WASHINGTON — Joe Biden rolled up his sleeve to be inoculated against the coronavirus and assure Americans the shot was safe in a nationally televised moment Monday that raised an obvious question: Why isn’t President Donald Trump grabbing this spotlight?
The rapid rollout of two vaccines at a time the pandemic has already claimed 317,000 lives in the U.S. and hospital ICUs are overwhelmed is arguably one of the biggest triumphs of the Trump administration. Yet the president is suddenly missing in action instead of leading the charge for his supporters to get the shots.
The president appears caught between his desire to claim credit for the swift rollout of vaccines and his long history of amplifying vaccine conspiracy theories. After having spent much of the pandemic undermining public health experts, he finds himself unable, or unwilling, to take the leadership mantle at this breakthrough moment.
On Monday, Biden moved – again — to fill the void. Taking the shot on television gave the president-elect another opportunity to reinforce his point that his administration would embrace science.
“I am doing this to demonstrate that people should be prepared when it is available to take the vaccine,” Biden said after receiving the first course of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine from a nurse practitioner at Christiana Hospital in Newark, Delaware. Biden’s wife, Jill, was by his side. She had received the shot earlier.
“There is nothing to worry about,” Joe Biden said. “I am looking forward to the second shot.”
One of his most formidable tasks when he assumes office Jan. 20 will be overcoming the public’s mistrust of vaccines and other public health measures, which has festered as the White House has spent nearly a year undercutting its own experts.
Bringing along the large percentage of Trump supporters who don’t believe the shots are safe, or even necessary, has become an urgent public health matter. More than 1 in 4 Republicans say they will never get the vaccine, according to an ABC News-Ipsos poll released last week. Trump’s hedging embrace of the shot adds to the challenge of moving those numbers.
The Trump administration began with the president rattling the medical community with his overtures to Robert Kennedy Jr., one of the most prominent vaccine skeptics. It comes to a close with Trump vacillating: claiming credit for the delivery of the vaccines while trying to reassure those who are skeptical of the shots that he stands with them. On Sunday, Trump retweeted a video full of debunked conspiracy theories, including one that claimed the pandemic was manufactured as part of a plot to hurt him politically.
Trump didn’t hold any events as pharmaceutical companies began shipping their products, nor did he appear with any front-line health care workers as they received the first shots.
Vice President Mike Pence got the shot at the White House complex Friday, but Trump was not there. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and other lawmakers also received shots Friday as part of the effort to persuade Americans the vaccine is safe.
Vice President-elect Kamala Harris plans to get her shot next week.
The president has not said when he will receive the vaccine or if he will do so publicly.
White House officials said the decision was complicated by the fact that Trump was hospitalized with COVID-19 in October and likely had a few months of natural immunity from his recovery. A Centers for Disease Control committee recommended that those who received the type of medical treatment that Trump did wait at least 90 days for a vaccination.
“I think there is an open question as to whether, ultimately, he will be one of the ones to take it on air,” a senior administration official said Dec. 7. “And that’s simply a function of whether that would actually serve the desired purpose, given the fact that he’s a recovered patient.”
Yet the relative silence from Trump is a stark shift from his earlier bragging about the speed of vaccine development. During the campaign, he accused Biden and Harris of “reckless anti-vaccine rhetoric” that “undermines science” because they said they didn’t trust Trump’s promises.
The concerns Biden and Harris raised that Trump might try to bypass scientific review to get the vaccine approved before the November election hardly matched Trump’s own history of vaccine conspiracies. He long promoted the medically debunked claim that immunizations can cause autism. “No more massive injections. Tiny children are not horses — one vaccine at a time, over time,” he tweeted on Sept. 3, 2014.
Trump continued to amplify baseless claims, and has spent his waning days in the White House focused on his campaign to overturn an election he lost, ceding the spotlight to Biden and others instead of basking in the glow of a historic achievement.
Biden spent more time Monday acknowledging the work the Trump White House had done to make the vaccine available than Trump himself did.
As he got his shot, Biden said, “the administration deserves some credit for getting this off the ground.”