Donald Trump took a thinly veiled swipe at Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis during an interview with One America News Network that aired Tuesday, accusing politicians who refuse to admit that they've received a Covid vaccine booster of being “gutless.”
The broadside reinforces Trump’s unlikely emergence as a pro-vax evangelist— at least by Republican standards. And it also foreshadows vaccines as a potential policy battleground between GOP 2024 hopefuls, raising the concerning possibility that candidates could identify being opposed to vaccines — or even quiet on the issue — as a way to run to the right of Trump.
During the interview, Trump didn’t mention DeSantis by name, but it seems clear who was probably on his mind. "I watched a couple politicians be interviewed and one of the questions was, 'Did you get the booster?' Because they had the vaccine and they're answering like — in other words, the answer is 'yes' but they don't want to say it, because they're gutless."
Republican candidates distancing themselves from the vaccine or even painting it as ineffective or dangerous could serve as a way to telegraph anti-establishment or libertarian credentials.
"You got to say it," he continued. "Whether you had it or not, say it."
He then went on to say how he’d experienced no side effects when taking the vaccine, which he said “has saved tens of millions of people throughout the world."
Weeks earlier, DeSantis — Trump’s most serious competition in a race for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination at the moment — had attempted to dodge a question on whether he’d been boosted. When Fox News host Maria Bartiromo asked him if he’d received a third dose, he replied that he’d "done whatever I did, the normal shot." It's unclear if DeSantis, who received a Johnson & Johnson vaccine last spring, has received a booster — his staff told Politico that they did not know if DeSantis had taken one because it was a “private medical” decision.
There are a couple of things that could be motivating Trump to call out Republicans who might be shy about discussing whether they've received a booster. First, Trump has evidently come to the conclusion that vaccines are nothing to be ashamed about and that Republicans should take credit for them, as he's now said multiple times. He seems to believe the vaccine works — he’s taken it himself and was not shy about saying he had a booster. But he also likely believes that demanding that the GOP not rebuff the vaccine puts him at a political advantage — if Republicans are broadly accepting of the vaccine as effective, his self-promotion as the author of the vaccine becomes a greater accomplishment. And if the GOP treats vaccines as a social good rather than a taboo subject or a liberal conspiracy, then Trump has more to boast about during a potential future presidential run.
Trump also likely knows that most Americans have received Covid-19 vaccines, and that two-thirds of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents are at least partially vaccinated. In other words, he’s wagering that it’s not yet a huge risk to adopt this strategy, and that it could have payoffs if he succeeds in building party consensus that the vaccines are a great innovation — that took place under his auspices. (Keep in mind that Trump has opposed mask mandates and vaccine mandates.)
But Trump might also be concerned about something else: the possibility of a lane opening up to his “right” for candidates who espouse hesitation about the efficacy of the vaccines or openly question them. I put “right” in quotes because there should be nothing about opposing getting a safe vaccine that necessarily signals conservatism. But in our world, Republican candidates distancing themselves from the vaccine or even painting it as ineffective or dangerous could serve as a way to telegraph anti-establishment or libertarian credentials. In other words, it could allow a politician to outstrip Trump in the contest to see who can express the most hostility to the idea of a cooperative society.
We could be seeing the opening salvos of 2024 politicking. And the possibility that vaccines could be a political football is a dreadful prospect.