WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump plans to address the new graduating class of the West Point military academy on Saturday (June 13), as relations with the Pentagon fray over accusations that he has politicised the United States military.
Tensions have soared in two weeks since Mr Trump threatened to call out active duty troops to deal with anti-police brutality protests around the country, and then staged a surprise photo op with Defence Secretary Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs Chair General Mark Milley at a site that had been forcefully cleared of protesters.
Mr Esper’s job was reportedly in the balance last week after he took the extraordinary step of breaking with the president by declaring he would not support calling up regular troops to stifle protests.
And Mr Trump’s actions drew scathing criticisms from former Pentagon chiefs – including Mr Esper’s predecessor James Mattis, who accused Mr Trump of deliberately dividing the country, abusing his power and making “a mockery” of the US Constitution.
On Thursday, Mr Milley said he regretted his presence at Mr Trump’s side on June 1, when National Guard fired smoke bombs and pepper balls to clear hundreds of peaceful protesters from outside the White House so the president could walk across and pose for pictures at a nearby a church.
Mr Trump’s display, with Mr Milley wearing his camouflage battle uniform, drew strong criticism that he had turned the Pentagon into a political tool of repression.
“I should not have been there,” Mr Milley told graduates of the elite National Defence University, adding that his presence “created a perception of military involvement in domestic politics”.
The fracture in civil-military relations weighs on Mr Trump’s address to the 1,110 graduating cadets at the picturesque West Point campus, north of New York City.
The event is clearly important to Mr Trump, who wants to be seen as a tough leader as he battles for re-election in November against Democrat Joe Biden, who Mr Trump labels “weak”. The academy had been shut and students sent home because of the coronavirus pandemic. But Mr Trump announced in April that he would address the graduates in person.
So cadets were recalled and put through weeks of Covid-19 quarantine and testing. About 1.5 per cent have tested positive, Pentagon officials say.
It was not known what Mr Trump plans to say on Saturday.
But he has flatly rejected the Pentagon’s criticisms, arguing it was crucial to use force against protesters.
He derided Mr Mattis, a retired four-star Marine general who garners deep respect in the US military, as “our country’s most overrated General”.
“You have to dominate the streets,” he said on Monday, defending the June 1 action.
Asked in a Fox News interview that aired on Friday about Mr Esper and Mr Milley, Mr Trump replied, “If that’s the way they feel, I think that’s fine.”
“I have good relationships with the military,” he said. “Now we have the greatest military we’ve ever had.”
The strains with the Pentagon go deeper than the protests.
Mr Trump controversially overrode top Pentagon generals in 2019 to protect a Navy Seal, Eddie Gallagher, accused of war crimes and convicted of misconduct.
The president has also forced the Pentagon to divert billions of dollars from other projects to build a wall along the southern US border with Mexico.
And his precipitous efforts to withdraw US troops from abroad – including a reported plan to slash troop levels in Afghanistan before the election – have also upended plans by the defence establishment.
All of that took place in the public eye, ensuring that the graduating cadets are aware of it.
In an open letter this week, several hundred West Point alumni warned the new graduates of being used by politicians.
“Sadly, the government has threatened to use the Army in which you serve as a weapon against fellow Americans engaging in these legitimate protests,” they wrote.
“Politicisation of the Armed Forces puts at risk the bond of trust between the American military and American society.”