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Tech & Science The powerful media mogul at the core of Donald Trump's debunked views on vaccines and autism

19:46  13 december  2019
19:46  13 december  2019 Source:   businessinsider.com.au

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President Donald Trump has expressed anti- vaccine views since 2007, when he told a reporter that he believes vaccines can cause autism in young On the otherwise tumultuous day of Donald Trump ' s presidential victory, many members of the anti- vaccination movement let out a sigh of relief.

Why both Donald Trump and the Coronavirus have made it a lot worse - and what you can do about More than half of the world now uses social media , and we spend a greater proportion of our day' s Confirmation Bias is the human tendency to search for information that confirms our existing views

  The powerful media mogul at the core of Donald Trump's debunked views on vaccines and autism
  • 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 non-profit Autism Speaks and its founder, former NBC chairman Bob Wright.
  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

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.

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(NaturalNews) Donald Trump is no stranger to controversy, including the vaccine debate. Despite being cast to the lunatic fringe by the mainstream media for his remarks, CDC scientist Dr. William Thompson has confirmed Trump ' s suspicions — namely, that the link between vaccines and autism

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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.

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Shortly after Trump ' s assertion, former presidential candidate and neurosurgeon Ben Carson corrected the real-estate mogul , pointing out that overwhelming medical evidence suggests that there's no link between autism and vaccines . Donald Trump at the New York Stock Exchange in 1995.

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Trump's conspiratorial thinking almost worked its way into the policy pipeline. Before he was even inaugurated, he reportedly invited prominent vaccine sceptic Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to chair a new commission on vaccines. That commission ultimately never materialised, and Trump has largely - but not entirely - avoided the topic since starting his tenure as 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 sceptic, whose particular views were identical to those Trump later expressed in public. That sceptic was not a raving conspiracy theorist, but the chairman of a major broadcast network and founder of one of the largest and most prominent autism foundations.

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The confusion over Trump and vaccines

Since Trump's public comments on the subject began around the time his youngest son, Barron, was born, many journalists who cover him have presumed that his interest in the matter 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 has since been withdrawn 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 scrutinised footage of Barron's public appearances for evidence of autism. The comedian Rosie O'Donnell tweeted a link to the video with the following message: "Barron Trump Autistic? if so - what an amazing opportunity to bring attention to the AUTISM epidemic."

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Barron Trump that is standing in the street: US President Donald Trump and son Barron make their way to board Air Force One before departing from Palm Beach International Airport in West Palm Beach, Florida on December 1, 2019. US President Donald Trump and son Barron make their way to board Air Force One before departing from Palm Beach International Airport in West Palm Beach, Florida on December 1, 2019.

The Trumps' response was swift. Barron's mother, Melania, 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, which regarded O'Donnell's tweets as an unacceptable intrusion into a minor's life.

"Any human being, even Donald Trump's son, has the right to privacy, including privacy about whether or not they are on the autism spectrum," a contributor to HuffPost 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 spokesperson told Insider. Indeed, simply mentioning Barron's name in public, as Stanford law professor Pamela Karlan did during her testimony before the House Judiciary Committee's impeachment hearing in December, risks inspiring a chorus of outrage from White House allies.

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Trump likely encountered vaccine scepticism before Barron Trump 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 a 2007 interview with The South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Trump said of his then-22-month old son: "What we've done with Baron [sic], 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 same 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 vaccines may have had 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

Charlie Crist, Donald Trump, Bob Wright posing for a photo: Former Florida Governor Charlie Crist (L-R), Donald Trump and Bob Wright pose during an event for Autism Speaks at the Mar-a-Lago Club on March 30, 2008 in Palm Beach, Florida. Former Florida Governor Charlie Crist (L-R), Donald Trump and Bob Wright pose during an event for Autism Speaks at the Mar-a-Lago Club on March 30, 2008 in Palm Beach, Florida.

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Bob Wright, the former chairman of NBC Universal, has known Donald 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.

"[Bob Wright] has just known Trump a long, long time. I remember we went to Mar-a-Lago for Easter right after Christian was born," Christian's mother, Katie Wright, told Insider. "I think when [Autism Speaks] started, my dad was asking all of his acquaintances and friends for donation. Maybe he called Donald."

When a "Fox & Friends" host asked Trump for his thoughts on the rising prevalence of autism, in September 2012, 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 have really devoted their lives to autism. They have 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 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."

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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 organisation at his estate in Palm Beach for its announcement of a lobbying initiative. Donald Trump Jr. and his then-wife 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 $US50,000.

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 ongoing 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 criticised Autism Speaks for 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.

Bob Wright et al. posing for a photo: Bob Wright, Katie Wright and Suzanne Wright attend the 2007 Sundance Film Festival screening and luncheon for the film 'Autism Every Day' on January 21, 2007 in Park City, Utah. Bob Wright, Katie Wright and Suzanne Wright attend the 2007 Sundance Film Festival screening and luncheon for the film 'Autism Every Day' on January 21, 2007 in Park City, Utah.

Katie Wright told Insider that she apologised after the incident. She said that her comments about the organisation 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 organisation'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 come from a medical or scientific background. The arrangement saddled the charity with two competing centres 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 organisation that refuses to say autism is anything but genetic," that person claimed. "It was putting the Palestinians and the Israelis in the same organisation."

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 entertain the discredited theory to begin with.

"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."

a group of people standing in front of a crowd: Participants hold signs in support during the 2009 Autism Speaks Walk Now of Autism on April 25, 2009 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. Participants hold signs in support during the 2009 Autism Speaks Walk Now of Autism on April 25, 2009 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California.

But John Elder Robison, a well-known autism advocate who resigned from Autism Speak's science and treatment boards in 2013, told Insider that the organisation'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 organisation's executive board had the final say, and some members of the executive board have held anti-vaxx viewpoints and some may hold such viewpoints today. I don't know."

In a statement, an Autism Speaks spokesman told Insider that the organisation 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 personalised 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 scrutinised Autism Speaks for more than a decade

But even as Autism Speaks renounced 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.

Between 2007 and 2011, Autism Speaks spent at least $US2.5 million on research devoted to environmental causes. "[Bob Wright] believes there is a place for genetic research, but he realises the dire need to finance the environmental research because that is what affects our children now," Katie Wright told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2009.

When David Kirby, an author and former New York Times freelancer who has questioned the safety of vaccines, asked her in 2007 if 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 $US100,000 for research and consulting as an independent contractor. Barry previously served as president of Generation Rescue, the anti-vaccine charity now run by 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 philanthropist Barry Segal, founder of the anti-vaxx 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 suspects 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."

a hand holding a cellphone: A nurse prepares the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine at the Rockland County Health Department in Haverstraw, Rockland County, New York on April 5, 2019. A nurse prepares the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine at the Rockland County Health Department in Haverstraw, Rockland County, New York on April 5, 2019.

That year, Segal's organisation Focus Autism donated more than $US50,000 to Autism Speaks for medical research. Katie Wright served on Focus Autism's board, the records show. A little over a year later, in June 2012, Segal says he asked Bob Wright to fire Autism Speak's then-president Mark Roithmayr, who had served in the position since 2005. Weeks later, Roithmayr was gone.

"Good work on Mark," Segal wrote in the June 21, 2012 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 organisations, like Autism Speaks, had to follow those restrictions..."

Roithmayr wasn't the only Autism Speaks employee who left the organisation during those years. Many of them exited explicitly because of concerns stemming from the group's focus on vaccine-related research. Allison Tepper Singer, who served as executive vice president of communications and awareness, resigned in 2009 due to the organisation'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 commitees, also left the organisation 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 sceptics

Much like the charity he founded, Wright himself has publicly flirted with vaccine scepticism. 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 of time. His 2016 memoir, "The Wright Stuff," reproduces an email he sent to the leaders of Autism Speaks in September 2015, after the organisation released a statement that denied a link between vaccines and autism, as a response to Trump's own 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 witnessed a two-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.

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 scepticism. But Trump's statements about vaccines and autism have always alleged that multiple simultaneous doses are dangerous.

"I'm in favour 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 Clinical Infectious Diseases identified at least three distinct schools of thought within the anti-vaccine movement. The first school argues that the MMR vaccine causes serious digestive problems that subsequently affect the brain and its development. The second school argues that thimerosal, a vaccine preservative derived from mercury, damages the nervous system. Finally, the third school 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. Suzanne Wright, according to a 2008 essay for The Guardian, 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. "[Katie's] son 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, who died in 2016, was often vocal in her belief that vaccines caused her grandson's autism. "[Suzanne] 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 similar sentiment.

"My dad... 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."

Donald Trump and Bob 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 last 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 2017 by shining a blue light on the White House, former Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters the idea came from a "long-time 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 mentally troubled individuals for certain behavioural changes associated with violence.

"Bob does not have anything to add to the public comments he has made in the past," said Wright's spokesperson, Liz Feld, who serves as president of the Suzanne Wright Foundation. "He would never discuss any private conversations he has had with the President."

Do you have something to share about Autism Speaks or the president's views on vaccines? Contact this reporter at neinbinder@businessinsider.com, DM on Twitter at @NicoleEinbinder or text our tips line via Signal or WhatsApp at (646) 768-4744. You can also contact Business Insider securely via SecureDrop.

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