As prospects for an effective vaccination for the coronavirus have improved for the coming year, Donald Trump has grown outwardly resentful that he won’t be in the Oval Office to take the credit for it.
For months, Trump had promised that a COVID vaccine was coming shortly. He put much of his election hopes on the possibility. But the announcement from two major pharmaceutical companies of hugely successful trial results for their respective COVID vaccine candidates came in the days after the votes were cast. And while it may have brought joy to the markets and public health officials, for Trump it was nothing but a heap of frustration.
Prior to the announcement of those breakthroughs, the president had brainstormed with aides and close associates about ways he could promote the vaccine to the American people. According to two individuals with direct knowledge of his private comments, the president had said he envisioned large, public, mask-free events—particularly when the weather grew warmer in, what he anticipated to be, a second term—and rallies to celebrate the successes of Operation Warp Speed, the public-private partnership to develop a vaccine. When distribution began, Trump had wanted to be directly involved in the vaccine’s promotion, gaming out a video campaign about the safety and success of his operation.
Trump also mused about holding a public, televised event or news conference in which he'd proudly brandish and read from a list of headlines, articles, and TV coverage that had either underestimated him or raised doubts about Operation Warp Speed's timeline.
"The president has been looking forward to showing that he was right and the media was wrong," one of the sources described.
But many of those plans are scuttled now. Come late January, President-elect Joe Biden will be leader of the free world, and the West Wing communications apparatus won’t be focused on amplifying Trump’s bragging any longer. According to two people who’ve spoken to the president about it, he’s grown preemptively annoyed that Biden will try to “steal” credit from him for life-saving vaccine developments.
“Another Vaccine just announced. This time by Moderna, 95% effective. For those great ‘historians’, please remember that these great discoveries, which will end the China Plague, all took place on my watch!” the president tweeted on Monday, with future claims of credit clearly at the fore of his thinking.
Trump’s aggrievement comes as the communities across the country grapple with how to deal with surges in new positive COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths, and as the president and current administration continue to block cooperation on coronavirus-related matters with an incoming Biden administration. And for critics of the president, it is yet another illustration of the perverse priorities he has brought to the COVID fight.
“When [the scientists] say they have a safe, effective vaccine ready for mass distribution, we should believe them. But I do know President Trump has made efforts to politicize this, as well. I was in a meeting with him months ago when we were discussing vaccine development and he specifically said we needed it before ‘November,’” recounted Olivia Troye, a former senior adviser to the coronavirus task force who endorsed Biden shortly after leaving the Trump administration.
A White House spokesman did not respond to a request for comment on this story.
Trump’s now aborted plans for a big vaccine celebration tour in a second term aren’t the only events that he has been forced to back away from following the election.
In the week before voters went to the polls, there had also been some talk among Trump and certain political lieutenants about the possibility of staging mass rallies in the immediate aftermath of Election Day. Those plans have also been put on hold, at least for the time being, as Trump officials have soured on the idea of putting the president back on the trail to buoy the MAGA diehards who still think he won, according to two sources familiar with the plans.
“There haven’t been any plans for POTUS rallies,” a senior Trump campaign official added.
Instead, Trump and what’s left of his reelection campaign have been largely focused on the legal challenges that make up a frantic and all-but certainly feckless attempt to overturn the results of the election. It’s a last-ditch legal and messaging blitz for which the president has made his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani the lead fighter. On Monday afternoon, the shell of Trump 2020 was still fundraising for this and other expensive endeavors, and using the vaccine breakthroughs to do it. “CORONAVIRUS VACCINE UPDATE,” read a text message that the Trump campaign blasted out to supporters on Monday. “Another option for the vaccine was just announced - 95% EFFECTIVE! Incredible! Pres Trump needs your support. Donate.”
While the president, in his fundraising appeals and social media missives, has presented the news around a COVID vaccine development as a triumph of his leadership, various senior officials working on the administration’s COVID-19 response have cautioned that there is a long way to go before it will reach the general public.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert and a member of the COVID task force, said in a recent interview with The Daily Beast that he expects the first doses of a vaccine to be handed out to healthcare workers by the end of December. Both Pfizer and Moderna have said their respective candidates had efficacy rates well over 90 percent.
However, Fauci said he does not expect the general public to have access to the vaccine until sometime this spring.
“This is good news all around. Both vaccines are going to be extraordinarily important in containing the outbreak in this country,” Fauci told The Daily Beast, adding that he expects that the administration should be able to view other companies’ vaccine data sometime early next year. He described the Johnson&Johnson version as a “promising candidate.”
Before distribution of the vaccine, Fauci said the Federal Drug Administration (FDA), led by Dr. Stephen Hahn, will need to review Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccine data. On a call with the nation’s governors Monday, a recording of which was obtained by The Daily Beast, Hahn said the FDA has yet to receive that information. But once it does, Fauci said, the FDA will hopefully sign off on an emergency use authorization, which would allow the administration to start distributing the vaccine right away.
“Likely towards late December,” Fauci said.
For the last several months officials working on the federal government’s response to the coronavirus have been developing proposals for distribution to the American public. Plans for manufacturing the vaccine and transporting it to states have been finalized, officials say. But what’s less clear is how state, county and municipal officials will dole out doses to residents.
According to multiple health officials, there is no federal mandate that says who will get the vaccine first. There’s only a recommendation from the administration that the first wave of doses go to frontline healthcare workers and the most vulnerable, including the elderly and those with comorbidities. On the call with governors Monday, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield said all 64 health jurisdictions have submitted outlines for how they plan to distribute the vaccine to residents. Each is specific to the individual jurisdiction depending on resources and how local officials want to prioritize the handouts. Redfield said the CDC will continue to work with states to help smooth out those blueprints.
“People say, ‘Oh my god, how are you going to distribute all these vaccines?’ The CDC does that every year. They distribute like 80 million doses of vaccine. So they are very experienced,” Fauci told The Daily Beast. “But whoever decides whether Jane Smith, who's standing at a desk in a hospital, versus Mary Jones, who's in the intensive care unit, whether they are both equal frontline workers, or whether one is more preferential than the other, that's going to be a local decision.”
While some Trump administration officials are wary about possible disruptions to the vaccine distribution on a local level, others are more concerned with whether Americans will line up to get immunized at all.
Over the last several months, the CDC has launched a campaign to build trust with communities across the country so as to asure Americans that the vaccine will be safe and effective. On the call with governors Monday, Redfield again pleaded with the state leaders to more aggressively speak about the safety and transparency of the vaccine manufacturing and distribution process.
“We call on all of you to get your leadership to help with this,” Redfield said. “I think the greatest risk to our vaccine plan is not the vaccine, which is really miraculous, it is building confidence in the American public. We’ve had a really significant campaign … to build that confidence … to change that narrative on vaccine hesitancy that we’ve seen spread across this nation. I think it is something we still have an opportunity to continue.”