How Mike Pence Helped the Coronavirus at the Veep Debate

Did you catch the vice president’s sly wink at anti-maskers?

Justin Sullivan/AP

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Vice President Mike Pence, the guy in charge of the White House coronavirus task force, boosted the spread of the killer virus on Wednesday night when he debated Sen. Kamala Harris, the Democratic nominee for vice president. Sure, this sounds strange. He’s supposed to be doing all that can be done to counter the deadly pandemic that has claimed the lives of more than 210,000 Americans. But it’s clear that his task force has failed miserably. (The United States has one of the highest coronavirus death tolls of all wealthy nations.) And during the debate, Pence essentially winked at the anti-maskers, whose opposition to wearing face coverings has contributed to the ongoing and out-of-control transmission of deadly COVID-19.

The first question at the debate predictably focused on the pandemic. USA Today’s Susan Page, the moderator, asked Harris how she and Joe Biden would combat the killer virus, should they win. Harris began with an opening shot at Trump and Pence: “The American people have witnessed what is the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country.” She noted that Biden had a plan for testing, contract tracing, and vaccine distribution. And she slammed Trump for downplaying the pandemic and for not encouraging mask-wearing: “The president said, ‘You’re on one side of his ledger if you wear a mask. You’re on the other side of his ledger if you don’t.'”

According to Dr. Anthony Fauci and other public health experts, mask-wearing and social distancing are the two most important steps to take to beat back the pandemic. But Trump and his crew have constantly denigrated masks and turned mask-wearing into an us-versus-them political controversy in which Trumpers perversely oppose masks as an act of freedom and a sign of loyalty to Trump. Pence directly fueled those sentiments at the debate.

Page questioned Pence about the recent Rose Garden event for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, which may have been a superspreader event. As Page noted, there were few masks and no social distancing at this shindig. “How can you expect Americans to follow the administration’s safety guidelines to protect themselves from COVID when you at the White House have not been doing so?” she asked Pence (steering clear of Trump’s own infection). 

Pence replied:

Many of the people who were at that event, Susan, actually were tested for coronavirus, and it was an outdoor event, which all of our scientists regularly and routinely advise. The difference here is President Trump and I trust the American people to make choices in the best interest of their health. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris consistently talk about mandates…We’re about freedom and respecting the freedom of the American people.

Pence was supporting the argument of the anti-maskers: don’t tell us what to do, we should be free to wear a mask or not. Not at this point in the debate or any other did the vice president encourage Americans to wear masks and practice social-distancing. In fact, he didn’t even use the word “mask” once. On the national stage, as thousands of Americans continue to die weekly, the head of the White House pandemic task force said absolutely nothing to the American people about what they can do to arrest the continuing spread of COVID-19. This was profound negligence. But it was in keeping with his boss’s conduct. When Trump returned to the White House after being hospitalized, he quickly and irresponsibly whipped off his mask, though he remained contagious and people were in his vicinity. 

Not only did Pence not engage in the most basic act of leadership at the debate; he belittled Biden and Harris for considering a mask mandate. He depicted a sound and easy-to-implement public health policy that could save lives (and help revive the economy) as an assault on freedom. This was a continuation of Trump’s not-too-silent war on masks. For the fools who gather at Trump rallies without wearing masks or who cause scenes at big box stores when asked to put one on, Trump and Pence are on their side. The anti-maskers can view the words and actions of these two men as reasons to continue their pandemic-fueling conduct. 

There was so much that Pence did wrong at the debate. In a scoundrel’s move, he equated criticism of the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic with criticism of “the American people” and “the sacrifices the American people have made.” He interrupted Harris repeatedly (yet not as much as Trump interrupted Biden). He told multiple lies, including claiming that Trump has “always” been truthful about the pandemic. He insisted Trump has a plan to protect pre-existing conditions for health insurance, though no plan has been released and the Trump-Pence administration is suing in federal court to strike down the law that does protect patients with preexisting conditions. He slavishly defended Trump, at one point proclaiming, “This is a president who respects and cherishes all of the American people.” Does anyone believe that? 

Much of Pence’s malfeasance at the debate was the usual political spin. But his great sin was failing to use the event to help the nation combat the pandemic. Instead, the vice president provided ammo to those Trump supporters who believe the pandemic is a hoax and masks are not necessary. In this way, he gave aid and comfort to the virus. Pence was a traitor to his own task force.


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