Mask decisions will haunt Trump’s reelection bid

As coronavirus cases surge and governors begin agitating for a national mandate on wearing masks, President Donald Trump is showing few signs he’ll budge on an issue that has come to epitomize a national pandemic response rooted in denial and which now threatens his political future.

Even most elected Republicans now openly advocate for wearing masks and have been pictured with their noses and mouths covered, in part to set an example for the country. But Trump still refuses to wear a mask in public, and most guests at his two July 4 celebrations — at Mt. Rushmore and on the White House South Lawn — were bare-faced.
“I think it ought to be a national, a national requirement,” said New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” A Democrat, Murphy has nonetheless maintained a cordial relationship with Trump and dined with him last month at the President’s golf course in Bedminster.
A day later, Trump’s top aide said the White House is never likely to require all Americans to wear masks.
“When we look at masks and the wearing of masks, that’s done on a location basis when you can’t have social distancing,” chief of staff Mark Meadows said on Fox News. “Certainly a national mandate is not in order.”
Three months after reversing course and recommending masks — a move officials later conceded was confusing and awkward — top Republicans and allies of the President are only now coming to the realization that mask-wearing will be an essential element to containing a still-raging pandemic.
White House officials are discussing taking a more active role in encouraging masks as they shift to a strategy of preparing Americans to live long-term with the virus. After appearing at a string of events without social distancing and where masks were scarce, Trump’s campaign said Sunday it would host a New Hampshire campaign rally where attendees will be “provided a face mask that they are strongly encouraged to wear.”
Yet Trump’s willingness to shift personally on the issue is far from clear. While he likened himself to the “Lone Ranger” on one of the few occasions he wore a mask in private, he has not used his powerful social media platforms to encourage his supporters to do the same. And in meetings with advisers, Trump has stated that more strenuous calls to wear masks might send the wrong message as he attempts to move on from the virus.
The debate over masks has come to encapsulate a federal effort marked by repeated reversals, conflicting recommendations, low stockpiles and competing internal interests that lead to muddled messaging and negative health outcomes.
The bungled response has caused grave damage to the President’s political outlook — with his reluctance on masks only deepening the impression that Trump is not taking the pandemic seriously. Many of Trump’s closest allies now say in private that wearing a mask in public could help him appear more attuned to the crisis. They fear his failure to do so — and to encourage his supporters to follow suit — could threaten the economic recovery Trump is counting on to fuel his reelection, because further outbreaks could roll back the reopenings he desperately needs to have a chance in November.
The Trump administration’s decision in the pandemic’s earliest days to recommend against wearing masks has emerged as a critical misstep in a widely maligned national response. Even as it became clear that asymptomatic spread was causing the virus to spread quickly and quietly, a concerted national effort to convince Americans that wearing masks could prevent contagion was never truly mounted.
The administration’s top public health experts have defended their actions, saying it was necessary to prevent a run on equipment that was in short supply.
“I don’t regret that,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said during congressional testimony last week. “At that time, there was a paucity of equipment that our health care providers needed — who put themselves daily in harm’s way of taking care of people who are ill. We did not want to divert masks and PPE away from them, to be used by the people.”
Yet it is only now, months into a crisis that shows no signs of waning, that top White House officials and allies of the President have begun to recognize if more Americans begin wearing masks, the outbreak could be slowed.
White House officials say their messaging this week will shift to convincing Americans the virus will not abate any time soon — but that steps such as wearing masks can help contain it as the country learns to live alongside it.
“While there are outbreaks and we’re tending to the needs of those outbreaks, we have the infrastructure in place to deal with them,” one official said in previewing the new messaging push.
Still, after refusing for months to wear one himself, denigrating his election rival for appearing masked in public and stoking a cultural backlash against their use, it’s not clear whether any attempt by the President to convince people to cover their faces will prove effective.
Emerging on April 3, a Friday afternoon, Trump announced the US Centers for Disease Control was urging Americans to wear a mask when they leave their home. But he immediately declared he wouldn’t be wearing one himself. Instead of encouraging Americans to heed the recommendation, he suggested instead they do what they want.
“With the masks, it is going to be really a voluntary thing,” the President said. “You can do it. You don’t have to do it. I am choosing not to do it.”
His announcement came after days of heated task force meetings where officials argued in the Situation Room over whether to reverse course and tell Americans to cover up. In the Oval Office, Trump had expressed deep skepticism that any American would wear a mask — and worried that advising them to would cause panic.

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