Many Donald Trump-backed candidates who have blindly embraced his falsehoods about the 2020 election are showing a rare willingness to buck the former President on a most controversial question: whether or not Americans of all ages should get vaccinated against Covid-19.
While Trump has recently taken aim at vaccine skepticism – rejecting concerns about its efficacy in a December interview with far-right commentator Candace Owens and revealing that he received a booster dose – some of his top proxy candidates are promoting a contrary message on the campaign trail.
They range from gubernatorial candidates like Kari Lake in Arizona to Republican House candidates like Steve Carra and Joe Kent, both of whom are challenging GOP incumbents who voted to impeach Trump last year.
Kent, for example, claimed at a recent town hall in Vancouver, Washington, that both masks and Covid-19 vaccines “don’t work,” contradicting public health guidance from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and his own state’s health officials.
“It’s all coming to light … We’ve seen that the vaccines don’t work, we’ve seen that masks don’t work. The American people have been lied to,” he said, according to footage of the event reviewed by CNN.
The retired Army officer was endorsed by Trump last September in his primary challenge against incumbent GOP Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler.
Kent has also argued against Covid-19 vaccines for children. “I think they may make sense for a certain demographic, but we all know that children are not that demographic,” Kent told the Conservative Women of Washington in August. The US Food and Drug Administration authorized the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine for children ages 5-11 in late October, saying in a statement at the time that its own assessment determined “the benefits of the vaccine would outweigh its risks in children 5 through 11 years of age.”
People as young as 5 are now eligible to be vaccinated against Covid-19 following trials in thousands of children. The Pfizer vaccine was highly effective and no serious safety issues have been identified. Although children are less likely to become seriously ill from Covid-19, they are at risk for hospitalization and death, long Covid and rare effects such as multisystem inflammatory syndrome.
Kent’s criticism of the Covid-19 vaccines follows recent attempts by Trump to refute skepticism about their safety – which has been particularly prominent among his core supporters – and claim their development as one of his top achievements as he weighs another presidential bid in 2024. Last month, Trump lauded the efficacy of coronavirus vaccines during an interview with Owens, who has openly opposed them.
“Look, the results of the vaccine are very good,” he said, adding that people who “get very sick and go to the hospital are the ones that don’t take their vaccine.”
In December, rates of Covid-19-associated hospitalizations were 16 times higher in unvaccinated adults compared with fully vaccinated adults, according to the CDC.
Trump’s support isn’t in jeopardy
So far, Trump has made no effort to distance himself from candidates who undermine his pro-vaccine message. He praised Lake at his Arizona rally on January 15, just days after the GOP gubernatorial candidate said she “wonder[s] about the efficacy of the vaccine” during a podcast interview. And Tuesday, he is due to headline a fundraiser for Kent at Mar-a-Lago.
In a statement to CNN, Kent declined to acknowledge his criticism of the vaccines, saying only that he and Trump are “in full agreement” when it comes to their shared opposition to vaccine mandates.
“The government’s repeated lies, shared by Biden and (Dr. Anthony) Fauci, about the vaccines preventing the disease or preventing the spread of the disease have led to policies that have destroyed jobs, families, and lives,” Kent claimed.
Other Republican hopefuls have been even more critical of the vaccines before and after receiving Trump’s endorsement.
In a July letter to President Joe Biden asking him to eliminate a mask mandate for unvaccinated military personnel, Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama claimed, baselessly, that the policy was pressuring American soldiers to take “an experimental shot that has death and other ill-effect risk associated with it.” Brooks is vying for outgoing Sen. Richard Shelby’s seat in the GOP primary and was endorsed by Trump last April.
The three vaccines available in the United States are safe and effective at preventing severe Covid-19 illness and death. They were studied in large clinical trials that included thousands of people, and more than 210 million people in the United States have been fully vaccinated since the vaccines were authorized for emergency use by the FDA.
Carra, a Michigan state representative who has led the push for an audit of the state’s 2020 election results and is running to unseat GOP Rep. Fred Upton, attended an anti-vaccine protest outside a Pfizer plant in western Michigan last February where he described Operation Warp Speed – the Trump administration’s push to develop Covid-19 vaccines in record time – as “a brand new, not well-researched, quickly rammed through process.”
Endorsed by Trump in September, Carra also tweeted a photo earlier this month that appeared to mock Covid-19 vaccine manufacturers.
Carra told CNN in an emailed statement that he is “running for Congress to end medical tyranny” and he and Trump are “in 100% agreement on medical freedom.”
“The mandates, coercion, and heavy hand of government under the Biden administration are yet another example of how America was better off under President Trump’s leadership,” Carra said.
Meanwhile, Trump’s pick for governor of Idaho sent out a newsletter in August claiming that the efficacy of Covid-19 vaccines was “rapidly declining” and that Americans “have a right to be skeptical about getting ‘vaxxed.’”
“If there’s one thing we know, it’s that we don’t know much about the virus or the vaccine,” wrote Idaho Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, whom Trump endorsed in November.
“What good is a vaccine if you need to take boosters every six to 12 months?” she added.
Protection from the primary series of Covid-19 vaccines does waive over time, although they have continued to provide strong protection against severe disease and death. For months, though, people age 12 and older have been urged to get a booster dose, which sharply increases antibodies – one way vaccines provide protection. Vaccine makers and researchers are looking at how long protection from vaccination and boosters lasts, and how vaccines may need to be updated to provide stronger, more durable protection.
McGeachin told CNN in a statement that she and Trump both oppose “vaccine mandates,” while declining to address their divergent views of the vaccines.
“We don’t have a difference of opinion when it comes to mandating vaccines, and we are both working to ensure Americans have the right to make these decisions for themselves,” she said.
A spokesperson for Trump, who recently revealed that he received a Covid-19 booster shot, did not respond to a request for comment.
‘He wants to pick winners’
That these candidates haven’t suffered any rebukes from the former President suggests that Trump does not consider anti-vaccine rhetoric to be a serious offense among Republican hopefuls like he does affirmations of President Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 election. Trump has been quick to criticize GOP officeholders and candidates who dismiss his false claims of election fraud and is actively supporting primary challenges against a number of Republican incumbents who meet that criteria. As previously reported by CNN, he has also soured on candidates, like Brooks, who don’t talk about the 2020 election as often as he would like them to.
One Trump adviser said this is because of the “political reality” Trump is facing given the overlap that exists between his own core supporters and the anti-vaccine crowd. A Kaiser Family Foundation survey released in November found that 60% of unvaccinated Americans identified politically with the GOP.
“He wants to pick winners and winners are candidates who can turn out his base. The base isn’t going to turn out for candidates who say, ‘these vaccines are great and we should all go get one,’” the adviser said, adding that Trump is “probably the only exception to that rule” since his popularity among Republican voters remains strong despite his pro-vaccine rhetoric.
To placate his base without alienating pro-vaccine Republicans, Trump has been road-testing a new message that promotes Covid-19 vaccines while leaving ample room for criticism of mandated vaccinations. At recent campaign rallies, he has slammed vaccine mandates as a form of heavy-handed government intervention and celebrated the Supreme Court’s decision to block a vaccine-or-testing mandate for large private companies that the Biden administration had hoped to implement. (The court permitted a scaled-down version requiring vaccines for workers at health care facilities that receive federal funding).
“The Supreme Court has spoken, confirming what we all knew: Biden’s disastrous mandates are unconstitutional … We are proud of the Supreme Court for not backing down. No mandates!” read a statement Trump issued at the time of the court’s decision.
After declining to reveal his vaccine status until after he left office, Trump resumed praising the Covid-19 vaccines and his administration’s efforts to develop them during his remarks at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference last February. At the time, he described the available Pfizer and Moderna vaccines as “a modern day medical miracle.”
Last August, Trump was booed for promoting the vaccine at an Alabama campaign rally where he appeared alongside Brooks. Months later, he drew a similar rebuke from a crowd in Dallas when he told former Fox host Bill O’Reilly during a live event that he had received a booster dose of the Covid-19 vaccine.
“Take credit for it. What we’ve done is historic. Don’t let them take it away … You’re playing right into their hands when you’re sort of like, ‘Oh, the vaccine,’” Trump told the audience during the event.
As the crowd jeered, Trump added that the people who are opposed to the vaccine, “shouldn’t be forced to take it.”
One person close to the former President said that he has ratcheted up his criticism of vaccine mandates, in part, because he is increasingly interested in 2024 and doesn’t want to risk alienating his supporters.
This person, who requested anonymity for fear of retribution, said Trump is annoyed that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has become so popular with his base and believes it’s mostly because of DeSantis’ firm opposition to vaccine and mask mandates. The GOP governor, who has repeatedly been floated as a potential 2024 contender, has refused to disclose his booster status and recently signed several anti-vaccination mandate bills into law.
“I don’t think it’s impossible that someone like Ron could peel off Trump supporters who want a president who thinks like them on Covid,” this person said, speaking to a hypothetical situation in which DeSantis and Trump both enter the 2024 GOP primary.