President Donald Trump declined to wear a protective face mask in public Thursday during a visit to a Ford manufacturing plant in Michigan that is turning out ventilators and masks for use in the coronavirus pandemic, despite a request from the carmaker that he wear one and an executive order from the state's Democratic governor requiring them.
Ford Motor Co. executives wore masks as they led the president on a tour, in accordance with company policy, but Trump said it was "not necessary here." He suggested the issue is symbolic, but not in the lead-by-example manner his critics say he should view it.
Instead, Trump - who publicly prizes strength and symbols of masculinity including height, firm handshakes and deep voices - suggested he considers it unseemly or unpresidential to be seen in a mask. Trump said he had worn a mask in another area of the plant, "where they preferred it," but declined to wear one in view of the cameras.
"I didn't want to give the press the pleasure of seeing it," Trump said.
Masks have become emblematic of a cultural and increasingly political divide over restrictions meant to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Screaming maskless protesters, some armed, faced off with masked law enforcement officers inside the Michigan state Capitol last month. A confrontation between a calm Costco employee and a shopper in Colorado who refused to wear a mask "because I woke up in a free country" went viral online this week.
Trump is encouraging the quick end to restrictions on movement and commerce amid a steep economic decline, including the highest unemployment in decades, making masks part of a time period he is trying to leave behind.
"And now we're going to turn it back on like never before," Trump said in a speech on the factory floor.
"A permanent lockdown is not a strategy for a healthy state or a healthy country," Trump said, referring to stay-at-home orders in place throughout much of the country. "Our country wasn't meant to be shut down."
Ford had initially requested that Trump wear a mask during his visit to the Rawsonville manufacturing plant in Ypsilanti Township, but then said earlier this week that it was up to the White House. Following Trump's visit Thursday, the company issued a statement saying that while CEO Bill Ford had asked Trump to wear a mask, the choice was Trump's. The president did wear a mask while viewing historical cars out of the view of cameras, the company said.
Company policy maintains that visitors wear protective equipment or garments such as masks.
For reporters, Trump held up a navy blue cloth mask like those worn by many White House staffers. He also wore a clear plastic face shield at one point during the tour at the plant, which normally makes car batteries.
Trump is tested for the coronavirus daily, which he says means he does not need to wear a mask. Trump had said earlier Thursday that he "tested perfectly this morning, meaning - meaning I tested negative."
He has previously said that while he supported public health recommendations for face masks as an effective way to prevent transmission of the virus, he did not plan to wear one because it would be unseemly, especially in the Oval Office.
Ford later issued a statement saying that executive chairman William Clay Ford Jr. had asked Trump to wear a mask when he arrived, and that Trump had done so while viewing an exhibit of historical cars but had then removed it.
Ahead of the trip, the state's attorney general implored him to wear a face mask on his tour, citing a "legal responsibility."
"While my Department will not act to prevent you from touring Ford's plant, I ask that while you are on tour you respect the great efforts of the men and women at Ford - and across this State - by wearing a facial covering," Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, a Democrat, wrote in an open letter addressed to Trump.
"It is not just the policy of Ford, by virtue of the Governor's Executive Orders. It is currently the law of this State."
After Trump's visit, Nessel said on CNN that the president is no longer welcome in the state after defying Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's executive order that requires a mask in an enclosed public space: "He is a petulant child who refuses to follow the rules. This is not a joke."
The president was not wearing a mask when he walked off Air Force One at the Detroit airport, nor when he arrived at the plant near Ypsilanti. His first public remarks there made clear that the visit, his third in as many weeks to a battleground state, are partly about talking up his response to the covid-19 pandemic and attempting to turn the page on the ongoing pandemic.
Appearing maskless with a group of African-American business and community leaders, Trump said his pandemic response had made governors "look good," but claimed that some Democratic governors now think it is good politics to keep their states on lockdown.
"Our country's coming back," Trump said in response to questions from reporters. "We did the right thing," in imposing various precautions against the spread of the virus, "but we now want to get going."
Trump spoke in front of a banner proclaiming "Transition to Greatness," his new rallying cry for recovery after the layoffs, business closures, sales slumps and other economic effects of the pandemic. In practice, it means calling for an end to stay-at-home policies like the one in Michigan that has been a particular focus for Trump. He has encouraged armed protests against the restrictions, tweeted "LIBERATE MICHIGAN" and criticized Whitmer, a Democrat, directly.
Republican Senate candidate John James was among the few meeting participants wearing masks. Others including Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson did not.
"If you do come to Washington, you have my ear," Trump told James, saying that "no one knows" James' opponent, Sen. Gary Peters, a Democrat.
Trump's son Donald Trump Jr. visited Michigan and raised money for James earlier this week.
The president's previous refusals to don a mask in public, as well as his recent travel, have led some officials to call on him to "set a better example" in fighting the spread of coronavirus. Among them was the Democratic mayor of Baltimore, who on Thursday asked Trump to skip a planned Memorial Day appearance at that city's Fort McHenry monument.
Experts have warned that the push to reopen the United States could lead to a second wave of infections across parts of the South and Midwest. There have been more than 5 million confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide, including more than 1.5 million in the United States.
Trump had been noncommittal on wearing a mask as he spoke with reporters before leaving the White House.
"Well, I don't know. We're gonna look at it," he said. "A lot of people have asked me that question."
As reporters shouted to be heard above the roar of Marine One, parked on the lawn behind Trump, Trump asked one questioner to remove a mask so as to be heard.
"I can't hear you. You have your mask on, I can't hear a word," Trump said.
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The Washington Post's Allyson Chiu and John Wagner contributed to this report.