Dana Milbank is a regular contributor to the Washington Post, where this article appeared:


It was a life-or-death decision, and President Trump chose . . . himself.

To end the pandemic, there must be widespread vaccination among a public already skeptical about inoculations. If Americans think the covid-19 vaccine has been rushed for political reasons, tens of millions won’t take it — and herd immunity won’t kick in.

But Trump just couldn’t help himself. “So we’re going to have a vaccine very soon, maybe even before a very special date,” he teased at a news conference Monday, suggesting vaccination could begin in October. “You know what date I’m talking about.”

Um, Halloween?

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If timing a vaccine to Election Day weren’t political enough, Trump also claimed that the Obama administration wouldn’t have had a vaccine for three years, if at all, and that political benefit could “inure” to him.

Such careless, selfish talk confirms Americans’ worst fears about a vaccine. According to a new CBS News poll, just 21 percent of voters said they would get a vaccine as soon as possible, even if it were free, down from 32 percent in July. Two-thirds said they would suspect that a vaccine rolled out this year had been rushed through without sufficient testing, and only 34 percent said they trusted Trump to make sure a safe vaccine is available.

Administration scientists fought mightily Wednesday at a Senate hearing on the vaccine rollout to undo this damaging perception, caused largely by months of Trump’s public pressure on scientists.

“Please hear me now: The rigor of the scientific evaluation on safety and efficacy will not be compromised,” said Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health. He urged Americans to “take the information they need from scientists and physicians, and not from politicians.”

Surgeon General Jerome Adams echoed the plea: “There will be no shortcuts. This vaccine will be safe … or it won’t get moved along.”
But senators on both sides were wary. “The president has accused FDA officials of being ‘deep state’ operatives, he’s tweeted conspiracy theories about covid-19 deaths, and he has implicitly tied vaccine development to his reelection campaign,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) observed.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said her state needs “assurance that, yes, this vaccine is going to be safe, that this vaccine has not been subject to political initiatives that would speed it up in any such way that would cause it to be less effective.”

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It’s all essentially a rerun of what happened at the beginning of the outbreak. Thanks to audio recordings of Trump released by Bob Woodward along with his new book, we know that Trump on Feb. 7 privately confided that the new virus was “deadly stuff.” But instead of preparing the country for such, he publicly claimed it would “disappear” and was no worse than the flu. “I wanted to always play it down,” Trump told Woodward.

That, too, was a life-or-death decision, and Trump chose political expediency.

Now, weeks before the election, this administration has become a government of the Donald, by the Donald and for the Donald. The Justice Department Tuesday intervened in a defamation lawsuit against Trump brought by E. Jean Carroll, who says Trump raped her years ago. Trump’s DOJ wants the United States to be the defendant in the case instead of Trump because, it claims, he was “acting within the scope of his office as President” when he denied the assault.

Attorney General William Barr claimed Wednesday that DOJ’s action was “routine” and is “done frequently.”

Uh-huh.

Also routine: trashing the South Lawn of the White House and the Rose Garden with a political convention, appointing a big-time political donor to disrupt service at the U.S. Postal Service on the eve of an election that will rely on mail-in voting, canceling intelligence briefings for lawmakers about foreign attempts to interfere in the election, having the Justice Department back Trump’s unsubstantiated claims about antifa and election fraud, making federal law-enforcement officers serve as Trump’s political paramilitary and using the federal government to damage Trump’s political opponents and boost his business properties.

Now, Trump is trying to use a vaccine rollout to revive his political fortunes. The result is lost faith in the vaccine — which inevitably will mean more suffering and death.

“What a heartbreak that would be,” Collins told senators Wednesday at a hearing of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, “if we go through all of this, we come up with a vaccine that is safe and effective, we have already lost 190,000 people, and we can prevent many more deaths, and yet people are afraid to use it. We can’t let that happen.”
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But it’s already happening, because the head of government has spent four years demonstrating that he cares only about his own interests.