At 8 am Friday, Vice President Mike Pence will roll up his sleeve to receive the coronavirus vaccine, a televised symbol of reassurance for vaccine sceptics worried about its dangers. President-elect Joe Biden is scheduled to receive his injection on camera next week.
Notably absent from any planned public proceedings is President Donald Trump, who has said relatively little about the vaccine that may be seen as a singular achievement and has made it clear that he is not scheduled to take it himself.
The vaccine may provide a ray of hope at a time when the surging coronavirus is regularly killing around 3,000 Americans a day. But the message on the virus from the Trump administration’s highest officials remains muddled and often contradictory as they continue to toggle between facing reality and trying to dictate an alternate one.
Pence, who will receive his first vaccine shot and encourage Americans to follow suit almost six months to the day after he published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal titled “There Isn’t a Coronavirus ‘Second Wave,’” hosted a holiday party at his residence this week where guests mingled in an outdoor tent and posed for pictures without masks, according to attendees.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was forced into quarantine after being exposed to someone who had tested positive for the coronavirus after hosting a string of large, indoor holiday parties at the State Department and attending a private party Saturday to watch the annual Army-Navy football game. Only one unofficial adviser in the president’s circle has performed a public mea culpa for his earlier disregard of public health guidelines: Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor, who on Wednesday released a television ad urging Americans who do not wear a mask to learn from his own harrowing medical experience and wear one.
The president, who recovered from his own bout with the virus after being treated with experimental drugs at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, is described by aides and allies as preoccupied with the election results he still refuses to accept and has shown no interest in participating in any kind of public health message.
Even in private conversations, they said, Trump rarely even brings up the vaccine that the White House press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, described this week as a “medical miracle” that the president, “as the innovator,” deserved credit for.
Instead, Trump has been focused on his efforts to overturn the election results and consumed by his anger at Sen. Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, who this week finally congratulated Biden on his victory and said that “the Electoral College has spoken.” And he remains frustrated that the vaccine was not available before Election Day, people who have spoken to him said.
But the president is also aware that a large part of his political base is made up of supporters who refuse to wear masks and so-called anti-vaxxers suspicious of the Covid-19 vaccine. After months of positioning himself in opposition to public health experts, people familiar with his thinking said, Trump feels on some level as if he does not want to be seen as caving in the end to the advice of the same people he has disparaged.
Some supporters with large online followings have even criticized him in recent days for promoting the vaccine at all. “You know, Trump, probably 80% of your base does not want that vaccine,” DeAnna Lorraine, a QAnon conspiracy theorist with a large following on InfoWars, said on her program last week. “I don’t care who takes it. I don’t care if Jesus takes it. I’m not taking the vaccine.”
Public health officials said they were pleased that the vice president was going to be vaccinated in public, along with Surgeon General Jerome Adams, despite the president’s own lack of interest in sending a similar public health message.
“It’s the right thing to do,” said Dr. Vinay Gupta, an assistant professor of pulmonary and critical care medicine at the University of Washington. “The question is why don’t they do it together, 6 feet apart? It would be really powerful for the president, who has gotten exceptional treatment, to say that even in spite of getting the best care, it’s important that I get this vaccine.”
Trump’s decision, so far, to not get vaccinated, Gupta said, risked undermining any confidence that Pence might instil among sceptics who take their cues from the president alone.
“The fact that he is not getting it makes one wonder if he’s worried,” Gupta said. He also said the muddled messages from the administration — hailing the vaccine while hosting holiday parties — risked “giving false reassurances to the American people that the vaccine is here and vigilance is no longer required.”
White House officials have said Trump does not need to get vaccinated because he still has the protective effects of the monoclonal antibody cocktail that was used to treat him for the virus in October. But Gupta said that that was a misinterpretation of the results and that there was “no scientific reason not to get vaccinated.”
The first lady, Melania Trump, who tested positive for the virus in October and credited her recovery to a regimen of “vitamins and healthy food,” also has no plans to receive the vaccine in public. A spokesperson, Stephanie Grisham, declined to say whether Melania Trump would get vaccinated.
Donald Trump said Sunday that he would delay a plan for senior White House staff members to receive the coronavirus vaccine in the coming days, hours after The New York Times reported that the administration was planning to rapidly distribute the vaccine to its staff.
“I am not scheduled to take the vaccine,” Trump added, “but look forward to doing so at the appropriate time.”
But many White House officials are eager to receive the vaccine, even as the president has made it clear he wants them to wait.
Doctors from Walter Reed this week set up vaccine stations inside the Indian Treaty Room in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. There, they began vaccinating staff considered critical to the functioning of government: That included Secret Service members, some medical staff and some other support staff who work near Trump.
But Trump made it clear he does not like the optics of West Wing aides receiving the vaccine, and the White House declined to detail who exactly was receiving it. The number of doses they had received, an official said, was classified.
“His priority is front-line workers, those in long-term care facilities, and he wants to make sure that the vulnerable get access first,” McEnany said this week. When it came to staff working in the West Wing, she added, “it will be a very limited group of people who have access to it, initially.”
Pence declined to get the vaccine on the first day it was available to him, despite pressure from aides who wanted him to do so quickly, publicly — and before Biden held his own public event. Pence, people familiar with his thinking said, was concerned about the optics of jumping the line when he wanted the administration to receive credit for the distribution of an effective vaccine to front-line medical workers without any distractions.
Instead, Pence chose to delay his own vaccination until Friday, when his office has asked all of the television networks to carry him live.