A White House long in denial confronted reality this week after President Trump and the first lady both tested positive for the virus, along with a cadre of close advisers, including Hope Hicks, a top White House aide, and Bill Stepien, the Trump campaign manager.
The outcome appeared shocking but also inevitable in a West Wing that assumed that rapid virus tests for everyone who entered each morning were substitutes for other safety measures, like social distancing and wearing masks.
But the outcome was also a byproduct, former aides said, of the recklessness and top-down culture of fear that Mr. Trump created at the White House and throughout his administration. If you wanted to make the boss happy, they said, you left the mask at home.
President Trump at times told staff wearing masks in meetings to “get that thing off,” an administration official said. Everyone knew that Mr. Trump viewed masks as a sign of weakness, officials said, and that his message was clear. “You were looked down upon when you would walk by with a mask,” said Olivia Troye, a top aide on the coronavirus task force who resigned in August and has endorsed former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.
In public, some of the president’s favorite targets were mask-wearing White House correspondents. “Would you take it off, I can hardly hear you,” Mr. Trump told Jeff Mason of Reuters in May, then mocked Mr. Mason for wanting “to be politically correct” when he refused.