WASHINGTON – When President Donald Trump delivers the commencement address Saturday at West Point, he’ll face an audience of freshly minted second lieutenants, senior military officials and a nation whipsawed by racial tension, domestic unrest and turmoil within his administration.
On Thursday, Trump’s handpicked chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Mark Milley, admitted he’d erred by allowing the military to be drawn into Trump’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.
Trump has long sought to cultivate a close relationship with the military that appeals to his base of support. Apolitical by nature and inclination, military officers have sought to maintain a cordial, professional relationship with Trump. That tension forced a rupture that led to Milley’s extraordinary statement that he regretted accompanying Trump last week on a walk through Laffayette Square after peaceful protesters were forcibly cleared from the area.
How deep that rift is remains unclear. Trump, in his address, could seek to repair it, or double down on rhetoric and policies that are racially divisive, as he has in the debate over changing the names of Army bases.
Trump insists his relationship with the military is solid and that he didn’t see the recent remarks from Milley and Esper as significant.
“I mean, if that’s the way they feel, I think that’s fine.” he said Friday during an interview with Fox News host Harris Faulkner. “I have good relationships with the military.”
Trump seems to have “a tin ear” when it comes to military issues, said Peter Feaver, a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University and former adviser to Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
Trump appears to see the military as “some sort of Praetorian guard whose function is to protect his image and enhance his political standing” instead of viewing it as “America’s military, whose function is to protect the broader national interest,” Feaver said.
Trump’s relationship with the military
Military analysts say the reactions by Milley and Esper indicate Pentagon officials are finding their ethical footing.
“I admire Esper and Milley and think they are both doing the right thing,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution. “That’s worth saying because there are times you need to risk your job, and this feels like one of them, given the constitutional rights and domestic cohesion issues as well as racial issues that affect the military directly that are at play.”
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Loren Thompson, a military analyst at the Lexington Institute and a defense industry consultant, said Trump has sought to align himself with the military but often finds himself at odds with generals. Trump’s original Cabinet included Marine generals James Mattis at the Defense Department and John Kelly at the Department of Homeland Security. Both publicly criticized Trump and Pentagon leaders after the Lafayette Square incident.
“Trump’s affinity for the military may have been grounded in the mistaken belief that they would always follow orders,” Thompson said. “In fact, there is a point beyond which most war fighters will not go, given their oath to uphold the Constitution and their desire to stay out of politics.”
Trump has “a somewhat juvenile relationship” with the military, said Eliot Cohen, a military historian and dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
“He has this conception of generals as tough guys and killers, which is somewhat true,” Cohen said. But “what he didn’t recognize is that when he began to talk about using the military to crush demonstrations in the American streets, that would just go completely against what the military code is.”
If Trump pushes further, Thompson said, Pentagon leadership will resemble that of the intelligence community and Justice Department, whose leadership ranks have been filled with appointees more willing to do Trump’s bidding.
It’s “hard for him to keep firing everybody” at the Pentagon, and he will not want to risk alienating the Pentagon further in advance of the election, O’Hanlon said.
“Trump doesn’t want to run against the military in November,” he said.
Trump’s inclination is to force senior Pentagon leaders, civilian and military, to choose between different visions of the military’s role – “and then to banish to outer reaches of his realm anyone who chooses against the president’s parochial perspective,” Feaver said.
“He has a very parochial view, and that’s the frame he imposes on things,” he said. But, “civilian control means more than mere obedience of lawful orders.”
Racial tensions at West Point
The audience for his commencement address, like the nation itself, is in the throes of examining racial friction.
The white West Point cadet who posted racist videos in April had a disciplinary hearing last week and faces punishment and possible expulsion. A decision is pending.
In an interview with USA TODAY, the superintendent of West Point, Lt. Gen. Darryl Williams, who is African-American, said that the school does not have a systemic problem with racism and that the cadet who posted the video could be redeemed.
“Shock on one hand,” Williams said of his reaction to the videos. “But also understanding that we have to spend a little more time with this particular cadet. That’s what we’ll do.”
In one video, the cadet makes a joke about slavery. In another video, the cadet mocks Asians and makes a veiled and untrue assertion that they are complicit in spreading COVID-19.
The cadet recently completed his sophomore year but was not identified by name by Williams. The cadet did not reply to an email and declined to comment to USA TODAY, according to a West Point official who was not authorized to speak publicly about the ongoing case.
About one third of the 4,400 cadets studying and training to be officers are minorities. West Point graduates receive officers’ commissions and often attain the highest ranks in the Army.
About 46% of the active-duty military force of 1.3 million troops belongs to a racial or ethnic minority, according to the Pentagon.
The cadet’s actions are an aberration and do not reflect a systemic problem with racism at West Point, Williams said. Character development is stressed during the 47 months of instruction at the academy, and some cadets require the full time on campus to achieve the standard West Point requires, Williams said.
However, the military as whole has begun to address discrimination within its ranks. The Air Force, for instance, has acknowledged a “persistent and consistent racial disparity” in disciplining young black airmen, who are disciplined at twice the rate of their white counterparts, according to Air Force documents.
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At the historic West Point campus on the Hudson River in New York, more than 50 minority cadets reported facing some form of racism, according to the confidential survey. They cited harassment ranging from being called racist nicknames by white cadets to being questioned about their credentials for admission to the school.
One cadet wrote of often hearing that it is easier for minority students to gain admission to West Point and officials “let standards slip” in order to keep them in.
“Had a racist roommate that would call me the n-word and spit on me,” one cadet wrote.
Williams maintained that diversity is valued at the academy and in the Army.
“A part of that winning formula is diversity,” he said. “It’s very important that we have diverse teams.”