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Pence, Harris participate in sole vice presidential debate

Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) discussed the pandemic, unemployment levels and the upcoming elections, among other things, at the vice presidential debate. – Photo by Wikimedia

Vice President Mike Pence, President Donald J. Trump’s running mate in the 2020 presidential election, and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), former Vice President Joe Biden’s running mate, participated in the vice presidential debate last night in Salt Lake City. The event was moderated by USA Today’s Washington Bureau Chief Susan Page.

The debate began by addressing the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. Harris criticized the Trump administration for their handling of the situation, citing the death toll, number of people infected, unemployment levels, small business closures, poor conditions for frontline workers and Trump downplaying the severity of the virus at the beginning of the year.

“The American people have witnessed what is the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country,” she said.

She said Biden plans to implement a national strategy for testing, contact tracing and vaccine distribution, which she said would be free.

Page asked Pence to explain why the U.S. death toll from COVID-19 is significantly higher than other wealthy countries. Pence did not speak directly to the death toll and said Trump has been successful in mitigating the spread of the virus by restricting travel with China, expanding the nation’s testing capacity and working on vaccine development.

In addition, Page asked Pence about the White House’s failure to follow COVID-19 prevention measures, including a lack of social distancing and masks at a White House Rose Garden event on Sept. 26 that allegedly resulted in Trump and a number of other attendees contracting the virus.

Pence denied that this behavior would influence Americans to also forgo prevention measures. He also claimed the event was held entirely outside as per advice from health experts, although ABC News reported a reception was held indoors afterward.

“President Trump and I trust the American people to make choices in the best interests of their health,” he said.

Later in the debate, Harris said the Trump administration needs to be more transparent, specifically in regard to his health and tax returns. She referenced an article from The New York Times which states Trump only paid $750 in income taxes in 2016 and 2017 and is responsible for loans and other debts of approximately $421 million.

“It’d be really good to know who the President of the United States, the Commander-in-Chief, owes money to, because the American people have a right to know what is influencing the president’s decisions, and is he making those decisions on the best interests of the American people — of you — or self interest,” she said.

Pence said Trump paid other taxes during his business dealings, said the report in The New York Times is inaccurate and said Trump has released other financial information. Trump has been legally obligated to release annual financial disclosure reports, which include income, assets and liabilities, but has not released his tax returns as his predecessors have, according to ABC News. 

Page also asked the candidates about their plans to restore jobs lost during the pandemic, including Biden’s plan to raise taxes on wealthier Americans and corporations to fund relief efforts.

Harris said Biden believes the strength of the economy should be based on the conditions of American workers and families and said Trump prioritizes the prosperity of the wealthy. She said Trump’s tax bill cut taxes for the rich, and referenced projections that this measure could result in an approximately $2 trillion deficit.

To improve the economy, Harris said Biden will invest in infrastructure, clean energy, education, tuition and student loan relief as well as scientific research and development. Harris said the tax increases will only affect people making more than $400,000 annually.

Pence said Trump has already worked to restore jobs lost by the pandemic and said this was possible by lowering taxes and regulations. He also cited Trump’s support of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Stability Act and the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), which he said saved approximately 50 million jobs. Estimates show the PPP likely preserved between 1 million and 14 million jobs, according to Reuters. 

Page asked Pence about climate change and whether he believes human activity has contributed to ongoing wildfires and hurricanes. 

“The climate is changing, but the issue is: What’s the cause, and what do we do about it? President Trump has made it clear we’re going to continue to listen to the science,” he said.

The scientific community has come to a consensus that human activity, particularly the burning of fossil fuels, is the primary cause of climate change, according to The New York Times. Pence falsely claimed that the United States has reduced more carbon dioxide than the countries involved in Paris Climate Agreement, according to the article. 

Although Harris expressed support for clean energy and reducing emissions, she also said the Biden campaign would not eliminate fracking.

Later in the debate, Page asked Pence if he would want Indiana to completely ban abortion in Indiana if Roe v. Wade were to be overturned, leaving the decisions up to the states. He did not answer the question directly, but said he was concerned Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett would be attacked for being Catholic.

Harris said she supports the right for women to choose what happens to their bodies and added that the Affordable Care Act is also at risk along with Roe v. Wade, a move which she said is especially alarming during a pandemic.

Pence later said Biden and Harris support abortion up until the moment of birth. Neither Biden or Harris have said this, and Roe v. Wade itself limits the time frame for most abortion procedures to the first 20 to 24 weeks of pregnancy, according to the Washington Post.

He then repeatedly asked Harris if she and Biden would expand the Supreme Court if Barrett’s nomination was successful, which she did not answer. She said Trump has nominated lifetime appointees to federal court positions who were found to be biased or “not competent,” which she said could also be viewed as court packing.

On the topic of racial justice, Page asked the candidates if justice had been served in regard to the death of Breonna Taylor. Harris said Taylor’s case along with the death of George Floyd show the need for nationwide police and criminal justice reform.

Pence expressed condolences for Taylor and said he trusts the justice system and the grand jury who declined to charge any officers for her death. He criticized violent protests and said it is insulting for Biden to say that America is systemically racist and that law enforcement officers have implicit biases against minorities.

The debate ended like last week’s presidential debate with a question about the elections. Page asked what the candidates would do if Trump lost but refused a peaceful transfer of power, as he has suggested. 

Harris said she and Biden have faith in the American people and the democratic process and encouraged people to go out and vote.

“We will not let anyone subvert our democracy with what Trump has been doing, as he did on the debate stage last week when again, in front of (approximately) 70 million people, he openly attempted to suppress the vote,” she said.

Pence avoided responding directly and instead said the Democratic party has spent Trump’s entire term trying to overturn the results of the 2016 election with the Russia investigation and Trump’s impeachment. 

Pence also reiterated Trump’s claims on voter fraud due to voting by mail, which have been disproven according to an article by the Washington Post.

“President Trump and I are fighting every day in courthouses to prevent Biden and Harris from changing the rules and creating this universal mail-in voting that will create a massive opportunity for voter fraud,” he said.

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