Trump's RNC speech lacked some coronavirus safeguards. That might have been the point
President Donald Trump has accepted his party's renomination from a massive White House South Lawn stage Thursday night. Trump opened his acceptance speech by mentioning Hurricane Laura, which recently lashed the Gulf Coast. (Aug. 27) AP Domestic
WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump eventually, but hesitantly, yielded to coronavirus guidelines designed to stop the spread of the deadly contagion.
He canceled events, ordered socially distanced seating at news conferences, and eventually wore a mask in public. Even the Republican National Convention this week was a mostly socially distanced affair, with supporters and administration officials praising the president in Washington, North Carolina and other remote video locations. Still, it was announced Friday that four people who attended the North Carolina portion of the convention had tested positive.
And pandemic precautions were largely cast aside Thursday night when the president threw a made-for-television extravaganza on the White House South Lawn to formally accept the Republican Party’s nomination for a second term.
Chairs set up for the more than 1,000 invited guests were jammed close together. Most of the invitees didn’t wear face masks.
In short, as the whole world watched, the president and his supporters openly flaunted social distancing measures – in stark contrast to the strict social distancing and masking on display by Democrats the week before. Experts suggested that was not coincidental.
"(Trump is) trying to give the impression that we've turned the corner, we're moving ahead, you're going to be able to go back to work and go back to school. We're going forward," said Robert Blendon, professor of Health Policy and Political Analysis at Harvard. "Whether or not anybody in the public health world believes that, the president is trying to give that impression."
'Have it both ways': Trump makes appeal to suburban voters and base in RNC balancing act
Several attendees who spoke to the USA TODAY Network said they were fine with the protocols, noting people did wear masks at times and that they felt safe.
“Sometimes I wore (a mask), sometimes I didn’t,” said former Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Penn., who attended the speech and noted he was "impressed" by how the event was handled.
But even some on the president's side of the aisle said the lack of masks and social distancing took away from Trump's message. Mandating masks would have been one of the best ways to acknowledge that the coronavirus rules apply to everyone, said Scott Jennings, a conservative political commentator
“Republicans like to point out that the protestors and rioters are given a pass by the media for violating all public health guidelines, but that argument works better if we are consistent ourselves,” said Jennings, who worked in the White House under President George W. Bush.
Back and forth on following recommendations
Trump and his reelection campaign have been criticized over the past several months for the lack of adherence to their own administration's coronavirus recommendations.
Although delegates arriving to the RNC in Charlotte were tested for the virus upon registration, many who attended the convention did not wear masks while gathering in small groups, according to the Charlotte Observer.
Vice President Mike Pence greeted maskless attendees at his RNC remarks at Fort McHenry in Baltimore Wednesday. After speaking, the vice president was seen giving fist bumps to several people in the crowd.
And following a June rally in Tulsa where thousands of Trump supporters attended, Oklahoma officials said they saw a spike in coronavirus cases. At least eight Trump campaign staffers who attended the rally tested positive.
Patronus Medical Corp., a medical, safety and health company, said it worked in partnership with the Republican National Committee to make certain proper protocols were in place to ensure the safety and well-being individuals at convention venues, including the South Lawn event.
“These strict protocols are in full compliance with multiple guidelines set forth by the United States Centers for Disease Control, the District of Columbia Department of Public Health, and other leading authorities on health safety,” said Robert Darling, the company’s chief medical officer and former White House physician to President Bill Clinton.
“Patronus health professionals have been on site to make certain screening has been done on a consistent basis to ensure the convention meets the highest standards of public safety,” Darling said.
'We've got to all be in this together'
Blendon noted that regardless of Trump's intent, voters are going to focus more on how they've been impacted personally.
"The president has to convince people ... it's getting better," Blendon noted. "Any evidence that it's not, just says to people 'I don't know what to do, I'm going to vote against the incumbent.' "
White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows echoed that sentiment Friday, telling NBC, "I think the vast majority of Americans are more concerned about what's happening in their backyard than the backyard of the White House."
Trump’s re-election campaign defended the South Lawn setup and accused the media of applying a double standard.
“It’s not surprising that the mainstream media refuses to acknowledge the hundreds of protestors harassing and attacking attendees leaving the White House (Thursday) night and instead uses it as another pathetic attempt to blame President Trump for a pandemic that has affected countries all over the world,” campaign spokeswoman Courtney Parella said.
Public health officials have underscored that the best way to prevent spread of coronavirus is to follow social distancing guidelines, wear masks and practice good hygiene, like washing hands.
"For those of us in public health, it's as basic as seatbelts and life preservers," said Shelley A. Hearne, Director of Johns Hopkins Center for Public Health Advocacy. "That's how we're gonna do it, so regardless of what political party, we've got to all be in this together."
'The faux outrage ... is clearly selective'
The lack of social distancing guidelines didn't keep at least 1,000 officials and politicians from attending the president's speech. And many of the attendees swatted away criticism Friday.
South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, who has urged his state’s residents to “wear a mask, wear a mask, wear a mask” was among those seated on the South Lawn for the president’s speech. McMaster did not wear a mask.
His spokesman, Brian Symmes, defended the governor’s decision to go maskless.
“The governor wore a mask throughout the day when it was appropriate until he was seated in a reserved area for governors and their spouses, and he continued to wear it after the president’s speech,” Symmes said.
Symmes said he doesn’t believe McMaster’s decision to go sans mask during the president’s speech “is contrary to what he has told South Carolinians they should do.”
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey’s office also pushed back on criticism he received for not wearing a mask during Trump’s speech. Ducey spokesman Patrick Ptak dismissed the condemnation as a consequence of the political “silly season.”
"The governor has been consistent about the right of Americans to assemble, especially during an election year,” Ptak said. “Doesn't matter the cause or political affiliation. This isn't the first campaign event he's attended, so the faux outrage from the Democrats is clearly selective."
Ducey “wears a mask,” Ptak said. “Like everyone else, he uses common sense about when to have it on, and when he feels comfortable taking it off."
Barletta, the former Pennsylvania lawmaker, said being among the crowd on the South Lawn was “exciting” and “gratifying,” he said.
“To sit in that setting and watch him talk about his accomplishments in the last four years was very satisfying to me,” said Barletta, who now is a political consultant and chair of the Pennsylvania delegation for the Trump Victory campaign.
The former four-term congressman gave up his 11th Congressional District seat to take on Democrat Bob Casey in a 2018 U.S. Senate race. Barletta ultimately lost to Casey by 13 points. He was one of the first members of Congress to endorse Trump in the 2016 election.
Despite the criticism and concerns about people being unmasked, Barletta said they were not unsafe.
“I’m impressed by how they handled the convention and last night. There were temperature checks and health screenings at the beginning of day and during the day.”