Although more buttoned-up on the stage than his boss, Vice President Mike Pence nevertheless echoed many of President Donald Trump’s falsehoods Wednesday in the one and only debate with Democratic rival Kamala Harris.
Pence muddied the reality on the pandemic, asserted Trump respects the science on climate change when actually the president mocks it, overstated the threat of voting fraud and misrepresented the Russia investigation in the Salt Lake City debate.
Harris got tangled in tax policy at one point and misleadingly suggested that Trump branded the coronavirus a hoax.
Altogether, the debate wasn’t the madhouse matchup of Trump vs. Joe Biden last week. But there were plenty of distortions. A sampling:
PENCE: “Joe Biden wants to go back to the economic surrender to China, that when we took office, half of our international trade deficit was with China alone. And Joe Biden wants to repeal all of the tariffs that President Trump put into effect to fight for American jobs and American workers.”
THE FACTS: The tariffs were not the win claimed by Pence.
For starters, tariffs are taxes that consumers and businesses pay through higher prices. So Pence is defending tax increases. The tariffs against China did cause the trade deficit in goods with China to fall in 2019. But that’s a pyrrhic victory at best as overall U.S. economic growth slowed from 3% to 2.2% because of the trade uncertainty.
More important, the Trump administration has not decreased the overall trade imbalance. For all trading partners, the Census Bureau said the trade deficit was $576.9 billion last year, nearly $100 billion higher than during the last year of Barack Obama’s presidency.
HARRIS, on Trump’s tax cuts: “On Day 1, Joe Biden will repeal that tax bill.”
THE FACTS: No, that’s not what Biden proposes. He would repeal some of it. Nor can he repeal a law on his own, much less on his first day in office. Harris also said Biden will not raise taxes on people making under $400,000. If he were to repeal the Trump tax cuts across the board, he would be breaking that promise.
PENCE, on the Sept. 26 Rose Garden event after which more than 11 attendees tested positive for COVID-19: “It was an outdoor event, which all of our scientists regularly and routinely advise.”
THE FACTS: His suggestion that the event followed public-health safety recommendations is false. The event, introducing Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, drew more than 150 people and flouted safety recommendations in multiple ways. And it was not all outside.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says large gatherings of people who have traveled from outside the area and aren’t spaced at least 6 feet apart pose the greatest risk for spreading the virus.
That’s exactly the type of high-risk event the White House hosted.
Guests were seated close together, not 6 feet apart, in rows of chairs outside. Many were captured on camera clapping backs, shaking hands and talking, barely at arm’s length.
The CDC also “strongly encourages” people to wear masks, but few in the Rose Garden wore them. There was also a private reception inside the White House following the Rose Garden ceremony, where some politicians, including North Carolina Republican Sen. Thom Tillis, who has since tested positive, were pictured not wearing masks.
White House Outbreak: Tracking Who's Tested Positive in Trump's Orbit
Below is a running list of who in President Donald Trump’s orbit has tested positive for COVID-19 so far and those who have not. A negative test does not indicate that an individual is in the clear. These results could be a false negative, which are common in people who've been infected with the virus during the first few days after exposure.
Source: NBC News
HARRIS on the virus: “The president said it was a hoax.”
THE FACTS: That’s misleading.
She’s referring to a Feb. 28 campaign rally in South Carolina in which Trump said the phrases “the coronavirus” and “this is their new hoax” at separate points. Although his meaning is difficult to discern, the broader context of his words shows he was railing against Democrats for their denunciations of his administration’s coronavirus response.
“Now the Democrats are politicizing the coronavirus,” he said at the rally. “You know that, right? Coronavirus. They’re politicizing it.” He meandered briefly to the subject of the messy Democratic primary in Iowa, then the Russia investigation before returning to the pandemic. “They tried the impeachment hoax. ... And this is their new hoax.”
Asked at a news conference the day after the rally to clarify his remarks, Trump said he was not referring to the coronavirus itself as a hoax.
“No, no, no.” he said. ”‘Hoax’ referring to the action that they take to try and pin this on somebody, because we’ve done such a good job. The hoax is on them, not — I’m not talking about what’s happening here. I’m talking what they’re doing. That’s the hoax.”
PENCE: “The both of you repeatedly committed to abolishing fossil fuel and banning fracking … President Trump has made clear we’re going to continue to listen to the science” on climate change.
THE FACTS: Pence is correct when he says Harris supported banning fracking, incorrect when he says Biden does, and false when he says Trump follows the science on climate change.
At a CNN climate change town hall for Democratic presidential candidates last year, Harris said, “There’s no question I’m in favor of banning fracking. Starting with what we can do from Day One on public lands.” Now, as Biden’s running mate, she is bound to his agenda, which is different.
Biden has an ambitious climate plan that seeks to rapidly reduce use of fossil fuels. He says he does not support banning hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, however, and says he doubts such a ban is possible.
As far as Trump and climate change, Trump’s public comments as president all dismiss the science on climate change — that it’s caused by people burning fossil fuels, and it’s worsening sharply. As recently as last month, Trump said, “I don’t think science knows” what it’s talking about regarding global warming and the resulting worsening of wildfires, hurricanes and other natural disasters. He’s ridiculed the science in many public comments and tweets.
His regulation-cutting has eliminated key Obama-era efforts to reduce fossil fuel emissions.
PENCE: “President Trump and I have a plan to improve health care and to protect preexisting conditions for all Americans.”
THE FACTS: No, there is no clear plan. People with preexisting conditions are already protected by the Obama-era Affordable Care Act, and if the Trump administration succeeds in persuading the Supreme Court to overturn it, those protections will be jeopardy.
Trump has signed an executive order declaring it the policy of the U.S. government to protect people with preexisting conditions, but Trump would have to go back to Congress to work out legislation to replace those in “Obamacare.”
Various Republican approaches offered in 2017 would have undermined the protections in the ACA, and Trump has not offered details of how his plan would work. Although Trump has been in office nearly four years, he has yet to roll out the comprehensive health proposal he once promised.
MORE ON THE VIRUS
PENCE: “He suspended all travel from China, the second-largest economy in the world. Joe Biden opposed that decision, he said it was xenophobic and hysterical.”
THE FACTS: Trump’s order did not suspend “all travel from China.” He restricted it, and Biden never branded the decision “xenophobic.” Dozens of countries took similar steps to control travel from hot spots before or around the same time the U.S. did.
The U.S. restrictions that took effect Feb. 2 continued to allow travel to the U.S. from China’s Hong Kong and Macao territories for months. The Associated Press reported that more than 8,000 Chinese and foreign nationals based in those territories entered the U.S. in the first three months after the travel restrictions were imposed.
Additionally, more than 27,000 Americans returned from mainland China in the first month after the restrictions took effect. U.S. officials lost track of more than 1,600 of them who were supposed to be monitored for virus exposure.
Biden has accused Trump of having a record of xenophobia but not explicitly in the context of the president’s decision to limit travel from China during the pandemic. Trump took to calling the virus the “China virus” and the “foreign virus” at one point, prompting Biden to urge the country not to take a turn toward xenophobia or racism in the pandemic.
How Coronavirus Has Grown in Each State — in 1 Chart
This chart shows the cumulative number of cases per state by number of days since the 500th case.
Source: The COVID Tracking Project
Credit: Amy O’Kruk/NBC
HARRIS, on the effects of the pandemic: “One in five businesses, closed.”
THE FACTS: That’s not accurate, as of now. We don’t know yet how many businesses have permanently closed — or could do so in the months ahead.
What we do know is that the National Federation of Independent Business said in August that 1 in 5 small businesses will close if economic conditions don’t improve in the next six months.
Many small businesses survived in part through the forgivable loans from the Payroll Protection Program. Larger employers such as Disney and Allstate insurance have announced layoffs, as have major airlines. Restaurants that survived the pandemic with outdoor eating will soon face the challenge of cold weather. So it’s too soon to tell how many businesses have closed or will.
Vice Presidential Debate Coverage
PENCE, on the conclusions of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation: “It was found that there was no obstruction, no collusion. Case closed. And then Senator Harris you and your colleagues in the Congress tried to impeach the president of the United States over a phone call.”
THE FACTS: That’s a mischaracterization of Mueller’s nearly 450-page report and its core findings.
Mueller did not absolve the president of obstructing the investigation into ties between Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russia. Instead, his team examined roughly a dozen episodes in which the president sought to exert his will on the probe, including by firing his FBI director and seeking the ouster of Mueller himself. Ultimately, Mueller declined to reach a conclusion on whether Trump had committed a crime, citing Justice Department policy against indicting a sitting president. But that’s different than finding “no obstruction.”
Mueller also didn’t quite find “no collusion.” His investigation identified multiple contacts between Russians and Trump associates and outlined sweeping Russian interference that he said the Trump campaign welcomed and expected to benefit from. Mueller said that he did not have enough to establish a criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia; collusion is not a precise legal term.
PENCE: “President Trump and I are fighting every day in courthouses to prevent Joe Biden and Kamala Harris from changing the rules and creating this universal mail-in voting that will create a massive opportunity for voter fraud.”
THE FACTS: Pence is vastly overstating the potential for fraud with mail-in ballots, just as Trump frequently does.
Broadly speaking, voter fraud has proved exceedingly rare. A 2017 report from the Brennan Center for Justice ranked the risk of ballot fraud at 0.00004% to 0.0009%, based on studies of past elections. A panel commissioned by the Trump administration to explore the issue uncovered no evidence to support claims of widespread voter fraud.
Trump and his allies have tried to argue that absentee balloting is fine — when someone has to request a ballot as opposed to automatically getting one in the mail — while universal mail-in balloting is open to fraud because all the state’s registered voters receive a ballot through the mail. It’s true that some election studies have shown a slightly higher incidence of mail-in voting fraud compared with in-person voting, but the overall risk is extremely low.
There is ongoing litigation in several states over a host of election issues, including absentee ballots. States nationwide expect a surge in mail-in voting due to the ongoing risk posed by the coronavirus.
Five states routinely send ballots to all registered voters, allowing them to choose to vote through the mail or in person. In November, four other states — California, New Jersey, Nevada and Vermont — and the District of Columbia will be adopting that system, as will almost every county in Montana.
Associated Press writers Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, Colleen Long, Amanda Seitz, Michael Balsamo and Eric Tucker contributed to this report.