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Former President Donald Trump’s rally in Alabama Saturday featured one of the rarest of sights: A Trump crowd visibly angry at Trump.
The reason? Trump told people to go get vaccinated.
Operation Warp Speed, the unprecedented effort to develop and roll out a COVID-19 vaccine, began during the Trump administration, and the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were approved for emergency use while he was still in office. But the incident in Alabama reflects the vaccine skepticism that’s inundated the conservative movement—even as hospitals around the country are overwhelmed by the fourth sustained wave of the coronavirus.
Alabama, where just 36 percent of the population is fully vaccinated, has seen some of the worst effects of the Delta variant. The state is currently second only to neighboring Florida in hospitalization rate due to COVID, and its hospitals reached negative ICU capacity last week.
Speaking in Cullman, Alabama—where just 28 percent of all residents are fully vaccinated and local officials declared a state of emergency for the rally at the request of the local hospital—Trump took credit for the vaccine development under his administration and gave his audience an uncharacteristic gentle prodding to get the vaccine.
“I believe totally in your freedoms, I do, you gotta do what you have to do. But I recommend, take the vaccines, I get it, it’s good, take the vaccines,” Trump said, which was met by a smattering of boos.
“No, that’s okay,” he added. “You got your freedoms, but I happened to take the vaccine.”
The former president has first-hand experience with the disease. After Trump, First Lady Melania Trump, and their son Barron contracted COVID-19 last fall Trump was hospitalized for several days at Walter Reed Medical Center. He received monoclonal antibody treatments, which are now widely available but only sparingly used.
Before leaving the White House, the Trumps quietly got vaccinated without making it public knowledge, NBC News reported in March. The same month, the Ad Council released a video in which four living former presidents—Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter—all got vaccinated in order to help boost public confidence in the vaccine.
Trump didn’t participate, but in the months since he’s encouraged his supporters to get vaccinated. Nearly 30 percent of Republicans said last month that they did not plan on getting vaccinated, a Morning Consult poll found. And as of early July, the vaccination rate in counties which went for Biden was nearly 12 points higher than counties which voted for Trump, the Kaiser Family Foundation found.
Even while pushing rally attendees to get vaccinated, however, Trump continued to frame vaccination as an issue of “freedom” rather than one of public health.
“You do have your freedoms, you have to maintain that,” Trump said. “And you have to get your kids back to school.”