Thanks to President Donald Trump’s deception and mismanagement, COVID-19 has killed more than 225,000 Americans. The United States has the 11th worst mortality rate in the world, with less than 5 percent of the planet’s population but nearly 20 percent of its coronavirus-related deaths. And the president isn’t finished. He’s making another push to fill hospitals and morgues by discouraging Americans from wearing masks.
Masks are the best tool we have right now to control the pandemic. They impede transmission of the virus as we go about our lives. In June, a study calculated that mask mandates in some states had prevented hundreds of thousands of infections. An analysis by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, published on Friday in Nature, estimated that in the next four months, universal use of masks could save more than 100,000 American lives.
Health officials, led by Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, have implored people to wear masks. Trump constantly undercuts that message. He spurns masks and mocks his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, for wearing one. He stages massive rallies all over the country, bringing together thousands of people, most of whom don’t wear face coverings. An analysis by USA Today shows that in counties where Trump has held rallies, there were more infections in the two weeks after each rally than in the two weeks before it. These post-rally surges add up to more than 1,500 infections.
To undermine Fauci, Trump lies about him. On Sept. 29, in a debate with Biden, the president claimed that Fauci had “said very strongly, ‘Masks are not good.’ ” On Oct. 15, Trump told a crowd in North Carolina that Fauci had said, “Do not wear a mask under any circumstances.” Both quotes are fabrications. Fauci has always said that masks are good. Early in the pandemic, he asked people not to buy up masks because supplies were limited, and he wanted to conserve them for health care workers. Since then, he has consistently urged everyone to wear them.
Trump has been cautioned many times about his misrepresentations. Reporters have reminded him that Fauci and other health officials consistently say people should wear masks. The president ignores these corrections and continues to tell the public that Fauci is ambivalent. “He used to say, ‘Don’t wear a mask.’ So, you know, you have people on both sides,” Trump asserted on Oct. 19. Two days later, in a TV interview, he repeated that lie.
To counter his health officials, Trump touts Dr. Scott Atlas, a radiologist Trump has brought into the White House to spout anti-mask quackery. When NBC’s Savannah Guthrie observed, in a nationally televised town hall on Oct. 15, that federal health officials supported masks “in unison,” Trump replied, “No … you have other people that disagree.” He named Atlas. Guthrie pointed out that Atlas wasn’t “an infectious disease expert.” Trump shot back, falsely, “He’s one of the great experts of the world.”
At the town hall, a voter noted that Trump had just recovered from the virus himself. The questioner asked the president whether that experience—staying in a hospital and having to take serious drugs—had changed his view on masks. Trump said it hadn’t. Masks were harmful, he argued, because people might touch their masks and then touch other people or their food. (That’s completely misleading. The coronavirus is overwhelmingly transmitted by respiration, not surfaces.) When Guthrie pointed out that former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie had apologized for not wearing a mask at a Sept. 26 White House event, which apparently led to more than a dozen infections (“I was wrong,” Christie wrote in an op-ed), Trump dismissed Christie’s words. “He has to say that,” the president scoffed.
Rather than use his own infection as a lesson, Trump is telling Americans that masks are futile because some people who wear them get infected anyway. He seems not to know or care that the point of the mask is to protect other people, such as his wife and son, who got infected with him and possibly by him. On Oct. 8, Trump was asked on Fox News why he had pulled off his mask “for a photo-op” as he returned to the White House from the hospital. “You catch this thing. A lot of people caught it,” Trump replied. He cited Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, who “wore a mask all the time,” and North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis, who “was known as ‘the Mask.’ ” The president implied that masks were useless (“It’s particles of dust. It’s tiny stuff”) and that the disease was nothing: “Remember this: When you catch it, you get better. And then you’re immune.” A week later, Guthrie reminded Trump that Tillis had, in fact, removed his mask at the Sept. 26 White House event. Trump ignored the correction. “People with masks are catching it all the time,” he asserted.
Lately, Trump has seized on a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It found that 108 of 154 people in a sample of COVID patients claimed to have always worn a mask before they got infected. The study, which was conducted among people with COVID-like symptoms, actually showed that those who had the virus were less likely to have worn masks than those who hadn’t. But its main finding was that infection correlated with having eaten—i.e., having removed one’s mask—at restaurants.
When mask opponents twisted the study’s findings to argue that masks didn’t work, the CDC issued a statement debunking that spin. But Trump ignored the CDC and joined in the misrepresentations. In the NBC town hall and in a Fox News interview, he claimed, falsely, that “the CDC [came] out with a statement that 85 percent of the people wearing masks catch it.” He told the same lie at a rally in North Carolina, where his supporters were packed together. When Guthrie reminded Trump that he was mangling the study’s findings, he brushed her off—“That’s what I heard”—and repeated his “85 percent” lie.
Occasionally, Trump says he has “nothing against masks.” But he has done everything possible to discourage their use. He continues to mock Biden and reporters for wearing them. On Oct. 20, when Lesley Stahl asked about the mask-free crowds at his rallies, he bragged about the size of the crowds and accused her of a “negative attitude.” The next day, when a TV interviewer urged him to tell his supporters to wear masks, Trump shrugged, “People are going to do what they want to do.” At a rally in Arizona, he dismissed Biden as a fool for listening to Fauci about masks or anything else.
COVID-19 is the killer, but Trump is its accomplice. His sabotage of the public health message on masks is probably the single most effective thing anyone is doing, anywhere in the world, to cause more deaths from the virus. We can’t stop him from lying. But on Tuesday, we can strip him of his platform and his power.
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