President Trump briefly wears a face mask — but not in public

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YPSILANTI, Mich. — Ford Motor Co. Executive Chairman Bill Ford scored a breakthrough of sorts Thursday when he got President Donald Trump to briefly wear a protective face mask during a tour of a converted factory now churning out ventilators and other medical gear for the coronavirus crisis.

But Trump, who has conspicuously refused to cover his face in public during the pandemic, was defiantly unmasked when he stepped in front of reporters and cameras soon after.

Trump showed a blue mask with the presidential seal that he had worn behind the scenes, but he wouldn’t put it on in plain sight.

“I didn’t want to give the press the pleasure of seeing it,” he said, a wink at the nonstop questions about whether he’ll cover his mouth and nose, which public health officials recommend to prevent spread of the coronavirus. Tom Petty’s classic hit “I Won’t Back Down” played in the background.

Ford confirmed that its chairman had asked the president to put on a mask when he arrived, in keeping with company policy, and that Trump had complied.

“He wore a mask during a private viewing of three Ford GTs from over the years. The President later removed the mask for the remainder of the visit,” the company said in a statement.

The will-he-or-won’t-he mask question was one of several distractions from the stated purpose of Trump’s visit, which was to honor the workers producing critical supplies for treating COVID-19 patients.

The visit was also overshadowed by Trump’s latest feuds with the Democratic leaders of Michigan, a crucial election year battleground, after he threatened to withhold unspecified federal funding because state officials had mailed out absentee ballot applications to registered voters.

The applications were intended to help voters safely participate in the November election during the pandemic, and Republicans and Democrats have done the same elsewhere. But Trump said Thursday that the process is “wrought with abuse,” a claim that election specialists said is false.

Trump’s visit came as Michigan struggled with a double-barreled disaster. More than 5,000 people have died from COVID-19, and over 1.7 million — about a third of the state’s workforce — have filed for unemployment.

In addition, a devastating flood has hit the Midland area after two dams breached Tuesday, forcing thousands to evacuate.

Before Trump arrived, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer accused him of deliberately stirring division by threatening to block federal funds to the state.

“To have this kind of distraction is just ridiculous to be honest … . Threatening to take money away from a state that is hurting as bad as we are right now is just scary, and I think something that is unacceptable,” Whitmer said on “CBS This Morning.”

She said she told Trump on the phone Wednesday, “Let’s try to focus on the true enemy, which is the virus and the natural disaster.”

Trump has previously derided Whitmer, a Democrat who is considered a potential running mate for Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee. Her office said this week that she was not invited to join Trump’s visit to the Ford factory.

Biden criticized Trump’s handling of Michigan’s challenges.

“In times of crisis, leaders don’t drag their feet and they don’t politicize — they spring to action to secure needed relief,” the former vice president said in a statement. “But in the wake of disaster, Donald Trump once again showed us who he is — threatening to pull federal funding and encouraging division.”

The turmoil over voting and masks demonstrates Trump’s ability to generate fresh controversies and attention for otherwise routine events. But it also reflected his tendency to cloud his own message in a crucial swing state. Trump won Michigan by fewer than 11,000 votes in 2016, and polls show him trailing Biden this year.

In this case, Trump transformed the visit to Ford’s Rawsonville Components Plant into the latest episode of his battles with Democratic politicians.

State officials had urged Trump to wear a face mask at the site, citing Whitmer’s executive order and Ford’s workplace protocols.

“Anyone who has potentially been recently exposed, including the President of the United States, has not only a legal responsibility, but also a social and moral responsibility, to take reasonable precautions to prevent further spread of the virus,” Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, a Democrat, wrote Trump in a letter Wednesday.

Besides the mask controversy, Trump continued pushing to end lockdown orders around the country, which have helped put more than 38 million Americans out of work since March and sent the economy into a tailspin.

All 50 states have begun easing restrictions to some extent, but with the death toll from COVID-19 nearing a staggering 100,000 and still rising, much of the U.S. remains semi-shuttered.

“A country wasn’t meant to be shut down,” Trump said at the Ford factory. “We did the right thing, but now it’s time to open it up.”

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