President Donald Trump walks outside the White House on March 3.President Donald Trump walks outside the White House on March 3. Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

The first masks arrived on the White House grounds in February by special order of the National Security Council, mobilizing early on to address the emerging threat of the coming coronavirus. Job one in their emergency response was to take personal precautions, preparing for the critical work at hand, multiple officials tell CNN.

But word that some NSC staffers were being told to wear masks quickly made its way back to the West Wing and it wasn’t long before a sharp dictum came down.

“If you have the whole West Wing running around wearing masks, it wasn’t a good look,” one administration official recalled of the directive that came down from senior staff and lawyers.

The West Wing wanted to “portray confidence and make the public believe there was absolutely nothing to worry about,” the official said, revealing the image-conscious reason for the opposition to masks for the first time.

The directive opened a schism in the White House complex that would ultimately hinder its ability to contain the spread of the new virus they were now calling Covid-19. Interviews with more than a dozen current and former administration officials show how that fissure appeared and spread even as confirmed cases in the US began to grow.

The officials all requested anonymity either because they were not authorized to discuss the matter or because they were sharing private conversations with people currently in the administration. But they tell a consistent story of how the White House attempts to deal with the virus were dogged by the president’s fixation on one thing: optics.

The ensuing disaster has now claimed the lives of more than 200,000 Americans, in what may be the most politicized health crisis of the modern presidency. The radical polarization that now grips the country traces back to the very first workplace where it really sank in, at the West Wing of the White House.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Matthews, addressing questions about this story, said that the President “took the virus seriously from the beginning, as evidenced by his administration taking early steps in January to protect the American people.” It was Democrats and the media, she says, who were obsessing at the time — “over the partisan and futile impeachment trial.”

But several key officials tell a consistent and different story, about image management and the trouble it caused in pandemic response from the very beginning.

“We lost so much time,” a former administration official said, looking back. “The whole thing was mind-blowing. This could have been so different.”

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