Trump v. Putin: A vaccine manhood contest

As President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia declared on Tuesday that his nation had approved the world's first coronavirus vaccine without extensive clinical trials, public health experts worried that President Trump would feel the need to compete

By Peter Baker
Published: Aug 12, 2020

bg_putin trump vaccinePresident Donald Trump addresses a news conference at the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020. As President Vladimir Putin of Russia declared that his nation had approved the world’s first coronavirus vaccine without extensive clinical trials, public health experts worried that President Trump would feel the need to compete
Image: Doug Mills/The New York Times

American scientists hope this is one time that President Donald Trump really does believe it is all just a Russian hoax.

As President Vladimir Putin of Russia triumphantly declared on Tuesday that his country had produced the world’s first coronavirus vaccine, public health experts in the United States worried that Trump would feel compelled to compete in a pharmaceutical manhood contest by hastily rolling out his own vaccine even before it is fully tested.

“I am sure that this will give him more impetus to push U.S. R&D and FDA to move more quickly,” Margaret Hamburg, a Food and Drug Administration commissioner under President Barack Obama, said, referring to research and development. “If he believes that testing causes cases, I suspect he may believe that if you don’t test a vaccine or drug, they must be OK.”

The announcement in Moscow roiled the international quest to stop the pandemic in what had already developed into a geopolitical race among the world’s biggest powers. The Russian vaccine, approved without the sort of extensive trials typically required in the West, may work, American scientists said. But if it does not, the rushed process could pose dangers not just for Russians but for many others if Trump seeks to match the supposed achievement prematurely.

The search for a vaccine has already been caught in a whirlwind of pressures as the Trump administration scrambles to develop a drug to combat a virus that has killed more than 164,000 Americans. Two pharmaceutical companies have moved to Phase 3 trials in the United States, the final stage of testing before a vaccine can be approved. But scientists have expressed concern that the trials would be short-circuited by Trump’s desire for a political win before the general election Nov. 3.

The White House has said that data, not politics, will govern the decision to approve a vaccine, although Trump has repeatedly linked his Operation Warp Speed to the campaign calendar. He has suggested that a vaccine could be rolled out by Election Day even though scientists said it would take until early next year to complete the trials.

“We’re doing very well in everything including corona, as you call it,” Trump said in an interview Tuesday with radio host Hugh Hewitt. “But let me just tell you, we’re getting to an end. We’re getting to, and the vaccines are ready to rock. We’re going to be very close to a vaccine. We’re ready to distribute.”

At a news briefing later in the day, the president offered no comment on Russia’s announcement but made a point of boasting about the “tremendous progress” on an American vaccine and asserted that “we’re moving very close to that approval.”

“Operation Warp Speed is the largest and most advanced operation of its kind anywhere in the world and anywhere in history,” he said, his competitive juices on display.

Putin saw no need to wait for more expansive testing in Russia, where the medical system is not considered as rigorous as in the United States, despite the prospect that it may not work as advertised or may even prove unsafe. But in doing so, he put Trump in an awkward position given the friendship between the two men.

The announcement immediately spurred suspicion among Trump’s domestic opponents. “This Putin vaccine thing is all about him giving the alleged science to Trump so the President can take personal credit for a vaccine ahead of the U.S. elections,” former Rep. David Jolly of Florida, who left the Republican Party partly out of protest over Trump, wrote on Twitter.

David Kramer, a Russia scholar at Florida International University and a former assistant secretary of state under President George W. Bush, said Trump should use the moment to put his desire for better relations with Russia to the test.

“Aside from arms control, fighting the virus would be one issue where we and Russia should work together and not be another source of competition,” he said. “The speed with which the Russians have found a vaccine has to raise concerns, however, and risks exacerbating the level of distrust between our two sides if it does not work or even does harm.”

The vaccine race comes at a time when Washington is already engaging in a new debate over how to recalibrate relations between the two powers after the election. A group of 103 former Cabinet secretaries, ambassadors and other officials from Democratic and Republican administrations published an open letter last week in Politico arguing for an effort to “put the relationship on a more constructive path.”

Another group of former officials, this one with 33, led by Kramer, published its response Tuesday rejecting a new “reset” and arguing that Putin’s regime poses “a threat to American interests and values, requiring strong pushback.”

The relationship has been dominated by the aftermath of the 2016 election, when Russia intervened in the American campaign to help Trump, according to intelligence agencies and a special counsel investigation. While no charges were brought alleging a criminal conspiracy, Trump has at times rejected even that Russia played a role, calling it a hoax.

Just last week, U.S. intelligence agencies reported that Russia was still trying to intervene in American elections to help reelect Trump, a conclusion that the president likewise instantly rejected. “I think that the last person Russia wants to see in office is Donald Trump because nobody has been tougher on Russia than I have, ever,” he said at a briefing for reporters.

Told that was not what the intelligence agencies were finding, Trump snapped, “Well, I don’t care what anybody says.”

He defended himself further on Tuesday when Hewitt asked who had been tougher on Russia, Trump or Obama. “By a factor of 50, me, OK?” Trump said, arguing that he built up the U.S. military and sent weapons to Ukraine for its continuing conflict with Russia.

As he often does, however, Trump laced his answer with factual fallacies. He boasted that he sent Javelin anti-tank weapons to Ukraine when Obama would not, which is true. But what Trump did not say was that his administration barred the Ukrainians from actually using the Javelins and mandated that they be kept locked up far from the battlefront.

The president likewise boasted that “I got NATO to pay $400 billion a year more to protect themselves against Russia.” That is not true. NATO has projected that the allies will increase military spending by a cumulative $400 billion from 2016 to 2024, meaning over eight years, not each year. Similarly, Trump said he “spent $2.5 trillion” on the U.S. military, but that credits him with every dollar spent on defense over three years and then some, not just the increases he helped push through.

It is true that his administration has taken aggressive action to counter Russia at times — including sanctions, diplomatic expulsions and modest troop deployments to Eastern Europe — but Trump has left the tough talk to his subordinates and rarely if ever has a word of criticism of Putin, whose leadership and strength he has publicly praised. Indeed, Trump has spoken repeatedly with Putin in recent months without once raising intelligence reports that Russia has paid bounties to Afghan fighters to kill U.S. soldiers. Trump dismissed the reports from his own administration as “fake news.”

In a separate string of Twitter messages Tuesday, Trump disputed the notion that he trusted Putin more than U.S. intelligence agencies, but he then proceeded to explain why he would doubt his own country’s security apparatus, pointing back to his first encounter with veteran intelligence officials that he later came to consider his enemies.

“John Bolton, one of the dumbest people I’ve met in government and sadly, I’ve met plenty, states often that I respected, and even trusted, Vladimir Putin of Russia more than those in our Intelligence Agencies,” Trump wrote, referring to his own former national security adviser.

“While of course that is not true,” he continued, “if the first people you met from so called American Intelligence were Dirty Cops who have now proven to be sleazebags at the highest level like James Comey, proven liar James Clapper, & perhaps the lowest of them all, Wacko John Brennan who headed the CIA, you could perhaps understand my reluctance to embrace!”

 


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