WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump makes a point of not wearing a mask. A barefaced Vice President Mike Pence did not utter the m-word at a coronavirus briefing Friday.
Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, meanwhile, has gone in the other direction. A mask is part of his 2020 signature look.
This divergent accessorizing once highlighted yet another partisan divide. For Trump allies, going barefaced is all about individual liberty. For Biden supporters, the mask is a symbol of science and sound policy.
But as infections spike in red states such as Texas, Florida and Arizona, support for masks has grown. In recent days, even some Republicans have urged the public to cover their faces in public, arguing that it’s the best way to slow the virus. This shift in rhetoric highlights the potential risks for the president as he continues to eschew public health experts, who agree that masks are crucial to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.
“It does go to character and values,” Democratic pollster Joel Benenson said. “Biden is known for being decent, for caring about the country, a middle-class guy, working with people on the other side. Trump is the antithesis of that. So the more Trump tries to attack Biden over petty smaller things, the smaller it makes Trump look.”
Polling suggests that the majority of Americans favor facial coverings.
More than 70 percent of Americans believe that people should wear masks most or all of the time in public places, according to a Pew Research survey from mid-June.
A Fox News poll from last week found that 80 percent hold a favorable view of those who wear masks, including 68 percent of Republicans and 61 percent of respondents who strongly approve of Trump.
Some Republican leaders have echoed those favorable views.
“Until we find a vaccine, [masks] are really important,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters in his home state of Kentucky on Friday. “This is not as complicated as a ventilator. This is a way to indicate that you want to protect others. We all need during this period, until we find a vaccine, to think of us as protecting not only ourselves but others.”
Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., the third-highest-ranking House Republican endorsed facial coverings Friday with a photo of her father in a cowboy hat and blue disposable mask.
The caption read: “Dick Cheney says WEAR A MASK. #realmenwearmasks.”
Also Friday, former Trump defense secretary Jim Mattis, who has been publicly critical of the president since leaving the job in 2018, starred in a public service announcement in his hometown of Richland, Wash., urging people to wear masks.
“Hello, neighbors. I’m Jim Mattis,” he says in a video posted to the town’s YouTube page. “I’m here to talk about that nasty little virus, covid. . . . It’s clear this little bugger isn’t going away on its own.”
“Wear those face coverings,” Mattis said, “and let’s work together on this to beat covid.”
Many local Republican leaders have echoed that message as infections spike in red states. “Protect yourself. Protect others. Help contain the spread of Covid-19. Wear a mask,” Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, wrote in a social media post.
“Everyone should just wear a d— mask,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said. The Sunshine State had nearly 9,000 new infections Thursday, a record.
Even so, Trump and his allies have steadfastly refused to wear face coverings, even as the president has ramped up his travel schedule in the past few weeks.
At the Friday press briefing of the White House coronavirus task force, the first in two months, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, White House coronavirus response coordinator Deborah Birx, and Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious-disease doctor, all wore masks.
Pence did not.
When asked whether he had a message to the nation about “the importance of wearing masks,” Pence said only that people should listen to the guidance from their state or local officials.
Analysts say Trump’s position is designed to appeal to his core voters. “Trump’s gut instinct is to play to his base,” Republican pollster Ed Goeas said.
But Goeas said the strategy is misguided. Trump’s resistance to mask-wearing focuses the conversation on his polarizing persona, Goeas said, rather than on policy issues where the president can find broader support.
But Trump has suggested that he sees wearing one as a critique of his leadership, telling the Wall Street Journal that “it could be” that people put them on to make a political statement against him.
In the same interview, Trump said that wearing a mask can have negative effects. “They drop it on the desk and then they touch their eye and they touch their nose,” Trump said. “I think a mask is a — it’s a double-edged sword.”
A spokesman for Trump’s campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Trump and his allies have turned to social media to mock Biden for covering his face, retweeting a message from Fox News’s Brit Hume, who posted a photo with Biden wearing a mask and adding the caption: “This might explain why Trump doesn’t wear a mask. Biden today.”
But Democrats see Biden’s face covering as an advantage.
“Biden wants to lead by example,” said Donna Brazile, a longtime Democratic strategist who briefly led the Democratic National Committee.
“He is sending the right signal to the public,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., who participated in a raucous hearing Friday where some Republicans refused to cover their faces.
“This is all we’ve got” to contain the virus, he added.
The partisan fight over mask-wearing spilled over onto Capitol Hill Friday, during a hearing of the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, because Democrats wore masks and some Republicans did not.
At one point, Raskin accused Republican members who were maskless of provoking “terror and fear in your colleagues and perhaps your staff.”
Raskin criticized Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, in particular, who is known for going jacketless, saying that going without a jacket is “a fashion statement,” but not wearing a mask is a “public health menace.”
Republicans, several of whom had worn masks into the hearing room before taking them off, contended that they could practice social distancing safely while seated maskless at the dais.
“We are six feet apart. We don’t need a mask,” said Rep. Mark Green, R-Tenn., a physician.
House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., threatened to end the practice of holding in-person hearings – something Republicans have demanded – if they don’t wear masks.
“I will stay in the safety of my home as I would ask all you to do,” Clyburn said.
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The Washington Post’s Erica Werner and Michael Scherer contributed to this report.