As President Trump addressed 195 cadets as they graduated from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy on Wednesday, he offered them some advice.
“Over the course of your life, you will find that things are not always fair,” the unsmiling president said, leaning heavily on the lectern with his shoulders scrunched up. “You will find that things happen to you that you do not deserve and that are not always warranted. But you have to put your head down and fight, fight, fight. Never, ever, ever give up.”
And in case the cadets wondered if this was really advice for them — or simply a coded defense of himself — the president then made his intentions clear.
“Look at the way I’ve been treated lately, especially by the media,” the president said, opening his arms wide, as if inviting a much-needed hug. “No politician in history — and I say this with great surety — has been treated worse or more unfairly. You can’t let them get you down. You can’t let the critics and the naysayers get in the way of your dreams.”
It was then that the president received a warm round of applause, the sort that started as he was still speaking rather than as he awkwardly waited for it. And it wasn’t just applause — there were also cheers and shouts of encouragement.
In that moment, the embattled president — the one accused of firing the FBI director for political reasons, trying to interfere in a criminal investigation and spilling sensitive intelligence to the Russians — seemed to get a burst of energy. He was reminded that despite the alarming headlines, the scolding from editorial boards and fellow Republicans, the calls for impeachment, the falling poll numbers and the bitter finger-pointing within his White House, there were still supporters out there who agreed that he is really the victim here — that everything has been more difficult for him, that he is right to keep defending himself and fighting.
The president marveled at the applause. “I guess that’s why I won — thank you,” he said. “I guess that’s why we won.”
In the past few days, Trump has largely disappeared from public view. He emerged Saturday morning to deliver a commencement address at Liberty University in Virginia, comparing himself to evangelical Christians who hold tight to their beliefs no matter what the critics say. On Sunday, he retreated to his private golf course in Northern Virginia.
On Monday, he addressed a memorial service for fallen law enforcement officers, thanking police for being “the thin blue line between civilization and chaos.” The next morning, he fired off a series of defensive tweets that contradicted what top members of his administration had been saying in his defense just hours earlier. Later in the day, he welcomed the Turkish president and delivered a terse statement that sounded as each word was scripted with a period after it.
And Wednesday morning, Trump flew to New London, Conn., to address the graduating cadets. The ceremony was outdoors and a strong wind blew, ruffling the president’s prized hair. On the campaign trail, Trump never would have appeared under these circumstances without a campaign hat — but he’s the president now and such a look might be deemed inappropriate.
As the president waited for his turn to speak, he sat with his arms tightly crossed and no trace of a smile. CNN commentators noted that it had been more than 21 hours since he had tweeted.
When it was his turn, the president thanked the crowd, readjusted his jacket, gripped both sides of the lectern and got started with all of the formalities.
He recognized the Class of 2017: “Great job,” he said.
And Department of Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly: “You’ve done, throughout your entire life, an incredible job defending your country.”
And Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy (D): “I know how busy the governors are nowadays. They’re out there fighting. It’s never easy. Budgets are a little tight, but we’re doing a job. All of us are doing a job, working together.”
Trump kept returning to this broad concept — the jobs that people do, the life choices that brought them all together that day.
“I look at your admirals, I look at General Kelly, I look at some of the great people in service, and I want to tell you: They’re excited about life. They love what they do,” the president said, later turning around to ensure that these officials did, in fact, love what they do.
Trump never mentioned if he loves his job or if he’s excited about the life he’s now living. The closest he came was when he told the graduates: “Your devotion and dedication makes me truly proud to be your commander in chief.”
Then he riffed on what it means to be a leader. “You have to act,” Trump said. “And you have to act properly, and you have to learn how to act under great, great pressure.”
Trump didn’t directly mention the pressure he’s under these days, but he seemed to allude to it again and again, sometimes with a touch of bitterness. As is tradition at the academy, Trump forgave the cadets’ minor violations, like getting a parking ticket, saying that “there are always a few slip-ups from time to time” and that they deserve “to have a clean slate in life.” He claimed to have saved everyone money and listed his accomplishments thus far.
“The people understand what I’m doing, and that’s the most important thing,” Trump said at one point.
The president told the soon-to-be-commissioned-officers about his upcoming foreign trip to the Group of Seven summit with stops in Saudi Arabia, Israel and Vatican City. Even as he pledged to “strengthen old friendships and . . . seek new partners,” he added a message to global leaders who are not used to his style: “Get used to it, folks.”
Even as he pledged to “speak with Muslim leaders and challenge them to fight hatred and extremism,” he threw in three words that some in his administration are trying to get him to stop saying: “radical Islamic terrorism.”
Trump said that as he travels, he will carry with him the inspiration the young cadets provided that day. He worked through all of the formalities — congratulating the new members of the Coast Guard, calling on God to bless the United States and thanking everyone.
Then, as he prepared to sit back down, the beleaguered president added one final piece of advice: “Enjoy your life!”
Nakamura reported from New London, Conn.