The panelists. Screenshot via Rumble
“Have faith and watch what we do,” Robert F. Kennedy told a group of well-known anti-vaccine and health freedom activists on Tuesday night. “I think you’ll be pleased.”They could hardly be otherwise: Kennedy is, after all, one of them. The longtime anti-vaccine activist is now running for president as a Democrat, bringing new attention and a touch of respectability to the same bad ideas he and others in his circle have been spreading for years. While Kennedy downplayed his anti-vaccine activism in the first weeks of his campaign, he’s since returned to form, first with a pseudoscience-heavy appearance on Joe Rogan and now with a health policy panel, featuring an array of figures who are not recognized experts in either health or policy as most people understand it.
In the course of the evening, Kennedy also revealed why he’s not running as an independent: in part, because of the enormously valuable press coverage he’s currently bathing in.“Nobody pays attention to the independent until the general election,” he said at one point. “And that is a year from now. And I, right now, have 800 press requests. I’m somebody who could not get on the press for 18 years.” The panelists Kennedy included were, by anyone’s standards, heavy hitters in the world of anti-vaccine activism and health freedom (a movement which advocates for non-traditional cures and fewer regulations in medicine). They included Dr. Joseph Mercola, an osteopathic physician and an extremely influential natural health figure who’s also a major funder of the anti-vaccine movement; Dr. Sherri Tenpenny, another osteopath and a longtime anti-vaccine activist best known for going viral when she falsely claimed COVID vaccines make one “magnetic”; Dr. Pierre Kory, a major promoter of ivermectin as an unproven and highly contested treatment for COVID; Sayer Ji, another major health freedom figure who often traffics in anti-vaccine claims on his site GreenMedInfo; Mikki Willis, the maker of the viral faux documentary Plandemic; Maureen McDonnell, a pediatric nurse turned anti-vaccine activist; and Patrick Gentempo, a former chiropractor and health freedom figure. The moderator was Charles Eisenstein, an author and lightly New Age-flavored motivational speaker who said he’s paused his career and is “working closely with Kennedy on policy,” while the ending remarks were delivered by anti-vaccine activist and filmmaker Del Bigtree.
It was, in all, a collection of people designed to excite Kennedy’s most loyal fans. And the panel did, in a certain sense, give an excellent window into Kennedy’s policy positions and stated priorities in the event that he’s elected president. Among other things, he promised to accuse medical journals of “racketeering with pharmaceutical companies;” said he would “pressure” them to publish science he finds more credible; “funnel data” to a different, presumably better group of scientists; and do a “cluster analysis” on vaccination records. (Kennedy previously told NBC News that he would order the Department of Justice to investigate medical journal authors and editors.) Overall, he promised to make policy decisions about health "from the Oval Office" using executive orders, if necessary, "without the cooperation of Congress”—a surprisingly totalitarian position for someone who’s frequently decried what he sees as government overreach. He also seemed to downplay the impact of COVID and future pandemics, telling the panelists at one point, "I do not believe that infectious disease is an enormous threat to human health.” Kennedy, a lawyer by training, also displayed a notable confidence in his own medical judgment. In response to a question from Tenpenny about how he’d choose his medical advisors, he said, “I feel like I'm pretty much an expert on parsing medical information.” But, he added, “I’m gonna have people who are dissidents, people who are moving away from the pharmaceutical paradigm.”
Kennedy often claims he is not anti-vaccine, but merely wants safe vaccines. (Vaccines are extensively safety-tested, although he claims otherwise.) This brought up one of the evening’s few mildly contentious questions, when Tenpenny pressed Kennedy on whether he believes there are any safe vaccines. (She herself does not.) He responded, as he has before, that he simply wants safe vaccines. “I've never seen the safety studies done that should be done," he said. "I'm not against vaccines any more than I'm against medicine." He added, "I don't believe the masks work" and claimed they are "more likely to hurt you than help you,” which is not what scientific findings show.Kennedy also found time to trot out a couple of other debunked claims, first claiming that the 1918 flu pandemic—which he called by an outdated name, “Spanish Flu”—was caused by vaccines, which isn’t true. Shortly thereafter, he claimed that Dr. Anthony Fauci had “admitted” the flu didn’t kill anyone, but that bacterial pneumonia did, seemingly echoing a frequently-circulated claim on social media, which holds that Fauci had said that pneumonia during the flu pandemic was caused by masks. That isn’t true either, and the two claims, when taken together, do not actually make a lot of sense.
Kennedy stressed several times how much attention his candidacy has gotten. After saying that he had “800 press requests,” he referenced what he called the “Hotez drama,” in which Joe Rogan, Elon Musk, and a host of other major tech and anti-vaccine figures trolled and harangued Peter Hotez, a vaccine scientist and pediatrician, after he tweeted critically about the Rogan episode and shared a link to the story I wrote about it. Kennedy said that he’d gotten attention even from people who are “pro-vaccine and believe the orthodoxy about this”—in other words, that he thought the controversy had ultimately been positive in getting attention for his campaign and positions. “My crazy ideas already have credence,” he said. “I’m already on all these places. I'm on everywhere, letting me talk about it. So somebody better stop me if I'm really nuts." (He also implied that Hotez should have debated him, saying, “Science is rooted in reason. It’s rooted in empiricism and if you can’t defend science on the battlefield of reason, you’re not really a scientist.”) There was one notable point of semi-disagreement: Mikki Willis of Plandemic fame asked Kennedy if he believed the “climate change narrative has been exaggerated,” a loaded question for someone best known for many years as an environmental lawyer and activist. Kennedy responded that he believes climate change is real, but that he does not believe “carbon” is to blame. He added that climate science is not his strong suit.
"With vaccine science I know the science," he added, citing his experience litigating those cases. "I know the science back and forward. Climate science is so complex and knows so many disciplines" that he’s not as strong on it, he added, especially because it requires "mathematical modeling" and "chemistry." That said, he added, “I think the climate narrative has been hijacked by the World Economic Forum and Bill Gates" and, like other crises, is being used by "elites to consolidate their power.” (Kennedy is a celebrity and part of the Democratic Party’s most durably powerful political family, the nephew of a former president and the son of a U.S. senator.) The roundtable, which at its height was being watched live by a little over 10,000 people, also served as a frequent call for campaign donations. (Notably, given the campaign’s hostility to what the candidate often describes as the merger of state and corporate power, the panel aired exclusively on Rumble, a platform backed by tech oligarch Peter Thiel and J.D. Vance; this does make sense given that both Mercola and Kennedy have previously been banned from YouTube.)In his closing remarks, Del Bigtree urged people to “skip that $200 dinner” and donate, especially since Kennedy’s first campaign finance reports will be publicly available on July 1, and the press would “love to report” that the campaign hadn’t raised much money. (Bigtree also claimed that journalists are being “paid to attack” Kennedy, adding that as a former TV producer he knows what it’s like “to work for companies funded by the pharmaceutical industries,” implying that media companies are in the pocket of Big Pharma.) Thus far, Kennedy is not polling well among likely Democratic voters, about 73% of whom still say they’re likely to vote for Joe Biden, versus about 15 percent for Kennedy. But as his remarks during the health roundtable made clear, the campaign has already been a win in other ways: in attention, further name recognition, and in dragging people like Mercola, Tenpenny et. al even further into the national spotlight. And holding the event at all made it clear that even as Kennedy sets his sights on bigger things, he’s trying to stay in the good graces of the anti-vaccine and health freedom worlds that have been his public home for so long. “This is truly a people’s movement,” Bigree declared, as the evening mercifully drew to a close. “And it doesn’t matter what the media says about it. They will not be able to stop us.”