Hours of controversy followed before the transition issued a statement saying nothing was official just yet -- the president-elect was just considering a "committee on autism." It did not explain why the president would have been discussing autism with a figure known for pressing the discredited theory that the condition is caused by vaccinations.
Whenever a politician or major public figure expresses concerns about vaccine safety, despite the mountain of evidence that shows otherwise, people notice — and few politicians or public figures, if any, dominate either category like a president of the United States (even if he hasn't taken office yet.) While it wasn't a huge feature of the 2016 campaign, Trump has been one of the biggest vaccine skeptics in recent years. Even for a guy who has embraced many conspiracy theories, this has been among his more prominent.
Trump's most notable comments on vaccine safety came during a 2015 Republican primary debate, in which he connected vaccines to the autism “epidemic.”
“You take this little beautiful baby, and you pump — I mean, it looks like just it's meant for a horse and not for a child,” Trump said in September 2015. “We had so many instances, people that work for me, just the other day, 2 years old, a beautiful child, went to have the vaccine and came back and a week later got a tremendous fever, got very, very sick. Now is autistic.”
Before the campaign, Trump accused doctors of lying about vaccinations.
There are plenty of other tweets going back years in which he specifically ties vaccines to autism. Trump has assured questioners that he's not anti-vaccine — Kennedy did the same Tuesday — but has also said that they should be more spread out than medical professionals may allow and not involve “massive” doses.
Trump echoed his debate comments back in a 2012 interview with Fox News, saying, “I've seen people where they have a perfectly healthy child, and they go for the vaccinations, and a month later the child is no longer healthy.”
(To be clear: Despite continued attempts to prove a link between vaccines and autism, the theory has been debunked and was originally based on a fraudulent study.)
Trump's position on vaccines was not a huge part of his campaign — perhaps owing in part to the fact that the issue was discussed at a time when it still wasn't clear how formidable Trump would eventually become. Through the end of 2015, we were all still asking ourselves when his bubble would burst. It never did.
But now Trump is president-elect, and he seems intent on raising the questions again in his official capacity. And that September 2015 debate was instructive for the debate that lay ahead. After Trump said what he did, primary opponent (and later supporter) Ben Carson differed with Trump but declined to do so strongly. “He's an okay doctor,” Carson said sarcastically. “The fact of the matter is, we have extremely well-documented proof that there's no autism associated with vaccinations.” But Carson said Trump could reach his own conclusions.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), an eye doctor, also agreed that vaccines could be more spread out over time. “I'm all for vaccines, but I'm also for freedom,” Paul said.
The problem for Trump and the GOP going forward is that this skepticism is something that affects everyone. To be effective, vaccines need to be widely administered, and when they aren't, they expose even the vaccinated to disease. And skepticism, like disease itself, has a tendency to spread — especially when a carrier is in a position of massive power to spread that message, like a president-elect.
Republicans in Congress have long been in the position of trying to play nice with Trump, even when they disagree with him. Even as they have concerns about Russia's hacking to influence the 2016 election, for example, they've tried to square themselves with Trump's message, playing down its importance and casting it as a politicized issue.
If Trump is espousing vaccine skepticism as president, that's going to put his fellow Republicans — and medical professionals — in an uneasy position. Responses like Carson's and Paul's basically allow for the idea that the vaccine skepticism is a valid position and a matter of personal choice, but that very same personal choice is something the medical community is fearful of, because it could diminish the effectiveness of vaccines.
If nothing else, it's just another reminder that Trump's outside-the-mainstream views shouldn't be dismissed as campaign rhetoric or bluster. He's now instituting some of them.