Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s long-shot presidential campaign has a new communications director — prominent anti-vaccine activist Del Bigtree. In a letter to supporters, Bigtree called the appointment “my greatest opportunity to date.”
In speeches and interviews, Kennedy has credited the anti-vaccine movement with powering his candidacy and vowed as president to halt research into infectious diseases and use the power of the attorney general to threaten editors of medical journals over publishing research on Covid treatments and vaccines.
Bigtree is the executive director of the Informed Consent Action Network (ICAN), the country’s second-best-funded anti-vaccine organization, after Children’s Health Defense, the group from which Kennedy stepped down as chairman in April so he could run for president. The pandemic was a boon for both organizations. In addition, Bigtree hosts “The HighWire,” an anti-vaccine and conspiracism internet show.
Announcing his new role, Bigtree released a letter rife with misinformation alleging that the Covid vaccines were responsible for widespread injury and death. Bigtree called for his supporters to “stop the globalist’s New World Order” and unite across the political spectrum under the banner of “medical freedom.” Bigtree also solicited $1,000 donations from supporters to join a “health think tank,” funds that he said would go toward creating television ads.
Recent polling shows Kennedy with high favorability ratings for a third-party candidate. In hypothetical matchups that include President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump, Kennedy collects a sizable share of voters who view the major candidates negatively, even though his views on vaccines are not aligned with those of most Americans.
In the early months of his candidacy, Kennedy mostly shied away from anti-vaccine advocacy, telling NBC News that he “wasn’t leading” with the issue. Likewise, on the campaign trail, in media interviews and before a congressional committee, Kennedy has insisted that despite a slew of written and recorded statements to the contrary, he is not anti-vaccine. The appointment of Bigtree casts additional doubt on Kennedy’s claims.
Bigtree replaces Stefanie Spear, a former editor of Children’s Health Defense’s news website, who now takes the role of press secretary. “I held the positions of press secretary and communications director with plans of handing off the comms director role once we found the right person for the job,” Spear said in an email. “We found that person and that’s Del Bigtree. Del brings decades of experience as an Emmy-winning producer, digital assets master, and social media expert, among many other attributes.”
ICAN reported $13.4 million in revenue in 2022, according to newly filed tax records provided to NBC News, and paid Bigtree a $284,000 salary. It is unclear how Bigtree’s new role in the Kennedy campaign might affect his work as executive director of the nonprofit group, which the IRS prohibits from engaging in political activity. Spear declined a request for comment on behalf of Bigtree but said he would remain in his position at ICAN. Calls and emails to ICAN were not returned.
While Bigtree’s title is new, his involvement with the Kennedy campaign is well-established. He has appeared at official campaign events and fundraisers, and campaign finance records show the Kennedy campaign has paid nearly $90,000 in “communications consulting” to KFP Consulting, a Texas organization registered in May under Del Bigtree’s name.
Bigtree, a former daytime television producer, has been a prominent force behind the modern anti-vaccine movement. In 2016, he teamed up with the discredited physician and researcher Andrew Wakefield to produce “Vaxxed,” an anti-vaccine propaganda film that resurrected the long-debunked claim that the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine causes autism and that the government covered it up. Bigtree promoted the film with a multistate bus tour and became a celebrity within the movement.
Over the next few years, he and his camera crew became a fixture at state capitals where he advocated for relaxing childhood vaccination requirements. Bigtree is also known for his media-attention-grabbing stunts and incendiary speeches. In 2019, he was criticized for appearing at rallies wearing a yellow Star of David to suggest that activists who opposed childhood vaccines were akin to Jews in Nazi Germany during World War II. In a speech at a Washington, D.C., rally opposing Covid vaccination requirements in 2022, he invoked the Nuremberg trials in a promise to hold public officials and the media “accountable” for promoting Covid precautions and vaccinations.
Following a recent legal victory that weakened a childhood vaccination law in Mississippi, Bigtree said on “The HighWire” last week that ICAN’s primary goal for 2024 is filing federal claims targeting religious vaccination exemptions in the five states that ban them: California, Connecticut, Maine, New York and West Virginia.
It isn’t the first shakeup within Kennedy’s campaign. In October, Kennedy dropped his Democratic bid for the presidency and announced his run as an independent candidate. The same month, he replaced his campaign manager, Dennis Kucinich, with his daughter-in-law, Amaryllis Fox Kennedy, a former CIA officer and filmmaker. (Over text, Kucinich, the staunchly anti-war former congressman, declined to discuss his reasons for leaving but said he no longer supported Kennedy as a candidate: “I wish him well, but our paths truly diverged last October.”) Kennedy’s support of Israel in the war in Gaza has cost him some of his earliest anti-war supporters.