Fact Check: Debate between Kamala Harris and Mike Pence

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Thursday, October 8, 2020
Vice Presidential Debate Fact Check: Kamala Harris, Mike Pence face off in Salt Lake City
A look at how the running mates' statements from Salt Lake City stack up with the facts.

WASHINGTON -- Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris tussled Wednesday in the first and only vice presidential debate before the Nov. 3 election, coming as the coronavirus sidelined President Donald Trump at the White House.

A look at how the running mates' statements from Salt Lake City stack up with the facts:


PENCE: "President Trump and I have a plan to improve health care and to protect preexisting conditions for all Americans."

THE FACTS: There is no clear plan. People with preexisting conditions are already protected by the Obama-era Affordable Care Act, and if the Trump administration succeeds in persuading the Supreme Court to overturn it, those protections will be jeopardy.

President Donald Trump has signed an executive order declaring it the policy of the U.S. government to protect people with preexisting conditions, but Trump would have to go back to Congress to work out legislation to replace those in "Obamacare."

Various Republican approaches offered in 2017 would have undermined the protections in the ACA, and Trump has not offered details of how his plan would work. Although Trump has been in office nearly four years, he has yet to roll out the comprehensive health proposal he once promised.



HARRIS: "The president said it was a hoax."

THE FACTS: That's misleading.

She's referring to a Feb. 28 campaign rally in South Carolina in which Trump said the phrases "the coronavirus" and "this is their new hoax" at separate points. Although his meaning is difficult to discern, the broader context of his words shows he was railing against Democrats for their denunciations of his administration's coronavirus response.

"Now the Democrats are politicizing the coronavirus," he said at the rally. "You know that, right? Coronavirus. They're politicizing it." He meandered briefly to the subject of the messy Democratic primary in Iowa, then the Russia investigation before returning to the pandemic. "They tried the impeachment hoax. ... And this is their new hoax."

Asked at a news conference the day after the rally to clarify his remarks, Trump said he was not referring to the coronavirus itself as a hoax.

"No, no, no." he said. "'Hoax' referring to the action that they take to try and pin this on somebody, because we've done such a good job. The hoax is on them, not - I'm not talking about what's happening here. I'm talking what they're doing. That's the hoax."


PENCE, on the Sept. 26 Rose Garden event after which more than 11 attendees tested positive for COVID-19: "It was an outdoor event, which all of our scientists regularly and routinely advise."

THE FACTS: His suggestion that the event followed public-health safety recommendations is false. The event, introducing Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, drew more than 150 people and flouted safety recommendations in multiple ways. And it was not all outside.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says large gatherings of people who have traveled from outside the area and aren't spaced at least 6 feet apart pose the greatest risk for spreading the virus.

That's exactly the type of high-risk event the White House hosted.

Guests were seated close together, not 6 feet apart, in rows of chairs outside. Many were captured on camera clapping backs, shaking hands and talking, barely at arm's length.

The CDC also "strongly encourages" people to wear masks, but few in the Rose Garden wore them. There was also a private reception inside the White House following the Rose Garden ceremony, where some politicians, including North Carolina Republican Sen. Thom Tillis, who has since tested positive, were pictured not wearing masks.


PENCE: "He suspended all travel from China, the second-largest economy in the world. Joe Biden opposed that decision, he said it was xenophobic and hysterical."

THE FACTS: Trump's order did not suspend "all travel from China." He restricted it, and Biden never branded the decision "xenophobic." Dozens of countries took similar steps to control travel from hot spots before or around the same time the U.S. did.

The U.S. restrictions that took effect Feb. 2 continued to allow travel to the U.S. from China's Hong Kong and Macao territories for months. The Associated Press reported that more than 8,000 Chinese and foreign nationals based in those territories entered the U.S. in the first three months after the travel restrictions were imposed.

Additionally, more than 27,000 Americans returned from mainland China in the first month after the restrictions took effect. U.S. officials lost track of more than 1,600 of them who were supposed to be monitored for virus exposure.

Biden has accused Trump of having a record of xenophobia but not explicitly in the context of the president's decision to limit travel from China during the pandemic. Trump took to calling the virus the "China virus" and the "foreign virus" at one point, prompting Biden to urge the country not to take a turn toward xenophobia or racism in the pandemic.


PENCE'S CLAIM: "We actually do know what failure looks like in a pandemic: it was 2009, the swine flu arrived in the United States. ... When Joe Biden was vice president of the United States, not 7.5 million people contracted the swine flu, 60 million Americans contracted the swine flu."

FACT CHECK: While Pence is correct that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates the 2009 swine flu pandemic infected an estimated 60.8 million Americans in its first year, it is misleading to compare the two outbreaks given H1N1's far lower fatality rate, and similarly misleading to call the Obama administration's response a "failure."

The CDC estimates up to 575,000 lives were lost to the swine flu worldwide. Of those, fewer than 13,000 were American, due in part to the Obama administration's "complex, multi-faceted and long-term response," the CDC later wrote. Thus far, COVID-19 has taken the lives of over 210,000 Americans, a little over eight months since the first known case of the virus was discovered in the United States.

"The team, in my opinion, in 2009, really demonstrated that the planning was worth it. Nothing is ever perfect. But I felt just so impressed and so proud of the job CDC did in 2009," Dr. Julie Gerberding, a CDC director during the George W. Bush administration, told ABC News.


HARRIS, on the effects of the pandemic: "One in five businesses, closed."

THE FACTS: That's not accurate, as of now. We don't know yet how many businesses have permanently closed - or could do so in the months ahead.

What we do know is that the National Federation of Independent Business said in August that 1 in 5 small businesses will close if economic conditions don't improve in the next six months.

Many small businesses survived in part through the forgivable loans from the Payroll Protection Program. Larger employers such as Disney and Allstate insurance have announced layoffs, as have major airlines. Restaurants that survived the pandemic with outdoor eating will soon face the challenge of cold weather. So it's too soon to tell how many businesses have closed or will.



PENCE: "Joe Biden wants to go back to the economic surrender to China, that when we took office, half of our international trade deficit was with China alone. And Joe Biden wants to repeal all of the tariffs that President Trump put into effect to fight for American jobs and American workers."

THE FACTS: The tariffs were not the win claimed by Pence.

For starters, tariffs are taxes that consumers and businesses pay through higher prices. So Pence is defending tax increases. The tariffs against China did cause the trade deficit in goods with China to fall in 2019. But that's a pyrrhic victory at best as overall U.S. economic growth slowed from 3% to 2.2% because of the trade uncertainty.

More important, the Trump administration has not decreased the overall trade imbalance. For all trading partners, the Census Bureau said the trade deficit was $576.9 billion last year, nearly $100 billion higher than during the last year of Barack Obama's presidency.


HARRIS, on Trump's tax cuts: "On Day 1, Joe Biden will repeal that tax bill."

THE FACTS: No, that's not what Biden proposes. He would repeal some of it. Nor can he repeal a law on his own, much less on his first day in office. Harris also said Biden will not raise taxes on people making under $400,000. If he were to repeal the Trump tax cuts across the board, he would be breaking that promise.


PENCE'S CLAIM: "When President Trump and I took office, America had gone through the slowest economic recovery since the great depression. ... We're going through a pandemic that lost 22 million jobs at the height, we've already added back 11.6 million jobs."

FACT CHECK: With September's jobs report, over 11.4 million jobs have been added since March. But job gains have slowed in the past three months, showing the recovery is starting to lose momentum.

In September, 661,000 jobs were added, which was worse than expectations. The unemployment rate also declined to 7.9%, better than expectations.

The jobs number represented a significant slowdown in the number of jobs added since the economy started opening up after the pandemic induced shutdown.

Airlines such as United and American notified over 30,000 employees that they would be laid off or furloughed because the federal aid expired. Disney, the parent company of ABC News, announced it was eliminating 28,000 theme park jobs in Florida and California, and Cineworld, parent company of Regal Cinemas, the second-largest theater chain in the United States, said Monday that it will close all of its U.S. and U.K. theaters indefinitely, affecting 45,000 employees. These positions weren't included in the September report.

In September, the number of permanent job losses increased by 345,000 to 3.8 million; this measure has risen by 2.5 million since February.

Though the expansion of the U.S. economy was slow under the start of the Obama administration during the Great Recession, in the final four years GDP growth was at a 2.3%, nearly similar to the 2.5% in the first three years of Trump, according to The Associated Press.



HARRIS' CLAIM: "Joe Biden has been so incredibly transparent, and certainly by contrast, the president has not. Both in terms of health records, but also let's look at taxes. We now know because of great investigative journalism that Donald Trump paid $750 in taxes. When I first heard about it, 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."

PENCE'S CLAIM: "The president said those public reports are not accurate and the president's also released literally stacks of financial disclosures the American people can review just as the law allows."

FACT CHECK: As a presidential candidate in 2016 and as a sitting president since, Donald Trump has released annual financial disclosure reports filed to the Federal Election Commission and the Office of Government Ethics, as required by federal laws. Trump's annual personal financial records, which are nearly 100-page each, show his source of income, other assets, as well as liabilities.

Trump, however, has not released his personal tax records, which is not required by law but has been a decades-long tradition that has been followed by his predecessors in the White House.

Biden and Harris have differentiated themselves from Trump by releasing their federal and state tax returns -- most recently just last week, showing Biden and his wife paid roughly $290,000 in taxes to the federal government in 2019, and Harris and her husband paid about $1.2 million in federal and state taxes last year.

Harris' claim that Trump paid just $750 in taxes comes from The New York Times' recent report. According to the Times, Trump's tax records show that he paid just $750 in federal income taxes the year he ran for president and his first year in the White House.

The report also stated that Trump is personally responsible for loans and other debts totaling $421 million, "with most of it coming due within four years."



PENCE, on the conclusions of special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation: "It was found that there was no obstruction, no collusion. Case closed. And then, Sen. Harris, you and your colleagues in the Congress tried to impeach the president of the United States over a phone call."

THE FACTS: That's a mischaracterization of Mueller's nearly 450-page report and its core findings.

Mueller did not absolve the president of obstructing the investigation into ties between Trump's 2016 campaign and Russia. Instead, his team examined roughly a dozen episodes in which the president sought to exert his will on the probe, including by firing his FBI director and seeking the ouster of Mueller himself. Ultimately, Mueller declined to reach a conclusion on whether Trump had committed a crime, citing Justice Department policy against indicting a sitting president. That's not the same as finding "no obstruction."

On collusion, Mueller said he did not assess whether that occurred because it is not a legal term.

He looked into a potential criminal conspiracy between Russia and the Trump campaign and said the investigation did not collect sufficient evidence to establish criminal charges on that front.



PENCE'S CLAIM: "They want to abolish fossil fuels and ban fracking, which would cost hundreds of thousands of American jobs all across the heartland."

HARRIS' RESPONSE: "I will repeat, and the American people know, that Joe Biden will not ban fracking."

FACT CHECK: While Harris did support banning fracking as a presidential candidate, she has since fallen in line with Biden, who does not want to ban fracking.

Biden has said that he doesn't want to add new fracking on public lands. He wants to move away from fracking to eventually get net-zero emissions. He has also argued that a transition to clear energy is necessary to keep people employed.

Biden's environmental plan calls for an end to fossil fuel subsidies and for a massive investment in clean energy, including training fossil fuel workers for clean energy jobs.

During an address in August, Biden said, "I am not banning fracking. Let me say that again. I am not banning fracking, no matter how many times Donald Trump lies about me."

In July 2019, Biden was asked during a CNN debate if there would be a place for fossil fuels, like coal and fracking, in a Biden administration. "We would make sure it's eliminated," he answered. After his comment, Biden's campaign clarified that he was referring to fracking on public lands.

ABC News and The Associated Press contributed to this report.