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On COVID vaccine breakthrough, Trump prefers bystander role

Given a choice between obsessing over his defeat and positioning himself for credit on the COVID-19 vaccine, Trump doesn't see an especially tough call.
Image: COVID-19 Vaccine
COVID-19 vaccines are prepared for use at the Portland Veterans Affairs Medical Center on Dec. 16, 2020 in Portland, Ore.Nathan Howard / Getty Images

Late last month, Donald Trump left no doubt that he wanted credit for the development of COVID-19 vaccines. "I came up with vaccines that people didn't think we'd have for five years," the president declared in a Nov. 29 Fox News interview. A few days earlier, during a Thanksgiving message to U.S. troops, the Republican added, "Don't let Joe Biden take credit for the vaccines."

Pro-Trump voices have been pushing similar lines. Kayleigh McEnany, for example, recently called the vaccine "the Trump vaccine," while Marc Thiessen, closely aligned with the Republican White House, recently devoted a column to the idea that Biden should celebrate Trump as the hero of vaccine development as a way to "unite" the country.

As a substantive matter, the entire pitch is a stretch. While it's true the outgoing administration took steps to expedite the vaccine process, it's also true that any administration would've had the common sense to do the same thing. What's more, while scientists were working diligently on a breakthrough, Trump spent months downplaying the crisis, telling the public not to fear the pandemic, and undermining public-health mitigation efforts.

Nevertheless, now that needless are reaching shoulders, it's tempting to think the outgoing president, desperate for credit, would be eager to claim the vaccine spotlight for himself. As the Associated Press reported over the weekend, that's largely the opposite of what's actually happening, with Trump preferring to be "conspicuously absent" as the largest vaccination campaign in the nation's history gets underway.

Trump, who was hospitalized with COVID-19 in October, has been largely absent from the effort to sell the American public on what aides hope will be a key part of his legacy. He has held no public events to trumpet the rollout. He hasn't said when he will be inoculated. And he has tweeted fewer than a handful of times about the vaccines despite sending a flurry of tweets about other topics.

The AP's report added that White House aides have pushed the outgoing president to be the public face of the vaccination campaign -- visiting labs, staging photo-ops at production facilities, thanking workers at clinics, etc. -- but Trump has "pushed aside" such plans.

The New York Times published a related report over the weekend, marveling at the outgoing president's passivity and willingness to play the role of "bystander."

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) told the newspaper that Trump's post-election fury was blinding him to an opportunity to boost his legacy. "The president could have made that the hallmark of his last days in office," Romney said. "Instead, he's seen as promoting conspiracy theories and evidence-free accusations of fraud."

Trump is putting his priorities on display. Sure, he could be thanking clinicians and applauding vaccine deliveries, but the outgoing president apparently sees the vaccination campaign as a distraction from what he considers really important: his defeat, his conspiracy theories, his preoccupation with a baseless sense of grievance.

Given a choice between obsessing over election fraud that didn't happen and positioning himself for credit on the COVID-19 vaccine, Trump doesn't see an especially tough call. The latter would make sense, but his misguided instincts gear him toward the former.

The president himself acknowledged during a recent campaign rally in Georgia, in reference to his anti-election efforts, "I've probably worked harder in the last three weeks than I ever have in my life. Doing this."

I continue to believe this was a more extraordinary confession than he realized. By Trump's own telling, he's willing to invest more effort into claiming power through illegitimate means than anything else -- including keeping Americans safe during a deadly pandemic.