President Donald Trump has told graduates of the country’s top military academy that the US forces are “not the policeman of the world” days after threatening to deploy active troops to quell protests across the country sparked by the police killing of an unarmed Black man.
Speaking to new graduates of the United States Military Academy at West Point on Saturday, Trump praised the “righteous glory of the American warrior” but largely side-stepped the recent controversies of racial unrest and the military’s role in putting down the nationwide protests that followed the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minnesota after a white officer kneeled on his neck for almost nine minutes.
“What has 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 said, in one of the few apparent references to the domestic situation.
Trump, who has faced bipartisan criticism in recent days for a reported plan to withdraw 9,500 US troops from Germany, one of the country’s strong allies, instead focused on his “America First” message, his main campaign platform ahead of the November presidential election.
The president told the more than 1,000 graduating cadets, arrayed in a social-distancing pattern as a coronavirus precaution, that the job of the American soldier is not to rebuild foreign nations but “defend, and defend strongly, our nation from foreign enemies”.
“We are ending the era of endless wars,” Trump said, adding American forces should not be expected “to solve ancient conflicts in faraway lands that many people have not even heard of”.
Trump’s speech came as tensions between the White House and the military remain high over the president’s handling of the protests.
The discord includes the public denouncement by Defense Secretary Mark Esper of the president’s threat to use active-duty troops to intervene, some of which were amassed on the outskirts of Washington, DC as the unrest grew.
During the address, Trump also thanked the National Guard, whose response to the demonstrations in the US capital is currently under review by the defence department, for “ensuring peace, safety and the constitutional rule of law on our streets”.
Critics have accused the president of leaning too heavily on the reserve forces, who have in turn been accused of overly-aggressive tactics during demonstrations in the US capital.
In one instance, the National Guard, along with park police, cleared an area near the White House of protesters, using smoke bombs and pepper balls to disperse the mostly peaceful gathering.
Minutes later, Trump and several high-ranking officials walked through the area for a photo op at a nearby church.
On Thursday, General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said he regretted his presence at Trump’s side during the June 1 incident.
“I should not have been there,” said Milley, adding that his presence “created a perception of military involvement in domestic politics”.
In an open letter published this week, more than 500 West Point graduates called on the Class of 2020 to honour their commitment to avoid partisan politics.