The outgoing president recently ranted to several advisers and associates about how vaccine manufacturers were possibly working to deny him the chance to declare victory in the pandemic, according to three people familiar with his private grumblings. One adviser told The Daily Beast that this month, the president asked if the heads of Pfizer, one of the main vaccine manufacturers, were “Democrats.”
“It kind of came out of nowhere and I didn’t really know how to respond,” this source recounted.
When Pfizer announced its vaccine breakthrough last month, Trump flew into a tantrum after the company said it had not been directly involved in Operation Warp Speed, the administration’s public-private partnership for developing and distributing COVID vaccines. The president, already aggrieved that no vaccine breakthrough had been announced prior to the election, told certain aides and close allies to go on TV and make public statements rebutting Pfizer’s claims and to allege that the breakthrough was an achievement only Trump and his team could have made, two of the sources said.
Those moments of aggrievement underscored several dynamics that have come to define the president’s handling of the COVID crisis: a brewing resentment towards some of the main entities helping with the pandemic response and a constant need for personal affirmation.
That need came into focus again on Friday, when it was reported that White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows told the head of the Food and Drug Administration, Stephen Hahn, that he should consider polishing up his résumé if the Pfizer vaccine wasn’t approved by the end of the day.
The warning wasn’t the first that Meadows had issued to Hahn. According to a pharmaceutical industry source, Meadows summoned the FDA chief to the White House early this month to demand answers as to why the vaccine process wasn’t moving along more rapidly. Meadows subsequently denied to The Daily Beast that he had pushed for Hahn’s resignation during that meeting.
“Get a new source,” he said at the time.
This go around, Hahn was the one pushing back on reports that he was being pushed out, saying in a statement that the representation of his talk with Meadows was “untrue.”
The White House did not provide comment for this story on Friday afternoon.
But a lobbyist working on vaccine manufacturing and development said the mere idea that the White House was applying pressure to the head of the FDA on the eve of the vaccine’s introduction was massively problematic, to the degree that it would breed mistrust in the vaccine’s safety.
“It’s not as bad as firing the FDA head,” the lobbyists said. “But it does nothing but generate negative headlines over vaccine efficacy.”
That Trump would apply this type of pressure was hardly surprising, the source said. For months, the president has been at odds with Big Pharma over the trade group’s pre-election advertising campaign attacking him for pursuing a policy that would insist Medicare not pay more for prescription drugs than the most-favored-nation price. Trump had attempted to cut a deal with the trade group in which he would have dropped that policy pursuit in exchange for pharmaceutical companies reducing out-of-pocket drug costs and sending cash cards to Medicare beneficiaries. But the deal blew up over fears that the cards would be politicized—indeed, literally being called “Trump Cards.”
The friction has grown worse as Trump has grown increasingly angry at the pace at which a COVID vaccine has been developed and approved. This past week, Trump held a summit to celebrate Operation Warp Speed. But the announcement came before the invitations were sent to key stakeholders. And when the day arrived, representatives from Pfizer and Moderna, another company that recently announced positive vaccine results, declined to show.
Trump’s ire has been directed at Hahn as well. For weeks, he has quizzed administration officials on why it’s taking the FDA so long to give final vaccine approval and demanding the White House keeps pressure on the commissioner to “do his job,” according to a source with direct knowledge of the president’s demand.
The FDA has a rigorous and well-established review process for vaccine development that involves several stages of clinical trials and copious amounts of data review by outside advisers. It has been structured that way precisely to instill confidence that the final affirmation of a vaccine’s effectiveness is not colored by political or monetary considerations. But the process notably does not accommodate a president’s need for speed, praise, or credit. And that, at this juncture, has appeared to cause problems.
“Donald Trump must get the credit for the vaccines. It is a miracle,” the president tweeted on Friday morning, referencing something said by a Fox Business host.
“If it had not been for Donald Trump’s personal leadership, we would not be seeing a Pfizer vaccine—and, hopefully in the next week, a Moderna approved vaccine,” the White House account tweeted in the afternoon.