Donald Trump and his top aides are conducting near-daily public events without wearing masks, disregarding government guidelines as well as the president’s short-lived effort to encourage Americans to cover their faces out of patriotism.
Trump first publicly wore a mask on July 11 during a visit to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, to acclaim from aides. He wore them sporadically through the summer, including while visiting his ailing brother, Robert Trump, in the hospital on Aug. 14.
But as of late, he’s gone bare-faced. Trump twice attended large Republican National Convention events last week without wearing a mask. Almost no one else wore one, either.
He has since traveled to New Hampshire, Louisiana, Texas, Wisconsin and, on Wednesday, North Carolina, in each case meeting with local officials and residents without wearing a mask. His top aides also generally don’t wear face coverings.
Trump’s rejection of masks mirrors his broader rebuke of public health practices to fight the virus, which has killed more than 183,000 Americans. Trump at one point retweeted a Fox News personality who ridiculed Joe Biden for wearing a mask, and in May the president called a reporter “politically correct” for wearing one. But he pivoted sharply in July as cases of the virus surged, leading to the Walter Reed photograph.
It didn’t last. As he urged Americans to reopen the country and brave the coronavirus themselves by returning to work and school, Trump set his own mask aside.
He has said he personally doesn’t need one because he and those around him are tested regularly, though the tests are not 100 percent accurate. His refusal to regularly cover his face has helped make masks a partisan issue, with surveys showing Democrats are still likelier to wear one in public than Republicans.
Scores of health officials, including the U.S. Surgeon General and the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have urged Americans to wear masks. Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and a White House senior adviser, wore a mask Wednesday during an event in Michigan.
“It’s his own task force that’s recommending this, and it’s his own CDC that’s recommending it,” said Amesh Adalja, a scholar at Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security who studies pandemics. “It’s hypocritical if he expects the population to be able to do that, because the task force he constituted is recommending it, yet he’s not doing it.”
Biden has pointedly worn a mask when he’s in public. “Why do you wear a mask?” he said Wednesday. “To protect your neighbor, to keep someone else from getting sick and maybe dying.”
But Trump’s new medical adviser, Scott Atlas, has regularly downplayed the necessity of masks. “There’s no real good science on general-population, widespread, in-all-circumstances wearing masks,” he told Fox News last month.
Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, said research on masks clearly shows they’re effective in slowing the spread of the virus. “I don’t know any serious public health person who disagrees,” he said, noting that Atlas, a fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution at Stanford University, is a neuroradiologist, not a specialist in epidemiology or infectious diseases.
In addition to flouting his own administration’s advice, Trump is running afoul of state and local regulations and stands in contrast with other elected officials, even Republicans. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy, all Republicans, wore masks in encounters with the president in the last week.
Trump “encourages people to make whatever decision is best for their safety and to follow what their local jurisdictions say,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Matthews said. “CDC guidelines are still recommended, but not required. The president is regularly tested and those in close proximity to him are tested beforehand.”
In Kenosha, Wisconsin, on Tuesday, Trump, Attorney General William Barr and acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf arrived without masks for an indoor meeting with police officers and members of the National Guard, who wore them. Wisconsin’s government says people should wear a mask in “indoor places” that are not their homes.
During a roundtable event at a National Guard command post in the city, Trump advised participants, “You might want to take the masks off. Otherwise, you can leave them on. Either way you want.”
“Look how fast you took that off,” he said after all of the roundtable participants removed their masks.
When Trump speaks, spectators often gather without face coverings. Hundreds of guests crowded onto the South Lawn of the White House last Thursday to hear Trump’s Republican nomination acceptance speech, with few masks to be found in the audience. At a New Hampshire rally the next day, several attendees disregarded a state order to wear a mask – and booed when an announcer reminded them of the requirement over a loudspeaker. Trump, his chief of staff, Mark Meadows, and other aides also did not wear masks during the event. Last Saturday, Trump traveled to Louisiana and Texas to survey damage from Hurricane Laura. He deplaned Air Force One without a mask only to be met by six official greeters, who all wore one.
Some removed their masks during conversation with the president. Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, kept his on except when he was speaking.
At one point, Trump told journalists asking him questions to remove their masks so he could hear them more clearly. Later, Trump signed keepsakes for local officials while a Secret Service agent and Meadows directed them not to get too close to the president.
In Texas, Trump met Abbott and Cruz, who both wore masks. The officials held a press briefing with more than 50 people crowding into a room in an emergency operations center. Trump, Meadows and Wolf didn’t wear masks.
In North Carolina on Wednesday, Trump again didn’t wear a mask, though he remained about six feet back from a cheering crowd of supporters, hardly any of whom had their faces covered.
Trump’s decision to forgo a mask puts his own health at risk while also setting a bad example, Brown’s Jha said.
“It’s been very disappointing,” he said. “Leadership is about modeling good behavior.”
The White House isn’t impervious to the virus — Trump’s national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, and Vice President Mike Pence’s communications director, Katie Miller, both contracted COVID-19. They both recovered, and O’Brien accompanied Trump to North Carolina on Wednesday. He did not wear a mask.
Some Secret Service agents have been seen in Trump’s company without wearing masks. A Secret Service spokesperson, Justine Whelan, would not explain its policy on face coverings.
“The agency takes all appropriate precautions to protect our workforce, our protectees, and the public from exposure to COVID-19,” she said in an email, including the provision and use of protective equipment.
The service has declined to say how many agents have tested positive for the virus.
Story by Josh Wingrove.