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Robert F. Kennedy Jr. at his home in Los Angeles.Mark Abramson for NBC News

The conspiracy candidate: What RFK Jr.’s anti-vaccine crusade could look like in the White House

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is a conspiracy theorist running for president as a Democrat. Experts fear his anti-vaccine activism threatens public health in America.

LOS ANGELES — Robert F. Kennedy Jr. stands at the edge of a cliff, while his three dogs sit at attention, waiting for a treat from his pocket. 

It is gray and spitting rain, and Kennedy — scion of America’s most famous political family, challenger in the Democratic presidential primary and one of the world’s foremost conspiracy theorists — is partway up a 3-mile trail near Mandeville Canyon, a hike he makes every morning with his two Gordon setters and 1-year-old German shorthaired pointer. 

I am one of many reporters dispatched to profile Kennedy, who is so busy, and has so many journalists attached to the campaign, according to his press person, that accompanying him to official events won’t be possible. So, on a Monday morning in late May, we are on this hike instead, a winding trek up and back down a steep hill, as Kennedy lays out his vision of the country he aims to lead. 

He sees America as a divided place, where an elite few conspire to crush the rest, where doctors poison the public, and where few institutions or experts can be trusted. “People should be scared,” he tells me. 

It’s a dark notion, one Kennedy believes that he, as president, can save the country from. 

As Kennedy speaks, his dogs remain at attention. For a long time. No treats are given. 

“It’s something called an intermittent reward system,” Kennedy, noticing my discomfort, explains of the lapse. “I learned it from falconry. If you don’t give the animal a treat every time, it actually makes them more obedient.”

Something about the way the dogs are perched, salivating, their trusting eyes glued to Kennedy, reminds me of the way the world has recently been gripped by conspiracy theories — many of which Kennedy has helped spread: ones that imagine clouds as government-sprayed chemicals, cellular networks as surveillance plots — and lifesaving vaccines as poison

He flicks three treats into the air and the dogs snap up their rewards. 

Image: Robert F. Kennedy Jr. tosses treats to his dogs.
Kennedy shows his command of his dogs, who obediently sit at attention, waiting for a treat.Mark Abramson for NBC News

Kennedy, 69, drove us to the trail in his taupe minivan, a beater without working seatbelts or back seats, meant for ferrying dogs and any wild animals he may find in need of help. He’s known to decline interview requests from large outlets, including a handful from me over the years, so I ask why he’s agreed to meet. Kennedy shrugs and says he’s always been open — it’s the press that’s hostile.

He disappeared from most networks and news organizations years ago — when his anti-vaccine activism became unpalatable to most Americans. His paranoia and anti-vaccine proselytizing during the pandemic only made him more of a pariah. But since he announced in April that he is running for president, the networks have come calling, and he’s been reinstated on Instagram after a 2021 ban for spreading misinformation. 

That invitation back into polite society, at a moment when he’s got so much to say, is part of the reason he’s running. 

“There are rules that make it difficult for the public airwaves to censor you,” Kennedy says, misciting a federal law that requires broadcast stations provide candidates for public office with equal opportunity to airtime. “So I thought maybe I should run.”

But he swears it’s not just about the attention. “My wife would never let me run just to make a point,” he says, meaning the actor Cheryl Hines. 

Kennedy says he was inspired by Jeremy Zogby, who shared “astonishing” polling numbers that made Kennedy think he had a real chance. He declined to share the numbers, but he says the poll pushed him to throw his hat into a primary that most people are calling a long shot. (Asked for confirmation, Zogby said, “At this stage we are not discussing publicly Mr. Kennedy’s internal polling.”) A CNN poll in May has Kennedy with 20% Democratic support, compared to 60% for incumbent Joe Biden. 

From the command of his animals, to his stride, to the way he maintains eye contact just a hair longer than feels comfortable, Kennedy’s sense of confidence is palpable. Only one thing betrays it. 

“I can’t stand my voice,” he says as I move my audio recorder closer. 

His voice is gravelly and strained. It’s gotten progressively worse since the ’90s when Kennedy was diagnosed with spasmodic dysphonia, a rare neurological disorder that causes his larynx to tighten uncontrollably and his voice to halt and tremor. 

But today, it sounds stronger than it has in years — a result of a recent surgery in Kyoto, Japan, Kennedy says, which implanted a titanium bridge between his vocal folds.

The cause of spasmodic dysphonia isn’t known; researchers think it might be genetic, or a leftover disability from a respiratory infection, or even stress.

Kennedy, though, suspects a flu vaccine may be to blame. “I haven’t been able to figure out any other cause,” he told a podcaster in 2021. 

In a follow-up email, Kennedy said he wasn’t sure of the connection, calling it “my own speculation.” His press person sent links to fact sheets included in manufacturer packaging of more recent flu vaccines that list dysphonia among dozens of reported “adverse reactions.” The adverse reactions in those package inserts — which are legal, not medical documents — are based on unverified observations, and, as they make clear, don’t suggest the vaccine necessarily caused the reaction. 

Kennedy’s suspicion would make his anti-vaccine activism personal.

But Kennedy doesn’t want to talk about vaccines — at least not from the campaign trail. 

Photo collage of an illustration of a doctor administering a vaccine to a child; a medical figure of the larynx, trachea and lungs; and Robert F. Kennedy with two of his children, including Robert Jr., in 1957.
NBC News; Getty Images

In a 108-minute speech in Boston in April announcing his run, Kennedy never brought up vaccines — alluding only once to some mystery cause for all childhood ailments. It was a striking omission for the founder of Children’s Health Defense, the country’s largest anti-vaccine organization, which describes itself as a “child health protection and advocacy group.” The organization’s employees sell Kennedy’s buttons and bumper stickers and its on-leave president is now the campaign’s director of volunteers. 

Full-page newspaper ads supporting Kennedy make no mention of vaccines. The super PAC that paid for them — an anti-pharmaceutical industry organization that pivoted to supporting Kennedy’s candidacy — is run by John Gilmore, the president of Children’s Health Defense’s New York chapter. A main funder, Wall Street trader Mark Gorton, is also a major donor to Children’s Health Defense. 

Kennedy also doesn’t discuss vaccines in the 8-minute promotional video posted on his social platforms in June. Titled “Running on Truth,” the video features heroes of the anti-vaccine movement who similarly skate past any talk of vaccines.

And Del Bigtree, founder of the second-best-funded anti-vaccine nonprofit (after Kennedy’s) who acts as Kennedy’s hype man at fundraisers, only winked at the reason for his endorsement, tweeting, “I just donated $100. If you know why I did it then join me.”

There’s good reason to be subtle. Kennedy’s views on vaccines put him at odds with most Americans, particularly Democrats. He aligns more with a growing wing of vaccine-skeptic Republicans; research and polling consistently shows modern-day conservatives are more susceptible to conspiracy theories and hold more conspiratorial worldviews generally.

Kennedy’s supporters have gotten the message. In a Facebook group where more than 4,000 people have gathered to organize events like Kennedy-branded Fourth of July parades, members have been workshopping possible appositives for their candidate, settling most recently on “Vaccine Safety Advocate.” But they’d really prefer to avoid the issue, as one poster put it, “by sticking to Kennedy’s campaign points as much as possible.”

People who have followed Kennedy for years aren’t convinced by the spin, and privately, are blunt about the harm they fear could come from a Kennedy administration. A university researcher who studies anti-vaccine misinformation said over text, “#GAMA: Give America Measles Again.” One advocate who leads a local vaccine education nonprofit asked me gravely, “How much damage could he actually, really do here?”

I ask Kennedy whether distancing himself from the vaccine issue is strategic. He says I’m making something out of nothing. 

“If anybody wants to talk to me about vaccines, I’ll talk to them,” he says, and recent interviews show this willingness. “But it’s not an issue that I’m leading with.” 

Instead, uphill on this hike, as I work to keep pace, Kennedy wants to talk about: Ukraine (he blames American “neocons” and says he’ll “broker a peace”); the middle class (he’ll rebuild it); chronic illnesses (he’ll heal them, by funding research into the causes with a focus on “wellness”); the environment (he’ll shift farm subsidies and clean it up); and children (he’ll protect them). 

Kennedy has his vocal supporters — anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theorists, internet contrarians, billionaire tech bros, Camelot nostalgists and right-wing provocateurs who seem to be pumping Kennedy as a spoiler candidate. Recent polls show him making a dent against an incumbent whom many voters see as too old. But for now at least, most political commentators doubt Kennedy’s chances. Mention the skepticism to Kennedy, and he bristles. 

“Tell me something,” he says. “Did you think Donald Trump would win?” 

Image: Robert F. Kennedy Jr. hikes near his home in Los Angeles on May 23.
Kennedy's presidential run comes at a time when the country has been gripped by conspiracy theories — many of which he has helped spread.Mark Abramson for NBC News

The third of 11 children born to Ethel and Robert F. Kennedy Sr., Kennedy was 9 years old when his uncle, President John F. Kennedy, was assassinated and 14 when his father, a former U.S. attorney general and New York senator, was shot and killed after winning California’s 1968 Democratic presidential primary.

Kennedy believes the government, specifically the CIA, is responsible for both killings. (The CIA denies involvement.) He’s in good company here. Most Americans believe — as they have for the last half-century — that Lee Harvey Oswald didn’t act alone in the JFK assassination. Polling at the time of Robert F. Kennedy Sr.’s murder shows more than half the country believed it was part of a larger plot.

Books about and by Kennedy tell the story of a wild, unsupervised childhood giving way to aimless years at boarding schools and college. He developed an addiction to hard drugs, went to law school, got married, had two children, got a job as an assistant district attorney in Manhattan and got busted for heroin possession. He divorced and got sober, remarried and had four more children. In 2010, Kennedy filed for divorce from his second wife, who killed herself in 2012 as the divorce was pending. He married Hines in 2014. 

Despite decades of pundits and fans pleading for him to run for something, anything, it was just never a good time: A small-time campaign to get him to run in 2008 crashed when Kennedy threw his support behind Barack Obama; all the other high-profile positions befitting a Kennedy in New York, where he lived until 2014, were taken; or he was in the throes of personal scandals

As Kennedy said at his campaign kickoff: “I got so many skeletons in my closet that if they could vote, I could be king of the world.”

Photo collage of a newspaper headline and cover image of Robert F. Kennedy's assassination; the American flag-draped casket of President John F. Kennedy.
Getty Images; NBC News

In the midst of this turmoil, Kennedy found a space in the environmental movement, eventually leading the organization Riverkeeper, which is credited with cleaning up and protecting the Hudson and the New York City watershed by aggressively suing polluters. Riverkeeper inspired the Waterkeeper Alliance, a global movement Kennedy helmed until his 2020 resignation. 

As an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, a watchdog group, Kennedy provided star power to environmental causes and spent the ’90s criss-crossing the globe: in British Columbia as the last North American rainforest was threatened by loggers, meeting with Fidel Castro in Cuba to urge him to abandon its nuclear program, whale watching off Baja California’s San Ignacio Lagoon at risk from the world’s largest salt plant, and spending 30 days in a Puerto Rican jail, for protesting a military bombing exercise. He was on the cover of Vanity Fair’s Green Issue and named a “hero for the planet” by Time magazine.

The way he tells it, as Kennedy was zipping hither and yon, giving speeches about threats to the Earth, women started showing up with stories about their autistic children who they said had been harmed by vaccines, specifically a mercury-based preservative, thimerosal. (Without belaboring it, methylmercury found in contaminated fish is different from the ethylmercury in thimerosal, which is easily broken down and doesn’t cause neurological problems, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It was removed from most vaccines out of an abundance of caution in 2001.) But by 2005, Kennedy was convinced that the women coming in droves to see him were on to something and, as he had in the past with polluters, he went in search of someone to blame. 

He found them, as he told Joe Scarborough on MSNBC, in the “phony scientists,” “federal bureaucrats” and the pharmaceutical industry. The proof for his wild claims was laid out in a 4,700-word article published in Rolling Stone and on The piece was covered breathlessly by mainstream press before being torn apart by researchers and journalists who identified multiple errors and seemingly deliberate instances of Kennedy slicing and dicing transcripts and research to prove his conspiracy theory: that vaccines caused autism and “they” were trying to cover it up. The article was appended by several corrections and ultimately retracted

The backlash only emboldened Kennedy, who dug in, garnering headlines every so often for his hysterical comparisons of childhood vaccinations to the Holocaust or his growing collection of strange bedfellows, connections including the Church of Scientology and the Rev. Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam leader. 

Kennedy tells me he still believes he was right about thimerosal and autism, despite the decades of published scientific research that shows otherwise.

For Kennedy, even the assumption that childhood vaccines work is up for argument. 

“I’ll be very careful,” Kennedy says, before explaining that he’s among a subsection of the anti-vaccine community who believes that vaccines have been given undue credit for eradicating infectious diseases, when sanitation and nutrition played a larger role.  

When pressed to tell me something he’s gotten wrong about the vaccine issue — he can’t think of anything specific. “In the early days, I was wrong about a lot of things,” he says. “But you know, now I’m very, very careful about everything.”

Mark Abramson for NBC News

For as long as an obsession with vaccines has gripped Kennedy, reporters have tried to figure out why. Why would a man with every opportunity to do good in the world and for himself undermine the health of children and tarnish his own legacy? Their answers, penned in long profiles, suggest everything from Kennedy’s affinity for underdogs, to a romanticization of the natural world, to a selfish desire for adulation, to an extreme view that splits the world into gods and monsters. 

Dr. Paul Offit, the director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and co-inventor of the rotavirus vaccine — who was, until Anthony Fauci came along, the main monster in Kennedy’s world — suggested the answer might be found in Kennedy’s occupation. 

Kennedy, Offit noted, is not a scientist, but a lawyer. 

“As a scientist, you’re trying to reveal the laws of nature,” he said. “You’re trying to find some truth.”

A good lawyer, on the other hand, makes a good argument. “You’re there to represent your client,” he said. “And so you construct an argument that represents that client even if they’re completely guilty. That’s your job. It has nothing to do with the truth, really.”

His fixation has come at a cost. Kennedy’s family has spoken out against him, his paid speaking gigs have dried up and he says he lost out on jobs. “All of my income essentially disappeared,” he says. 

The cost to the public of the anti-vaccine movement — which Kennedy helps lead — has been far greater, according to public health experts and officials. They point to a devastating measles outbreak in Samoa in 2019 and the rise of vaccine hesitancy in the U.S. since Covid. 

Photo collage of Robert F. Kennedy holding a falcon in his youth; a clipping of the Declaration of Independence.
Getty Images; NBC News

Public health officials see the measles outbreak on the Pacific island as a cautionary tale of how anti-vaccine influencers like Kennedy, who met with local activists in Samoa, can undermine public confidence in a vaccine. 

Anti-vaccine activists and organizations, including Kennedy’s Children’s Health Defense, fanned fears of the mumps-measles-rubella shot on social media when two infants in Samoa died in 2018 after being injected with doses that nurses had contaminated with expired muscle relaxant. Even after it became clear that there was no widespread danger from the vaccine, and as dozens of people, mostly small children, began to die of measles, the same groups failed to correct the record. 

Kennedy believes, despite evidence, that the vaccine, rather than measles, is to blame for the deaths in Samoa, contradicting the World Health Organization. 

“You need to question the narrative,” he says. 

Children’s Health Defense sent NBC News a statement from 2020 reiterating Kennedy’s claim and calling the implication that its advocacy had any effect in Samoa “fanciful at best.”

Then Covid hit the U.S., with a “silver lining” for Children’s Health Defense: More Americans began questioning the safety of vaccines. In two years, the group more than quadrupled its annual revenue, to nearly $16 million in 2021, and Kennedy’s salary as chairman and chief legal counsel grew to more than $500,000. 

Kennedy claimed Operation Warp Speed, then-President Donald Trump’s interagency vaccine initiative, was a nefarious plot engineered by the intelligence agencies and the military. In his bestselling, turgidly footnoted book, “The Real Anthony Fauci,” Kennedy spun a story about a powerful vaccine cartel — led by Fauci and Bill Gates — that colluded to prolong the pandemic, hide the efficacy of alternative treatments, and sit by as millions died needlessly, in exchange for professional and monetary gain.

Fauci has responded to Kennedy’s claims — calling them the work of a “very disturbed individual.” 

Kennedy’s pivot to Covid denialism, and his subsequent banning by social media companies, made him a darling of the right, while his criticism of corporations and the military-industrial complex has drawn supporters from the left. 

The early big-name proponents of his presidential bid are a hodgepodge of contrarians, including fired Fox News host Tucker Carlson; former Trump adviser Steve Bannon; conspiracy theorist radio host Alex Jones; Twitter co-founder and bitcoin enthusiast Jack Dorsey; former Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers; and David Talbot, a longtime friend and the founder of Salon. 

Kennedy’s right- and left-wing support shows the horseshoe theory in action — political science speak for the convergence of belief at the most radical points of the political spectrum. He skews very much to the right on issues like vaccines and gun control (he says he won’t “take your guns” and suggests that psychotropic medications are to blame for school shootings) and to the left on environmental issues and war. But undergirding all of his positions is a deep distrust of the establishment — a perspective  that’s made him a welcome guest on alternative platforms and podcasts, including most recently “The Joe Rogan Experience,” which reaches millions of listeners per episode.  

Kennedy acknowledges that a big part of his base is Republicans who warmed to him during the pandemic.

“A shocking number of Republicans,” he says at the top of the hill. The view usually stretches a hundred miles, from snow-capped mountains to L.A. high-rises, but today it’s fog in every direction.

Image (multi-image exposure): Robert F. Kennedy Jr. hikes near his home in Los Angeles on May 23.
Kennedy believes that a flu vaccine may have caused a disorder that affects his voice. The suspicion would make his anti-vaccine activism personal.Mark Abramson for NBC News

“So why not run as a Republican?” I ask, as we begin our turn back.

“Because I’m a Democrat,” he says.

“But maybe you’re not?” I say.

Kennedy looks annoyed. He says the swell in right-wing support is evidence that not he, but his party, has changed.

His campaign manager, Dennis Kucinich, an anti-war liberal who twice unsuccessfully ran for president, during the 2004 and 2008 Democratic primaries, told me this pooling of the margins is exactly how Kennedy could win. 

America is divided, Kucinich told me over the phone while waiting to board a plane. “The divisions are profound now and people are looking for a healer. They’re looking for somebody to unite the country,” he said.

I suggested, without mentioning vaccines, that Kennedy may have name recognition and perhaps even a certain charm, but has in recent years been a polarizing figure. Kucinich stopped me. 

“Let me address that, because first of all, I’m not anti-vax,” Kucinich said. “And if Mr. Kennedy was anti-vaccine, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing. But he is not. He is for vaccine safety,” Kucinich added, echoing the Facebook group workshopping Kennedy’s image.

So, for a brief moment, I imagine Kennedy in the White House. What would he do about vaccines? Would he try to halt childhood vaccinations altogether?

He doesn’t answer directly but offers a window into the vaccine policy of a Kennedy administration. 

Photo collage of an American flag; Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speaking on Capitol Hill; and an archival photo of a doctor administering a vaccine into a child's arm.
Getty Images; NBC News

President Kennedy would order childhood vaccines, which have already gone through clinical trials and constant safety studies, to undergo bigger, double-blind controlled trials. That sounds scientific, but those studies, health professionals say, would needlessly and unethically deny children vaccines, offering them a placebo instead, in a quest to find out what we already know: that vaccines are safe and prevent myriad illnesses.

President Kennedy would gut the agencies that currently regulate, monitor and recommend schedules for childhood vaccines — the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — and the expert advisory panels of doctors, scientists and professors they rely on. The agencies have become “sock puppets” for the industries they regulate, he says, so he’ll impose more stringent conflict-of-interest qualifications and replace the bad guys with good ones. Kennedy won’t tell me who he’s got in mind (“not until they’re vetted”) but says he’s got many names. 

President Kennedy would also order his Justice Department to investigate the editors and publishers of medical journals for “lying to the public.”

And when the next pandemic arrives — and it will — would President Kennedy pursue vaccines as Trump did? Kennedy won’t directly say. He says he’d prioritize treatments, like ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine — which Kennedy says worked against Covid, despite numerous studies saying they didn’t (and the retraction of flawed or fraudulent studies that claimed they did).

Besides, Kennedy says, the vaccines didn’t work. 

“The Covid vaccines have saved lives,” I balk. “They’ve made hospitalizations fewer and less severe, illnesses less severe —”

“Why do you say that?” he says, and stops walking. 

I offer that almost everyone who would know — researchers, doctors, health officials, medical organizations — all say so. 

That’s where I went wrong, Kennedy says: trusting these experts. He speaks quickly and peppers me with questions and numbers, which he says show that Covid vaccines have killed more people than they’ve saved. (This is just not true.)

We go on like this, literally and figuratively, downhill for the next half hour. For someone who isn’t leading with vaccines, this is the topic that lights Kennedy up. 

Listening to Kennedy speak about vaccines is unsettling. It’s like being in a room with a man unspooling his red string, connecting various directors of government agencies with pharmaceutical company executives, philanthropists, prominent doctors and public health advocates, media and tech organizations. 

Like any good conspiracy theory, Kennedy’s underlying argument contains grains of truth: The pharmaceutical industry does exert influence on science; misconduct from prestige-seeking researchers does sometimes occur; and doctors and drug companies do too often make medical decisions based on profit. Kennedy wraps these truths in the generic storyline of conspiracy: Something bad is happening, but “they” don’t want you to know about it so that “they” can reap profit and power. 

If his views are true, I ask, why haven’t any reputable whistleblowing doctors or scientists come forward to agree with him publicly? 

He says they are all, in some way or another, on the payroll. 

“It’s fixed. It’s rigged.” 

The impasse reminds me of an idea from Heidi Larson, an anthropologist who’s spent decades combating vaccine hesitancy in vulnerable communities around the world. As Larson explains it, trust in a vaccine is a multistep process — a chain of trust, she calls it, that can be broken through doubt in the scientists who research, create and test vaccines; doctors who administer them; or governments that organize and oversee the effort. In Kennedy’s case, the chain is broken at every link.

Kennedy is a long-shot candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination. “Tell me something,” he says. “Did you think Donald Trump would win?” Mark Abramson for NBC News

The White House has been home to conspiracy theorists before, of course, but it’s hard to imagine such a fanatical one winning the office — even if he is a Kennedy. But he’s won so much already. Attention for himself and his cause. The legitimization and growth of his movement. Nearing the bottom of the hill and the end of our hike, I tell him as much.

“I think a cynical person might say that you probably can’t win a Democratic primary,” I say. “What seems more likely is that you use this moment where everyone is interviewing you, including me, to promote yourself and these ideas and your books and whatever else. And that would be fine, but a lot of people think that these ideas will have really dire consequences.” 

Kennedy grits his teeth and walks past me. 

“We’ll have to see, won’t we?”

CLARIFICATION (June 26, 2023, 12:05 p.m. ET): In describing Jeremy Zogby’s polling company, a previous version of this article linked to a FiveThirtyEight article about the performance of a different polling company.