Just when we thought the tsk-tsking toward Vice-President Mike Pence was dying down after he took a pass on wearing a face mask during a visit to the Mayo Clinic Tuesday, a new front has opened up. Mrs. Pence did an interview on Fox & Friends Thursday and when asked about the criticism her husband received, she did what any wife would do – she spoke up for him.
“As our medical experts have told us wearing a mask prevents you from spreading the disease and knowing that he doesn’t have COVID -19, he didn’t wear one,” Karen Pence said on “Fox & Friends,” referencing to the fact that her husband had tested negative for the novel coronavirus.
“It was actually after he left Mayo Clinic that he found out that they had a policy of asking everyone to wear a mask,” Karen Pence said.
“Someone who has worked on this whole task force for over two months is not someone who would have done anything to offend anyone or hurt anyone or scare anyone,” Karen Pence said on Thursday.
Under normal circumstances, that would be a pretty standard kind of answer for a politician’s wife to give to counter criticism, right? These aren’t normal circumstances, though, and not only is there a coronavirus pandemic spreading throughout the world but there is a presidential election coming up in November. Anything less than what is perceived as perfect behavior from the vice-president – the person tasked with coordinating the coronavirus task force – will be fodder for his critics.
It should be noted that the Mayo Clinic tweeted out that the vice-president was made aware of the masking policy before he arrived. That tweet was soon deleted, though. So, perhaps that little pushback from the Mayo Clinic spurred on the question to Karen Pence.
And just like that, the controversy grew new legs. Steve Herman, the White House bureau chief for Voice of America (VOA), tweeted out that everyone traveling in the Pence entourage knew about the mask policy in advance, including him.
“All of us who traveled with [Pence] were notified by the office of @VP the day before the trip that wearing of masks was required by the @MayoClinic and to prepare accordingly,” tweeted Herman, who covered the trip as part of his rotation as one of the pool reporters, who share information with other reporters in limited-space situations.
— Steve Herman (@W7VOA) April 30, 2020
Vice-President Pence’s staff was not amused. They say that Herman violated the off-the-record terms of a planning memo sent out to him and other reporters before they left on the trip. Apparently there is some retaliation under consideration. Herman says it has already happened, but Pence’s office says the matter is still under discussion.
Herman said he was notified by the White House Correspondents’ Association that Pence’s office had banned him from further travel on Air Force Two, although a spokesperson in Pence’s office later told VOA managers than any punishment was still under discussion, pending an apology from Herman or VOA.
Steve Herman is not in agreement with Pence’s office’s take on this. The Washington Post obtained a copy of the instructions from the White House. While it states that masks must be worn, per the Mayo Clinic policy, it also specifically states the document is off the record, for planning purposes only.
A copy of the document obtained by The Washington Post explicitly stated that masks are required for the visit and instructed reporters to wear them. “Please note, the Mayo Clinic is requiring all individuals traveling with the VP wear masks,” the document said. “Please bring one to wear while on the trip.”
The directive confirms that Pence’s staff was well aware of the need for masks, raising the possibility that none of his aides alerted him to the requirement or that Pence had intentionally flouted it, perhaps to avoid being photographed in a mask. (Pence himself told reporters after the visit that because he doesn’t have the coronavirus — he is tested frequently — he decided he could “speak to these researchers, these incredible health-care personnel, and look them in the eye and say thank you.”)
However, the planning document is marked, “OFF THE RECORD AND FOR PLANNING PURPOSES ONLY.” The off-the-record designation is standard for such logistical memos, indicating reporters are obligated not to publish or report the information. The White House typically keeps planning information confidential to maintain security for official trips.
It seems pretty clear to me. If something is marked off the record in all caps, the reader should probably pay attention to that. Capitalization implies importance. Since Steve Herman’s tweet was posted 48 hours after the trip, his opinion is that there was no risk to security, and the time limit on the instructions were expired. He isn’t inclined to offer up the apology that Mike Pence wants.
“My tweet speaks for itself,” Herman said in a statement. “We always have and will strictly adhere to keeping off the record any White House communications to reporters for planning purposes involving logistics that have security implications prior to events. . . . All White House pool reporters, including myself and my VOA colleagues, take this very seriously.”
Is this just a personal beef with Voice of America? Perhaps. Another reporter posted a similar tweet and isn’t sideways with Pence’s staff.
also, everyone in the entire Mayo Clinic had a mask on, everyone, and we were all told the day before we had to wear a mask if we entered the clinic https://t.co/cNW4fJ87Q4
— Gordon Lubold (@glubold) April 30, 2020
Recently the White House has criticized the federally-funded but independent news service as one that promotes Chinese government propaganda in its reporting on the coronavirus pandemic.
The critique was found on the official White House website, flagging its brief statement with a provocative headline: “Amid a Pandemic, Voice of America Spends Your Money to Promote Foreign Propaganda.”
The unsigned statement said, in part: “Journalists should report the facts, but VOA has instead amplified Beijing’s propaganda. This week, VOA called China’s Wuhan lockdown a successful ‘model’ copied by much of the world—and then tweeted out video of the Communist government’s celebratory light show marking the quarantine’s alleged end.”
It added, “Even worse, while much of the U.S. media takes its lead from China, VOA went one step further: It created graphics with Communist government statistics to compare China’s Coronavirus death toll to America’s. As intelligence experts point out, there is simply no way to verify the accuracy of China’s numbers.”
Dan Scavino, President Trump’s social media director posted a tweet about VOA Thursday.
American taxpayers—paying for China’s very own propaganda, via the U.S. Government funded Voice of America! DISGRACE!! https://t.co/mng8oYwz4l
— Dan Scavino Jr.🇺🇸 (@Scavino45) April 9, 2020
Trump is said to want to have more power over VOA, something that became apparent early on in his term in office. He didn’t appreciate reporting contradicting the administration’s description of a huge crowd in attendance for Trump’s inauguration, for example. VOA is funded by Congress but is screened from political influence by an independent board, called the U.S. Agency for Global Media.