• Wed. Jan 20th, 2021

Vice presidential debate 2020: Fact-checking Harris and Pence

Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., have taken the debate stage Wednesday at the University of Utah’s Kingsbury Hall in Salt Lake City. They faced off after a contentious presidential debate last week and after President Donald Trump was diagnosed with Covid-19. The administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic was a heated topic but, in general, the event proved far more civil that the first presidential debate.

NBC News is fact-checking live the claims made by both Harris and Pence. Check back for all the latest updates and visit the debate live blog for full coverage.

Did Trump ‘cut taxes across the board,’ as Pence claimed?

This claim from Pence a bit earlier is true, but he’s leaving out key details when he emphasized the gains made by “hard-working, blue-collar Americans.”

Yes, working families likely did get a modest tax cut in the tax reform Trump signed into law in 2017, but the biggest beneficiaries of the tax bill are corporations, which have permanent cuts while individual tax cuts expire in 2025.

Did Harris co-sponsor Green New Deal, and does Biden support it?

The Green New Deal came up frequently during the debate, with Pence pointing out that Harris was “the first Senate co-sponsor of the Green New Deal” and that the proposal “is on their campaign website.”

These claims are both true.

The Green New Deal is an ambitious and comprehensive environmental justice policy plan supported by progressives like Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. In her capacity as California’s junior senator, Harris was a co-sponsor of the original bill.

And while Biden doesn’t explicitly support the Green New Deal, his own plans borrow very heavily from it — making his aggressive denials ring false.

Over the summer, Biden released a $2 trillion plan that emphasized building new energy-efficient infrastructure projects and cutting fossil fuel emissions.

Under his plan, Biden would, if elected, increase clean energy use in various areas (including transportation, electricity and buildings) and have the U.S. achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 at the latest. The plan would also create 10 million clean energy jobs, according to his campaign website, with a focus on renewable energy, small nuclear reactors and grid energy storage, among other initiatives.

Biden’s plans adopt many of the same pillars of the Green New Deal. And as Pence noted, one of his campaign documents even says, “Biden believes the Green New Deal is a crucial framework for meeting the climate challenges we face.” Biden’s plans would, however, omit some of the Green New Deal’s more controversial elements, such as “Medicare for All,” a federal jobs guarantee and a strict zero-carbon emissions mandate.

Did Harris attack a judicial nominee for being a member of Knights of Columbus?

Pence accused Harris of having “attacked” a judicial nominee “because they were a member of the Catholic Knights of Columbus just because the Knights of Columbus holds pro-life views.”

In December 2018, Harris asked pointed written questions to a judicial nominee about stances the Catholic group Knights of Columbus has held on abortion and same-sex marriage — beliefs shared by many conservative Catholics.

On a written questionnaire for Brian C. Buescher, who was nominated to serve on the U.S District Court in the District of Nebraska, Harris asked about beliefs held by the group, which she described as “an all-male society comprised primarily of Catholic men.”

“Were you aware that the Knights of Columbus opposed a woman’s right to choose when you joined the organization?” she asked in one question.

“Were you aware that the Knights of Columbus opposed marriage equality when you joined the organization?” she asked in another.

In his written responses, Buescher replied that he joined the organization when he was 18 years old and did not recall if the group had taken a position on either issue at that time.

“My membership has involved participation in charitable and community events in local Catholic parishes,” he said.

Buescher also added that he was not involved in the group’s policy-making.

“I have not been involved with drafting policies or positions on behalf of the Knights of Columbus, nor have I been involved in making decisions regarding the activities of the national or international organization,” he said.

Harris was not the only Democrat on the committee to ask about the Knights of Columbus; Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii also pursued a similar line of questioning to the same nominee.

Was Harris 2019’s ‘most liberal member’ of the Senate?

“Newsweek magazine said that Kamala Harris was the most liberal member of the United States Senate in 2019 — more liberal than Bernie Sanders, more liberal than any of the others in the United States Senate,” Pence said.

The vice president got the ranker wrong here. Newsweek didn’t rank members, though the magazine did report on the website GovTrack’s ranking. That website did rank Harris as having the most liberal ideology in 2019, based on analysis of the bills she sponsored with other members, not by reviewing or ranking her individual ideology on the issues.

It’s worth noting that over a longer period of time — from 2015 to 2020, for example — Sanders is ranked as more liberal.

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Could a Covid-19 vaccine could be rolled out by end of year, as Pence claimed?

This claim, which Pence made a bit earlier on in the debate, is true. On Tuesday, the Food and Drug Administration released guidelines for Covid-19 vaccine makers, stating that the companies would need to track tens of thousands of study participants for at least two months to look for any possible safety issues before the agency would consider authorization.

Given the timeline of when phase 3 clinical trials began, the new guidance indicates that the earliest a Covid-19 vaccine might get an emergency use authorization would be the end of November. At the same time, drug companies are manufacturing doses of their vaccines so that they will be ready to go if they receive authorization. One company, Moderna, says it is on track to produce 20 million doses by the end of the year, according to CNBC.

Later, Pence said that five vaccines have entered phase 3 trials in U.S. He’s off by one. Only four have made it to phase 3 so far: Moderna, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, and AstraZeneca. However, the AstraZeneca trial is currently paused in the U.S., following reports of an adverse event in a U.K. participant.

Were Harris and Pence’s claims about manufacturing job losses under Obama and Trump correct?

Pence and Harris just sparred over manufacturing job losses during the Obama and Trump administrations.

Harris claimed that because of Trump’s “so-called trade war with China,” America lost 300,000 manufacturing jobs.

And Pence said that “when Joe Biden was vice president, we lost 200,000 manufacturing jobs.”

Harris’ estimate comes from a 2019 analysis by Moody’s Analytics, which says that “since it began in earnest … the trade war with China has cost an estimated 0.3 percentage point in U.S. real GDP and almost 300,000 jobs.”

The number is a moving target because it’s unclear how Trump’s posture with China will turn out, while the Obama-Biden record has been written, but that was the estimate as of late 2019, before the coronavirus upended the American economy.

Pence’s claim is true, by the numbers. But there’s a bit more to the story.

When Barack Obama took office in January 2009, the number of manufacturing jobs in the United States was about 12.56 million, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. By January 2017, that number was 12.37 million.

That means there were about 192,000 jobs fewer manufacturing jobs when Obama left office than when he became president. But it wasn’t a decline in a straight line. Manufacturing jobs were already plummeting when Obama took office, and they fell by another 1.1 million until March 2010, when they started to rebound.

The Obama White House argued in 2016 that, because Obama had inherited an economy in freefall, the administration should be judged instead by how many manufacturing jobs were added between the low point of the recession to the end of his presidency, about 900,000 jobs.

When the Obama administration made that argument in 2016, though, other fact-checkers dinged it as “cherry-picking” the data.

Did Obama and Biden leave the national stockpile empty, as Pence claimed?

“They left the strategic national stockpile empty,” Pence claimed.

We’ve fact checked this before, and it is false.

Reporters saw warehouses full of supplies shortly before Trump’s inauguration, and former government officials confirm the stockpile had sizable stores of supplies on hand.

Those same officials report that while sequestration-related budget cuts did reduce the stockpile’s stores lower than they wanted, the national stockpile was far from empty when Trump took office nearly four years ago. They also told NBC News that they’d left detailed plans for refilling the stockpile and preparing for a potential pandemic — plans they believe were ignored.

Would a Biden administration ban fracking, as Pence claims?

Pence claimed repeatedly that Biden and his vice president will, if elected, ban fracking.

Harris voiced support for banning fracking when she was running for president, but Biden has not — though his position is complicated.

Biden has repeatedly said he will not ban fracking; the policies he has released only call for no new fracking on federal lands. His policy also allows for existing fracking on federal lands to continue, and existing and new fracking on privately owned land to continue.

Biden, however, has also called for net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 — a plan that would include a systematic departure from the use of fossil fuels, which has implications for fracking. Biden hasn’t explicitly said how or when that move away from fossil fuels would affect fracking, but Trump has used the proposal to tell audiences, inaccurately, that his opponent wants to ban fracking now.

Hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, is a practice used to tap into natural gas reserves deep below the earth’s surface. It’s a critical issue in states like the battleground of Pennsylvania, where the practice has brought economic prosperity to several once-impoverished areas. It is controversial because many of the chemicals used in the process are toxic to humans and have been known to cause serious health problems in populations near fracking fields.

Did the Trump-Pence White House scrub references to ‘climate change’ from websites?

Harris, during an exchange about climate change, claimed the Trump-Pence administration “took the word ‘science’ off the website” and “took the phrase ‘climate change’ off the website.”

The latter claim is true, the former one is not.

Harris’ claim appears to reference reports from 2018corroborated at the time by NBC News — that references to climate change, greenhouse gases and clean energy were scrubbed from U.S. government websites, including ones under the banners of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy and the State Department.

Is it true that the White House could have done ‘everything right’ and 200,000 Americans still could have died?

Pence claimed Wednesday that, when it came to taking action to combat the Covid-19 pandemic, medical experts including Dr. Deborah Birx and Dr. Anthony Fauci “said that if we did everything right … we could lose more than 200,000 Americans.”

While Birx, tapped to serve on the White House Coronavirus Task Force, did say this, subsequent models said that thousands of those deaths would be preventable.

One widely cited model published in June by scientists at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington showed that about 33,000 American lives would have been saved in the subsequent months if 95 percent of people in the U.S wore masks.

The model was updated in August to show that, if that level of mask wearing occurred, about 66,000 lives could be saved.

The Trump administration has provided conflicting messaging about mask-wearing over the last five months, which has, in turn, sown confusion, hampered the country’s response to the pandemic and led to preventable deaths, public health experts have said. And Trump himself has repeatedly mocked Biden for wearing a mask, including at the presidential debate last month.

Upon his return to the White House from Walter Reed hospital Monday night, Trump even immediately took off his mask to pose for pictures before walking in.

Was the Obama administration’s swine flu response ‘a failure,’ as Pence claimed?

Pence called the Obama-Biden administration’s response to the swine flu “a failure” during the debate.

“Sixty million Americans contracted the swine flu,” Pence said. “His own chief of staff Ron Klain would say last year that it was pure luck, that they did ‘everything possible wrong.’ And we learned from that.”

Pence’s got his details right, including the critique from Klain, though overall the 2009 swine flu response from the federal government was largely considered effective.

Ron Klain, Biden’s former chief of staff, indeed credited luck — and not the Obama administration response — with the fact that the swine flu did not kill more people.

“We did every possible thing wrong — 60 million Americans got H1N1,” he said at a biosecurity summit in May 2019. “It is purely a fortuity that this isn’t one of the great mass casualty events in American history. It had nothing to do with us doing anything right. It just had to do with luck.”

The swine flu is estimated to have killed 12,000 in the U.S., far smaller than the more than 200,000 who have died of Covid-19 to date.

Klain later told Politico his comments referred to the administration’s difficulties producing enough of the vaccine they developed, and argued the Obama team quickly adapted to the pandemic — quickly responding and distributing supplies from the federal stockpile, for example — and made very different choices than the Trump administration.

But it’s worth noting that the Obama administration received generally high marks for its response to the swine flu. While government reports after the fact identified room for growth, they also highlighted successes, like rapid research and development of a vaccine that arrived in less than six months.

Did Trump minimize the seriousness of the coronavirus, as Harris claimed?

“They knew and they covered it up. The president said it was a hoax. They minimized the seriousness of it,” Harris said of the Trump administration’s coronavirus response. Pence is the chair of the White House Coronavirus Task Force.

This is mostly true. Trump did downplay the seriousness and dangers of the pandemic in the earliest days of the pandemic. Here are a sampling of his remarks:

In interviews with the journalist Bob Woodward, Trump revealed he knew the virus was deadly and admitted playing it down.

“You just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed,” Trump told Woodward on Feb. 7, according to The Washington Post. “And so that’s a very tricky one. That’s a very delicate one. It’s also more deadly than even your strenuous flus.”

In a March 19 interview, Trump acknowledged he’d been playing down the threat from the start.

“I wanted to always play it down,” Trump said. “I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”

But Harris misstates Trump’s use of the term hoax, which Trump invoked when he said Democrats “are politicizing the coronavirus.”

Asked a day after his “hoax” remark, Trump again said he was referring to Democrats’ actions.