At least 15 senior cadets at the U.S. Military Academy tested positive for the Covid-19 coronavirus after being summoned back to West Point to serve as an audience for Donald Trump.
The Army says it was “anticipated,” and the 15 were isolated from the rest of their class. None showed symptoms of the disease.
Mr. Trump unexpectedly announced he would deliver the Academy’s commencement speech in April.
The cadets had been sent home in March to avoid the virus. But the president is commander in chief, so more than 1,100 cadets dutifully began returning for the speech, scheduled for Saturday, June 13. All were tested as they arrived and the Army says 1.5% were found to have the virus.
“Before Mr. Trump’s surprise announcement, West Point officials had said they were not sure when the graduation ceremony would be held or whether it was a good idea to have it,” reports the New York Times.
Trump was sharply criticized by Democrats in Congress when the plan was announced.
“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,” Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) 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.”
“The Army has struggled to justify Trump’s decision, which requires hundreds of future soldiers to return to a region of the country that has been hit especially hard by the coronavirus,” reports Mother Jones magazine.
Other U.S. officials delivering military commencement speeches this year have been more careful about the virus than Trump would like.
Secretary of Defense Mark Esper spoke via the internet to Naval Academy graduates last month. While the Air Force Academy kept seniors on its Colorado campus, they were social distanced for Vice President Mike Pence’s address, sitting 8 feet apart, and no outside guests or spectators were allowed.
“There is no military need to do this,” Jason Fritz, a 2002 West Point graduate, told the Washington Post. “This is a logistics nightmare, all just so the president has an audience to give a speech he wants to give.”