The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

On 37 days since June, Biden’s been seen in a mask. Trump’s been seen in one on four days.

President Trump mocked Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden for wearing a face mask at the first presidential debate on Sept. 29. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

From the outset, President Trump’s approach to wearing a mask was one of broad indifference.

At a news briefing in April on the coronavirus pandemic, Trump was asked if he would wear a face covering as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had begun advocating.

“I don’t know, somehow sitting in the Oval Office behind that beautiful Resolute Desk — the great Resolute Desk — I think wearing a face mask as I greet presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens, I don’t know,” Trump replied with a half-laugh. “Somehow, I don’t see it for myself.”

As the months passed and case totals surged in various states, Trump’s position on the subject hardly budged. Even after the country hit a new high in daily cases in July, Trump advocated mask-wearing only sporadically and wore a mask himself even less frequently.

By contrast, his opponent in the November election, former vice president Joe Biden, wears one nearly every time he’s seen in public.

(The four days on which Trump’s worn one: on a visit to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in July; during an event in August; when visiting his ailing brother in New York City that same month; and when paying his respects to the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg last week.)

At the first presidential debate Tuesday, nearly six months after his response about visiting dictators, Trump offered a similar sentiment, even bashing Biden for wearing a face covering.

“You have begun to increasingly question the effectiveness of masks as a disease preventer,” moderator Chris Wallace said to Trump, “and in fact recently you have cited the issue of — of waiters touching their mask and touching plates. Are you questioning the effect — efficacy of masks?”

“No, I think masks are okay,” Trump replied. “You have to understand if you look — I mean, I have a mask right here.”

He held up a mask.

“I put a mask on, I — you know, when I think I need it,” he continued. “Tonight, as an example, everybody had a test and you had social distancing and all the things that you have to. But I wear masks when needed.”

He then pivoted to attack Biden.

“I don’t wear masks like him,” Trump said. “Every time you see him, he’s got a mask. He could be speaking 200 feet away from — and he shows up with the biggest mask I’ve ever seen.”

Some have defended this criticism as Trump attacking Biden for being ostentatious in his mask-wearing, the implication being that it is insincere and meant as a tacit criticism of the president. But, of course, that doesn’t undercut the idea that Biden is also pointedly sending a message about the need to wear masks.

That’s a message that Democrats accept more readily than do Republicans. Last month, Quinnipiac University asked Americans if they thought that wearing a mask could slow the spread of the virus — a demonstrated fact. Three-quarters of Americans said that it could, a figure that included nearly every Democrat but only 6 in 10 Republicans.

A poll conducted by Siena College for the New York Times last month found that most Americans support a national mandate for mask-wearing — but that 6 in 10 Republicans oppose it.

Any idea that Trump has a more sober, undramatic approach to mask-wearing is undercut by an exchange that followed shortly after Trump’s “biggest mask” line.

“Masks make a big difference,” Biden said. “His own head of the CDC said if we just wore masks between now — if everybody wore masks and social distance between now and January, we probably save up to 100,000 lives. It matters. It matters.”

“And they’ve also said the opposite,” Trump interjected. “They’ve also said the opposite.”

It’s true that government experts at first downplayed the need to wear a mask. In part, this was out of uncertainty about how the virus spread. It was apparently also a function of concern that Americans would buy up medical-grade face coverings, which were needed for treatment of coronavirus patients. But that guidance changed shortly after the pandemic began to spread broadly in the United States — leading to the CDC’s April announcement.

By May, though, Republicans were already far more likely than Americans overall to say that it didn’t really matter if elected leaders wore masks when in public. By June, 1 in 5 Republicans indicated that they had a negative view of people who wore masks.

Trump used that messaging from March to defend his own decision not to wear a mask, despite the messaging being obviously wrong. This isn’t a case in which there are opposing views, it’s a case in which views changed. It’s as though Trump rejected the idea that the Earth rotates around the Sun because people 1,000 years ago thought the opposite was true.

On Friday, reports indicated that the White House was implementing a mandate for face coverings in the complex. A similar order went into place in May when two staffers tested positive for the virus but, over time, that mandate was set aside and most White House employees stopped wearing face coverings. The president, one assumes, always considered himself exempt.

As the White House was reeling from Trump’s diagnosis on Friday, Biden traveled to Grand Rapids, Mich. In a speech, he encouraged Americans to wear a mask whenever necessary.

Throughout the speech, Biden left his mask on.