WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump visited wounded soldiers and medical workers Saturday while wearing what – for him – is an unusual accessory: a mask.
"I've never been against masks," the president said, "but I do believe they have a time and a place."
Trump, who has been criticized by public health officials for not wearing face coverings in public, donned a navy blue mask with the gold presidential seal emblazoned on the side during his trip to Walter Reed.
White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and members of the Secret Service also wore masks during the visit, which lasted less than an hour.
Critics said too many Trump followers followed his no-mask lead, contributing to the spread of the virus.
“It’s sad to think of all the infections and deaths that could’ve been avoided if Trump had simply modeled good behavior from the start," said Chris Lu, who managed Cabinet business for President Barack Obama.
Lu said, "This is way too little, too late.”
Thursday, Trump told Fox News host Sean Hannity, "It's fine to wear a mask if it makes you feel comfortable."
Trump said he planned to wear a mask during the Walter Reed visit because "you're in a hospital setting," and "I think it's a very appropriate thing. ... I have no problem with a mask."
The Walter Reed website says, "Visitors are expected to wear a cloth face covering over their nose and mouth upon entering and while moving about the facility or waiting rooms and when not able to maintain 6 feet of social distancing."
Trump has avoided wearing masks at other facilities that required them, such as a Honeywell plant in Arizona he visited in May.
The White House said people are given a COVID-19 test before being allowed near the president.
Trump had planned another trip Saturday – a political rally in Portsmouth, New Hampshire – but the campaign canceled that event Friday, citing fears of bad weather from Tropical Storm Fay. It wound up being a sunny day in New Hampshire.
A White House statement said Trump traveled to Walter Reed "to visit brave combat wounded service members and their families as well as health care staff who have been caring for COVID-19 patients during the pandemic." Spokesman Judd Deere tweeted that Trump "listened to their stories, answered their questions, thanked them for their bravery, and told them he loved them."
Trump ventured to Walter Reed amid renewed attacks on his administration's handling of the coronavirus pandemic that spreads in record numbers of new cases.
Public health officials said everyone should wear a mask to protect themselves and others from infections, and political leaders such as Trump should set an example.
Jonathan Reiner, professor of medicine at George Washington University, said Trump should have announced that "all Americans should wear a mask when they go out in public."
"If the only place he’s willing to wear a mask is a hospital, he still doesn’t get it," Reiner said.
The Walter Reed visit came after Trump's decision to commute the prison sentence of Roger Stone, a longtime confidant convicted of lying to Congress to protect the president's 2016 campaign from investigations into Russian election interference.
Lawmakers described the move as a payoff to keep Stone quiet about possible wrongdoing by Trump.
"An act of staggering corruption," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. One Republican, Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, described the commutation as "unprecedented, historic corruption: an American president commutes the sentence of a person convicted by a jury of lying to shield that very president."
More than 20 U.S. states require face masks in public. Trump did not wear one during a trip to South Florida on Friday, though Miami-Dade County mandated them in public.
Trump and his supporters have described mask demands as unnecessary and intrusive. In late May, Trump made fun of a reporter for wearing a mask at a news conference, accusing him of seeking to be "politically correct."
Trump and aides mocked Democratic election opponent Joe Biden for wearing a mask. Biden said Trump's derision of masks is foolish "macho stuff."
Biden spokesman Andrew Bates said Trump wasted months “stoking divisions” over masks “and actively discouraging people from taking a very basic step to protect each other.” Biden “has led by example,” he said.
Trump campaign aides took to social media to promote the masked president politically, tweeting out pictures from the hospital visit.
"Joe Biden is finished," campaign senior adviser Jason Miller tweeted.
Campaign manager Brad Parscale tweeted a photo with the tagline “#AmericaFirst.”
Democratic strategist Jesse Lehrich said, “Trump finally puts on a mask, and his campaign applauds him like he’s a child who just tied his own shoes for the first time. ... It would be comical if it weren’t all so tragic.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump wears mask at Walter Reed while visiting soldiers, medical staff