DES MOINES – Sitting and standing shoulder to shoulder, some without face masks, hundreds of supporters of President Donald Trump jammed into an airplane hangar for an Arizona campaign event this week, ignoring the advice of Trump's own health experts.
Like his boss, Vice President Mike Pence went mask-less in Iowa last week as he reached across a barrier to autograph a half-dozen familiar red Trump campaign hats, literally crossing the line of vulnerability outlined by the coronavirus task force he heads.
The episodes, along with similar ones in New Jersey, Florida and Wisconsin, project a confusing message to the public even as Trump and Pence are trying to secure the confidence of Americans during a global pandemic and in the lead-up to the November election.
“It sends a mixed message. I think if you are making guidance for the general public, you should follow the guidance,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. “The guidance they are putting out is very unambiguous about these types of situations. I do think they are undermining their own work.”
The White House says the president and vice president observe federal health guidelines, as well as those in place in the states they visit. Trips are planned with input from the presidential medical staff, and the president, vice president and senior staff are regularly tested.
But in Wisconsin on Monday, Trump absolved his audience of health precautions, along the way mocking the racial justice protests he has railed against for weeks.
In an aircraft hangar in Oshkosh, Trump flaunted violations of the state’s distancing and masking guidelines — recommendations also promoted by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — as he spoke to hundreds of supporters, most not wearing face coverings.
“This was supposed to be just a quick, little small gathering,” Trump said, joking that “We’re supposed to have 50 people, right?”
“We’ll call it a peaceful protest, that way we can do whatever we want,” Trump added.
“This is like a rally,” Trump added, before telling supporters: “I hereby grant you a pardon.”
At Tuesday's similarly raucous rally in Yuma, Arizona, supporters sat on closely packed-in chairs and bleachers, and stood on a balcony as they chanted “four more years!” While the hangar was open on one side overlooking Air Force One on the tarmac, it nonetheless felt stuffy inside in the stifling heat. Most in the crowd did wear official “TRUMP” and “MAGA” masks, though many did not.
The event was one in a series of recent Trump and Pence campaign events where the candidates and their audiences at times took public health precautions lightly and at worst ignored them.
On Wednesday, Pence addressed a crowd at a metal fabricating pant in Darien, Wisconsin, where the crowd stood and sat close together, many people not wearing masks despite a statewide order requiring them indoors. The White House said it turned away about 200 people to keep the crowd to a certain size.
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden is painting Trump's public appearances as public health threats. As the Democratic National Convention got under way this week, his campaign aired an ad connecting a spike in COVID-19 cases in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to the rally Trump headlined there in June.
Pence wears a mask at times, as he did walking on stage in Des Moines before pocketing it for the remainder of the appearance. Trump has worn one in public only a few times. Officials have repeatedly said the campaign encourages the use of masks.
"President Trump and Vice President Pence are safely hosting events that allow them to bring their message directly to the American people in several states across the country,” said campaign spokeswoman Courtney Parella. The campaign maintains that its events are in line with local regulations.
It isn’t the president's and vice president’s safety that’s at risk, said Dr. Perry Haltikis, a public health psychologist and dean of the Rutgers University School of Public Health.
“They have top-notch care. They are being tested every day,” Haltikis said. “It’s the people who are standing there, whether it’s at Bedminster golf course or at these rallies next to each other.”
Earlier this month, Trump held two news conferences in front of country club members at his Bedminster club in New Jersey. At one, called suddenly on a Friday night, club members holding wine glasses assembled keeping no personal distance and, like Trump, not wearing masks. The gathering also exceeded the number of people allowed in an indoor space in New Jersey.
During Pence’s Des Moines event, chairs arranged in small clusters six feet apart were quickly abandoned as many in the audience of about 200, few in masks, moved within a few inches of each other. Dozens crowded together afterward to get an autograph or nod from Pence.
“We all have a role to play to continue to protect the vulnerable, with the help of others, first, to save lives,” Pence said during his speech. “I know the people of Iowa will do as you have done all along, put the health of others first.”
But the call to collectively fight the virus rang hollow to some given the administration's inconsistent messaging.
Rob Mudd, who drove 120 miles from Cedar Falls to see Pence, was among those not wearing a mask.
“Is the disease real? Yes,” said Mudd, 53. “So is the fear mongering.”
Likewise, Justin Chance, from suburban Des Moines, shook his head when asked why he, too, wore no mask.
“I just don't believe all the hype,” said Chance, 55. “I just don't worry about it."
Haltikis said Trump's campaign is playing down the danger, perhaps in hopes of suggesting that life in the United States is closer to normal, and thus safe in his care for another four years.
“We want the America of days gone by, where we could touch each other and not wear masks. They want to make it look normal in this extremely abnormal time,” Haltikis said.
AP writers Jill Colvin in Yuma, Zeke Miller in Oshkosh, Scott Bauer in Madison, Wisconsin, and Jonathan Lemire in New York contributed to this report.