Despite CDC guidance that Americans should wear face masks in public to avoid spreading Covid-19, President Donald Trump joked about a man who wore one at the White House on Tuesday and Vice President Mike Pence refused to wear one while meeting doctors and patients at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.
Trump’s comment came during an event designed to portray the federal government’s aid program for small businesses, known as the Paycheck Protection Program, as wildly successful. While the small business owners who attended the event in the White House East Room were asked to sit six feet apart, none of them wore masks, and neither did the president, his daughter, the treasure secretary or the small business administrator.
Although many small businesses have been unable to gets loans — which are forgiven if used to pay workers for at least eight weeks — because millions of dollars have gone to large, politically connected firms, ten beneficiaries of the program were invited to the stage by the president, and thanked him profusely.
At one point, as Trump asked Ali Mills, the vice president of a family-owned contracting company from Pennsylvania to speak, he invited her husband and co-worker to join her on stage, and joked about the fact that he had worn a mask earlier. “Put that mask on, the way you had it,” Trump said to the man. As the president shook his head and smiled, some in the room laughed. (After the event, Mills explained in an email that her husband, who “has a great passion for President Trump,” has a Trump 2020 mask, which he showed the president before the event.)
After the event ended, the business owners and officials left their seats and mingled at close quarters, including the president’s economic adviser Larry Kudlow, who approached one of the business owners, an optometrist from West Virginia, to get free advice about his glasses.
The optometrist, Chris Stansbury, was described simply as a small business owner, but he is also a Republican candidate for the West Virginia House of Delegates. Despite his politics, Stansbury has been urging his clients to take the CDC recommendations on mask-wearing seriously. In a YouTube video recorded two weeks ago he said, “if you do have to be out and about, if you do have essential travel, please go ahead and wear a mask.”
“Even if you feel fine, you could be a carrier of the disease,” Stansbury explained. “Studies have shown that up to 40 percent of people could be carrying this and not even realize it. They could be asymptomatic carriers of the disease. So if you have to go out and about into a public space, please, go ahead and put a mask on.”
The hastily organized White House event, which a limited number of reporters were allowed to attend, also seemed to be part of a new media strategy, intended to give the president an opportunity to cast his response to the crisis as a roaring success without too much scrutiny from the media. Before he took a few questions from reporters, Trump even told the business owners that they were there, in part, to keep the media from being too harsh on him. “I think with you in the room, I have a feeling that they’ll ask me much nicer questions,” Trump said, again speaking the quiet part out loud. “They’ll tone ’em done, right?”
The president then lied, in response to the first question, about his wildly inaccurate prediction on Feb. 26 that coronavirus cases in the U.S. would be “down to close to zero” within days. Trump responded by inventing the entirely false narrative that he had been listening to unnamed “experts” who supposedly told him then that the pandemic virus would have no impact outside China.
New Trump lie: many experts "said that this would never affect the United States, it wouldn't affect Europe, it wouldn't affect anything outside of China. So we were listening to experts, we always will... but the experts got it wrong." (via @atrupar) pic.twitter.com/alVlyOjuew— Robert Mackey (@RobertMackey) April 29, 2020
In fact, on Feb. 25, the day before the president made that prediction, Nancy Messonnier, a CDC expert on respiratory diseases, told reporters something very different: that her agency expected the novel coronavirus to begin spreading at a community level in the United States and “disruption to everyday life might be severe.”
The president’s decision to poke fun at the man who wore a mask in the White House came just hours after his vice president apparently defied a request from the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota to honor its policy by wearing a mask while visiting doctors and patients there.
As photographs and video circulated of Pence not wearing a mask, unlike everyone else around him, including Dr. Stephen Hahn, the FDA commissioner, the clinic’s Twitter feed reported that the vice president had been informed in advance of Mayo’s policy that every visitor has to wear a mask. (Shortly after it was posted, that tweet was removed from Twitter without explanation.)
After a roundtable discussion with Mayo Clinic doctors and Minnesota’s governor, Tim Walz, during which he was the only one not wearing a mask, Pence even slapped one of the doctors on the back.
The vice president later told NBC News that since he is “tested for the coronavirus on a regular basis, and everyone who is around me is tested,” he didn’t think it was necessary for him to wear a mask. Apparently the idea that he could have a false negative has not occurred to the man leading the White House coronavirus task force, nor has the concept of using his office to model good behavior for the public.
“I thought it’d be a good opportunity,” Pence added, “for me to be here, to be able to speak to these researchers these incredible healthcare personnel and look them in the eye and say thank you.”
Asked why he's not wearing a mask at Mayo, Pence says as VP he's "tested for the coronavirus on a regular basis... and since I don't have the coronavirus, I thought it’d be a good opportunity for me to be here... to look them in the eye and say thank you.” pic.twitter.com/0iq1MgqAfQ— Robert Mackey (@RobertMackey) April 29, 2020
Pence’s explanation outraged many observers who noted that you can still look people “in the eye” while wearing a mask over your mouth and nose to protect them from a virus you might be carrying.
Hey @VP when I go to @MayoClinic tomorrow to bring my dad to his 4 cancer appts should I tell them I’m not going to wear a mask so I can look them in the eye? Oh wait, my dad and others at the HOSPITAL have extremely compromised immune systems and I’m not a moron!!!— Emily Williamson (@EmilyCobenais) April 29, 2020
Updated: Wednesday, April 29, 9:45 p.m. PDT
This post was updated with a new headline and to add information about the mask Donald Trump joked about at the White House on Tuesday.