WASHINGTON — President Trump spoke on Tuesday as if his campaign depends on a Covid-19 vaccine. Specifically, a vaccine approval by Election Day.
Throughout a turbulent, disorganized, and hostile debate, Trump highlighted his government’s efforts on vaccine development, pledging, dubiously, that the country is “weeks away from a vaccine” and contradicting high-level officials within his own government who have suggested it will be months, at least, before a vaccine is available.
Trump and Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee, also clashed on the Trump administration’s efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act; the government’s chaotic Covid-19 response; and the price of prescription drugs.
But the specific back-and-forth regarding vaccines highlighted Trump’s apparent view that vaccine development is the key to ending the pandemic. He downplayed more immediate public health interventions like social distancing and mask use, at one point mocking Biden for wearing masks during public appearances and defending his campaign’s continued staging of large outdoor (and in one case, indoor) rallies.
It was clear, instead, that Trump viewed vaccines and his government’s vaccine moonshot, known as Operation Warp Speed, as the centerpiece of a pandemic response and his campaign rhetoric.
Yet Trump continued to undercut two officials central to that effort: Moncef Slaoui, Warp Speed’s director, and Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They are “both wrong” for standing by published timelines for vaccine distribution, Trump said, which show vaccines will be widely available to the U.S. public by mid-2021.
Trump’s vaccine rhetoric also provided plentiful openings for Biden to attack the president for ignoring scientific counsel and undermining public trust in vaccines — an assertion that public polls support.
At one point, Trump even appealed to drug companies’ trustworthiness on vaccine safety, asking Biden at one point: “You don’t trust Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer?”
The remark, among many vaccine-focused lines from Trump throughout the evening, highlights Trump’s unexpected reliance on the pharmaceutical industry late in his first term, made all the more noteworthy given the president’s own misleading rhetoric questioning vaccine safety and his frequent attacks on drug companies throughout his four years in office.
Biden was quick to attack Trump’s Covid-19 record, calling him a “fool” on Covid-19 mask and social distancing measures, criticizing Trump over revelations that he attempted to downplay the severity of the crisis in February.
There are “200,000 people who have died on his watch,” Biden said of Trump’s pandemic response.
In the face of Trump’s likely unrealistic vaccine optimism, Biden sought to downplay hopes for a vaccine in the coming weeks or months, stressing that it will take months to distribute hundreds of millions of vaccine doses to the U.S. public.
Instead, he urged Americans to trust scientists on mask use and social distancing, attacking Trump for questioning the effectiveness of masks despite scientific consensus that they’re an effective tool to prevent Covid-19 spread.
“I think masks are OK,” Trump said, asked whether he believes masks are effective. He did not acknowledge that he has repeatedly downplayed the science supporting mask use, and he mocked Biden for frequently wearing masks during campaign-trail appearances. “Every time you see him, he’s got a mask,” he said.
Broadly, the debate highlighted arguably the fundamental distinction between Trump and Biden on Covid-19 policy: Trump’s freewheeling and often unscientific gut-feeling approach versus Biden’s deference to the scientists and public health officials he has made integral to his campaign.
Throughout the last nine months of his presidency, Trump has consistently ignored, contradicted, questioned, and undermined the counsel of the country’s top scientists, including many serving in top federal government roles.
The U.S. ranks eighth among major countries in per-capita deaths. More than 206,000 Americans have died of Covid-19 as of Tuesday night, one of the largest mass-casualty events in the country’s history.