The best way to dampen the negative effects of the coronavirus pandemic — to prevent illness and death and to return the economy to normal — is to limit its spread. The most effective way to limit its spread in the absence of a vaccine is to avoid interacting with other people. Beyond that, though, the most effective way to do so is to wear a mask, most likely preventing the wearer from spreading the virus should they be infected.

Bafflingly, despite President Trump’s obvious eagerness to limit deaths and to return the economy to normal, he has consistently refused to offer a strong endorsement of mask-wearing. This week, more than seven months after Trump learned that the virus was transmitted through the air, he twice shrugged at the idea that masks played a necessary role in halting the pandemic. On one of those occasions, a news briefing at the White House on Wednesday, he went further, revealing a truly astonishing failure to understand the basic mechanics of containing the pandemic.

The result was this 160-word riff, the sort of thing that will end up in history books as a marker of why the United States found itself in its current position.

“I’m tested, and I’m sometimes surprised when I see somebody sitting and — like, with Joe. Joe feels very safe in a mask. I don’t know — maybe he doesn’t want to expose his face. I don’t know what’s going on. He’ll be way away from people, nowhere near people — there will be nobody with him. He doesn’t draw any crowds. He’ll have circles. These big circles. They’ll be way far away. There’s no reason for him to have masks on.”
“We get tested — I’m tested; I have people tested. When people come into the Oval Office, it’s like a big deal. No matter who they are — if they’re heads of countries, they all get tested. So I’m in sort of a different position. And maybe if I wasn’t in that position, I’d be wearing it more. But I’ve worn masks. And especially I like to wear them when I’m in hospital. Not for me so much as for other people. Okay?”

The “Joe” to whom Trump was referring was, of course, former vice president Joe Biden, Trump’s opponent in November’s presidential election. And he’s right: Biden is far more likely to wear a mask than is Trump. We went back and searched the Associated Press’s photo feed for each day since the beginning of June pulling out occasions on which Biden and Trump were photographed wearing a mask.

Trump, who holds public events regularly, was photographed with a mask on two of the 108 days since then. Biden, who has held public events less regularly, has been seen wearing a mask on 28, including on all but five days this month.

Why? Trump tries to frame this as being a function of some sort of insecurity. He was more explicit about this disparagement during an event in Pennsylvania earlier this year, when he charged that Biden “has got some big issues” because the former vice president is so often seen wearing a mask.

In reality, of course, Biden’s wearing a mask because it serves to reinforce his campaign’s message: He’s taking the pandemic seriously. Trump’s campaign understands what’s happening and does its best to present Trump as similarly supportive of wearing a mask. But Trump himself clearly doesn’t care about it, as he keeps making clear. Biden is leading by example — which is the reason he wears a mask. By complaining about it, Trump is leading by example in his own way.

That’s also reflected in Trump’s next attempt to disparage Biden, pointing out that Biden’s events don’t include having anyone near him. That Biden “doesn’t draw any crowds.”

Which, again, is the point. There are regular posts on social media from Trump’s campaign team juxtaposing socially distanced Biden events with crowded Trump ones, a contrast that they use to hype how much more enthusiasm Trump engenders. But the message that is sent is often quite different — that Biden understands and respects the reasons not to pack people together into a small space during a viral pandemic. Someone who appreciates the science would see the two pictures and come to a conclusion other than “Biden must be unpopular.”

It’s not that Trump doesn’t understand the risk posed by those crowds or why Biden might keep his distance from others. After he held an indoor rally in Nevada where a mostly unmasked crowd interacted, he told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that he didn’t feel as though he was putting himself at risk.

“I’m on a stage, and it’s very far away,” Trump said about the rally. “And so I’m not at all concerned.”

Trump feels very safe at a distance, you might say.

In Wednesday’s briefing, Trump reinforced another reason he feels safe. Every time he goes anywhere where he might encounter other people, they’re tested, just as he’s tested for the virus regularly. Foreign heads of state come to the White House? Tests. That testing allows the White House to have confidence that the virus is held at bay and, as White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany pointed out this week, to trace any contacts between infected individuals and others who might be near the president.

This is not the approach Trump takes to testing generally. A robust regimen of testing at the White House keeps him safe. A robust regimen for the public documents coronavirus infections — and, therefore, reinforces that the pandemic continues its uncontrolled burn across the country. Trump’s repeatedly complained about how much testing is done in general because it indexes even those who aren’t displaying any symptoms. But at the White House broad testing is critical.

As it is for Big Ten football programs, which Trump, with an eye on Midwestern votes, has been demanding resume play. So the administration is offering those schools coronavirus tests.

The end of Trump’s riff on masks is more subtly revealing. He wears a mask in hospitals, he says, not for himself but for others. Yes. Right. Again, that’s the point. This isn’t some remarkable act of generosity onto which Trump stumbled. It’s the entire value proposition of wearing a mask in the first place.

All of this orbits around one thing: Trump himself. He doesn’t like wearing masks, so he doesn’t, ceding leadership on the issue to Biden. He wants to ding his opponent as unstable or unpopular, so he seizes on Biden’s actual embrace of science to do so. Trump worries about his own safety at rallies and the White House but rages at efforts to track and contain the virus nationally. And then, after all of that, he wants political credit for the handful of occasions on which he has worn a mask.

Containing the virus isn’t complicated, though it is at times unpleasant. Trump’s response is to pretend that the unpleasantness can be ignored and to chastise Biden for acknowledging it. That response helps explain a lot about the presidential race more broadly.