SALT LAKE CITY, Utah. (CBS) — Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris will meet on Wednesday night for their first – and only – debate of 2020. The debate takes place just eight days after President Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden faced off in Ohio, but between the two debates, the White House and the 2020 campaign have been upended by Mr. Trump testing positive for COVID-19.
Pence, who has been tested regularly for COVID-19 since Mr. Trump announced that he tested positive, said on Wednesday he had again tested negative. There are 18 confirmed cases linked to the White House, including three senators and some of the president’s top advisers.
Watch the Vice Presidential Debate here:
At the request of the Biden campaign, there will be plexiglass barriers between Pence and Harris. The candidates will not shake hands.
The debate will be moderated by USA Today’s Susan Page.
Mr. Trump, meanwhile, returned to the Oval Office on Wednesday, despite still being COVID positive.
Debate closes with question from Utah student over harsh political divisions
The final question of the debate came from an 8th grader in Utah, who lamented that hate, division and fighting has become a staple of U.S. politics. The student questioned how American citizens are supposed to get along when the country’s leaders cannot.
In response, Pence first said people should not “assume that what you’re seeing on your local news networks is synonymous with the American people.”
The vice president cited the legendary relationship between the late Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia, who disagreed vigorously on the law and on the Supreme Court, but had a close friendship.
“Here in America, we can disagree, we can debate vigorously as Senator Harris and I have on this stage tonight. But when the debate is over, we come together as Americans,” he said. “That’s what people do in big cities and small towns all across this country.”
Harris, meanwhile, touted Biden’s personal story and record, and said the student’s perspective is a “sign of leadership” and “something we should aspire to be.”
“When you think about the future, I do believe the future is bright, and it will be because of your leadership and it will be because we fight for each person’s voice through their vote and we get engaged in this election,” she said.
Fly rests on Pence’s head, providing brief distraction
A fly landed on the vice president’s head, seemingly unbeknownst to the vice president. It stayed there for over a minute, before eventually flying off.
For a few brief moments, most of the Twitter buzz about the debate was focused on the insect resting on the vice president’s bright white hair.
Candidates pressed on whether justice was served in the Breonna Taylor case
Both Pence and Harris were asked to address whether they believe justice was served in the case of Breonna Taylor, who was shot and killed by police in her Louisville apartment in March. A grand jury in Kentucky indicted one of the officer’s involved for wanton endangerment for firing his gun outside of Taylor’s apartment. None of the three officers involved in the shooting were charged directly.
“I don’t believe so,” Harris said.
Harris, a former prosecutor, said she believes that policing in the U.S. and the criminal justice system should be reformed and called for an end to chokeholds, elimination of private prisons and creation of a national registry for police officers who break the law.
“This is the time for leadership on a tragic, tragic issue,” she said.
While Pence said “our heart breaks for the loss of any American life,” the vice president said he trusts the criminal justice system and condemned violence and looting that has occurred in some cities.
Pence also rejected claims from Harris that there is systemic racism in the criminal justice system, calling it a “great insult to the men and women who serve in law enforcement.”
Pence, Harris asked to define the role of American leadership
Describing U.S. foreign policy as being about relationships, Harris said, “you’ve got to keep your word to your friends. You’ve got to be loyal to your friends.”
Mr. Trump, however, has “betrayed our friends and embraced dictators around the world,” such as Russian President Vladimir Putin,” Harris added.
“It’s about relationships,” she said. “And the thing that has always been part of the strength of our nation, in addition to our great military, has been that we keep our word. But Donald Trump doesn’t understand that because he doesn’t understand what it means to be honest.”
In response, Pence said Mr. Trump has kept his word to the American people by moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem but has also been demanding of U.S. allies.
The vice president noted the parents of Kayla Mueller, a human rights activist taken captive in Syria, in the audience and highlighted that two British nationals who joined the Islamic State were charged by the Justice Department earlier in the day.
“The reality is that when Joe Biden was vice president, he had an opportunity to save Kayla Mueller,” he said. “It breaks my heart to reflect on it.”
Pence claimed that during the Obama administration, the military presented a plan to save Mueller, but said “they hesitated.”
Harris, in response, offered condolences to Mueller’s family.
“What happened to her is awful and it should’ve never happened and I know Joe feels the same way. And I know President Obama feels the same way,” she said.
Pence: “China is to blame for the coronavirus”
Pence and Harris were both asked how they view China — as an adversary, a competitor or an enemy. The vice president went after Democrats’ record on trade.
“Everybody knows that NAFTA cost literally thousands of American factories to close,” Pence said, insisting Mr. Trump’s new trade deal is much improved.
Pence said “China is to blame for the coronavirus,” and “President Trump is not happy about it.”
Harris said Mr. Trump’s approach to China has lost American lives, American jobs, and American standing.
Harris again went after the Trump administration’s record on its COVID-19 response.
The Trump administration’s perspective and approach to China has resulted in a loss of American lives, American jobs, and America’s standing,” she said. “There is a weird obsession that President Trump has had with getting rid of whatever accomplishment was achieved by President Obama and Vice President Biden.”
Harris and Pence criticize each other on taxes and the economy
Harris was asked whether increasing taxes would hurt the economy. Biden has said those making less than $400,000 won’t see an increase under his plan.
“I think there couldn’t be a more fundamental difference between Donald Trump and Joe Biden,” Harris said, adding that Mr. Trump evaluates the economy based on how well the rich are doing.
On “day one,” Biden will repeal the president’s tax reform, she said, something that would require Democrats to win the Senate.
Pence, asked about the economy, pointed to the increase in take-home pay for the majority of workers after the 2017 tax bill.
Pence said Biden and Harris would raise everyone’s taxes on “day one.”
“The American comeback is on the ballot,” Pence said.
Pence and Harris got into a back and forth, with Pence insisting taxes would increase if Mr. Trump’s tax legislation is repealed, and Harris insisting taxes would not go up for those earning less than $400,000.
Pence declines to say whether voters should know a president’s health info, congratulates Harris for nomination instead
Asked whether U.S. voters should have detailed health information about the presidential candidates, Pence said he has been “moved” by the outpouring of support for Mr. Trump since he tested positive for COVID-19.
He called the care Mr. Trump received at Walter Reed “exceptional” and said the disclosure of information about the president’s health status will continue.
Mr. Trump’s medical team, however, has been criticized for not being forthcoming about his condition, choosing to disclose limited and largely positive information about Mr. Trump’s health.
The vice president then pivoted to congratulating Harris for her historic nomination as the first Black woman on a major party’s presidential ticket and suggested he spoke with her on the phone after she was announced as Biden’s running mate.
Harris, meanwhile, slammed Mr. Trump for withholding information, including regarding his finances, across his presidency. The president’s tax information was revealed by The New York Times in a recent series that found he paid just $750 in federal taxes in 2017.
Transparency, she said, “has to be across the board.”
Pence and Harris dodge when pressed on presidential disability
Page asked Pence if he has brought up the issue of presidential disability with the president, given his recent hospitalization for COVID-19.
But Pence was determined to not answer that question, speaking instead of the Trump administration’s response in speeding up the vaccine.
“The reality is that we’re going to have a vaccine senator in record time,” Pence said.
Pence did not answer the question asked, and the moderator did not press him to do so.
Harris was also asked about whether she’s had a conversation with Biden about the possibility of presidential disability. She, too, dodged.
Pence pressed on coronavirus infections among attendees of White House Supreme Court event
Pence was asked how the American people can be expected to comply with federal and local guidelines to protect against the coronavirus when it appears the White House is not enforcing such guidelines. Several attendees of a Rose Garden event where Mr. Trump announced his Supreme Court nominee have become infected with the coronavirus. Attendees were not required to wear masks and were not socially distanced.
“That Rose Garden event, there’s been a great deal of speculation about,” Pence said. “Many of the people who were at that event were tested for the coronavirus. It was an outdoor event.”
The vice president said the difference is that he and Mr. Trump “trust the American people to make choices in the best interest of their health.”
He knocked Harris and Biden for supporting government mandates for health care and the environment.
Harris, in response, criticized Mr. Trump and Pence for withholding the truth about the seriousness of the coronavirus crisis from the American people.
Harris on a vaccine: “If Donald Trump says we should take it, I’m not taking it”
Page asked Harris whether she would take a coronavirus vaccine when and if one is approved. Harris cited Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, and said she would trust public health officials.
“If the public health professionals, if Dr. Fauci, if the doctors tell us that we should take it, I will be the first in line to take it, absolutely,” Harris said. “But if Donald Trump tells us we should take it, I’m not taking it.”
Pence took issue with her stance, accusing her of casting doubt on a vaccine for political gain.
“The fact that you continue to undermine public confidence in a vaccine, if the vaccine emerges during the Trump administration, I think, is unconscionable,” Pence said. “And senator, I just ask you, stop playing politics with people’s lives. The reality is that we will have a vaccine we believe before the end of this year. And it will have the capacity to save countless American lives, and your continuous undermining of confidence in a vaccine is just — it’s just unacceptable.”
Harris and Pence kick off debate with questions over COVID-19 response
In the first segment, Page, the moderator, pointed out that the next administration will largely be in charge of the coronavirus vaccine. Harris was asked what a Biden-Harris administration would do differently.
Harris started off by blasting the Trump administration for its response.
“The American people have witnessed what is the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country,” Harris said.
“And here’s the thing, on January 28, the vice president and the president were informed about the nature of this pandemic,” she added. “And they knew what was happening, and they didn’t tell you.”
Despite all that, “today they still don’t have a plan,” Harris said. The Biden administration would implement a plan that includes contact tracing, testing and administering a vaccine that would be free for all.
Pence started out by pointing to the president’s decision to ban most travel from China. Pence said the decision bought “invaluable” time.
“And I believe it saved hundreds of thousands of American lives,” Pence said, insisting the administration ramped up testing and personal protection equipment.
Pence said the Biden plan reads a lot like the Trump plan.