WASHINGTON — As America locked down this spring during the worst pandemic in a century, inside the Trump White House there was the usual defiance.
The tight quarters of the West Wing were packed and busy. Almost no one wore masks. The rare officials who did, like Matthew Pottinger, the deputy national security adviser, were ridiculed by colleagues as alarmist.
President Donald Trump at times told staff wearing masks in meetings to “get that thing off,” an administration official said. Everyone knew that Trump viewed masks as a sign of weakness, officials said, and that his message was clear.
“You were looked down upon when you would walk by with a mask,” said Olivia Troye, a top aide on the coronavirus task force who resigned in August and has endorsed former Vice President Joe Biden.
In public, some of the president’s favorite targets were mask-wearing White House correspondents.
“Would you take it off, I can hardly hear you,” Trump told Jeff Mason of Reuters in May, then mocked Mason for wanting “to be politically correct” when he refused.
This past week, a White House long in denial confronted reality after Trump and the first lady both tested positive for the virus, along with Hope Hicks, a top White House aide, and Bill Stepien, the Trump campaign manager, among others. The outcome appeared shocking but also inevitable in a West Wing that assumed that rapid virus tests for everyone who entered each morning were substitutes for other safety measures, like social distancing and wearing masks.
But the outcome was also a byproduct, former aides said, of the recklessness and top-down culture of fear that Trump created at the White House and throughout his administration. If you wanted to make the boss happy, they said, you left the mask at home.
When the nation went into lockdown in March, Trump was determined to play down the virus. He talked of reopening as soon as Easter, April 12, pushed states to lift restrictions early and pressured schools, churches and businesses to go