As President Donald Trump received treatment for the coronavirus at Walter Reed Medical Center last week, he and his aides worked on the stagecraft for his big return home. It needed to be showy and it would require television networks to have their cameras pointed at the White House during the beginning of their primetime shows.
Disembarking from Marine One, Trump walked across the lawn, climbed two flights of stairs to the balcony of the residence, looked directly at the cameras and removed his mask. It was as overly dramatic as it was medically dangerous. For the White House the goal was simple: Put Trump on national television to underscore that the president, despite being infected with a deadly virus, was strong enough not to wear a mask. For scientists, doctors, and even those who work on the president’s response to the pandemic, it was a calamity.
Trump’s infection with COVID had presented an opportunity for him to personally change his behavior and, with it, encourage his followers to do the same. That he didn’t was viewed as the final nail in the coffin for attempts to convince skeptical Americans that masks were invaluable in stopping the deadly disease’s spread.
“That’s when I realized that the time to convince Americans to take all these health precautions seriously in order to prevent the spread was totally over,” said one senior health official who works with the White House’s coronavirus task force.
Since the early days of COVID, the Trump administration has not only resisted mask-wearing but actively portrayed it as a form of partisan virtue signaling. To keep your face uncovered, the thinking went, was to show support for the president, a value of personal liberty, and a defiance against public health professionals who publicly speak out against the president’s response to the virus.
The logic has alarmed scientists. Multiple officials working on the federal government’s coronavirus response said that at the start of the pandemic they pushed for the administration to embrace public health messaging that underscored the importance of wearing a mask, washing hands and maintaining social distancing. Task force officials appeared in public hearings telling lawmakers and the American people that embracing these measures would prevent community spread.
But the White House moved in another direction. It pressured its health agencies to switch its messaging to focus almost entirely on reopening the country no matter the cost, officials said. Two senior health officials told The Daily Beast that they were pressured to step back from reinforcing the effectiveness of masks and social distancing—guidelines that Trump and his confidants viewed as potential obstacles to states reopening schools, bars, and restaurants. And as The New York Times reported, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was stopped by the White House from mandating masks on public transportation.
The mask skepticism from the White House was so evident that officials inside the West Wing began to stop personally wearing masks for fear of retribution.
“If you stepped into a meeting with the president and you wore a mask when he and the rest of the room were not, you would very likely hear about it from the president himself,” said a Trump administration official who has been in the room in such cases. “It was well-known [in the building] that if you wanted to be taken seriously by the president, you should take his lead on the masks thing… and not be the guy wearing a mask in a gathering with him, as if to say you’re sticking it to [Trump].”
Now, officials say that months of the president mocking mask-wearers and refusing to wear a mask in public has not only instilled a false sense of security in some Americans but facilitated the spread of the virus. Officials say they’ve reached the point of no return—that the time for getting the message out that masks, in particular, are necessary—has passed. And that, they said, points to a dangerous new reality: that the virus could continue to spread throughout the country, killing more people, throughout the next year.
“At least, through the next year,” one senior health official said. “What happens when you can’t convince people to help not only save themselves but save other people by simply wearing a mask?”
In a recent interview Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told attendees at a recent American University event that as many as 400,000 people in the U.S. could die from COVID-19 if “we don't do what we need to in the fall.” “Maybe 50 percent of you hate me because you think I'm trying to destroy the country, but listen to me for six weeks or so, and do what I say, and you'll see the numbers go down,” Fauci said.
Just how directly responsible Trump is for discouraging mask-wearing is the topic of continuous debate. The White House insists that the president is not anti-mask, per se, but merely opposed to the use of masks as a cudgel to shame and score political points against him and Republicans. White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany, last week, said its use was a “personal choice.” Shortly thereafter, she tested positive for the virus.
In response to inquiries about this article, White House spokesperson Judd Deere reiterated an earlier statement that “Trump always put the well-being of the American people first,” including with his China travel ban, and criticized what he described as a double standard with “large gatherings of so-called 'peace protesters.'”
White House officials also pointed The Daily Beast to President Trump's past statements on mask-wearing, including: “I think people should wear a mask if they can, if they feel they, they should. But I don't think it should be a mandatory policy.”
Communities across America have leaned into that messaging. In Borough Park, one of Brooklyn’s Orthodox Jewish communities, protests have erupted in the streets over the New York mask guidance and the governor’s press conferences underscoring the increasing case counts in predominantly Jewish neighborhoods. Protesters waved Trump flags and held signs that read “We will not comply.”
When asked about whether there was any empirical evidence that Trump’s messaging was linked to COVID-19 spread, some health officials pointed to a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In that report, the agency found that “perceived low severity of disease outcome; perceived responsibility to others; peer pressure; and exposure to misinformation, conflicting messages, or opposing views regarding masks were identified as drivers of behaviors that might influence risk for COVID-19 exposure among young adults” in Winnebago County, Wisconsin.
Top health officials working on the coronavirus task force have, in recent weeks, begun to speak out more forcefully about the need to take the virus’ spread more seriously. Fauci, in particular, has appeared on numerous television shows, podcasts, and spoken to dozens of reporters, underscoring the consequences of the country reopening before flattening the curve.
“At the holidays, we had Fourth of July, Memorial Day, people felt pent-up, they went to the bars, they got infected, maybe they didn't really get much symptoms. But then they went back into the community and transmitted it to vulnerable people,” Fauci told The Daily Beast in a recent interview. “That's the reason why we saw the sharp increase in cases and hospitalizations, and deaths.”
Fauci isn’t alone. For months, Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House task force coordinator, has been traveling across the country, working with state and local officials on ramping up the public health messaging, asking leaders to reinforce the need for masks and social distancing. She’s also worked with communities to determine whether or not to reclose public spaces such as bars. But despite those public pleas and the closed-doors work of some task force officials, the leader of the team, Vice President Mike Pence, has supported Trump’s demands for quicker re-openings. He repeatedly told governors that it was safe to allow students back into the classroom as long as schools continued surveillance efforts—and he offered federal support throughout the process, according to recordings of calls obtained by The Daily Beast. Today, there are 178,000 cases in about 1,400 colleges and universities across the country, according to a New York Times analysis. That doesn’t include the outbreaks in elementary, middle and high schools.
The president’s diagnosis with COVID has led to some adjustments. On Saturday, Trump hosted what was ostensibly a campaign event from the South Lawn, during which attendees largely wore masks but did not socially distance themselves from each other. But West Wing staff are still not mandated to wear masks on the premises; and though many do, some, including the president, have balked at the idea.
Two people who’ve spoken to Trump in the days since he tested positive for the virus say that he had not mentioned any desire to change his public posture on mask-wearing, or that he flatly stated he would continue wearing a mask sparsely and when he felt like it.
“The president is not humbled by this,” said one of the knowledgeable sources. “It did not sound, based on my conversation with him, that he is going to give the media an ‘I told you so!’ moment this time.”
If evidence was needed that Trump’s own diagnosis would not demonstrably change the way he and his team approached mask-wearing, it came this past week. The president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., attended an indoor rally Thursday where most of the people in the crowd were not wearing masks, while Pence also attended a rally in Nevada on Thursday and did not wear a mask, though the event was held outdoors.
And then there was Trump, who few expect to do anything differently than he had before he came down with COVID, in what Fauci described as a superspreader event at the White House.
“People don’t want to see the leader of the free world hiding behind a mask; it just sends the wrong message,” said Barry Bennett, a GOP operative and lobbyist who served as a senior Trump adviser during the 2016 campaign. “There are large portions of this country where there were no [COVID-19] hospitalizations this week, there were no deaths this week. It’s not a monolithic experience.”
Asked if Trump himself should start wearing a mask publicly or more regularly, Bennett replied, “He had it, so he’s immune now, so he doesn’t need a mask, right?”