Last week, President Trump gave a commencement speech at the West Point Military Academy for the graduating class of 2020. Embracing the Armed Forces and the strength, patriotism, and competence that characterize them has been an instinctive tactic of Mr. Trump for the duration of his presidency. However, like many of the president’s alleged sexual encounters throughout his life, this embrace has been less than mutual.
Over a thousand cadets from the class of 2020 were called back to campus from their homes in spite of the coronavirus pandemic so that they could listen attentively to the president’s speech and watch him model new techniques for drinking water and descending ramps. Hundreds of West Point graduates wrote to the class of 2020 expressing their concern “that fellow graduates serving in senior-level, public positions are failing to uphold their oath of office and their commitment to Duty, Honor, Country,” referencing defense secretary Mark Esper, class of 1986. Esper was part of the entourage that walked with the president to St John’s Church on June 1st after the area was cleared using chemical irritants. General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was also present. “Their actions,” write the graduates, “threaten the credibility of an apolitical military.”
In a video addressed to the National Defense University, Milley apologised for his part in the debacle, admitting that it had been a mistake, while Esper is said to be on thin ice with the president after opposing the use of the Insurrection Act. General James Mattis, the iconic Marine commander and Trump’s first defense secretary, accused him of “abuse of executive authority” and making a “mockery of the Constitution.” Peter Bergen, author of Trump and His Generals: The Cost of Chaos, reckons that “this is the biggest split between the military and the civilian leadership” we’ve seen.
The president’s draft-dodging, four times during college and once on account of a very dubious diagnosis of “bone spurs,” has been well-chronicled, and he has not always spoken about the sacrifices of American soldiers with the appropriate decorum.
He should be careful not to alienate the Armed Forces in an election year. It’s not a luxury that a Republican president who is consistently 14, 12, or 10 points back in general-election polling can afford.