Updated on January 10, 8:55 p.m.
On Tuesday, Donald Trump met with Robert F. Kennedy Jr., an environmental lawyer and activist, who also happens to be an outspoken vaccine conspiracy theorist. After the meeting, Kennedy told reporters it went “very well,” and said that Trump “asked me to chair a commission on vaccine safety and scientific integrity.” He also said that Trump called him to ask for the meeting.
But Hope Hicks, a spokeswoman for the Trump transition team, said in a statement that nothing is certain yet. “The President-elect enjoyed his discussion with Robert Kennedy Jr. on a range of issues and appreciates his thoughts and ideas. The President-elect is exploring the possibility of forming a commission on Autism, which affects so many families; however no decisions have been made at this time,” the statement reads. (It is interesting that the team refuted Kennedy’s statement that he would lead a vaccine commission by saying Trump is considering forming a commission on autism, when vaccines are not related to autism.)
But the prospect of a Kennedy-led vaccine commission is deeply troubling for proponents of evidence-based medicine. For over a decade now, Kennedy has been publicly saying not only that thimerosal, a preservative used in some vaccines, is dangerous and associated with autism, but that the government has been covering this up. He wrote an article about this claim for Rolling Stone in 2005, and published a book about it in 2014. Scientists have found no evidence that thimerosal in vaccines causes any harm, and furthermore, it hasn’t been used in vaccines for children since 2001, with the exception of the flu vaccine.
Kennedy said Trump is “very pro-vaccine, as am I,” but that Trump “has some doubts about the current vaccine policies.” For years, Trump has promoted the false link between vaccines and autism, and whether he himself is an anti-vaxer or not, he certainly has courted anti-vaxers at every turn on his road to the White House. This meeting with Kennedy suggests he will continue to do so.
Even before he entered politics, Trump said he believed vaccines cause autism. In an interview with the Sun-Sentinel in 2007, he said:
“When I was growing up, autism wasn't really a factor…And now all of a sudden, it's an epidemic. Everybody has their theory. My theory, and I study it because I have young children, my theory is the shots. We've giving these massive injections at one time, and I really think it does something to the children.”
In 2014, Trump 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 the second Republican debate, he told a similar story: “You take this little beautiful baby, and you pump—I mean, it looks just like it’s meant for a horse, not for a child, and we’ve had so many instances, people that work for me,” he said. “Just the other day, two years old, two-and-a-half years old, a child, a beautiful child went to have the vaccine, and came back, and a week later got a tremendous fever, got very, very sick, now is autistic.”’
There is absolutely no evidence that links vaccines to autism. The only study that ever found a link was later revealed to be fraudulent, and was retracted. But still the myth persists, and has now been perpetuated by the president-elect of the United States.
Though he’s done some vaccine rabble-rousing, Trump has heretofore stopped short of saying children shouldn’t be vaccinated. In that same Republican debate, he said, “I’m totally in favor of vaccines. But I want smaller doses over a longer period of time … I had my children taken care of over a long period of time, over a two or three year period of time.”
In another 2014 tweet, he said ,“If I were President I would push for proper vaccinations but would not allow one time massive shots that a small child cannot take - AUTISM.” By “one-time massive shots,” he likely means schedules where children receive vaccinations for several diseases in one appointment.
Slate has called Trump’s position “slow-vax” as opposed to “anti-vax.” However, anti-vaxers, including Andrew Wakefield, the author of the debunked autism study, have long seen him to be on their side.
“I feel very positive about this, because Donald Trump is not beholden to the pharmaceutical industry,” Wakefield said in an interview with STAT after the election.
Kennedy seems to feel similarly. “I think President Trump can be any kind of president that he wants to be. He’s probably come into office less encumbered by ideology or obligations than anybody who has been in political office.” Perhaps anti-vaxers and vaccine conspiracists see an ally in Trump’s supposed “outsider” status.
And despite all the attention anti-vaxers get, it is important to note that it is still a fringe opinion. Eighty-three percent of Americans, when asked in a 2015 Pew survey, agreed with the science and said they believed vaccines are safe for healthy children.