Vice President Mike Pence and Democratic Senator Kamala Harris met for the first and only vice presidential debate of the 2020 campaign in Salt Lake City, Utah, with sharp exchanges over the coronavirus pandemic, the economy, the Supreme Court and more.
The debate was pointed and featured, earning him admonishments from Harris. Both candidates also repeatedly avoided answering questions posed to them, instead choosing to pivot to topics they preferred.
But the exchanges were largely collegial, especially compared to the chaotic nature of the first presidential debate, just eight days ago.
Most notably, Harris and Pence traded accusations over the federal response to the pandemic that has claimed the lives of more than 210,000 Americans, with Harris harshly criticizing the administration's record. President Trump tested positive for the coronavirus just six days ago.
"The American people have witnessed what is the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country," Harris said, with Pence sitting 12 feet away from her, separated by two panes of plexiglass as protection against the virus.
Pence, who again tested negative for the coronavirus earlier in the day, defended the administration's response and said the president's moves in the early days of the pandemic saved lives.
"When you say what the American people have done over these last eight months hasn't worked, that's a great disservice to the sacrifices the American people have made," the vice president said. "The reality is, Dr. Fauci said everything that he told the president in the Oval Office the president told the American people."
The candidates moved on to discussions about a potential vaccine, the economy, climate change, the Supreme Court and more, with Pence advocating for the president's nominee to the high court and emphasizing his record on trade.
The second presidential debate is still scheduled for next Thursday, October 15, in Miami, despite Mr. Trump's COVID-19 diagnosis. If it goes forward as planned, it would fall exactly two weeks after he tested positive for the virus.
Vice presidential debate highlights
- Harris and Pence kick off debate with questions over COVID-19 response
- Harris on a vaccine: "If Donald Trump says we should take it, I'm not taking it"
- Pence and Harris criticize each other on taxes and the economy
- Fact check: Pence on Amy Coney Barrett's Supreme Court nomination ceremony
- Pence: "China is to blame for the coronavirus"
- Candidates pressed on whether justice was served in the Breonna Taylor case
- Fact check: Biden would repeal GOP tax cut on Day 1
Pence interrupted twice as much as Harris
By CBS News' count, Pence vocally interrupted Harris 10 times, while Harris interrupted Pence five times.
Pence also spoke for three more minutes, controlling 38 minutes and 2 seconds of time, compared to Harris' 35 minutes and 20 seconds.
The number of questions posed to each was roughly equal. Page, the moderator, directed 12 initial questions to Pence and 11 to Harris, while Harris got two follow-up questions to Pence's one. Both were given nine chances to offer rebuttals.
By Bo Erickson, Zak Hudak and Sarah Ewall-Wice
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.
Fact check: Biden would repeal GOP tax cut on Day 1
Statement by Kamala Harris: "On the other hand, you have Donald Trump, who measures the strength of the economy based on how rich people are doing, which is why he passed a tax bill benefitting the top 1% and the biggest corporations of America leading to a $2 trillion-dollar deficit that the American people are going to have to pay for. On day one, Joe Biden will repeal that tax bill. He will get rid of it, and what he will do with the money is invest it in the American people."
Claim: Harris says that on the first day of Biden's presidency, he will repeal the 2017 GOP tax cut.
Fact check: Misleading
Details: Biden cannot single-handedly repeal the 2017 Tax Cut and Jobs Act. Doing so would require an act of Congress. In addition to the White House, Democrats would need to flip three seats in the Senate to have a chance of repealing the act without GOP support.
Without further legislation, the Tax Cut and Jobs Act is scheduled to expire between 2025 and 2027, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation.
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.
It only took minutes for the Biden campaign to capitalize on the fly that was grabbing everyone's attention. His campaign bought the website "flywillvote.com," redirecting it to the Democratic Party's "iwillvote.com" site.
"Pitch in $5 to help this campaign fly," Biden's account tweeted, with a picture of him holding a fly swatter.
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."
Fact check: Pence claims U.S. has reduced CO2 emissions through innovation
Statement by Pence: "What's remarkable is the United States has reduced CO2 more than the countries that are still in the Paris Climate Accord. But we've done it through innovation and we've done it through natural gas, and fracking."
Claim: Pence claims the U.S. has reduced CO2 emissions through innovation
Fact check: Misleading
Details: U.S. CO2 emissions decreased in 2017, the first year of the Trump administration, before spiking again in 2018. Emissions declined again in 2019, and are on track to decline in 2020. Most of that decline has taken place because the U.S. has been moving away from coal-powered energy in favor of renewable energy and even more so because of natural gas power produced by fracking. There has also been a steep drop-off in emissions this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Climate Action Tracker notes that the pandemic has restricted travel and transport, the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. Motor gasoline consumption was down 24% in the second quarter of 2020, compared to the same period in 2019.
CAT also noted that natural gas consumption is expected to decrease this year by 3%, "mainly because of lower consumption in the industrial sector" and electricity consumption will also drop this year.
These declines are still far short of what the U.S. pledged to achieve under the Paris Climate Accord, and CAT says that the Trump administration's "continuous rollback of climate policy" and suspension of environmental regulations during the pandemic will "counteract" some of the emissions reductions that have resulted.
Roughly 190 countries have ratified the climate accord. Some of those countries have failed to reduce CO2 emissions in recent years, but many nations' economies were also adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, and experienced emissions reductions.
However, targets under the accord are different for every country, so simply comparing U.S. reductions to emissions of other countries is an unfair comparison.
By Adam Aigner-Treworgy
On climate change, Pence says the Trump administration will "listen to the science"
As the South battles devastating hurricanes and the West recovers from deadly wildfires, Pence did not say whether he believes man-made climate change has led to more damaging natural disasters.
"The climate is changing," Pence said. "The issue is, what's the cause and what can we do about it?"
The vice president said the Trump administration will "continue to listen to the science" and said the progress made on a cleaner environment can be attributed to the free market.
Pence also hit Harris for supporting the Green New Deal, of which she is an original co-sponsor in the Senate.
In response to Pence's charges, Harris said he and Mr. Trump "don't believe in science." She also reiterated that Biden will not ban fracking and will re-enter the U.S. in the Paris Agreement, which Mr. Trump withdrew from.
Turning to the trade war with China, Harris said the Trump administration lost the trade war. Pence, meanwhile, accused Biden for not being strong enough on China.
"We lost the trade war with China? Joe Biden never fought it," he said.
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."
Fact check: Pence on Amy Coney Barrett's Supreme Court nomination ceremony
Statement by Pence: "That Rose Garden event, there's been a great deal of speculation about it, my wife Karen and I were there and honored to be there. Many of the people who were at that event, Susan, were actually tested for coronavirus, and it was an outdoor event, which all of our scientists regularly and routinely advise."
Claim: Pence says that Judge Amy Coney Barrett's Supreme Court nomination event was outdoors.
Fact check: Partially true
Details: Vice President Pence defended Barrett's nomination event because it was held outdoors, and "many people" were tested. But in addition to the outdoor ceremony, President Trump hosted an indoor reception, which was captured on camera by New York Times photographer Doug Mills, who was invited by the White House to photograph some of the scenes inside on the day of the nomination.
One Mills photo shows Mr. Trump, first lady Melania Trump, Missouri Senator Josh Hawley, Maureen Scalia, Senator Thom Tillis (who later tested positive for COVID-19) and Barrett all speaking, without masks, in tight quarters in the Diplomatic Room.
Another photo shows Mr. Trump, Senator Ben Sasse and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, now hospitalized with COVID-19, in the same room without masks.
Yet another photo shows Senator Mike Lee, also now COVID-positive, speaking with Barrett without masks.
By Kristin Brown
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."
"You respect the American people when you tell them the truth," she said.
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.
Ann Dorn to attend debate as guest of Pence
Ann Dorn, wife of the late St. Louis police Captain David Dorn, will be in the audience at the debate as a guest of the vice president, the Trump campaign said.
Ann Dorn also spoke during the Republican National Convention in August. David Dorn, a retired police officer, was shot and killed in June while trying to protect a friend's pawn shop during violent protests in St. Louis.
— Nicole Sganga and Melissa Quinn
Pence held three 90-minute debate prep sessions
Ahead of the debate, Pence held three 90-minute debate practice sessions, a senior White House official confirmed to CBS News.
The practice sessions included conversations on several policy fronts.
Additionally, the source said Pence would like for the debate to be 50% focused on domestic policy and 50% on foreign policy.
Democrats launch mobile billboards in Utah to attack Pence's response to COVID-19
The Democratic National Committee (DNC) War Room will be trolling the vice president in the hours leading up to the event with mobile billboards attacking him on his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"As chair of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, Pence owns the administration's failed response to the pandemic more than anyone except Trump himself." Lilly Adams, DNC War Room senior spokesperson and adviser said in a statement to CBS News. "As cases continue to rise across the country and millions of families struggle to make ends meet, Americans are owed answers tonight on the administration's failed coronavirus response."
Read more about the Utah billboards here.
Kayla Mueller's parents to attend debate
The parents of Kayla Mueller, who was murdered by ISIS in February 2015, are attending the debate as Pence's guests.
The Justice Department on Wednesday announced charges against two British nationals who were known as ISIS "Beatles" for their role in Mueller's death, as well as other American hostages.