On the same day as his mess of an NPR interview, former President Donald Trump took an indirect shot at one of the few people in the Republican Party who could feasibly challenge him for the 2024 nomination: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
DeSantis has been perhaps the most prominent Republican governor to oppose COVID vaccine mandates since vaccine distribution began last year, even hiring a prominent COVID-19 vaccine skeptic as his state health director. DeSantis has also threatened school districts and local governments in Florida who’ve pushed for mitigation efforts such as mask mandates and social distancing requirements, even during the Delta wave of last summer and fall.
DeSantis was vaccinated with what was then known as the single-dose Johnson & Johnson shot last April; in November, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that people who got the J&J shot should get a booster, ideally one of the mRNA vaccines, two months afterwards.
But DeSantis has been cagey about whether he’s gotten a second shot. In December, he told Fox News: “So, I've done, whatever I did. The normal shot. And that at the end of the day is people’s individual decisions about what they want to do.”
Last week, DeSantis’ office declined to say whether he’d been boosted. “I am not privy to the governor’s private medical decisions and am unable to share information about his booster status,” DeSantis spokesperson Christina Pushaw told Politico.
“Governor DeSantis has consistently said that vaccination (and by extension, boosters) should be a personal choice, and anyone who has questions or concerns should consult with a healthcare provider.”
On Tuesday, Trump said in an interview that he’s watched interviews with politicians who won’t say whether they’re boostered and aren't doing so “because they’re gutless,” but that he suspects they have gotten booster shots.
“You gotta say it, whether you had it or not. Say it,” Trump told the far-right network One America News in a sit-down interview. “But the fact is that I think the vaccines have saved tens of millions of people throughout the world. I’ve had absolutely no side effects… nothing special.”
DeSantis’ office avoided addressing Trump’s “gutless” comment Wednesday. “President Trump did not mention Governor DeSantis in that interview, so I wouldn't want to make assumptions,” Pushaw told CNN. “Governor DeSantis has always been clear about his position on Covid-19 vaccination and boosters: the shots should be available to all but mandated for none, and the choice to get a vaccine or booster is an individual's private medical decision.”
Trump knows all too well that promoting vaccinations is controversial with conservative voters. He was booed at an August rally in Alabama for recommending that attendees get vaccinated, and during a December event with Bill O’Reilly in Dallas, Trump—who famously was hospitalized for COVID in October 2020—was booed by the audience for saying he’d gotten a booster shot.
While Trump has led nearly every hypothetical poll about 2024 so far—neither he nor DeSantis have said they’re actually running—DeSantis is the only other Republican who’s hit double-digit support in those polls. A December YouGov poll of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, for example, found that while Trump had the support of nearly half of respondents, DeSantis had 23 percent and even led Trump with voters who make more than six figures.
Trump’s comments suggest he’s ramping up his efforts to take credit for the vaccines, which were developed and approved during his administration. It’s a rare area where Republican voters aren’t generally in lockstep with the former president. As of October, registered Republicans constituted 60 percent of the U.S. adult unvaccinated population, according to an analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation health policy think tank.
But while Trump has taken credit for the vaccines and called out politicians who’ve evaded questions about their own status, he’s also stressed that he, too, is against vaccine mandates.
“I mean, it's got to be individual, but I recommend taking them. Many people recommend them,” Trump told NPR Tuesday. “And if some people don't want [them], they shouldn't have to take them. They can't be mandated, as the expression goes. And I think that's very important.”
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