as the Plain.

Presidents routinely speak at commencement addresses. Trump’s speech will mark his first graduation address at West Point, although he has spoken in previous years to graduates at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut.

At West Point, Trump’s remarks to graduates will come not only as the nation is still reeling from the deadly coronavirus pandemic but also at a time of racial tension, domestic unrest and turmoil between the White House and the nation’s military leaders.

Trump’s handpicked chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Mark Milley, admitted Thursday he’d erred by allowing the military to be drawn into the president’s politicized response to mostly peaceful protests following the death of George Floyd. Mark Esper, Trump’s defense secretary, has signaled his willingness to change the names of Army forts that honor Confederate generals, a stance Trump has rejected.

Meanwhile, West Point itself has been riven by the same racial tensions roiling the nation. Minority cadets, in a confidential survey obtained by USA TODAY, say they face blatant and subtle discrimination at the nation’s elite training ground for Army officers. The posting of racist videos in April by one their classmates prompted the survey.

The graduation ceremony will be livestreamed starting at 9:30 a.m. on the West Point Channel on YouTube.

Contributing: Tom Vanden Brook and The Associated Press.