The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Trump-Tucker cold war has begun

President Donald Trump in January. (Gerald Herbert/AP)

One of the mysteries that lingers around President Donald Trump’s final days in office is why he chose to downplay the deployment of the coronavirus vaccine.

Granted, his last days took place in the shadow of the insurrection on Jan. 6 that followed his constant insistences that the 2020 presidential election had been stolen. But at some point that month, Trump himself quietly got the vaccine and, despite having nearly nothing else on his schedule, he never undertook any substantial effort to promote vaccination. No events focused on it. There was little mention of the vaccine publicly, in part because he was so focused on injecting his election-fraud nonsense into his followers.

Part of the impulse may have been one central to Trump’s approach since he took office. Trump always likes to give himself wiggle room for people to interpret his position however they want. He’ll say things vaguely enough to send one message to his base while maintaining deniability when questioned by the media. He’ll add quick caveats that, as needed, can be built into primary defenses or new rationales for support. For all of the praise Trump gets from his base for his directness, he is always careful to leave some escape routes allowing people to take different paths.

President Trump released a recorded farewell message that contained several falsehoods on Jan. 19. (Video: Jayne Orenstein, Zach Purser Brown/The Washington Post)

On vaccines, he seems to be torn between two positions. On the one hand he wants credit — full, world-saving credit — for their existence. At the same time, he recognizes that many Republicans, particularly Republican men, are skeptical of the vaccine. Often, those skeptics frame their position as being a reflection of independence from the government, a position on the virus that Trump actively stoked last year as he sought both to encourage people to resume normal economic activity and to pin blame for containment measures on the states. Trump told his base to rebel against government recommendations in the pandemic and now is in the awkward position of seeing them reject the thing that he long promised would resolve the pandemic and the thing for which he wants credit.

More to the point, he seems to be in a position where the monster he's created is getting out of his control. Trump is perhaps more eager now than ever to retain his grip on his base, depending on it at least conceptually to maintain his hold over the Republican Party. It may be the case that here, too, Trump wants to leave an escape hatch for vaccine skeptics so that they won't turn their backs on him.

Speaking to Fox News host Maria Bartiromo on Tuesday night, Trump for the second time directly advocated for people to get the shot — but only after Bartiromo prompted him to do so. (The first time was a brief mention in his speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference.)

“I know that you received the vaccine,” Bartiromo said, referring to news reports that emerged only after Trump was out of office. “Mrs. Trump also got the vaccine. Would you recommend to our audience that they get the vaccine, then?”

“I would,” Trump replied. “I would recommend it.”

“And,” he continued, “I would recommend it to a lot of people that don’t want to get it. And a lot of those people voted for me, frankly.” The escape hatch: “But I — again, we have our freedoms, and we have to live by that. And I agree with that also. But it’s a great vaccine. It’s a safe vaccine. And it’s something that works.”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki on March 12 praised science for the record coronavirus vaccine development. (Video: The Washington Post)

It is good news that Trump encouraged his supporters to get the vaccine, no matter his rationale or caveats. One such rationale, clearly, is that he wants to be seen as the world’s savior from the pandemic, as he made clear later in the interview with Bartiromo.

“I was the one and this administration was the one that came up with a vaccine, which is going to save the world, okay?” Trump said.

“Yes,” the ever-accommodating Bartiromo replied.

“We would be, I think, worse than 1917, where 50 to 100 million people died,” Trump said. “The vaccine is such a big thing.”

Again, that is clearly part of the impetus. Trump is no longer the guy simply throwing bombs from the outside, as he was in 2015. He’s the guy who has a legacy to defend, and he’s the guy who now has a political record that will need to be reframed over time to maintain the same support from his base.

The problem is that there is a Trump-like figure out there causing friction. He showed up on Fox News a few minutes later to host his own show, “Tucker Carlson Tonight.”

Carlson took over his regular slot on the network a few days after Trump won the presidency in 2016. Since then, he’s been one of the less Trump-obsequious hosts on the network, sufficiently confident in his own bomb-throwing that he has at times deviated from Trump orthodoxy. There’s a reason that Trump had a lot more interviews with Sean Hannity and the hosts of “Fox & Friends”: Their agenda was mostly whatever Trump wanted to talk about. Carlson’s was at times only tangential to the president’s.

Over the past few months since Trump left office, Carlson has engaged in the same sort of culture war stuff that has dominated on his network. But he has also stepped out to specifically encourage the sort of vaccine skepticism that’s now embraced by about half of the Republican men who tell pollsters that their favorite news source is Fox. The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake walked through the line Carlson tries to balance on vaccines on Tuesday, showing how the host masks his obvious efforts to boost skepticism with a “just asking questions” veneer. Among his more regular guests is a former New York Times reporter who has revitalized his career by focusing on pandemic skepticism; he, like Carlson, serves largely to cast (broadly unfounded) doubt on the inoculations.

It was perhaps inevitable that Carlson and Trump would butt heads. Carlson’s viewership almost certainly overlaps with Trump’s to a large extent, meaning that the Fox host is often talking to people over whom Trump wants to maintain primacy. Even before Trump had left the White House, Carlson was charting a course that brought him into conflict with the legacy Trump sought to maintain. In CPAC’s straw poll of 2024 Republican presidential candidates last month, Carlson came in well behind Trump but fared better than other actual elected officials.

Carlson has three advantages over Trump.

First, he doesn’t have a policy legacy that will need to be reoriented as time passes. For now, Trump’s approaches as president already meet with broad approval from his base. But over time perceptions tend to shift, as former president Barack Obama can readily attest. Carlson doesn’t need to worry about that. He does have a legacy of rhetoric, sure, much of which will age poorly. But that’s just words.

Second, Carlson seems less burdened by Trump’s tendency to moderate his stated views. Perhaps this is a function of their backgrounds: Trump, the salesman, told people what he needed to. Carlson, the pundit, instead honed his arguments to sharp points. He still couches his words, certainly, but he seems to do so less to broaden his appeal than to draw his audience closer.

That audience is the third and most important advantage. Carlson has a nightly television show that attracts millions of viewers a month. Trump went from the pulpit at the White House to essential silence, booted from social media and relying on invites from people like Bartiromo and the general sycophancy of his old friends on the network to get in front of Fox viewers. Carlson speaks to his audience every night.

It's not clear what ambitions Carlson has. Perhaps he simply wants to dominate conservative media and use his expanded influence to effect political change. Perhaps he wants to seek office himself. But few are as well positioned to outmaneuver Trump with his own base.

There’s some irony to the position in which Trump finds himself. There’s an uncertainty about the path forward that was always there but that was masked by his exceptional approach to politics. Trump was always the guy who wanted the credit but none of the blame, in keeping with his approach to the vaccine. Carlson, in some key respects, is the guy Trump’s supporters always thought Trump was: rejecting mainstream consensus (however valid) to gain attention and driven by a consistent ideology.

The next phase of right-wing politics has begun.