Vice President Mike Pence defended the Trump administration’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic that has killed more than 210,000 Americans tonight, while his Democratic challenger, Kamala Harris, condemned “the greatest failure of any presidential administration” during a largely civil debate dominated by the coronavirus.
With Trump recovering from the virus in Washington, Harris declared she would not take a vaccine if the Republican president endorsed it without the backing of medical professionals.
Pence, who leads the president’s coronavirus task force, acknowledged that “our nation’s gone through a very challenging time this year.”
But he added, “I want the American people to know, from the very first day, President Trump has put the health of America first,” Pence said, promising millions of doses of a yet-to-be-announced treatment before the end of the year.
He also condemned Harris’ skepticism of Trump’s bragging about vaccines-to-be: “Senator, I ask you: Stop playing politics with peoples’ lives.”
There were heated exchanges early on, but overall it was a far more respectful affair than the opening presidential debate eight days earlier when Trump was the aggressor, butting in and almost yelling.
Pence interrupted at times, too, but nothing like Trump had.
The prime-time meeting in Salt Lake City elevated two candidates with presidential aspirations of their own who may be asked to step into the presidency even before the end of the next term.
Health questions loom over President Trump, 74, who is recovering from the coronavirus, and 77-year-old Joe Biden, who would be the oldest U.S. president ever.
But perhaps more importantly, less than four weeks before Election Day, Republicans hoped the debate might give the Trump-Pence ticket a final opportunity to help reset a contest that could be slipping away.
His poll numbers sagging, the president, with Pence at his side, is struggling to stabilize the nation in the midst of multiple crises as more than a dozen senior officials across the White House, the Pentagon and inside his campaign have been infected by the virus he claimed would disappear.
Republicans desperately want to cast the race as a choice between two candidates fighting to move the country in vastly different directions.
Biden and Harris, they say, would pursue a far-left agenda bordering on socialism; the Democrats say Trump’s administration will stoke racial and other divides, torpedo health care for people who aren’t wealthy and otherwise undercut national strength.
But so long as the coronavirus is ravaging the White House and killing several hundred Americans each day, the election will almost certainly be a referendum on the Trump administration’s inability to control the pandemic, which Republicans have sought to downplay or ignore altogether for several months.
Pence’s message tonight was undercut by the mere fact that the candidates and moderator were separated by plexiglass shields, seated more than 12 feet apart and facing a crowd of masked audience members who faced expulsion if they removed their face coverings.
The candidates on stage revealed test results earlier in the day proving they were not infected.
Before Harris said a word, she made history by becoming the first Black woman to stand on a vice presidential debate stage.
The night offered her a prime opportunity to energize would-be voters who have shown only modest excitement about Biden, a lifelong politician with a mixed record on race and criminal justice, particularly in his early years in the Senate.
Pence pointed out that it was an outdoor event, which experts have said are safer – but the White House event lacked proper social distancing and most attendees refused to wear masks.
‘The difference here was that President Trump makes the American people to make the choices in the best interest of their health,’ Pence said.
The vice president also said, ‘The American people have the right to know about the health and well-being of their president, and we’ll continue to do that.’
He took a minute to thank Americans for their wishes and prayers for Trump during his Walter Reed hospitalization.
‘I’m just extremely grateful and was more than a little moved by the broad and bipartisan support,’ he said.
‘And senator, I want to thank you and Joe Biden for your expressions of genuine concern,’ Pence said. ‘And I also want to congratulate you as I did on that phone call on the historic nation of your nomination.’
Harris is the first woman of color to ever appear on a major party’s presidential ticket.
She looked to the last Democratic administration, when Pence – like Trump earlier Wednesday – continued to blame the coronavirus on China.
‘There’s a weird obsession President Trump has had with getting rid of whatever accomplishment was achieved by President Obama and Vice President Biden,’ she said.
‘For example, they created within the White House an office that basically was responsible for monitoring pandemics. They got rid of it,’ Harris said.
Pence, seated through two plexiglass shields away from her, said, ‘not true,’ under his breath.
Harris, 55, is the daughter of a Jamaican father and an Indian mother.
She is also a former prosecutor whose pointed questioning of Trump’s appointees and court nominees helped make her a Democratic star.
Pence is a 61-year-old former Indiana governor and ex-radio host, an evangelical Christian known for his folksy charm and unwavering loyalty to Trump.
During the debate Pence was visited by a fly which landed and stayed on his head for over two minutes, much to the delight of social media.
And while he is Trump’s biggest public defender, the vice president does not share the president’s brash tone or undisciplined style.
The candidates also clashed on taxes — or specifically, Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns four years after repeatedly promising to do so.
The New York Times reported last month that the president pays very little personal income tax but owes hundreds of millions of dollars in debt.
“It’d be really good to know who the president owes money to,” Harris said.
“The one thing we know about Joe, he puts it all out there. He is honest, he is forthright,” she added. “Donald Trump, on the other hand, has been about covering up everything.”
Pence defended Trump as a job creator who has paid more than his fair share of taxes and shifted toward Biden: “On Day One, Joe Biden’s going to raise your taxes.”
While the debate covered a range of topics, the virus was at the forefront.
Trump released a video just three hours before the debate calling his diagnosis “a blessing in disguise” because it shed light on an experimental antibody combination that he credited for his improved condition — though neither he nor his doctors have a way of knowing whether the drug had that effect.
Pence serves as chair of the president’s coronavirus task force, which has failed to implement a comprehensive national strategy even as Trump himself recovers from the disease and the national death toll surges past 210,000 with no end in sight.
The candidates appeared on stage exactly 12.25 feet apart and separated by plexiglass barriers. Both candidates released updated coronavirus test results ahead of the debate proving they were negative as of Tuesday.
Critics suggested that Pence should not be at the debate at all.
The vice president attended an event last week at the White House with Trump and others who have since tested positive, but Pence’s staff and doctors insist he does not need to quarantine under Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.