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Trump leads socially distant West Point commencement amid criticism of military's role in protests

Critics voiced concerns that the gathering would put cadets at risk amid the coronavirus. It also comes as military leaders are speaking out against Trump’s use of the military during protests following the death of George Floyd.

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump attended the 2020 commencement ceremony at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., Saturday, despite concerns that his visit would put cadets and other people at risk due to the coronavirus as well as recent criticism from retired military leaders over Trump's response to the protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd.

“You came to West Point because you know the truth: America is the greatest country in human history. And the United States Military is the greatest force for peace and justice the world has ever known,” Trump said Saturday morning during his graduation speech.

“What has historically made America unique is the durability of its institutions against the passions and prejudices of the moment. When times are turbulent, when the road is rough, what matters most is that which is permanent, timeless, enduring and eternal,” Trump continued.

Trump promised the class of over 1,110 cadets that he was “ending the era of endless wars,” a talking point he has frequently touched on since his 2016 campaign.

“It's not the duty of U.S. troops to solve ancient conflicts in faraway lands,” Trump said, “we are not the policeman of the world.”

“If our people are threatened, we will never ever hesitate to act,” Trump said. “And when we fight from now on, we will only fight to win.”

In order to maintain social distancing, Trump did not shake hands or pass out diplomas to graduating cadets. Instead, cadets, who sat 6 feet apart throughout the ceremony, marched to the front of the stage to salute the president. Family and friends were not invited to attend the ceremony but could watch online.

Students at the U.S. Military Academy had been remote learning since spring break due to the coronavirus pandemic. The decision to hold an in-person graduation ceremony with the president sparked health and logistical concerns as more the cadets in the 2020 class had to travel from all over the country back to West Point.

Cadets were divided up into different cohorts and instructed to isolate ahead of Trump’s visit. Multiple cadets tested positive for the coronavirus upon returning to campus.

The West Point campus is location roughly 50 miles outside of New York City, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S.

Critics of the president said he was using Saturday's commencement as an excuse to get out of Washington with little regard for the health and safety of others.

“Trump’s reckless decision to gather 1,000 Cadets at West Point for a speech puts our future military leaders at increased risk—all to stroke his own ego," Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., an Iraq War Veteran and a member of West Point’s Board of Visitors, said in an April statement when Trump first announced the trip.

"Our troops need stable, consistent leadership during volatile times like these, not a Commander-in-Chief who values his own photo ops and TV ratings over their health and safety. I urge President Trump to evaluate the potential consequences of this vanity speech and reconsider holding the event," Duckworth said.

Vice President Mike Pence spoke at the Air Force Academy graduation in Colorado Springs in April. Unlike the Military Academy, the Air Force Academy kept their graduating class on campus rather than sending them home and moved up their ceremony date.

The Naval Academy in Annapolis opted for the first time ever to hold a virtual graduation last month.

Trump’s speech at the country’s top military academy Saturday also comes as Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, apologized Thursday for his role in Trump's church photo-op, saying he shouldn't have been at the scene.

"As many of you saw, the result of the photograph of me at Lafayette Square last week, that sparked a national debate about the role of the military in civil society," Milley said in a prerecorded address at a commencement ceremony at the National Defense University in Washington. "I should not have been there. My presence in that moment, and in that environment, created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics."

Peaceful protesters calling for police reform and racial equality were forcibly removed from the street across from the White House with tear gas and rubber bullets so that the president could take a picture holding a Bible in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church. A number of top advisers and cabinet members joined Trump, including Milley and Defense Secretary Mark Esper.

Colin Powell, who served as secretary of state under former President George W. Bush and was previously chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, James Mattis, Trump's former Defense Secretary, retired Navy Adm. James Stavridis, among other military officials, have all been critical of Trump's rhetoric and actions in the aftermath of the death of Floyd.