President Donald Trump made a surprise announcement to officials of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point last week that he’s speaking at graduation, requiring that the school recall 1,000 cadets who had left their New York campus as a precaution against the spread of COVID-19, The New York Times reported.
West Point officials had postponed commencement, initially scheduled for May 23, and it was unclear when, or even if, the ceremony would be held, according to the Times. The academy’s 4,000 cadets were told to stay home after spring break and continue their studies online, The Military Times reported.
The president’s plan means graduating cadets will have to travel from hometowns across the nation to the state with the highest number of coronavirus deaths. The campus is about an hour’s drive north of New York City.
It will be the first time Trump has spoken at West Point. The commencement is now scheduled for June 13.
“He’s the commander in chief, that’s his call,” Sue Fulton, a West Point graduate and former chairwoman of the academy’s Board of Visitors, told the Times.
She said cadets are “certainly excited about the opportunity to have something like the classic graduation, standing together, flinging their hats in the air.” She added: “But everyone is leery about bringing 1,000 cadets into the New York metropolitan area for a ceremony. It’s definitely a risk.”
Lt. Gen. Darryl Williams, West Point’s superintendent, issued a statement Wednesday that West Point is “honored to host the commander in chief as we celebrate the many accomplishments of our graduating class.”
The Army plans to mass test and quarantine returning cadets, the Army Times reported Friday. Cadets will return in small, staggered groups. They’ll be placed in shelters in the summer training area and await test results there.
“If they come back clean, they’ll come on campus to their dorm room, and we’re calling it a soft quarantine,” Lt. Col. Christopher Ophardt, a West Point spokesperson, told the Army Times. A planning committee has been working on contingency plans for a possible commencement ceremony beginning in mid-March, according to the newspaper.
Trump talked about attending the commencement April 17 at a news conference at the White House and said he would not like “the look” of social distancing required for the ceremony.
“I understand they’ll have distancing. They’ll have some big distances,” the president said. “So it’ll be very different than it ever looked. Do I like the look? No, I don’t. Eventually, next year, they’ll have a commencement which will be like it’s been ... nice and tight.”
West Point said on its website that the graduation ceremony will “look different from recent graduation ceremonies due to current force health protection requirements” and the “severity of the danger facing our community” from the coronavirus outbreak.
The “size and scope of the graduation ceremony will be determined by safety considerations for cadets and the entire West Point community, and the academy leadership is conducting a thorough analysis and plan for the safe return of the Corps of Cadets,” the statement added.
Vice President Mike Pence spoke last week at the Air Force Academy’s commencement. Cadets had to maintain at least 6 feet of social distance, and chairs for the ceremony were positioned 8 feet apart. Trump incorrectly said that cadets stayed 10 feet from one another — and appeared to slight the distance as “politically correct.“ Friends and family were not allowed to attend but could watch the live-streamed event online.
The Naval Academy will hold an entirely virtual commencement, according to The Military Times.
Critics on Twitter blasted the move as a life-risking stunt by Trump to serve his vanity and his campaign.
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