At face value, the White House's press briefing on Friday was an important milestone: it was the event at which the administration announced new guidelines, encouraging Americans to wear masks in public in order to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
But it was at the same briefing that Donald Trump went out of his way to step on the message. "So with the masks, it's going to be, really, a voluntary thing," the president said. "You can do it. You don't have to do it. I'm choosing not to do it, but some people may want to do it, and that's okay. It may be good. Probably will. They're making a recommendation. It's only a recommendation."
Asked to explain his position as it relates to his own personal protection, Trump talked a bit about how impressive his desk is, before telling reporters, "Somehow, I don't see it for myself. I just -- I just don't.... I won't be doing it personally. It's a recommendation."
A day later at the same podium, Dr. Anthony Fauci stressed the importance of social distancing. "[T[he one thing I am confident in -- so let's take this to the bank -- mitigation works," he said, "It does. We've seen it in other countries, we've seen it in our own country." Moments later, Trump found it necessary to step on that message, too.
"Mitigation does work, but again, we're not going to destroy our country. We have to get back. Because, you know, at a certain point, you'll lose more people this way — through all of the problems caused -- than you will with what we're doing right now. What we're doing right now, I think it's going to be very successful. But you know what? I don't know. We have a big decision to make at a certain point.... I've said it from the beginning: The cure cannot be worse than the problem itself.... We cannot let this continue."
The president ended up repeating the "cure can't be worse" line three times over the course of the briefing.
Not surprisingly, a reporter noticed the contradiction between two competing messages: "Mr. President, just a question about messaging. You and the others here are saying people need to continue following the mitigation efforts, but you're also saying, again, the cure must not be worse than the problem. Which is it?"
Trump replied, "I'm just saying we have to get this country open.... It has to get open. This country was not designed to be closed."
Yesterday, the president proceeded to take on the role of infomercial salesman, touting an untested COVID-19 treatment, despite the guidance of experts.
The common thread is hard to miss: the tensions between the White House and those with scientific expertise aren't going away. On Friday, the New York Times reported on the extent to which Trump "has been at odds with the medical experts seeking to guide his handling of the outbreak."
The worse the schism becomes, the bigger the threat to the public.
It's also worth pausing to appreciate the president's overall trajectory, which has been less of an arc and more of a zig-zag. For weeks, Trump downplayed the seriousness of the viral threat, boasting about his administration's success in containing the virus, and assuring the public that the number of U.S. cases would soon fall to zero. On March 16, the Republican shifted his posture in earnest for the first time, issuing dire warnings about an "invisible enemy" and issuing social-distancing guidelines.
A week later, Trump moved back in the opposite direction, talking up an Easter deadline for possibly abandoning the fight against the pandemic. Soon after, he shifted once more, adopting a more sober message and warning of massive death tolls.
Over the weekend, the impatient president reverted back to the misguided rhetoric he peddled on Twitter two weeks ago.
It's difficult to say what Trump's position will be today, tomorrow, or next week, or how many additional times he'll swing from one extreme to the other. But if he decides sometime soon that mitigation efforts are simply too costly, and the president is willing to put countless American lives at risk as part of a "big decision," the policy implications would be breathtaking.