We are now learning, via an extraordinary new report in the New York Times, that many scientists fear that Trump will attempt the ultimate “October surprise.” These scientists — which include some inside the government — worry that Trump will thoroughly corrupt the process designed to ensure the safety and efficacy of any new vaccine against the coronavirus.
It is the perfect Trumpian paradox that his long record of just this sort of corruption underscores why this scenario should be entertained with deadly seriousness — but also why it will likely fail.
As the Times reports, “experts inside and outside the government” fear that “the White House will push the Food and Drug Administration to overlook insufficient data and give at least limited emergency approval to a vaccine, perhaps for use by specific groups like front-line health care workers, before the vote on Nov. 3.”
Importantly, this is not just speculative. These insiders already see concrete grounds for fearing this is underway, and some are actively working to maintain the integrity of the process. Among the revelations:
- As part of the exhaustive process of approving vaccines, an independent advisory panel of outside experts is supposed to weigh in, and the FDA generally follows their advice. But under questioning from the Times, a senior administration official refused to confirm that any emergency approval will be vetted through that panel.
- One member of that FDA advisory committee says on the record that many people inside the process “are very nervous” about whether the administration will prematurely say a vaccine has been tested and is safe, and then “roll it out.” This expert says these people are right to be worried about this: “They should be.”
- Trump told supporters on Sunday night that he expects a vaccine to be available “far ahead of schedule” and “very, very early before the end of the year.” That’s at odds with his own health experts’ claim that the most realistic expectation is early 2021, and Trump also said the FDA has “been great, at my instruction.” His intentions are clear: At minimum, he will try to push up limited approval so it happens before the election, and then take credit for making that happen.
- Trump has explicitly tied the timing of the vaccine to his reelection needs. When he announced a campaign shake-up, he also said he’ll win in part because vaccines will “soon be on the way.”
- Jared Kushner is a “regular participant in meetings" overseeing the vaccine effort, the Times reports. Given the role of Trump’s son-in-law in steering reelection strategy and his lack of expertise, it’s hard to imagine Kushner is there to ensure quality control.
- People familiar with those conversations tell the Times that White House officials regularly ask about getting a vaccine by October. Trump’s campaign advisers privately refer to a vaccine before the election as “the holy grail.”
To be fair, Anthony S. Fauci, who is widely trusted by the public, told Congress last week he’s “certain” the vaccine trial effort will not be corrupted.
The Times also reports that FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn insists his “job” is to insulate scientists from political pressure. That’s good, but in March, the FDA gave emergency approval to hydroxychloroquine for distribution to hospitals, a drug Trump pushed relentlessly, before pulling that approval.
Which illustrates a crucial point here: Even if top officials do have good intentions, what’s worrisome is that Trump will almost certainly try to corrupt this whole process, in a way that prioritizes his own perceived political needs over the national interest.
Trump has already done this, repeatedly. In January, he raged at his health officials for using their government stature to warn the public about the coronavirus, not due to serious scientific disagreement but because he feared it would spook the markets, which he views as crucial to reelection.
In May, White House advisers built a statistical model — embraced by the same Jared Kushner now monitoring vaccine trials — that provided far more optimistic grounds about projected deaths than other ones, to justify Trump’s push to reopen. The pessimistic models were right.
In July, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidelines for reopening schools (which Trump has urged forward to help manufacture the illusion of a rebound to normalcy) that downplayed risks and were edited by the White House. One senior health official even accused the CDC of “undermining the president” after it warned of coronavirus risks to pregnant women.
We’ve seen this on multiple other fronts. Trump pressured a top official to produce “evidence” of large inaugural crowds. The White House created a commission to validate his lies about voter fraud. Officials have repeatedly conjured official-seeming statistics and presentations to buttress his lies about the border.
Trump even got impeached for subverting national security policy to his effort to smear Joe Biden. And don’t forget Sharpie-gate!
In the end, it’s likely that Trump’s long trail of deliberate uses of the government to bolster his deceptions, agitprop and corrupt designs will itself undo any vaccine Hail Mary. Even if Trump does manage to rush forward such an announcement, why would voters trust him to carry forward the long and complex process to follow in good faith or out of any meaningful conception of what’s in the national interest?
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