Donald Trump’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic while president was horrendous. He downplayed the deadliness of the novel coronavirus by equating it to a flu, he railed against lifesaving lockdowns and he mused about injecting disinfectant as a remedy. But in a rare show of good sense, Trump has recently been trying to sell his own base on the value of the Covid vaccines.
The former president wants credit for his administration’s role in the vaccines’ quick development and distribution. He might not be championing the vaccines for the right reasons, but given that he’s likely the single-most influential person in America when it comes to convincing establishment-skeptical conservatives to get the jab, the consequences are beneficial for our country. His sparring with anti-vaccine activists also speaks to tensions within his base that he’ll have to reckon with if he runs in 2024.
Trump clearly sees the development of the vaccines while he was president as an opportunity to secure his historical legacy.
In an interview for The Daily Wire with right-wing commentator Candace Owens, Trump gushed about the development of the three major Covid vaccines in the United States while he was still president, and, in true Trumpian fashion, took credit for them as if he had engineered them in the lab himself.
“The vaccine is one of the greatest achievements of mankind,” Trump said. “I came up with a vaccine — with three vaccines — all are very, very good … in less than nine months. It was supposed to take five to 12 years.”
(Trump had a mixed record on vaccine development: He politicized the process by leaning inappropriately on regulators for approval, but his investment and interest in assisting with development and deployment was helpful in speeding it up.)
When Owens replied that more people have died from Covid during President Joe Biden’s term than Trump’s (which is not correct) and suggested that it raised questions about the efficacy of the vaccines, Trump interrupted to defend them.
“The vaccine worked, but some people aren’t taking it,” he said. “The ones that get very sick and go to the hospital are the ones who don’t take their vaccine. But it’s still their choice.”
“And if you take the vaccine, you’re protected," Trump went on. "The results of the vaccine are very good. And if you do get it, it’s a very minor form. People aren’t dying when they take their vaccine."
During that same interview, he criticized mask mandates, including for children in schools. But the takeaway was unapologetic advocacy for getting vaccinated in the face of misinformation about whether the vaccines work.
Trump’s reasoning emerged more starkly during an interview at a public event with Bill O’Reilly on Sunday. He championed the vaccines as something that saved millions of lives and something that should be considered a badge of pride. “Take credit for it. Take credit for it. It’s a great — what we’ve done is historic. Don’t let them take it away. Don’t take it away from ourselves. You’re playing right into their hands, when you’re sort of like like, ‘Oh the vaccine.’” Trump later revealed he had gotten a booster and rebuffed boos from the crowd.
There are a couple things going on here. Trump clearly sees the development of the vaccines while he was president as an opportunity to secure his historical legacy, to argue that he shaped global events during his time in the White House. And he also views it as politically advantageous for the right to try to own the Covid vaccines and claim to have authored them.
Trump’s expediency is unsightly as always, but the more comforting truth that underlies it is that Trump does seem to believe in the effectiveness of the vaccines himself. He got vaccinated while he was in the White House, and he’s since taken a booster — and he seemed happy to share that news at the event with O’Reilly. Particularly as the wildfire spread of omicron has fueled new conspiracy theories and false claims about how the vaccines are not worthwhile, it’s tremendously valuable to have Trump willing to confront skeptics.
If Trump does run in 2024, it goes without saying that he could backtrack if he determines that his vaccine views could be an electoral liability. But his apparent belief that they work and his belief that they will put him on the right side of history, even if only for reasons of ego, are a boon for America.