President Donald Trump told the Naval Academy’s graduating class Friday that the nation, buoyed by increased defense spending and a favorable economy, has regained its swagger and is “respected again.”
“In case you haven’t noticed, we have become a lot stronger lately. A lot,” the president told the 783 men and 259 women graduates on a warm, cloudless day at a packed Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. “We are not going to apologize for America. We are going to stand up for America. No more apologies.”
In a speech largely about American might, Trump recited a litany of military achievements and said the country “will have the strongest military than ever before, and it won’t even be close.”
He told the graduates he got them “a big pay increase, first time in over 10 years. I fought for you.”
The military pay raise of 2.4 percent this year, set by a bipartisan majority in Congress and signed into law by Trump, was the largest since 2010. But it was not the first increase in more than 10 years — there have been increases every year for more than 30 years.
Trump had requested a 2.1 percent increase. It was Congress that raised it to 2.4 percent.
Trump, appearing to enjoy himself, made a point of remaining after his address to shake hands with each newly commissioned Navy ensign or Marine Corps second lieutenant as they were summoned to the stage. He hugged the last graduate, elicitng a laugh from the crowd of 30,000.
Midshipmen said they had practiced how each would shake hands with the president.
Trump told them he had the option to leave after his speech or shake hands with the top 100 in the class.
“What should I do? What should I do?” he asked. “I’ll stay, I’ll stay.”
Most family members and friends in the stands stood when Trump was introduced, and many midshipmen clapped. But before his arrival, some current and former midshipmen expressed unease about his appearance.
Two 2001 Naval Academy graduates wrote in a Baltimore Sun opinion piece that Trump did not personify the institution’s tradition of “making big choices laden with courage and self-sacrifice.”
Trump, wrote Daniel Barkhuff and William Burke, “could never do what we ask our U.S. Naval Academy graduates to do. He is a physical coward, a liar and no leader at all.”
Barkhuff is president and Burke is general counsel of Veterans for Responsible Leadership, which has been critical of Trump.
The last three presidents — Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama — delivered graduation remarks at the Naval Academy in the first year of their administrations. But Vice President Mike Pence addressed the class of 2017 last year because Trump was attending the Group of Seven forum for industrialized nations.
After Trump was confirmed as the speaker this year, several midshipmen expressed reservations in emails to Stephen Wrage, a professor in the political science department.
“We are under no obligation to clap for Donald Trump,” one midshipman wrote, Wrage said in an op-ed for The Washington Post. Wrage declined further comment.
But the academy is about decorum and respecting authority.
“Our personal thoughts, I wouldn’t be surprised if people had that kind of opinion about the president,” newly commissioned Navy Ensign Christy Tse of Ellicott City said. Her brother is a sophomore at the academy and her sister is an incoming freshman.
“All of the midshipmen need to understand that no matter what our political ideas are about the president, he is the commander in chief,” Tse said. “So we expect a professional attitude from every single midshipman no matter what we believe in.”
“It’s the president of the United States of America,” said 2nd Lt. Connor McGuire of Granger, Ind., who followed his father into the Marine Corps. “The opportunity to go up and shake his hand and be able to receive a diploma — it’s a massive honor.”
Navy undersecretary Thomas B. Modly told the graduates that they were serving under a commander in chief “who believes what President Reagan believed: That our national security should be guided by the clearest of principles. That principle is peace through strength.”
At the Coast Guard Academy last year Trump spoke of his accomplishments in his first months in office, and said he had been treated worse by the media than any politician in history.
The tone of his address Friday was lighter. He praised the academy for its athletic accomplishments in the past year, then said: “Winning is such a great feeling. Nothing like winning,” a word he often used in his presidential campaign.
The usual emotion displayed by families at graduation ceremonies seemed magnified at the academy, owing to the rigors of the institution and the fact that graduates’ assignments are likely to take them far from home and sometimes put them in harm’s way.
Midshipmen do not pay for their education at the academy. They commit to serve for at least five years.
Academy Superintendent Walter E. “Ted” Carter told the class that their journey began in Annapolis with 1,191 students arriving for Plebe Summer in 2014. Nine of them quit during the grueling training — the fewest ever.
“It’s still a record,” he said. Eighty-eight percent of the class graduated.
Tse will soon be headed to Yokosuka, Japan, on the USS Chancellorsville, a guided-missile cruiser. The academy said she will be a surface warfare officer, but declined to offer details.
“It’s bittersweet knowing I probably won’t see all my classmates for the next five years,” she said. “I’ll be in the middle of the ocean on a ship. We’ll be scattered across the world.”