Pence and Harris clash over US coronavirus response

Pence and Harris clash over US coronavirus response

Vice-presidential candidates remain civil at debate but sidestep many of the questions

Mike Pence and Kamala Harris clashed over Donald Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic during their vice-presidential debate on Wednesday, with the Democratic challenger accusing the president of “the greatest failure” in the history of the office.

In contrast with last week’s chaotic presidential debate, Mr Pence, the vice-president, and Ms Harris, California senator, avoided name-calling. Instead, the proceedings in Salt Lake City were marked by both candidates frequently sidestepping questions — and social media commentators focusing on a fly that sat on Mr Pence’s head for two minutes.

Ms Harris made history as the first black woman to appear in a US presidential or vice-presidential debate. But the event was unlikely to change the contours of a race in which Mr Trump trails behind Joe Biden, the Democratic candidate, in the polls ahead of the November 3 election.

The spectre of the pandemic was apparent at the start of the 90-minute debate as the candidates took their seats, 12 feet apart and separated by Plexiglas shields. Only two days before, Mr Trump had left the military hospital where he was treated for Covid-19.

Asked about the administration’s response to the crisis, Ms Harris said: “The American people have witnessed what is the greatest failure of any president in the history of our country.”

The Trump administration, she charged, had tried to keep the truth about coronavirus from the American people. “They knew what was happening and they didn’t tell you,” she said. “They knew and they covered it up.”

Mr Pence, who chairs the White House coronavirus task force, rebuffed Ms Harris’s criticism, arguing that health experts had warned the administration that the virus could kill more than 200,000 Americans even with the best preventive measures.

He defended the administration’s decision to shut down travel from China and accused the Biden campaign of copying details of the administration’s coronavirus recovery programme for its own plan.

“It looks a little bit like plagiarism, which is something Joe Biden knows something about,” Mr Pence said, referring to accusations that during his 1988 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, Mr Biden lifted parts of a speech from British politician Neil Kinnock.

Mr Pence proclaimed that there would be a coronavirus vaccine “in less than a year” and accused Ms Harris of “playing politics with people’s lives” by expressing doubts about the potential for a jab.

She said: “If the public health professionals, if Dr [Anthony] Fauci, if the doctors tell us that we should take it, I will be the first in line to take it, absolutely. But if Donald Trump tells us that we should take it, I’m not taking it.”

The vice-president also accused Ms Harris of pushing a far-left agenda on issues such as climate change and the Green New Deal.
“There are no more hurricanes today than there were 100 years ago, but many climate alarmists use hurricanes and fires to try and sell the Green New Deal,” Mr Pence said.

Ms Harris warned that another four years of a Trump administration would mean an end to the Affordable Care Act, which expanded access to health coverage. The US Supreme Court will hear a Republican-led case after the election that seeks to scrap the act.

“If you have a pre-existing condition, heart disease, diabetes, breast cancer, they are coming for you. If you love someone who has a pre-existing condition, they are coming for you. If you are under the age of 26 on your parents’ coverage, they are coming for you,” Ms Harris said.

Mr Trump has claimed that even though he wants to get rid of the ACA, patients with pre-existing conditions will still be able to obtain insurance.

In many cases, the candidates avoided answering the questions posed by the moderator, Susan Page of USA Today. Both neglected, for example, to give their view on the role of the vice-president, who is meant to succeed a president in the event of death or incapacity — an issue that has taken on resonance given that at 74 and 77, respectively, either Mr Trump or Mr Biden would set a record for being the oldest president.

Ms Harris declined to say whether she favoured “packing” the Supreme Court by increasing the number of judges. Mr Pence ignored a question about the court overturning the decision enshrining the constitutional right to an abortion, only to add later that he was “pro-life”.

As the debate drew to a close, the candidates were asked what they would do if Mr Trump, as he has suggested, did not accept a peaceful transfer of power if he lost. Ms Harris responded by telling people to vote, and vote early, if possible. Mr Pence insisted the president would win again.

“President Donald Trump has launched a movement of everyday Americans from every walk of life,” he said. “I have every confidence that those Americans who delivered that historic victory in 2016 . . . that movement of Americans has only grown stronger in the last four years.”

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