Robert Kennedy Jr, Dr. Simone GoldRobert Kennedy Jr, Dr. Simone Gold
Robert Kennedy Jr. and Dr. Simone Gold. Photo credit: Illustration by WhoWhatWhy from Gage Skidmore / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 2.0), Gage Skidmore / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0), Alexandra_Koch / Pixabay, and Ministry Now.

Kennedy’s true alliance has always been with whatever provides him the platform he feels he’s owed, given his name — not any cause or political party.

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Even before COVID-19 hit, a marginal cell of home-grown American anti-vaccine apostasy seemed primed for merger with the Trump-emboldened, don’t-tread-on-me storm of anti-government ferment. All it took was a pandemic for this fusion of distrust and rage to whoosh into being. And at or close to the eye of that new hurricane were two unlikely characters who suddenly found their moment: Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Dr. Simone Gold.

Kennedy’s transition from a left-leaning environmentalist and anti-vaccine fanatic to a central figure in the radical, far-right anti-vax movement has been one of the greatest curiosities of the highly politicized COVID-19 pandemic. But there were signs the heir to a Democratic political dynasty was headed down the dark MAGA path with his failed January 2017 attempt to ingratiate his debunked vaccines-cause-autism crusade — picked up from fraud-perpetrating UK physician Andrew Wakefield — with a then-President-Elect Donald Trump.

RFK Jr. Finds His Spotlight 

Cut to the pandemic: Kennedy’s descent into fulminant MAGA came in no small part by way of his involvement with Gold — physician, attorney, January 6 insurrectionist, and founder of the pro-Trump, pro-hydroxychloroquine, physician organization America’s Frontline Doctors (AFLDS). In August 2020, long before the COVID-19 vaccines were available, Kennedy and Gold appeared on Marcus Lamb’s Christian talk show Ministry Now, as Stephanie Mencimer reported in Mother Jones, thus setting the stage for the right-wing takeover of the anti-vax movement. 

Gold and Kennedy’s appearance on Lamb’s show came on the heels of AFLDS’s press conference staged on the steps of the Supreme Court to push the antimalarial hydroxychloroquine (HCQ), unproven against the virus, the previous month. The doctors’ stunt was live-streamed on far-right Breitbart News and initially tweeted out by Donald Trump Jr. — with his father following suit on Twitter, stating, “This video is a much [sic] watch!!! So different from the narrative everyone is running with.” 

While social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube took down the video — and Twitter suspended Trump Jr.’s account for 12 hours — the damage was done. Gold became a right-wing star, appearing on Fox News and eventually following the evangelical-to-QAnon pipeline as a headliner alongside Mike Flynn on the ReAwaken America tour, which has largely been hosted in churches.

Her organization’s supposed miracle cure became an alleged victim of government censorship, as Kennedy insisted on Ministry Now. In addition to celebrating the “fantastic” new audience the program brought him, Kennedy endorsed HCQ for COVID-19, telling Lamb “the pharmaceutical machine” was going after the drug he had taken prophylactically for malaria on his numerous visits to Africa, adding that there are “no safety issues when taken as directed.” He accused researchers worldwide — and Bill Gates, naturally — of intentionally overdosing patients on HCQ and “killing people” to stop the supposedly life-saving drug from being used to end the global pandemic.   

Lamb was so moved by Gold’s heroic efforts to keep businesses — including churches — open thanks to HCQ that he donated $10,000 to her cause on air. She, Kennedy, and their movement would fail to address the unvaccinated Lamb’s COVID-19 death at age 64 the following year after his network discouraged vaccination. They also failed to address how pushing HCQ for COVID-19 led to devastating drug shortages for those who require it for its other uses, such as in treating lupus. 

And to Kennedy’s point about the supposed absence of safety issues with HCQ, it in fact carries a known cardiac risk, which is currently at the center of a wrongful death lawsuit against AFLDS in Nevada state court over its prescription via telehealth without a proper cardiac workup. He has, unsurprisingly, addressed neither this nor the lawsuit filed by AFLDS late last year against Gold for using their funds to bankroll her lavish lifestyle. 

A Sinister Global Effort 

Kennedy attempted to position himself as globally conscious and up to date on the international literature on HCQ in his Ministry Now appearance. However, he has since ignored the role another former authoritarian leader, then-Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro — under whom HCQ and other COVID-19 early treatment research was conducted on unknowing human subjects — played in the rise of the global far-right pandemic snake oil business. 

In that same vein, Kennedy has avoided all mention of the criminal accusations against Dr. Didier Raoult, the French researcher — who also worked with Bolsonaro — responsible for the unauthorized HCQ for COVID-19 research pushed by Gold’s AFLDS.

Raoult, formerly of the Marseille-based research hospital Institut Hospitalo-Universitaire Méditerranée, has been accused of forgery issues, experimentation on the homeless, and fostering a laboratory culture of bullying and intimidation. Kennedy’s Children’s Health Defense’s blog, The Defender, promoted Raoult as “one of the world’s top infectious disease and virology experts, with roughly 2,000 peer-reviewed publications and multiple awards to his name” in a 2020 post taking aim at favorite MAGA target Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci.

Raoult’s HCQ research became part of the MAGA movement thanks to Gold’s AFLDS colleague Dr. James Todaro, who connected with Raoult and “published” a non-peer-reviewed Google Docs white paper to Twitter on this COVID-19 “cure,” which was picked up by Fox News’s Laura Ingraham and then-President Trump. 

Trump’s reelection hinged on the health of the economy and performance of the stock market, and avoiding economic shutdown in response to the pandemic was of compelling interest to both Trump and key CNP ally Charles Koch, whose dark money funded the Great Barrington Declaration.

While HCQ may have shown initial promise in small studies of questionable rigor, the approval process for inclusion in guidelines requires a series of studies and it is not uncommon that such initial promise falls apart in subsequent larger ones, as those in the scientific community — but not necessarily the general population — understand. The movement was looking for a quick fix and uninterested in engaging in this process, bypassing it by going directly to their base: the Fox News consumer. 

Enter the Shadow Network

Todaro is a member of the secretive far-right Council for National Policy, which serves as a dark-money hub for the GOP with outsized control over right-wing media — especially Christian programming — as discussed in Anne Nelson’s book Shadow Network: Media, Money, and the Secret Hub of the Radical Right. AFLDS was created in a partnership among the Trump 2020 reelection campaign, the Tea Party Patriots, and CNP Action, as reported by the Associated Press and NBC News. Of note, Ginni Thomas, CNP member and wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, was a chair of CNP Action during the genesis of AFLDS. 

AFLDS’s creation followed the failure of the COVID-19-minimizing, die-for-the-Dow, Great Barrington Declaration (GBD) — a cross-Atlantic effort signed by US and UK scientists prioritizing the economy over public health — to gain traction with the mainstream scientific community outside of the Trump White House. Trump’s reelection hinged on the health of the economy and performance of the stock market, and avoiding economic shutdown in response to the pandemic was of compelling interest to both Trump and key CNP ally Charles Koch, whose dark money funded the declaration. 

The GBD and its fringe doctors were decisively debunked by the mainstream medical community. The director-general of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, stated their herd immunity strategy was “unethical.” Dr. Fauci called it “total nonsense” and warned that following its guidelines would “lead to hospitalizations and deaths.” He exchanged emails with then-NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins about the need to shut down these dangerous dissenting voices in the emerging pandemic. This, of course, drew accusations of government censorship.  

Kennedy’s appearance on Ministry Now came just months before the 2020 election and served the Trump campaign’s goal of continuing to minimize the threat of the viral pandemic that would go on to claim over a million American lives. Trump would, of course, lose the election and incite the insurrection for which Gold briefly went to prison. For her efforts and sacrifice to the cause, she was granted membership in the CNP, as Anne Nelson wrote in her piece “A Rare Peek Inside the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy” for The New Republic. For his efforts, Kennedy — who has rubbed shoulders with Gold’s political extremist friends — is now a presidential candidate born out of the Trumpocene, which itself arrived thanks to the backing of the CNP. 

Like Raoult, Trump engaged in bullying tactics to push HCQ as a miracle cure for COVID-19. The House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis accused Trump loyalists of engaging in an intimidation campaign to push HCQ in a damning yet overlooked August 2022 report “A ‘Knife Fight’ with the FDA: The Trump White House’s Relentless Attacks on FDA’s Coronavirus Response.” The now-shuttered Democrat-led committee also reached out to AFLDS for information regarding their telehealth financial information, a request that the organization ignored.

It turns out the promotion of HCQ and ivermectin was immensely profitable for AFLDS. As Vera Bergengruen recently reported for Time, AFLDS sold $8.5 million in bogus COVID-19 cures via telehealth. Kennedy’s involvement in this far-right network during COVID-19 has proven highly successful for him personally, elevating him to inclusion on both the Center for Countering Digital Hate’s Disinformation Dozen and Pandemic Profiteers lists. ProPublica’s Nonprofit Explorer shows Children’s Health Defense’s revenue ballooning from $2,941,894 in 2019 to $15,695,358 in 2021. 

Kennedy’s anti-vax megacharity disingenuously claims to defend children despite his 2019 work in Samoa triggering a deadly measles outbreak. He is instead using it to defend his physician colleagues who promoted HCQ during the pandemic. One such associate is Dr. Meryl Nass, a frequent contributor to Children’s Health Defense’s blog. 

Nass claimed to be receiving financial aid from CHD in her lawsuit against Maine’s medical board. She is suing over her license suspension after admitting to lying about a patient’s diagnosis in a failed attempt to get a pharmacist to dispense HCQ for COVID-19 for said patient, as well as spreading wild allegations about the pandemic being integral to a governmental conspiracy to enforce “vaccine passports” in order to “mediate your financial transactions” and “identify where you are any time.”

Kennedy is further involved in one of the four lawsuits against California law AB 2098, which serves to hold doctors who have spread deadly disinformation about COVID-19 and the vaccines accountable with the loss of medical licensure. Other legal opposition to the physician accountability law, signed by California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) in the fall of 2022, comes courtesy of the New Civil Liberties Alliance, a group revealed to be funded by Koch dark money in Walker Bragman’s work for The Center for Media and Democracy

Prior to relocating to Florida following her arrest for her January 6 involvement, Gold was a practicing emergency medicine physician in California. Interestingly, while she recently has been held accountable by the California Medical Board for her breach of professionalism for her January 6 involvement, she has yet to be held accountable for her spread of deadly disinformation and has not lost her medical license, thanks to the lobbying and legal efforts of her network — which includes lawyer Kennedy. 

Whence the Kennedy Candidacy?

It is difficult to pinpoint the exact motivation for Kennedy’s controversial presidential campaign. While his reported encouragement by one-time CNP member Steve Bannon as a chaos candidate to undermine Biden for 2024 is the most obvious explanation, there is likely more to the story. 

This is an opportunity to keep the anti-vax movement, which has found such strong resonance with the MAGA base, alive, as well as for further grift by the Kennedy-family black sheep. The anti-regulation sentiment of this movement also plays into Koch’s anti-climate science crusade for his Big Oil profits — running counter to the environmental work that defined Kennedy’s early career. 

Perhaps it’s finally time to consider that Kennedy’s true alliance has always been with whatever provides him the platform he’s felt he’s owed, given his name — not any cause or political party. He likely was very shrewdly used by the CNP crowd for his family name, his network, and his charisma — not unlike how they used Trump in 2016 to roll out the red carpet for American Christo-fascism. 

Like Trump, Kennedy is a showman willing to embrace Christianity in his pursuit of power. So it was no great surprise when he invoked religion the day of his campaign announcement, tweeting how “God talks to human beings through many vectors,” as noted by the authors of the new book Conspirituality: How New Age Conspiracy Theories Became a Health Threat in their recent article for Time

The anti-vax movement may also relish putting Kennedy in office as a potential savior who would continue to shield them from overdue accountability. It wouldn’t be the first time they’ve run anti-vax leaders in political races. Dr. Mehmet Oz, who invested in HCQ for COVID-19, lost his Senate bid in Pennsylvania in the 2022 midterms. Dr. Scott Jensen, a member of the international anti-public health network with his membership in the UK-based group Pandata, lost his run at the Minnesota governor’s office last year as well. Both ran as GOP candidates, however.

The Damage Done 

Whatever the motivation, Kennedy et al’s earthquake of COVID-19 vaccine disinformation has had shocking reverberations globally. An April UNICEF report discusses how childhood vaccination decreased in 112 countries during the pandemic — “the largest sustained backslide in childhood immunization in 30 years” — and cites the superimposed infodemic and social media misuse as sources of this. An April 2022 study in Nature titled “Online misinformation is linked to early COVID-19 vaccination hesitancy and refusal” found Kennedy’s CHD was responsible for nearly a quarter of anti-vax tweets.  

Kennedy’s movement’s work has destroyed faith in American innovation and institutions, has been used to further foment anti-government sentiments post-insurrection, and has put the lives of actual public health heroes, like Drs. Fauci and Peter Hotez, in danger.

Furthermore, an April Public Goods Project report discusses how over 70 percent of anti-vax opposition originates from the United States and is dangerously being exported abroad. This anti-vax disinformation is coming from the Republicans — the party with which Kennedy is actually aligned. While the Right has shown an unwillingness to own up to their pandemic leadership failures, the Left — the actual Left — must realize the depth of this deadly deception and lead the calls for rectification and justice, both of which are now long overdue.

Kennedy wrote the widely debunked, conspiratorial, but nonetheless best-selling book The Real Anthony Fauci: Bill Gates, Big Pharma, and the Global War on Democracy and Public Health during the deadly pandemic. It remains available on Amazon, where the description reads “Over 1,000,000 copies sold despite censorship, boycotts from bookstores and libraries, and hit pieces against the author.” That’s a lot of minds reached and a lot of damage done.

Kennedy’s movement’s work has destroyed faith in American innovation and institutions, has been used to further foment anti-government sentiments post-insurrection, and has put the lives of actual public health heroes, like Drs. Fauci and Peter Hotez, in danger. In so doing, he has put the health of Americans and of our democracy at risk — all for reasons that remain elusive but seem to center on his power and personal profit. Continuing to platform Kennedy and his far-right movement’s deadly disinformation does a disservice to the world that transcends any one man, political party, election, or country.

Despite the constant blaring of false alarms and inapt analogies, pushback against such disinformation should be viewed less as censorship and more as quality control and consumer protection. And it is desperately needed to clean up the marketplace of ideas in the wake of the pandemic infodemic that has been so destructive. Unfortunately nothing can bring back the lives lost and decimated by the deeply cynical efforts of this movement. 

We owe it to the world to use Kennedy’s misguided campaign as an opportunity to shine some of that Trumpian “COVID-curing” sunlight on the dark network Kennedy has enmeshed himself in and hold them justly to account. The world is watching and it deserves better.

Editor’s Note: In a previous version of this story, we wrote that Charles Koch was a member of the Council for National Policy (CNP). He is involved with their work and funding but is not formally a member. We regret the error.

Allison Neitzel, MD, is physician-researcher and founder of the independent research group MisinformationKills, which has investigated the dark money and politics behind public health disinformation with a focus on the pandemic. Her book on the topic, Misinformation Kills: How Politics and Dark Money Hijacked Covid, is due for publication later this year.

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