As coronavirus cases surge and governors begin agitating for a national mandate on wearing masks, President Donald Trump is showing few signs he’ll budge on an issue that has come to epitomize a national pandemic response rooted in denial and which now threatens his political future.
Even most elected Republicans now openly advocate for wearing masks and have been pictured with their noses and mouths covered, in part to set an example for the country. But Trump still refuses to wear a mask in public, and most guests at his two July 4 celebrations — at Mt. Rushmore and on the White House South Lawn — were bare-faced.
“I think it ought to be a national, a national requirement,” said New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” A Democrat, Murphy has nonetheless maintained a cordial relationship with Trump and dined with him last month at the President’s golf course in Bedminster.
A day later, Trump’s top aide said the White House is never likely to require all Americans to wear masks.
“When we look at masks and the wearing of masks, that’s done on a location basis when you can’t have social distancing,” chief of staff Mark Meadows said on Fox News. “Certainly a national mandate is not in order.”
Three months after reversing course and recommending masks — a move officials later conceded was confusing and awkward — top Republicans and allies of the President are only now coming to the realization that mask-wearing will be an essential element to containing a still-raging pandemic.
White House officials are discussing taking a more active role in encouraging masks as they shift to a strategy of preparing Americans to live long-term with the virus. After appearing at a string of events without social distancing and where masks were scarce, Trump’s campaign said Sunday it would host a New Hampshire campaign rally where attendees will be “provided a face mask that they are strongly encouraged to wear.”
Yet Trump’s willingness to shift personally on the issue is far from clear. While he likened himself to the “Lone Ranger” on one of the few occasions he wore a mask in private, he has not used his powerful social media platforms to encourage his supporters to do the same. And in meetings with advisers, Trump has stated that more strenuous calls to wear masks might send the wrong message as he attempts to move on from the virus.
The debate over masks has come to encapsulate a federal effort marked by repeated reversals, conflicting recommendations, low stockpiles and competing internal interests that lead to muddled messaging and negative health outcomes.
The bungled response has caused grave damage to the President’s political outlook — with his reluctance on masks only deepening the impression that Trump is not taking the pandemic seriously. Many of Trump’s closest allies now say in private that wearing a mask in public could help him appear more attuned to the crisis. They fear his failure to do so — and to encourage his supporters to follow suit — could threaten the economic recovery Trump is counting on to fuel his reelection, because further outbreaks could roll back the reopenings he desperately needs to have a chance in November.
The Trump administration’s decision in the pandemic’s earliest days to recommend against wearing masks has emerged as a critical misstep in a widely maligned national response. Even as it became clear that asymptomatic spread was causing the virus to spread quickly and quietly, a concerted national effort to convince Americans that wearing masks could prevent contagion was never truly mounted.
The administration’s top public health experts have defended their actions, saying it was necessary to prevent a run on equipment that was in short supply.
“I don’t regret that,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said during congressional testimony last week. “At that time, there was a paucity of equipment that our health care providers needed — who put themselves daily in harm’s way of taking care of people who are ill. We did not want to divert masks and PPE away from them, to be used by the people.”
Yet it is only now, months into a crisis that shows no signs of waning, that top White House officials and allies of the President have begun to recognize if more Americans begin wearing masks, the outbreak could be slowed.
White House officials say their messaging this week will shift to convincing Americans the virus will not abate any time soon — but that steps such as wearing masks can help contain it as the country learns to live alongside it.
“While there are outbreaks and we’re tending to the needs of those outbreaks, we have the infrastructure in place to deal with them,” one official said in previewing the new messaging push.
Still, after refusing for months to wear one himself, denigrating his election rival for appearing masked in public and stoking a cultural backlash against their use, it’s not clear whether any attempt by the President to convince people to cover their faces will prove effective.
Emerging on April 3, a Friday afternoon, Trump announced the US Centers for Disease Control was urging Americans to wear a mask when they leave their home. But he immediately declared he wouldn’t be wearing one himself. Instead of encouraging Americans to heed the recommendation, he suggested instead they do what they want.
“With the masks, it is going to be really a voluntary thing,” the President said. “You can do it. You don’t have to do it. I am choosing not to do it.”
His announcement came after days of heated task force meetings where officials argued in the Situation Room over whether to reverse course and tell Americans to cover up. In the Oval Office, Trump had expressed deep skepticism that any American would wear a mask — and worried that advising them to would cause panic.
In the earliest days of the pandemic, recommending masks to the general public was barely a topic of conversation among White House officials.
An exception was Matt Pottinger, the deputy national security adviser who has orchestrated the President’s Asia policy. A onetime Wall Street Journal reporter based in China, where he covered the SARS outbreak, Pottinger had lived in a country where mask wearing has long been routine and where, as the coronavirus began spreading, it became ubiquitous.
According to current and former senior administration officials, Pottinger and some members of the National Security Council recommended to other members of the task force in February that mask wearing be among the recommendations to Americans as the virus began spreading in the United States.
Presenting data from South Korea and Japan that suggested widespread mask usage could help slow the spread of illness, Pottinger and members of the NSC’s weapons of mass destruction team argued similar advice should be offered to Americans.
Underpinning the internal back-and-forth was the persistent shortage of medical grade masks for front-line hospital workers, which states and the federal government scrambled to resolve through patchwork shipments and appeals to the private sector. Some White House officials feared a blanket recommendation for Americans to use face coverings might cause a rush on the badly needed medical masks, aggravating the already grave situation for hospital workers and first responders.
“The administration wanted masks to go to health professionals and didn’t want to cause panic and (have) people buy up masks that were needed for frontlines,” one former administration official who was present for the discussions said. “That was part of the justification.”
Still, that did not prevent Pottinger from wearing a mask himself at the White House, and encouraging others on the NSC to do the same. At one point in March — while the administration was still recommending against mask-wearing — members of the council received a shipment of blue surgical masks from Taiwan for use at the White House.
At the time, the CDC said on its website that it “does not recommend that people who are well wear a face mask to protect themselves from respiratory diseases, including Covid-19.”
Administration officials were vocal that Americans not go out to purchase masks: “It is not necessary for Americans to go out and buy masks,” Pence said during an appearance on CNN on March 1. In late February, Surgeon General Jerome Adams tweeted: “Seriously people — STOP BUYING MASKS! They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus.”
In other instances, some administration officials went as far as suggesting wearing a mask could increase the risk of infection for the wearer.
“You can increase your risk of getting it (coronavirus) by wearing a mask if you are not a health care provider,” Adams said during an interview on Fox & Friends on March 2. “Folks who don’t know how to wear them properly tend to touch their faces a lot and actually can increase the spread of coronavirus.”
By the end of March, an increasing body of evidence began to emerge showing asymptomatic spread of the virus was causing cases to surge around the country. Senior officials at the CDC told the White House that stronger guidelines — including a new recommendation on masks — were necessary to prevent the virus from spreading between asymptomatic people, according to people familiar with the internal discussions.
The agency sent memos to the White House outlining their recommended guidance in the final week of March, people familiar with the documents said. They made clear that cloth face coverings — not medical-grade masks — were being recommended.
But after receiving them, some of Trump’s advisers cautioned a nationwide recommendation might have negative side effects and advocated something more limited in scope, potentially only in areas that are hardest hit.
Opinion among officials was divided. Some wondered whether people in the United States — unlike citizens of Asian countries, where mask wearing was already common — would ever submit to covering their faces, deeming it a cultural hurdle. One group raised the notion of rebranding them “courtesy masks” to appeal to Americans’ altruism.
Health experts, including Dr. Deborah Birx, feared masks could lull people into abandoning other preventative measures like socially distancing. And some of Trump’s political advisers raised a different concern: Would telling Americans to wear masks convey weakness at a moment the President was adopting a “wartime” mien?
The debate played out in meetings of the coronavirus task force in the White House Situation Room but also in the Oval Office, where Trump appeared unenthusiastic about telling Americans to cover their faces and informed advisers he would not be seen wearing one in public.
“That is being discussed really very actively. We were discussing it actively today in the task force and I can assure you, it’s going to be on the agenda tomorrow,” Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, told CNN at the start of April. “Given the fact that we know that asymptomatic people are clearly transmitting infection, it just makes commonsense that it’s not a bad idea to do that.”
Masks get politicized
At one point, the debate spilled into public view during a public task force briefing when Birx, who had argued against a mask recommendation in private, warned of getting a “false sense of security that that mask is protecting you exclusively from getting infected.”
A day later, Trump emerged — begrudgingly, according to people familiar with the matter — to announce the new CDC recommendations on masks. But it was clear from the moment he said he wouldn’t be adopting in the guidance himself that the debate over masks was far from ever.
“Wearing a face mask as I greet presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens — I don’t know,” Trump said. “Somehow, I don’t see it for myself.”
Neither, apparently, did many of Trump’s supporters, who took the President’s refusal to wear a mask himself as a sign that appearing in public with a covered face was a sign of weakness.
Over the course of April, May and June, Trump did little to combat that impression and instead seized on a new culture war, mocking his rival Joe Biden for wearing a face mask when he emerged on Memorial Day to lay a wreath.
“It’s like his whole face is covered. It’s like he put a knapsack over his face,” Trump told The Wall Street Journal.
In private, Trump told aides that wearing a mask would send a terrible message as he sought to project momentum in combating the virus and reopening the economy. He also fretted that pictures of him in a mask would be repurposed by political rivals to accuse him of cowering from the scourge.
While his campaign produced masks bearing the slogan “Keep America Great,” aides were never sure Trump would sign off on selling them to the public and they didn’t appear on the campaign’s online store.
When Trump emerged from the White House for the first time for a visit to a Honeywell factory in Arizona that was producing respirators, he briefly put on a mask backstage but appeared uncomfortable and was told by an executive that he did not need to wear one.
Later, when he visited a Ford plant in Michigan where mask wearing was required, he was encouraged to wear a mask by the automaker’s president and wore one briefly with the presidential seal. But later he removed it, telling reporters he didn’t “want to give the press the pleasure of seeing it.”
The White House insisted that because Trump was tested regularly — as was everyone who came into his proximity — he didn’t need to wear a mask, though the Abbott testing produced used by the White House has shown high rates of false negatives.
His public reluctance on the issue also appeared to cause confusion among his supporters over whether wearing a mask was really necessary: a national poll from Quinnipiac University in mid-May found only 40% of Republicans said everyone should be required to wear face masks in public, compared to 64% overall.
Those numbers have improved over time, but more recent surveys continue to show a partisan divide on the wisdom of mask wearing. A Pew Research poll from the middle of June showed 52% of Republicans said masks should be worn all or most of the time, compared to 86% of Democrats.
As a new surge in cases has swept the country, however, it has grown increasingly clear that many Republicans have decided that a fuller embrace of mask wearing is necessary.
GOP about face on masks
Over the past week, top Republican officials and members of the conservative media — including those watched closely by the President — have turned abruptly toward recommending masks, and in some cases requiring it. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued a statewide mandatory order on Thursday requiring Texans to wear masks in public. Vice President Mike Pence, whose mask-free visit to the Mayo Clinic in May turned into a symbol of the White House’s relaxed attitude, has started regularly wearing a navy blue number with the presidential seal.
The sudden embrace of masks even by those politicians who once framed the issue as one of personal choice has added to the pressure on Trump to endorse mask-wearing more forcefully, according to several sources with knowledge of the discussions.
“There’s more talk of using masks as a frontline defense,” one person involved in the discussions said, adding there are a variety of views being shared and that the White House hasn’t landed on an approach yet.
Top congressional Republicans, meanwhile, have pushed masks far more aggressively than Trump in recent days. Rep. Liz Cheney, the No. 3 House Republican, posted a photo of her father, former Vice President Dick Cheney, wearing a blue surgical mask underneath a cowboy hat.
“#realmenwearmasks,” she wrote.
A top GOP aide said they view masks as key to preventing states from closing down again. Medical experts and task force members have been stressing the importance of masks to White House officials recently, hoping they’ll agree to amplify the message, people familiar with the conversations said.
While Trump continues to refuse to wear a mask in public, he has shifted his tone somewhat, appearing more favorable of masks during a recent FOX Business Network interview and acknowledging that he’s worn one on occasion where social distancing is impossible.
“I’m all for masks,” Trump said. “I think masks are good.”
Still, a complete embrace of mask-wearing could prove politically tricky for Trump. People familiar with White House thinking say Trump’s aides are hoping to move past the political aspect of mask wearing and reframe it as a real concern for public health and safety, a tall order for a President who appeared to stoke the political and cultural divisions of mask wearing for months.
Trump remains a holdout
How much the President will take a leadership role in encouraging mask-wearing remains unclear. In an appearance Thursday to tout positive jobs numbers, he only briefly mentioned face coverings in a list of best practices for stopping the spread of Covid.
But some of Trump’s top aides have begun to re-frame the matter as one of personal responsibility, hoping to place the onus on individuals to contain the virus — and, by extension, speed reopenings. In public appearances, officials have argued recent spikes in cases are due to the failure of people to adhere to social distancing guidelines or mask recommendations — and not the premature lifting of stay-at-home orders that Trump loudly encouraged.
“It is really not about reopening,” Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union,” defending the White House’s encouragement of lifting restrictions in states where infection rates have climbed. Azar claimed the culprit is instead “what our behaviors are within that.”
“If we act irresponsibly, don’t socially distance, don’t use face coverings in settings where we can’t socially distance, if we don’t practice appropriate personal hygiene, we’re going to see spread of disease,” he said.
Pence on Sunday also sought to put the focus on Americans’ responsibility to wear masks — not on the reopenings the White House wanted.
“Younger Americans have been congregating in ways that may have disregarded the guidance that we gave at the federal level for all the phases of reopening,” he said on CBS.
But aides’ push for individual responsibility seems complicated by Trump’s own behavior as the pandemic continues to rage. After convening political events in Oklahoma and Arizona — where social distancing was actively discouraged, mask-wearing was absent and people later became sick — Trump headlined an event at Mount Rushmore on Friday that brought 7,500 people into a stadium where distancing proved impossible and not everyone covered their face.
Even even as Trump has finally started to encourage people to wear masks, though not wearing one himself, his son Donald Trump Jr. is actively spreading doubt about the effectiveness of masks against the coronavirus.
On Facebook, Trump Jr. posted an image of a lab where scientists were working in certain hazmat suits known as positive pressure suits. Text on the image says: “This is what virologist wear to protect themselves from a virus. Don’t worry, though. Your bandana probably works too.”