Imagine a post-election period in which Donald Trump focused all of his attention and energy on the fruits of his Operation Warp Speed, especially on promoting them. How would 2024 look in that alternate reality — and how would the Senate look, for that matter — with Trump’s legacy tied firmly to the miracle vaccines and massive demand for them? Politico heard this counterfactual from a handful of Trump’s aides, who lament what might have been.
Or even what still could be, if Trump seized the opportunity:
Former President Donald Trump’s unwillingness to pitch his voters on getting the jab has become the source of frustration for former aides, who lament the political benefits that would have come had he done so. It has also worried health officials from his own administration, who told POLITICO about a monthslong effort to get him to publicly take the lead; and medical experts, who say a full-throated endorsement could sway vaccine skeptics on the right and get the country closer to herd immunity.
“If he spent the last 90 days being the voice — and taking credit because he deserved to for the vaccine — and helping get as many Americans get vaccinated as he could, he would be remembered for that,” said a former senior administration official. “Honestly, I think if he was out on the road and celebrating his accomplishments and trying to get people vaccinated he wouldn’t have been in the mindset that led to [Capitol riots on] January 6.”
The latest example of Trump’s interest in selling the vaccine more than vaccinations came on Fox News Monday night when he began reflecting on why U.S. regulators announced they were pausing the Johnson & Johnson’s Covid vaccine while they investigate whether it is linked to rare but serious blood clots. The former president suggested political subterfuge was at play, touted his own record and called the decision “so stupid.” He only encouraged people to get vaccinated when pressed by host Sean Hannity, and did so in the process of explaining why he hasn’t recorded an ad encouraging his skeptical supporters to do so.
“They all want me to do a commercial because a lot of our people don’t want to take vaccine. You know I don’t know what that is exactly, Republican?” Trump said. “They want me to do a commercial, some commercial and they do this pause?”
The reason Trump won’t do the commercials, he told Hannity, is that he thinks the FDA is playing favorites with Pfizer:
Trump says that he was "asked to do a commercial saying take the vaccine" because"a lot of our people don’t want to take the vaccine," but he isn't too keen on it because of the Johnson & Johnson pause, which he seemingly attributes to the FDA being in bed with Pfizer. pic.twitter.com/LNAKzM4GOb
— Justin Baragona (@justinbaragona) April 20, 2021
That’s hardly going to cause consumers (who are also voters, of course) to have more confidence in the vaccines. Whether Trump intends this or not, suggesting that Pfizer has a corrupt relationship with the FDA will call into question the safety and efficacy of its vaccine — the vaccine that Trump helped get developed. Is it really safe, vaccination-hesitant Americans will wonder, or is its authorization just a result of FDA favoritism?
What makes this truly frustrating for the former Trump officials, one imagines, is that Operation Warp Speed was such an amazing and unprecedented success. It’s the pandemic version of a moon shot within an eight-year period; the goal itself was impossible (or seemed so), and the timeframe previously unimaginable. A political leader could ride that momentum forever, as long as he didn’t get in its way or let it slip from his hands into another’s. If Trump hadn’t lost the thread in election-loss conspiracy theories and demands for impossible remedies, he could have spent the last several weeks of his presidency cementing the Operation Warp Speed legacy and used that as a launching pad for any 2024 aspirations Trump might have.
Instead, we have the odd spectacle of Joe Biden creating a massive PR campaign for the vaccines Trump helped develop, while Trump himself refuses to get in front for his own success. It’s a lost opportunity, and it will have Republicans wondering what Trump thinks he can use other than the vaccines to springboard into 2024.