SALT LAKE CITY, Utah: Democratic vice presidential hopeful Kamala Harris on Wednesday called Donald Trump’s COVID-19 response a historic failure that disqualified him from a second term, in a pointed but mostly civil debate with Mike Pence who sought to portray her as extreme.
With Trump’s weekend hospitalization for COVID-19 throwing a new importance on the role of the vice president, Pence and Harris spoke separated by plexiglass as a safety precaution 27 days before the election.
Harris, who would be the highest-ranking woman in US history if she enters the White House under a president Joe Biden, wasted no time in attacking Trump’s record on COVID-19, which has killed more than 210,000 people in the United States, more than in any other country.
“The American people have witnessed what is the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country,” said Harris, a US senator from California and former prosecutor.
“And frankly, this administration has forfeited their right to reelection based on this,” Harris said at the 90-minute debate at the University of Utah.
Saying Trump treated front-line health personnel as “sacrificial workers,” Harris — pointing to Trump’s own statements to journalist Bob Woodward — accused the White House of not moving quickly despite knowing the risks of COVID-19.
“The president said it was a hoax. They minimized the seriousness of it,” Harris said.
After a raucous debate eight days ago between Trump and Biden, Pence and Harris took a more civil tone, with no name-calling, but sharply disagreed on the reaction to the pandemic.
“I want the American people to know, from the very first day, President Donald Trump has put the health of America first,” Pence said, pointing to his ban on travel from China on January 31, a month after cases first emerged in Wuhan.
Referencing a controversy that tanked Biden’s first presidential campaign in 1988, Pence said the Democrats’ Covid plan sounds “a little bit like plagiarism, which is something Joe Biden knows a little bit about.”
In contrast to Trump’s firehose-like blasts on Biden and his family, Pence demonstrated calm and stability and congratulated Harris on the historic nature of her candidacy.
Harris, the daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants, would also be both the first African-American and Asian-American vice president.
But Pence tried to portray her as a radical, saying that Harris — generally considered close to the Democratic establishment — was further to the left than socialist candidate Bernie Sanders.
“More taxes, more regulation, banning fracking, abolishing fossil fuel, crushing American energy, economic surrender to China is a prescription for American decline,” Pence said, reciting a list Biden would be unlikely to describe as his platform.
Pence, questioned by moderator Susan Page of USA Today, acknowledged that “the climate is changing” but insisted that market solutions were the best way to reduce carbon emissions.
Even if they delved more into substance, the two candidates revealed little new about their policies and were notably evasive on hot-button issues such as the right to abortion.
In one lighter moment that went without commentary on the stage but that triggered an avalanche of social media posts, Pence spoke with a fly visibly in his hair.
The two candidates had one of their most intense clashes about racial justice after nationwide protests over police treatment of African-Americans.
Biden “believes that law enforcement has an implicit bias against minorities,” Pence said.
“It’s a great insult to the men and women who serve in law enforcement. And I want everyone to know who puts on the uniform of law enforcement every day, President Trump and I stand with you,” he said.
Pence, criticizing media coverage, insisted that Trump condemned white supremacy despite what some viewers interpreted at the president’s shout-out to the far-right Proud Boys group at his debate last week.
Harris pointed to a slew of previous statements by Trump including his notorious remarks that “fine people” were at a 2017 neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia that turned violent.
“I will not sit here and be lectured by the vice president on what it means to enforce the laws of our country,” Harris said.
“I’m the only one on this stage who has personally prosecuted everything from child sexual assault to homicide.”
Two more presidential debates are scheduled, but they are now up in the air with Trump’s diagnosis.
Biden, 77, has said he would not want to debate if the 74-year-old Trump is still sick with the virus.
But Trump, ever the hyperbolic showman, said in a Wednesday video that he felt “perfect.”
“I think this was a blessing from God that I caught it,” he said.
Trump appeared to be watching the vice presidential debate avidly, tweeting without using Harris’ name that “she is a gaffe machine.”
Follow the debate as it happened below, all times GMT:
02:35 – That concludes the Vice Presidential debate – which has been a resoundingly more civilized affair from the Presidential version last week – as Kamala Harris and Vice President Pence are joined on stage by their partners. Thanks for joining us!
02:25 – The ongoing and red-hot issue in American politics – systemic racism – is the latest segment, and both are asked if justice was done for Breonna Taylor, the African-American woman shot and killed in her own home by law enforcement.
Pence uses the segment to lambast the violent nature of protests that have erupted across the US, saying that he trusted the country’s justice system and to suggest America was systemically racist was an “insult” to police officers.
Safe to say Harris was not impressed with Pence’s answer, citing the widely-reported case of Trump not vocally condemning white supremacists during last week’s presidential debate.
TOP QUOTE: “I will not sit here and be lectured by the vice-president on what it means to enforce the laws of this country,” Harris says.
02:20 – In a moment of comedic relief, a fly lands on Pence’s head and instantly becomes a social media sensation – it even had its own dedicated Twitter profile within minutes…
02:15 – Kamala Harris uses another segment to attack the Trump administration on its foreign policy with emphasis on lack of action on Russian interference, and not standing up to Vladimir Putin, to exiting the JCPOA Iran nuclear deal.
Pence rebukes those criticisms, and plays up the defeat of Daesh and recent Israeli deals with Gulf countries UAE and Bahrain, as well as the moving of the US embassy to Jerusalem as successes.
02:05 – The inevitable topic of China is addressed next and Harris doesn’t hold back, as she says Trump has lost trade war with China and that his stance on Beijing had “resulted in the loss of American lives, American jobs, and America’s standing in the world.”
TOP QUOTE: Harris: “The vice-president earlier referred to as part of what he thinks is an accomplishment, the president’s trade war with China. You lost that trade war. You lost it.”
Pence: “Lost the trade war with China? Joe Biden never fought it.”
01:55 – Pence’s boss is watching and has given him the presidential seal of approval…
01:50 – Climate change next, and Harris echoes Biden’s stance from the previous week, with the main line being the Democratic ticket putting the US back into the Paris Accord on climate change. She cites the ongoing wildfire disaster in her home state of California as to why action on climate change is so important.
Pence promises Trump will continue to listen to science, despite the fact the president said recently that he wasn’t sure what science knows, and warns against the Biden-Harris plan to re-enter the Paris Climate Accord, which he claims will hurt the US economy with their focus on clean energy.
TOP QUOTE: “With regard to climate change, the climate is changing, but the issue is, what’s the cause and what do we do about it?” President Trump has made a commitment to conservation and to the environment,” Pence says.
01:45 – No surprises that Harris goes in for an attack on Trump’s taxes, she says a lack of information on his outstanding debts raises genuine concerns about possible motives for his decisions, adding: “It’d be really good to know who the president of the United States, the commander and chief, owes money to,” making reference to a New York Times report showing Trump paid $750 in federal income taxes in 2016 and 2017 and is carrying a total of $421 million in loans and debt.
Over on the other side of the plexiglass, Pence scoffs and shakes his head…
01:35 – Now the two candidates are asked about the US economy – and as we would expect, Pence puts up a staunch defense of the Trump administration’s economic policy. Harris says that claims American families are better off under Trump just “simply isn’t true…”
TOP QUOTE: “2021 is going to be the biggest economic year in the history of this country” Pence promises the American people
01:25 – We move on to the fitness and health of both Trump and Biden, given their ages, and as expected both participants play down any health concerns the American public may have about their candidates…
01:20 – The first section of the debate focuses on what a Biden/Harris ticket would do differently to what Trump/Pence have been doing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Harris’ long list of what she calls failures of the current administration makes for painful listening for Republicans.
She addressed the millions of Americans at home, and accuses the Trump administration of knowing what was happening and covered it, “they knew and they covered it up,” she says.
Pence, who cuts a much calmer figure than Trump last week and speaks with more reserve, offers up his rebuttal. He says the administration’s response had saved hundreds of thousands of American lives. He claims that to say what Americans are doing and sacrificing isn’t working was a “great disservice.”
Harris was asked if Americans should take the vaccine and if she would. Harris says that if doctors “tells us that we should take it, I’ll 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.”
Pence says there will be a vaccine produced in record time. He says: “I just ask you, stop playing politics with people’s lives.”
TOP QUOTE: “The American people have witnessed what is the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country,” Harris said.
01:10 – We are now underway with Pence and Harris on the stage, and they’re ready for the first question…
01:00 – So after the chaotic presidential debate last week, we are now offered the opportunity to hear what their running mates – Mike Pence and Kamala Harris – have to say about their visions for the US. Let’s hope it’s slightly more civilised…
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