SALT LAKE CITY, Utah, Oct. 7 (UPI) — The COVID-19 pandemic made its presence felt during the vice presidential debate between Sen. Kamala Harris and Vice President Mike Pence on Wednesday.
Wednesday night’s debate came just two days after President Donald Trump was discharged from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center where he received treatment for the coronavirus for three days following a positive test days after his first presidential debate with Democratic nominee Joe Biden.
Following Trump’s positive test and other positive tests among people close to the president, the Commission on Presidential Debates expanded COVID-19 safety precautions as Harris and Pence were spaced 12 feet apart for their debate, instead of the 7 feet originally planned, and separated by plexiglass.
The Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic also served as a point of contention between the two vice presidential candidates and the effects of the virus were discussed throughout the nine roughly 10-minute segments of the debate ranging from healthcare to the economy, and the nomination of a new justice to the Supreme Court.
Harris, a Democratic senator from California, declared that the Trump administration has “forfeited their right to re-election” based on its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has sickened more than 7.5 million people and killed more than 211,000 in the United States, according to data collected by Johns Hopkins University.
“The American people have witnessed what is the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country,” she said.
Harris also referenced Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Bob Woodward’s book, Rage, in which he wrote that Trump understood the deadly nature of the disease in early February and “played it down” to the American public because he didn’t want to “create a panic.”
“Can you imagine if you knew on Jan. 28, as opposed to March 13, what they knew? What you might have done to prepare?” Harris said.
She went on to question the panic Americans may have felt rushing for supplies to prepare for a lockdown, not knowing when their children would return to school and weighing the risk of spreading the virus to elderly loved ones.
Harris said she and Biden would provide a national plan to combat the virus focused on contact tracing and testing as well as developing a vaccine and ensuring that is available to all Americans for free.
Pence, who was appointed to lead the White House’s task force on the coronavirus, defended the administration’s response to the pandemic and touted Trump’s decision to cut off travel from China, where the disease originated, early on.
He condemned Harris’ criticism of the administration’s response to the pandemic as an insult to the efforts of the American people and accused the Democratic candidates of copying the White House’s COVID-19 response plan.
“It looks a little like plagiarism, which is something Joe Biden knows a little about,” Pence said, referencing Biden’s decision to withdraw from the 1988 presidential race after using phrases from a British politician without attribution.
Pence also defended a Rose Garden event marking the announcement of Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court on Sept. 26, which has been linked to several positive COVID-19 tests among attendees.
“Many of the people who were at the event actually were tested for coronavirus and it was an outdoor event, which all of our scientists, regularly and routinely advise,” he said, not referencing a portion of the event that was held indoors.
Pence also said that he and the president “trust the American people to make choices in the best interest in their health,” while criticizing Biden and Harris for proposing mandates to curb the spread of the virus.
Harris also repeated a previous declaration that she does not trust Trump’s endorsement of a vaccine for the virus.
“If the doctors tell us that we should take it, I’ll be first in line to take it. Absolutely,” she said. “But if Donald Trump tells us to take it, I’m not taking it.”
Pence accused Harris of “playing politics with people’s lives” saying she would refuse a Trump vaccine.
“Your continuous undermining of confidence in a vaccine is unacceptable,” he said.
The two candidates offered opposing responses on whether they believe justice was done in the case of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman who was shot and killed by police during the serving of a “no-knock” warrant at her Louisville apartment, after just one of the three officers involved in the shooting were indicted with none being charged directly for her death.
Harris said that she believed Taylor’s life was taken “unjustifiably,” referencing conversations she had with Taylor’s family and declaring that they deserve justice.
“We’re never going to condone violence. But we always must fight for the values that we hold dear, including the fight for our ideals,” she said.
Leaning on her career experience as a former prosecutor, Harris also laid out her and Biden’s plan for police reform in response to the high profile killings of Taylor, George Floyd and other Black people throughout the country.
“Bad cops are bad for good cops. We need to reform policing in America and our criminal justice system. That’s why Joe and I will immediately ban chokeholds and carotid holds,” she said.
Harris also said she and Biden will seek to eliminate private prisons and cash bail as well as decriminalizing marijuana and expunge the records of people who have been convicted of marijuana-related crimes.
Pence offered “sympathies” to Taylor’s family but criticized Harris for questioning the grand jury’s decision, saying he trusts the U.S. justice system.
“This presumption that you hear consistently from Joe Biden and Kamala Harris that America is systemically racist and as Joe Biden said, he believes that law enforcement has an implicit bias against minorities, it’s a great insult to the men and women who serve in law enforcement.”
Pence said that the Trump administration would continue to stand by law enforcement, adding that “we don’t have to choose between supporting law enforcement, improving public safety and supporting our African American neighbors and all of our minorities.”
Pence on Wednesday said he hopes that Barrett receives a “fair hearing” while she is considered for a seat on the Supreme Court to replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
He also pressed Harris to answer whether she and Biden would seek to “pack” the court by appointing liberal justices beyond the total of nine justices that have historically served on the court.
“This is a classic case of, if you can’t win by the rules, you’re going to change the rules,” Pence said.
Harris did not directly answer whether they would seek to appoint more liberal justices to the court but said that the Senate should not move forward with Barrett’s confirmation so close to election day.
“We’re literally in an election. Over four million people have voted. People are in the process of voting right now. And so Joe has been very clear, as the American people are: Let the American people fill that seat in the White House and then we’ll fill that seat in the United States Supreme Court,” she said.
Pence criticized Harris for delivering a “non-answer” and again alleged she and Biden would seek to pack the court.
“Men and women, I gotta tell you, people across this country if you cherish our Supreme Court, if you cherish the separation of powers, you need to reject the Biden-Harris ticket come Nov. 3 and reelect President Donald Trump,” he said.