Fact-checking the Pence-Harris vice presidential debate
After President Trump repeatedly disrupted last week’s first presidential debate against Democratic rival Joe Biden with a near-nonstop flurry of jeers and lies, Wednesday night’s vice presidential debate between their ticket-mates offered viewers a more traditional and, on balance, fact-based encounter.
However, Vice President Mike Pence echoed many of the president’s misleading and false claims on a slew of topics. California Sen. Kamala Harris, the Democratic nominee, stuck closer to the facts, but she dodged a key question.
1. No, Trump did not ban all travel from China as the pandemic began.
“Before there were more than five cases in the United States … [Trump] suspended all travel from China. … Joe Biden opposed that decision, he said it was ‘xenophobic’ and ‘hysterical.’”
— Mike Pence
Pence is overstating what Trump did in the pandemic’s early days. The president’s Jan. 31 order applied to the Chinese mainland only, not Hong Kong, and tens of thousands of American travelers were allowed to return. Screening was spotty, and the outbreak took hold in the United States anyway. The day after Trump’s announcement, Biden tweeted that “we need to lead the way with science — not Donald Trump’s record of hysteria, xenophobia, and fearmongering.” He did not mention the ban.
2. No, the Trump administration isn’t protecting coverage for preexisting medical conditions.
“President Trump and I have a plan to improve healthcare and protect preexisting conditions for every American.”
— Mike Pence
If there’s a Trump plan to protect insurance coverage for people with preexisting medical conditions, the public hasn’t seen it. The president has spent years trying to undermine the law that currently guarantees coverage.
Administration lawyers and a coalition of Republican-led states have gone to the Supreme Court asking it to strike down the 2010 Affordable Care Act, the Obama-era law that included the protection for those with preexisting ailments. Trump and Republicans in Congress tried and failed to repeal the law in 2017. Trump, facing criticism, signed an executive order on Sept. 24 promising “a steadfast commitment to always protecting individuals with preexisting conditions.” Substantively, it has no effect.
3. No, Biden’s plan wouldn’t raise taxes on middle-class families.
“On Day One, Joe Biden’s going to raise your taxes.”
— Mike Pence
Pence made the remark while talking about Biden’s proposal to repeal Trump’s tax cuts enacted in late 2017. While most Americans saw their taxes go down, the benefits went overwhelmingly to the richest Americans and corporations. The vice president mischaracterized Biden’s plan, which would not raise taxes on earners making less than $400,000 a year. Biden would repeal the Trump tax cuts for those making more than that.
4. Comparing the COVID-19 pandemic to the swine flu outbreak in 2009 is off-base.
“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.”
— Mike Pence
Pence cited the last pandemic, the H1N1 “swine flu” outbreak during the Obama administration in 2009, to argue that the Trump administration has done a better job of handling the novel coronavirus crisis. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between April 2009 and April 2010 there were 60.8 million H1N1 cases and 12,469 deaths in the U.S., for a fatality rate of 0.02%. The coronavirus outbreak has infected more than 7,549,429 Americans and killed 211,793 this year, for a fatality rate of 2.8%, according to the Johns Hopkins University tracker.
Pence misleadingly extrapolated from COVID-19’s higher lethality to suggest its death toll is somehow comparable to that from swine flu. But the viruses are very different, and so the public health response was as well. The H1N1 flu was closer to the seasonal flu, which infects millions of Americans a year and kills thousands as a matter of course. The closest comparison to the coronavirus is the 1918 influenza pandemic that killed an estimated 675,000 Americans.
5. It’s true: Harris wouldn’t answer a ‘court-packing’ question.
“They are going to pack the Supreme Court if they somehow win this election.”
— Mike Pence
Pence is right that Harris declined to say whether a President Biden would support enlarging the nine-member Supreme Court to dilute its conservative majority. Instead of answering the moderator’s question — and Pence’s — she attacked Republicans for trying to fill the vacancy created by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death. Never before has a justice been confirmed so close to a presidential election. Biden, too, has ducked the question about what Pence and Republicans call “court-packing.”
Pence was wrong, however, in characterizing the idea of adding seats to the Supreme Court as a Democratic Party plan. Many Democrats in Congress are wary of it.
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