The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s dumbfounding refusal to encourage wearing masks

As coronavirus cases surge, top Republicans urge masks. Trump, though, still refuses.

A cameraman wearing a face mask watches as President Trump participates in a Cabinet meeting in May. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Everyone should just wear a damn mask,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said bluntly Wednesday.

“We’ve got to — every one of us — to take this seriously, wear your mask, social distance,” his fellow senator from Florida, Rick Scott (R), said Tuesday.

“I know some people think wearing a mask is inconvenient or an infringement on freedom, but I also know it will keep Texas open,” Texas Gov. Gregg Abbott (R) stressed Monday.

“Protect yourself. Protect others. Help contain the spread of #COVID19. Wear a mask,” Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) tweeted last week.

As confirmed coronavirus cases in the United States spike to a record high — and these three states in particular deal with the worst of the increases — GOP politicians are offering a sterner message when it comes to wearing masks.

That message remains conspicuously and wholly absent, though, from President Trump’s commentary on the matter.

To be clear, GOP leaders in these states haven’t gone as far on masks as some would like. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), for instance, has declined calls from health and local officials to mandate masks. Abbott, too, has been reluctant. Ducey only recently changed course and said he would allow localities to require them. There are legal and ideological issues when it comes to forcing compliance.

But those questions aside, there is the very simple question of whether masks are even being encouraged. And on that count, Trump is still, remarkably, a holdout.

Trump has stressed from the beginning — and repeatedly — that wearing masks is voluntary. He has declined to be photographed publicly wearing one. He also has repeatedly ridiculed Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, for using a mask.

But his most stunning comments about masks, arguably, came last week. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal’s Michael C. Bender, Trump went so far as to suggest that masks could be counterproductive.

“Masks are a double-edged sword,” he said. “People touch them. And they grab them and I see it all the time. They come in, they take the mask. Now they’re holding it now in their fingers. And they drop it on the desk and then they touch their eye and they touch their nose. No, I think a mask is a — it’s a double-edged sword.”

Trump even suggested that he views masks as a political statement against him personally.

“It could be, yeah. It could be,” he said. “But it could also be they feel better about it. I mean, I’m okay with it. Look, I’m okay with it. But the mask is a double-edged sword and I see it."

These comments, it bears emphasizing, do not align with what health officials have said. Although they initially discouraged masks — later acknowledging that this was at least partly because of a shortage of them — the importance of masks is now nearly unanimous in the medical community. Lead health officials, including on the White House’s coronavirus task force, continue to urge them in no uncertain terms. Yet as states have reopened, many people and especially Republicans have flouted this guidance. Trump spoke to a largely mask-free crowd of his supporters last weekend in Oklahoma.

And Trump has done very little to even attempt to persuade them.

Here’s a rundown of what he has said since early April, with key parts in bold:

  • “Just about everybody has a face mask on. They’ve learned about face masks — the good and the bad, by the way. It’s not a one-sided thing, believe it or not.”
  • On the example he could set by wearing a mask: “Well, I think it sets an example. I think it sets an example both ways.”
  • Of whether he’d recommend masks at his rallies: “I recommend people do what they want. I’m okay with that. If people want to wear masks, I think that’s great. I won’t be. Not as a protest but I don’t feel that I’m in danger.”
  • “You know, there was a time when people thought it was worse wearing a mask. I let people make up their own decision.”
  • “The job the governor of Florida has done, it’s incredible, the numbers they’re doing. You’ve got to open it up, and you do social distancing and you wear masks if you want and you do things — you can do a lot of things.”
  • On whether he would wear a mask in Michigan: “A lot of people have asked me that question. I want to get our country back to normal. I want to normalize.”
  • “I wore one in this back area, but I didn’t want to give the press the pleasure of seeing it.”
  • “Should I speak in a mask? You’re going to have to tell me if that’s politically correct. I don’t know. If it is, I’ll speak in a mask.”
  • “In light of these studies, the CDC is advising the use of nonmedical cloth face covering as an additional voluntary public health measure. So it’s voluntary; you don’t have to do it. They suggested for a period of time. But this is voluntary. I don’t think I’m going to be doing it.”
  • “So with the masks, it’s going to be, really, a voluntary thing. You can do it. You don’t have to do it. I’m choosing not to do it, but some people may want to do it, and that’s okay. It may be good. Probably will. They’re making a recommendation. It’s only a recommendation. It’s voluntary.”
  • “It’s very simple to do. I won’t be doing it personally. It’s a recommendation. Okay?”

None of these come anywhere close to the kinds of messages above from the GOP politicians in hard-hit states. There is no “you should wear a mask” — much less a “wear a damn mask.” And in fact, Trump has more often than not gone out of his way to emphasize the voluntary nature of the guidelines, and he has increasingly suggested in recent weeks that masks may not even work. The combined message he has sent is abundantly clear: This isn’t really that important.

It’s impossible to say how a different example from the president might have affected our current status. But the United States is dealing with a continued outbreak in a way the vast majority of other countries who have better embraced masks and other health guidelines simply aren’t.

As The Washington Post’s Adam Taylor writes, that could be the result of a number of things, including our more decentralized government and the mixed messages from health officials. Given what’s happened in those countries, Trump’s refusal to encourage a very basic and simple precaution is the kind of thing that could prove increasingly conspicuous — and harmful for him politically.

But mixed messages are one thing; Trump has actually sent a very consistent message. And it’s one increasingly at odds with fellow Republicans whose constituents are confronting the worst of the outbreak. Should the situation persist in the direction it’s going, it’s not a stretch to say that this could be remembered as one of the most significant unforced errors of the Trump presidency.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant. Here’s some guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

Variants: Instead of a single new Greek letter variant, a group of immune-evading omicron spinoffs are popping up all over the world. Any dominant variant will likely knock out monoclonal antibodies, targeted drugs that can be used as a treatment or to protect immunocompromised people.

Tripledemic: Hospitals are overwhelmed by a combination of respiratory illnesses, staffing shortages and nursing home closures. And experts believe the problem will deteriorate further in coming months. Here’s how to tell the difference between RSV, the flu and covid-19.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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