WASHINGTON — In a message on Twitter accompanied by a picture of her face partly covered by a medical mask, Melania Trump, the first lady, urged Americans on Thursday to protect themselves from the coronavirus by wearing face coverings in public, an image all the more striking because it contrasted with her husband’s mixed messages on the subject.
“As the CDC continues to study the spread of the COVID-19, they’re recommending people wear cloth face coverings in public settings where social distancing measures can be difficult to maintain,” she said in an accompanying video, referring to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She cited grocery stores and pharmacies as examples.
“Remember,” she added, “this does not replace the importance of social distancing.”
After a slow start to acknowledge the virus, the first lady has since issued a string of public service videos meant to echo public health guidelines on social distancing and hand-washing.
But in his lengthy televised coronavirus news briefings, President Donald Trump offers his own interpretation of the rules: He has told reporters that he would not be interested in wearing a mask unless he deemed it important.
Instead, everyone who comes into close contact with Trump must now be tested for the virus, including journalists in the White House briefing room, according to White House officials.
“I don’t know, somehow sitting in the Oval Office behind that beautiful Resolute Desk,” the president told reporters Friday, “I think wearing a face mask as I greet presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens, I don’t know — somehow, I don’t see it for myself. I just — I just don’t. Maybe I’ll change my mind, but this will pass, and hopefully it’ll pass very quickly.”
It was far from the first time that Melania Trump’s message differed from her husband’s, but some examples have been starker than others.
In August 2017, it was the first lady who stepped forward before her husband to condemn the deadly white nationalist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, where one woman was killed by a white supremacist. “Our country encourages freedom of speech, but let’s communicate w/o hate in our hearts,” she tweeted after the protest turned violent. “No good comes from violence.”
The president, on the other hand, was roundly criticized for suggesting that the blame for the violence laid with people on “both sides” of the protest.
With her child-focused program, BeBest, the first lady has tried to promote healthy online lifestyles and the prevention of online bullying. The president, of course, uses Twitter as his primary battering ram against Democrats, critics and members of the news media.
But in December, the first lady refused to admonish her husband for mocking Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old climate activist, on Twitter. Stephanie Grisham, the White House press secretary at the time, said that the first couple “often communicate differently.”
Throughout the coronavirus outbreak, the first lady has been criticized for seeming to have a different set of priorities. She encountered widespread criticism at the beginning of it for focusing on building a tennis pavilion at the White House instead of warning Americans about the spread of the virus.
According to an administration official familiar with her thinking, the first lady waited until official government guidance was released to begin filming public service announcements and issuing warnings on Twitter.
In recent days, she has been more engaged with the issue, including by fielding calls from her counterparts in France and Italy to discuss steps to defeat the virus. And after canceling the annual White House Easter Egg Roll because of coronavirus concerns, she donated thousands of the event’s commemorative wooden eggs to workers at hospitals and federal agencies.
She has also directed much of her own staff in the East Wing and in the White House residence to work from home. The White House calligrapher and social secretary are no longer reporting to work, for example, but chefs are still on hand to cook meals for the first family.
“Mrs. Trump understands and recognizes the people of this country feel uncertain right now, and wants to do all she can to educate families and children about the importance of social distancing and proper hygiene,” Grisham, who is leaving her post as White House press secretary to rejoin the first lady’s East Wing as chief of staff, said in a statement. “She is being briefed daily and always evaluating how best she can be of service to the country during this difficult time.”
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