'I'm not going to do it': Trump rejects his own administration's advice on masks

David Smith in Washington
Photograph: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Donald Trump has said his administration is encouraging Americans to wear face masks in public to prevent spreading the coronavirus – but does not intend to wear one himself, despite his own wife’s advice.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued new guidance for people to wear bandannas, t-shirts and other cloth-based coverings in crowded areas, especially in hot spots.

“The CDC is advising the use of non-medical cloth face covering as an additional voluntary public health measure,” the US president told reporters on Friday. “This is voluntary. I don’t think I’m going to be doing it.”

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Yet later on Friday evening, first lady Melania Trump tweeted: “As the weekend approaches I ask that everyone take social distancing & wearing a mask/face covering seriously.”

At the daily White House coronavirus task force briefing, Trump was pressed to explain his unwillingness to lead by example and offered a characteristically unconventional reply. “I just don’t want to wear one myself. They say ‘recommendation’, they recommend it. I’m feeling good,” – a remark that ignored evidence that many virus carriers do not show symptoms.

He went on: “I just don’t want to be doing – somehow sitting in the Oval Office behind that beautiful Resolute Desk, the great Resolute Desk, I think wearing a face mask as I greet presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens, I don’t know, somehow I don’t see it for myself. Maybe I’ll change my mind, but this will pass, and hopefully it will pass very quickly.”

The guidance on face covering has shifted over time. Previously only the sick or those at high risk of complications from the virus were advised to wear masks. Jerome Adams, the US surgeon general, tweeted at the end of February that people should “STOP BUYING MASKS” and said they were not effective in protecting the general public.

On Friday, Adams admitted the evolution of the guidance on masks “has been confusing to the American people”. He said the original advice was based on the best information available at the time and that the World Health Organization recommended against using them.

But now, Adams said, it is known that a “significant portion” of people with the virus lack symptoms and can transmit it before they show symptoms, for example by coughing, sneezing or speaking. “In light of this new evidence, CDC recommends, and the task force recommends, wearing cloth-based coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain. These includes places like grocery stores and pharmacies.”

At Friday’s briefing, Trump was not accompanied by Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, or son-in-law Jared Kushner, who spoke at the podium on Thursday about his growing role in the supply chain.

Kushner, who has no medical qualifications, raised eyebrows by claiming that states should use their own equipment stockpiles first, adding: “The notion of the federal stockpile was it’s supposed to be our stockpile. It’s not supposed to be states’ stockpiles that they then use.”

Hours later, the administration suddenly changed the description of the strategic national stockpile on government websites, switching the emphasis from it being the country’s biggest supply for use in a public health emergency to it supplementing state and local supplies. “Many states have products stockpiled, as well,” it now says.

At the briefing, Trump was challenged by Weijia Jiang, White House correspondent of CBS News, over Kushner’s use of the word “our”. He dismissed it as a “gotcha” question, responding: “It means the United States of America. And then we take that ‘our’ and we distribute it to the states. We need it for the government and we need it for the federal government ...

“As an example, we have almost 10,000 ventilators and we are ready to rock with those ventilators. We’re gonna bring them to various areas of the country that need them. When he says ‘our’ he’s talking about our country. He’s talking about the federal government.”

Increasingly riled as he sought to defend a family member, Trump told Jiang, a woman of colour: “I mean, it’s such a basic, simple question and you try to make it sound so bad. You ought to be ashamed of yourself ... You just asked your question in a very nasty tone.”

Face masks for sale in Los Angeles, California. Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images

The tension between federal and state governments in the distribution of ventilators, masks, gloves and other equipment has been a defining feature of the incoherent US response to the virus. Trump reeled off numbers of supplies Washington is sending to states, including 8.1m masks to New York, which has been hardest hit.

But Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, tweeted on Friday: “We do not have enough ventilators. Period.”

Pressed on whether he can assure New Yorkers that they will have a sufficient quantity, Trump said bluntly: “No. They should’ve had more ventilators at the time. They should’ve had more ventilators, They were totally under-serviced. We are trying to do – we are doing our best for New York.

“You know, we have states, we have a lot of states – we have territories too – but we have a lot of states that have to be taken care of. Some much more so than others. We happen to think he’s well-served with ventilators. We’re gonna find out.”

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Whereas Fauci has called for a nationwide state-at-home order, Trump continues to argue that the main responsibility lies with the states. “I leave it up to the governors,” he said on Friday. “I like that from the standpoint of governing.”

Critics say the administration was caught napping by the pandemic and has mobilised the buying and manufacturing of equipment way too late. But Trump took a swipe at his predecessor, Barack Obama, complaining: “The previous administration, the shelves were empty.”

As Trump also continues to attack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, and massive job losses leave people uninsured, there are growing concerns over access to health care for millions. But the White House said on Friday it would cover the costs of coronavirus treatment for uninsured people, drawing on $100bn set aside in the emergency rescue package passed by Congress last week.

Friday’s briefing also produced a very Trumpian moment as he referred to the models projecting the virus’s spread and death toll. He said: “The models show hundreds of thousands of people are going to die. You know what I want to do? I want to come way under the model. The professionals did the models. I was never involved in a model – at least, this kind of a model.”