Republican leaders are increasingly embracing the use of masks as coronavirus cases rise sharply across the country, even as President Trump refuses to wear one and attends rallies and events where they are optional.
Senator Lamar Alexander, the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, opened a hearing on Tuesday by all but pleading for Trump to wear a mask, arguing it would depoliticize the issue.
“Unfortunately this simple lifesaving practice has become part of a political debate that says: If you’re for Trump, you don’t wear a mask. If you’re against Trump, you do,” Alexander said. “That is why I have suggested the president should occasionally wear a mask even though there are not many occasions when it is necessary for him to do so.”
Alexander, who is retiring at the end of this Congress, noted that Trump has “millions of admirers.”
“They would follow his lead. It would help end this political debate. The stakes are too high for it to continue,” he said.
Alexander is far from alone. Other top GOP lawmakers imploring people to wear masks, if not the president directly, include Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and House GOP Conference Chairwoman Liz Cheney.
“For the Fourth of July, we could all show our patriotism with a red, white, and blue mask going out there and show some strength,” McCarthy said during an interview Tuesday on “Fox & Friends.”
The shift is especially marked in the Senate, where the GOP majority is increasingly in play amid voters’ dissatisfaction with Trump’s handling of the pandemic and a suddenly weak economy.
The rising COVID-19 cases are a danger to a strengthening economy, which might represent the best political hope for Trump and the GOP. As cases rise, states such as Texas and Florida have had to reimpose restrictions that will cut off parts of the economy.
Despite all this, GOP leaders are still facing some resistance from members of their own party, some of whom on Tuesday still openly flouted masks and social distancing recommendations on the House floor.
Representative Chuck Fleischmann acknowledged that there are lingering divisions within the GOP conference, but predicted that more members will come around to wearing masks given the recent surge in cases in the South and West.
“The spike-up is certainly helping the narrative of ‘wear the mask,’” he said.
In the House, GOP leaders are starting to encourage their members to wear masks as Democrats have begun enforcing newly imposed requirements to use facial coverings in committee meetings.
The House GOP Steering Committee had masks and hand sanitizer available outside of their meeting on Monday. McCarthy could be heard advising members of his conference to wear masks and practice social distancing as members exited the room.
Yet at least half a dozen House Republicans mingled together on the floor on Tuesday like in pre-pandemic times, including Representatives Jim Jordan, Warren Davidson, Brad Wenstrup, Glenn Grothman, Louie Gohmert and Andy Biggs.
Dozens of other GOP lawmakers similarly gathered on the floor to casually catch up with colleagues but did wear masks.
By contrast, only a handful of Democratic staffers and lawmakers lingered on the floor — and all wore masks.
Jordan and other Republicans declining to always wear masks in public argued that it should be a personal choice.
“My attitude is in committee if I have to talk to someone and close, I’ll put the mask on,” Jordan said. “But I think it’s up to the member to be able to decide if you can keep proper social distancing, I think it’s fine. That’s what I try to do. I mean, I’ve been tested seven times.”
Jordan is the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee and one of Trump’s closest congressional allies.
Trump has declined to wear a mask in public since the Center for Disease Control and Prevention began recommending that people use facial coverings while out in public to limit viral spread from individuals not yet showing symptoms.
Representative Scott Perry similarly said that he prefers social distancing to wearing a mask.
“I wear a mask when I’m close to people, right?” Perry told The Hill. “It’s social distancing, so if I’m close I can’t be distanced. But I think it should be your individual choice, right?”
A third GOP lawmaker argued that people should take social distancing precautions, but be responsible for their own decisions.
“I’ll die of something but it won’t be fear. It’s destructive to the psyche of this country with everyone running around afraid. I think it’s being used for political purposes to some extent and that’s unfortunate,” the lawmaker said.
Democrats worried about the safety of in-person proceedings have begun cracking down on mask enforcement.
House Majority Whip James Clyburn, the chairman of the select committee overseeing the coronavirus response, warned in a letter to Minority Whip Steve Scalise, the panel’s top Republican, on Monday that he would no longer grant speaking time to anyone not wearing a mask during future in-person meetings.
Scalise initially maintained that he and other GOP members of the select committee not wearing masks were sufficiently spaced apart during a Friday hearing. But he later backed down from prolonging a fight.
“If that’s the requirement, we’re going to comply with the requirement. It’s not a big deal,” Scalise said.
Yet Scalise wouldn’t go as far as calling for Trump to set an example in wearing a mask.
“The president has said he’s worn masks in certain settings. And obviously he’s got a lot of smart people around him that are giving him good safety protocols,” Scalise said.
Cheney, the third-ranking member of House GOP leadership, has gone further in publicly advocating for masks.
“Dick Cheney says WEAR A MASK. #realmenwearmasks,” Cheney tweeted on Friday with a photo of her father, the former vice president.
McConnell implored Americans to wear masks during a Senate floor speech on Monday, arguing that “we must have no stigma, none, about wearing masks when we leave our homes and come near other people.”
“In fact, the more we hate the pain and suffering that accompanied the strict stay-home guidelines a few months ago, the happier we should be to take reasonable small steps every day to ensure our country can stay on offense against the virus,” McConnell said.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany defended Trump’s position on masks during a briefing on Tuesday, telling reporters he has “no problem” with others wearing masks and that it was his decision whether to do so himself.
“The president has said he has no problem with masks, that he encourages people to make whatever decision is best for their safety and to follow what their local jurisdictions say,” McEnany said when asked about Republicans encouraging the president to wear a mask.
“CDC guidelines are still recommended but not required and the president is the most tested man in America. It’s his decision whether to wear a mask,” she added.