“America is being tested,” Pence said. “While there are signs that we are making progress in slowing the spread, as we stand here today, more than 700,000 Americans have contracted the coronavirus and, tragically, more than 37,000” have died.
But, Pence declared, the nation eventually will emerge “stronger than ever before” and he thanked doctors, nurses and first responders “on the front lines,” as well as workers and others nationwide who have helped with the response.
“We will get through this,” Pence said on a chilly and windy afternoon in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains.
Cadets — in blue-and-white dress uniforms — were also solemn as they congregated, at a time when most commencements nationwide have been canceled. But there were bursts of cheers and applause at mentions of classmates.
For Pence, it was a rare venture outside of Washington since he has been leading the White House’s coronavirus task force. He traveled to a Wal-Mart distribution center in Virginia earlier this month, but last took a longer trip on March 7 to Florida.
It was a moment, too, for Pence to be in the spotlight for at least part of the day, although President Trump hovered. While Pence was in Colorado, the president announced that he would hold an evening news conference, even though the coronavirus task force did not have a scheduled meeting.
Thousands of miles away, Trump’s fury toward the media continued during the ceremony. He tweeted angrily about the “Lamestream media” and the use of anonymous sourcing in news stories.
“The American people should demand NAMES!” he wrote at one point.
Despite the president’s continuing anger over unnamed sources, his administration often holds briefings for reporters where they do not allow the officials to be named, requiring reporters who want to take part in the conversation to refer to the briefers as “senior administration officials” or something similar.
Pence was planning to address the ceremony by video until mid-April, when his office announced that he would travel to Colorado.
The vice president’s trip comes as he and Trump are encouraging states to reopen some businesses, shuttered facilities and public spaces, with the White House providing nonbinding guidance on that process. But many states have warned that it will be difficult to lift restrictions and return to a more normal way of life until more testing is available to accurately gauge the virus’s spread. Trump has put the onus of testing on governors.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D) greeted Pence when the vice president arrived at Peterson Air Force Base. They spoke on the tarmac for a few minutes. Polis wore a face mask with a Colorado flag pattern, but Pence did not wear a mask.
Trump, who spoke at last year’s Air Force Academy graduation, encouraged Pence’s visit to the military academy during his news conference on Friday and noted, “I hear they’re going to have a very spread out crowd.”
“They are going to be socially very good,” Trump said of the Air Force cadets. “They’re going to be very far apart. That’ll be very interesting. I think I’m going to watch that one.”
Trump, who has suspended much of his travel during the outbreak, added that he plans to address the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., later this spring. According to the academy, that graduation is scheduled for May 23.
“I’m doing it at West Point, which I look forward to,” Trump said on Friday. “It’ll be very different than it ever looked. Do I like the look? No, I don’t. And eventually, next year, they’ll have a commencement which will be like it’s been.”
Saturday’s graduation was vastly different than traditional Air Force Academy graduations, which are typically held at Falcon Stadium.
At the direction of the academy’s superintendent, the campus was closed all morning and early afternoon to all but “mission-essential staff” and cadets, with friends and family asked to watch remotely.
“For safety and out of respect for the situation our nation is enduring, I ask for your support,” Air Force Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria, the academy’s superintendent, said in a statement before the ceremony. “There will not be any spectators and we will minimize the footprint of faculty and staff as much as possible.”
The usually bustling outdoor spaces were all but empty as Pence’s motorcade slowly made its way toward the academy’s famed chapel. Senior cadets silently saluted the vice president as his vehicle passed, and then soon marched toward their seats on the terrazzo. A small brass band played at times, but the atmosphere for Pence’s entire visit was low key.
“While we don’t quite look like the usual graduation at the Air Force Academy, let me tell you, this is an awesome sight,” Pence told the graduates.
Pence is a military parent — his son, Michael, is a Marine Corps officer. And his son-in-law is a graduate of the Naval Academy.
“I know just how your parents are feeling right now,” Pence said, asking the senior cadets to stand and cheer their parents, who were watching the ceremony away from campus by video.
“You come from the rest of us, but you’re the best of us,” Pence later said, praising several cadets for their achievements. “Long after the coronavirus is defeated, your mission will go on.”
Pence, who has been a champion of the Space Force and chair of the National Space Council, also spoke about the newest branch of the U.S. military. About 90 cadets from this year’s Air Force class will be commissioned as Space Force officers — the first time academy graduates have committed to serve there.
The Space Force commander, Gen. John W. “Jay” Raymond, who became chief of space operations in December, spoke before Pence, and told the cadets that they are part of a “historic” class because of their link to the start of Space Force.
“You are our future and I need you to be bold. You will build this service from the ground up,” Raymond said. “You will build the Space Force as the first digital service” and, if necessary, “win the battle for space superiority.”
After Pence spoke, the senior cadets heading into the Space Force stood up and were sworn in, wearing silver as part of their dress uniforms, while other graduates heading into the Air Force incorporated gold.
The ceremony ended with a flyover by the Air Force Thunderbirds — a roaring formation of six F-16 Fighting Falcons.
Pence lingered for a few minutes after cadets erupted with joy and threw their caps into the air during the flyover. He spoke with a couple of dozen cadets, standing about six feet away and avoiding handshakes.
“God bless you all, and thank you,” Pence told one small group of men and women. He then flashed two thumbs up and said, “Congratulations.”