Will COVID-19 Be Trump’s Achilles' Heel?

AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

Former President Trump does not want to talk about COVID-19, but he’s not going to have a choice. The pandemic is one of the issues on which Trump is most vulnerable to attacks coming from the right – especially from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. While the former president is still polling far ahead of a crowded field of GOP presidential hopefuls, the nomination is not guaranteed, and COVID-19 might turn into his Achilles’ heel if he is not careful.

During an interview with Fox News, Trump, a 2024 Republican presidential candidate, bragged about saving 100 million lives with the coronavirus vaccine but avoided discussing it because it is not viewed favorably among Republicans.

He expressed opposition to vaccine mandates but reminded the audience that he ultimately left the decision up to state governors:

During a portion of an interview with the Fox News Channel that took place on Monday and was aired on Tuesday’s broadcast of “Special Report,” 2024 Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump stated that while “there are people that say I saved 100 million lives” with the coronavirus vaccine, “I really don’t want to talk about it, because, as a Republican, it’s not a great thing to talk about, because, for some reason, it’s just not.” And that he does oppose mandates, but left the matter up to state governors. Trump also said that his 2024 rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) pushed the vaccine before turning against it.

Host Bret Baier asked, [relevant exchange begins around 8:40] “In your mind, did the COVID vaccine work?”

Trump responded, “It’s such an interesting question. Because, not only that, I also did the Regenerons of the world. … But we had a vaccine. Now you have difference, you have different COVIDs. You had COVID-19 and then you have different COVIDs. … So, I have a Democrat friend, who’s very smart, hopefully, he votes for me, but he’s very smart, he said, I don’t understand one thing about you. I watch your rallies. … I’ve never heard you talk about how — the incredible job you did with the vaccines, because, as you know, I got them done in nine months and it was supposed to take anywhere from 5-12 years. I broke their ass, okay? And do you know who doesn’t like me too much? The FDA, because they were very bureaucratic and I got it done. And he said, you may have saved, in the world, throughout the world, 100 million people and you never talk about it. I said, I really don’t want to talk about it, because, as a Republican, it’s not a great thing to talk about, because, for some reason, it’s just not.”

He added, “Because people love the vaccines and people hate the vaccines. But conservatives aren’t — and I understand both sides of it by the way. I understand both sides very well. What I didn’t do is the mandates. The mandates and the vaccines don’t go. And you had these governors mandate it. … Ron [DeSantis] had lines of people trying to get the vaccine. He set up whole things.”

Trump further stated, “But really, on the vaccines, I let the governors make their decisions. But you have a lot of people that love the vaccines, I mean, you do. They happen to be more Democrat than they are Republican. You have a lot of people, there are people that say I saved 100 million lives. I don’t even talk about it.”

When asked about his handling of the pandemic, Trump stated that he had no regrets and gave governors the freedom to decide whether to implement lockdown measures. He cited examples of states like South Carolina, Tennessee, and South Dakota that did not shut down extensively, while acknowledging that Georgia did a good job with its temporary shutdown. Trump emphasized the federalist system and his approach of allowing governors to make their own choices.

As the race for the 2024 GOP nomination begins to heat up, former President Trump finds himself unable to sidestep what will be one of the most crucial issues in the primary campaign: COVID-19 and vaccines. To be frank, if Trump’s wishes to secure the GOP nomination, he and his team must craft an effective and persuasive messaging strategy to address the issue, as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and others are going to aggressively attack him on the matter.

Trump’s attempts to avoid discussing his role in handling the pandemic and championing the COVID-19 vaccines during recent interviews only highlight the sensitive nature of these topics within Republican circles. While Trump claims that discussing his success with vaccines is not a favorable move as a Republican, his opponents, including DeSantis, will not hesitate to exploit this perceived weakness.

DeSantis, who initially supported the vaccines and implemented mass vaccination efforts in Florida, has now reversed his position, capitalizing on vaccine hesitancy among some conservative voters. By attacking Trump’s vaccine advocacy, DeSantis aims to position himself as the preferred choice for those Republicans who are skeptical of the vaccination campaign.

If Trump hopes to secure the GOP nomination in 2024, he will need to address these pressing issues head-on. While his base remains loyal, a growing number of Republican voters are questioning his approach to the pandemic and his subsequent support for vaccines. Trump’s refusal to engage in a substantial discussion about his handling of the pandemic could alienate potential supporters and weaken his candidacy.

To overcome this challenge, Trump will need to hammer home the idea that while he believes in the efficacy of the vaccines, he will never use government force to compel people to take them. That’s easy enough. But what about the fact that he kept Dr. Anthony Fauci in his position? What about the fact that he clearly supported restrictive lockdown orders? These are questions his team must answer in a way that reassures the public that it will not happen again if, God forbid, another pandemic takes place on his watch.

Furthermore, Trump better have an answer for DeSantis’ oncoming attacks. The governor was not exactly perfect on COVID-19 either, a fact that Trump’s team has exploited. But they must do more to highlight where DeSantis went wrong. Otherwise, the former president might soon see his lead evaporating.


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