It’s been more than six months since Donald Trump left office and, despite pleas from multiple friends and advisers, the former president has kept refusing to mount anything resembling a real effort to get his supporters vaccinated.
As COVID-19 continues to rip through the United States, Trump has done little more than make sporadic gestures toward the vaccine, including when he said he’d “recommend” people get the shot during a Fox News interview, while underscoring at the same time that he respected people’s “freedoms” to not get vaccinated.
But Trump’s resistance toward truly pushing for people to get the vaccine hasn’t been from lack of trying from some of his allies.
According to four people who’ve independently spoken to Trump about a potential pro-vaccine campaign, the former president has shown little interest in tying his name to broader efforts to get people inoculated.
When asked why Trump hadn’t done more on vaccines, Stephen Moore—who previously advised Trump on economic and coronavirus-related policy—said he didn’t have a “good answer for that.”
Moore, a former top Trump surrogate, said that after he published an op-ed in The Hill late last month arguing that Trump should give a national primetime address with President Joe Biden urging his supporters and voters to get the shot, “especially because of the Delta variant,” Moore made sure to send the article to the former president.
“I know from a friend who works with Trump that they gave it to him…[and that it] got to his desk,” he added. “I think he would be well-advised to make a public statement and a speech [devoted to] really encouraging people to get vaccinated; I think it would influence people…It would be in his own political interest, as well as the nation’s interest.”
Whether Trump sees doing that as politically beneficial to himself, however, remains an open question—at best.
According to the four sources who spoke to The Daily Beast about their phone calls and in-person conversations since early this year with Trump or former first lady Melania, the suggestions have varied considerably.
Some have suggested teaming up with the Bidens, while others have told the former president that it would be an awful idea, both on pragmatic and political levels. Several have suggested Donald and Melania Trump star in public service announcements and others videos, such as those featuring highly visible conservative influencers. Others have pitched the former president on dedicating entire interviews and whole speeches to the topic, making appearances at related venues with doctors, prominent Republicans, or pro-vaccine evangelical leaders.
Some have recommended that Trump welcome vaccination drives at his ongoing series of political rallies, while some have kept their proposals as simple as telling Trump that his office and political operation should blast out reminders to get people and their families vaccinated against COVID-19.
Thus far, hardly any of these suggestions have gone anywhere, nor has anything remotely resembling a serious push from the ex-president come to pass. A Trump spokeswoman did not respond to emails seeking comment for this story.
This summer, some high-profile Trump confidants have made pro-vaccine pitches to GOP voters. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Trump’s former White House press secretary, put out a July opinion piece titled, “The reasoning behind getting vaccinated.”
“Based on the advice of my doctor,” Sanders wrote, “I determined that the benefits of getting vaccinated outweighed any potential risks. I was also reassured after President Trump and his family were vaccinated. If getting vaccinated was safe enough for them, I felt it was safe enough for me.”
And early this month, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), a top Trump ally on Capitol Hill, told the Associated Press that he encouraged Trump to “speak up” and “to be aggressive and say, ‘Take the vaccine.’”
More than 400,000 Americans had died of coronavirus when Trump left office, and the death count has swelled to more than 600,000 since. But as Trump has settled into a post-presidency defined largely by prolonging his anti-democratic crusade and settling scores with Republicans who crossed him, the former president has privately dropped hints about why, exactly, he has been so derelict.
According to two of the sources who have spoken to Trump about this, he has occasionally referenced polling and other indicators—such as what he’s seen on TV—that show how the vaccines are unpopular with many of his supporters. This has left the impression with some of those close to Trump that he doesn’t want to push too hard on the subject, so as to not “piss off his base,” one of the two people said.
At other times in recent months, Trump has simply said he doesn’t feel he needs to do any “favors” for Biden, given how much Biden is “destroying” the country—and that if Biden wants to ask him to do something, the sitting president is welcome to ask, the sources recounted.
Although Trump has told unvaccinated supporters to get their coronavirus shots during a handful of public appearances—campaign-style rallies, fundraisers, media interviews—he’s also qualified his endorsement of the vaccines by emphasizing that the “freedoms” not to get it are important, too.
Trump even released a written statement last month sympathizing with anti-vaxxers because, according to Trump, "people are refusing to take the Vaccine because they don't trust [Biden’s] Administration, they don't trust the Election results, and they certainly don’t trust the Fake News, which is refusing to tell the Truth.”
In poll after poll this year, self-identified Republicans have been out of step with the mainstream of Americans on a number of public health issues related to the coronavirus pandemic, from attitudes towards mask requirements, to vaccine hesitancy, to blatant anti-vaccine posturing.
A Morning Consult poll published Wednesday showed approval for local government mask mandates in offices, gyms, and indoor dining areas enjoyed hovering in the low to mid 60 percent range among Americans overall. But the partisan breakdown shows that, despite majorities of independents and Democrats supporting mask mandates, most Republicans are still opposed to them.
The contrast is also reflected in vaccine uptake. Seventy-six percent of those who identify as Democrats or lean Democratic told Morning Consult pollsters they were fully vaccinated but that number shrunk to 62 percent for Republicans and those who lean towards the GOP.
A poll conducted by Monmouth University in late July found that Republicans make up the bulk of those who are staunchly opposed to the vaccine rather than the merely hesitant or procrastinating. Seventeen percent of respondents made up the hardcore of respondents who said they will “likely will never get the vaccine” if they can avoid it. Republicans make up the vast majority of those hardcore refusals, accounting for 70 percent of the “never” respondents compared to just six percent for Democrats.
Despite his inaction, this is a situation that Trump himself has acknowledged is a problem among conservatives—and he even acknowledged that it could be a huge problem as early as September, before he lost the 2020 presidential contest.
“It was a glancing conversation in the Oval Office in September, in between meetings, and I mentioned how vaccine hesitancy was likely going to be a big problem, especially among Republicans and Trump supporters,” Michael Caputo, a former Trump campaign adviser who later served as the assistant secretary of public affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services under Trump, said in an interview in March. “And he said, ‘Yes, I understand, and it’s a problem.’”
Caputo added that he’d been told Trump had other conversations after he left the administration. “We started getting more and more suspicious of [anti-vaccine sentiment on the right] as I left,” Caputo said. “We were talking amongst ourselves in HHS in August, saying that it was ironic that the most vaccine-hesitant among us were our friends, our allies. And we still face that question.”
In April, Caputo told CNN he visited Trump at Mar-a-Lago just weeks before, adding that they “spoke about vaccine hesitancy and what can be done about it.”
But as 2021 went on, Republican hostility toward the COVID vaccines has been reinforced and stoked by some of the biggest names in right-wing media and MAGA-land.
On Fox News, Laura Ingraham has been among the most frequent critics of COVID-19 vaccines on the network, according to a Media Matters study. Primetime host Tucker Carlson has also wrongly declared to his audience that “maybe the vaccine doesn’t work” and has recklessly suggested that vaccines are killing dozens of people a day.
This phenomenon, of course, did not spring out of nowhere.
For one, a mid-2016 study conducted by Washington State University for The Daily Beast found that anti-vaxxer respondents frequently said they believed Trump shared their views, compared to Democrats, who were much more pro-vaccine. The correlation pointed to a relatively recent shift in partisan attitudes towards vaccines, as polling in the late 2000s and early 2010s didn’t show a strong correlation between partisan affiliation and attitudes towards vaccination.
As for the current Trump fundraising operation, there isn’t much shyness when it comes to hitting up donors and supporters with messages encouraging vaccine “freedom.”
On Wednesday afternoon, Team Trump texted supporters asking, “Why haven’t you claimed your ‘FREEDOM PASSPORT’ shirt from President Trump?”
The link sends users to a page from WinRed, the Republican fundraising platform, offering a white T-shirt emblazoned with the American flag and the words “THIS IS MY FREEDOM PASSPORT” for a $45 donation.
While the page text itself doesn’t mention vaccines, metadata tags in the page’s html code instruct social media platforms to apply a more direct headline when the link is posted to Facebook or Twitter: “FREEDOM PASSPORTS > VACCINE PASSPORTS.”
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