SALT LAKE CITY — The stage in Utah was set with all the trappings of a modern political debate: Red, white and blue carpets, a backdrop of the Declaration of Independence — and plexiglass.
Aside from the clear partitions to prevent possible COVID-19 transmission in the wake of President Trump’s diagnosis, the tone of the debate was also noticeably different with fewer interruptions as the candidates sparred over the COVID response, Supreme Court packing, health care, climate change and other topics.
The debate started with a topic that looms large over the upcoming presidential election – a COVID-19 death toll that has surpassed 200,000 in the United States.
When asked what a Biden administration might do to tackle the pandemic, Harris immediately attacked Trump instead, saying, “The American people have witnessed what is the greatest failure of any administration in the history of our country.”
Harris accused the administration of covering up the spread of the coronavirus and asked viewers what they would have done if they knew in late January what they did in March.
The vice president replied, “From the very first day, President Trump has put the health of Americans first.” He went on to say that Trump “suspended all travel from China,” and said Biden opposed that decision saying it was xenophobic. Pence claimed that decision bought the country “invaluable” time and said he believed it saved “hundreds of thousands of lives” by giving the country time to mobilize a response.
According to an Associated Press fact check, however, 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.
“They’re coming for you”
Following Biden’s lead from last week’s debate, Harris turned to the camera several times in an attempt to speak directly to the American people.
In a particularly forceful moment, Harris took pointed aim at Vice President Mike Pence over health care, saying that the Trump administration is “coming for you” if you have a preexisting condition such as heart disease or cancer, or if you are over 26 years old and covered by parents’ health care.
She said the Trump administration is “in court right now” trying to get rid of the Affordable Care Act.
In response to the attack, Pence said that “Obamacare was a disaster” and that he and Trump have a plan to cover people with preexisting conditions, though the Trump administration hasn’t yet released such a plan.
Trump’s finances return to the news cycle
“It’d be really good to know who the president of the United States, the commander and chief, owes money to,” Harris said referencing Mr. Trump’s reported debts.
Just over a week ago, The New York Times reported that Trump paid $750 in federal income taxes in 2016 and 2017 and is carrying a total of $421 million in loans and debt.
Harris said those debts raise questions about Trump’s decision making and motivations.
“Is he making those decisions on the best interest of the American People, of you, or self interest?” Harris asked.
Vice President Mike Pence shook his head as she spoke and repeated Trump’s assertions that the reporting is inaccurate.
Trump has fiercely guarded his tax filings and is the only president in modern times not to make them public.
“Are you going to pack the court?”
Following the lead of President Trump, Pence tried to pin down the Democrats on whether they would attempt to expand the Supreme Court to rebalance a conservative shift during the Trump administration. Turning himself into the moderator, Pence asked “are you going to pack the court?”
Pence said such plans would be a classic case of changing the rules if you can’t win by them.
Harris dodged a direct answer to the question, instead of raising an anecdote about how President Abraham Lincoln deferred a nomination while running for his second term until after the election in order to allow voters to weigh in. Suggesting Mr. Trump should do the same with the current opening.
Harris went on to point out that millions of people have already voted in this election.
Pence pointed out multiple times that Harris had not actually answered, to which Harris responded that the Trump administration had been packing the federal courts, with “purely ideological” jurists, some of whom are “not competent or substandard.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.