President Donald Trump has never been a big fan of wearing a mask to protect himself – and others – from the spread of the coronavirus.
“I don’t think I’m going to be doing it,” Trump said of wearing a mask in the April press conference in which he announced the new CDC guidelines making clear people should wear masks when social distancing was not an option. “Wearing a face mask as I greet presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens – I just don’t see it.”
On a trip to a Ford plant late last week, Trump said that he wore a mask away from reporters and cameras but took it off because he “didn’t want to give the press the pleasure of seeing it.” (Someone did snap a photo of Trump with a mask on.)
On Sunday, Axios’ Jonathan Swan reported this: “Trump, meanwhile, is out and about – masks be damned. … Watch for plenty more mask-free outings from Trump, hyping the reopening of the economy and avoiding discussions of social distancing and death counts.”
Then on Memorial Day, the President retweeted this from Brit Hume in which the Fox News personality appears to mock former Vice President Joe Biden for his appearance while wearing a black mask during a wreath-laying ceremony.
Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany claimed Tuesday that it was “peculiar” that Biden would wear a mask outdoors.
“Look, the President’s excited to see that Joe emerged from the basement. It is a bit peculiar though that in his basement, right next to his wife, he’s not wearing a mask. But he’s wearing one outdoors when he’s socially distant,” McEnany said. “So I think that there was a discrepancy there.”
What’s so remarkable about all of this is that there is no real debate about mask-wearing and its impact on mitigating the spread of the virus.
“Medical masks, like the N95, offer the most protection, but experts widely agree that several types of facial coverings, including ones made of fabric, are effective at slowing virus spread,” wrote PolitiFact recently.
Speaking of “experts,” here’s what Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus task force coordinator, said about masks during an appearance on “Fox News Sunday”:
“What we have said to people is there is clear scientific evidence now, by all the droplet experiments that happened, and that others have done, to show that a mask does prevent droplets from reaching others. Out of respect for each other, as Americans that care for each other, we need to be wearing masks in public when we cannot social distance.”
Given that, you would think that the President of the United States – seeking to set an example of the proper behavior in the midst of a global pandemic – might deign to don a mask. Because public health isn’t a partisan issue, a fact Republican governors from North Dakota to Ohio have advocated for in recent days.
What Trump either doesn’t understand or doesn’t care about is that the way leaders act has a profound impact on how the general public acts. People take their cues from the most high profile among us – including and especially the president.
Don’t believe me? Witness this exchange on an Alabama beach over Memorial Day weekend between a beach-goer and CNN’s Gary Tuchman:
MAN: I mean, if he’s not wearing a mask, I’m not going to wear a mask. If he’s not worried, I’m not worried.
TUCHMAN: The President?
MAN: Yes, sir.
When you have the President of the United States sending a clear signal that a) he doesn’t need to wear a mask and b) wearing a mask makes you look weak, then no one should be surprised that people – like that kid in Alabama – follow Trump’s lead.
Trump has repeatedly demonstrated during his time in the White House that he lacks any understanding of the moral leadership that the office of the President has long conveyed in the country. That his words and his actions have profound consequences. That it’s not just about him and what he thinks is best for him.
Trump’s politicizing of mask-wearing is in keeping with this long-held moral vacuum in the Trump White House. But unlike some of the President’s past absences of moral leadership, this one could cost people their lives.