A weekly window on the American political scene hosted by the Monitor's politics editors.

President Trump and the great mask debate

The president won’t wear a mask in public, even after two West Wing aides tested positive for the coronavirus. But his campaign is all for them.

Alex Brandon/AP
Wearing a mask, White House adviser Jared Kushner leaves after President Donald Trump spoke about the coronavirus during a press briefing on May 11, 2020, in Washington.

Dear reader:

I am writing this newsletter fresh from doing 10 interviews on public radio stations around Canada. As usual, the hosts asked good questions: How partisan was the Senate hearing yesterday with Dr. Anthony Fauci? (Mostly not.) How did the White House respond? (With a press briefing full of statistics meant to reassure us.) And why doesn’t President Donald Trump wear a mask in public?

The mask issue looms especially large after two White House aides – a presidential valet and the vice president’s press secretary – tested positive for the coronavirus, and had been going maskless. Now they’re in quarantine. As of Monday, all West Wing employees must wear a mask when they’re not at their desks. That makes sense; it’s a cramped workspace. Reporters also now wear masks at briefings.

But President Trump still won’t wear one. “Everybody coming into the president’s office gets tested,” he said Monday at a Rose Garden press conference. “And I’ve felt no vulnerability whatsoever.”

The mask debate, already a symbol of the deepening red-blue divide, has only intensified. Trump critics argue that he should be modeling proper behavior by wearing one. His defenders counter that, because he operates in the controlled White House environment, with plenty of testing, he can afford to go maskless.

Besides, the president has reportedly told aides, wearing a mask would “send the wrong message” – signaling that he’s more concerned about his health than about reopening the economy. What’s more, the argument goes, he would be mocked, and “Trump in a mask” would be used against him in campaign ads.

On that last point, Mr. Trump may well be right. He prides himself on his public image, combined perhaps with a bit of vanity. All presidents care about appearances, especially in the TV age.

Still, the larger mask debate rages, even among conservatives.

“The mask culture is fear driven. Masks+cowardice,” tweets R. R. Reno, editor of the magazine First Things.

“Masks are not driven by fear, but by respect for the community around us,” counters blogger Erick Erickson.

And on it goes. But it’s clear Mr. Trump thinks masks are good for others – and even a marketing opportunity. His campaign is now advertising masks that say “Trump Pence Keep America Great! 2020.”

Campaign manager Brad Parscale recently tweeted out a picture of himself at the White House wearing one.

Let us know what you’re thinking at csmpolitics@csmonitor.com.

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