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Unmasked: How Trump's mixed messaging on face-coverings hurt U.S. coronavirus response

"People have died because we haven't had consistent messaging on mask-wearing," one health expert said.
President Donald Trump wears a mask as he tours the American Red Cross national headquarters in Washington on July 30.Doug Mills / The New York Times via AP pool

President Donald Trump recently told supporters that despite "some confusion," wearing a mask to prevent the spread of COVID-19 was the "patriotic" thing to do. What he didn't say was that he was the one fueling much of the confusion.

The Trump administration's conflicting messaging about mask-wearing over the last four to five months has created widespread confusion, hampered the country's response to the coronavirus pandemic and even led to preventable deaths, multiple health experts said.

In public appearances and official statements, Trump and top members of his administration have voiced widely divergent stances on masks, ranging from unequivocal opposition to strong recommendations. Even as Trump in recent weeks has begun to urge Americans to cover their faces in public, he has wavered on whether to wear them himself.

"People have died because we haven't had consistent messaging on mask-wearing," said Dr. Gregory Kirk, a professor of infectious disease epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University. "I don't think that's really up to debate."

Three experts who spoke to NBC News said early messaging politicized mask-wearing in ways that still linger. A Pew Research Center study in late June found that 76 percent of Democratic-leaning voters say they wear masks in public, while just 53 percent of Republican-leaning voters said they do.

The science and subsequent guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the surgeon general have evolved since February, when masks weren't initially recommended for the general public. That was, in part, because of concerns about having enough personal protective equipment for medical workers caring for COVID-19 patients and also because the risk of asymptomatic transmission wasn't yet understood. But even as the country's top scientists began to urge everyone to wear masks in public, Trump remained resistant.

Experts say that to get the pandemic under control, the guidance must be much clearer.

"For some people, it's hard for them to discern what is the right information and what is not," said Dr. May Chu, a clinical professor in the epidemiology department at the Colorado School of Public Health. "And there's no leadership in coordinating the message either, so different messages come out."

Following is a timeline of the administration's evolving messaging:

FEBRUARY: Don't buy masks

Feb. 29: "The president mentioned masks. This morning, we talked a great deal about additional medical supplies. Let me be very clear — and I'm sure the physicians who are up here will reflect this as well: The average American does not need to go out and buy a mask." — Vice President Mike Pence at a coronavirus task force news conference.

Feb. 29:

MARCH: 'For a short period of time'

March 5: "Unless you are ill, you have no need to buy a mask." — Pence during a meeting at the 3M Innovation Center.

March 30: "We're not going to be wearing masks forever, but it could be for a short period of time. After we get back into gear, people could — I could see something like that happening for a period of time, but I would hope it would be a very limited period of time. Doctors — they'll come back and say 'for the rest of our lives, we have to wear masks.'" — Trump during a task force news conference.

"You can't expect all our leaders to understand the science or the public health principles behind it, and so you need to let those who really understand public health ... really speak out and let them lead." — Dr. May Chu.

APRIL: CDC recommends, but Trump won't

April 2: "I don't think they'll be mandatory, because some people don't want to do that. But if people wanted — as an example, on the masks, if people wanted to wear them, they can. If people wanted to use scarves, which they have — many people have them — they can. In many cases, the scarf is better; it's thicker. I mean you can — if you — depending on the material, it's thicker. But they can do that if they want." -Trump during a task force news conference.

April 3:

April 3: "In light of these studies, the CDC is advising the use of nonmedical 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." — Trump during a task force news conference.

April 14:

April 15:

April 28: Pence doesn't wear a mask during a visit to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, where masks are required.

"Mayo Clinic had informed @VP of the masking policy prior to his arrival today," the clinic tweeted. In response, Pence says he didn't wear one because "I'm tested for the coronavirus on a regular basis, and everyone who is around me is tested for the coronavirus."

April 30: Following criticism of the Mayo Clinic visit, Pence wears a mask to a General Motors plant in Indiana where ventilators were being made and which also required masks. He takes off his face covering during a roundtable discussion, although he appears to be sitting several feet away from the other participants.

MAY: Trump skips mask during factory tour

May 5: Trump doesn't wear a mask during a visit to a mask production factory in Phoenix. The next day, he tells reporters "I didn't need it" because "we were far away from people, from the people making the masks."

May 8: Trump meets with veterans of World War II, all of whom were in their 90s, without a mask. He defends the choice by telling reporters: "I was very far away from them, as you know. I would've loved to have gone up and hugged them, because they're great. I had a conversation with everyone, but we were very far away."

He adds, "Plus, the wind was blowing so hard in such a direction that if the plague ever reached them, I'd be very surprised."

May 13:

May 21: "Q: Mr. President, there was a lot of interest about whether you would end up wearing a mask today. Could you just take us through your thought process of why you decided not to wear a mask?

"TRUMP: Well, I did wear — I had one on before. I wore one in this back area, but I didn't want to give the press the pleasure of seeing it. But, no, where I had it, in the back area, I did put a mask on. ... I was given — I was given a choice. And I had one in an area where they preferred it, so I put it on, and it was very nice. It looked very nice. But they said: not necessary here.

"And, by the way, here is my — here is my mask, right here. And I like it very much. I actually — honestly, I think I looked better in the mask. I really did. I look better in the mask. But I'm making a — but I'm making a speech, so I won't have it now. But I did have it on right here, and I think some of you might've gotten a shot." — Trump during remarks during a tour of the Ford Rawsonville components plant in Ypsilanti, Michigan.

May 26: Trump criticizes a reporter for wearing a mask:

"TRUMP: Can you take it off? Because I cannot hear you.

"Q: I'll — I'll just speak louder, sir. The —

"TRUMP: Oh, OK, because you want to be politically correct. Go ahead.

"Q: No, sir. I just want to wear the mask." — Trump during remarks on protecting seniors with diabetes.

May 27:

JUNE: MAGA with few face coverings

June 19: "Q: Will you and other White House officials be wearing masks at the rally?

"KAYLEIGH MCENANY: It's a personal choice. I won't be wearing a mask. I can't speak for my colleagues.

"Q: And why won't you wear a mask? Is it sort of a personal political statement? Is it because the president would be disappointed in you if you don't wear a mask? Why is that?

"MCENANY: It's a personal — it's a personal decision. I'm tested regularly. I feel that it's safe for me not to be wearing a mask, and I'm in compliance with CDC guidelines, which are recommended, but not required." — White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany during a news briefing.

June 20: Trump holds a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where neither he nor the majority of attendees wear masks. The city's top health official says laterthat rally and related protests "likely" led to a spike in new cases. Several members of the Trump campaign also test positive for the virus.

"People have died because we haven't had consistent messaging on mask-wearing." — Dr. Gregory Kirk.

June 28: "JOHN DICKERSON: Why not ask people to wear masks?

"PENCE: Well, we believe people should wear masks wherever —

"JOHN DICKERSON: Why doesn't the president say that?

"PENCE: — social distancing is not possible, wherever it's indicated by either state or local authorities. And, you know, the — the president has worn a mask. I wore a mask on several occasions this week." — Pence during an interview on CBS' "Face the Nation."

June 28: "Strongly recommend if your — if your local officials, in consultation with the state, are directing you to wear a mask, we encourage everyone to wear a mask in the affected areas. And where you can't maintain social distancing, wearing a mask is just a good idea, and it will, we know, from experience — will slow the spread of the coronavirus." — Pence during a briefing on COVID-19 in Dallas.

JULY: Wearing masks is 'patriotic'

July 11: "Well, I'll probably have a mask, if you must know. I mean, I'll probably have a mask. I think when you're in a hospital, especially in that particular setting, where you're talking to a lot of soldiers and people that, in some cases, just got off the operating tables, I think it's a great thing to wear a mask. I've never been against masks, but I do believe they have a time and a place." — Trump during remarks before the departure of Marine One to visit wounded service members at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

July 17: "Q: The CDC says if everybody wore a mask for four to six weeks, we could get this under control. Do you regret not wearing a mask in public from the start, and would you consider — will you consider a national mandate that people need to wear masks?

"THE PRESIDENT: "No. I want people to have a certain freedom, and I don't believe in that, no. And I don't agree with the statement that if everybody would wear a mask, everything disappears." — Trump during an interview with Chris Wallace on Fox News.

July 20:

July 21: "America's youth will act responsibly, and 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." — Trump during a news briefing.

July 21: "I will have — I have no problem with the masks. 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. You saw me wearing it a number of times, and I'll continue." — Trump during a news briefing.

July 21: "Q: Are you sending mixed messages, though? Yesterday, you tweeted out an image wearing a mask. And then, last evening, we saw you not wearing a mask at your hotel.

"TRUMP: Well, I don't know. The hotel — I was pretty far away from people, but I would say this: I've explained it, I think, very well. If you're close together, I would put on the mask, and if you're not — I would say that if you're — for instance, I'll see — like, here, you've been all tested; I've been tested. Oftentimes, I'll be with people that are fully tested; I've been tested. In theory, you don't need the mask. 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. So I wear it when appropriate." — Trump during a news briefing.

"What needs to happen is leadership. And leadership from the top." — Dr. George Rutherford.

July 21: Trump is asked at a news conference about his "sudden embrace of masks" and social distancing guidelines. He responds: "I've always agreed with that. I mean, I've never fought either one."

July 22: "Well, I think all are suggesting if you want to wear a mask, you wear it. I bring one. I have one. I've worn it. And I think when I'm in certain settings, like hospitals and various — or when I'm close — when, you know, when you can't socially distance, I believe in it. Let's see: Do I? I do. I have it." — Trump during a news briefing.

July 24: "There has been no change. The president said, on March 31st, before there was even a recommended but not required guidance given by the CDC on mask-wearing — the president already said if you want to wear a mask, wear a mask. It doesn't harm anyone. And that was before — that was when our scientists even were — some of them were saying don't wear masks." — McEnany during a news briefing.

July 27: Trump retweets a video of woman falsely saying that masks aren't effective and that there is a cure for COVID-19. Asked about the post at a news briefing the next day, Trump says: "Maybe it's a saying, maybe it's not." He adds, "I thought her voice was an important voice, but I know nothing about her."

July 28: "We encourage everyone to wear a mask in the affected areas," Pence says during a news conference at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. "Where you can't maintain social distancing, wearing a mask is just a good idea, especially young people."

July 31: "The single best way to defeat the disease is personal responsibility. You've heard me say it. You've heard a lot of people say it, actually. I urge all Americans to protect the elderly. The fact is you have to do the social distancing thing. It's very important. Socially distance. Wear a mask when you cannot avoid crowded places or socially distance. And wash your hands as often as possible." — Trump during a COVID-19 response and storm preparedness roundtable in Belleair, Florida.

AUGUST: 'There has been some confusion surrounding the usage of face masks'

Aug. 3: In a campaign email, Trump urges supporters to wear masks, saying, "I don't love wearing them either."

"We are all in this together, and while I know there has been some confusion surrounding the usage of face masks, I think it's something we should all try to do when we are not able to be socially distanced from others," the email reads. "I don't love wearing them either. Masks may be good, they may be just okay, or they may be great."

Aug. 6: Trump wears masks during a visit to a washing machine factory in Northwest Ohio.

Aug. 7: Trump defends members of his Bedminster, New Jersey, golf resort who didn't wear masks or observe social distancing guidelines at a news conference.

"They don't have to. It's a political activity. They have exceptions," he says.