In his theatrical Monday display of flouting his doctors’ advice and returning to the White House, President Trump’s triumphal videotaped message contained a line that deserves more attention than it received: “The vaccines are coming momentarily.”
Trump has spent weeks hinting that he would like a vaccine to be announced before the election, and that he also distrusts his scientific advisers. Now his administration has overruled the Food and Drug Administration’s proposed vaccine guidelines, according to a report from the New York Times. It is abundantly clear that Trump’s political team is overruling its scientists in order to rush through the approval of a vaccine before the election.
A month ago, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and chief scientific adviser to Operation Warp Speed Moncef Slaoui promised in an op-ed that the FDA’s nonpolitical scientists would control the vaccine’s approval. “The strategy we devised for OWS will allow us to accomplish this goal while following all the same procedures for safety and efficacy, applied by the same apolitical FDA experts, that Americans expect with all vaccines,” they wrote. In September, a senior official told the Washington Post, “The White House plan would stress to the public that a vaccine went through the ‘traditional FDA rigor,’ as well as seek validation from throughout the scientific community, in medical journals such as the New England Journal of Medicine and from medical professionals with large media platforms, such as CNN’s Sanjay Gupta.”
But the man they work for, Donald Trump, did not have that method in mind. Trump has spent months teasing a vaccine before the election. After Centers for Disease Control Director Robert Redfield testified last month that a vaccine wouldn’t be ready until the end of the year, Trump insisted it would be ready by mid-October or early November, and that Redfield misspoke. (“I believe he was confused,” he told reporters, as if one of his chief medical authorities would simply not know such a vital and basic fact.)
In August, Trump charged “the deep state” with holding up vaccine approval in order to harm his election prospects:
And he casually noted that any FDA guidelines on vaccine use must “be approved by the White House. We may or may not approve it,” because reported FDA guidelines “sounds like a political move.”
The entire concept of apolitical professional or scientific standards is a concept totally foreign to Trump’s imagination. Since Trump himself is only capable of thinking in terms of immediate self-interest, he would naturally imagine any scientists who fail to cooperate with his timeline must have underhanded objectives of their own.
The FDA has proposed that volunteers who received a vaccine be monitored for two months after their final dose to be sure they did not develop serious side effects. White House chief of staff Mark Meadows — a Trump loyalist and very much not a scientist — objected to this deadline. The Times reports that Meadows complained that the FDA’s commissioner “was overly influenced by his agency’s career scientists.” Recall that Azar and Slaoui had soothingly assured the public that those same career scientists at the FDA would be in charge.
Like many bureaucrats who set out to uphold professional standards while working for Trump’s executive branch, FDA scientists have reached the point of realizing Trump is just going to do whatever he wants, regardless of what their evidence concludes. “Trump’s fixation on securing a vaccine within weeks has instead left the FDA with little expectation the new standards will ever be officially released, because publicizing the benchmarks would make it clear a vaccine authorization by Election Day is nearly impossible,” reports Politico.
What now seems likely to happen is that Trump will announce a vaccine before the election. He will find some appropriately credentialed scientist to vouchsafe his claim. (It only takes one scientist sufficiently susceptible to Trump’s pressure to supply the necessary televised endorsement by “science.”) Scientific authorities in the bureaucracy will revolt, perhaps resigning in protest. Will those voters who don’t trust Trump — that is, a clear majority of them — believe he has delivered a vaccine? Probably not. Will the government be able to develop public trust whenever it does produce what its scientists deem a safe and effective vaccine? We can only hope.
Update: The administration has relented, and the FDA has now published the vaccine guidelines Trump tried to prevent. The backlash created by the FDA going public with its objections showed that Trump had no card to play: if he flouted the professional conclusions of his own advisers, they could speak out against a vaccine announcement and nullify any political benefit. In this case, it appears the guardrails have held.