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Vice presidential debate: Fact checking Pence and Harris on Supreme Court, Swine Flu, climate and more

Fact checking the Pence-Harris VP debate
CBS News fact checks the Pence-Harris vice presidential debate 02:02

During their first and only debate, Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris argued about the administration's handling of COVID-19, the Supreme Court, the Swine Flu, climate chang and more. CBS News' fact-checking team evaluated the truth of some of their claims. Here's what we found.

Fact check: Pence says Amy Coney Barrett's Supreme Court nomination ceremony was outdoors

Statement — Mike 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


Vice President Pence defends Amy Coney 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 the White House on the day of the nomination.

  • One photo shows President 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 President 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

Fact check: Pence claims that he and Trump will "protect preexisting conditions for all Americans"

Statement — Mike Pence: "President Trump and I have a plan to improve health care and to protect preexisting conditions for all Americans."

Claim: Pence claims that he and Mr. Trump have a plan to protect preexisting conditions.

Fact check: Mostly false

In September, President Trump declared that it is now the official policy of the federal government to protect preexisting conditions, and he won't sign any bill that comes to his desk that doesn't protect them. But the fate of the health care law and preexisting conditions is not in Congress' hands right now. The next development on this front is likely to come from the Supreme Court.

While the Trump administration has often claimed it would protect preexisting conditions, which are covered by the Affordable Care Act, it has in fact been trying to kill the nation's health care law in the courts. The next Supreme Court case on the law will be heard a week after the election, when Republicans challenge the constitutionality of Obamacare's individual mandate.

In June, the Trump administration asked the Supreme Court to overturn Obamacare, arguing the individual mandate is unconstitutional and so, the rest of the law, which includes preexisting condition protections, should be struck down. 

At a town hall in September, President Trump claimed to have "a much better plan," though moderator George Stephanopoulos pointed out that he has been in office for 3 1/2 years and has not yet presented a concrete plan to replace Obamacare. 

Late last month Mr. Trump signed an executive action that purported to be a "vision" of a health care plan, but it has no legislative power. Larry Levitt, executive vice president of Kaiser Family Foundation, called the president's vision "something of a mirage."

By: Kathryn Watson

Fact check: Biden would repeal GOP tax cut on day one

Statement — 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 


Biden cannot single-handedly repeal the Tax Cut and Jobs Act; it 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

By Irina Ivanova

Fact check: Pence claims U.S. has reduced CO2 emissions through innovation

StatementMike 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


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 dropoff 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

Fact check: Pence claims 60 million Americans contracted Swine Flu

Pence statement: "When Joe Biden was vice-president of the United States, 60 million Americans contracted the swine flu. If the swine flu had been as lethal as the coronavirus, 2009, when Joe Biden was president, we would have lost 2 million American lives. His own chief of staff Ron Klain would say last year, that it was pure luck, and that they did everything possible wrong."

Claim: Pence says 60 million Americans contracted Swine Flu

Fact check: Misleading


According to the Centers for Disease Control, from April 2009 to April 2010, there were nearly 61 million cases of the H1N1 Swine Flu in the U.S. That is far more than 7.5 million cases of COVID-19 that have been contracted in the U.S. in the past six months.

But Swine Flu was a much less dangerous and deadly disease than COVID-19. Of those 61 million case of Swine Flu, just 0.004% of those cases, or nearly 275,000, required hospitalization. And less than 12,500 who contracted the disease died.

This hospitalization rate and mortality rate was significantly lower than the number of Americans who die each year from seasonal flu.

A report produced on the 10th anniversary of the Swine Flu found that "the impact of the H1N1 [swine] virus on the global population during the first year was less severe than that of previous pandemics" and that "the United States mounted a complex, multi-faceted and long-term response to the pandemic."

Klain did say in 2019 that President Obama's administration got lucky swine flu wasn't more deadly. But Klain now says those comments, made at a conference, were taken out of context.

In May, he told Politico that the Obama administration speedily adapted to the H1N1 situation, "quickly distributing emergency equipment from the federal stockpile, deferring to public health experts and having them take the lead on messaging." He said that was a stark contrast to the way the Trump administration has reacted to the coronavirus. 

By Stephen Gandel

Fact check: Pence says Obama administration delayed raid to rescue hostage Kayla Mueller

Statement — Mike Pence: "When Joe Biden was vice president, they hesitated for a month. And when our armed forces finally went in, it was clear she'd been moved two days earlier."

Claim: Pence claims the Obama administration delayed an operation to rescue hostage Kayla Mueller in Syria.

Fact check: False


The unsuccessful attempt to rescue Americans held hostage in Syria occurred on July 3, 2014.  Planning began on June 22 after the FBI interviewed a European hostage who had been freed and who described the prison where Americans were being held.  

The plan was first briefed at the White House on June 26 and approved by President Obama the next day, on June 27.  It took until July 3 to stage the aircraft and troops to conduct the mission.  This was before the U.S. had sent troops back into Iraq, so it was a standing start.  

Afterward, Mr. Obama said they may have missed the hostages by a day or two.  

The operation was not mounted in time, but the chronology doesn't support that Mr. Obama and Biden delayed it. The complaints at the Pentagon at the time were that it should not have taken so long – from June 22 to June 26 – to present a plan for a time-sensitive military operation to the White House. The delay was not on the administration's side. It was the military in this case that wasn't able to move fast enough.

By David Martin

Fact check: Pence claims Biden-Harris support taxpayer-funded abortion "up to the moment of birth"

Statement — Mike Pence: "I'm pro-life, I don't apologize for it. And this is another one of those cases where there's such a dramatic contrast. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris support taxpayer funding of abortion all the way up to the moment of birth."

Claim: Pence claims Joe Biden and Harris support taxpayer-funded abortion "up to the moment of birth."

Fact check: Misleading


The concept of "abortion up until birth" is not something that happens in medical practice, says Jen Villavicencio, a practicing OB/GYN. "Abortion as Pence describes does not exist," she said. Terminations after about 24 weeks of pregnancy are only legally allowed to happen in cases of severe fetal abnormalities, when the fetus is no longer viable, or to save the life of the woman. Elective abortions later in pregnancy do not exist and are not legal.

Roe v. Wade and subsequent Supreme Court precedent legalizes abortion up until fetal viability, which usually happens near or at the end of the second trimester. According to the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive research group that supports abortion access, 43 states ban abortion at some point during pregnancy and seven do not. In those seven states, individual state laws determine access to abortion later in pregnancy. According to Villavicencio, patients are only able to access abortion later in pregnancy if the fetus is no longer viable or to preserve the life or health of the mother.

The vast majority of abortions in the U.S. happen early in pregnancy, according to the CDC — 90.9% of abortions occurred at or before the 13th week of pregnancy in 2016, the most recent year for which data is available. Only 1.3% of abortions in 2016 happened at or after the 21st week of pregnancy, according to the CDC.

Pence's terminology, "late-term abortion" is not a medical term. When discussing abortion later in pregnancy, doctors refer to it by trimester, i.e. second-trimester or third-trimester abortion.

Harris and Biden support current abortion laws, which allow for abortion later in pregnancy in very limited circumstances, as outlined above. They support taxpayer-funded abortion, too. In the summer of 2019, Biden also abandoned his support for the Hyde Amendment, a 1976 rule that prohibits the use of federal dollars from funding abortion services except in the cases of rape, incest or life-threatening circumstances. Harris also supports the repeal of the Hyde Amendment. Biden/Harris also support restoring federal funding to Planned Parenthood. 

By Kate Smith

Fact check: Harris claims Trump got rid of an Obama White House office that monitored pandemics out of "weird obsession" with dismantling Obama-Biden accomplishments

Statement — Kamala Harris: "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. For example, they created within the White House an office that basically was responsible for monitoring pandemics. They got away — they they got rid of it." Mike Pence: "Not true."

Claim: Harris claims Trump got rid of an Obama White House office that monitored pandemics and that he has a "weird obsession" with dismantling Obama-Biden accomplishments

Fact check: Partially true and no evidence for "obsession" claim


The Global Health Security and Biodefense unit — responsible for pandemic preparedness — was established in 2015 by President Obama's national security adviser, Susan Rice, as part of the national security council. 

In May 2018, under the Trump administration, the team was disbanded. Its head, Timothy Ziemer, the top national security council official charged with leading U.S. response against a pandemic, left the White House.

But some members of the global health and security team were reassigned into other NSC units that addressed pandemic response. And while the "pandemic response team" as a unit was largely disbanded, the departure of some members came about as a result of "streamlining" efforts under then-national security adviser John Bolton.

There is not enough evidence to support the claim that Mr. Trump dismantled the office for the reason given by Harris.

By Nicole Sganga

Fact check: Harris says Biden will not ban fracking 

Statement — Kamala Harris: "Joe Biden will not end fracking. He has been very clear about that."

Claim: Harris claims Biden will not end fracking.

Fact check: Inconclusive


Fracking, short for hydraulic fracturing, is a drilling method for extracting natural gas from shale formations underground by injecting liquid at high pressure. Since 2005, the use of fracking in the U.S. has grown exponentially. Some energy experts forecast the U.S. will be the world's top exporter of natural gas within the next few years.

However, fracking is a substantial source of jobs and revenue in the crucial swing state of Pennsylvania, where some 32,000 workers are employed in the fracking and natural gas industry. Biden told voters there in July that fracking "is not on the chopping block," though his campaign says he supports no new fracking on federal land. 

Harris says that Biden will not end fracking, and that he's been "very clear" on the issue. But Biden has changed his exact answer on this question many times and has at least once forced his campaign to clarify his statements.

  • At a July 31, 2019 CNN debate, Biden was asked, "Would there be any place for fossil fuels, including coal and fracking, in a Biden administration?" Biden responded, "No, we would — we would work it out. We would make sure it's eliminated, and no more subsidies for either one of those, either — any fossil fuel."
  • Biden declared at a March 2020 debate: "No new fracking." His campaign later said he meant there would be no new fracking on federal lands.
  • In July 2020, Biden told WNEP, "Fracking is not going to be on the chopping block."
  • On September 1, Biden told a Pittsburgh crowd, "I am not banning fracking," and said in a CNN town hall later that month "there is no rationale to eliminate, right now, fracking." 
  • For her part, in a town hall in September 2019, Harris was asked whether she'd commit to a federal ban on fracking. She answered, "There's no question I'm in favor of banning fracking, so yes."

By Kristin Brown and Jeff Berardelli

Fact check: Pence says in response to COVID, Trump suspended travel from China and Biden called it "xenophobic"

Statement — Mike Pence: "President Donald Trump did what no other American president had ever done, and that was, he suspended all travel from China. The second largest economy in the world. Now, Senator (Harris), Joe Biden opposed that decision. He said it was xenophobic."

Fact check: Inconclusive, mostly false


On suspending travel: This is mostly false. The travel policy announced by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar on January 31 prohibited non-U.S. citizens, other than immediate family of U.S. citizens and permanent residents, who traveled to China within the last two weeks from entering the U.S. There was no restriction on Americans from traveling back and forth from China. 

On January 24, a week before the travel restrictions were imposed, the CDC confirmed two cases of the novel coronavirus in the U.S. from individuals returning from Wuhan, China.

President Trump frequently defends his administration's early handling of COVID-19 by touting his decision to partially restrict travel from China in January 2020. However, his so-called "ban" did not actually rstrict travel, it merely limited it. His claims are misleading because there were 11 exemptions, including permanent US citizens and immediate family, and residents of "Special Administrative Regions" Hong Kong and Macau. 

According to the Associated Press, nearly 8,000 Chinese and foreign nationals entered the U.S. several months after the ban was enacted. The regulations did not go into effect until February 2, 2020.

On xenophobia: This is inconclusive. During an Iowa campaign appearance on January 31 – the same day restrictions were announced – Biden said that "this is no time for Donald Trump's record of hysteria and xenophobia — hysterical xenophobia — and fear-mongering to lead the way instead of science." 

But he did not explicitly mention or link his statement to travel restrictions announced by Azar earlier that day. The Biden campaign claims he was not directly referring to the China travel ban. Biden has also repeatedly accused the president of xenophobia on Twitter. Eventually, in April 2020, the campaign said Biden supported the ban. 

"Science supported this ban, therefore he did too," said deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield.

By Nicole Sganga

This story will be updated.

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