Robert F. Kennedy Jr.—Camelot heir, lawyer, environmentalist, and crackpot anti-vaxxer—met with President-Elect Donald Trump today to talk about vaccines. Kennedy later told reporters that Trump has tapped him to chair a commission on “vaccine safety and scientific integrity.”
After news organizations reported Kennedy’s statements, Trump’s team released a statement distancing the president elect from any firm commitment to a vaccine working group. “The President-elect is exploring the possibility of forming a committee on Autism…however no decisions have been made at this time,” the statement read in part. Though incoming White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters that Mr. Trump and Kennedy would be meeting “about vaccines” on Tuesday morning, no mention of inoculations appeared in Tuesday afternoon’s statement.
Details aside, this meeting alone is likely to embolden discredited conspiracy theorists who have cheered Trump’s election—and it should send shivers down the spines of parents, doctors, and believers in science everywhere.
It’s a surprise that the two would meet at all. In August, Kennedy called Trump a “dangerous... deceptive... demagogue.”
“I very much hope that his campaign of hatred dies on the vine,” Kennedy told Vanity Fair at the time. “It’s not surprising, because those are the passions that the Republican Party has been stirring—those kind of hatreds in the service, of course, of other interests. And Trump is actually coming out and saying the stuff that they’ve been saying cryptically for all those years with dog-whistle slogans.”
It's amazing how a conspiracy theory can bring two people together.
“President-elect Trump has some doubts about the current vaccine policies and he has questions about it,” Kennedy said following the meeting. “His opinion doesn't matter but the science does matter and we ought to be reading the science and we ought to be debating the science. And that everybody ought to be able to be assured that the vaccines that we have—he's very pro-vaccine, as am I—but they're as safe as they possibly can be.”
The notion that Kennedy is pro-vaccine would be laughable if it weren't so terrifying.
For over a decade, Kennedy has been a public face of the anti-vaxxer movement. In 2005, he penned a piece published on Salon and in Rolling Stone titled, "Deadly Immunity," in which he told the “the story of how government health agencies colluded with Big Pharma to hide the risks of thimerosal from the public.”
Thimerosal is a mercury-based vaccine preservative and study after study after study has proven there is no association between it and autism. The article had so many issues and needed so many corrections that Salon retracted it, saying the response from scientists and experts “eroded any faith we had in the story’s value.”
Ten years later, and Kennedy is still at it, railing to like-minded activists on the evils of “Big Pharma” and the supposed plot to poison our children with vaccines. In 2011, on his Air America radio show, he claimed the government was "involved in a massive fraud,” and accused CDC researchers and doctors of “poisoning kids.” In a 2014 profile of Kennedy and his anti-vaccination efforts, Discovery writer Keith Kloor reported Kennedy had been a keynote speaker at the 2013 AutismOne/Generation Rescue Conference in Chicago. According to Kloor, “[Kennedy] referred to specific individuals—such as a pediatric researcher who was a vocal vaccine advocate—as the equivalent of Nazi concentration camp guards and said: ‘They should be in jail, and the key should be thrown away.’”
And in 2015, Kennedy stood before an audience at a screening of “Trace Amounts,” a “documentary” that pushed the conspiratorial link between vaccines and autism. “They can put anything they want in that vaccine and they have no accountability for it,” he announced. “They get the shot, that night they have a fever of a hundred and three, they go to sleep, and three months later their brain is gone...This is a holocaust, what this is doing to our country.” The crowd responded with a standing ovation.
Candidate Trump needed no dog whistle to signal his support to Kennedy’s anti-vaxxer coalition. For years, Trump has peddled the disproven theories that autism could be linked to innoculations.
“Stop giving monstrous combined vaccinations,” Trump tweeted in 2012. Two years later, he tweeted, “Healthy young child goes to doctor, gets pumped with massive shot of many vaccines, doesn't feel good and changes - AUTISM. Many such cases!”
During his bid for the White House, Donald Trump made clear his views had not evolved. In a September debate, he took his quack science before a nationally televised audience.
“I’ve seen it,” Trump said, offering anecdotal evidence—the only kind available to a movement skeptical of doctors, researchers, studies, and the medical community at large who advocate for the scheduled vaccination of children. “A beautiful child...went to have the vaccine, a week later got a tremendous fever, got very, very sick, now is autistic,” he continued. “Autism has become an epidemic. It has gotten totally out of control.”
Despite the very good brain the incoming president believes himself to be blessed with, medical professionals the world over agree: there is no link, no link at all, between autism and vaccinations. The one study that alleged such a causal link existed—a 1998 paper by Andrew Wakefield suggesting measles, mumps, and rubella vaccines caused autism—has been debunked, retracted, and the author’s medical license revoked for ethical violations.
So of course Trump met with the discredited ex-physician Wakefield and several of his fraudulent movement’s leaders in the final weeks of the campaign. “I found him to be extremely interested, genuinely interested, and open-minded on this issue, so that was enormously refreshing,” Wakefield told STAT News of the meeting.
The conspiracy theorists Trump surrounds himself with are celebrating his victory. And why not? Trump has repeatedly signaled he would be a powerful ally for the anti-vaccination movement.
In 2012, Trump decried Obama’s inaction on the issue. “Why doesn't the Obama administration do something about doctor-inflicted autism. We lose nothing to try.” he tweeted.
As president, Trump finally gets his chance to “do something.” And with a hero of the anti-Vaccine movement like Kennedy leading the effort, we should expect him to seize it.
This article has been updated to include President-elect Trump's Tuesday afternoon statement.