“Never did I dream that troops taking that same oath would be ordered under any circumstance to violate the constitutional rights of their fellow citizens — much less to provide a bizarre photo op for the elected commander in chief, with military leadership standing alongside,” Mr. Mattis, a retired Marine four-star general, wrote after the church episode.
Mr. Trump has long revered West Point, which is six miles from his high school alma mater, the New York Military Academy, a 131-year institution that was sold at a bankruptcy auction in 2015 to a nonprofit controlled by Chinese investors.
“I’m doing it at West Point, which I look forward to,” the president said in April as he declared his commencement intentions — to the surprise of everyone, including the commanding officers at West Point. “I understand they’ll have distancing. They’ll have some big distance, and so it’ll be very different than it ever looked.”
Saturday’s commencement will be the first since 1977 that will not be held in Michie Stadium, the West Point football stadium, which does not have enough room on the field for keeping 1,107 cadets six feet apart.
The coronavirus has killed more than 114,000 Americans, and cases are increasing in a number of states as businesses reopen, although infections are sharply down in New York. Protests over the killing of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis are continuing across the country, and Mr. Trump is stoking a cultural divide with his Twitter feed.
Army officials said privately this week that they were nervous about what the president might say after two weeks of racial tension that has roiled the country. Mr. Trump could wade further into the fierce debate over whether to strip military bases of Confederate names, as a Republican-led Senate panel demanded on Thursday. Or he could make a surprise announcement about withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, they said.
Concern about the issue of police abuse have rippled through the campus in recent days. The West Point superintendent, Lt. Gen. Darryl A. Williams, convened the entire senior class on the parade ground where commencement will take place to hear their concerns and talk about his own experiences as a black man in the Army.