This debate didn’t matter. This was the vice presidential debate. This was the showdown of the two candidates for the job of being the designated substitute, quiet and unassuming and unobtrusive, but ready to jump in should something go really wrong with the real star up top. But this year things are different. Many on the left, and in the center, think President Trump is losing it, getting more erratic and more dangerous by the day. He may be quite mad. He’s certainly quite old. He needs to be eased out the door. Even some Republicans see that. And of course Joe Biden is just too old. He’s lost a step, and much more. He’s stopped making sense. Democrats don’t see that, but some fear that is what is happening. Mike Pence might be the next president. Kamala Harris might be the next president. Either scenario is frightening. So this debate might matter.
But this debate opened badly, as Reid Epstein explains here:
President Trump’s handling of the country was the elephant in the room during Wednesday’s vice-presidential debate, but it was a fly, taking a brief break from flying, that couldn’t be ignored by viewers watching the event from home.
Mr. Pence, his hair perfectly coiffed, never reacted to the fly’s appearance on the right side of his head. It stood out against his bright white hair, standing still for the most part but moving around slightly before, well, flying away.
A local TV news reporter from California clocked the fly’s screen time on Mr. Pence’s head at 2 minutes, 3 seconds.
While Mr. Pence spent most of the 90-minute debate avoiding direct questions posed by the moderator, Susan Page of USA Today, the fly brought up a slew of questions of its own.
Who will play the fly on “Saturday Night Live”? Is the fly liable to catch the coronavirus that has infected so many top Trump administration officials? Was the fly breaking debate protocols by not wearing a mask?
On social media, the fly became the biggest star of what came across as “a normal debate,” as CNN’s Jake Tapper put it.
Former Vice President Biden tweeted a photo of himself holding a fly swatter.
But there was a debate. Alexander Burns and Jonathan Martin cover that:
Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris clashed over the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic on Wednesday night, with Mr. Pence defending the White House’s record without addressing its fundamental failures, while Ms. Harris accused him and President Trump of presiding over a catastrophic failure in public-health policy.
Ms. Harris, the California Democrat who is Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s running mate, delivered a comprehensive denunciation of the Trump administration’s policies, ranging from the economy and climate change to health care regulation and taxes.
As Ms. Harris attacked Mr. Trump, the vice president sought to recast Mr. Trump’s record on the pandemic and other issues in conventional and inoffensive terms, often in plain defiance of the facts.
That was obvious:
The vice president made misleading or plainly false claims about White House policies on a range of subjects weighing down Mr. Trump in the presidential race. Mr. Pence claimed that the president had a plan to protect people with pre-existing medical conditions though he does not, hailed the “V-shaped recovery” of the economy in defiance of the latest government data and repeatedly claimed that Mr. Trump would always “follow the science” on climate change though he has spent his term denying the scientific consensus on global warming and dismantling environmental regulations.
But this was a civilized debate. No one called him a liar. Kamala Harris was being careful:
Ms. Harris used the debate to pursue two goals: to reassure voters that she and Mr. Biden are not as liberal as Republicans claim, including by disavowing policies she embraced during the Democratic primaries, and to carry a persistent set of attacks against the Trump administration. With a firm and careful performance aimed at keeping pressure on the Republican ticket rather than transforming the race, Ms. Harris appeared to avoid any misstep that would have given Mr. Pence and his boss the chance to shift voters’ attention away from the public-health issues that have dominated the campaign.
She wasn’t going to try to be a star. This was about Trump, not her. But she could still let it rip:
On no topic was Ms. Harris more assertive in confronting Mr. Pence than the coronavirus: She opened the debate by calling the White House’s response to the disease “the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country” and saying Mr. Pence and Mr. Trump had “forfeited their right to re-election.”
She charged Mr. Pence and the president with dissembling about the cost of the disease as it was first hitting the country. “They knew, and they covered it up,” Ms. Harris said. “The president said it was a hoax. They minimized the seriousness of it.”
It was time for a little tap-dancing:
In a pattern that would endure throughout the debate, Mr. Pence sought to rebut Ms. Harris’s criticism by picking and choosing components of the administration’s response that he could cast in a relatively favorable light, including Mr. Trump’s imposition of a travel ban on China, while talking around the fundamental issue – that the disease has killed hundreds of thousands of Americans and shattered the country’s economy.
He didn’t mention that travel ban didn’t do much good for anyone, but he did what he could:
Mr. Pence grasped for a series of counterattacks to rebut or at least divert attention from the pandemic. He invoked Mr. Biden’s 33-year-old plagiarism scandal. He cited the Obama administration’s response to the less-lethal swine flu and even suggested that Ms. Harris’s criticism of Mr. Trump’s handling of Covid-19 amounted to an attack on the American people.
That last bit, where those who criticize the president somehow hate the America people, was curious, but the rest was just tiresome:
In a familiar ritual for the vice president, Mr. Pence repeatedly spent precious debate minutes arguing that Mr. Trump did not say things that he plainly did. He falsely accused the media of selectively or inaccurately quoting the president on subjects ranging from a 2017 white-supremacist march in Charlottesville, Va., to American war dead to the president’s remarks in a televised debate last week about a domestic extremist group.
As Ms. Harris called the economy “a complete disaster” Mr. Pence sought to shift attention from one of the most tragic years in the country’s history and cast the debate forward.
“The American comeback is on the ballot,” the vice president said, predicting that “2021 is going to be the biggest economic year in the history of the country.”
That seems unlikely, and Josh Marshall adds this:
Mike Pence is a smooth and able politician. But he was mostly going through the motions. He did fine. But Trump’s campaign needed a lot more than fine. The big danger for the Biden campaign was that Pence would open some strong new line of attack against Biden, perhaps doing that by catching Harris out in defending him or failing to do so. Nothing like that happened. When Pence really got traction it was mainly on points that appeal to the Republican base. That’s wasted time.
All of this was wasted time:
You can only evaluate debates in their immediate political context. Here the Trump campaign is running out of time to change the trajectory of the election. They needed Pence to at least start doing that tonight. He didn’t. In context, it was almost as bad a result as the first presidential round, even if Pence turned in a serviceable performance, which he did.
This was beyond repair. Gina Kolata reports this:
Throughout its 208-year history, The New England Journal of Medicine has remained staunchly nonpartisan. The world’s most prestigious medical journal has never supported or condemned a political candidate. Until now.
In an editorial signed by 34 editors who are United States citizens (one editor is not) and published on Wednesday, the journal said the Trump administration had responded so poorly to the coronavirus pandemic that they “have taken a crisis and turned it into a tragedy.”
The journal did not explicitly endorse Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Democratic nominee, but that was the only possible inference, other scientists noted.
The editor in chief, Dr. Eric Rubin, said the scathing editorial was one of only four in the journal’s history that were signed by all of the editors. The editors join those of another influential journal, Scientific American, who last month endorsed Mr. Biden, the former vice president.
Who needs a debate? The scientists spoke, and then the doctors spoke:
In the United States, the journal said, there was too little testing for the virus, especially early on. There was too little protective equipment, and a lack of national leadership on important measures like mask wearing, social distancing, quarantine and isolation.
There were attempts to politicize and undermine the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the journal noted.
As a result, the United States has had tens of thousands of “excess” deaths — those caused both directly and indirectly by the pandemic — as well as immense economic pain and an increase in social inequality as the virus hit disadvantaged communities hardest.
The editorial castigated the Trump administration’s rejection of science, writing, “Instead of relying on expertise, the administration has turned to uninformed ‘opinion leaders’ and charlatans who obscure the truth and facilitate the promulgation of outright lies.”
And then Trump proved the doctors right. Kyle Cheney covers that story:
Donald Trump mounted an overnight Twitter blitz demanding to jail his political enemies and call out allies he says are failing to arrest his rivals swiftly enough.
Trump twice amplified supporters’ criticisms of Attorney General William Barr, including one featuring a meme calling on him to “arrest somebody!” He wondered aloud why his rivals, like President Barack Obama, Democratic nominee Joe Biden and former Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton hadn’t been imprisoned for launching a “coup” against his administration.
“Where are all of the arrests?” Trump said, after several dozen tweets on the subject over the past 24 hours…
All of the arrests were in Stalinist East Berlin, which disappeared many decades ago, but Trump rolled on:
By early afternoon, Trump was letting loose his frustrations in an all-caps missive that seemed aimed at nobody in particular.
“DO SOMETHING ABOUT THIS, THE BIGGEST OF ALL POLITICAL SCANDALS (IN HISTORY)!!! BIDEN, OBAMA AND CROOKED HILLARY LED THIS TREASONOUS PLOT!!! BIDEN SHOULDN’T BE ALLOWED TO RUN – GOT CAUGHT!!!” Trump tweeted.
He wants Biden and Obama in jail, locked up forever, or executed for treason, or something:
The day-long run of tweets and retweets marked the most frantic stretch of Trump’s public activity since he left the presidential suite at Walter Reed Medical Center and returned to treatment at the White House. They also underscored the degree to which Trump remains fixated on his grievances over the Russia probe, and often on obscure aspects of that investigation that are unintelligible to all but its most careful followers.
Since late Tuesday, Trump has vowed to declassify all documents he claims will show improper activity by Obama and his intelligence advisers – before quickly reversing himself and suggesting he had already done so “long ago” – and repeatedly cited Russian intelligence services’ claims that Clinton “stirred up” the Trump-Russia collusion scandal that has dogged his presidency.
He’s pretty hyped-up here, but others kept calm:
A Justice Department spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment about whether Trump had ever directly asked Barr to order the arrest of his rivals or if his tweet suggesting as much had veered into territory that Barr once said made his job “impossible.”
In past interviews, Barr has signaled that he has no intention of prosecuting senior Obama administration officials, though he has cast doubt on the motives behind the Russia probe and launched an investigation into its origins.
In short, let him rant and rave and throw him a bone now and then. Nod in agreement and then do nothing foolish. Let him be him. This isn’t going to change:
Trump has made clear that he remains focused on punishing perceived enemies regardless of the political cost. While recovering at Walter Reed Monday morning, his chief of staff Mark Meadows told Fox News that Trump had kept busy that morning in part by directing the declassification of documents related to the Russia probe – a set of files he claimed were conclusive proof that Clinton had concocted the notion that his campaign team had ties to Russia even though the Senate Intelligence Committee and the special counsel’s team had rejected the allegations as unverified.
In releasing them, Trump’s own hand-picked intelligence chief, John Ratcliffe, acknowledged the documents, sourced to Russian intelligence, might have been “exaggerated” or even “fabricated” to deflect from their culpability in the election interference effort.
But don’t tell Trump. Allow him his little fantasies. That’s where he lives now. Maggie Haberman and Katie Thomas report this:
President Trump claimed on Wednesday that catching the coronavirus was “a blessing from God” and portrayed as a miracle cure the unproven therapeutic drug he was given after testing positive last week for the virus.
Mr. Trump said he planned to make the antibody cocktail being developed by the drug maker Regeneron, which does not yet have government approval, free to anyone who needs it. He did not explain how he would do it, although on Wednesday night, Regeneron said it had submitted an application to the Food and Drug Administration for emergency approval.
The president’s statement, in a video released early Wednesday evening by the White House, was his latest effort to repair the political damage he has suffered after months of trying to minimize the effects of a pandemic that has killed more than 211,000 Americans.
But don’t worry about that:
In remarks he made while he was at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where he was taken by helicopter on Friday night, and then when he returned to the White House on Monday, Mr. Trump did his best to play down the virus’s effects, telling Americans, “Don’t be afraid of it,” and saying that he felt “better than 20 years ago.”
And yes, he had to prove that is so:
In the video released Wednesday night, Mr. Trump, whose skin appeared darkened by makeup and who appeared to struggle to get air at times, seemed to be saying that he had discovered, without evidence, a new drug that suddenly made him feel better and could do the same for everyone else with Covid-19.
“I call that a cure,” said Mr. Trump, adding that everyone should have access to the not-yet-approved drug for “free” and that he would make sure it was in every hospital as soon as possible.
Ah, God sent him back from death, with the cure for this Covid thing:
“I think this was a blessing from God that I caught it,” Mr. Trump said, apparently referring to the fact that he had learned about the benefits of the drug as a result of becoming ill.
But that was God’s plan, or maybe not:
Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease specialist at UCSF Health in San Francisco, said in his opinion, there was “one million percent no” chance that the Regeneron treatment could have cured Mr. Trump in 24 hours, as the president claimed.
Another explanation, he said, is that the president is experiencing the effects of the steroid dexamethasone, which he has been receiving since Saturday, which is known to reduce fever and can create feelings of well-being and euphoria in patients. “This is all in keeping with the dexamethasone speaking,” Dr. Chin-Hong said.
That wasn’t God speaking through Donald Trump? Bummer! And then there’s that vaccine:
The president also used the video as another opportunity to push for the emergency approval of a vaccine before the election, even though the Food and Drug Administration has issued guidelines to companies that would mean meeting such a deadline is not possible. “I think we should have it before the election, but frankly, the politics gets involved, and that’s OK,” he said.
A handful of vaccine makers are testing their candidates in large clinical trials and have said they could have an answer before the end of the year, but they have also made an unusual pledge to not bring their vaccines to market before they are thoroughly vetted.
They’re not going to play along, but Trump had already moved on:
The video was not the only way Mr. Trump tried on Wednesday to put the best spin on his illness.
In midafternoon, he resumed working in the Oval Office, defying the aides who had hoped he would remain in his private quarters in the White House or a work space specially set up him for him because he is sick.
The president had made clear that was his intention from the time he returned from the hospital on Monday. The presence of a Marine guard outside the office shortly after 3 p.m. signaled that he had gotten his wish, flouting the safeguards sought by his aides at a time when a wave of infections has left the White House thinned out of staff.
Perhaps he’s gone mad. That would be new for the nation, and that put Mike Pence on the spot. Matt Flegenheimer and Annie Karni saw this:
Vice President Mike Pence approached his task on Wednesday as he has approached his four years as the executive straight man to an unruly leader: not merely defending President Trump but effectively insisting, with poker-faced conviction, that those who doubt his boss should not believe their eyes and ears.
The trouble this time was not Mr. Pence’s skill set on this front, which remains peerless. It was the fact set underpinning this debate, which remains inconvenient to an administration so overwhelmed by the virus that its own West Wing has become a hot spot.
And so Mr. Pence – stripped of most politically palatable explanations for the White House pandemic response – set off on a curious charge when Senator Kamala Harris said that the Trump team’s leadership “clearly” has not worked: He chose to hear it as a direct affront to the American people.
“When you say what the American people have done over these last eight months hasn’t worked,” Mr. Pence said gravely, as controlled as his president is rambunctious onstage, “that’s a great disservice to the sacrifices the American people have made.”
At last, the strain seemed to be showing, at least a little.
But he had a job to do:
It felt at times like the ultimate test of Mr. Pence’s longstanding exercise in Trump translation for those who might find the president objectionable.
Where others see chaos, the vice president unfurled paeans to Mr. Trump’s purported steadiness. Where experts have faulted the administration for a reckless indifference to medical guidance, Mr. Pence said they had saved many lives. Where skeptics identify Mr. Trump as he appears to them – rash, myopic, consumed with appearances, according to even his own advisers – Mr. Pence dwelled on the president he chooses to see.
“From the very first day,” he maintained, “President Donald Trump has put the health of America first.”
No, that’s not true, and now the man has gone mad. What about that? Someone will need to step up soon. That’s what this debate was about. And it mattered.