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Yesterday’s Vice Presidential debate covered a wide range of topics, including the COVID-19 pandemic, the Affordable Care Act, and equity for all Americans. Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris, the Democratic nominee for the office of VP, went head to head sharing their plans for the future of COVID-19 response, health care, and the U.S. Supreme Court. We broke down some of the claims made by both Vice President Pence and Senator Harris throughout the evening.

Pence’s claims about government inaction during a previous health care crisis, the coronavirus, and SCOTUS nominee Amy Coney Barrett

Claim: We know what governmental failure looks like in a public health crisis.

  • Context: In a discussion about the Trump/Pence administration's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, Harris pointed to Pence’s work as the head of the Coronavirus task force and called the administration’s efforts a failure. Pence pivoted to discuss the 2009 Swine Flu pandemic, quoting a former Biden aide who said that the Obama/Biden administration’s containment of H1N1 Swine Flu was pure luck.
  • Fact-check: A former Biden aide has publicly commented on the administration’s handling of the Swine Flu pandemic, suggesting that it was not well contained and managed. That aide is not a public health official or medical professional, but worked closely with the administration during the 2009 pandemic. Pence certainly has dealt with a failed governmental response to a public health crisis in his own time as Governor of Indiana, where his administration’s handling of an HIV outbreak actually escalated the rate of infection by dismantling proven tactics for suppressing the spread of HIV like clean and safe needle exchange programs.

Claim: China is responsible for the coronavirus. 

  • Context: One segment of the debate asked Pence and Harris to share their views on the relationship between the United States and China, as a potential partner in climate change work or an adversary in economic competition.
  • Fact-check: Since the first cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in the United States, many politicians including President Trump and Vice President Pence have relied on heavily xenophobic rhetoric to deflect responsibility for the spread of the virus throughout the U.S. In reality, individual countries cannot and are not responsible for the development and spread of viruses in a globalized world like ours. The practice of naming or referring to viruses based on the country in which they are first detected is long outdated. Cultural and linguistic customs, like language, evolve over time to match the social norms of people utilizing the language itself.

Claim: We can’t assume how Judge Amy Coney Barrett would rule if appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

  • Context: During a discussion of the upcoming hearings regarding Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to a lifetime appointment on the United States Supreme Court, Pence mentioned his values as an anti-abortion politician, but suggested that we have no way of knowing how Coney Barrett might rule from her position on the bench if appointed.
  • Fact-check: It is very likely that the Trump/Pence administration knows how Coney Barrett would rule on topics like the Affordable Care Act and abortion access, and have nominated her for that exact reason. See our last fact-check blog post from the presidential debate.

Harris’s claims about the COVID-19 response, SCOTUS nominations, and federal court appointments

Claim: On January 28th, President Trump and Vice President Pence were informed about the severity of the coronavirus and chose not to act until much later. Trump initially called the virus a “hoax.”

  • Context:  Harris kicked off the debate by addressing the Trump/Pence administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and a meeting revealed by journalist Bob Woodward where both Trump and Pence were alerted to the severity of the virus long before they began to direct any immediate action beyond restricting travel.
  • Fact-check: Vice President Pence himself has admitted that he was party to the January 28th meeting in the Oval Office where Trump and other members of the administration were warned of the severity of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. The Trump/Pence administration’s response to the coronavirus is difficult to track, but Trump’s first request to Congress regarding funding for the pandemic did not come until February 25. Trump’s early mentions of the virus on Twitter and in public appearances downplayed the severity of the virus for several months, continuing as recently as this week following his own diagnosis and hospital-stay. At an event in February, Trump did refer to the coronavirus as a “hoax” perpetrated by the Democratic Party.

Claim: In 1864, 27 days before the election, President Abraham Lincoln decided not to nominate an appointment to a vacant seat on the U.S. Supreme Court because he believed the people should decide.

  • Context: In a discussion of Trump’s recent nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the supreme court just weeks before the November Election, Harris recalled a moment in political history when Abraham Lincoln chose to defer the nomination of a justice to the court following a Justice’s death less than a month before the election. Harris tied this story to the current moment, as most voters across the country would like for the winner of the November election to appoint the next justice to the Supreme Court.
  • Fact-check: Lincoln did wait to appoint a justice in 1864 until December, a month after the presidential election. His decision to do so may or may not have been politically motivated, as many potential candidates were eager to campaign for his reelection with the hope that he would return the favor with a nomination to the court. Harris’s claim that Lincoln waited so that the people could decide on the president and the court appointment may be a little bit of a stretch, but it is also not necessarily representative of the position we’re in today, given that during Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, only white men were allowed to vote.

Claim: The Trump/Pence administration has nominated and appointed judges to lifetime federal appointments who have been reviewed by legal organizations as unfit for the seat they now hold.

  • Context: During a segment about the Supreme Court, Pence accused Harris of a plan to “pack the courts” following Biden’s election if Amy Coney Barrett is appointed to the Supreme Court. Harris pivoted to point out that the Trump/Pence administration has been appointing predominantly white judges to lifelong appointments in federal courts.
  • Fact-check: As of August of 2020, Trump has appointed more judges to lifetime appointments than almost any other U.S. president, second only to Bill Clinton. While Trump himself has played a major role in this boost in appointments, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been orchestrating this push for conservative judges since the Obama administration. These judges, mostly white and male, tend to lean very young and will serve for decades. Harris did not provide enough information or context to her claim that these judges are unfit as reviewed by legal organizations.

Tags: Debate