The vice president who was applauded behind-the-scenes by his opponent’s team as a polished speaker and smooth liar struggled mightily to articulate why he did not follow his own White House’s health recommendations during what became known as a coronavirus superspreader ceremony in the Rose Garden.
“How can you expect Americans to follow the administration's safety guidelines to protect themselves from COVID when you at the White House have not been doing so?” USA Today’s Susan Page asked Vice President Mike Pence during Wednesday night’s debate in Salt Lake City.
Pence, who was enlisted to lead the Coronavirus Task Force back in late February, calmly delivered a lengthy and convoluted answer, beginning with how Americans have been provided adequate “facts” during the global pandemic, and finishing with a reference to the weighty work of confirming another Supreme Court justice.
“The American people have demonstrated, over the last eight months that when given the facts they’re willing to put the health of their families and their neighbors and people they don't even know first,” Pence said. “President Trump and I have great confidence in the American people and their ability to take that information and put it into practice.”
In his role spearheading the task force, the former Indiana governor served as the go-between for the president and governors as many desperately asked for assistance and supplies. Pence worked closely with Dr. Deborah Birx, the top coordinator, as well as other officials such as Dr. Anthony Fauci, the leading expert on vaccines in the country, to try and contain the virus from spreading. During the initial weeks of the pandemic, Pence convened daily situation room meetings to game out ways that the Trump administration was going to limit the number of cases and deaths.
He sought to allude to some of that while seated across from Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) with plexiglass between them on stage. But he continued to evade the question.
“In the height of the epidemic when we were losing a heartbreaking number of—2,500 Americans a day, we surged resources to New Jersey and New York and New Orleans and Detroit. We told the American people what needed to be done, and the American people made the sacrifices. When the outbreak in the sun belt happened this summer, again, Americans stepped forward. But the reality is the work of the president of the United States goes on. [A] vacancy on the Supreme Court of the United States has come upon us, and the president introduced Judge Amy Coney Barrett,” Pence concluded.
While Pence was, at least initially, the public face of the semi-regular coronavirus briefings, he was soon nudged out by President Donald Trump who thought he should be more front and center in a national crisis—especially one unraveling during his re-election bid. Frequently, even as Pence was undermined by his boss who remains hell-bent on projecting optimism, he would avoid criticizing Trump. He even went out of his way to defend him when he ignored the most basic health recommendations.
Pence used his protective approach towards the president by further explaining what was, in his view, the success of the event.
“If I may say, that Rose Garden event, I've done a great deal of speculation about it,” he said. “My wife Karen and I were there and honored to be there. Many of the people who were at that event, Susan, actually were tested for coronavirus, and it was an outdoor event, which all of our scientists regularly and routinely advise. The difference here is President Trump and I trust the American people to make choices in the best interest of their health. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris consistently talk about mandates, and not just mandates with the coronavirus but a government takeover of health care.”
Deciding not to waste time, Harris put the Trump-Pence coronavirus track record on blast, showcasing the main theme that aides and others familiar with her preparations had indicated that she would emphasize.
“Let's talk about respecting the American people,” Harris said. “You respect the American people when you tell them the truth. You respect the American people when you have the courage—” she continued, before being cut off by Pence.
“Which we've always done,” he said.
Harris continued with a straightforward approach. “To be a leader speaking of those things that you may not want people to hear but they need to hear so they can protect themselves. But this administration stood on information that if you had as a parent, if you had as a worker knowing you didn't have enough money saved up and now you're standing in a food line because of the ineptitude of an administration that was unwilling to speak the truth to the American people,” she said.
“So let's talk about caring about the American people. The American people have had to sacrifice far too much because of the incompetence of this administration.”
Earlier in the day, senior officials from the Biden-Harris ticket hosted a call with reporters to understate the significance of the prime-time event. As the nation mourns hundreds of thousands of people dead and infected by COVID-19, one vice presidential debate can’t take away from that devastating reality, the thinking went in both Democrats’ camps.
“Nothing that happens on the debate stage tonight will change the fact that Donald Trump and Mike Pence lied to the American people about how dangerous COVID-19 is, and they haven’t done everything in their power to contain it from the start,” said Liz Allen, Harris’ communications director. “Nothing will bring back over 210,000 Americans.”
Democrats familiar with the senator’s approach to the debate also spent the hours leading up to the night talking up expectations for her opponent. The strategy represented a vastly different style from Trump’s, who regularly downplayed Biden’s performance prospects before he faced off against him last week.
—With additional reporting from Hunter Woodall