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Trump's history of downplaying COVID risks

Dylan Stableford
·Senior Writer
·4-min read

At the debate in Cleveland on Tuesday night, President Trump mocked former Vice President Joe Biden for wearing a mask in public as a precaution against the coronavirus.

“I put a mask on when I think I need it,” Trump said, pulling a mask out of his pocket. “I don’t wear a mask like him. Every time you see him, he’s got a mask. He could be speaking 200 feet away from it. And he shows up with the biggest mask I’ve ever seen.”

Trump’s family, who were in the audience, were seated in the debate hall without masks despite a rule requiring everyone in the room to wear one. The protocols were set by the Cleveland Clinic, where the debate was held. (Biden did not wear a mask during the 90-minute debate, nor did moderator Chris Wallace. All three were separated by what appeared to be at least 12 feet, and did not shake hands or come into close contact.)

A little more than 48 hours later, the president announced that he and first lady Melania Trump had tested positive for COVID-19. The White House said Friday that they both have mild symptoms and will quarantine for an undetermined period.

President Donald Trump holds out his face mask during the first presidential debate in Cleveland on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File)
President Trump holds out his face mask during the presidential debate in Cleveland on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File)

Trump’s positive test puts renewed scrutiny on his reluctance to wear masks during public appearances, his insistence on holding large political rallies and his well-documented history of downplaying the virus, which has killed more than 200,000 Americans and infected more than 7 million, now including him and his wife.

Men of Trump’s age, 74, are at increased risk for the disease. He is also obese, an added risk factor.

Hours before his diagnosis was announced, Trump, in a pretaped message, told guests at the annual Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner that “the end of the pandemic is in sight.”

Late Thursday night, Trump tweeted that he and the first lady were waiting for their test results following the news that Hope Hicks, a top White House aide, had tested positive. Hours earlier, and after White House officials knew about Hicks’s test, Trump traveled to his golf course in Bedminster, N.J., for a campaign fundraiser, mingling with the high-roller guests.

In a phone interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity before the test results were announced, Trump suggested that he could have been exposed to the virus during his various public appearances.

“You know, it’s very hard, when you’re with soldiers, when you’re with airmen, when you’re with the Marines and the police officers, I’m with them so much. And when they come over to you it’s very hard to say, ‘Stay back! Stay back!’ It’s a tough kind of a situation,” the president said. “It’s very, very hard when you are with people from the military or from law enforcement and they come over to you and they want to hug you and they want to kiss you, because we really have done a good job for them. And you get close and things happen.”

The president’s infection follows months during which he publicly downplayed the pandemic, refused to wear a mask during press briefings and occasionally scoffed at reporters who wore them.

At a press briefing in the Rose Garden on May 26, Trump asked Reuters White House correspondent Jeff Mason to take off his mask. When Mason refused, the president accused him of wanting to be “politically correct.” They had a similar exchange last month.

“You’re going to have to take that off, please,” Trump told Mason. “You can take it off. How many feet away are you?”

In downplaying the virus while floating conspiracies, “miracle cures” or other unsubstantiated data about COVID-19, Trump was, in effect, a superspreader of misinformation.

A Cornell University study released Thursday concluded that the president was “likely the largest driver of the COVID-19 misinformation ‘infodemic.’”

According to researchers, nearly 40 percent of the “misinformation conversation” began with Trump.

Even as he publicly sought to downplay the threat of the coronavirus, Trump told author Bob Woodward that he knew it was highly contagious and deadly.

“You just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed,” Trump told Woodward on Feb. 7, three weeks before the first U.S. death from COVID-19 was announced. “This is deadly stuff.”

In interviews with Woodward for his book “Rage,” the president privately acknowledged that the virus was “more deadly than even your strenuous flus.”

He later admitted he was intentionally downplaying the threat of the virus, saying he did not want to “create a panic.”

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