Trump will address a socially distanced West Point graduation Saturday
(CNN) -- President Donald Trump will address approximately 1,100 graduates who have gathered at the US Military Academy at West Point for the annual commencement exercises Saturday morning -- but the graduation will look very different from those in years past.
The students were coronavirus-tested and separated into groups of 250 to live, work and eat together for a two-week quarantine leading up to the graduation address. The graduates will be socially distanced 6 feet from one another Saturday across the Plain Parade Field to accommodate the requirements of Covid-19 protection, instead of at Michie Stadium, the traditional location for the graduation. Family and friends will not be allowed to attend the ceremony but can watch it online.
West Point has made every effort to keep Saturday's commencement ceremony "as close to normal as possible," Lt. Col. Chris Ophardt told CNN in an interview Friday.
The graduates will throw their hats into the air when the ceremony concludes, as is tradition, but there will be major changes.
As the graduates march out onto the field, they will wear face coverings, face masks. "They're seated at about 8-foot intervals across the parade field, so it's an outdoor ceremony. Once they reach their seats, they will then take their masks off for the rest of the ceremony because they will be practicing social distancing and they're outside, and they've all tested negative," Ophardt said.
"Instead of being handed the diploma, they will render a salute from a small stage that's about 15 feet in front of where the President will be standing," Ophardt said. "So when their name gets read, instead of getting handed a diploma ... they'll step forward and they'll salute President; President and Lt. Gen. Williams will salute back, and then they'll leave the stage, and that will be their recognition."
Traditionally, the students would have their commissioning ceremony the day they graduated, but due to the coronavirus pandemic, they received their commissions digitally and already hold the rank of second lieutenant.
Trump announced in April, surprising many, that he would speak at an in-person graduation ceremony despite the pandemic. Vice President Mike Pence spoke during the Air Force commencement ceremony in April.
Trump said at the time that he was looking forward to the event, adding that though he doesn't like "the look" of a socially distanced crowd, "eventually, next year, they'll have a commencement like it's been ... nice and tight."
As to what the President's message will be and whether he would comment on the controversy over renaming some Army bases named for Confederate military leaders, White House deputy press secretary Judd Deere told CNN: "Saturday's graduation is about these incredible cadets and their amazing accomplishments, and as the Commander-in-Chief, President Trump wants to celebrate that and thank them for their service to our country."
Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley are not expected to attend, two sources familiar with the matter told CNN. Both sources said that was the plan all along. Esper has sent video remarks to be played at the ceremony.
The second lieutenants returned to West Point's campus in New York state -- a former coronavirus hub -- for the President's speech, Trump's first at a West Point graduation. The academy said it had switched to online learning in March, and had declared a state of emergency.
CNN reported last week that about 15 students had tested positive for Covid-19 when they returned to campus for commencement, according to an Army spokesperson. None of the infected students were symptomatic, the spokesperson said, adding, "no cadet has contracted through person-to-person contact while under the Army's care" and that those infected had been isolated.
An Army official said those students have now rejoined their classmates and are expected to graduate on Saturday with the others.
The West Point superintendent, Army Lt. Gen. Darryl Williams, told NBC's "Today" show in a segment Friday morning that "we're happy that (Trump's) coming."
"We've been planning for the celebration for a year," he added. "It was not a reaction to any request for -- to move the graduation or anything like that."
Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville, who also appeared on "Today" on Friday, said that Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy decided that Trump should speak at the event "with my best military advice, and my advice to the secretary was that the United States Military Academy should have a graduation."
The move has not come without controversy. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, an Illinois Democrat who's an Iraq War veteran, criticized the President's decision to speak in April, urging him to "evaluate the potential consequences of this vanity speech."
"Trump's reckless decision to gather 1,000 Cadets at West Point for a speech puts our future military leaders at increased risk -- all to stroke his own ego," she said in a statement. "Our troops need stable, consistent leadership during volatile times like these, not a Commander-in-Chief who values his own photo ops and TV ratings over their health and safety."
Trump isn't the only one looking to convey a message to the graduates. On Thursday, a group of US Military Academy graduates issued a message to the Class of 2020 outlining concerns that "fellow graduates serving in senior-level, public positions" are undermining the credibility of an apolitical military and betraying their "commitment to Duty, Honor, Country."
West Point graduates occupy prominent roles in the Trump administration, including Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Pompeo's two closest aides at the State Department, Brian Bulatao and Ulrich Brechbuhl.
Early this week, Williams had a town hall-style meeting with the senior class being invited, in which the superintendent allowed them to raise any concerns they had about what was happening in the world, Ophardt said.
This story has been updated with additional reporting.
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