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FactChecking RFK Jr.’s V.P. Announcement

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In announcing his choice for vice president, independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and his running mate, Nicole Shanahan, made statements that were false or misleading:

  • There’s no evidence that vaccines cause autism, contrary to the impression Shanahan left in questioning the safety of “one shot on top of another shot … throughout the course of childhood” just before citing an increase in the prevalence of autism.
  • Kennedy wrongly blamed President Joe Biden for shutting down businesses in response to the pandemic in 2020, when Biden wasn’t in office, and misleadingly claimed there was no scientific basis for closing businesses during the pandemic.
  • Kennedy faulted former President Donald Trump’s and Biden’s pandemic policies for transferring “$4 trillion from the middle class” to “500 new billionaires.” But an Oxfam report that found 573 new global billionaires during the pandemic didn’t attribute the increase to U.S. policies alone.
  • Shanahan, 38, would not be “the youngest vice president in American history,” as she claimed. That would still be John C. Breckinridge.

Kennedy, an environmental lawyer and son of former Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, made his announcement in Oakland, California, where Shanahan, a lawyer, was born.


Shanahan left the misleading impression that childhood vaccines contributed to an increase in autism prevalence.

As we’ve written before, there’s no evidence that vaccines cause autism, and the topic has been studied extensively.

Independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. announced Nicole Shanahan, an attorney, tech entrepreneur and philanthropist, as his vice presidential running mate during an event in Oakland, California, on March 26. Photo by Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu via Getty Images.

“Conditions like autism used to be 1 in 10,000. Now here in the state of California, it is 1 in 22. 1 in 22 children affected,” Shanahan said.

Just before that comment, she said “pharmaceutical medicine” was one of “three main causes” of an “epidemic of chronic disease,” adding that “no single safety study can assess the cumulative impact of one prescription on top of another prescription and one shot on top of another shot on top of another shot throughout the course of childhood.” (The other two causes of the “epidemic” that Shanahan cited are “toxic substances in our environment” and “electromagnetic pollution.”)

Her remarks ignored the main reasons for the rise in autism prevalence, and they left the impression that childhood vaccines are a cause — a debunked idea that Kennedy has repeatedly pushed for years.

The prevalence of children identified as having autism has increased significantly over the past several decades. But, while there may be some true increase in autism, the major reasons for the rise are increased awareness of the disorder and changes in how it is defined and diagnosed, as we’ve explained in previous articles.

Shanahan’s statistics are largely correct. The latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show a 1 in 22 rate of autism in children in California. In Maryland, the rate was 1 in 43. “These variations could be due to how communities are identifying children with autism,” the CDC wrote in a March 2023 press release on the figures.

The earliest studies on prevalence found rates close to what Shanahan cited. “The first studies of the prevalence of autism, which were conducted in the 1960s and 1970s in Europe and the United States, reported prevalence estimates in the range of 2 to 4 cases per 10,000 children,” the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine wrote in a 2015 publication. “This led to the impression that autism was a rare childhood disorder.”

The publication goes on to cite “the expansion of diagnostic criteria and the adoption of the concept of autism as a spectrum of impairments” as likely the major reason for an increase in prevalence in subsequent decades. It also cited “improvements in screening and services for children.”

As we’ve also explained before, in a story debunking Kennedy’s false and misleading assertions about autism, there are some known factors that have likely led to a slight true increase in autism, including a rise in births to older parents and in infants with birth complications who survive.

And an increased risk of autism also has been associated with genetics, prenatal exposure to air pollution or pesticides, as well as certain maternal health conditions.

However, there’s no evidence childhood vaccines are linked to the neurodevelopmental disorder, and scientists have studied the issue extensively, looking into multiple suggested components and vaccine types.

David Mandell, a psychiatric epidemiologist, health services researcher and director of the Center for Mental Health at the University of Pennsylvania, told us for our prior story, “Every single rigorous study we have” shows “no association” between autism and vaccination.

The Pandemic and Billionaires

Kennedy also claimed that Trump’s and Biden’s policies during the pandemic resulted in a large transfer of wealth to hundreds of new billionaires.

“Those policies that both of them engineered transferred $4 trillion from the middle class to this new oligarchy of billionaires,” he said. “They created 500 new billionaires in 500 days. A billionaire a day.”

We asked Kennedy’s campaign for the source of his figures, but we have not received a response. We previously wrote about a similar claim he made last July, and his campaign did not provide supporting evidence then, either.

In our August article, we wrote that Kennedy could be referring to a 2022 Oxfam analysis, which found a $3.8 trillion increase in the net worth of billionaires worldwide during the pandemic. At the time, the number of billionaires had increased to 2,668 — up by 573 from when the pandemic began in early 2020, the analysis said.

However, neither figure was specific to the U.S. or solely attributed to its policies.

Oxfam did say that in some cases, spending by the U.S. government during the pandemic helped create billionaires, such as by providing public funding to Moderna, which collected large profits from its COVID-19 vaccine.

But Oxfam also said that billionaire wealth increased substantially when “central banks injected trillions of dollars into economies worldwide, aiming to keep the world economy afloat.” And it noted that during the pandemic, there was a “profits bonanza in the food, energy, pharmaceutical, and technology sectors,” which increased the wealth of billionaires who owned large shares of companies in those industries.

We also wrote that Kennedy may have been referring to an approximate figure for federal spending authorized in response to the pandemic, which totaled $4.6 trillion as of Jan. 31, 2023, according to the Government Accountability Office. But much of that federal spending was for programs designed to aid lower- and middle-class people, including economic impact payments, unemployment insurance and supplemental food assistance.

COVID-19 Business Closures

Kennedy, a prominent critic of the COVID-19 vaccines, wrongly blamed Biden for shutting down businesses in response to the pandemic in 2020, when Biden wasn’t in office, and misleadingly claimed there was no scientific basis for closing businesses during the pandemic.

Kennedy, March 26: Those two men, during their terms as president, both worked to close our main street businesses for a year — 3.3 million businesses with no due process, no scientific citation, no public hearings, no environmental impact statement. They just told us to shut them down.

It appears that Kennedy is referencing an August 2020 economic study by Robert Fairlie, an economics professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, that gauged the “early-stage effects of COVID-19 on small business owners.” In his study, Fairlie, who is now at UCLA, said the number of working small-business owners fell by 3.3 million, from 15 million in February 2020 to 11.7 million in April 2020, “because of COVID‐19 mandates and health‐ and economic‐driven demand shifts.” That represented a 22% decline — “the largest drop on record,” the report said.

Soon after, there was a “partial rebound,” Fairlie wrote. By June 2020, there were 13.8 million active business owners — a decline of 1.2 million, or 8%, from February 2020. (See table 1.)

Kennedy blames both Trump and Biden for the immediate economic fallout from a global pandemic. But Biden wasn’t in office at the time, and Trump, as president, didn’t have the power to shut down businesses.

On March 16, 2020, Trump announced guidelines to slow the spread of the coronavirus, but they didn’t include mandates to close businesses. The guidelines called on Americans to stay at home if they feel sick, have a household member who tests positive, or are older or have a serious health condition. The administration also recommended not gathering in groups of 10 people or more, and avoiding bars and restaurants.

A week into the “15 Days to Slow the Spread” campaign, Trump was already expressing concern about the economic impact of the pandemic. Soon he sought to reverse course entirely.

“We have to get back to work,” Trump said at a Fox News virtual town hall on March 24, 2020. Despite Trump’s concerns, the White House extended its “slow the spread” recommendations to April 30, 2020. 

At the time, there were no vaccines or therapeutics to prevent, mitigate or treat COVID-19. In response, state leaders — not the federal government — imposed mandates on businesses.

Although Kennedy suggests there was no scientific basis to shut down businesses, peer-reviewed studies later found that government restrictions early in the pandemic reduced COVID-19 cases and/or mortality.

In a study published by The Review of Financial Studies in June 2021, Yale School of Management researchers developed “a time-series database” on several types of restrictions for every U.S. county from March to December 2020. The authors said they found “strong evidence consistent with the idea that employee mask policies, mask mandates for the general population, restaurant and bar closures, gym closures, and high-risk business closures reduce future fatality growth.”

The business closures did not come without a cost.

The Yale researchers also found some business closures “may have been counterproductive,” saying “second-round closures of low- to medium-risk businesses and personal care/spa services, did not generate consistent evidence of lowered fatality growth.”

Another study, led by University of Michigan researchers and published in January 2022 in PLOS ONE, concluded that “the number of lives saved by the spring-summer lockdowns and other COVID-19-mitigation was greater than the number of lives potentially lost due to the economic downturn.”

According to the study’s estimates, the mitigation measures in the first six months of the pandemic saved 866,350 to 1,711,150 lives, while deaths “attributable to the economic downturn” were between 57,922 and 245,055.

There have been nearly 1.2 million COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. since January 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Youngest Vice Presidents

Finally, Shanahan, who is currently 38, wrongly claimed that she would make history as the youngest U.S. vice president, if elected.

“People talk about my age. It’s true. I will be the youngest vice president in American history,” she said.

Nope. John C. Breckinridge would still be the youngest; he was 36 when he became President James Buchanan’s vice president in March 1857.

If the Kennedy-Shanahan ticket wins in November, Shanahan would be 39 on Inauguration Day in January 2025. That would make her the second youngest vice president.

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