WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump on Saturday addressed the new graduating class of the West Point military academy, praising the "righteous glory of the American warrior" but largely side-stepping recent controversies over racial unrest and the military's role in putting it down.
"America is the greatest country in human history," Trump told the 1,107 newly minted second lieutenants as they sat, well-spaced, under a bright sun on the parade ground of the US Military Academy.
But he made no direct mention of the recent racial turmoil and only glancingly referred to recent dissent from top military figures over his threat to employ active duty troops to put down protests.
Trump's closest mention came when he said, "I also want to thank the men and women of our National Guard" for responding to "challenges from hurricanes and natural disasters to ensuring peace, safety and the constitutional rule of law on our streets."
The president, who was introduced by the academy's first black superintendent, Lieutenant General Darryl Williams, also referred only passingly to the nation's racial challenges.
"The army was at the forefront of ending the terrible injustice of segregation," he said, and it was West Point graduates who led the fight in the Civil War to "end the evil of slavery."
Trump did not mention that one West Point barracks still bears the name of General Robert E. Lee, who led the break-away Confederate forces during that war, which brought an end to slavery.
Trump has rejected recent demands to rename US military bases bearing the names of Confederate officers.
- Rising tensions -
Tensions between Trump and the military had soared since he threatened to call out active duty troops to put down sometimes violent protests when racial turmoil broke out recently.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper took the exceptional step of publicly denouncing such use of the troops.
And Esper's predecessor, James Mattis, accused Trump of deliberately dividing the country and making "a mockery" of the US constitution.
On Thursday, General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said he regretted his presence at Trump's side on June 1, when National Guard troops fired smoke bombs and pepper balls to clear peaceful protesters from outside the White House so the president could walk across and pose for pictures at a nearby church.
"I should not have been there," said Milley, adding that his presence "created a perception of military involvement in domestic politics."
Trump later derided Mattis, a respected retired marine corps leader, as "our country's most overrated general."
- Battling for reelection -
The fracture in civil-military relations hung over Trump's address to the cadets at the picturesque West Point campus, situated in green hills north of New York City.
The president clearly wants to be seen as a tough leader as he battles for reelection in November against Democrat Joe Biden, whom Trump labels "weak."
The academy had been shut and students sent home because of the coronavirus pandemic. But Trump abruptly 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. They wore masks as they marched onto the field; Trump, as usual, did not.
Asked in a Fox News interview that aired Friday about Esper and Milley, Trump replied, "If that's the way they feel, I think that's fine."
"I have good relationships with the military," he said.
But Trump's strains with the Pentagon have long roots.
- Deeper strains -
He controversially overrode top Pentagon generals in 2019 to protect a Navy Seal, Eddie Gallagher, accused of war crimes.
He also forced the Pentagon to divert billions of dollars from other projects to build a wall along the border with Mexico.
And his precipitous efforts to withdraw US troops from abroad -- including a reported plan to slash troop levels in Afghanistan and an abrupt decision to pull thousands of troops from Germany -- have upended Pentagon plans.
© Agence France-Presse