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For the first time since the coronavirus pandemic began, President Trump wore a face mask in public during a visit to Walter Reed Medical Center on Saturday. The stunningly late milestone came 99 days after the CDC recommended, on April 3, that Americans don face coverings at all times in public to stop the spread of COVID-19, which has already devastated the U.S. economy, infected more than 3.2 million people, and killed more than 134,000 across the country.
Trump had previously refused to wear a mask in public, and his and his allies’ unwillingness to take the common-sense precaution seriously (after U.S. public-health officials initially botched their own mask messaging) has helped make face masks a partisan flash point in the U.S. — to the extent that resistance to mask-wearing among Americans has undoubtedly contributed to the horrifying second surge of COVID-19 in numerous states.
Immediately after the CDC announced its overdue guidance on wearing face coverings in early April, Trump made a point of emphasizing that the guidance was only a recommendation and that “I won’t be doing it personally,” later implying that it wouldn’t be presidential or could be seen as a sign of weakness for him to do so. He then appeared mask-less at all of his public events until Saturday, and many allies, members of his administration, and campaign staffers have followed his bad example.
During a tour of a Ford plant in May, Trump claimed that he wore a mask on parts of the tour but not in front of photographers, explaining that he “didn’t want to give the press the pleasure of seeing it.” He has also suggested that some Americans wore masks to signal their disapproval of him, and that masks may make people behave more irresponsibly.
On May 26, Trump shared a tweet mocking presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden for wearing a mask in public, then claimed he wasn’t criticizing him amid the ensuing backlash, then said he thought Biden wearing a mask was “unusual” and suggested a reporter was keeping their mask on because they wanted to be “politically correct.” Trump also had the largest, most public parts of next month’s Republican National Convention moved from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Jacksonville, Florida, after balking at the likelihood that attendees would be required to practice social distancing and wear masks in North Carolina. But that decision has already backfired now that Jacksonville has mandated mask-wearing amid Florida’s uncontrolled coronavirus outbreak.
Ahead of Saturday, Trump has not personally encouraged the use of masks on social media and has not required them at his ill-advised indoor events during the pandemic — even after members of his administration, campaign staff, and the Secret Service have tested positive for COVID-19. The president has also reportedly told advisers that promoting mask use would counteract his and his administration’s efforts to downplay the threat of the pandemic and talk up the reopening of the country — which so far has been a disastrous failure. On Friday, Politico reported that social distancing and mask-wearing have not been practiced in the Trump campaign’s headquarters either, with one staffer commenting that, “You get made fun of, if you wear a mask — there’s social pressure not to do it.”
And Trump’s son, Donald Jr., has shared a meme on social media ridiculing the effectiveness of wearing a mask. (He is currently in self-quarantine after his girlfriend, Kimberly Guilfoyle, recently tested positive for COVID-19.)
On Friday, Trump said he would wear a mask during his visit to Walter Reed, following weeks of intensifying criticism and calls for him to don a mask not just from public health officials, but from his advisors, Republican leaders, and even hosts on Fox News. The pressure worked, though Trump only conceded that it was a good idea for him to wear a mask because he would be inside a hospital — thus downplaying the effectiveness and importance of masks in other circumstances.
Hopefully, the sight of the Maskophobe-in-Chief wearing a mask will now convince more Americans, and more Trump supporters in particular, to drop their own resistance. That would surely save lives. Some members of the Trump campaign, meanwhile, seem to think that the president’s new mask will also boost his struggling reelection bid:
But when it comes to selling any newfound seriousness from Trump about the pandemic, the president and his campaign only have 115 days to convince voters to forget what they’ve seen over the last 99. Whatever happens, the good news is that at long last, Donald Trump has become the kind of president who can be pressured into following basic CDC guidelines, inside a veterans hospital, more than three months late, amid a historic and destabilizing public-health crisis for which there is no end in sight.