Behind Trump’s vaccine boosterism, allies see chance for political payoff

FLORENCE, Ariz. — When former President Donald Trump told his supporters to get a Covid shot over the summer, he was booed during a rally in Alabama.

When he told a friendly audience in Dallas last month that he had received a booster vaccination, he was jeered.

And when he praised the efficacy of the vaccines in an interview with conservative influencer Candace Owens, she pushed back.

None of it deterred Trump, who now sounds like an evangelist for vaccines that his administration helped develop but that large swaths of his base deride. In some of his most forceful comments yet, he described politicians who won’t reveal their booster status as “gutless,” a comment widely seen as a shot at Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who polls show is the second choice of 2024 GOP primary voters.

It’s a significant shift for the former president, who at one point expressed doubt over the need for boosters but has mostly abstained from actively promoting the shots. The message is welcomed by allies and advisers, who have privately pushed him to use his platform more forcefully to promote the highly effective vaccines to the public.

“I think his actions all along suggested that he was a huge supporter of vaccines,” said Paul Mango, who was a top official in Trump’s Department of Health and Human Services and with Operation Warp Speed, the administration’s public-private partnership aimed at accelerating vaccine development. “And now his words are matching his actions.”

Trump’s effort to change the dialogue around vaccines may be part of a general-election strategy for taking on President Joe Biden in 2024, according to Trump advisers, former aides and administration officials. These allies don’t think there’s any downside to him promoting the shots and his administration’s efforts to accelerate their development in a GOP primary — one in which Trump would enter as the prohibitive favorite should he decide to run — even with surveys showing 30 to 40 percent of the Republican base declining so far to get vaccinated or saying they never will.

“He has a right to believe in them and he’s taking them and he thinks that other people should,” John Fredericks, a conservative talk show host and chair of Trump’s campaign in Virginia in 2016 and 2020, told NBC News. “Also, he’s not for mandates. He’s not for making people put something in their body or take something they don’t want.” He predicted it would have “zero impact” on the primary.

Before his recent flurry of appearances promoting the vaccines, Trump had been hearing privately from allies and advisers that he needs to be more full-throated in urging people to get the shots.

That was no accident. For months, former Trump administration aides had quietly been trading emails with one another, mulling how best to persuade him he needed to be more aggressive in promoting the vaccine among his core voters.

Their concern was twofold: Biden did not seem to be making headway in coaxing Trump supporters to get vaccinated, and Biden’s overall response to the pandemic in their view seemed to be lacking.

“There were a number of former Trump administration people who thought it important that Trump take credit for the vaccines and encourage Americans to get vaccinated, especially when the Biden administration was incapable or unwilling to reach out to those people,” a former administration official said in an interview, speaking on condition of anonymity to talk more freely. “And there were a number of conversations and emails amongst people about how we could make that case to the president. We felt it was important that Trump speak up about peoples’ skepticism toward the vaccine.”

With Biden’s poll numbers on his handling of the pandemic slipping, Trump’s allies and advisers saw an opening he could exploit. Scientists had developed the vaccine on Trump’s watch — something that might look more impressive to voters. Still, Trump’s own handling of the virus was unpopular, with his response coming under heavy criticism.

That included his constant downplaying of the severity of the coronavirus from the start, failing to focus on widespread testing, offering mixed messaging on masking while largely refusing to wear one in public himself, promoting discredited cures like hydroxychloroquine and bleach injections, pushing to eliminate mitigation measures just weeks into the pandemic over the objection of public health experts and hosting large events that spread the virus.

Trump’s shift on vaccines come as Republicans broadly have lambasted Biden for not shepherding in the pandemic’s end — all while seeking to actively undercut his administration’s vaccination and mitigation strategies.

“He’s heard from a lot of people who’ve said, ‘Listen, you’ve done something that nobody could ever do and you should embrace it,’” said one person close to Trump, requesting anonymity to discuss private conversations with the former president. “It’s one of the great successes of his administration and he’s finally understood that it’s a great success.”

His allies see minimal political risk given that much of Trump’s base of supporters has proved to be unwaveringly loyal. They believe Republican voters dubious about the vaccine aren’t about to abandon Trump for promoting vaccination, as long as he doesn’t demand it. At his Saturday rally in Arizona, Trump praised a Supreme Court ruling against the Biden administration’s vaccination-or-test requirements for large workplaces and boasted of being “the anti-mandate president” who would “always” stand against such requirements.

Plus, they argue, there’s always the chance that independents or undecided voters might reward him for using his megaphone to get a larger share of the population immunized.

“He’s setting an example not just for his supporters but for the entire Republican Party,” Jerome Adams, U.S. surgeon general under Trump, said, adding, “He’s a major influencer and he’s going to add to that steady drumbeat of reasons that help people get over their fears and concerns. It won’t be instantaneous or the only reason one chooses to get vaccinated, but I absolutely do believe it will be helpful.”

Surveys suggest that the majority of Trump voters and Republicans have been vaccinated, and nearly 75 percent of the U.S. population has received at least one dose of a Covid vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Still, conservatives appear among the staunchest holdouts. An Economist/YouGov poll published earlier this month found that 32 percent of Trump voters and 33 percent of Republicans and conservatives say they will never get vaccinated, the highest for any demographic group polled.

That survey found 40 percent of Trump voters and 43 percent of Republicans have not yet received a vaccination, comparable to 18-29 year-olds and white women without college degrees polled, though those holdouts are not as hardened in opposition.

“His supporters like myself will certainly point to it,” Barry Bennett, a 2016 Trump campaign aide, said of the Trump administration’s vaccine development operation. “But there’s no one to persuade.”

Meanwhile, anti-vaccine misinformation has thrived online, particularly in conservative spaces, and Trump’s recent comments touting the vaccines received backlash in corners of the online right.

Owens, the conservative influencer, said Trump believes in the vaccines because he “only reads mainstream news.” The far-right cartoonist Ben Garrison painted Trump as confused. Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones was enraged. And on far-right forums posters were trying to figure out just how to interpret Trump’s vaccine boosterism.

Trump allies said the potential for a rift with core supporters wasn’t a worry. One top Trump adviser, who requested anonymity to speak freely on a subject he was not authorized to address, told NBC News the former president “is not concerned that, you know, 30 percent to 40 percent of the GOP primary base is not vaccinated.”

“And if he starts telling people to get vaccinated, and he gets booed by a few of them, he’s not concerned that’s going to cost him,” this person added. “That’s not a political liability. The real third rail here is not telling people you think they should get vaccinated, it’s telling people what to do. It’s forcing people with mandates.”

Supporters interviewed in Arizona ahead of his Saturday rally here agreed. Several said that only if Trump were to advocate for vaccine mandates would he face political backlash.

In Arizona, John Brewer, a 44-year-old union elevator operator apprentice from Surprise, said he voted twice for Trump and is not vaccinated.

“He can push it,” Brewer said of vaccination. “But mandating it, I would lose all respect for him, and I wouldn’t vote for him if those words came out of his mouth.”

Erin Campbell, 36, of Chandler, who works for a staffing coordinating company, said she is not upset with Trump for promoting the Covid vaccines, even though she is against them.

“I think he was pressured into it,” she said of Trump’s recent efforts, adding she was pleased he was not advocating for mandates. “He gave us a choice.”

Mike McNulty, a 66-year-old teacher from Phoenix who attended Trump’s rally, said the former president got “brainwashed” by Dr. Anthony Fauci, the longtime head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and Biden’s top medical adviser on Covid.

“He has to atone,” McNulty said of Trump. “He made a mistake.” But that doesn’t mean McNulty is against Trump in 2024.

“Who else?” he asked. “Who else is going to go up against the Deep State?”

Chris Wilson, a Republican strategist and pollster, said Trump’s ramped-up vaccine promotion “shows that Trump considers the primary a formality if he decides to run in 2024.”

“He’s setting up a comparison with Biden for the general and wants to own the vaccine itself,” he said.

More broadly, Trump taking credit for the vaccines is a way to reframe what polling showed was widespread opposition to the former president’s handling of the pandemic, something that as much as anything may have been responsible for voters ousting him from office in 2020.

“What he wants is that his biggest failure isn’t seen to be a failure in hindsight,” a former Trump adviser said on the condition of anonymity to avoid incurring the former president’s ire. “That’s classic Trump.”

Allan Smith reported from New York, Peter Nicholas reported from Washington, D.C., and Jonathan Allen reported from Florence, Arizona.

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