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Trump highlights ‘evils of slavery’ in speech to military graduates

The US president spoke to the Class of 2020 at West Point military academy in New York state.

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Donald Trump (AP)

Donald Trump (AP)

Donald Trump (AP)

US president Donald Trump has preached unity to US military graduates, telling them to never forget the legacy of soldiers from generations ago who fought “a bloody war to extinguish the evil of slavery”.

Mr Trump’s appeal to reconciliation and remembrance at West Point academy in New York state comes at a time when his own relationship with the military is under strain, and as America struggles to confront racism.

The US president and Pentagon leaders have faced unrelenting criticism over their response to the protests across the country following George Floyd’s death in police custody in Minneapolis.

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A screen displays President Donald Trump as he speaks to over 1,110 cadets in the Class of 2020 at West Point (AP)

A screen displays President Donald Trump as he speaks to over 1,110 cadets in the Class of 2020 at West Point (AP)

AP/PA Images

A screen displays President Donald Trump as he speaks to over 1,110 cadets in the Class of 2020 at West Point (AP)

Mr Trump appeared to allude to those tensions as he addressed more than 1,100 graduates at an unusual socially-distanced outdoor ceremony held during the coronavirus pandemic.

He told them: “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.”

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United States Military Academy graduating cadets wear face masks as they stand next to their socially-distanced seats during commencement ceremonies (AP)

United States Military Academy graduating cadets wear face masks as they stand next to their socially-distanced seats during commencement ceremonies (AP)

AP/PA Images

United States Military Academy graduating cadets wear face masks as they stand next to their socially-distanced seats during commencement ceremonies (AP)

In the past two weeks, Mr Trump has denounced defence secretary Mark Esper for publicly opposing his call to use active-duty troops to quell the protests stemming from the death of Mr Floyd, who was black, after his neck was knelt upon by a white Minneapolis police officer.

Mr Trump then shut down Mr Esper’s attempt to open a public debate on removing the names of Confederate Army officers from military bases.

Gen Mark Milley, the US joint chiefs of staff chairman, further risked Mr Trump’s ire on Thursday by declaring it had been “a mistake” for him to accompany Mr Trump on a June 1 walk through Lafayette Square in Washington DC.

The trip ended with the president holding up a Bible and posing for the news media outside St John’s Church, which was damaged by fire during the unrest.

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West Point Class President Cadet Joshua Phillips, from Chicago, wipes a tear during the musical performances portion of a commencement ceremony (AP)

West Point Class President Cadet Joshua Phillips, from Chicago, wipes a tear during the musical performances portion of a commencement ceremony (AP)

AP/PA Images

West Point Class President Cadet Joshua Phillips, from Chicago, wipes a tear during the musical performances portion of a commencement ceremony (AP)

Gen Milley’s comments amounted to an extraordinary expression of regret by Mr Trump’s chief military adviser, who said his appearance led to the perception of the military becoming embroiled in politics, which in his view – one shared by Mr Esper – is a threat to democracy.

The events have stirred debate within the military and among retired officers.

More than 500 West Point graduates from classes spanning six decades signed an open letter reminding the Class of 2020 of its commitment to avoid partisan politics.

More than 500 West Point graduates from classes spanning six decades signed an open letter reminding the Class of 2020 of its commitment to avoid partisan politics.

The letter, published this week on Medium, also alluded to the problems Mr Esper and Gen Milley encountered at the White House after Mr Floyd’s death.

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Demonstrators outside West Point kneel during a solidarity protest for George Floyd (AP)

Demonstrators outside West Point kneel during a solidarity protest for George Floyd (AP)

AP/PA Images

Demonstrators outside West Point kneel during a solidarity protest for George Floyd (AP)

They wrote: “Sadly, the government has threatened to use the Army in which you serve as a weapon against fellow Americans engaging in these legitimate protests.

“Worse, military leaders, who took the same oath you take today, have participated in politically charged events. The principle of civilian control is central to the military profession. But that principle does not imply blind obedience.”

They added: “We are concerned that fellow graduates serving in senior-level, public positions are failing to uphold their oath of office and their commitment to duty, honour, country. Their actions threaten the credibility of an apolitical military.”

During the commencement ceremony, protesters sailed along the nearby Hudson River in kayaks and boats to denounce the president.

In his 22-minute address, Mr Trump thanked the newly commissioned officers for choosing to serve and reminded them of generals such as Douglas McArthur and Dwight D Eisenhower and the history of West Point.

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President Donald Trump boards Marine One after speaking to the military graduates (AP)

President Donald Trump boards Marine One after speaking to the military graduates (AP)

AP/PA Images

President Donald Trump boards Marine One after speaking to the military graduates (AP)

He said: “It was on this soil that American patriots held the most vital fortress in our war for independence.”

It was the US military academy, he said, that “gave us the men and women who fought and won a bloody war to extinguish the evil of slavery within one lifetime of our founding”.

The US leader continued: “This is your history. This is the legacy that each of you inherits.”

Mr Trump added that it was bought with American blood spilled in battle, saying: “You must never forget it.”

However, Mr Trump also leaned into his “America first” brand of foreign policy, without using the phrase, telling the cadets their job is “not to rebuild foreign nations, but to defend and defend strongly our nation from our foreign enemies”.

“We are ending the era of endless wars,” he said.

“It is not the duty of US troops to solve ancient conflicts in faraway lands that many people have never heard of.”

He said America is not the “policeman of the world”, but warned adversaries that the US will “never, ever hesitate” to act when its people are threatened.

He also thanked those in the military who have helped the country respond to the coronavirus, which he once again called an “invisible enemy” that came from China.

The president stressed the unity of a graduating class that came from across the country “from every race, religion, colour and creed”. The class also includes citizens of 11 other countries, including Bosnia-Herzegovina, South Korea and Tanzania.

PA