- Skye Gould/Business Insider
- President Donald Trump has expressed anti-vaccine views since 2007, when he told a reporter that he believes vaccines can cause autism in young children.
- It’s not immediately clear, however, how Trump developed this position, which stems from a discredited study published in 1998 and retracted in 2010.
- The lack of clarity has driven speculation that Trump based his belief on the experience of his 13-year-old son, Barron, who has been the subject of false speculation that he is autistic.
- But the full record suggests Trump’s position arose instead from his connections to the nonprofit Autism Speaks and its founder, the former NBC chairman Bob Wright.
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On the otherwise tumultuous day of Donald Trump’s presidential victory, many members of the anti-vaccination movement let out a sigh of relief. One of their own, they seemed to believe, was headed to the White House.
Anti-vaccinationists say a lot of things that aren’t true, but this particular claim happened to be based in reality. In public statements going back more than a decade, Trump has alleged a connection – for which no evidence exists – between childhood vaccines and the onset of autism.
“When I was growing up, autism wasn’t really a factor,” Trump told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in 2007. “And now all of a sudden, it’s an epidemic … My theory is the shots. We’re giving these massive injections at one time, and I really think it does something to the children.” He has repeated this theory on Twitter, television, and debate stages.
Trump’s conspiratorial thinking almost worked its way into the policy pipeline. Before he was even inaugurated, he reportedly invited a prominent vaccine skeptic, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., to chair a new commission on vaccines. That commission ultimately never materialized, and Trump has largely – but not entirely – avoided the topic since becoming president. Still, his administration has presided over an alarming string of measles and mumps outbreaks spurred, experts say, by low vaccination rates in some communities.
Trump’s views may seem clear, but the genesis of his position is not. How did the president of the United States come to the false and dangerous belief that vaccines cause autism? Where and when did he first encounter this belief, and why did he adopt it? How did Trump become an anti-vaccinationist?
Around the same time “The Apprentice” turned him into a household name, Trump was in close contact with a prominent vaccine skeptic whose particular views were identical to those Trump later expressed in public. That skeptic was not a raving conspiracy theorist, but the chairman of a major broadcast network and the founder of one of the largest and most prominent autism foundations.
The confusion over Trump and vaccines
Since Trump started speaking on the subject around the time his youngest son, Barron, was born, many journalists who cover him have presumed that his interest was sparked by Barron’s vaccination schedule. (Trump’s older children – Donald Trump Jr., Eric Trump, Ivanka Trump, and Tiffany Trump – were all born before a notorious 1998 study by Andrew Wakefield that first alleged a connection between vaccines and autism. That study was withdrawn in 2010 after it was revealed to be based on fraudulent evidence.)
That presumption has caused most journalists to cover Trump’s stance toward vaccines gingerly, in part out of fear of repeating or amplifying a theory – for which there is no evidence, and which the Trump family has repeatedly and categorically denied – that Barron, now 13, exhibits signs of autism.
Just weeks before the 2016 election, a YouTube user named James Hunter uploaded a video in which he scrutinized footage of Barron’s public appearances for evidence of autism. The comedian Rosie O’Donnell tweeted a link to the video with the message “Barron Trump Autistic? if so – what an amazing opportunity to bring attention to the AUTISM epidemic.”
- Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images
The Trumps’ response was swift. Barron’s mother, Melania Trump, threatened to sue Hunter, who himself identifies as autistic. He agreed to delete the video from his channel. She also extracted an apology from O’Donnell. The forceful reaction seemed to align with public sentiment that O’Donnell’s tweets were an unacceptable intrusion into a minor’s life.
“Any human being, yes even Donald Trump’s son, has the right to privacy, including privacy about whether or not they are on the autism spectrum,” a HuffPost contributor argued several months later. “If Barron Trump is on the spectrum, then that is a matter for him and his family,” she added. “If he is not on the spectrum, that is a matter for him and his family.”
The White House continues to treat the subject as off-limits. “We are the White House, and as such we do not comment on Barron as he is a minor child,” a representative told Insider.
Indeed, simply mentioning Barron’s name in public, as the Stanford law professor Pamela Karlan did during her testimony in the House Judiciary Committee’s impeachment hearing in December, risks inspiring a chorus of outrage from White House allies.
Trump likely encountered vaccine skepticism before Barron was even born
But an examination of the record suggests that Trump’s false beliefs about vaccines had nothing to do with Barron, and in fact likely predated his birth. The earliest known example of Trump discussing vaccines and autism indicates that he began doubting them before Barron reached an age where autism could be reliably diagnosed. In fact, Trump claimed he had taken steps to avoid such a diagnosis by adjusting Barron’s vaccination schedule.
In the 2007 interview with the Sun-Sentinel, Trump said of his then-22-month-old son: “We’ve taken him on a very slow process. He gets one shot at a time, then we wait a few months and give him another shot, the old-fashioned way. But today they pump the children with so much at a very young age. We do it on a very, very conservative level.”
He told the reporter: “Everybody has their theory. My theory, and I study it because I have young children, my theory is the shots.” This statement suggests that Trump developed an interest in the issue not in reaction to any perceived effect of vaccines on Barron, but before any were administered in the first place.
But what, or who, drew Trump to anti-vaccine ideology to begin with?
Trump became interested in autism through Bob Wright
- Photo by Lucien Capehart/Getty Images
Bob Wright, the former chairman of NBCUniversal, has known Trump since the president entered the public eye. In 1986, Trump approached Wright with a proposal to relocate the offices of the network’s owner at the time, General Electric, to a planned development on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The deal fell through, but it paved the way for a lasting friendship between the two men. In 2002, Wright purchased a 50% stake in Trump’s pageant empire, Miss Universe. In 2004, “The Apprentice” debuted on NBC.
A year later, in 2005, Wright founded the charity Autism Speaks. His interest in the disorder stemmed from his grandson, Christian, who had been diagnosed with it the year prior. It was through Wright and Autism Speaks that Trump seems to have developed an initial interest in autism.
Wright “has just known Trump a long, long time,” Christian’s mother, Katie Wright, told Insider. “I remember we went to Mar-a-Lago for Easter right after Christian was born.” She added that when Autism Speaks started, “my dad was asking all of his acquaintances and friends for donations – maybe he called Donald.”
When a “Fox & Friends” host in 2012 asked Trump for his thoughts on the rising prevalence of autism, the future president referred to the Wrights by name:
“Well, I’ve been very much involved in it over the years. I have some great friends, Bob and Suzanne Wright, who used to head up NBC, as you remember, and they’ve really devoted their life to autism. They’ve had a serious event take place in their family, and they’re fantastic people, and I’ve helped them over the years, and we’ve had fundraisers at Mar-a-Lago and other places, and I’ve gotten to be pretty familiar with the subject. And, you know, I have a theory, and it’s a theory that some people believe in, and that’s the vaccinations.”
The year prior, Donald Trump Jr. told another Fox News interviewer that his father “got involved through Bob and Suzanne Wright, who started Autism Speaks.”
“They got us involved in ‘The Apprentice,’ have been very loyal family friends, and so he’s been very involved for years,” he said.
The Trump family’s involvement was warmly welcomed by Autism Speaks. In late 2005, for example, an episode of “The Apprentice” featured a fundraising drive for the charity. In 2007, Trump hosted the organization at his estate in Palm Beach for its announcement of a lobbying initiative. Donald Trump Jr. and his wife at the time, Vanessa, became official ambassadors and sponsored a benefit event in 2011 at Trump SoHo. The family’s charity vehicle, the Trump Foundation – which Trump has since agreed to dissolve in a settlement with the New York attorney general – donated more than $50,000.
The leaders of Autism Speaks have sparred over vaccines
Autism Speaks is one of the largest private backers of autism research in the United States. But its institutional stance toward vaccines has been a subject of controversy. Until 2015, the charity’s official position stated, in part: “It remains possible that, in rare cases, immunization may trigger the onset of autism symptoms in a child with an underlying medical or genetic condition.”
The subject divided the leadership of Autism Speaks and roiled Wright’s own family. Katie Wright became a vocal anti-vaccinationist and accused Autism Speaks of failing to sufficiently investigate the widely disputed hypothesis that thimerosal, a mercury-based vaccine preservative, causes autism. One of the doctors who treated her son was none other than Andrew Wakefield, the author of the discredited study that alleged a causal link between the vaccine for measles, mumps, and rubella – known as MMR – and the development of autism.
In 2007, Bob and Suzanne Wright issued a statement distancing themselves from their own daughter.
- Photo by Rob Loud/Getty Images for Autism Speaks
Katie Wright told Insider that she apologized after the incident. She said her comments about the organization not doing enough actually referred to what she viewed as a lack of urgency at the federal level to research environmental causes of autism.
“They got a lot of pressure to correct me or distance themselves from me,” she added. “Yeah, it’s very sad. It shouldn’t have gone that far.”
These struggles illuminated a structural tension within Autism Speaks. The organization’s rank and file mainly answer to its board of directors, most of whom lack any medical training. But the activities of its research arm, which funds the scientific study of autism, are guided by a special advisory committee, the majority of whose members have a medical or scientific background. The arrangement saddled the charity with two competing centers of power.
A person who was close to the leadership of Autism Speaks between 2005 and 2010, and who asked not to be named, said the group’s internal divisions were exacerbated by its 2006 merger with the National Alliance for Autism Research, which had funded autism research since 1994. “They created Autism Speaks by merging it with an organization that refuses to say autism is anything but genetic,” that person said. “It was putting the Palestinians and the Israelis in the same organization.”
Both sides of the debate felt aggrieved: Katie Wright and other anti-vaccine advocates felt that the group was dragging its feet on vaccines, while the science-based members were outraged that the group would even entertain the discredited theory.
“I wish there was an honest discussion about just the amount [of vaccines] and taking adverse reactions seriously,” Katie Wright said. “I think that would have made a huge difference.”
- Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/Autism Speaks via Getty Images
But John Elder Robison, a well-known autism advocate who resigned from Autism Speaks’ science and treatment boards in 2013, told Insider that the organization’s executive board was compromised by anti-vaccinationists.
“One source of frustration that caused several people to leave Autism Speaks was the fact that the scientists don’t actually have the final say in what research is funded,” Robison said. “At the time, Mr. Wright and the organization’s executive board had the final say, and some members of the executive board have held anti-vax viewpoints, and some may hold such viewpoints today. I don’t know.”
In a statement, an Autism Speaks spokesman told Insider that the organization now accepts that there is no vaccine link: “When Autism Speaks was founded in 2005, there was so much unknown about autism spectrum disorder – and there’s still much we’re learning today. Our commitment to research is core to our mission, so we can better understand autism and find more personalized treatments and therapies for everyone on the spectrum who might benefit. Over the past two decades there has been extensive research to determine whether there is a link between vaccines and autism, and the result of this research is clear: vaccines do not cause autism.”
Critics have scrutinized Autism Speaks for more than a decade
But even as Autism Speaks renounced Bob Wright’s daughter, it continued to quietly fund research into environmental causes of autism – including vaccines – and collaborated with people who shared her theory, a tension that resulted in the resignation of prominent employees.
From 2007 to 2011, Autism Speaks spent at least $2.5 million on research devoted to environmental causes. Katie Wright told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2009 that her father “believes there is a place for genetic research, but he realizes the dire need to finance the environmental research because that is what affects our children now.”
When David Kirby, an author and former New York Times freelancer who has questioned the safety of vaccines, asked her in 2007 whether she thought Autism Speaks would ever fund a study involving vaccinations, she responded, “Absolutely I think they will.”
That year, according to tax records, the charity paid Kevin Barry, a well-known anti-vaccinationist, slightly more than $100,000 for research and consulting as an independent contractor. Barry was previously the president of Generation Rescue, the anti-vaccine charity now run by the actress Jenny McCarthy. In 2015, he published “Vaccine Whistleblower: Exposing Autism Research Fraud at the CDC.” He declined to comment for this story.
Another prominent anti-vaccinationist who interacted with Wright was the philanthropist Barry Segal, the founder of the anti-vax group Focus for Health, formerly Focus Autism. Segal told Insider that he first met Bob Wright through Katie Wright sometime between 2010 and 2011. During a March 2011 meeting in Florida, he spent time trying to educate the Wrights about what he believed to be the link between vaccines and autism, he told Insider.
“Bob Wright completely agreed with me,” Segal said, adding that he suspected Wright wouldn’t speak out publicly against vaccines because “the pharmaceuticals are so strong, they have so much power, politically you can’t go against them – no one can go against them.”
“Bob Wright was a very sophisticated diplomat,” the person close to Autism Speaks in the 2000s told Insider. “He knew in his heart how dangerous it was going to be to talk about this even as his daughter – she’s the one who takes care of Christian – is the one who witnessed what happened.”
- Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images
That year, Segal’s organization donated more than $50,000 to Autism Speaks for medical research. Katie Wright served on Focus Autism’s board, the records show. Segal said that a little over a year later, in June 2012, he asked Bob Wright to fire Autism Speaks’ president, Mark Roithmayr, who had served in the position since 2005. Weeks later, Roithmayr was gone.
“Good work on Mark,” Segal wrote in the email to Wright. “On June 1st, I sent an email to you … that stated, ‘I feel Mark Roithmayr is not an asset to Autism Speaks.’ In three weeks he was gone … Here’s the problem. The gist of it is that the government was not going to do the necessary environmental and vaccine research due to political restrictions of public money, but that did not mean that private sector organizations, like Autism Speaks, had to follow those restrictions.”
Roithmayr wasn’t the only Autism Speaks employee who left the organization during those years. Many of them exited explicitly because of concerns stemming from the group’s focus on vaccine-related research. Alison Tepper Singer, who was the executive vice president of communications and awareness, resigned in 2009 because of the organization’s insistence on further researching the issue despite ample evidence proving no link between autism and vaccines.
“We need to devote our scarce resources and our energy to study what really does cause autism,” she told Politico in 2017. “Instead of doing the 40th study on vaccines, let’s do the first study on something we haven’t studied.”
Eric London, a member of Autism Speaks’ scientific affairs and executive committees, also left the organization in 2009, saying in his resignation letter that “the pivotal issue compelling my decision is the position which Autism Speaks is taking concerning vaccinations.”
He told Insider there was a major split between the scientific group and most of the executive board over the issue of vaccines.
“While they never came out and said ‘vaccines caused autism,’ they kept the conversation going when the overwhelming public health evidence was that it was not,” London said. “I thought their stance on the vaccines was starting to become a … detriment to public health. And actually what’s happening now, that there was going to be measles outbreaks.”
Wright has offered support to vaccine skeptics
Much like the charity he founded, Bob Wright has publicly flirted with vaccine skepticism. In 2008, for example, Wright told The Telegraph: “The last vaccine Christian had before he regressed was MMR – that’s why my daughter concentrates on that. I don’t know whether his autism is linked. It was certainly coincidental. What we don’t know is if it was causal. Nor do we know whether the thimerosal … is a factor, although mercury is clearly poisonous. Governments want to run from that issue, but they should become more aggressively involved.”
Wright has supported counseling parents concerned about vaccines to spread out injections over a longer period. His 2016 memoir, “The Wright Stuff,” reproduces an email he sent to the leaders of Autism Speaks in September 2015, after the organization released a statement that denied a link between vaccines and autism as a response to Trump’s comments to the contrary during a Republican debate.
“This point of view is unnecessarily argumentative,” Wright wrote. “Trump said it a lot better. We support vaccines, but if parents have concerns, spread out the shots.” During the debate, Trump said he saw a 2-year-old child develop symptoms of autism after receiving several vaccines at the same time and argued that spacing out them out would contain the growing rate of new autism diagnoses.
- Katie Wright
The episode provides some context for Trump’s most recent comments on the subject. In April, amid a growing measles outbreak in the US, the president told a group of reporters: “They have to get the shots. The vaccinations are so important. This is really going around now. They have to get their shots.”
At the time, journalists took this statement as a reversal of his earlier skepticism. But Trump’s statements about vaccines and autism have always alleged that multiple simultaneous doses are dangerous.
“I’m in favor of vaccines,” he said during the presidential debate. “Do them over a longer period of time, same amount, but just in little sections. I think you’re going to see a big impact on autism.”
A 2009 paper published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases identified at least three distinct schools of thought within the anti-vaccine movement. The first argues that the MMR vaccine causes serious digestive problems that subsequently affect the brain and its development. The second argues that thimerosal damages the nervous system. Finally, the third argues that simultaneous vaccinations subdue the immune system, which in turn triggers autism.
Katie Wright, according to her own writing and third-party reports, belongs to the second school. According to a 2008 essay for The Guardian, Suzanne Wright, who died in 2016, likely belonged to all three. Trump and Bob Wright, however, both belong to the third school.
Lyn Redwood, a parent activist involved with Autism Speaks in the 2000s, told Insider that Bob and Suzanne Wright were very concerned about vaccines when they first started Autism Speaks. “Christian regressed dramatically after his vaccine,” she said. “I know Bob was committed to looking at vaccines.”
The person close to Autism Speaks in the 2000s added that Suzanne Wright was often vocal in her belief that vaccines caused her grandson’s autism. She “would say he was just a normal kid doing great until those damn vaccines,” that person said. “That’s what Suzanne used to say in private all the time.”
Katie Wright told Insider that her father shared a similar sentiment.
He “completely believed that Christian’s adverse vaccine reactions led to his downward spiral,” she said. “You’ll never find anything in print where he says, ‘Katie’s wrong, Christian wasn’t affected by vaccines,’ or anything like that. He’s always agreed with me.”
Trump and Wright remain in touch
It may be impossible to definitively prove that Trump acquired his beliefs about vaccines and autism from Wright. Indeed, one of the chief lessons of the past three years of political journalism is that it can be futile to impute rational intention onto the operation of Trump’s mind. But the evidence pointing to Wright is strong, and much more compelling than the theories pointing to Barron.
What is clear, though, is that Trump and Wright remain in touch. When Trump decided to celebrate World Autism Day in 2017 by shining a blue light on the White House, the press secretary at the time, Sean Spicer, told reporters the idea came from a “longtime friend of the president,” Bob Wright.
And in September, The Washington Post reported that Wright had personally lobbied the Trump administration with an untested proposal to contain gun violence by monitoring people with mental illnesses for certain behavioral changes associated with violence.
“Bob does not have anything to add to the public comments he has made in the past,” said Wright’s spokeswoman, Liz Feld, the president of the Suzanne Wright Foundation. “He would never discuss any private conversations he has had with the president.”
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