Senate Republicans distance themselves from Trump on coronavirus masks

Kasie Hunt and Julie Tsirkin and Carrie Dann

WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans have stood by President Donald Trump through controversy after controversy, but the rampant spread of COVID-19 is emerging as a breaking point.

With rates of infection skyrocketing in states like Florida, Arizona, Texas and California, lawmakers are hurtling toward the fall elections with the ramifications of the pandemic bearing down just as voters are deciding whom to vote for in November.

While Republicans have mostly refrained from openly criticizing the president, they're not out in public championing his handling of the pandemic, either. And as the summer barrels forward, more and more GOP lawmakers are sending Americans a message that stands in stark opposition to the president on how they should stay safe in a pandemic.

"Wear a damn mask," Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., put it late last week as more of his colleagues worry that a public health tragedy and continued economic devastation could spell Republican disaster come November.

Lawmakers fear that many children won't be able to return to schools safely in the fall and that their parents will struggle to return to work as a result. Hospitalizations and death rates could spike as people spend more time inside as the weather gets colder.

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Trump is part of the problem, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said Tuesday at the start of a Senate hearing on the coronavirus.

"Unfortunately, this simple lifesaving practice has become part of a political debate that says: If you're for Trump, you don't wear a mask. If you're against Trump, you do," Alexander said. "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."

Republicans have increasingly stepped out in public to talk about the importance of wearing masks. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., waved a mask at cameras in Kentucky on Friday. "These are really important," he said. "This is not as complicated as a ventilator."

Former Defense Secretary James Mattis also appeared in a video with a bandanna around his face to urge Americans to wear masks. And House Republican Conference Chair Liz Cheney of Wyoming tweeted a photo of her father, former Vice President Dick Cheney, wearing a mask with the hashtag #realmenwearmasks.

But Trump has remained defiant, insisting on appearing in public without a mask on, planning campaign rallies inside massive arenas and demanding an in-person convention without social distancing measures in Jacksonville, Florida. In May, he retweeted a message linking to an anti-mask column that read "masks aren't about public health but social control."

But even House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., a man so close to the president that Trump often refers to him as "my Kevin," told Fox News on Tuesday that it would help if the president were seen more often in public wearing a mask.

"For the Fourth of July, we could show our patriotism with a red, white and blue mask going out there," McCarthy said.

When pressed on whether the president's handling of the pandemic deserved praise or was hurting Republicans politically, McConnell ignored the president's efforts completely.

"Well, I can tell you is what Senate Republicans did was respond to the crisis by beginning to write the CARES Act in my office, which ultimately became law without a single dissent, which has done a great deal to prop up the economy," he said.

A few of the president's most die-hard supporters are still casting doubt on expert recommendations.

"It's important to realize that if society meekly submits to an expert and that expert is wrong, a great deal of harm may occur," Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said at Tuesday's hearing. And House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., last week warned the committee's ranking Republican, Jim Jordan of Ohio, one of the president's most vocal supporters in the House, and other Republicans that they wouldn't be recognized to speak if they continued to refuse to don masks in the hearing room.

On this issue, those supporters of the president are increasingly isolated in their own party, a dramatic shift from the first three years of the Trump administration, when Republicans broadly stood by Trump through investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election, the impeachment trial and a long list of incendiary tweets and comments.

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So what's the difference? The botched response is so bad that Republicans are increasingly worried that they might lose.

Since April, the Cook Political Report has moved ratings for Republicans in red states like Alaska, Georgia and even South Carolina, where Sen. Lindsey Graham has a stronger challenger and a tougher general election than he has faced in the past.

Those seats are still likely to stay in Republican hands, but the shifts underscore just how hard the going is in true toss-up contests in Arizona, North Carolina, Colorado and Maine. Cook also moved Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., into the toss-up column for a seat Republicans previously weren't as concerned about. And a Des Moines Register poll showed Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, trailing Democratic candidate Theresa Greenfield by 46 percent to 43 percent.

The slide has come since the coronavirus first made its way to American shores in late January. In the most recent NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll, 51 percent of respondents said they would choose Democrats on a generic congressional ballot, while just 40 percent said they would choose Republicans. The 11-point lead is almost double the 6-point lead Democrats held on the generic ballot in January.

"You don't have the president of the United States and his re-elect running ads in Georgia if things were fine," said Antonia Ferrier, a former McConnell spokeswoman and longtime GOP strategist, referring to the thousands of dollars in ads Trump's campaign is running in a state that is usually reliably GOP.

"The drag on Republican senators is frankly the president's approval ratings that are not very good, and a lot of that is surrounding his handling of the pandemic," she said.

And for a president who staked his re-election campaign on a strong economy now battered by the coronavirus, failing to address the public health crisis is an existential threat many Republicans say has left them frustrated.

"It actually would help restore the economy if we contain the disease. And the better the economy is, the better off the president is, I would think, running for re-election," Alexander said. "So it makes no sense."

CORRECTION (June 30, 2020, 10:45 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misidentified Rand Paul's state. He represents Kentucky in the Senate, not Tennessee. The article also misspelled the first name of a senator from Iowa. She is Joni Ernst, not Jon.