Trump and RFK Jr.: A relationship made in anti-vax hell

The two science skeptics met on Tuesday

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published January 11, 2017 10:20PM (EST)

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.   (AP/Evan Vucci)
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (AP/Evan Vucci)

Although the Trump transition team has downplayed the implications of a meeting on Tuesday between Trump and Robert Kennedy Jr., the ominous omens for science and facts seem clear. And for those Americans who so enjoyed Donald Trump's nostalgia-themed campaign promises, it will be interesting to see if that retro idealism applies to a potential return to once all but eradicated diseases.

On Tuesday, Kennedy, an environmentalist who humbly describes himself as "pro-vaccine," met with Trump. Soon after, he announced that Trump had "asked me to chair a commission on vaccine safety and scientific integrity. I said I would." Kennedy further stated that his role would be to "make sure we have scientific integrity in the vaccine process for efficacy and safety."

Yet aren't integrity, efficacy and safety already in place? Do right-minded people not trust the Journal of American Medicinethe American Academy of Pediatrics, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization?

And if you want to talk about legitimate safety concerns, what about those about the recent roaring resurgence of measles, kicked off in earnest two years ago with an outbreak that appeared to have originated in Southern California — an affluent, skeptical area with a high rate of parental opting out of childhood vaccine schedules?

Not so very long ago, at the beginning of this century, measles had been effectively eliminated in this country. But irrational fears and a misplaced devotion to personal freedom have reversed some of that progress. Celebrities like Jenny McCarthy perpetuated a false link between vaccines and autism, thanks largely to discredited British doctor Andrew Wakefield's bombshell 1998 claims — which have since been fully retracted as “an elaborate fraud.”

But evidence hasn't stopped Kennedy from repeatedly and publicly, over the past dozen years, asserting the claims of a link between the ingredients in vaccines and autism. On Tuesday Seth Mnookin, author of "The Panic Virus," said on Twitter, "Interviewed dozens of people, read papers by dozens more for book on roots of dangerous vaccine-autism myth. RFK Jr.'s complete disregard for the truth & aggressive effort to spread lies was as shocking as anything else I covered." 

Disregard for truth? Aggressive effort to spread lies? Now, who else does that sound like? Kennedy and Donald Trump have other things in common too. Like Kennedy, Trump is a vaccine skeptic. Of course, Trump is also a man who does not believe in climate change and thinks that lightbulbs cause cancer. Back in 2012, he tweeted, "A study says @Autism is out of control — a 78% increase in 10 years. Stop giving monstrous combined vaccinations. Space out small individual shots — small babies can’t handle massive doses. Get smart — and fast — before it is too late."

And during a 2015 GOP debate, he asserted, "Autism has become an epidemic. Twenty-five years ago, 35 years ago, you look at the statistics, not even close. It has gotten totally out of control. I am totally in favor of vaccines, but I want smaller doses over a longer period of time."

Trump continued, "Because you take a baby, and I’ve seen it. I had my children taken care of over a long period of time, over two or three years. Same exact amount. But you take this little beautiful baby, and you pump, I mean it looks just like, it’s made for a horse, not for a child. And we’ve had so many instances. People that work for me. Just the other day — 2 years old, 2 and 1/2 years old, the 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." 

Kennedy has made similarly wildly dramatic, unsubstantiated claims. At a 2015 screening of the controversial film "Trace Amounts," he told the audience that children "get the shot, that night they have a fever of 103, they go to sleep, and three months later their brain is gone. This is a holocaust —what this is doing to our country.”

On Tuesday, Trump's office downplayed the Kennedy meeting, saying only that Trump had "enjoyed his discussion with Robert Kennedy Jr. on a range of issues and appreciates his thoughts and ideas," and adding that Trump "is exploring the possibility of forming a commission on autism, which affects so many families; however no decisions have been made at this time."

That Kennedy viewed their get-together as a meeting about vaccines and Trump's team apparently saw it as one about autism should set off alarm bells for those of us who are fond of science, research and public health. Vaccines and autism are two issues that do not have any correlation — at all, ever. Because vaccines don't cause autism. This has been proved repeatedly — by numerous studies, over several years of research. 

Kennedy stated on Tuesday, "Trump has some doubts about the current vaccine policies and he has questions about it. 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."

But the science has been read and examined and tested, for decades now. The results are conclusive. The "debate" is settled. And it's obvious that we must remain more committed to rigorous truth and more vigilant than ever against giving any measure of credibility to those who would use their platforms to recklessly encourage parents to throw away their children's shot.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Anti Vaccine Movement Donald Trump Robert Kennedy Jr.