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Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s Homecoming
Throughout the pandemic, the anti-vaccine activist raked in cash and cultivated right-wing allies. Now he's running for president with a new support base.
Anti-vaccine activist and environmental attorney Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who recently announced that he is running for president as a Democrat, has been raking in cash throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, promoting misinformation. The influx of money has been aided by an ongoing right-wing campaign to undermine public health measures, and Kennedy has made strong allies across the aisle.
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Kennedy, 69, entered the 2024 presidential race last month with surprising tailwinds. His poll numbers against incumbent Joe Biden have consistently been in the double digits. Some of Kennedy’s early strength is likely due to legacy—he is the son of the late Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and nephew of the late President John F. Kennedy. But Kennedy is well known for his environmental advocacy too.
In the 1980s, following an arrest and guilty plea for possession of heroin, Kennedy began volunteering with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) to satisfy a condition of his probation. Environmentalism blossomed into a career after he was admitted to the New York State Bar in 1985. Over the years, Kennedy has worked with NRDC and other groups on causes like clean water, even founding the global environmental network Waterkeeper Alliance in 1999. Kennedy has won awards for his efforts, including the Sierra Club’s William O. Douglas Award in 2005, which “recognizes those who have made outstanding use of the legal/judicial process to achieve environmental goals, particularly those with national significance.” In February 2013, Kennedy was one of many prominent activists and celebrities arrested protesting the Keystone XL Pipeline.
Today, however, much to the dismay of his family, Kennedy is best known as one of the leading voices in the anti-vaccine movement. He has long promoted discredited, unscientific claims about vaccine safety. The Center for Countering Digital Hate listed him as one of the “Disinformation Dozen”—a group of the most prolific spreaders of online misinformation about COVID vaccines.
Those vaccines have saved millions of lives, but Kennedy and his dark money group, Children’s Health Defense (CHD), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit founded in 2011 under the name World Mercury Project, have sought to ensure that fewer people get them. In the summer of 2021, CHD even targeted anti-vaccine propaganda at Black communities. At the time, Black Americans were dying from COVID at a significantly higher rate than white Americans. The group has also sponsored anti-vaccine mandate rallies in different cities. At one such event, in January 2022, Kennedy sparked outrage when he invoked Anne Frank to claim that vaccine mandates were more difficult to escape than Nazi Germany.
Kennedy’s family is not supporting his campaign, but family isn’t everything. He has found a new home. Anti-vaccine advocacy has been lucrative and earned him key allies on the right, who want to see him shake up and divide the Democratic Party in the upcoming presidential election.
According to federal tax filings, CHD, which Kennedy took over in 2015, has seen ballooning revenues since the start of the pandemic. Of course, the group has passed this success on to Kennedy—today the chairman and chief legal counsel.
On its 2019 IRS Form 990, the group reported nearly $3 million in revenue. A year later, however, the number had more than doubled to $6.8 million. A year after that, it had once again more than doubled, hitting a whopping $15.6 million, most of which came through contributions. However, given that the group did not fill out its Schedule B, we cannot know how the donations break down. Email requests to Kennedy’s campaign and CHD to provide a list of CHD’s top donors and donation amounts were opened but went unanswered.
Kennedy has seen a significant financial benefit from his group’s cash explosion. According to the tax filings, in 2019, CHD paid Kennedy $255,000. The number grew to $345,000 in 2020; to nearly $500,000 in 2021. Kennedy is by far the group’s highest-paid officer. The runner-up was vice chair Mary Holland, who was paid $52,000 in 2019 and $180,000 in both 2020 and 2021.
In addition to his CHD income, Kennedy does paid speaking engagements. Our unanswered inquiry to the campaign included a question about his fees. The Speaker Agency, which represents Kennedy, gave us a quote of $27,500 for a virtual keynote appearance for an event in August.
Meanwhile, in November 2021, Kennedy published a best-selling book about the career of Dr. Anthony Fauci in November 2021, accusing the infectious disease scientist of participating in “a historic coup d’etat against Western democracy.”
CHD’s website boasts that the book, “The Real Anthony Fauci: Bill Gates, Big Pharma, and the Global War on Democracy and Public Health,” was a smashing success having sold more than a million copies and sitting on the New York Times Best Sellers List for 17 weeks.
“A Multigenerational Democrat”
Kennedy has framed his 2024 presidential bid as an effort to restore the Democratic Party of old—to return to a time when it was less beholden to economic elites and big corporations. In a Twitter thread last week, he lambasted the party and the Biden administration for being “riddled with Neocons, war hawks, Wall Street people, and former corporate lobbyists.”
“I’m a multigenerational Democrat,” he tweeted. “Remember when we upheld the interests of the poor and middle class against big corporations and Wall Street? Remember when we were the party of peace, civil liberties, and people power? I aim to reclaim my party and its traditional values.”
But integral to Kennedy’s pandemic-era success, and perhaps his electoral prospects, has been his alignment with the political right.
Since March 2020, right-wing groups like those in billionaire industrialist Charles Koch’s political network have been working to defeat and undermine public health measures seen as potentially disruptive to business, including lockdowns, school closures, and masking. As a commentary from the DC-based conservative think tank Heritage Foundation noted back then, “While earlier concerns had focused on disruptions of supply chains linked to China, current fears are much more strongly connected to the downturn in global demand due to quarantines, lockdowns, business closures, and employment furloughs.”
Before long, however, the right-wing anti-public health campaign encompassed vaccination efforts as well—particularly federal vaccine requirements and mandates, which business groups opposed.
On Twitter, Kennedy initially touted lockdowns as having “not just slowed #COVID-19, it reduced lethal air pollution + associated #mortality.” He shared a story criticizing Donald Trump for failing to take early action against the virus as well as a mutual aid link to help those struggling with the virus.
But Kennedy’s attitude shifted dramatically as the crisis wore on and vaccines were developed.
“HUGE CONFLICT OF INTEREST,” he tweeted in May 2020. “The former #pharma executive tapped by President #Trump to lead the federal government's hunt for a #COVID-19 vaccine has more than $10 million in stock options in one of the companies receiving federal funding.”
By August 2020, Kennedy had joined Dr. Simone Gold, the founder of pro-Trump doctor group America’s Frontline Doctors (AFLDS), which has hawked quack COVID cures, as a headliner on the “Ministry Now” program of deceased televangelist and anti-vaxxer Marcus Lamb. Lamb died from COVID complications in November 2021.
During his interview, Kennedy showered Gold—today a convicted Capitol rioter—with praise, calling her “an amazing woman,” “so brave,” and “so amazingly smart.” He suggested that the “vaccine industry” and Bill Gates had worked to suppress hydroxychloroquine in order to fast-track the jabs.
“They’ve now put tens of billions of dollars to fast-track the vaccines,” he said. “That whole business model collapses if hydroxychloroquine is shown to work.”
Hydroxychloroquine does not work as a treatment for COVID.
By February 2021, Kennedy and CHD had joined groups like the Koch-funded Independent Women’s Forum in promoting false narratives about lockdowns and school closures, claiming that they were allegedly causing a spike in suicides among children and teens. In reality, however, suicides among young people declined in 2020, corresponding with closures. They increased again as the country reopened. Moreover, no studies have isolated the impact of closures from the general impacts of living through a pandemic.
Dr. Tyler Black, a clinical assistant professor at the University of British Columbia Department of Psychiatry, told Important Context that “Overall, mental health ER visits decreased significantly during the closure periods throughout the US,” though he added that “when it comes to specific presentations and populations, we see differences.”
More than a mere incidental alliance, Kennedy has been cultivating right-wing allies, using his anti-vaccine advocacy and COVID-related misinformation as a bridge.
In July 2021, he was photographed backstage at a “Reawaken America” event with former Donald Trump adviser Roger Stone, former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, and anti-vaxxer Charles Bollinger, all of whom have promoted Trump’s election fraud lie. That same month, CHD illegally gave a $50,000 donation to the Republican Attorneys General Association.
Kennedy’s November 2021 book about Fauci has secured him interviews with big-name conservatives like Tucker Carlson, Megyn Kelly, and Dennis Prager as well as speaking gigs. In March, for example, he gave a speech about Fauci and the public health establishment at Hillsdale College, a small conservative college that receives funding from Koch’s network including $55,000 from the Charles Koch Foundation in 2021. Kennedy remarked that being at Hillsdale felt “almost like a homecoming because of the incredible role this institution played during COVID-19 when it was the only college left in the country that really stood up for freedom.”
Kennedy’s right-wing allies see in him the potential to disrupt the Democratic Party and undermine public health. Recently, it was reported that GOP strategist and former Trump aide Steve Bannon had been urging Kennedy to run for months, hoping his candidacy would cause “chaos” and spread anti-vaccine sentiment. Kennedy has denied Bannon played any role in his decision to run.
Back in February, notorious COVID misinformer and anti-vaxxer Steve Kirsch, who appeared on Kennedy’s podcast to discuss vaccines last May, announced on Substack that he was forming a super PAC to draft the prolific anti-vaccine activist to run and was looking for volunteers.
“I can’t think of anyone more qualified to clean up the mess and unite the country than RFK Jr.,” Kirsch wrote. “So I’m putting together a Super PAC to encourage him to run for President on the Democratic side against Biden.”
When Kennedy filed his candidacy on April 5, the news was met with right-wing enthusiasm. Talk show host Steve Deace of The Blaze posted a photo with the anti-vaxxer on Twitter accompanied by the caption, “As long as he doesn’t go trans, a man with high character and courage like RFK Jr will be tempting.” Weeks later, in a CNN interview, Kennedy said he was not in favor of allowing transgender women to compete in women’s sports, calling them “biologically male.” Human rights groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Campaign have pushed back on transgender athlete bans as discriminatory and unscientific.
“Can the Presidential race in 2024 please be RFK Jr v. Trump?” tweeted Jenin Younes, an attorney working for the House Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government whose previous work as a litigation counsel for the Koch-funded litigation outfit New Civil Liberties Alliance involved fighting to protect COVID misinformation spreading doctors from career consequences and “censorship.”
Charlie Kirk was also laudatory of the new Democratic candidate. The founder of the billionaire-funded Turning Point USA, a right-wing dark money group aimed at high school and college students, called Kennedy “one of the most articulate and thoughtful political activists going after the administrative state and the fourth branch of government.”
“I would vote for Robert F. Kennedy Jr. for president over Mitt Romney any day,” Kirk said. “I would vote for Robert F. Kennedy Jr. for president over Lady Graham any day.”
Kennedy’s official campaign launch in Boston on April 19 was conspicuously missing members of his own famous family—several are openly supporting Biden’s reelection. However, the event was attended by Jeffrey Tucker, the founder of the Brownstone Institute, a dark money group that has been a prolific hub of COVID-related misinformation.
Tucker, who has promoted Kennedy’s book about Fauci, is a child labor advocate with reported ties to neo-Confederate groups as well as a longtime veteran of Koch’s political influence network. He is one of the main organizers of the so-called Great Barrington Declaration, an influential open letter from October 2020 that advocated for COVID herd immunity through mass infection and minimal intervention. Brownstone was originally billed as the “spiritual child” of the declaration.
Kennedy and Tucker posed for a photograph together at the launch event. Tucker later wrote of his experience in an article titled, “The RFK Jr. Potential for Political Disruption,” which was published by The Epoch Times, a far-right online conspiracy magazine that regularly promotes COVID-related and anti-vaccine misinformation. The nonprofit behind the publication received $31,000 in 2021 from DonorsTrust, a preferred funding conduit of Koch network donors.
“To be sure, he has been on record as being among the climate-change alarmists in even recent history,” Tucker wrote. “Have his views on this topic shifted in light of the fake COVID-19 science of the past three years and the lockdown experience? Perhaps so. Many people on the left have begun to rethink this topic and perhaps Kennedy is among them.”
Brownstone published an excerpt from Kennedy’s launch speech criticizing the so-called “lockdowns” that same day.
Fox News, meanwhile, has given Kennedy’s campaign ample coverage. On the day of the launch, the anti-vaxxer was interviewed by Tucker Carlson during primetime. Days later, he was on Neil Cavuto’s show.
The right-wing love for Kennedy has even led to some conservatives suggesting him as a possible running mate for Donald Trump, the presumptive GOP 2024 front-runner. For example, AFLDS spokesperson and creative director John Strand, an underwear model who, like Gold, was convicted for storming the Capitol on January 6, 2021, called the pairing a “winning ticket.” Tagging Roger Stone, he even offered it in response to a tweet asking for “your dream 2024 presidential ticket.” Bannon too has floated the idea.
“A Chilling Message”
Experts told Important Context they worry about the effect Kennedy’s campaign might have on the nation. They fear that it will serve to further validate the dangerous junk science and vaccine skepticism he promotes.
Acclaimed vaccine scientist Dr. Peter Hotez, who developed a patent-free COVID vaccine, told Important Context that he is concerned because three 2024 presidential hopefuls—Kennedy, DeSantis, and Trump—have “pursued an aggressive antiscience agenda.”
Hotez is the author of a new paper examining the threats posed by “anti-science conspiracies” to biomedicine, which calls out, among other things, the right-wing politicization of vaccines.
“DeSantis and RFK Jr seeking to undermine vaccine science and scientists, and Trump promoting dangerous therapies such as hydroxychloroquine,” Hotez said. “My worry is that the 2024 US Presidential election could send a chilling message to our nation’s research universities and institutes that America no longer welcomes science [and] scientists, ignoring our important historical contributions to the success and global stature of the USA.”
Through his work and family name, Kennedy has amassed a devoted online fan base with more than a million followers on Twitter alone. Early polling shows consistent support in the double digits, outpacing progressive spiritualist Marianne Williamson. A USA TODAY/Suffolk University Poll released on the day of Kennedy’s campaign launch saw him with 14 percent. By contrast, progressive spiritualist Marianne Williamson, who declared her candidacy back in March, had just 5 percent support. Eight days later, an Emerson College poll showed Kennedy with 21 percent, bearing Williamson by 13 points. Still, a recent Fox News poll found that while Biden was solidly favored with 62 percent support, the anti-vaccine crusader had 19 percent.
The national Democratic Party supports Biden’s reelection bid and does not plan to sponsor any primary debates. But with his pandemic profits and right-wing friends, Kennedy’s war chest could prove deep enough to give Democrats a real headache.
"While the legitimacy and real threat of a serious RFK Jr. political campaign, on the basis of name recognition and his millions of dollars and social media followers dedicated to disinformation about vaccines, is very much on-brand for the American political climate, I truly hope as a northern neighbor that it follows the general direction of trying to challenge an incumbent,” said Black, noting incumbent presidents are generally safe from primary challengers.
NOTE: This article has been updated to include Kennedy’s virtual speaker fee.