Under Pence, Politics Regularly Seeped Into the Coronavirus Task Force

WASHINGTON — Aboard Air Force Two en route to the Mayo Clinic on April 28, White House aides walked down the aisle distributing masks to members of Vice President Mike Pence’s entourage, a requirement for everyone entering the renowned hospital in Minnesota as the coronavirus spread.

But Marc Short, the vice president’s powerful chief of staff, said Mr. Pence, the leader of the White House’s coronavirus task force, would not be wearing one. Dr. Stephen M. Hahn, the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, tried to intervene, saying it would be a bad message to the public if the vice president were to flout hospital rules.

But according to a person who witnessed the discussion and a senior administration official familiar with the episode, Mr. Short responded that photographs of Mr. Pence in a mask could be used by Democrats as campaign ammunition against President Trump, who had consistently refused to wear one as he downplayed the severity of the crisis.

Mr. Pence’s decision to walk the halls of the Mayo Clinic without a mask turned into a public relations mess — the hospital said on Twitter during the visit that the vice president’s staff had been informed about the mask policy — and Mr. Pence would later say his choice was wrong.

But it was only one example of how, over nearly eight months since the vice president was given a leading role in managing the nation’s pandemic response, political considerations seeped into decisions by Mr. Pence and his staff about how to combat a disease that has now killed more than 210,000 Americans.

At the task force, grim science-based projections were sometimes de-emphasized for rosier predictions, and guidance from public health agencies — about schools and summer camps, for example — was sometimes massaged by the vice president’s staff.

At one point, Mr. Short directed Dr. Robert R. Redfield, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to soften the agency’s recommendations to a meat processing company about safety steps, in part to placate the embattled industry. Mr. Short was also part of a small group, which included Kellyanne Conway, then a senior adviser to Mr. Trump, that pushed to change C.D.C. guidance on church reopenings.

Interviews with task force members, government public health officials and current and former White House officials show how public health considerations were sometimes at odds in the task force with the White House’s imperative for 2020: winning re-election on the basis of a strong economy.

“The vice president admittedly was in a difficult situation; he was asked to lead a project where his boss wasn’t on board,” said Senator Angus King, independent of Maine, who clashed with Mr. Pence during an April conference call about coronavirus testing. During that call, Mr. King erupted at the vice president for what he believed were his evasive answers.

“And so, the question is: To what extent, if any, did he try to push back on the president, minimizing masks, minimizing testing, continually