Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris shared the stage — separated by two layers of plexiglass — for the 2020 Vice Presidential Debate on Wednesday night. And they shared with voters many of the same falsehoods and half-truths uttered by their partners at the top of the ticket.
The 90-minute event, hosted at the University of Utah and moderated by USA TODAY Washington Bureau Chief Susan Page, took a more measured tone than the first presidential debate of the cycle. That Sept. 29 event between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden was marked by interruptions, overtalking and incivility.
USA TODAY fact-checked the various claims made by Harris and Pence to find out where the two got it right and where they missed the mark on the facts.
On the pandemic
The first topic tackled — perhaps expectedly — was the coronavirus pandemic.
Pence claimed that before there were even five cases in the U.S., the president “suspended all travel from China.”
But that’s not true.
All travel from China was not suspended. The president’s Jan. 31 proclamation still allowed U.S. citizens and non-citizens with ties to U.S. citizens to travel into the U.S. from China. Screening measures were implemented, and people entering the country who may have been exposed to the virus were quarantined. Tens of thousands of people traveled between China and the U.S. after travel restrictions were put in place, according to the New York Times.
Pence noted the president has shared everything he’s been told with the nation.
This is false.
In February, President Donald Trump told journalist Bob Woodward, in a recorded interview for Woodward’s upcoming book, that the coronavirus is “deadly stuff,” and that he sought to play down the pandemic with the public.
He also noted of the Obama administration, “They left the Strategic National Stockpile empty.” While the supply of N95 masks was low, the stockpile was far from empty. There were other provisions available in the stockpile such as ventilators, key medicines and other personal protective equipment.
Pence also claimed that, “If the swine flu had been as lethal as the coronavirus, in 2009, when Joe Biden was vice president, we would have lost 2 million American lives.”
This is a dubious claim, as Pence can only speculate.
About 60 million Americans contracted swine flu in 2009, according to post-pandemic analyses of the event, with about 12,500 U.S. deaths.
According to the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 Dashboard, the raw COVID-19 death rate globally is about 2.9%. If swine flu infected the same number of people with a comparable lethality, it is possible to get to Pence’s number.
It is difficult to compare the lethality of the H1N1 virus, however, to the toll enacted by the coronavirus, most importantly because there is no way to conduct a rigorous analysis of coronavirus deaths while the pandemic is ongoing.
Also, because swine flu was less lethal, it was both less visible in the population and less necessary to take as stringent steps as have been seen in response to the coronavirus. Comparing the two situations is questionable, according to experts.
On Amy Coney Barrett nomination ceremony
After Harris criticized the White House for holding an event for Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court that violated many Centers for Disease Control guidelines, Pence shot back, saying, “It was an outdoor event which all of our scientists regularly, routinely advise.”
This is partly false.
Trump made the formal announcement outdoors in the Rose Garden, however, there was a private reception indoors that ignored social distancing and other health guidelines.
The celebration has been dubbed a “super spreader” event after a number of guests, including several senior White House aides, Republican lawmakers and the president himself, contracted the virus after attending.
Trump has COVID-19:Who else close to him has tested positive?
On jobs and the economy
The vice presidential candidates also debated the state of the American economy and American jobs.
Both Harris and Pence bent the truth on these points.
Harris’ claim that Trump’s first term “will have lost more jobs than almost any other presidential administration” is correct but misleading. The American economy was slowly but steadily adding jobs during the Trump administration until the coronavirus pandemic.
Similarly, Pence’s claim that, “We’ve already added back 11.6 million jobs, because we had a president who cut taxes, rolled back regulation, unleashed American energy, fought for free and fair trade, and secured $4 trillion dollars from the Congress of the United States to give direct payments to families,” is misleading.
Most of the jobs added back over the last few months were recovered from activity lost during the pandemic. Jobs are returning more slowly than analysts hoped, causing anxiety about an enduring economic malaise.
Pence argued the Trump administration “inherited the slowest economic recovery.”
This is misleading. The Obama administration inherited the worst economic recession since the Great Depression, eclipsed only by the country’s current economic turmoil.
GDP growth under the Obama and Trump administrations were also identical, making the comparison dubious.
On the environment
Pence and Harris sparred over their records and plans for the environment with a focus on the threat of climate change.
“Our air and land are cleaner than any time ever recorded and our water is among the cleanest in the world,” Pence claimed.
This is mostly true; air quality has largely improved over the past 40 years; however, greenhouse gas emissions have also increased.
That said, some important missing context is that this improvement is largely attributed to government regulation from bodies like the Environmental Protection Agency. The Trump administration has repeatedly sought to weaken the regulatory power of the EPA and corresponding state regulatory agencies.
Pence also referenced Trump’s signing of the Great American Outdoors Act, which he claimed was “the largest investment in our public lands and public parks in one hundred years.”
This is true.
The bipartisan bill gives $900 million a year to the Land and Water Conservation Fund and adds up to $9.5 billion over five years to increase maintenance in national parks.
Pence’s claim that a Biden administration would ban frackingis partly false.
Biden wants to stop new permits for fracking on public lands but allow current projects to continue. Biden would also not stop new fracking projects on private land.
Neither Biden nor Harris has ever backed a ban on fossil fuels. Biden’s platform also calls the Green New Deal a “crucial framework” for environmental policy but does not emulate the plan.
On health care & preexisting conditions
“If you have pre-existing conditions, heart disease, diabetes breast cancer – they’re coming for you,” Harris said.
The Trump administration has backed a Supreme Court challenge that could undo protections for people with preexisting medical conditions. About 100 million people in the U.S. could see higher premiums or out-of-pocket costs if the ACA’s preexisting condition protection is repealed.
Pence said the Trump administration has a plan to improve health care and protect people with pre-existing conditions, which is already in place under Obamacare.
It is true that Trump signed an executive order on Sept. 24 to end surprise medical billing and protect people with pre-existing conditions, but the directive has no legal weight and did not detail how it would be implemented.
On Trump’s tax cuts
Harris was asked about the Biden-Harris tax plan, which proposes raising $4 trillion in taxes on wealthy individuals. Harris answered with a critique of Trump’s tax cut, which she said helped “the top 1% and the biggest corporations of America.”
This is misleading.
While the tax cut did benefit corporations and those earning more than $250,000 annually, according to MarketWatch, “Taxpayers making between $40,000 and $50,000 a year had the largest fall in average tax liability” after the tax cuts took effect.
An analysis by the Tax Policy Center found two-thirds of taxpayers had their taxes reduced, Fortune reported. “The middle one-fifth of income earners got an average tax cut of $1,090 – about $20 per week.”
Pence noted “the average American family of four had $2,000 in savings in taxes,” from the tax cut. Depending on that family’s income, its savings could approach that, based on an analysis from Motley Fool.
So his assertion is largely true.
On U.S.-China relations
Page, the moderator, remarked that “we have no more complicated or consequential foreign relationship than the one with China,” asking the candidates how they would approach U.S.-China relations.
Pence asserted, “Joe Biden wants to repeal all of the tariffs that President Trump put into effect to fight for American jobs and American workers.”
This is a misleading claim.
Biden said he would repeal some of Trump’s tariffs, a claim which aides later clarified, saying Biden would reevaluate them. The former vice president has lambasted Trump’s engagement with China as erratic.
Harris claimed, “Because of a so-called trade war with China, America lost 300,000 manufacturing jobs.” A Moody’s Analytics report did find that 300,000 jobs had been lost, though estimates vary greatly.
Harris also said that Pew, a research firm, found that “leaders of all of our formerly allied countries have now decided that they hold a greater esteem and respect Xi Jinping, the head of the Chinese Communist Party than they do Donald Trump.”
This is true, Harris was citing a survey which Pew published this month.
Speaking about the administration’s coronavirus response, Pence claimed that Trump “suspended all travel from China and that Biden said the move “was xenophobic and hysterical.”
This is false on both counts.
Biden never called the move to ban travel from China xenophobic or hysterical. Trump also did not suspend all travel from China.
More VP debate fact checking:What they said about COVID, jobs, taxes