Trump’s former aides say he whiffed on vaccination legacy

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Joanne Kenen and Meridith McGraw
·10 min read
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With more than half of adults in the country having received at least one shot of a Covid vaccine, Trump supporters remain stubbornly resistant to vaccination — and it’s sparking a new round of questions over what role, if any, the former president could play to move those efforts along.

Former President Donald Trump’s unwillingness to pitch his voters on getting the jab has become the source of frustration for former aides, who lament the political benefits that would have come had he done so. It has also worried health officials from his own administration, who told POLITICO about a monthslong effort to get him to publicly take the lead; and medical experts, who say a full-throated endorsement could sway vaccine skeptics on the right and get the country closer to herd immunity.

“If he spent the last 90 days being the voice — and taking credit because he deserved to for the vaccine — and helping get as many Americans get vaccinated as he could, he would be remembered for that,” said a former senior administration official. “Honestly, I think if he was out on the road and celebrating his accomplishments and trying to get people vaccinated he wouldn’t have been in the mindset that led to [Capitol riots on] January 6.”

The latest example of Trump’s interest in selling the vaccine more than vaccinations came on Fox News Monday night when he began reflecting on why U.S. regulators announced they were pausing the Johnson & Johnson’s Covid vaccine while they investigate whether it is linked to rare but serious blood clots. The former president suggested political subterfuge was at play, touted his own record and called the decision “so stupid.” He only encouraged people to get vaccinated when pressed by host Sean Hannity, and did so in the process of explaining why he hasn’t recorded an ad encouraging his skeptical supporters to do so.

“They all want me to do a commercial because a lot of our people don't want to take vaccine. You know I don't know what that is exactly, Republican?” Trump said. "They want me to do a commercial, some commercial and they do this pause?"

Virtually everyone around Trump and in public health circles says his influence on the vaccine campaign could be hugely important. Trump voters are among the most vaccine-resistant blocs of Americans, with one third to nearly one half of supporters of the 45th president, white evangelicals or Republicans expressing hesitancy or antagonism in various polls.

Trump has, so far, not been persuaded to do more. Aides say he takes immense pride (justifiably, many public health experts acknowledged) of his White House’s “Warp Speed” initiative, which incentivized and accelerated vaccine development.

But his focus has often been elsewhere. In the final months of his presidency, much of his attention, according to senior aides, remained on efforts to challenge election results, and then, after the January 6 assault on the Capitol, his second impeachment and its political aftermath.

That wasn’t how it was supposed to go, according to a dozen former officials who served in the White House or health-related federal agencies. They planned on Trump being the vaccine’s salesman-in-chief, viewing it as a natural role for a president who cut his teeth hawking real estate and starring on TV.

Two former administration officials said that the pitch was made to Trump to get vaccinated publicly, but there was skepticism that he’d be open to the idea.

“Someone joked and said, ‘Have you ever seen him wear a short sleeved shirt in public? I don’t think that’s going to happen,’” said one of those officials.

Health officials in the Trump administration had actually begun working with Trump aides as far back as last September on the vaccine rollout. They wanted Trump to get his shot on camera, preferably alongside one or more doctors in white coats to validate a vaccines-are-safe message.

That’s precisely what Mike and Karen Pence did. Along with former Surgeon General Jerome Adams, an African-American physician who has been reaching out to vaccine-skeptical Black Americans, they all got their shots together with several white-coated medical personnel. Aides coordinated with the morning shows at television networks to make sure images were broadcast live across the country.

U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams speaks in the briefing room of the White House in Washington, Monday, March 9, 2020, about the coronavirus outbreak. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams speaks in the briefing room of the White House in Washington, Monday, March 9, 2020, about the coronavirus outbreak. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

But Trump and Melania Trump got vaccinated in secret — so secretly, in fact, that top health officials and aides only learned about it after Trump left office. Word got out following Trump’s speech at CPAC, during which he encouraged people to get the shot in passing, and an adviser confirmed both he and the first lady got the shot in January. No photos or cable-news-ready footage has been released.

One former official said Trump’s own bout with coronavirus may have affected the timing of his shot. Since he had been hospitalized and treated with experimental monoclonal antibodies in October, it wasn’t immediately clear he should get the shot in December. Still, he could have explained that, and then gotten inoculated publicly soon after, according to that official, who was close to the vaccine development.

Another senior administration official said there were concerns Trump would be attacked by the press for “jumping the line” ahead of higher risk people and first responders.

Former Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows and others still in Trump’s orbit defended his response. “During the last few months of the Trump administration, the president put a strong emphasis on providing vaccines to the most urgent places and for critical personnel offering as much capacity for the general public as possible,” said Meadows. “Because he’d already come down with Covid, he made the determination there were others far more critical for receiving the vaccine than he and the first family.”

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Vaccine hesitancy is complicated, and pro-vaccine statements from Trump wouldn’t magically make the entire MAGA world roll up their sleeves. But he probably would make a difference, experts on vaccine hesitancy said. A March poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that one-in-five vaccine hesitant Republicans said a Trump endorsement would spur them to get immunized. Combine that with other public health reassurance, and Trump’s message could be amplified, building vaccine trust among his base.

Frank Luntz, the Republican pollster working with the de Beaumont Foundation and other public health groups on vaccine confidence, thinks politicians generally have limited ability to sway voters. But he said that a message from Trump, surrounded by doctors nodding approval, would have some oomph.

“Instead of raising money, raise awareness for the vaccine,” said Luntz. “Deliver straight to the camera a message that says, ‘Look. Do it for me. Do it for the country. Do it for the future. Most importantly, do it for yourself.’ ”

“In the end, he’s the reason they would listen. The doctors are why they would act.”

The Biden administration also has struggled to make inroads with vaccine skeptics on the right. White House efforts to engage conservatives have included running ads during shows popular with right-leaning voters like “Deadliest Catch” on Discovery, and Country Music Television. Venues like NASCAR speedways have been used as vaccination sites. But many experts are worried that even if health officials deem J&J safe, the blood clot scare will only heighten the fears.

The Biden White House has said it has not asked Trump to do pro-vaccine messaging. And Trump was not asked to be part of the Ad Council PSA that featured former Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, according to a staffer for one of the former presidents involved in that ad and multiple advisers to Trump. Planning for the ad began in December and was filmed on Biden’s Inauguration Day. At that point, Trump had made clear he would not be staying in Washington for the festivities. Notably, however, the council shot another ad with the former presidents and First Ladies, and included Jimmy Carter who could not travel to the inauguration.

When Trump has made public statements encouraging immunization, they have been rare, and sandwiched amid political statements, endorsements of potential MAGA 2020 candidates, and attacks on the small group of Republicans who backed his impeachment.

During an interview with Maria Bartiromo on Fox News, he recommended the shot — but then acknowledged that people have a right to refuse it.

“I would recommend it, and I would recommend it to a lot of people that don’t want to get it, and a lot of those people voted for me frankly. But again, we have our freedoms and we have to live by that and I agree with that also,” Trump said in March. “But it’s a great vaccine, and it is a safe vaccine and it is something that works.”

In his first statement after the J&J pause, Trump accused the FDA of playing politics, of trying to help Pfizer, the maker of a different vaccine, and of intentionally delaying vaccine approval until after the 2020 presidential election.

“They didn’t like me very much because I pushed them extremely hard. But if I didn’t, you wouldn’t have a vaccine for 3-5 years, or maybe not at all,” his statement read. “The only way we defeat the China Virus is with our great vaccines!”

Some former Trump administration officials said they haven’t given up on him deciding to chime in more consistently, particularly if it gets him back in the public eye. They note that he takes immense pride in Operation Warp Speed, the $10 billion private-public partnership which helped more than 200 million vaccine doses get developed, tested and authorized at record speeds by pharmaceutical manufacturers.

Others argue that he could be doing more, bristling at the notion that he has been anything other than engaged in promoting vaccination.

“President Trump has been a consistent leader and an important voice — and has advocated for the production, development, and use of the vaccine early and often, including him taking it and instructing other people to also get the vaccine,” said Kellyanne Conway.

And Trump senior adviser Jason Miller said the former president “is going to continue to push folks to get the vaccine.”

But few beyond the Trump faithful believe he has been an aggressive and eager promoter of vaccinations. And without Trump in the lead, other prominent Republicans have been left to pick up the slack. Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter, tweeted a photo of her vaccination last Wednesday (and received pushback in the comments section from the anti-vax corner of MAGA world), RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel shared news of her vaccination, and Republican leader Mitch McConnell has repeatedly called on the public to get the vaccine. Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-OH), who leads the House Doctors Caucus, doesn’t just defend the vaccine; he goes home to Ohio and administers shots — in one case, he said, on a bus full of elderly, mostly low-income, people who had traveled for their injections.

And last week, House Republicans welcomed its newest member, Julia Letlow of Louisiana, to Congress. Letlow, who lost her husband, congressman-elect Luke Letlow, to Covid-19 before he was able to enter office, has called on those vaccine-skeptic Republicans to consider her own family’s experience.

But Trump’s relative silence on this front is notable, other Republicans say. And without it, it could prolong the vaccination campaign and the virus fight as well.

“He could have a real impact and not by getting the standard public service announcement but by talking to his people like he talks to his people,” said former Republican congressman Peter King, who advised that Trump make a personal appeal to his supporters in his own unique way. He even suggested a script the former president could use: "‘Believe me, I wouldn’t take this thing, I wouldn’t put my own health at risk if i didn't think it was necessary,’” King said, imitating a potential Trump sales pitch for the vaccine. “Do it in a real conversational way but a wise guy way. ‘You think I would let my daughter get it if I didn’t think it was safe?… Just because Fauci is for it doesn’t mean it’s wrong.’”

“I think it would serve a real purpose,” King said.

Sam Stein contributed to this report.