Over the course of her career, Kamala Harris has been a district attorney, an attorney general, a U.S. senator and now a vice presidential candidate. But on Wednesday night, in her debate against Vice President Mike Pence, she reverted—powerfully and persuasively—to the job she held when she just out of law school some 30 years ago: prosecutor.
At times, the debate, held at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, resembled a courtroom, with Harris treating the audience at home like a jury to be won over, charming them with an easy smile and a relaxed presence while skillfully filleting her opponent with an arsenal of killer lines.
Perhaps her best moment came right out of the gate, when the moderator Susan Page, the White House bureau chief of USAToday, asked about the Trump administration's response to the coronavirus. Harris went right for the jugular.
“The American people have witnessed what is the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country,” Harris said as a split screen showed Mike Pence staring impassively into the distance. Citing the tapes recorded by Bob Woodward for his book Rage, Harris reiterated the charge that President Trump knew about the seriousness of the virus as early as February but downplayed it to the American public, an act of deception that has cost more than 200,000 lives. “They knew what was happening and they didn’t tell you,” she said. “They knew and they covered it up.”
Harris said that by bungling its response to the pandemic. “This administration has forfeited their right to re-election."
In an evening marked by a few bizarre moments – including a fly that landed on Pence's head and stayed there for several minutes – and widespread speculation on social media that a pinkish-looking left eye may have indicated that the vice president was carrying the COVID-19 virus, here are eight of the other key takeaways from Wednesday night's debate.A killer smile and “I'm speaking”
After last week's presidential debate, when Trump aggressively and repeatedly interrupted Joe Biden, the VP debate was a bit more of a genteel encounter. But Pence did start to interrupt Harris more frequently as the evening progressed. In return, Harris flashed a wide, not entirely sincere, smile, and said evenly, “Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking. I’m speaking.”
It was phrase, always accompanied by that smile, that Harris repeated several times over the course of the evening, and one that seemed to resonant with many of the women watching at home.
And while “I'm speaking," may not have had the punch of the best line from last week's presidential debate, “Will you shut up, man,” it seemed as though it might have the same commercial potential. The New York Times reported that within minutes,"the phrase was all over merchandise being sold on the online marketplace Etsy." The paper added, “Variations of it showed up on T-shirts, mugs, face masks and laptop decals.”Super-spreader event? What super-spreader event?
As expected, Page asked Pence about the Rose Garden event on Sept.26 held to announce the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, after which more than 30 people tested positive for the coronavirus, including the president and first lady and two senators on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Page noted that Pence sat in the front row of the event, “at which there was no social distancing, few masks and now a cluster of coronavirus cases among those who were there,” and then asked, “How can you expect Americans to follow the administration's safety guidelines to protect themselves from Covid, when you at the White House are not doing so?”
“That Rose Garden event, there's been a great deal of speculation about it,” Pence responded. “My wife and I were honored to be there. Many people there were tested for coronavirus, and it was an outdoor event which all of our scientists regularly and routinely advise.” (Fact check: Almost everyone at that event was mask-less, even as they sat inches from each other, and then many of them moved indoors, again without putting on a mask, for a reception at which White House photos show that they hugged and embraced each other and engaged in close-up conversations.)
Then Pence, as he did throughout the evening, deflected the actual question, saying instead, “President Trump and I trust the American people to make choices in the best interests of their health. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris consistently talk about mandates, and not just mandates with the coronavirus, but a government takeover of health care … We're about freedom and respecting the freedom of the American people."
Pence's non-answer answer was an open invitation for the former prosecutor to move in with a skillful cross-examination. “Let's talk about respecting the American people," Harris stated. “You respect the American people when you tell them the truth.” Then referring again to the knowledge the administration had back in January about the potential danger of coronavirus, knowledge they kept to themselves, she looked directly into the camera (i.e, the jury box), referred to people losing jobs, forced to stand on food lines and still uncertain if their children would be able to go back to school and said “The American people have had to sacrifice far too much because of the ineptitude of this administration.”Who is really packing the court?
Both candidates were asked about the rush by Republican senators to try to confirm the Supreme Court nomination of Barrett before Election Day and the controversy that strategy has caused. Harris again stated the position of the Democrats: that the nomination should be put on hold until after the people have the chance to select a new president. “Joe has been very clear, as the American people are, let the American people fill that seat in the White House, and then we’ll fill that seat on the United States Supreme Court,” Harris said.
Pence responded by accusing the Democratic Party of wanting to expand the size of the Supreme Court if they are unable to block the Barrett nomination. “Are you and Joe Biden going to pack the court if Judge Amy Coney Barrett is confirmed?" Biden said, “Your party is actually openly advocating adding seats to the Supreme Court, which has had nine seats for 150 years, if you don’t get your way. This is a classic case of if you can’t win by the rules, you’re going to change the rules.”
Harris refused to get pulled into that debate, several times avoiding Pence's direct questions about “packing the Court." Instead, she pivoted with another well-timed zinger. “Do you know that of the 50 people who President Trump appointed to the court of appeals for lifetime appointments, not one is Black?,” she said, glaring over at Pence, “You want to talk about packing a court; let’s have that discussion.”Once again, a refusal to commit to a peaceful transfer of power
As President Trump was last week, Vice President Pence was asked by the moderator if he would accept the Nov.3 election results, no matter the outcome, and commit to a peaceful transfer of power. The obvious answer, of course, is “Yes." But neither man uttered that simple word. Instead, Pence said, “Well, Susan, first and foremost, I think we're going to win this election." He added, “I believe in all my heart, the President Donald Trump is going to be reelected for four more years.”
Then Pence went into a rambling stump speech: "While Joe Biden and Kamala Harris rattle off a long litany of the establishment in Washington, DC, that Joe Biden has been a part of for 47 years, President Donald Trump has launched a movement of everyday Americans from every walk of life. And I have every confidence that the same Americans that delivered the historic victory in 2016, they see this."
As she did all evening, Page failed to press Pence to actually answer the question she had just asked him, and instead pivoted to Harris, asking what she and Joe Biden would do if their opponents refused to accept the election results. She deflected as well, saying, “I’d like to say to everybody, vote. Please vote. Vote early, come up with a plan to vote.” Harris added: “We have it within our power in these next 27 days to make the decision about what will be the course of our country for the next four years. And it is within our power and if we use our vote and our voice, we will win.”
Page's inability to press the candidates, particularly Pence, to answer the questions, and her insistence on trying to stick to strict time limits, even when the exchanges between the two seemed on the verge of getting interesting (it's called a debate for a reason) drew criticism on social media and even calls for the entire debate structure to be overhauled.A clash over “systemic racism” and the Breonna Taylor case
“In the case of Breonna Taylor, was justice done?” Page asked both candidates.
“I don't believe so,” Harris said. "Her family deserves justice. ... Her life was taken unjustifiably and tragically and violently,"
“I trust our justice system,” Pence said moments later, citing a grand jury decision not to indict the Louisville police officer in the killing of Taylor. "And it really is remarkable as a former prosecutor, you would assume that an impaneled grand jury looking at all the evidence got it wrong."
In her response, Harris spoke about the need for police reform and the protests that have touched cities across the country. Pence spent much of his answer talking about looting and rioting and denying that racism was a systematic issue in police departments around the country.
“There’s no excuse to what happened to George Floyd and justice will be served, but there is also no excuse for the rioting and looting,” Pence said. Pence mentioned that he had brought to the debate a business owner whose salon burned down during protests in Minneapolis. “Just a few weeks ago, I stood at what used to be her salon. It was burned to the ground by rioters and looters,” Pence said.
He then denied issues of police violence disproportionately impacted Black and brown Americans, adding “And this presumption that you hear from Joe Biden and Kamala Harris that America is systemically racist … is a great insult to the men and women who serve in law enforcement.”
Harris responded: “I will not sit here and be lectured by the vice president on what it means to enforce the laws of our country," adding, “I'm the only one on this stage who has personally prosecuted everything from child sexual assault to homicide.” She then referred back to the presidential debate, saying, ”We're talking about an election in 27 days where last week the president of the United States took a debate stage in front of 70 million Americans and refused to condemn white supremacists.”
“Not true,” Pence muttered.“They're coming for you”
Discussing the Affordable Care Act, which she pointed out that Donald Trump was now in court “trying to get rid of," Harris issued a stark warning. “If you have a pre-existing condition — heart disease, diabetes, breast cancer — they're coming for you,” she said, while the vice president shook his head and said, "Not so, not so." Harris continued: "If you love someone who has a pre-existing condition, they're coming for you. If you're under the age of 26 on your parents' coverage, they're coming for you."
Pence responded, “Obamacare was a disaster,” and claimed that “President Trump and I have a plan to improve health care.” But that is what the administration has been claimed for almost four years now, and has yet to produce a plan. Once again, Pence offered no specifics.It's all about Donald Trump
Although the president wasn't on stage Wednesday night, he seemed determined to be part of the news cycle anyway, posting on his Twitter feed a few hours before the debate another bizarre video about his coronavirus status. This one was a definite head-scratcher.
“I think this was a blessing from God that I caught it,” Trump said of the virus in the nearly five-minute video. Speaking of his admission to Walter Reed Hospital on Friday, he said, “I wasn't feeling so hot.” But then, he added, “within a very short period of time, they gave me Regeneron”—an experimental drug not made available to any of the 210,000 Americans who have so far lost their lives to Covid. “And it was like, unbelievable, I felt better immediately.”
In his video, Mr. Trump suggested that the treatments could soon be authorized for emergency use, a potentially risky move because it could allow the treatments to become widely used before they have been proven to work. “We've authorized it." he said, without offering any specifics or follow-up. "I've authorized it. And if you're in the hospital and you're feeling really bad, I think we're going to work it to where you're going to get them and you're going to get them free. And especially if you're a senior, we're going to get you in there quick."
Then, on Thursday morning, as the cable talk shows were dominated by discussions about the vice presidential debate, Trump went on Fox Business News to announce that he would not participate in next week's scheduled presidential debate because it was now going to be held virtually. "I am not going to do a virtual debate," Trump told the network. "I am not going to waste my time on a virtual debate."