WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump was pushing to get out in the public eye in recent weeks and tout his leadership during the pandemic, and White House staff thought they had hit on the ideal event: a presidential visit to thank the Pennsylvania factory workers who had recently taken herculean steps to ramp up U.S. supplies of protective equipment.
Workers had received national attention after dozens of them lived for 28 days inside their factory so they could ensure they were virus-free and their production was not contaminated or disrupted by illness.
White House officials pressed to hold an event at the Braskem factory, initially scheduled for last Friday. But after extensive back and forth, factory officials ultimately asked to postpone, worried that a visit from Trump could jeopardize both the safety of the workers and the plant's ability to produce special material for masks and other medical gear, according to two people familiar with the decision and documents reviewed by The Post.
The White House's efforts to set up an event at the Pennsylvania factory came as Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have made a number of public appearances in recent weeks to showcase the administration's work combating the health crisis — gatherings that health experts say have created heightened health risks for both them and those around them.
Trump has refused to wear a mask in public, and Pence has only occasionally done so. On Thursday, the vice president's face was uncovered as he delivered boxes of gloves and masks to a rehabilitation center and nursing home in Alexandria, Virginia and spoke within a few feet of the center's staff. Pence was accompanied by his press secretary, Katie Miller, who also did not have a mask.
The following day, the news broke that she had tested positive for the coronavirus.
Despite that, Pence continued with a trip to Iowa, where he made appearances Friday with Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds, who said she is now following a modified self-quarantine.
White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said Trump has made safety the top concern as he and top administration officials have returned to doing public events.
"President Trump's top priority is the safety and security of the American people, and the idea that during this pandemic he wants an event of any kind that would violate our own guidelines to opening up America again is categorically false," Gidley said.
Pence spokesman Devin O'Malley declined to comment, referring to past remarks by the vice president in which he said he believed he was taking proper safety measures by getting regularly tested for the coronavirus, and noting that he had tested negative before attending public events.
An administration official said the Virginia nursing home did not expressly ask the vice president to wear a mask. Nursing home officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
A new White House directive expected to be issued Monday will require officials to wear face coverings in public spaces on the complex grounds, but Trump is unlikely to begin wearing a mask, The Washington Post reported.
Trump and Pence have repeatedly resisted guidance to wear masks as the virus has spread. When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged Americans to begin wearing cloth face coverings in public in early April, the president made it clear he did not plan to follow that advice.
"I don't think I'm going to be doing it," Trump said. "Wearing a face mask as I greet presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens — I just don't see it."
The president has told others he dislikes masks and thinks they suggest weakness, said two people familiar with internal discussions. The tone set at the top has led many White House officials and senior advisers to similarly avoid using masks. Pence said he didn't wear a mask when he visited the Mayo Clinic because he wanted to look the doctors and staff "in the eye."
Trump had no face covering on May 5 when he visited a Honeywell plant in Arizona that produces N95 respirators, which the White House featured in a campaign-style video. Nor did aides joining him, including Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, or top executives at Honeywell, despite the plant's general mask policy.
The White House was aiming for a similar event last Friday at the Braskem plant in Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania, a factory that made a special fabric used in making protective masks, gloves and other gear.
Factory officials were initially excited about the idea of hosting a president but also had reservations, according to the two people familiar with the planning talks, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal discussions.
The plant officials told the White House advance team that they doubted their workers could attend the event. It was too risky for them — and would run counter to the effort they had taken by self-quaratining.
The White House then suggested that a few corporate officials could join the president, the people said.
Factory officials said they didn't feel comfortable bringing the president and his entourage, which included a detail of several Secret Service agents, inside the plant, in part because social distancing would be hard to maintain. In response, the White House proposed holding the event in the adjoining open-air parking lot.
Ultimately, company officials suggested rescheduling after the pandemic was over, saying that a visit from the president was just too risky at this time.
Company officials declined to elaborate on their discussions with the White House.
"We were deeply honored by the White House's acknowledgment of our production resiliency teams," Braskem CEO Mark Nikolich said in a statement. "However, after many discussions, the parties agreed due to the nature of petrochemical operations and the safety of our team members and visitors a visit wasn't feasible."
A senior administration official said the White House planned the Braskem tour to resemble the visit to Honeywell, with as few as 20 people at the event, but mutually agreed with the company that safety concerns should be foremost.
“The White House has looked, and continues to look at many locations for potential visits — and with each one safety is the top priority,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal discussions.
However, White House practices on masks and social distancing have repeatedly shifted during the last few months.
In late April, Pence visited the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and was excoriated by medical professionals for being the only person who was not wearing a mask when meeting in close quarters with patients and staff.
A reporter later revealed that instructions from the White House provided to reporters before the trip made clear that the Mayo Clinic would require everyone on the visit to wear masks. The medical institution wrote in a now-deleted tweet that Pence and his team were aware of the masking policy ahead of the tour.
Pence defended his decision to go mask-less, telling reporters he and everyone around him are regularly tested for the virus. But he later acknowledged that he should have worn one at the medical clinic.
Two days after he visited the Mayo Clinic, Pence wore a mask while on a tour of a GM plant in Kokomo, Indiana, that was making ventilators. Joining him on the trip and also wearing masks were Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb, GM CEO Mary Barra and White House trade adviser Peter Navarro.
But on his May 7 visit to the Virginia nursing home, Pence was again without a mask. The vice president did not go inside the facility, where several patients were reported to have coronavirus infections. But he spoke to administrators outside from a distance that appeared closer than six feet, photos from the event show.
Pence said his visit was one of more than 15,000 deliveries the Federal Emergency Management Agency was making to nursing homes across the country.
"Early in the coronavirus epidemic, we recognized that the risk to seniors, particularly those with serious underlying health conditions, is very real," Pence said.
The following day, after the news broke that his press secretary was positive for coronavirus, Pence flew to Des Moines, where he and the Iowa governor met with food industry executives. None wore masks during the roundtable meeting.
A video of portions of the event, first reported by the Intercept, shows a woman approaching the executives before Pence's arrival and asking them to take off their masks. The staffer, the employee of another federal agency, was working as a member of the White House advance team, according to an administration official.
The vice president's office declined to comment on the instruction or identify the staffer. But the administration official said she was noting that masks were not necessary for the roundtable, which had been arranged so the participants would be at least six feet apart.
Reynolds, the Iowa governor, announced Monday she is following a modified version of self-quarantining, similar to one adopted by Anthony Fauci, the country's top infectious disease official, after Pence's press secretary tested positive.
Reynolds said she was doing so "out of an abundance of caution" to protect others around her after being invited to a White House meeting Wednesday where Miller was present and then hosting Pence on Friday. She said she tested negative for coronavirus and will continue to get tested daily.
“While I didn’t have direct contact with the vice president’s staff member, it’s important that I do my part to protect those around me while continuing to serve as your governor during this critical time,” she said.