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Trump fires up vaccine tensions

Former President Trump is touting his administration’s work in developing life-saving COVID-19 vaccines, putting him at odds with a portion of his base that is skeptical or opposed to the vaccines. 

Trump in a speech and in a recent interview with conservative pundit Candice Owens defended his administration’s work in developing the vaccines, suggesting it is a landmark achievement from his years in office for which he deserves credit.

“I came up with a vaccine, with three vaccines,” Trump told Owens. “All are very, very good. Came up with three of them in less than nine months. It was supposed to take five to 12 years.”

Trump also pushed back at Owens when she responded by saying that more people have died from COVID-19 since the vaccines were available — a period that mostly coincides with the Biden administration, since vaccines only became available weeks before Trump left office.

“Oh no, the vaccines work,” Trump said, adding that the people who “get very sick and go to the hospital” are unvaccinated — a point medical experts have been stressing for months.

“Look, the results of the vaccine are very good, and if you do get it, it’s a very minor form,” Trump continued. “People aren’t dying when they take the vaccine.”

Polls suggest a majority of Republicans back vaccines and are vaccinated, but it’s not a large majority.

A Kaiser Family Foundation report in September found that 58 percent of respondents identifying as Republicans had been vaccinated, compared to 90 percent of Democrats and 68 percent of independents.

A Gallup poll in September found 56 percent of Republicans had been vaccinated, compared to 92 percent of Democrats and 68 percent of independents.

A Fox News poll conducted in August found that roughly one-third of Trump voters had no plans to get vaccinated against COVID-19. More recently, an Economist-YouGov survey conducted last week found that 75 percent of unvaccinated Trump voters say they don’t plan to receive any of the approved COVID-19 shots.

A number of Republican officeholders have also cast doubt on the vaccines, noting that people who are vaccinated still get COVID-19.

Vaccines don’t completely eliminate a person’s chances of contracting the virus, but they do reduce it. They also drastically reduce the chances of hospitalization and death. Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest unvaccinated people have a death rate 14 times the rate of vaccinated people from COVID-19.

Trump remains the leader of the Republican Party and would be the odds-on favorite to win the GOP presidential nomination in 2024 if he chooses to run, as he is actively flirting with doing.

That’s something that hasn’t been changed by the pandemic or a host of other issues, including the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol that led to Trump’s second impeachment. 

Trump’s vocal support of vaccines likewise is not expected to change his support within the GOP, but it does raise questions about how the debate over vaccines will shake out if the former president continues to beat the drum.

Veteran GOP strategist Keith Naughton said he was “a little” surprised by Trump’s recent cheerleading of the vaccines, given the former president’s claim earlier this year that he was unlikely to get a COVID-19 booster. But he said it also made political sense. 

“On the surface it’s surprising. But when you think about it, it’s a sensible thing,” he said. “It’s a sign that he is running. I think he knows he can’t just be part of that extremist side, he’s got to branch out.” 

Days before the Owens interview, Trump was booed by some in the crowd when he told conservative commentator Bill O’Reilly that he had received a COVID-19 vaccine booster shot.

The former president seemed frustrated, saying it was a mistake for people to turn against the vaccines and that it was smart to campaign on their development.

“Look, we did something that was historic, we saved tens of millions of lives worldwide. We, together, all of us, not me,” said Trump.

“Take credit for it. Take credit for it. It’s great. What we’ve done is historic. Don’t let them take it away. Don’t take it away from ourselves. You are playing right into their hands when you sort of like, ‘Oh, the vaccine,’” he added.

Some Republicans welcomed Trump’s remarks, saying it will help their party if they are not tagged with an anti-vaccine label. A few also think it could lead to more people getting vaccinated.

“Absolutely. Because what you had is just a crescendo of misinformation from the small but loud anti-vaccine voice,” one Trump ally said when asked if the remarks could lead to more Republicans getting vaccinated.

“For the past year, some of these fringe voices were allowed to speak, and then he didn’t respond to it. Now he spoke, and now these fringe voices just realize how small their voices are compared to the former president of the United States.”

GOP pollster Robert Blizzard said if Trump does run, he needs to expand his base, as does his party. He and other sources suggested the recent messaging offered some potential for doing so.

The pro-vaccine remarks from Trump did not trigger a notable backlash, though Owens later suggested Trump was unable to adequately research the vaccines online because of his age. Infowars host Owen Shroyer said the remarks could “leave a bad taste in our mouth.”

Trump, like most Republicans, has opposed vaccine mandates, and it’s a certainty that this will be a battle line in elections going forward.

“If you don’t want to take it, you shouldn’t be forced to take it. No mandates,” he told O’Reilly.

“It’s still their choice,” he told Owens.

It’s unclear how Trump plans to proceed talking about the vaccines, which would inevitably lead to conflict with parts of the right.

“There is a chunk of the base that just doesn’t trust the vaccines, and I think there was a real feeling that Trump was with them on that,” one Republican operative said. “I think hearing him actually point out that, you know, the vaccines are safe — there’s kind of this inherent tension with the anti-vax crowd who likes the president, who, rightly or wrongly, thinks he’s on their side.”

“It’s a weird dynamic,” the operative added.

Tags Coronavirus COVID-19 Donald Trump mandates Vaccine

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