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OP-ED: Trump could earn the tiniest bit of end-of-term redemption by simply putting on a mask

Mariel Garza
Los Angeles Times (TNS)
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), left, listens as President Donald Trump speaks to reporters after attending the weekly Senate Republican luncheon on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on May 19, 2020, after Trump met with the Senators to discuss the progress of safely opening up America and economic recovery. (Kevin Dietsch/Pool/Abaca Press/TNS)

Donald Trump is responsible for a fair amount of badness in the 3½ years he’s served as president of the United States: Dismantling and denigrating American institutions, encouraging white supremacy, locking up immigrant children, asking a foreign government to interfere with an American election, lying 5 million times. And those are just a few things off the top of my head.

And while it’s far too late for Trump to be absolved of those sins, he could earn himself a tiny bit of redemption at the end of his first (and, very possibly, final) term by doing just one easy thing right now that could potentially save thousands of lives.

He could put on a face mask in public, and ask all Americans to do the same.

That’s it! Such a little thing. No sweat off his nose (well, actually yes, if he wears it correctly). And if he wants to Trump up the moment, fine, whatever. I won’t care if he lies and says he’s always supported wearing a mask, even before the Democrats did, so long as he stops feeding the absurd politicization of this simple piece of protective gear.

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The U.S. is at a dangerous juncture with the coronavirus back on the upswing and state and local officials frantic to keep people safe and avoid another round of economically devastating shutdowns. At the moment, our only defenses are rudimentary, though effective, forms of virus control measures: Stay away from other people, especially strangers; if you can’t, then cover your face to avoid potentially infecting others, steps doctors and healthcare workers took long before the pandemic turned face masks into political statements.

I won’t blame our “stable genius” president for the initial mixed message about face masks early on in the pandemic. That was driven primarily by well-meaning health officials trying to stop the hoarding of medical face masks when little was known yet about the asymptomatic spreading of the virus. But Trump owns a good chunk of responsibility for turning them into a weapon in the ongoing culture wars. And he could do a lot of good by setting an example now. (Polls show that wearing face masks breaks on partisan lines, that people who like Trump follow his no-face-mask example.)

Even his top advisers and some political supporters say so. During a hearing Tuesday with Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — both of whom support mask usage — Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., urged Trump to wear a mask, at least occasionally. “The president 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.”

Other Republicans have taken to showing their support for face masks, perhaps to prod Trump to do the same. Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., tweeted out a picture of her father, former Vice President Dick Cheney, masked up with the hashtag #realmenwearmasks. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has started talking up the benefits of face masks, and even Vice President Mike Pence has been sporting one in public.

It is profoundly sad that we have reached a point where senators, Congress members and a former vice president must cajole the president into showing leadership like he’s a 3-year-old who won’t eat his peas. But even that probably won’t work. Trump only seems to care what a few people think, which has to make you wonder: What if Vladimir Putin tweeted out a picture of himself shirtless, but with a manly bandana covering his nose and mouth?

According to Charles Gasparino of Fox Business, GOP insiders say that Trump may drop out of the race if his poll numbers don’t improve. I would take that with a whole shakerful of salt.

But if the idea is even floating around his mind as a remote possibility, I hope Trump is also considering this important question: Does he want to go down in history as the quitter president who left office in a huff during a pandemic while thousands of Americans got sick or died just because he was too vain to put on a face mask?

Or would he rather be the quitter president who left office in a huff but who could later tell himself stories of how, in the moment of the nation’s deepest despair, he paid the ultimate political price by selflessly acting to save millions — if not billions! — of Americans from the grip of the “invisible enemy”?

— Mariel Garza is an editorial writer for the Los Angeles Times.