The Salt Lake City debate was a less chaotic affair when compared to September’s first meeting between Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden. But there were traces of that event in Pence’s delivery of some of the same lines that the President often repeats.
Harris, too, made some claims that were misleading or lacked context, but those paled in comparison to the litany of statements from Pence that were either untrue or needed additional context.
Coronavirus and the Trump administration’s response dominated the start of the debate and was referenced throughout, and the threat of the virus — due to the plexiglass barriers separating each desk — was apparent before either candidate spoke a word. The rivals also argued over economic recovery, the future of health care in America and the importance of tackling the climate crisis.
CNN’s team watched. Here are the facts.
Pence: Trump ‘always’ truthful on Covid
Pence claimed that the Trump White House has “always” told the truth about Covid-19.
“Let’s talk about respecting the American people. You respect the American people when you tell them the truth,” Harris said. Pence then interjected, “Which we’ve always done.”
Facts First: That’s false. The Trump administration has not “always” been truthful about the pandemic.
CNN’s fact-check reporter Daniel Dale called this “a whopper of a lie.” That’s because Trump has made hundreds of false claims during the pandemic, including false claims about his travel restrictions, Covid-19 testing, the effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine, the national stockpile of ventilators, and more. In recent weeks, Trump even lied about lying about the virus.
Trump has also admitted, in a series of interviews with Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward, that he concealed the true threat of the coronavirus from the American public earlier this year. Trump said, “I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”
— Marshall Cohen
Harris: Trump called Covid a ‘hoax’
“The President said it was a hoax,” Harris claimed in criticizing the administration’s downplaying of the coronavirus.
Harris is likely referring to Trump’s comments during a February rally, which the Biden campaign portrayed as Trump calling the coronavirus a “hoax” in a September campaign ad.
Facts First: This is misleading. Taken in totality, Trump’s comments at the February 28 rally indicate that he is deriding Democrats for attacking his performance on the coronavirus. A full 56 seconds pass between the two clips the campaign ad edited together.
In this section of his rally speech, Trump began by saying that “the Democrats are politicizing the coronavirus,” ridiculing Democrats for attacking his administration’s performance addressing the virus. The President then compared this attack to the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election and calling his impeachment a “hoax.”
Trump then said, “They’d been doing it since you got in. It’s all turning. They lost. It’s all turning. Think of it. Think of it. And this is their new hoax.”
Here is what Trump said in full:
“Now the Democrats are politicizing the coronavirus — you know that right? Coronavirus. They’re politicizing it. We did one of the great jobs. You say, “How’s President Trump doing?” They go, “Oh, not good, not good.” They have no clue. They don’t have any clue. They can’t even count their votes in Iowa. They can’t even count. No, they can’t. They can’t count their votes.
One of my people came up to me and said, “Mr. President, they tried to beat you on Russia, Russia, Russia. That didn’t work out too well. They couldn’t do it. They tried the impeachment hoax. That was on a perfect conversation. They tried anything. They tried it over and over. They’d been doing it since you got in.” It’s all turning. They lost. It’s all turning. Think of it. Think of it. And this is their new hoax.”
The next day Trump was asked about this comment and tried to clarify what he said, claiming he was “referring to the action that [the Democrats] take to try and pin this on somebody, because we’ve done such a good job. The hoax is on them.”
That said, Trump’s clarification has not stopped some of his supporters from believing the pandemic is, in fact, a hoax. One Trump supporter attending a campaign rally in Michigan on September 10 was asked by CNN’s Jim Acosta why he was not wearing a mask. “Because there’s no Covid,” he said. “It’s a fake pandemic created to destroy the United States of America.”
— Holmes Lybrand
Pence: Amy Coney Barrett nomination event held outdoors
Pence said the event announcing Judge Amy Coney Barrett as Trump’s Supreme Court nominee was an “outdoor event.”
“That Rose Garden event, there’s been a great deal of speculation about it. My wife Karen and I were there and honored to be there,” he said. “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.”
Facts First: Pence’s answer is misleading because, while part of September 26’s events were held in the Rose Garden, there were also smaller, private gatherings inside the White House that did not include the mask-wearing or social distancing that public health experts have advised is essential to stopping the spread of the virus.
Before heading to the Rose Garden, some attendees gathered inside the White House reception rooms, where there were hugs and handshakes. Afterward, dozens of attendees gathered inside the White House’s Diplomatic Reception Room and the adjoining hallway. The reception lasted between 30 and 45 minutes, one source with knowledge of the event told CNN. CNN was told the attendees did not wear masks. Pictures of the event taken by New York Times photographer Doug Mills and White House photographer Andrea Hanks show no social distancing, with some people talking very closely together. One image shows first lady Melania Trump, Barrett and her family posing shoulder-to-shoulder and directly behind Trump in the Oval Office.
Attendees were tested on arrival, but some have since tested positive. Republican Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Thom Tillis of North Carolina — who sat three seats apart in the second row during the outdoor ceremony, separated by other senators — each said on Friday that they had tested positive. The President’s former counselor, Kellyanne Conway, who was seated directly behind the first lady at the event, and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie also have said they tested positive after the event. The president of the University of Notre Dame, where Barrett teaches, was also diagnosed with coronavirus. He sat three seats away from Conway — right behind the nominee’s young children.
— Caroline Kelly, Dana Bash, Kevin Bohn and Kevin Liptak
Harris: Trump ‘got rid of’ White House pandemic office
Pence and Harris briefly rehashed a dispute that has been a part of the political wrangling over Covid-19 — whether or not the Trump White House disbanded an Obama-era pandemic team.
Harris said the Obama administration “created within the White House, an office that basically was responsible for monitoring pandemics” and claimed that the Trump administration “got rid of it.” Pence responded, “Not true.”
Facts First: That the Trump administration got rid of the office is true, but it’s complicated. The White House pandemic team was disbanded under Trump, but some of the public health officials on the team were kept onboard and reassigned to related roles. It’s impossible to know if this move led to the bungled US response to Covid-19, but many leading public health experts have said the US was better off with the pandemic team intact.
Two things are clear: Number one, the Obama administration created a specific team on the National Security Council to handle pandemic preparation and global health. Number two, that team no longer exists.
The official who was in charge, Rear Adm. Timothy Ziemer, departed in 2018. Around that time, John Bolton became Trump’s new national security adviser and reshuffled the NSC, which included changes to the pandemic team. CNN previously reported that another official with a similar purview has less authority than Ziemer had before he left.
Regarding the fate of the White House pandemic team, it depends on who you ask. Trump critics and former Obama administration officials say the team was fired, eliminated or disbanded. Trump and his conservative allies say the group was streamlined, reorganized or reassigned.
Beth Cameron, who led the pandemic team after it was created by the Obama White House, said Trump “dissolved” the office and that this move significantly hampered the US response to Covid-19. Tim Morrison, who oversaw the new operation in the Trump administration, said the merged group of NSC officials was “stronger because related expertise could be commingled.”
— Marshall Cohen
Pence: Biden called China travel ban ‘xenophobic’
Pence claimed that Biden called Trump’s travel restrictions on China “xenophobic.”
“Biden opposed that decision. He said it was xenophobic,” Pence said.
Facts First: This needs context. It’s not clear Biden even knew about Trump’s China travel restrictions when he called Trump xenophobic on the day the restrictions were unveiled; Biden has never explicitly linked his accusation of xenophobia to these travel restrictions.
The campaign says Biden’s January 31 accusations — that Trump has a record of “hysterical xenophobia” and “fear mongering” — were not about the travel restrictions at all. The campaign says Biden did not know about the restrictions at the time of his speech, since his campaign event in Iowa started shortly after the Trump administration briefing where the restrictions were revealed by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar.
Given the timing of Biden’s remarks, it’s not unreasonable for Pence to infer that the former vice president was talking about the travel restrictions. But Biden never took an explicit position on the restrictions until his April declaration of support.
You can read more about Biden’s comments here.
— Holmes Lybrand
Harris: Trump and Pence knew severity of pandemic on Jan. 28
Harris said that Trump knew about the threat of the coronavirus weeks before it took hold in the United States, noting that “on January 28th, the vice president and the President were informed about the nature of this pandemic.”
Facts First: This is true. Trump told journalist Bob Woodward how deadly the virus was in a February 7 interview, and Woodward reported that the President had been briefed on the serious threat the virus posed on January 28.
Woodward reported that Trump’s national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, told the President in a classified briefing that coronavirus would be the “biggest national security threat” of his presidency. Trump’s head “popped up,” Woodward reported.
Pence told Fox News he was also at the January 28 national security briefing.
— Jeremy Herb
Pence: Trump banned all travel from China
Pence claimed Trump “suspended all travel from China” in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Facts First: This is false. While Trump did restrict travel from China, his policy was not an actual “ban”: It made exemptions for travel by US citizens, permanent residents, many of the family members of both groups and some others.
The New York Times reported in April that nearly 40,000 people had flown to the US from China since the restrictions went into effect in early February.
You can read more here about the travel restrictions Trump imposed on China here.
Pence: There will be a vaccine by year’s end
Pence gave Americans hope that there would be a coronavirus vaccine by the end of the year. “The reality is, we will have a vaccine, we believe, before the end of this year, and it will have the capacity to save countless American lives and your continuous undermining of confidence in a vaccine is just unacceptable,” Pence said.
Facts First: This needs context.
Though there are several vaccine candidates in different phases of testing, there is no guarantee that the US Food and Drug Administration will have approved a vaccine by the end of the year. And even once one is approved, it will likely still be many months before it’s widely available across the US.
In interviews in September, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci, made it clear that vaccine timeline projections are just that — projections — and it will take until next year before vaccines are widely distributed. “By the time you mobilize the distribution of the vaccinations, and you get the majority, or more, of the population vaccinated and protected, that’s likely not going to happen to the mid or end of 2021,” Fauci told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell.
— Jen Christensen
Harris: 1 in 5 businesses closed because of Covid
The pandemic has devastated the American economy. Harris said “1 in 5 businesses closed.”
Facts First: This needs context. Harris is correct based on a June survey from the US Chamber of Commerce, but there’s little real-time data on small business closures and it’s hard to tell how many have permanently shuttered because of the pandemic.
The MetLife & US Chamber of Commerce Small Business Coronavirus Impact Poll from June found that 1 in 5 small businesses were closed, with 19% of them shuttered temporarily and only 1% closed permanently. Most businesses said then that they believe it will take some time to return to normal operations but that they will reopen.
In July, the same poll found that 86% of small business reported that they were fully or partially open. At the same time, 58% of respondents to the survey worried that their businesses would have to permanently close due to the impact of the pandemic.
A Washington Post analysis of a survey by researchers at Harvard, the University of Illinois and the University of Chicago said that 100,000 small businesses had permanently shut from March to May.
— Anneken Tappe
Harris: Biden won’t raise taxes on those making less than $400K
Harris said that Biden would not raise taxes on anyone earning less than $400,000 a year.
Facts First: This needs context and depends a lot on how you define taxes.
At least two economic models show that Biden’s plan would not raise taxes on those earning less than $400,000 when considering direct income and payroll taxes. That includes analyses from the bipartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget and the Penn Wharton Budget Model.
But the story is different when considering indirect taxes and the impact of other Biden proposals. Workers might bear some of the cost of his proposal to raise corporate taxes — resulting in lower after-tax wages. Another proposal from Biden to change 401(k)s could reduce the tax benefits of contributing to those accounts for some taxpayers.
— Katie Lobosco
Pence: Trump has a health care plan to protect pre-existing conditions
When asked about the future of American health care at the debate, Pence said, “President Trump and I have a plan to improve health care and to protect pre-existing conditions for every American.”
Facts First: This is false. The Trump administration, along with Republicans in Congress, have long promised a plan to replace the Affordable Care Act and that they would also protect people with pre-existing conditions. However, the President has yet to put forth a concrete plan that will provide the same strong provisions that currently exist under the ACA.
In fact, the President is supporting a lawsuit brought by a coalition of Republican attorneys general that could topple the landmark health reform law and its provisions that ban insurers from denying coverage or charging higher premiums based on consumers’ pre-existing conditions. The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in the case on November 10, a week after the election.
Trump signed an executive order in September that stated that it’s US policy that people who suffer from pre-existing conditions will be protected. However, this is not actually a plan.
Later in the debate, when asked directly to explain the administration’s health care plan, Pence switched topics.
— Tami Luhby
Pence: Green New Deal is on Biden’s campaign site
Pence said that “while Joe Biden denied the Green New Deal… the Green New Deal is on their campaign website.”
Facts First: This is true but needs context. Biden’s campaign website does say the resolution is a “crucial framework” for addressing climate change, but his own plan differs from it in several ways. In particular, Biden’s plan does not include some of the Green New Deal’s proposed economic actions, such as guaranteeing a job for every American.
After lauding the “framework” of the Green New Deal, Biden’s campaign webpage on the environment lays out the bullet points of the candidate’s own plan to combat climate change, which includes items like building out energy-efficient infrastructure and setting a goal for the US to reach zero emissions by 2050.
While the two plans overlap on some environmental objectives, Biden’s plan does not include many of the social welfare proposals of the Green New Deal. For instance, he is not calling for a guaranteed job for each American with family and medical leave and paid vacations, as the deal proposes.
In other ways, the proposals differ less dramatically. Biden’s plan also has a goal of creating a carbon-pollution-free energy sector by 2035, whereas the Green New Deal proposed reaching 100% clean power in 10 years.
— Holmes Lybrand
Pence: Biden wants to ban fracking
Pence claimed that the Biden campaign wants to “ban fracking.”
Facts First: This is misleading. Biden is not running on a proposal to completely ban fracking (hydraulic fracturing, a drilling method used to extract natural gas or oil). However, there is at least some basis for Pence’s claim: During the Democratic primary, Biden sometimes suggested he was proposing to get rid of all fracking. He’s also pledged to “establish an enforcement mechanism to achieve net-zero emissions no later than 2050,” which would almost certainly require a significant reduction in fracking.
Biden’s written plan never included a full ban on fracking; rather, it proposes “banning new oil and gas permitting on public lands and waters,” not ending all new fracking anywhere or ending all existing fracking on public lands and waters. Biden has explicitly said he does not support a nationwide fracking ban (though in part because he doesn’t believe such a ban would pass).
Biden created confusion about his stance with some of his comments during the Democratic primary. For example, he had this exchange with CNN’s Dana Bash during a July 2019 debate:
Bash: “Thank you, Mr. Vice President. Just to clarify, would there be any place for fossil fuels, including coal and fracking, in a Biden administration?”
Biden: “No, we would — we would work it out. We would make sure it’s eliminated and no more subsidies for either one of those, either — any fossil fuel.”
Could a president even ban fracking alone? No.
Without an act of Congress, the president could not issue an outright ban on fracking across the US. There are, however, a number of regulatory and executive actions an administration could take to prevent or shrink the use of fracking technology, particularly on federal land. However, most fracking takes place on private land, and any attempts to limit it would likely face legal challenges.
— Holmes Lybrand
Pence: Harris said she would ban fracking
Pence said Harris had previously supported a ban on fracking.
“You yourself said on multiple occasions when you were running for president that you would ban fracking,” he claimed.
Facts First: It’s true Harris voiced support for a ban on fracking during her primary run, starting with public lands.
During a CNN town hall in September 2019, Harris was asked if she would “commit to implementing a federal ban on fracking your first day in office.”
“There’s no question I’m in favor of banning fracking,” Harris said. “So yes. And starting with what we can do on day one around public lands. And then there has to be legislation.”
The Biden campaign’s written plan, however, proposes “banning new oil and gas permitting on public lands and waters,” and does not include a full ban on fracking.
— Holmes Lybrand
Pence: Obama administration emptied Strategic National Stockpile
Pence claimed the Obama administration “left the Strategic National Stockpile empty.”
Facts First: This is misleading.
The Strategic National Stockpile was not empty before the coronavirus pandemic. For example, the stockpile contains enough smallpox vaccines for every American, among other medical resources.
While Trump isn’t wrong to suggest he inherited a depleted stockpile of some medical supplies — the stockpile of masks, for example, was drained and not replenished by the Obama administration — it was not completely empty; he inherited significant quantities of other supplies. Congress repeatedly did not pay for the stockpile to be replenished. And Trump had three years in office to build depleted stockpiles back up.
A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services also confirmed to CNN in late June that there had been about 19,000 ventilators in the national stockpile for “many years,” including 16,660 ventilators that were ready for immediate use in March 2020; the spokesperson confirmed that none of those 16,660 were purchased by the Trump administration.
You can read a longer fact check here.
— Tara Subramaniam