Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar says President Donald Trump has been “clear” in calling for the public to “wear face coverings when you can’t social distance.”
The official messaging from the White House has been, as Azar put it, “clear and unambiguous” since early April. But the president’s statements have been anything but.
In the last two weeks, Trump has offered tepid endorsement for masks, saying: “The mask, perhaps, helps.” He has also raised doubts about the science, noting that health experts who now advocate public mask-wearing were once opposed to it. “I guess I’m somewhere in the middle,” Trump said recently. And: “I understand both sides of the argument.”
“There are a lot of people think that masks are not good,” Trump said at a town hall on Sept. 15. Adding at a press conference the next day, “Masks have problems, too.”
He has repeatedly mocked Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s appearance in a mask and for wearing one in circumstances that Trump doesn’t think is necessary. He also accused one reporter of being “politically correct” for declining to take off his mask to ask a question.
And, of course, the president has continued to hold densely packed rallies where many supporters are not wearing masks. Trump has said little to discourage them. For example, Trump held an indoor rally in Nevada on Sept. 13 in defiance of the governor’s order limiting the size of gatherings. Press reports noted that few in the densely packed crowd wore masks, though Trump made no mention of the subject.
We reviewed all of Trump’s comments going back to April 3 when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued recommendations for public mask-wearing. Announcing the new guidance that day, Trump repeatedly reminded that the recommendation was voluntary and that he personally would not be wearing a mask. In the following months, his position on masks remained lukewarm — saying he had “no problem” with mask-wearing — but refusing to be seen wearing one himself.
His stance evolved some over the summer, as the coronavirus continued to spread around the country. On July 20, he released a photo of himself in a mask. And he repeatedly made unequivocal calls for the public to wear masks, particularly when he appeared to be reading from prepared notes. But his waffling returned late in the summer around the time he began to stage rallies.
Since then, his public comments have been inconsistent, toggling between advocacy and casting doubt, sometimes in the same speech or interview.
In an interview with Azar on Sept. 24, the “Today” show’s Savannah Guthrie said Trump’s statements on masks have been “all over the place,” and she asked Azar if masks are “going to make this pandemic less terrible than it is, basically.” (Starting at the 6:40 mark.)
“Masks are important,” Azar said. “We have been clear since the, the president has been clear since his April guidance on reopening the economy.”
When Guthrie responded that Trump “hasn’t been clear,” Azar referred to the government’s coronavirus.gov website. “It’s right there, coronavirus.gov, the president’s guidance on reopening: wear face coverings when you can’t social distance. Very clear. He says it, I say it, every health leader says it.”
When Guthrie countered, asking if Trump’s voice wasn’t louder than a government website, Azar again said, “Well, he says it. I say it. The FDA, CDC, NIH, that’s all we talk about is ‘Wear face coverings when you cannot social distance.’”
The government’s guidance has been “clear and unambiguous,” Azar said: “Wear your face coverings when you can’t be socially distant.”
The official government messaging may be consistent, but as we said, the president’s rhetoric is not. In an interview just two days prior, Trump said the guidance from health experts was originally for the public not to wear masks. After scientists began to learn more about the asymptomatic spread of the virus, that guidance changed. But Trump often brings up this change in position from the scientific community, as he did in an interview on Sept. 22, to express doubts about mask-wearing.
“Everybody was talking about like masks were a bad thing. Then they come like masks are the greatest thing you can do,” Trump said. “You know, you get all these different messages. And I guess I’m somewhere in the middle, to be honest with you.”
CDC’s April Guidance
As Trump has often pointed out, members of the scientific community — including Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams — were in the early months of 2020 telling the general public not to wear face masks.
However, as health officials learned more about the virus, and how often it was being transmitted by asymptomatic carriers, the CDC reversed course on April 3 and recommended that people begin “wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.” (Trump on Feb. 7 acknowledged privately in an interview recently made public that he knew the virus is transmitted through the air and it’s much deadlier than the flu.)
In a coronavirus task force briefing in which the new CDC recommendation was announced, Trump repeatedly stressed that the CDC’s recommendation was voluntary, and that he wouldn’t personally be following it.
Trump, April 3: In light of these studies [on asymptomatic spread], the CDC is advising the use of non-medical cloth face covering as an additional voluntary public health measure. So it’s voluntary; you don’t have to do it. They suggested for a period of time. But this is voluntary. I don’t think I’m going to be doing it …
So with the masks, it’s going to be, really, a voluntary thing. You can do it. You don’t have to do it. I’m choosing not to do it, but some people may want to do it, and that’s okay. It may be good. Probably will. They’re making a recommendation. It’s only a recommendation. It’s voluntary.
Adams, the surgeon general, went into detail at the press conference about why the change to recommending public use of masks was made.
“Well, it’s important to know that we now know from recent studies that a significant portion of individuals with coronavirus lack symptoms,” Adams said. “They’re what we call asymptomatic. And that even those who eventually become pre-symptomatic, meaning that they will develop symptoms in the future, can transmit the virus to others before they show symptoms. This means that the virus can spread between people interacting in close proximity: for example, coughing, speaking, or sneezing, even if those people were not exhibiting symptoms. In light of this new evidence, CDC recommends and the task force recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain. These include places like grocery stores and pharmacies. We especially recommend this in areas of significant community-based transmission. It is critical.”
The official White House messaging — aside from Trump — has been consistent since then in advocating for the public to wear masks when social distancing is not possible.
‘No Problem’ with Masks
In the ensuing weeks, Trump repeatedly said he had “no problem with face masks,” but that he would leave it up to states’ governors to decide whether to mandate their use. He also said he, personally, would “have no problem wearing a mask,” if the conditions were appropriate. Trump told reporters he wore a mask briefly while touring Honeywell in early May, though the press did not see it, or photograph it.
On May 11, Trump told reporters that he had begun requiring that White House staffers wear masks. But during the same press conference, Trump said the public had “learned about facemasks — the good and the bad, by the way. It’s not a one-sided thing, believe it or not.”
On June 20, Trump held an indoor rally in Tulsa. Although there was little social distancing and few in the relatively sparse crowd wore masks, Trump made no appeal to the crowd to wear masks. To the contrary, Trump complained only that the media did not highlight when Black Lives Matter protesters were not wearing masks.
In an interview on July 1 on the Fox Business Network, Trump said he’d “absolutely” wear a mask “if I were in a tight situation with people.” And he said he had worn a mask and liked the way it looked on him. “It was a dark black mask, and I thought it looked OK,” Trump said. “Looked like the Lone Ranger.”
Trump again added that he had “no problem” with masks “and if people feel good about it, they should do it.”
In a telephone interview with Sean Hannity of Fox News on July 9, Trump again brought up the reversal by the scientific community on masks, and framed it as an ongoing debate (even though by then there was consensus from his health advisers advocating public mask-wearing).
“They have been wrong about a lot of things, including face masks,” Trump said. “Maybe they are wrong, maybe not. But a lot of them said, don’t wear a mask, don’t wear a mask. And now they are saying, wear a mask. So, a lot of mistakes were made, a lot of mistakes.”
Trump added that “it’s fine to wear a mask, if it makes you feel comfortable” and that mask-wearing was appropriate in some situations, like when someone visits a hospital.
During the interview, Trump took the opportunity to ridicule Biden for the way he wears his masks, and for wearing one even when he is socially distanced from others. It became a familiar refrain for Trump in interviews and speeches.
Trump, July 9: I watched Biden walk onto a stage with his — practically — like, today, there was almost nobody in the room. He’s making a speech. And they have these massive circles. And the circles are very far away from each other to start off with. And then they have just a few people in the audience. And he makes a speech. And he walks onto the stage wearing this massive mask. There’s nobody on the stage. And then he takes it off. He likes to have it hang off usually the left ear. I think it makes him feel good, frankly, if you want to know the truth. And I guess that’s OK. But when there’s nobody around, you don’t really have to do that. But he feels it’s good. And I’m OK with it, if he wants to do that. He’s got the largest mask I think I have ever seen. It covers up a big proportion of his face. And I think he feels he looks good that way.
Biden has defended his decision to wear masks in those situations, saying it is part of “setting the example that I’ve tried to set since this began, of being responsible.”
Trump was finally photographed in a mask two days later while visiting Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. In a CBS interview on July 14, Trump said he felt an “obligation” to wear a mask in the hospital, because some patients had just come out of operations, and he wanted to be close to them.
Asked if he would tell the American people to wear a mask, Trump hedged.
Trump, July 14: Well, I’d say listen to that instruction, listen to your governors. But I have to say the same people that say wear a mask are people that said, a long time ago, don’t wear a mask, masks are bad. They said they’re not good. So, you know, like Dr. Fauci, surgeon general, a lot of people — a lot of people — the surgeon general said that also.
And right now that [the CDC guideline] is saying wear a mask, and that’s okay with me. That’s good. Those guidelines are good. I’m not stopping them from saying it. I do say this, originally people were saying don’t wear a mask. People that we all respect were saying don’t wear a mask because, look, you know, it’s got certain drawbacks and they say don’t wear a mask. Now they’re saying wear a mask. I’m okay. And it does evolve. You know, I mean, the thought process evolves. So let’s see what happens.
In an interview with Fox News’ Chris Wallace four days later, Trump offered this mixed message: “I don’t agree with the statement that if everybody wear a mask everything disappears. Hey, Dr. Fauci said don’t wear a mask. Our surgeon general — terrific guy — said don’t wear a mask. Everybody who is saying don’t wear a mask — all of sudden everybody’s got to wear a mask, and as you know masks cause problems, too. With that being said, I’m a believer in masks. I think masks are good. But I leave it up to the governors.”
Wearing Masks ‘Patriotic’
Perhaps Trump’s strongest appeal for mask-wearing came via a tweet on July 20, in which he suggested it was patriotic to don one.
We are United in our effort to defeat the Invisible China Virus, and many people say that it is Patriotic to wear a face mask when you can’t socially distance. There is nobody more Patriotic than me, your favorite President! pic.twitter.com/iQOd1whktN
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 20, 2020
In a press conference the following day, Trump continued his full-throated advocacy for masks.
Trump, July 21: We’re asking everybody that when you are not able to socially distance, wear a mask, get a mask. Whether you like the mask or not, they have an impact. They’ll have an effect. And we need everything we can get. …
If you’re close to each other, if you’re in a group, I would put it on. …
I view it this way: Anything that potentially can help — and that certainly can potentially help — is a good thing. I have no problem. I carry it. I wear it. … I’m getting used to the mask, and the reason is — think about patriotism. Maybe it is. It helps. It helps.
Now, we have experts that have said, in the recent past, that masks aren’t necessarily good to wear. You know that. But now they’ve changed their mind. If they change their mind, that’s good enough for me.
In an interview the following day on Fox News, Trump continued to lobby for mask-use.
“I believe that you should wear it, even if there’s a 1% chance it helps,” Trump said. “You know, when you look at Dr. Fauci and others — and this isn’t a knock, because this is just the way it — if you look, early on, they were all saying, don’t wear a mask. Don’t wear a mask. That didn’t make total sense to me, but don’t wear a mask. Now they’re all saying, wear a mask. My attitude is, it probably helps. Give it a shot, because we have to win this thing. So, it’s not a question of pride. It’s not a question of anything. We have to win this. So, when you’re in a certain situation, I think you should wear a mask.”
In a TV interview on Aug. 4, Trump said, “People question masks, but there’s no downside in wearing them.”
In a coronavirus briefing on Aug. 13, Trump tried to draw a distinction between his approach and Biden’s on masks, claiming that Biden wanted a federal mask mandate, while he has left it up to states to decide. (Biden in August said, “Every governor should mandate mandatory mask wearing.” He later clarified that “there’s a constitutional issue whether federal government could issue such a mandate. I don’t think constitutionally they could, so I wouldn’t issue a mandate.”)
“My administration has a different approach: We have urged Americans to wear masks,” Trump said. “And I emphasized this is a patriotic thing to do. Maybe they’re great and maybe they’re just good. Maybe they’re not so good. But frankly, what do you have to lose?”
In a campaign speech in Old Forge, Pennsylvania, on Aug. 20, Trump said, “Do the masks. I mean, it’s just not going to hurt. Do them. Do them. If you feel it, do them.”
Back to Waffling
Trump resumed his in-person rallies in September, and with them began his hedging on masks.
In a campaign speech in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, on Sept. 3, Trump was back to mocking Biden for the way he wears his masks, and when.
“I’ve never seen a man that like the mask more,” Trump said of Biden. “Look, I’m all for it … but did you ever see a man that likes a mask as much as him? And then he makes a speech and he always has it, not always but a lot of times he has it hanging down because you know what, it gives him a feeling of security. If I were a psychiatrist — right? No, I would say — I would say this guy has got some big issues.”
And Trump’s waffling on using masks returned in an ABC News town hall on Sept. 15.
“But whether it’s Dr. Fauci or anybody else, a lot of people got it wrong,” Trump said. “They talked about don’t wear masks, and now they say wear masks. Although some people say don’t wear masks. I mean you have a lot of different ideas.”
“Now there are, by the way, a lot of people don’t want to wear masks,” Trump said later. “There are a lot of people think that masks are not good.”
Trump went on to talk about waiters who touch their masks “and then they’re touching the plate. That can’t be good. … The concept of a mask is good, but it also does … you’re constantly touching it, you’re touching your face, you’re touching plates. There are people that don’t think masks are good.”
In a press briefing the next day, Trump continued to express doubt about the efficacy of wearing masks, and then later said he thought they work.
Trump’s comments came in response to a question about Dr. Robert Redfield, the head of the CDC. Redfield testified about masks, saying: “We have clear scientific evidence they work, and they are our best defense. I might even go so far as to say that this face mask is more guaranteed to protect me against Covid than when I take a Covid vaccine.”
Trump challenged that comment, saying, “Number one, it’s not more effective, by any means, than a vaccine.”
“On masks — masks have problems, too,” Trump said. “And I talked about the masks about to be handled very gently, very carefully. I see that, in restaurants, they have people with masks and they’re playing around with their mask, and they have it — their fingers are in their mask and then they’re serving with plates. I mean, I think there’s a lot of problems with masks.”
“The mask, perhaps, helps,” Trump said minutes later. “Don’t forget: A lot of people didn’t like the concept of masks initially. Dr. Fauci didn’t like them, and a lot of people didn’t. And I’m not knocking anybody, because I understand both sides of the argument.”
At a campaign rally in Bedmidji, Minnesota, on Sept. 18, Trump argued that he ought to call his rallies a protest, to get around mask-restrictions.
“You don’t have to wear masks at protests,” Trump claimed. “So I said, ‘You know, we can’t have a rally.’ The most we can have is 10 people, but why don’t we just call it a protest because this is a protest. It’s a protest against stupidity. ”
In an interview with a local Fox station in Detroit on Sept. 22, the reporter noted that at some recent Trump rallies, there appeared to be many people “almost celebrating the fact that they didn’t have to wear a mask.”
Trump said he “didn’t see that.”
“No I think people should wear a mask if they can, if they feel they can, they should,” Trump added. “But I don’t think it should be a mandatory policy.”
“But when you look out into the audience when you’re doing these rallies, and you see the number of people who don’t have masks, does that concern you about the future and this fall?” the reporter asked.
“I must be honest, I see a lot of people with masks,” Trump said. “I also see a little bit of a spreading out. One of the reasons I do the rallies in outside settings is because it’s much better. It’s, you know, recommended. I don’t know if they know what they’re recommending, but they recommend being outside like we’re outside right now.”
In an interview with WGN America at the White House the same day, Trump was again pressed about whether he was concerned about so many maskless people at rallies being exposed to COVID-19.
“No,” Trump said. “Because my supporters are very smart and they do, a lot of them wear masks and some don’t, that’s their choice. But they’re, you know, when you’re outside, you have a lot of room, and everything that I’ve read and everything that I’ve seen is outside is better in terms of COVID or as I call it the China virus.”
Trump accused the CDC of sending mixed messages on masks.
“You know, at one point they were saying, don’t wear a mask,” Trump said. “Dr. Fauci said, don’t wear a mask — everybody was talking about like masks were bad thing. Then they come like masks are the greatest thing you can do. You know, you get all these different messages. And I guess I’m somewhere in the middle, to be honest with you.”
“There is a mixed message there,” Trump said. “But if you remember the original message was don’t wear masks.”
Azar is right that the White House messaging has been “clear and unambiguous” — and consistent since early April — that people should wear a mask when they can’t social distance. But as the many comments above reflect, the president has not always been “clear” in delivering that message.
FactCheck.org fellows Caitlin Quinn and Bala Thenappan contributed to this article.
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