As coronavirus cases surged in the Sun Belt in recent weeks, one Republican leader after another has come forward to publicly endorse face masks – and model the practice themselves – in an attempt to depoliticize their use as a public health precaution.
On Saturday, the man who has stood in the way of those efforts is finally expected to join them.
President Donald Trump – who has stubbornly refused to wear a mask in public, ridiculed those who have and done little to encourage his supporters to embrace the common sense public health measure – has said he will wear a mask during a visit to Walter Reed National Medical Center on Saturday.
He is also expected to be photographed wearing it, a photo opportunity that some of the President’s aides practically begged him to agree to and hope will encourage skeptical Trump supporters to do the same.
“I’m going to Walter Reed to see some of our great soldiers who have been injured. Badly injured. And also see some of our Covid workers, people who have such a great job,” Trump said. “And I expect to be wearing a mask when I go into Walter Reed. You’re in a hospital so I think it’s a very appropriate thing.”
Trump’s decision to model a mask in public view and tout it during a Fox News interview Thursday night came after a quiet lobbying campaign by some White House aides and political advisers, aides familiar with the discussions said – some of whom were spooked by the sight of so many maskless Trump supporters at a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, last month and concerned by the surge of coronavirus cases in the South.
One presidential adviser described the effort as more than a week of “lots of negotiation” and repeated “pleading” by aides who urged the President to set an example for his supporters by wearing a mask on the visit.
Until this week, Trump had resisted that coaxing, in part because he is tested daily and views it as an unnecessary step and also because he has not wanted to give into media criticism and pressure.
“I didn’t want to give the press the pleasure of seeing it,” Trump said during a May visit to a Ford plant in Michigan, where he refused to wear a mask in view of the press in defiance of Ford rules.
Efforts to convince Trump began ramping up as coronavirus cases surged in the South, taking several key Republican and battleground states by storm and prompting a slew of Republican officials to publicly endorse mask-wearing and attempt to depoliticize the practice.
Trump’s visit to Walter Reed Saturday will come just hours before he rallies his supporters in New Hampshire and advisers hope his decision to wear a mask will encourage rally attendees to do the same.
The Trump campaign is now “strongly encouraging” attendees to wear masks – a notable difference from Trump’s political events over the past several weeks, where mask-wearing was scarce and few steps were taken to encourage it. But the President has resisted suggestions to make mask-wearing mandatory at the rally. Even as he said he would wear a mask Saturday, Trump refuses to wholeheartedly encourage others to wear one.
“It’s fine to wear a mask if it makes you feel comfortable,” he said.
But a Trump political adviser said the President is not in favor of mandating them.
“That is the President. He does not want to say it,” the adviser said.
As coronavirus continues to rage in many parts of the country, Trump’s refusal to wear a mask in public has come to embody an approach to the pandemic his opponents say is disengaged and rooted in denial.
Even after the federal government recommended Americans wear masks in places where social distancing is impossible, Trump declared he was unlikely to ever wear one himself. And even as some of his aides gently encouraged him to be seen following his own government’s advice, Trump insisted wearing a mask would make him appear weak and give off the impression that he wasn’t controlling the pandemic.
But as Trump’s poll numbers sink, some of his advisers have intensified their arguments to him about wearing a mask, suggesting it would be an easy step that is well-received by the vast majority of Americans. A Quinnipiac University poll in May found 67% of respondents said Trump should be wearing a mask when he is in public, while 27% said he should not.
Others inside the White House have questioned whether the effort to get Trump to wear a mask is worth it, believing the President will never be willingly seen wearing a mask in public – or be seen as backing down from an issue that’s become highly politicized.
In recent days, aides began conceiving an event where it might make sense for Trump to appear masked, hoping to avoid the appearance he is simply doing it for show. A hospital, where nearly everyone is required to wear a mask, fit the bill.
The White House said Thursday that Trump would go to the facility “to visit brave combat wounded service members and their families as well as health care staff who have been caring for COVID-19 patients during the pandemic.”
At Walter Reed, all visitors “are expected to wear a cloth face covering over their nose and mouth upon entering and while moving about the facility,” according to the hospital’s website.
Trump has previously visited facilities where masks are required but has avoided wearing one himself. When he visited the Ford plant in Michigan, the automaker’s CEO encouraged him to follow the facility’s rules and wear a mask – and he did, briefly – but removed it when cameras were present.
More recently, Trump has insisted he is perfectly willing to wear a mask in public and said he was pleased with how he looked the few times he wore one.
“I mean I’d have no problem. Actually I had a mask on. I sort of liked the way I looked,” he told Fox Business Channel in an interview last week. “It was okay. It was a dark, black mask and I thought it looked OK. It looked like the Lone Ranger.”