In the final months of Donald Trump’s term in office, several of the then-president’s top advisers were monitoring a growing concern: that COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy, particularly among Republicans and Trump supporters, was going to pose a major problem as the United States embarked on its mission to vaccinate millions.
According to three people familiar with the matter, then-President Trump was repeatedly warned by some of his closest advisers and administration officials about this MAGA-specific issue during his closing weeks as leader of the free world. But in the two months since President Joe Biden took over at the White House, polls show that aversion to the new coronavirus vaccines remains markedly higher among Trump fans and GOP voters than it is among liberals and Biden supporters. That reality has stoked grave concern among public health officials and experts, and has left some of the ex-president’s friends and allies frustrated over the fact that Trump, from his new home in Florida, isn’t doing more to reach his base and combat the problem.
“I have practically begged him to get out there constantly [during his post-presidency] and make videos calling on his supporters who are hesitant to get their shots,” one person close to Trump said. “Last time I checked in, I hadn’t heard of any positive movement in that direction.”
In a small number of public appearances and TV interviews lately, the former president has encouraged—at times as mere asides—his true believers to get vaccinated, but has yet to embark on anything close to a vigorous campaign to leverage his sizable megaphone on the subject. Further, it was not publicly revealed he and then-first lady Melania Trump had been vaccinated until nearly a month and a half after he was no longer president.
Michael Caputo, a former Trump campaign adviser who served as the assistant secretary of public affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services, told The Daily Beast that in September, shortly before he was diagnosed with cancer and departed the administration, he too talked to the president about the anti-vaccine sentiment rapidly emerging among the MAGA faithful.
“Donald Trump and I had a conversation about broader issues, and I mentioned it briefly,” he recounted. “It was a glancing conversation in the Oval Office in September, in between meetings, and I mentioned how vaccine hesitancy was likely going to be a big problem, especially among Republicans and Trump supporters. And he said, ‘Yes, I understand, and it’s a problem.’ I’ve been told there were other conversations on this after I left, and that the conversations with the president continued…We started getting more and more suspicious of [anti-vaccine sentiment on the right] as I left. We were talking amongst ourselves in HHS in August, saying that it was ironic that the most vaccine-hesitant among us were our friends, our allies. And we still face that question.”
By November, Trump’s focus had largely shifted—not to his management of the global pandemic that had torpedoed the U.S. economy and left hundreds of thousands of Americans dead, but to his and Republican’ court battles and anti-democratic crusade to overturn Biden’s clear victory in the 2020 presidential contest.
In the weeks following Biden’s inauguration, Trump has only sporadically called on his supporters to get their COVID vaccines, including at his headlining speech during last month’s annual Conservative Political Action Conference, and has yet to mount anything resembling a sustained campaign or effort. Just last week, Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s private club and residence in Palm Beach, Florida, had to partially shut down due to a new coronavirus outbreak.
Recent polling has consistently found that Trump fans and Republican men are some of the demographics most likely to decline, or be skeptical of, getting a coronavirus vaccine.
Ever since settling into his post-presidency, Trump has at times casually discussed with certain confidants the prospect of starring in his own videos or ads to promote the vaccines, and also to tout the successes of his administration’s Operation Warp Speed, according to two people with direct knowledge of the conversations. However, when asked if any such videos had been produced yet, a Trump adviser said last week that there was “nothing scheduled” at the moment in terms of release.
Earlier this month, former presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter all starred in a public service announcement aimed at convincing more Americans to get vaccinated against the virus. Trump, the two sources relayed, has privately said that he doesn’t wish to star in PSAs with the other former presidents, most of whom he openly despises.
And for some prominent Trump allies, the 45th U.S. president’s latest entreaties simply have not sunk in. MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, an on-again-off-again Trump adviser who also served as the Trump re-election campaign’s Minnesota co-chair, claimed in a recent interview that the ex-president’s CPAC speech didn’t actually implore fans to get vaccinated (even though it did), and added that his upcoming planned social media website will be a “free speech” haven that will permit users to post as much anti-vaccine content as they wish, for instance. “I will never take it… and it’s against my religion,” Lindell insisted.
This type of talk among MAGA mega-fans sounds abundantly familiar to other former Trump lieutenants, some of whom find themselves clashing with fellow supporters of the ex-president who are refusing to get vaccinated during the ongoing push by the Biden administration and local and state governments. Caputo said that in his time out of government and battling cancer, he’s made it a priority to reach out to as many Trump supporters online and in his community as possible to try to convince them to get their shots.
“I’ve been on Facebook, I’ve attended Republican committee meetings, I’ve done Zoom meetings, there’s this biker hangout near me called Kipp’s that has life-size cutouts of President Trump and Melania where you can take your picture there—it’s top to bottom Johnny Cash memorabilia and Donald Trump memorabilia. I’d go there and have discussions with people about it,” he said. “Some of my closest friends are anti-vaccine or anti-mask, or even COVID deniers who believe it’s just like the flu. One of my friends is anti-mask and believes COVID was a plot hatched to bring down Donald Trump—now he has COVID. And these are the people I talk to.”
Asked what his former boss could be doing right now to get more Republicans to get on board with COVID-19 vaccination, Caputo replied, “In my opinion, the former president could do a PSA campaign with Melania Trump. And the national television networks need to be airing this now, in their primetime programming.”
For the time being, Trump has remained almost entirely M.I.A. on the matter. And when he has poked his head up publicly to urge his anti-vaccine followers to change their minds, he has at times veered in the direction of both-sides-ism.
“I would recommend it, and I would recommend it to a lot of people that don’t want to get it. And a lot of those people voted for me, frankly,” Trump said during a phone interview on Fox News earlier this month. “But, you know, again, we have our freedoms, and we have to live by that, and I agree with that also,” the ex-president continued, before adding, “But it’s a great vaccine, it’s a safe vaccine, and it’s something that works.”