Trump doubles down: These vaccines are great and they're saving a ton of lives; Update: Psaki praises

It’s a Christmas miracle!

But also so, so dark that Trump, of all people, is now the voice of reason on vaccines among populists.

The best part here is when he’s encouraging vaccination and Candace Owens tries to steer him away from it, noting that more people have died this year than died last year. Isn’t that a clue that the vaccines don’t work? To which Trump, entirely correctly and without missing a beat, replies that it’s mostly the unvaccinated who are still dying. Watch.

As I say: Entirely correctly.

What’s gotten into him?

Not that he’s ever been anti-vax when it comes to COVID. He’s always recommended the shots when asked about them. But he hasn’t devoted any energy to promoting the vaccines, opting to get his first shot as president behind closed doors and then endorsing vaccination only sporadically afterward. He’s gotten negative feedback from some of his fans when he’s done so too, something he typically strains to avoid. He was booed at a rally a few months ago when he touted the vaccines, then jeered at his event with O’Reilly a few days ago when he talked them up and said he’d gotten a booster. That piqued the curiosity of Times reporter Maggie Haberman, who reached out to Trumpworld to ask what’s up. Her response came from the man himself:

Now here he is with vaccine skeptic and populist favorite Owens, being goaded to say something critical of vaccination and refusing. Which is great — but confusing. Why has Trump suddenly become more outspoken in favor of vaccination?

Theories are flying on political Twitter. The most charitable is that he feels an altruistic calling to do what he can to encourage holdouts who might listen to him to protect themselves and their families. Anything’s possible — even the Grinch’s heart grew three sizes at Christmastime — but raw altruism isn’t his brand. If he felt that way, why hasn’t he been pushing vaccination all along?

Maybe it’s about guarding the reputation of one of his major achievements as president. We’re at a perilous moment with the emergence of Omicron in which the early promise of the vaccines as a bulwark against infection has faded. They’re still a bulwark against severe illness, as Trump recognizes, but last spring’s dream of getting your shot and then never having to think about COVID again is gone. That’s an opening for anti-vaxxers to claim that the vaccines have failed, and if the vaccines have failed then Operation Warp Speed has failed. Trump might feel defensive about that and eager to push back on the idea that his administration’s rapid vaccine rollout wasn’t the huge accomplishment that it was. And this time, he’s come armed with actual facts.

Another possibility is that he’s thinking ahead to 2024. “I wonder if Trump’s reading polls that show his would-be replacements – DeSantis etc – have gotten offside even with Republicans by their anti-vax sabotage,” David Frum tweeted this morning. I’m not so sure that it’s DeSantis who’s offside with Republicans; his hesitancy about boosters seems more in line with the sort of populists who tend to decide Republican primaries than Trump’s support for boosters does. But Frum is right that a majority of Republican voters have been vaccinated, and of course an even greater majority of swing voters have. Conceivably Trump’s already positioning for his next presidential run, presenting himself as pro-vaccine and seeking credit for Operation Warp Speed because he knows that might convince reluctant voters to take another chance on him.

And he can afford to cross the anti-vax populists among his base in a way that DeSantis, say, can’t. DeSantis is popular with MAGA but not so popular that the field would clear for him if Trump doesn’t run. He has to stay on the right side of activists, which means picking his spots when he extols vaccination. Trump doesn’t have that concern. If he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue without losing a single vote, he can promote vaccines without losing a single vote. Although I think he’s more at risk of losing votes among Republicans by touting life-saving vaccines at this point than he’d be if he actually shot someone.

If you want to go really dark on political motives here, it could be that someone showed Trump the data on who’s doing most of the dying these days from COVID and he’s calculating that that could be a problem for him in evenly divided swing states in 2024.

It’ll be fascinating to see if he keeps this up amid resistance from MAGA and, if he does, whether that brings any holdouts around. I’m skeptical, as righty populism is as much a bottom-up phenomenon as a top-down one. But soundbiteslike the one with Owens can only help.

I’ll leave you with another fascinating recent clip of Trump. Vaccination isn’t the only thing about which he’s suddenly telling the truth.

Update: Team Trump and Team Biden, together at last.