Trump reverses on convention, masks, briefings

The president is focusing on COVID-19 after months of trying to avoid it.

July 24, 2020, 2:30 PM

It has been a week of reversals and political reality checks at the White House.

After months of trying to put the coronavirus in the rearview mirror, President Donald Trump kicked off the week by putting a renewed focus on the pandemic -- and by Thursday acknowledged another political reality: His vision of a traditional jam-packed convention speech was unrealistic amid the raging outbreak.

Largely ignoring calls for him to set an example by canceling large events and wearing a face covering, Trump this week appeared to start acceding to advice of public health officials -- even if he still sent mixed messages to the American public.

The convention

In announcing his decision to cancel the Jacksonville, Florida, portion of the Republican National Convention, Trump said he was doing so in order to "set an example."

"I think setting the example is very important. It's hard for us to say we're going to have a lot of people packed in a room, and then other people shouldn't do it," Trump told reporters Thursday.

What the president did not acknowledge in making the surprise announcement Thursday was that his sudden concern with setting the right example represented a complete 180-degree shift.

The president expressed no such concerns back in June, when he demanded that the Republican National Committee find a location for him to deliver a large-scale traditional address free of the public health restrictions.

Up until then, the president had been slated to deliver his address in Charlotte, North Carolina, where the Republican Convention had long been planned to take place. But angered over North Carolina’s social distancing and mask requirements, the committee moved the president’s acceptance speech to Jacksonville, Florida.

PHOTO: President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference about his administration's response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic at the White House on July 23, 2020, in Washington.
President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference about his administration's response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic at the White House on July 23, 2020, in Washington.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Democrats had already announced their plans to hold a virtual convention because of the public health situation.

The president also brushed off similar concerns when he persisted in packing thousands of his supporters into an indoor arena in Tulsa, Oklahoma, back in June, over the warnings of public health officials who said such an event had the potential to be a super spreader of the virus.

Tulsa’s top public health official later said the event likely contributed to a spike in coronavirus cases that the city saw in the weeks after the rally.


For months, public health experts, governors, and lawmakers had called on the president to set an example for Americans by donning a face covering. The president refused, saying it was unnecessary since he and those around him are frequently tested for COVID-19.

He equivocated on whether they were important -- sometimes calling for their use and at other times questioning their efficacy. Masks became a partisan issue, with Republicans less likely to wear them.

But in recent weeks, as Trump faced worrying poll numbers and the virus spread unabated in several GOP-states, an increasing number of Republican governors and members of Congress pushed the president to set an example.

"I've suggested that the president occasionally wear a mask, even though in most cases, it's not necessary for him to do so," Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Republican from Tennessee, said late last month. "The president has plenty of admirers. They would follow his lead."

Finally, while visiting a hospital on July 11, Trump for the first time put one on publicly -- 99 days after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention first recommended their widespread use. He followed up on Monday by tweeting a photograph of him in a mask, adding, "many people say that it is Patriotic to wear a face mask when you can't socially distance."

"I was very pleased to see the president wearing a mask and tweeting about masks," Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's foremost infectious disease expert, said in an interview with NPR.

But nearly two weeks later, that hospital visit remains the only time Trump has donned a mask in public, and in an interview with Fox News on Wednesday, he said he didn't "feel comfortable" wearing a mask "in other settings," like when he's "on a stage and everybody's far away."

"I don't think it's something that you have to do or should do," Trump said, adding: "everyone around me is tested. So, I'm not the perfect person to talk about it."

The briefings

Nearly three months after President Trump stopped holding near daily coronavirus-focused press briefings as he sought to shift the focus away from the ongoing public health emergency and onto his administration’s effort to reopen the economy, the briefings are back.

The president announced he would resume his press conferences focused on the pandemic on Monday and returned to the briefing room podium Tuesday.

The president’s reversal in resuming the briefings served as a tacit acknowledgment that his move-on strategy had failed in the court of public opinion -- the decision coming on the heels of a new ABC/Washington Post poll showed six in 10 Americans disapprove of his handling of the pandemic.

But the briefings of new are a departure from the briefings of old.

The president returned to the briefing alone, in a departure from the briefings in March and April that prominently featured top health experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx. The president is now the primary messenger.

The campaign

Many of these changes come in the wake of a major shake-up on the Trump 2020 campaign.

Last Wednesday, amid sinking polling numbers and a string of botched efforts to reboot his campaign amid the ongoing pandemic, Trump announced he was demoting longtime campaign manager Brad Parscale and promoting Bill Stepien, former deputy campaign manager, to the role.

Following the announcement, some close to Trump told ABC News that the change would have little impact on the current state of the race -- but the president has since attempted on a course-correction in his handling of the coronavirus crisis.

His campaign currently has no in-person rallies on the radar. The president said on a "tele-rally" last week that his calls to supporters would replace mega rallies for the time being. However, no other virtual rallies have yet been set.

ABC News' Terrance Smith contributed to this report.

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