February 10, 2022 12:18 PM EST

In late January, a blast of fundraising emails for Donald Trump featured a “MUST-SEE: New Trump Ad” that, among other things, championed Trump’s role in creating a COVID-19 “vaccine in record time, saving millions of lives.”

Two weeks earlier, in an interview on the far-right One America News, Trump criticized “gutless” politicians, including Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who haven’t said if they’ve gotten the COVID-19 booster shot. “You gotta say it, whether you had it or not. Say it,” Trump said. “But the fact is that I think the vaccines saved tens of millions throughout the world.”

Trump’s vocal backing of COVID-19 vaccines puts the former President in a new, and possibly vulnerable, political position. While his support for the vaccine puts him in line with a majority of conservatives—57% have been willing to get at least one shot, according to a December Monmouth University poll—it also lands him squarely in the crosshairs of his most ardent base, many of whom see the federal government’s vaccination campaign as overreach. Thirty percent of Republicans say they “likely will never get” a COVID-19 vaccine shot, according to the Monmouth poll. According to data analysis by the KFF COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor, Republicans also make up an increasingly large share of the unvaccinated, comprising 60% of the unvaccinated in October, up from 51% in July.

“He’s out of touch on the vaccine,” one user wrote on a pro-Trump forum that was a staging ground for the Jan. 6 insurrection after Trump appeared on OAN. Another asked “Why lose half your base over a faulty vaccine actively being used to take away rights?” Someone else responded, “I love Trump but this shit is getting intolerable.” At a rally in Cullman, Alabama in August, Trump was booed when he told the crowd he recommended getting vaccinated.

As he angles for a possible run for the White House in 2024, Trump finds himself in a tight spot, caught between highlighting his Administration’s significant achievement of working with pharmaceutical companies to jumpstart vaccine development and production and an evermore outspoken anti-vax Republican base. If Trump runs for the White House in 2024, he’ll need to appeal to voters beyond the most enthusiastic fringes of his supporters.

Some Trump Administration veterans see Biden’s low approval ratings on his handling of the pandemic, hovering now in the mid-40s, as an opening. Mick Mulvaney, who was Trump’s director of Office of Management and Budget and acting White House chief of staff, thinks it’s smart for Trump to talk about his administration’s work to jump start vaccine production. “Even his harshest detractors acknowledge that it was a success,” Mulvaney says.

Trump “handed Biden three vaccines,” says Joe Grogan, Trump’s former White House domestic policy advisor. “Biden is just really making our COVID response look a lot better than the media gave us credit for.” Trump was criticized for initially downplaying the severity of the pandemic early on, being slow to roll out a national strategy for stopping the spread of the virus, and saying he wasn’t planning to wear a mask when the CDC first made the recommendation.

For a politician who thrives on the energy of the crowd, the skepticism from a vocal part of his base has created a dilemma. “I believe totally in your freedom, I do,” Trump told his supporters at the August rally in Alabama. “But I recommend, take the vaccines. I did it. It’s good. Take the vaccines.” A wave of boos went through the crowd. Trump got a similar reaction in December when he was on a stage with Bill O’Reilly at the American Airlines Center in Dallas. O’Reilly said “both the president and I are vaxxed,” and O’Reilly asked Trump if he got the booster. When Trump said yes, a chorus of jeers erupted. “Don’t! Don’t! Don’t! Don’t! Don’t!” Trump told the audience, waving his hand at them.

O’Reilly later said in an interview that Trump called him after hearing the crowd’s reaction, and O’Reilly had assured him he was doing the right thing. “This is good for you. This is good that people see another side of you, not a political side. You told the truth. You believe in the vax. Your administration did it, and you should take credit for it, because it did save, I don’t know, hundreds of thousands of lives,” O’Reilly said he told Trump. “I’m trying to tell President Trump, run on your record.”

It remains to be seen if Trump thinks the potential benefit of focusing on his record with vaccines outweighs the potential backlash from his most loyal followers. In mid-January, Trump seemed to be trying out a reelection stump speech during a rally in Florence, Arizona, a swing state where he lost narrowly to Joe Biden in 2020. This time, he didn’t talk at length about vaccines.

“Not hearing President Trump pushing the ‘vaccines’ was my favorite part of last night’s speech,” one user on a pro-Trump forum wrote. “He’s a tough guy, but not so tough that he could take 10,000 of his own people booing him…His team had to have made that assessment and he decided to tweak his message a little bit.”

—With reporting by Vera Bergengruen/Washington

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