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About halfway through Wednesday’s debate, Vice President Mike Pence — a seasoned and sly veteran of high-stakes political theater — was asked whether President Trump had a plan to protect patients with pre-existing conditions if he succeeded in killing the Affordable Care Act.
His response was a master class in evasive rhetorical jujitsu: First, the vice president ignored the question (the White House has not, in fact, come up with a plan), then launched into a long defense of his anti-abortion views and, for his dismount, demanded that Senator Kamala Harris say if she supported a plan to “pack” the Supreme Court.
“I couldn’t be more proud to serve as vice president to a president who stands without apology for the sanctity of human life. I’m pro-life, I don’t apologize for it,” he began, ending with: “Are you and Joe Biden going to pack the court if Judge Amy Coney Barrett is confirmed?”
Time and again, Mr. Pence, whose deliberate Midwestern delivery masks a switchblade-quick political mind, seamlessly changed the subject when cornered by an inconvenient query.
It began a few minutes into the debate when he was asked to defend his administration’s failures in managing the coronavirus crisis. He briefly offered his defense, then declared that Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s plan for fighting the pandemic was so similar to the president’s that Mr. Biden was guilty of plagiarism — a reference to the scandal that sunk the Democratic nominee’s 1988 campaign.
And here is how he answered an inquiry from the moderator, Susan Page, into why White House doctors have not been providing detailed information on the president’s health since he tested positive for the coronavirus:
“Let me say on behalf of the president and the first lady, how moved we’ve all been by the outpouring of prayers and concern for the president,” Mr. Pence said. “The transparency that they’ve practiced all along the way will continue. The American people have a right to know about the health and well-being of their president and we’ll continue to do that. But I’m just extremely grateful and was more than a little moved by the broad and bipartisan support. Senator, I want to thank you and Joe Biden for your expressions and genuine concern. And I want to congratulate you, as I did on the phone call, on the historic nature of your nomination.”
Ms. Harris responded with a smile — after all, it was a nice thing to say — and replied, “Thank you.”
But his most consequential almost-answer came near the end of the evening, when Ms. Page asked him directly what his “role” would be if Mr. Trump refused a “peaceful transfer of power” by accepting the results of the election if he was defeated.
“Senator Harris, you and your colleagues in the Congress tried to impeach the president of the United States over a phone call. And now Hillary Clinton has actually said to Joe Biden, in her words, under no circumstances should he concede the election,” he said.
“I think we’re going to win this election,” he added. “If we have a free and fair election, we know we’re going to have confidence in it. And I know and believe in all my heart that President Donald Trump will be re-elected for four more years.”
Ms. Page did not ask a follow-up question.
It was the first time a woman of color had ever appeared on a presidential or vice-presidential general election debate stage, and the tightrope Senator Kamala Harris had to walk was never far from sight.
Just consider the reaction in the Republican pollster Frank Luntz’s focus group of undecided voters: “She is applauded for her knowledge,” Mr. Luntz wrote on Twitter, “but they just don’t like her ‘condescending reactions.’”
That some voters would view Ms. Harris’s reactions as condescending, and recoil at them — the laughs, head shakes and “are you kidding me” expressions she displayed at various points in response to Vice President Mike Pence — was not surprising. Nor was the lack of comparable backlash to Mr. Pence’s head shakes and unamused expressions.
Research shows that voters see certain behavior as assertive or authoritative when it comes from men but aggressive or condescending when it comes from women. The double standard is more severe for women of color, and the specific criticism lodged against Ms. Harris has both racial and gendered components.
“Her facial expressions and the eye rolls and neck movements were quintessential Black woman — she was signaling, ‘Don’t start,’” said Nadia E. Brown, an associate professor of political science and African-American studies at Purdue University.
“However, what came out of her mouth was what people tuned in to the debate to hear,” Dr. Brown said. “She gave clear policy contrasts, and that’s really what the debate should be about.”
Dr. Brown and other experts who study women of color in politics said that while double standards were very much present, Ms. Harris may also have helped herself and the Democratic ticket by calmly asserting herself when interrupted.
“I’m speaking,” she said less than 15 minutes in, a line she would repeat more than once: “I’m speaking.” “Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking.”
Women of all political persuasions can relate to being spoken over and dismissed, Dr. Brown said, and that does not necessarily help the Trump campaign win over, say, white suburban women — who helped lift Mr. Trump to victory in 2016, but among whom he is badly trailing in the polls.
“With the tightrope she’s walking, she’s definitely not going to make everybody happy,” said Amanda Hunter, research and communications director at the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, which supports women in politics. But, she added, “it’s so important that a woman candidate stand up for herself in a debate, and that can display strength to voters.”
The Biden campaign, for its part, sought to use the gendered dynamics to its advantage in the post-debate spin.
“He didn’t just mansplain,” Symone Sanders, a senior adviser to the Biden campaign, said of Mr. Pence. “He man-dodged.”
Vice President Mike Pence was asked, in a question similar to one put before President Trump in the presidential debate last week, what he would do if Mr. Trump refused to accept the election results should he lose to Joseph R. Biden Jr.
Just as Mr. Trump has done repeatedly, Mr. Pence declined to say what he would do — nor did he offer any commitment to accepting a negative result.
“First and foremost, I think we’re going to win this election,” Mr. Pence said. “When you talk about accepting the outcome of the election, I must tell you, Senator, your party has spent the last three and a half years trying to overturn the results of the last election. It’s amazing.”
Mr. Pence never got around to saying what he would do if Mr. Trump declined to accept a losing result.
Senator Kamala Harris was asked a similar question about what she and former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. would do if Mr. Trump refused to step aside. She offered few specifics, but instead made a plea for supporters to vote as soon as possible.
“I’d like to say to everybody, vote,” she said. “Please vote. Vote early, come up with a plan to vote.”
She added: “We have it within our power in these next 27 days to make the decision about what will be the course of our country for the next four years. And it is within our power and if we use our vote and our voice, we will win.”
An exchange between Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris late in the debate crystallized the deep differences in the two sides’ approaches to racial justice.
Asked whether justice was done in the case of Breonna Taylor, whom police officers fatally shot after bursting into her home in Louisville, Ky., while she was sleeping, Ms. Harris said she did not think so. (A grand jury indicted only one of the officers, and the charges against him are not for shooting Ms. Taylor, but for endangering her neighbors.)
She then linked the killing of Ms. Taylor to the killing of other Black people by the police, like George Floyd in Minneapolis, and said that if elected, she and Joseph R. Biden Jr. would ban chokeholds, create a national registry for police officers who act illegally, close private prisons and decriminalize marijuana, among other changes to the criminal justice system.
As a former prosecutor, she said, “I know what I’m talking about.”
Mr. Pence, by contrast, claimed that it was a “great insult” to police officers to say that there was implicit racial bias in law enforcement at all. Research consistently shows that officers disproportionately stop Black people, arrest Black people, and use force — often fatal — against Black people.
Mr. Pence also suggested that it was disturbing for a former prosecutor like Ms. Harris to “assume that an impaneled grand jury looking at all the evidence got it wrong,” even though a member of the grand jury came forward publicly last month to express concerns about the proceedings, saying the jury had not been given the option to indict the other officers.
And he said that Mr. Trump had “repeatedly” condemned white supremacists, though the president declined to do so just last week, during his first debate with Mr. Biden.
Vice President Mike Pence accused Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Senator Kamala Harris of wanting to pack the nation’s highest court as retaliation for appointing a Trump-backed Supreme Court nominee to the bench, and urged a “fair hearing” for Judge Amy Coney Barrett, in a bitter exchange over one of the country’s most high-stakes issues.
Since the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg just over a month before Election Day, filling her seat has become one of the most contentious and divisive issues of the election, with Republicans vowing to confirm Judge Barrett and Democrats crying foul over what they say is blatant hypocrisy.
Harkening back to the stormy confirmation hearings of Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, during which Ms. Harris’s harsh questioning as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee went viral, Mr. Pence said: “Our hope is in the hearing next week, unlike Justice Kavanaugh received with treatment from you and others, we hope she gets a fair hearing. And we particularly hope we don’t see the kind of attacks on her Christian faith that we saw before.”
Ms. Harris, echoing the reasoning of the Democratic Party, argued that the election was drawing to a close and the American people should be able to determine who they want to appoint the next Supreme Court justice. The issue is particularly acrimonious because a Republican-majority Senate refused to confirm President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, saying that they would not do so in an election year.
“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 on the United States Supreme Court,” Ms. Harris said. Ms. Harris, as Mr. Biden has done, turned the focus to health care and women’s reproductive rights, saying the Supreme Court vacancy put both issues on the line.
Mr. Pence accused the Democratic Party of wanting to expand the size of the Supreme Court.
“Are you and Joe Biden going to pack the court if Judge Amy Coney Barrett is confirmed? Your party is actually openly advocating adding seats to the Supreme Court, which has had nine seats for 150 years, if you don’t get your way. This is a classic case of if you can’t win by the rules, you’re going to change the rules,” he said.
While some Democrats have expressed support for expanding the size of the Supreme Court, many others, including the liberal standard-bearer Senator Bernie Sanders, have rejected the idea. Mr. Biden has not answered whether he would do so, and Ms. Harris on Wednesday night did not say if she supported the idea.
President Trump’s handling of the country was the elephant in the room during Wednesday’s vice-presidential debate, but it was a fly, taking a brief break from flying, that couldn’t be ignored by viewers watching the event from home.
Vice President Mike Pence, his hair perfectly coiffed, never reacted to the fly’s appearance on the right side of his head. It stood out against his bright white hair, standing still for the most part but moving around slightly before, well, flying away.
A local TV news reporter from California clocked the fly’s screen time on Mr. Pence’s head at 2 minutes, 3 seconds.
While Mr. Pence spent most of the 90-minute debate avoiding direct questions posed by the moderator, Susan Page of USA Today, the fly brought up a slew of questions of its own.
Who will play the fly on “Saturday Night Live”? (Pete Davidson seems a good choice.) Is the fly liable to catch the coronavirus that has infected so many top Trump administration officials? Was the fly breaking debate protocols by not wearing a mask?
On social media, the fly became the biggest star of what came across as “a normal debate,” as CNN’s Jake Tapper put it.
Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. tweeted a photo of himself holding a fly swatter.
Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, a Trump ally, joked that “the deep state planted a bug” on Mr. Pence.
Alas, there was no word from the fly as it left the stage.
It took a little prodding, but eventually both Senator Kamala Harris and Vice President Mike Pence defended their respective positions on abortion rights — though neither offered much in the way of guidance about what they would like to see happen if the Supreme Court strikes down Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision that made abortion legal nationwide.
“I will always fight for a woman’s right to make a decision about her own body,” Ms. Harris said. “It should be her decision and not that of Donald Trump and the vice president, Michael Pence.”
Ms. Harris quickly pivoted into a brief soliloquy about the Affordable Care Act being endangered by a Supreme Court dominated by conservative justices. She never returned to what sort of abortion rights she would like to see written into law.
Mr. Pence professed to not know how Judge Amy Coney Barrett, whom Mr. Trump nominated to the Supreme Court last month, would rule on abortion rights, but said he and Mr. Trump were opposed to them.
“I couldn’t be more proud to serve as vice president to a president who stands without apology for the sanctity of human life,” Mr. Pence said. “I’m pro-life. I don’t apologize for it.”
Mr. Pence went on to say that “Joe Biden and Kamala Harris support taxpayer funding of abortion all the way up to the moment of birth.”
This is false.
It is true that Ms. Harris is a staunch supporter of abortion rights, and that Mr. Biden has also come to support an expansive view of abortion rights after many years of ambivalence. Both of them support legislation that would protect abortion rights if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, an idea sometimes referred to in shorthand as “codifying Roe v. Wade.”
Neither supports restrictions on abortion after a specific point in pregnancy, though Roe v. Wade expressly allows restrictions in the third trimester, so codifying it would not suddenly allow unfettered access to abortion late in pregnancy.
Vice President Mike Pence brought the parents of Kayla Mueller, the human rights activist who was killed in 2015 by members of the Islamic State in Syria, to the debate hall and attacked Joseph R. Biden Jr. during the debate for not doing more as vice president to rescue her.
“The reality is that when Joe Biden was vice president, we had an opportunity to save Kayla Mueller,” Mr. Pence said. “It breaks my heart to reflect on it, but the military came into the Oval Office and presented a plan. They said they knew where Kayla was.”
President Barack Obama had authorized a risky raid to help rescue Ms. Mueller, but she and other hostages had already been moved.
The Muellers have praised President Trump for authorizing the mission to kill the ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, which was named after Kayla. “And her family says, with a heart that broke the heart of every American, that if President Donald Trump had been president, they believe Kayla would be alive today,” he added.
Senator Kamala Harris offered her condolences to Ms. Mueller’s family, then attacked Mr. Trump for his reported comments denigrating members of the military.
There “is about a pattern of Donald Trump’s, where he has referred to our men who are serving in our military as suckers and losers,” Ms. Harris said.
“Donald Trump, who went to Arlington Cemetery and stood above the graves of our fallen heroes, and said, what’s in it for them?” she added. “Because of course, you know, he only thinks about what’s in it for him. Let’s take what he said about John McCain, a great American hero. And Donald Trump says he doesn’t deserve to be called a hero, because he was a prisoner of war.”
Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris clashed over the issue of climate change, with Mr. Pence saying he was “very proud of our record on the environment and on conservation” and denouncing the sweeping climate change legislation known as the Green New Deal.
Even as President Trump denies the scientific facts of climate change, Mr. Pence argued that the president “has made it clear that we’re going to continue to listen to the science.” Asked whether he thought climate change was an existential threat, Mr. Pence said, “The climate is changing. We’ll follow the science”
Mr. Pence also attacked Mr. Biden for vowing to abolish fossil fuels and claimed the Democratic nominee wanted to eliminate fracking, which Mr. Biden has not said. Instead, Mr. Biden has proposed ending new fracking leases on federal lands, but not a national ban — a point that Ms. Harris immediately pointed out. “Joe Biden will not ban fracking — that is a fact,” she said.
Ms. Harris then laced into Mr. Trump’s record, calling out in particular his response to the recent wildfires in California.
“Donald Trump, when asked about the wildfires in California, and the question was, the science is telling us this. You know what Donald Trump said? Science doesn’t know. So let’s talk about who is prepared to lead our country over the course of the next four years on what is an existential threat to us as human beings,” she said.
But Mr. Pence reserved his harshest words for the Green New Deal, which was popularized by progressive Democrats including Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. The Green New Deal, Mr. Pence said, “would crush American energy, would increase the energy costs of American families in their homes and literally would crush American jobs.”
The Trump administration has weakened or eliminated numerous environmental regulations, including limits on emissions from power plants and vehicles, air and water pollution standards, and a ban on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Senator Kamala Harris attacked Vice President Mike Pence for trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act, warning that President Trump’s claims that he will preserve coverage for millions of Americans with pre-existing medical conditions were a lie.
“If you have a pre-existing condition — heart disease, diabetes, breast cancer — they’re coming for you,” Ms. Harris said during the most testy exchange in an otherwise decorous back-and-forth at Wednesday’s debate. “If you love someone who has a pre-existing condition, they’re coming for you. If you are under the age of 26 on your parents’ coverage, they’re coming for you.”
Mr. Pence responded: “Obamacare was a disaster, and the American people remember it well. President Trump and I have a plan to improve health care and to protect pre-existing conditions for every American.”
Mr. Trump has repeatedly called on Congress to repeal the signature legislative accomplishment of the Obama administration, supported incremental regulatory attempts to gut the health law, and appointed judges to the federal bench who oppose the legislation.
Last month, Mr. Trump claimed that he was about to release “a wonderful plan” and that he would be “putting it in fairly soon.” It has not materialized.
The exchange at the debate came moments after a clash that began when Mr. Pence, in a faint echo of Mr. Trump’s blurts and interruptions in his debate against Joseph R. Biden Jr., repeatedly interrupted Ms. Harris to counter her criticism of his boss.
“Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking,” Ms. Harris said, glaring at her opponent through the plexiglass separating them.
“I have to weigh in,” Mr. Pence said, before Susan Page, the moderator, intervened.
Senator Kamala Harris, on the attack against the Trump administration all night, launched an attack on one of the Trump administration’s proudest achievements: “You lost that trade war,” she told Vice President Mike Pence. “You lost it.”
Ms. Harris castigated the Trump administration for the tariffs it has imposed on China, arguing that retaliatory measures China has placed on American goods have cost the United States 300,000 manufacturing jobs and forced farmers unable to sell their crops overseas into bankruptcy.
Mr. Pence, adopting a momentary posture of being theatrically taken aback, said it was in fact former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. who is responsible for the United States losing ground to China.
“Lost the trade war with China?” he said. “Joe Biden never fought it. Joe Biden’s been a cheerleader for Communist China over the last several decades.”
Thus began a brief colloquy about the last decade of American manufacturing policy, with Ms. Harris citing the Obama administration’s stewardship of the auto industry bailout, while Mr. Pence argued Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden did little to stem the loss of the country’s manufacturing jobs.
And in the end, Mr. Pence sought to use China to deflect the blame for the coronavirus, the issue to which Ms. Harris has returned repeatedly throughout the night’s debate, even though the virus ended up reaching the United States primarily through Europe.
“First and foremost, China is to blame for the coronavirus,” Mr. Pence said. “And President Trump is not happy about it. He’s made that very clear.”
A team of reporters from The New York Times fact-checked the debate, providing analysis and context. Read more below.
Karen Pence, the wife of Vice President Mike Pence, appeared to flout safety rules set by the Commission on Presidential Debates at the end of Wednesday’s matchup by appearing onstage without a face mask.
The commission updated its protocols for the debate after President Trump and more than a dozen members of his staff tested positive for the coronavirus in the days after last week’s debate between Mr. Trump and Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Democratic presidential nominee.
The commission required “everyone in the debate hall” to wear a mask and submit to testing for the coronavirus, according to an updated fact sheet it released on Monday. The commission also installed plexiglass dividers between Mr. Pence and his challenger, Senator Kamala Harris of California.
At the end of the debate, the candidates were joined by their spouses, Mrs. Pence and Douglas Emhoff. Mr. Emhoff wore a mask as he greeted Ms. Harris, but Mrs. Pence did not have a mask on. It was unclear whether she removed it in the moments before appearing on television, or had refused to wear it throughout the debate.
At last week’s presidential debate in Cleveland, members of Mr. Trump’s family similarly disregarded protocols set by the Cleveland Clinic and refused to wear masks.
Asked how they would characterize the United States’ basic relationship with China — “Competitors? Adversaries? Enemies” — neither Vice President Mike Pence nor Senator Kamala Harris gave a direct answer.
Mr. Pence pivoted to China’s role in the coronavirus pandemic, saying, “First and foremost, China is to blame for the coronavirus, and President Trump is not happy about it.” He praised, as he has before, Mr. Trump’s decision early in the pandemic to suspend travel from China, though he characterized it incorrectly as a ban on “all” travel from China. The virus ended up reaching the United States primarily through Europe.
The Chinese government’s failures in the early stages of the outbreak in Wuhan are well documented, but the Trump administration’s singular focus on those failures has often served to elide its own, equally well-documented failures, compared with other wealthy countries, in containing the virus once it arrived in the United States.
Ms. Harris, in response to the same question, said the Trump administration’s “perspective and approach to China has resulted in the loss of American lives, American jobs and America’s standing.”
Like Mr. Pence, she pivoted from the question about the nature of the United States’ relationship with China to talk instead about the coronavirus, noting that Mr. Trump had disbanded the Obama administration’s pandemic response team and withdrawn American disease experts who had been monitoring potential threats in China.
She also accused Mr. Trump of costing the United States 300,000 manufacturing jobs through his trade war with China, and added: “Farmers have experienced bankruptcy because of it. We are in a manufacturing recession because of it.”
A report from Moody’s Analytics did find in September 2019 that the trade war had cut 300,000 American jobs, and the tariffs China imposed in retaliation did bankrupt some farmers. But the country does not meet the standard criteria for a manufacturing recession.
As the debate turned from the coronavirus to the economy, Senator Kamala Harris said the Trump administration measured economic success based on how the wealthiest Americans were faring, and Vice President Mike Pence claimed that a Biden administration would raise taxes.
“Joe Biden believes you measure the health and strength of America’s economy based on the health and strength of the American worker and the American family,” Ms. Harris said, in response to a question about whether raising taxes would hinder economic recovery.
“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 benefiting the top 1 percent and the biggest corporations of America, leading to a $2 trillion deficit,” she said.
Mr. Pence, in response, focused on Ms. Harris’s statement that Mr. Biden would repeal the Trump tax cuts and cast that as an admission that “on Day 1, Joe Biden’s going to raise your taxes” — even though Mr. Biden has said that he would not raise taxes on anyone making less than $400,000 a year.
“The American economy, the American comeback is on the ballot,” Mr. Pence said. “With four more years of growth and opportunity, four more years of President Donald Trump, 2021 is going to be the biggest economic year in the history of this country.”
He also claimed falsely that a Biden administration would ban fracking, something Mr. Biden has said repeatedly he does not support.
Minutes after the debate began, as Vice President Mike Pence cut into one of Senator Kamala Harris’s comments on tax policy, Ms. Harris turned to her opponent, visibly irritated, and said, “Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking. I’m speaking.”
Minutes after that, the phrase was all over merchandise being sold on the online marketplace Etsy. Variations of it showed up on T-shirts, mugs, face masks and laptop decals.
An hour into the debate, Ms. Harris repeated the reprimand. The comments began trending on Twitter and incited a flurry of reaction.
“I hope every little girl heard that,” the actress Uzo Aduba wrote.
Arianna Huffington called the phrase “a familiar moment” for women.
Megyn Kelly, the former Fox News and NBC News host, said: “the ‘I’m speaking, I’m speaking’ thing worked at first. Now it’s getting old.”
The surge in interest in Ms. Harris’s retort mirrored the upswing in products in 2016 co-opting “nasty woman” — an insult that Donald J. Trump lobbed against Hillary Clinton as a candidate and later echoed against Ms. Harris — as a feminist rallying cry.
Senator Kamala Harris attacked President Trump over his failure to release his tax returns and disclose important information about his health, seeking to draw a broad contrast between the approaches of the incumbent and her running mate, Joseph R. Biden Jr.
Speaking roughly 30 minutes into Wednesday’s vice-presidential debate, Ms. Harris seized on a question from the moderator about transparency, and raised the issue of Mr. Trump’s taxes. She said that when she first learned of a report by The New York Times that Mr. Trump had paid only $750 in federal income taxes during his first year in the White House, she thought it was a mistake.
“I literally said, you mean $750,000? And it was like, no, $750. We now know Donald Trump owes — and is in debt — for $400 million. And just so everyone is clear, when we say in debt, it means you owe money to somebody.”
“And it’d be really good to know who the president of the United States — the commander in chief — owes money to, because the American people have a right to know what is influencing the president’s decisions,” she added.
By comparison, Ms. Harris went on, “The one thing we all know about Joe, he puts it all out there. He is honest, he is forthright. But Donald Trump, on the other hand, has been about covering up everything.”
Mr. Pence, for his part, mostly parried a question from the moderator about Mr. Trump’s doctors having given misleading information about his condition after he tested positive for the coronavirus last week. He thanked voters for their prayers and support, and specifically told Ms. Harris he appreciated her words of encouragement.
“The care the president received at Walter Reed hospital by the White House doctors was exceptional,” he said. “And the transparency that they’ve practiced all along the way will continue. Because the American people have a right to know about the health and well-being of their president.”
Though Mr. Pence claimed that White House doctors had been forthcoming about the president’s health, the president’s physician, Dr. Sean P. Conley, acknowledged he had initially misled the public about his patient’s treatment for Covid-19, seeking to reflect the “upbeat attitude” of the White House. He also evaded questions about whether Mr. Trump had been on oxygen, and obfuscated the facts surrounding the president’s X-rays and lung function.
Mr. Trump has downplayed the severity of the virus for months, and polls have shown a majority of voters disapprove of his handling of the pandemic.
On the issue of the president’s taxes, Mr. Pence reiterated Wednesday that Mr. Trump had said The Times’ “reports are not accurate,” and repeated the claim that Mr. Trump had paid millions of dollars in payroll, property and other types of taxes. The president has repeatedly refused to release his tax returns on the grounds that he is amid an audit.
Even 2,000 miles away from the vice-presidential debate in Salt Lake City, President Trump still loomed over the proceedings.
Mr. Trump held his digital tongue at the start — briefly. But roughly 35 minutes in, the @realDonaldTrump account fired up, posting a 51-second video clip of Vice President Mike Pence onstage promising, without evidence, that a coronavirus vaccine could be available by the end of the calendar year.
About 10 minutes later, Mr. Trump tweeted again, writing: “Joe Biden and Kamala Harris BOTH want to BAN FRACKING.” In fact, Mr. Biden has not called for the end of fracking, though he has said he is against the government issuing new permits for drilling on public lands.
And shortly before 10 p.m., the television critic in chief weighed in. “Mike Pence is doing GREAT!” Mr. Trump wrote. “She is a gaffe machine.”
Earlier on Wednesday, Mr. Trump, who recently contracted the coronavirus, had reeled off tweet after tweet, peppering his Twitter account with all-caps exhortations (“THE FAKE NEWS MEDIA IS THE REAL OPPOSITION PARTY”) and attacks against Joseph R. Biden Jr.
None of his posts urged Americans to watch Mr. Pence on the debate stage against Senator Kamala Harris.
About 37 million Americans watched the vice-presidential debate four years ago, making Wednesday’s event easily the biggest audience that Mr. Pence will speak to in the campaign. But Mr. Trump seemed intent to make his vice president’s big night a little more about Mr. Trump.
As Mr. Pence was on television talking about the president’s Supreme Court nominee, Judge Amy Coney Barrett, the president wrote on Twitter that “Joe Biden opposed taking out Osama bin Laden,” a topic that had not been raised on the stage. (Mr. Biden expressed hesitation and skepticism about the intelligence that ultimately led to bin Laden’s death, but did not outright oppose the mission.)
Later, Mr. Trump’s Twitter account criticized the moderator, Susan Page of USA Today, saying that she “cut off” Mr. Pence.
A few minutes before the debate began, Mr. Trump’s aides also said they were exploring the possibility of Mr. Trump holding an event next week in Pittsburgh, presumably an attempt to show strength and vitality on the part of a president who is trying to fight off a deadly virus.
In a remarkable flouting of the moderator’s question, Vice President Mike Pence refused to say whether he had had a conversation with President Trump about safeguards or procedures when it comes to the issue of a president’s age and ability to serve, instead returning to the subject of a coronavirus vaccine.
Asked the same question, Senator Kamala Harris used her response to discuss her biography, ticking off her years in public service, including her ascent to become the first female district attorney in San Francisco and later the first woman of color to serve as California’s attorney general.
“I think Joe has asked me to serve with him because he knows that we share, we share a purpose which is about lifting up the American people and after the four years we’ve seen of Donald Trump, unifying our country around our common values and principles,” Ms. Harris said.
Mr. Pence then congratulated Ms. Harris “on the historic nature of your nomination” — a polite remark that stood in sharp contrast with the tone Mr. Trump took with Joseph R. Biden Jr. on the debate stage last week.
While neither of the candidates directly answered the question at hand, Mr. Pence’s deliberate dodge underscored the discomfort some Republicans feel with Mr. Trump’s sometimes volatile and unpredictable behavior, which has incited talks at times of the Constitution’s 25th Amendment.
Listening to Vice President Mike Pence, one could be forgiven for forgetting that President Trump is the man behind the nation’s most volatile Twitter account and a chaotic administration.
Mr. Pence began Wednesday’s vice-presidential debate projecting a calm — even presidential — demeanor. He congratulated his Democratic opponent, Senator Kamala Harris of California, for “the historic nature” of her candidacy. He spoke of grieving for families who have lost loved ones to the coronavirus.
“There’s not a day gone by that I haven’t thought of every American family that has lost a loved one,” Mr. Pence said. “I want all of you to know, you’ll always be in our hearts and our prayers.”
This is not exactly the performance Mr. Trump put on during last week’s debate.
Instead, Mr. Pence appears to be trying to convince wayward Republicans who have been repelled by Mr. Trump that the president they’ve seen on their television and smartphone screens hardly exists.
Meanwhile, Ms. Harris has barely let a moment go by without offering withering attacks on Mr. Trump for his handling of the pandemic, going on the offensive as she has during her signature moments on the Senate Judiciary Committee interrogating Mr. Trump’s judicial nominees.
When Mr. Pence interrupted her, she offered a rejoinder destined for the Democratic viral content machine.
“Mr. Vice President,” she said, “I’m speaking.”
Senator Kamala Harris leveraged the only vice-presidential debate to reintroduce herself to voters on Wednesday, highlighting her background as a child of immigrants and reminding Americans of the barriers she has broken as a biracial woman in politics.
When former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. selected Ms. Harris as his running mate, she became the first Black woman and the first person of Indian descent to be nominated for national office by a major party. She has often written and spoken about the influence her mother and Indian grandparents had on her and praised their tenacity and activism.
On Tuesday, Ms. Harris sidestepped a question from the moderator about any plans that might be in place if a presidential candidate were to become unable to serve — just as Vice President Mike Pence had done moments earlier — and instead used her speaking time to tell voters her story.
When she first received a Zoom call from Mr. Biden asking her to be his running mate, Ms. Harris recalled that she first “thought about my mother who came to the United States at the age of 19, gave birth to me at the age of 25 at Kaiser hospital in Oakland, Calif., and the thought that I’d be sitting here right now, I know would make her proud and she must be looking down on this.”
She then sought to connect her background to Mr. Biden’s, noting that “Joe and I were raised in a very similar way” with “values that are about hard work, about the value and the dignity of public service, and about the importance of fighting for the dignity of all people.”
Though Ms. Harris spent years as a prosector in California, she entered national politics just a few years ago when she was elected as California’s junior senator. And she used some of her time Thursday to tick off important aspects of her résumé to voters who still may not know much about her. She highlighted what she said were her attempts to reform the criminal justice system as the district attorney in San Francisco and to take on the big banks as California’s attorney general.
“Now I serve in the United States Senate as only the second Black woman ever elected to the United States Senate,” she said. “I serve on the Senate Intelligence Committee, where I’ve been in regular receipt of classified information about threats to our nation and hot spots around the world.”
“I think Joe has asked me to serve with him because he knows that we share,” she added. “We share a purpose which is about lifting up the American people, and after the four years that we have seen of Donald Trump, unifying our country around our common values and principles.”
Vice President Mike Pence tried to turn a question about the White House mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic into an attack on Joseph R. Biden Jr. — accusing the Democratic presidential candidate of “plagiarism” for stealing Mr. Trump’s plan to fight the virus.
Ms. Harris shot back quickly, saying that Americans are “looking at over 210,000 dead bodies” as a result of their failure to confront the pandemic head-on.
When the moderator, Susan Page, asked Mr. Pence to explain why the administration had not done more to prevent the deaths, Mr. Pence quickly pivoted to offense.
“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,” he said.
“The reality is, when you look at the Biden plan, it reads an awful lot like what President Trump and I and our task force have been doing every step of the way,” he added. “I mean, quite frankly, when I look at their plan — that talks about advancing testing, creating new PPE, developing a vaccine — it looks a little bit like plagiarism, which is something Joe Biden knows a little bit about.”
Mr. Pence was repeating Republican talking points, circulating on social media in the days before the debate, that reminded voters of the 1988 scandal in which the former Delaware senator repeated sections of speeches delivered by a British politician without crediting him.
Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump have adopted starkly different approaches to the pandemic, with Mr. Biden emphasizing the use of masks and social distancing; Mr. Trump and Mr. Pence have attended numerous public events at the White House and on the campaign trail without enforcing such safeguards.
“Whatever the vice president is claiming the administration has done, clearly it hasn’t worked,” Ms. Harris said. “When you’re looking at over 210,000 dead bodies in our country, American lives that have been lost, families that are grieving that loss. And, you know, the vice president is the head of the task force.”
Senator Kamala Harris of California wasted no time in prosecuting the case against the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus crisis.
“The American people have witnessed what is the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country,” she said in her opening remarks in Wednesday’s vice-presidential debate.
Ms. Harris, in her debate debut as former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s running mate, accused President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence of hiding the truth of the pandemic from the American people.
“They knew what was happening and they didn’t tell you,” she said. “They knew and they covered it up.”
Ms. Harris said a Biden administration would put in place a “national strategy” for contact tracing and coronavirus testing, which she said would be free for all Americans. Mr. Trump, she said, does not deserve any more chances to solve the problem.
“This administration has forfeited their right to re-election,” she said.
And we’re off: Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris have taken the stage for the only vice-presidential debate of 2020, after what was an extraordinary week even by 2020 standards.
The coronavirus hangs over the event as it has hung over all of American life for months. There was no handshake. The candidates are seated 12 feet apart. Two plexiglass dividers stand between them, providing an illusion of protection that scientists said would not actually do anything against an airborne virus.
After President Trump was hospitalized for the coronavirus, Ms. Harris’s team had been pushing for stronger safety measures, including the plexiglass, in case Mr. Pence was infected. (He has tested negative, but tests are not always accurate until several days after exposure.) Aides to Mr. Pence had criticized the plans, but after negotiations, his staff accepted the placement of the dividers.
At last week’s presidential debate between Mr. Trump and Joseph R. Biden Jr., Mr. Trump’s family members took off their masks immediately after sitting down, in violation of the rules. Debate officials said that this time, anyone who violated the mask requirement would be removed from the auditorium.
The first question, to no one’s surprise, was about the coronavirus.
Unlike most debate moderators, the journalist guiding Wednesday’s event may not be familiar to many television viewers.
Susan Page, the Washington bureau chief of USA Today, is the first print journalist to moderate a general-election debate since 1976, when James Hoge of The Chicago Sun-Times moderated the first formal vice-presidential debate.
Ms. Page, 69, is a veteran political reporter who started covering the White House at USA Today in 1995. She has interviewed nine presidents and written a biography of Barbara Bush, the former first lady; her biography of Nancy Pelosi, the current House speaker, is forthcoming.
Although highly respected in Washington media circles, Ms. Page faced scrutiny last month after it was revealed that she had hosted a reception in 2018 at her Georgetown home in honor of Seema Verma, President Trump’s Medicare chief.
The event, described as a “girls’ night,” was part of a public-relations push that Ms. Verma orchestrated to ingratiate herself into the elite world of the capital. A spokeswoman for USA Today told The New York Times that Ms. Page had paid the party’s costs — roughly $4,500 — and was “unaware” that the event had been organized by a paid consultant.
The events were “well within the ethical standards that our journalists are expected to uphold,” the spokeswoman added.
Ms. Page, who did not release a list of the topics she planned to ask the vice-presidential candidates about, told USA Today that the bumpy experience of Chris Wallace, moderator of last week’s presidential debate, had not bothered her.
“It didn’t change anything,” Ms. Page said, “but it kind of reinforced the idea that this is an event for which you have to be very, very prepared.”