Over the last several weeks, President Donald Trump has approached the White House press podium with one resounding message: The coronavirus vaccine is just around the corner and it will soon make its way to Americans across the country.
But behind closed doors, Trump’s closest advisers, including those officials working on the White House coronavirus task force, are increasingly concerned about public confidence in the vaccine process. Now, White House officials are leaning on the nation’s governors to help promote the vaccine’s safety and efficacy.
On a private call with governors Monday, Vice President Mike Pence and other top coronavirus task force officials—including Anthony Fauci and Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Robert Redfield—aired their fears about the declining public support for taking a COVID-19 vaccine once it becomes available. And they explicitly asked governors to ignore the politics of the impending election when discussing COVID-19 vaccines, even as Trump himself does not.
“Look, I know we’re in an election season. But what I want to do is challenge you governors,” Pence said. “We are working around the clock to get a safe and effective vaccine available but we need... you to do your part to build public confidence that it will be a safe and effective vaccine. What we don’t want is people undermining confidence in the process.”
Redfield noted that while he is confident the American people will be able to access a vaccine by next spring, he is worried about the government’s ability to convince the public that that vaccine will be safe.
“We have vaccine hesitancy in this country that allows some schools to have only 30 or 40 percent of their children vaccinated against measles because they are so convinced the vaccine is harmful,” Redfield said. “So, our biggest challenge… is to build that culture of confidence. Once fear sets in, once doubt sets in, it is going to be very hard for us to reverse that.”
The worries stated on the call echo a deeper fear among scientists and other top officials working with the task force that the American public has lost trust in the nation’s top health agencies.
Part of that lack of confidence seems to stem from the president himself, who has in recent weeks promised the quick delivery of a vaccine. Trump more recently conceded that the American public can expect to access a vaccine by April next year, but he has also stated that the clinical trial data indicates that the U.S. will soon have a viable vaccine.
“He has all of his eggs in the vaccine basket,” said Elizabeth Neumann, a former top Department of Homeland Security official who worked on the office’s coronavirus response before she left the administration this year. “He’s not interested in masks, or social distancing. He likes the quick, easy fix. And anybody that looks at what it takes to deploy a vaccine and deliver a vaccine… it is not quick and easy by any stretch of the imagination.”
Within the upper echelons of HHS, the White House, and elsewhere in the Trump administration, officials are already rushing to figure out the best public-relations strategies to convince Americans of a vaccine’s efficacy. And there is a growing consensus, particularly among public-health professionals, that President Trump should be excluded from that push as much as possible, according to two senior administration officials.
Some believe it would be best to minimize the damage that could come from the matter being further politicized, which Trump’s involvement guarantees. Others say that Trump himself has been a menace to conveying accurate public-health information to citizens and the media during the pandemic, and wish he’d stop talking about the prospect of a vaccine altogether.
“Even if you support the president, why would it make sense to have him out there trying to sell a vaccine to millions of skeptical Americans?” said one of the officials, who’s worked closely with the coronavirus task force. “Many people would immediately be turned off, or at least suspicious, just by seeing him doing it… even if all the scientists were saying it absolutely was safe for you and your family.”
“The Trump administration is developing a robust public-health information campaign that has already begun with public-service announcements in cities across the country requesting plasma donors,” an HHS spokesman said. “This campaign will soon focus on vaccine safety, efficacy, and hesitancy. The program draws on human-centered design to develop tools and involve trusted communicators to talk to the public about risks, benefits, allocation and targeting, and availability. We have been working for weeks with dozens of NGO, industry, and community leaders to make this happen.”
Reached for comment on this story, White House spokesman Judd Deere replied, “A safe, effective, and proven vaccine will save lives and only win approval under the FDA’s gold standard, not because of politics. The Trump Administration is committed to this, and the American people should be confident in this process.”
And yet few, if any, inside the White House seem to think that it will be at all possible to keep Trump away from this communications drive, given how consistently he has tried to shape his own administration’s messaging even as he misrepresents the scientific data.
In an interview with The Daily Beast on Monday, Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, contradicted Trump’s insinuation that the data on vaccine development looked promising—not by saying it didn’t but by explaining that no one in the federal government had seen the data. Only one subset of independent statisticians even have access to that data in the vaccine development phase.
“The kind of mixed signals that are coming out of different agencies, people read that in the newspaper, whether it's real or not, and they get concerned... can you believe what the government says?” Fauci said, adding that the country was already dealing with a strong “anti-vaxxer” movement before the coronavirus hit.
It’s not just on the topic of a COVID-19 vaccine where Trump has left officials to struggle with the misrepresentations he’s made. On Monday evening, the president falsely declared at a campaign rally in Ohio—to raucous cheers—that the virus “affects virtually nobody, it’s an amazing thing,” and that COVID-19 essentially harms “nobody young, below the age of 18, like, nobody,” right before calling on states to open up their schools.
Earlier that day, Trump’s top White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow insisted to reporters that the U.S. had “regained control of the virus,” and claimed that America had an economic recovery that was “self-sustaining” and “strong.” And one of the president’s top coronavirus advisers, Scott Atlas, has promoted views and policies on the pandemic that are considered so wildly out of step with much of the medical and scientific communities that even some Fox News shows have recently refused to book him.
As Trump and his closest advisers have waxed optimistically about the spread of COVID, their instincts to downplay the threat have been fed from friendly sources outside the White House.
Stephen Moore, a longtime conservative economist who informally advises Trump, told The Daily Beast that he’s sent the administration “reams of data” and memos since the dawn of the COVID emergency earlier this year. These printed memos, slapped together by Moore and fellow members of the Committee to Unleash Prosperity, have at times found their way into President Trump’s daily papers and in his hands, according to two people familiar with the matter.
Earlier this month, Moore (who is also close to Kudlow and others in the administration) says he sent his allies in the West Wing multiple charts that argued that states with harsher coronavirus lockdowns experience higher death tolls. The other, which Moore says was delivered to the White House last Monday, shows the severity of body counts, comparing figures from “red states” and numbers from “blue states.”
According to a source with direct knowledge, the latter chart was indeed printed and placed on Trump’s desk early last week. Before the week was over, the president went before the cameras to chastise blue states for their COVID deaths.
“The blue states had had tremendous death rates. If you take the blue states out, we’re at a level that I don’t think anybody in the world would be at,” Trump said at a White House press briefing last Wednesday. “We’re really at a very low level. But some of the states—they were blue states and blue state-managed.”
Though Democratic strongholds of California, New York, and New Jersey have had some of the highest coronavirus fatalities, it likely has to do with the fact that they were first to see infectious populations. As time has gone on, Republican-dominated states like Texas and Florida have been among the hardest hit states in the country.
With the White House fostering the blue state-versus-red state mentality, state leaders have braced for another round of potential run-ins with the president. That remains true when it comes to federal support for vaccine distribution.
The federal government’s vaccine distribution plan, according to Pence’s remarks on the governors’ call Monday, has a tagline: “Federally supported, state managed.”
It’s a strategy similar to the one bore out in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic. And again states are left searching for answers on how exactly the Trump administration plans to support local leaders in their efforts to distribute the vaccine once it becomes available.
“It’s just not a plan in any meaningful way. They lay out strategic goals but it’s not telling us how to get there,” said Juliette Kayyem, a former assistant secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. “On a very sort of surreal level states understand that at some point they are going to have to trigger that mechanism [for distribution]. But why invest in it now when the date for a vaccine starts slipping back? Leaders are gaming it for a new president. There is no money behind it. What are you going to do? Maintain a shell apparatus? You don’t want to build a system that remains dormant.”
Updated to add comment.