‘Politically calculated’: Trump confronts his RFK Jr. problem on vaccines

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Donald Trump’s long-fraught relationship with the Covid vaccine is again becoming a political liability for the former president as he tries to stop his voters from potentially defecting to independent candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

Trump is threatening to “not give one penny” to schools or colleges that mandate the Covid-19 vaccine. He is accusing Kennedy of being a “fake” anti-vaxxer. And he is rarely mentioning what he once touted as “one of the greatest miracles” of his presidency — his program to speed development of the vaccine.

Trump’s attempt to escalate his hardest-line rhetoric on vaccines — and his struggle to reconcile his past support for the Covid shot — is yet another sign of how seriously the former president is taking the threat of Kennedy’s third-party candidacy siphoning votes from him.

“Trump’s statements are clearly deliberate and politically calculated to negate the threat that [Kennedy] has become to him,” Republican strategist and former Trump administration appointee Matthew Bartlett said. “Otherwise, he would be demanding a Nobel prize for Operation Warp Speed and taking credit for ending the pandemic.”

Trump's elevation of vaccine policy in recent weeks reflects the unique problem that Kennedy poses for the presumptive Republican nominee. While presidential candidates typically moderate their messages for a general election audience after winning primaries, Kennedy has forced the former president to continue guarding his right flank on Covid by attracting vaccine skeptics to his third-party campaign and skewering Trump’s support for early pandemic shutdowns.

It’s a reality even Trump has tacitly acknowledged. In a recent video in which the former president torched Kennedy as a “fake,” he addressed his comments in part to “those of you who want to vote because you think he's an anti-vaxxer.”

Trump is “insulating against it being a problem,” said Jason Roe, a Republican strategist and former executive director of the Michigan Republican Party. “Trump is in a pretty commanding position in most of the polls in swing states, so why take the chance of RFK Jr. screwing it up for you.”

Trump’s support for vaccines has been all over the map since he entered politics, including his suggestion during a 2015 GOP debate that he believed the widely discredited theory that vaccines were linked to autism. Following his election, one of the first major controversies of his transition into the White House came when Kennedy said the president-elect had asked him to chair a commission on vaccine safety focused on false claims about vaccines and autism. Trump ultimately didn’t install one.

When Covid-19 tore across the U.S., Trump, who has bragged about never having gotten a flu shot, pushed for a vaccine to be ready in record speed. But vaccine skepticism and general backlash to pandemic-related shutdowns and mandates among Republicans — and the MAGA base in particular — turned one of Trump’s major policy victories into one of his biggest political liabilities heading into the 2024 Republican primary.

It created an opening for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, once considered Trump’s top primary rival, who frequently attacked Trump from the right on vaccines. DeSantis also criticized the former president for failing to push states to reopen sooner and for refusing to fire Dr. Anthony Fauci, the former top infectious disease expert who led both the Trump and Biden administration’s pandemic responses.

But DeSantis’ Covid offensive flailed in the glare of Trump’s stardom with the GOP base. Voters appeared to give officials a pass for the regulations they backed at the start of the pandemic, especially after Covid deaths were just as numerous during President Joe Biden’s first year in office — even after the vaccine came to market — as they were under Trump.

But the hits still forced Trump to counter-message on the issue. He attacked DeSantis during the primary for initially supporting both the Covid vaccine and early pandemic lockdowns. And Trump promised to go hard against vaccine mandates.

And if Trump, early in the GOP primary, was concerned the base might be moved by vaccines, that same apprehension is showing again — this time over Kennedy.

A recent poll from Monmouth University that tested voters’ support for Kennedy versus Trump and Biden shows a slight uptick in Republican interest for the third-party candidate when respondents learned of his debunked claim that autism is linked to vaccines. The national survey of 808 adults was conducted April 18-22 using a combination of landline, cell phone and online surveys and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.3 percentage points.

“There’s a slight movement. It’s not hugely perceptible. But it’s slight enough that it’s pulling a few more off Trump’s soft support right now,” said Monmouth polling director Patrick Murray. “While we don’t know whether that will last when we get to the fall, you can understand why it would be of concern to the Trump campaign. … It only takes a few voters in key states to flip the Electoral College.”

Brian Hughes, senior adviser for the Trump campaign, said the former president's opposition to Covid vaccine mandates isn't new — he has mentioned it in almost every speech since leaving office.

“He has advocated for ending all unconstitutional Covid mandates and draconian lockdowns, and he fought vigorously against them,” Hughes said. “After the initial ‘Slow the Spread’ period, President Trump was the most significant force for opening the country up, in spite of enormous media and Democrat resistance."

But Trump is, in some ways, in a no-win situation on vaccines. When Biden touted the nation’s vaccine-powered “comeback” from Covid during his State of the Union speech in March, Trump claimed credit in a post on Truth Social: “YOU'RE WELCOME, JOE, NINE MONTH APPROVAL TIME VS. 12 YEARS THAT IT WOULD HAVE TAKEN YOU.”

The backlash was swift, with the post alarming some of Trump’s most prominent conservative supporters. Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist and Infowars host, threatened to go on a “warpath” against the former president if he continued to brag about the vaccines. Charlie Kirk, a Trump ally and conservative commentator with a massive online following, warned that Trump could lose voters to Kennedy if he continued down that path.

“Donald Trump taking credit for the vaccine — if RFK wasn’t in the race, it wouldn’t be that big of a deal,” Kirk said on his eponymous show in March. “But you have to understand that there are millions of voters that look at the vaccine issue as a highly personal issue. … With RFK on the ballot you cannot dismiss this coalition.”

Meanwhile, Kennedy’s campaign is embracing Trump’s ramped-up vaccine rhetoric. The team believes more attention on vaccines on the campaign trail, coupled with recent media reports about Covid-19 vaccine injuries, signal that what’s long been considered one of the independent candidate’s biggest weaknesses — his anti-vaccine advocacy — is fading.

Trump is “trying to get back an audience that's leaving him, that's inspired by Robert Kennedy,” communications director Del Bigtree told POLITICO at a recent campaign rally in Austin, Texas. “I think he'll say whatever he can to try and take that audience.”

Kennedy took direct aim at Trump’s handling of Covid-19 at the Texas rally, as he has at other campaign events.

“President Trump came into office and said, ‘I’m going to run it like a business. I’m a businessman. Trust me.’ … Then he closed down all of our businesses, 3.3 million businesses,” Kennedy said at his Austin rally.

“Do you want a president who would do that?” Kennedy asked the crowd. The answer: a full-venue chorus of “No.”

Bigtree said Kennedy has more credibility with voters who are concerned about vaccine safety, vaccine mandates and investigating the government’s approval of the vaccines — mostly because he’s been “vilified” for it for years.

“We have a candidate that has a history of telling people the truth, fighting for individuals, always standing up against the system, even when it's not pleasant, even when it's not the easy thing to do, who never backs down from what he believes in,” Bigtree said. “And I think when people look at Donald Trump, they don't see a person that represents that.”