WASHINGTON — When it comes to the coronavirus vaccine, the showman is missing from the show.
As TV cameras beamed live from the White House complex Friday, Vice President Mike Pence shed his suit coat, answered some routine medical questions, and became the highest-ranking member of the Trump administration to take the shot that could stop the spread of a virus that has killed more than 300,000 people. His wife, Karen Pence, and Surgeon General Jerome Adams, also were vaccinated.
”A medical miracle,” Pence called the development of the Pfizer vaccine, saying historians would probably record last week as “the beginning of the end of the pandemic.”
Strangely absent from the moment was President Trump, who frequently has claimed credit for pushing the development of a vaccine in record time but has been vague about when he might get the shot himself.
As the nation enters a new phase of the pandemic and Trump a new phase of his political career, he is trying to perform a delicate dance. The president has spent much of the past four years maligning science and expertise and has his own history of skepticism on immunizations that many of his supporters echo. Yet the rollout of coronavirus vaccines within a year of the pandemic’s emergence with the help of his administration’s Operation Warp Speed arguably could be Trump’s greatest accomplishment.
“You would think he would want to be there,” said Republican strategist Doug Heye of the vaccination of his top administration officials. Or, Heye added, that Trump would be the one rolling up his sleeve for the cameras.
“It would be an image that everyone in the world would see,” Heye said of Trump’s being vaccinated. “He could say it is the greatest thing ever, and that would run uninterrupted in the news.”
But a week into the launch of the Pfizer vaccine, Trump has let other top US officials jump him in line. Just hours after the Pence event, photos appeared of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell getting the shot on Friday. President-elect Joe Biden, along with his wife, Jill, are scheduled to be vaccinated in public on Monday.
Doctors say Trump might not need the vaccine yet because he still could have antibodies from his bout with COVID-19. But he hasn’t even been at a public vaccination event just to watch, as Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain did on the first day of vaccinations in his nation. Trump has tweeted little about it and has yet to urge his supporters to take the vaccine, which doctors and medical health professionals say could help boost vaccination levels to the roughly 70 percent needed to reach herd immunity to suppress the virus.
One reason could be that the president isn’t doing much at all in public since losing the election, focusing instead on tweeting baseless allegations about voter fraud. He may still be harboring resentment that positive results on the vaccine trials weren’t released until after the election, as he has complained.
But Trump also has a history of false statements about vaccines, using the controversy to build on his following amid a growing antivaccine movement in the United States, said disinformation researchers and political analysts. Many of his most ardent supporters have advocated against government public health measures, don’t wear masks, and falsely believe the pandemic has been exaggerated.
That has left Trump, whom doctors often refer to as the “disinformation super spreader,” attempting to take credit for the existence of the vaccine, yet doing nothing to help with the crucial next step of getting enough people vaccinated to end the pandemic.
The dissonance has been underscored by confusing messages from the White House.
As Pence toured a vaccine manufacturing facility in Indiana on Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters that Trump was “absolutely open to taking the vaccine.” But she said his priority was vulnerable front-line workers and skirted a question about why the president has not been more active on the rollout.
“President Trump has been hard at work on COVID behind the scenes,” she said. “Just because you don’t see him at the podium every day doesn’t mean that he’s not aggressively pursuing actions on behalf of the American people.”
Trump tweeted last Sunday that, “I am not scheduled to take the vaccine, but look forward to doing so at the appropriate time. Thank you!” On Friday night he tweeted congratulations that Moderna’s vaccine “is now available” after federal regulators granted emergency use authorization.
Trump’s earliest controversial public statements on vaccines came during a 2007 press conference at his Mar-A-Lago estate, where he first amplified the debunked claim that vaccinations lead to autism in children. He repeated similar falsehoods in later press interviews — and on the presidential debate stage in 2015.
“If you take this little beautiful baby and you pump — I mean — it looks just like it’s meant for a horse, not for a child,” he said during the debate, describing what are actually small syringes used in vaccination.
During the 2016 Republican presidential primaries, he bragged to a radio host that he’d never gotten a flu shot. “I don’t like the idea of injecting bad stuff into your body,” he said, ”which is basically what they do.”
Trump biographer Michael D’Antonio said it has never been difficult for Trump to switch sides on a subject as long as it is politically or personally beneficial.
“The whole issue of vaccines and Trump has to be seen through politics,” he said. “It has nothing to do with science, and I don’t think it has much to do with any experience that he has had personally.”
Political scientist P.W. Singer said Trump’s statements dovetail with an “antivaxxer movement” that initially drew in lower-level celebrities. That most recent antivaccine push began to take hold in the United States after Andrew Wakefield, a former British physician, and other colleagues released a now-discredited 1998 study that falsely linked the measles, mumps, and rubella, or MMR, vaccine to behavioral regression and developmental disorder.
The rise of social media allowed antivaccine skeptics to forge new connections and garner support from more in Hollywood and across the political spectrum.
Now, amid the coronavirus outbreak, a broad, global push blending vaccine hesitancy and conspiracy has taken shape not only against the coronavirus vaccine but nearly all vaccines, science, and government measures to protect public health.
“Donald Trump has two disinformation stories to choose from: One is, ‘give me personal credit for the vaccines’, the other is, ‘undermine vaccines,’ ” said Singer, author of “LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media.” “Both are falsehoods. I believe that he will do what he has consistently done — he will choose both.”
Since Army General Gus Perna, a top official with Operation Warp Speed, announced the initial shipment of coronavirus vaccines from Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech to go out this month, online antivaccine groups have doubled down on conspiracies that the doses include tracking technologies and will make people susceptible to being controlled via 5G cell towers.
“Any inconsistency from Trump on the vaccine in their eyes is not about Trump being inconsistent or weak. It is more that he is being influenced and that more powerful forces are using him to advance their agenda,” said Jonathan Corpus Ong, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School.
Responses to Trump’s social media posts about the development of the vaccine capture the discord. Some Trump supporters praise the president for the vaccine development, yet state their refusal to take the shot. “I’m all for you, Mr. Trump, but you can keep your vaccine,” states one Facebook account in response to a screenshot of a Sept. 16 Trump tweet touting, “Vaccines are moving along fast and safely!”
Conservative commentator DeAnna Lorraine echoed those comments on a show she hosted this month on the far-right conspiracy website InfoWars.
“You know, Trump, probably 80 percent of your base does not want that vaccine. They are not willing to take a foreign rushed substance and jab it into their arms,” she said. “I don’t care who takes it. I don’t care if Jesus takes it. I’m not taking the vaccine.”
Disinformation researchers said the most powerful and urgent message Trump could send to his followers is to take the vaccine. Without that, “he is leaving a void,” said Shireen Mitchell, founder of Stop Online Violence Against Women, which focuses on research to combat disinformation and online harassment. “He is leaving the door open for people to believe whatever they want to believe.”
Doctors, scientists and community leaders have been working to dispel the gamut of misinformation and disinformation over the coronavrius vaccine, as well as concerns over its safety, given how quickly it was developed. Many also worked to increase participation in clinical trials among people from diverse communities, particularly Black Americans, whose trust in vaccines and health care has been ravaged by a foul history of medical experimentation, misconduct, and continued barriers to health.
“This should not be about patting oneself on the back as a political win. This is a collaborative win,” said Dr. Bisola Ojikutu, an infectious disease specialist at Massachusetts General and Brigham and Women’s hospitals.
Recent polls have shown more people willing to get the vaccine. The latest from the Kaiser Family Foundation found 71 percent said they would definitely or probably get the shot. But about a quarter of people remain hesitant to take the vaccine. The highest level of hesitancy, 42 percent, was among Republicans. About 35 percent of Black adults said they definitely or probably would not get vaccinated, citing a general distrust in vaccines overall.
At the White House vaccination event Friday, Adams said he was acutely aware of the symbolic significance of his own vaccination as a Black man and urged Americans to reject misinformation.
“The creation of these vaccines is a gift from above, but vaccines — even ones that are 95 percent effective — will not alone end this pandemic,” he said. “We must now do the necessary work to go from vaccines to vaccinations.”