This was supposed to be President Trump's big moment.
The COVID-19 vaccine is rolling out by the millions across the country — something that had seemed like an impossibility when the president boasted back in May that "we are very confident that we're going to have a vaccine ... by the end of the year." The media expressed skepticism at the time, hedging Trump's quote with the reminder that "vaccines often take many years to develop and distribute." Yet sure enough, by Dec. 15, Trump was proven right: Safe and effective shots were going into American arms. As of Jan. 12, over half a million people have already received their second dose.
So where is Trump to celebrate the nation's success? Admittedly, the president might have other things on his mind. But his conspicuous absence at such a pivotal juncture in the fight against COVID — and in particular, his lack of a televised vaccination moment of his own — is actively undermining his own efforts.
Trump, of course, beat his own case of COVID back in October, presumably leaving him with some temporary natural immunity. But because coronavirus reinfections are possible, people need to get vaccinated regardless of if they've already been sick or tested positive, the CDC has said, stressing that "experts do not know how long someone is protected from getting sick again after recovering from COVID-19" and that "some early evidence suggests natural immunity may not last very long." Dr. Anthony Fauci echoed the suggestion, telling Good Morning America that he would urge Trump to get vaccinated as soon as he can: "Even though the president himself was infected," Fauci said, "and he has likely antibodies that likely would be protective, we're not sure how long that protection lasts." Perhaps even more importantly, were Trump to roll up his sleeve on live TV, he would be leading by example while also helping to disabuse Americans of the erroneous belief that they're in the clear if they've already had a positive COVID-19 test.
The official word on why Trump has not yet been vaccinated has to do with the monoclonal antibody cocktail he received while being treated for COVID-19 in the fall. According to the CDC, you must wait 90 days after receiving the antibodies before you get the vaccine, in order to avoid any "interference." December 31 would have marked 90 days since Trump was reported to have started the treatment on Oct. 2; he walked out of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center three days later. It's unclear precisely when Trump stopped receiving the antibody cocktail, but since the treatment is given intravenously, and the drug maker said he only received a single dose, it seems that he'd be well in the clear by mid-January. Even if, for whatever reason, Trump isn't okayed for the shot just yet, he should still be able to schedule and publicize his planned vaccination date. Instead, the White House has been strangely vague about his plans, claiming last month that the president is still waiting to be cleared by his medical team — an explanation that has the familiar echo of his dubious excuse for not releasing his tax returns due to an ongoing audit.
The bottom line is, it's a dangerous time for the leader of the nation weathering the world's worst outbreak to offer anything other than full-throated enthusiasm about the shot. Even taking the White House's word for it, that Trump truly can't get a vaccine for ongoing medical reasons, he's failed to show up at vaccination events to even promote getting the shot. Trump didn't appear alongside Mike Pence when his vice president got the jab last month at Walter Reed, nor has Trump hosted any mass vaccination events or visited and thanked health-care workers who are helping with the distribution. "It will be enormously damaging to public trust in the vaccine if President Trump isn't visibly enthusiastic, including getting his shot on national television," Lawrence Gostin, a professor at Georgetown Law who focuses on public health, warned The Associated Press last month. "It simply isn't good enough to have Vice President Pence as a proxy."
Complicating matters further is Trump's own history of anti-vaccine statements and tweets. Dating back to 2007, Trump publicly mused about the "epidemic" of autism and announced that "my theory, and I study it because I have young children, my theory is the shots," repeating a thoroughly discredited but dangerously common theory. He suggested vaccines could be "very dangerous" in 2009, spread conspiracies about vaccines during the Republican presidential debate in 2015, and later the same year admitted he'd never gotten a flu shot because "I don't like the idea of injecting bad stuff into your body." He also met with "prominent anti-vaccine activists" during his campaign, and even reportedly asked outspoken skeptic Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to head a commission on vaccine safety (it ultimately never materialized). Though Trump has since flipped on vaccines, even having the audacity to call Joe Biden and Kamala Harris the ones who are "anti-vaccine," a small study about the influence of Trump's anti-vax record concluded just last May that "Trump voters became more anti-vax after reading his tweets. So Trump doesn't just reflect the views of his supporters, he still has the power to shape his supporters' views."
The fact that Trump remains unvaccinated at this point could be due to any number of things: a fear of undercutting his erroneous claims of invincibility after surviving COVID-19, or maybe he sees getting the shot as some form of weakness (as one insider involved in scheduling Trump's shot conveyed to CNN, "Trump himself has not appeared particularly eager to be seen getting the vaccine"). Perhaps, being aggressively anti-science and having a shaky grasp of how medicine works, he retains some of his historic skepticism, even if he isn't voicing it publicly anymore. Maybe now that he's lost his bid for re-election, he's monstrously calculating against anything that would aid the Biden administration's plans to curb the outbreak. Maybe he genuinely can't get the vaccine yet for medical reasons — though again, that explanation does nothing to excuse why he's resisted being the face of a campaign for a vaccine he's spent months insisting he wants.
Very soon, Trump won't be president anymore; Joe Biden, who this week received his second dose on camera, will be. But the outgoing president still has an opportunity to stand up, roll up his sleeve, and show some long-lacking leadership. "You know, Trump, probably 80 percent of your base does not want that vaccine," popular QAnon influencer DeAnna Lorraine claimed on InfoWars last month. And the question disturbingly lingers: Whose fault is that?