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Trump Talks Weapons, Politics at Coast Guard Commencement

President Donald Trump renders honors during the 136th Coast Guard Academy commencement exercise in New London, Conn., May 17, 2017. (Coast Guard photo/Petty Officer 2nd Class Patrick Kelley)
President Donald Trump renders honors during the 136th Coast Guard Academy commencement exercise in New London, Conn., May 17, 2017. (Coast Guard photo/Petty Officer 2nd Class Patrick Kelley)

New London, Conn. -- President Donald Trump mixed talk of cost overruns, budgets, border security and politics into a commencement address Wednesday at the Coast Guard Academy.

"I won't talk about how much I saved you on the F-35 fighter jet," Trump said of his claims to have brought cost overruns under control on the fifth-generation Joint Strike Fighter that remains the expensive weapons system.

"I won't even talk about it." Trump said, "or how much we're about to save you on the Gerald Ford, the aircraft carrier," Trump told the 195 newly-commissioned Ensigns in the 136th graduating class at the picturesque Academy on the steeply sloping banks of the Thames River in New London.

Trump rattled the Navy last week by questioning the reliability of the new Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System, also known as EMALS, on the Ford, which is undergoing sea trials. Trump suggested that the Navy should consider abandoning EMALS and returning to the steam-powered catapult launch of aircraft.

Trump said that EMALS was too complicated -- "You have to be Albert Einstein to figure it out" -- and that a return to steam might be in the offing for future carriers of the Ford class to boost savings.

The Coast Guard had feared that some of Trump's promised savings on military spending would come out of its $9 billion budget as a downpayment on the proposed wall on the Mexican border, but Trump indicated that the "Coasties" would be spared the cuts.

Several of the graduating cadets were to be assigned to the Coast Guard's "Polar Star," the nation's only major icebreaker. Trump said he was committed to building a new icebreaker and possibly several more, along with several new National Security Cutters.

"Out of the five branches of our Armed Services, it's only the Coast Guard that has the power to break through 21 feet of rock-solid Arctic ice, right? You're the only ones," Trump said.

"And I'm proud to say that under my administration, as you just heard, we will be building the first new heavy icebreakers the United States has seen in over 40 years," he said. "We're going to build many of them. We need them, we need them."

In his own brief remarks, Adm. Paul Zukunft, the Coast Guard Commandant, said he would be in Washington later this week trying to nail down Coast Guard budget increase promises with the House Appropriations Committee. "These are the individuals who write checks," he said.

Demonstrators for and against Trump were kept well away from the ceremony on the football field where the Coast Guard Academy "Bears" play their home games. One pro-Trump demonstrator held up a sign saying "Trump-Pence, Drain the Swamp." An anti-Trump protester had a sign saying "Make Russia Great Again."

Presidents often use addresses to the service academies to focus on a particular issue of concern, but Trump's speech may have been unusual simply for the number of topics he attempted to cover.

In his 2015 commencement address to the Coast Guard Academy, President Barack Obama spoke of climate change. In his 2002 address to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, then-President George W. Bush, spoke of a policy of preemptive attack to protect the homeland.

In addition to one of his usual tirades against what he called unfair treatment by the media, Trump went into detail on his upcoming first foreign trip beginning Friday to the Mideast, Rome and Brussels.

It was Trump's first public appearance since new allegations emerged in the controversies swirling around the White House on the firing of FBI Director James Comey and charges of Russian influence in the November elections.

"As you leave this academy to embark on your exciting new voyage," Trump told the graduating class, "I am heading on a very crucial journey as well. In a few days, I will make my first trip abroad as President."

"With the safety, security, and interests of the American people as my priority, I will strengthen old friendships and will seek new partners -- but partners who also help us," Trump said. "Not partners who take and take and take, partners who help, and partners who help pay for whatever we are doing and all of the good we're doing for them -- which is something that a lot of people have not gotten used to and they just can't get used to it."

In their own remarks to the class, Rear Adm. James Rendon, the Academy's Superintendent, and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly were direct in what was expected from the new Ensigns.

"The mission here for this class is complete," Rendon said. It was now time "to serve and lead and succeed," he said. Kelly, a retired Marine general, had this advice on the new officers' responsibilities: "Take care of your people. They will do anything you ask them to do. All you have to do is lead them. Go do it and lead those young Coasties."

New Coast Guard Ensign Christopher Popeil, who was first in the graduating class, told his classmates that "it's now time to show the rest of the world just what we're capable of."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com. (During the commencement, he had the honor of presenting the commission to his grandniece, Ens. Bonny Turnage, who was eight in the class overall and first in civil engineering.)

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