“I wore one in this back area, but I didn’t want to give the press the pleasure of seeing it,” Trump said when asked by reporters.
“I was given a choice and I had one on in an area where they preferred it,” he added. “So I put it on and it was very nice, it looked very nice.”
But that answer isn’t only about vanity. There’s also that bit about the press getting “pleasure” from seeing him wearing a mask. The implication is that this is a battle, a struggle between Trump and a press that he believes is constantly seeking to undermine him. The press gets a photo of him in a mask and the press wins. So no mask when the press is around.
Why’s that a win? Perhaps because Trump thinks it looks bad — or perhaps because he thinks it looks weak.
“I just don’t want to wear one myself,” Trump said in early April when asked if he’d wear a mask. “It’s a recommendation; they recommend it. I’m feeling good. I just don’t want to be doing — I don’t know, somehow sitting in the Oval Office … I think wearing a face mask as I greet presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens, I don’t know. Somehow, I don’t see it for myself. I just — I just don’t.”
The implication isn’t just that he thinks it looks goofy, which he pretty clearly does. It’s also that he doesn’t want to look goofy when facing off with whatever dictators earn Oval Office invites.
Most Americans don’t think wearing a mask conveys weakness, according to a recent HuffPost poll conducted by YouGov. That said, only three-quarters of Republicans said it wasn’t a sign of weakness, quite a bit lower than the percentage of Democrats who said the same thing.
Republicans are also a lot more indifferent about whether Trump actually wears a mask. A third say they don’t care if he and his team wear them.
Regardless of why Trump doesn’t want to wear a mask before the press, it’s again the case that he’s interlaced the question with his broader struggle against his opponents. Wearing a mask is something They want, not something Trump wants.
Making this another example of how Trump’s position on the coronavirus pandemic differs from the position formally offered by his administration. “They recommend it,” he said in April — meaning the team of officials he oversees but not himself. As with scaling back social distancing measures — something They say should happen with caution but Trump wants to see happen quickly — and with hydroxychloroquine — They say it’s dangerous; he says it’s important — the message from Trump and the message from the White House are in conflict.
The message from the White House is focused on how to limit the spread of the virus and keep Americans healthy. The message from Trump appears to be much more focused on Trump’s political fortunes and personal preferences.
“What about the example it would set for other Americans …” a reporter asked the president about the message he would send by wearing a mask.
“Well, I think it sets an example either way,” Trump interjected.
He offered the comment in a sort of off-handed way, the way he’ll often respond to criticism with an everyone-does-everything-what’re-you-gonna-do dismissiveness. But he’s not wrong: It does send a message either way. The message he sends by not wearing a mask is that wearing a mask is a choice subject to personal preference and not something that is particularly important for any reason. In that HuffPost-YouGov poll, 42 percent of Republicans said wearing a mask was a matter of personal choice, compared with only 51 percent who saw it as a function of public health.
Trump is in the “personal choice” camp, by his own admission. His personal choice not to wear a mask, though, has much broader ramifications than yours or mine.