President Donald Trump won’t wear one in public, at least in front of cameras. His aides in the West Wing remove them before walking inside. Vice President Mike Pence violated a hospital’s rules by visiting without one last week, only to say later he should have tied one on.
On Thursday, the White House confirmed one of the President’s staffers — a US military member responsible for attending to his personal needs in the Oval Office — had tested positive for coronavirus. Like others inside the building, valets haven’t been wearing masks at work as they go about their jobs serving the President and his family.
The development angered Trump and led to a renewed round of testing for him and Pence. But it did not appear likely to change the unwritten code inside the White House against wearing masks, despite recommendations from Trump’s own administration on wearing face coverings where social distancing is difficult.
“He’s a unique individual,” one White House official said. “He can’t be seen walking around wearing a mask.”
Like other recommendations issued by the White House on social distancing and reopening states, the guidance from the federal government on wearing masks is not compulsory. And like those recommendations, Trump has shown passing interest in following them himself.
Administration aides have said the regular testing administered to Trump and those who come into close proximity to him negates the need to wear a mask at all times. They have also cited temperature checks provided to anyone entering the White House complex.
But temperature checks wouldn’t screen out asymptomatic individuals. The rapid test used by the White House’s medical officers has “about a 15% false negative rate,” the National Institutes of Health director told lawmakers Thursday. And only those who interact directly with Trump or Pence is tested, excluding others who work at a further distance from the two men.
Privately, Trump has questioned whether he should ever be seen wearing a mask in public, concerned it might contradict his public message that the virus is waning and the country is ready to reopen. He has shown little interest in wearing one as an example to the country, even though many people are now required to wear masks to enter grocery stores, pharmacies and other businesses.
Instead, he has appeared keenly aware of what signal it might send if he appeared in public wearing a mask. He said on Wednesday he put one on during a visit to Arizona, but only when he would not be photographed backstage. When he was before cameras at the Honeywell plant, he was barefaced except for a pair of safety goggles.
A person familiar with the matter said Trump did not appear comfortable when he was wearing the mask in Arizona and took it off when he was told by the CEO of Honeywell it wasn’t necessary.
White House aides had been anticipating the decision on whether Trump would wear a mask after Pence’s visit last week to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, which was overshadowed by criticism of his decision not to wear one. While Trump told reporters he would be fully willing to wear one if the setting required it, he did not appear enthusiastic behind the scenes at the prospect.
There are no explicit rules against wearing masks at the White House, and some officials have chosen to cover their faces. But as Trump insists the virus is being defeated and pushes for the economy to reopen, his aversion to masks is clear.
Unlikely to follow guidelines
In April, when he unveiled new government guidelines on wearing face coverings, Trump acknowledged he was unlikely to follow them himself, saying he couldn’t envision greeting “presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens” with his mouth and nose covered up.
“I don’t see it for myself,” he said.
Neither, apparently, did his aides, who often take the President’s lead on their own behavior and messaging. Only a “few” staffers inside the West Wing regularly wear masks to work, officials say, and it’s rare to spot officials in the building with their faces covered.
The White House official acknowledged there are not many staffers wearing masks around the office, but noted aides to the President are simply following the guidelines from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that masks are recommended but not mandatory.
“If White House staff were told to wear a mask, everybody would wear a mask,” the official said, noting that health experts have said wearing a mask is useful for preventing people who are already infected from spreading the virus to others.
Still, the White House is behind the private sector in enforcing mask usage. When the President flew to Arizona on Tuesday — his first foray from the East Coast in months — neither he nor his aides wore masks on Air Force One, even though some commercial airlines have starting requiring passengers to wear them on flights. As he was departing the White House South Lawn, a large group of staffers gathered to see him off, all without masks.
Not all of the White House’s various departments have operated the same. Many career staffers at the National Security Council have been wearing masks to work in their warren of offices in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, situated next to the West Wing. Matt Pottinger, the deputy national security adviser, began wearing a mask to work even before new federal guidelines were issued last month.
Elsewhere in the building, however, mask usage remains low. A number of political appointees, including those working in the Office of Management and Budget, were called back to the office on Monday for the first time in weeks and have not been wearing masks. A source said compliance with mask guidelines among some staff in the building is “low to nonexistent.”
As top budget officials huddle over next steps for another potential stimulus — a process that could put aides in meetings with agency and congressional leaders — social distancing measures haven’t been strictly enforced in the office, a source said.
In the White House residence, fewer staffers are coming to work every day and the first lady is socially distancing from those who are, official said. But the President has shown uneven interest in social distancing. In some meetings, chairs are spaced further apart to maintain six feet of distance. But in other settings, like his meetings with governors or health care professionals in the Oval Office, Trump is well within the range.
Asked Thursday whether the valet who tested positive would spark a change in mask usage among White House aides, counselor Kellyanne Conway said it should be reporters who change their approach.
“I think if anybody should start wearing masks and showing more respect, it should be the media,” she said.
The debate over wearing a face mask to prevent the spread of coronavirus has divided along partisan lines. Even though Trump’s reelection campaign has discussed selling Trump-branded face masks to supporters, they don’t yet appear on the campaign’s online store. In some polls, Republicans say they are more willing to go out in public bare-faced while Democrats say they’re more inclined to cover up.
On Wednesday, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said she couldn’t explain the disparity.
“No sense as to why that would be. That’s the choice of the American public, that’s the choice of the individual as to whether to wear a mask or not,” she said.
Asked whether Trump believes Americans should be wearing masks as part of their return to normal life, she reiterated the President’s message that wearing a mask is a recommendation and not a mandate.
“That’s the choice of the individual as to whether they wear a mask or not,” she said.
When the CDC issued its guidelines last month on wearing masks in public, it amounted to a reversal for the federal government, which for weeks had told Americans that covering their faces in public was unnecessary. In meetings of the coronavirus task force, some officials expressed concern that recommending masks might cause people to loosen their social distancing practices.
The guidelines ultimately recommended “wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain” and reiterated that it remained “critical to emphasize that maintaining 6-feet social distancing remains important to slowing the spread of the virus.”
The guidelines also noted that a negative test for Covid-19 should not lead individuals to lower their guard.
“If you test positive or negative for COVID-19, no matter the type of test, you still should take preventive measures to protect yourself and others,” the guidelines read.