The Trump administration’s pandemic response: decisive action that saved lives, or the greatest failure of any presidential administration? During Wednesday’s vice presidential debate, Vice President Mike Pence and the Democratic challenger, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, offered drastically different takes — from behind plexiglass screens — on how the president has handled the COVID-19 crisis.
Pence touted problematic claims, such as that President Donald Trump’s ban on travel from China helped the nation respond to the coronavirus (PolitiFact rated a similar claim “False”) and that the country would have a vaccine in less than a year (the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said a vaccine, yet to be approved, will not be widely available until next year).
Harris said the Trump administration misled the public about how serious the virus is, pointing to briefings Trump and Pence received in January. Trump told journalist Bob Woodward in a recorded interview that he purposely downplayed it.
Our partners at PolitiFact broke down a whole gamut of claims — on fracking, the economic recovery and the Supreme Court. The highlights regarding health care and coronavirus policies follow:
Kamala Harris: “The president said [the coronavirus] was a hoax.”
This often-repeated statement falsely attributed to Trump has its roots in a Feb. 28 rally in North Carolina. But it’s a mischaracterization of what he actually said, which was an attack on Democrats’ response to the virus.
Trump cast the Democrats’ criticism of his work as foisting a hoax on the public. “They tried the impeachment hoax,” he said. “That was not 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.”
Mike Pence: The Rose Garden event with Judge Amy Coney Barrett “was an outdoor event, which all of our scientists regularly and routinely advised.”
The event included an indoor component, during which Trump, Barrett and others posed for photos without masks. Public health officials do say outdoor activities are less risky — provided masks are worn — than indoor events, where it might be harder to keep people apart and there’s less ventilation. But attendees of the Sept. 26 White House event for the nomination of Barrett to the Supreme Court did not practice social distancing, and many did not wear masks throughout the event.
Pence: Trump “suspended all travel from China. … Joe Biden opposed that decision. He called it xenophobic and hysterical.”
There were exemptions in Trump’s travel restrictions on China. On Jan. 21, the CDC confirmed the first U.S. case of the new coronavirus: a patient in Washington state who had traveled from Wuhan, China. On Jan. 31, the Trump administration announced a ban on travelers from China, but it exempted several categories of people, including U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents. It took effect Feb. 2.
According to The New York Times, about 40,000 people traveled from China to the United States in the two months after Trump announced travel restrictions, and 60% of people on direct flights from China were not U.S. citizens.
As for the “xenophobic and hysterical” comment, Biden has not directly said the travel restrictions were xenophobic. Around the time the Trump administration announced the restrictions, Biden said Trump had a “record of hysteria, xenophobia and fearmongering.” Biden also used the word “xenophobic” in reply to a Trump tweet about limiting entry to travelers from China in which the president described the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus.”
Harris: Obama “created within the White House an office that basically was responsible for monitoring pandemics. They got rid of it. There was a team of disease experts that President Obama and Vice President Biden dispatched to China to monitor what is now predictable and what might happen. They pulled them out.”
Harris described two pieces of Washington’s operation to protect against new viral threats. There was a division within the White House National Security Council. And there was a CDC office in China.
In May 2018, the top White House official in charge of the U.S. response to pandemics left the administration. Then-national security adviser John Bolton reorganized the White House global health team. Homeland security adviser Tom Bossert, who recommended strong defenses against disease and biological warfare, had left in April 2018. Neither Bossert nor the official overseeing the U.S. pandemic response was replaced. Nor were their teams, some of whose responsibilities were farmed out to other corners of the administration.
In China, the CDC program specifically charged with spotting new infectious diseases went from four American staff members in 2017 to none by 2019.
Pence: Biden’s “own chief of staff, Ron Klain, would say last year that it was pure luck, that they did everything possible wrong [with H1N1]. And we learned from that.”
Klain, Biden’s former chief of staff, spoke about H1N1 during a biosecurity conference in May 2019: “A bunch of really talented, really great people working on it, and we did every possible thing wrong. And it’s, you know, 60 million Americans got H1N1 in that period of time. And it’s just 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.”
Klain has since told Politico and FactCheck.org that his comments were taken out of context, and that they were specifically in reference to the Obama administration’s difficulties meeting the public demand for an H1N1 vaccine. He was not talking about Biden directly.
Pence: The Obama administration “left the strategic national stockpile empty.”
Rating: Mostly False
The Obama administration did not leave an “empty” national stockpile. Just months before COVID cases popped up in the U.S., the former director of the stockpile described it as an $8 billion enterprise with extensive holdings of many needed items. But N95 masks, for example, had been depleted after the H1N1 outbreak in 2009.
Pence: On the nation’s COVID response, “the reality is, when you look at the Biden plan, it reads an awful lot like what President Trump and I and our task force have been doing every step of the way.”
At first glance, the Biden plan does track closely with some of the talking points advanced by the Trump administration: the need to develop and distribute a vaccine, provide COVID tests free, reduce costs for COVID treatments, and produce necessary protective equipment and ventilators. But Biden’s plan proposes many other priorities that the Trump administration has not pursued. Biden also has, throughout the campaign, followed recommendations about mask-wearing and social distancing that the administration has defied — a pattern that’s being blamed for Trump’s own infection with COVID-19 and the outbreak at the White House.
Pence: The Obama administration “left an empty and hollow plan.”
The Obama administration left a “playbook” that detailed steps to take in the event of an infectious disease outbreak. The 69-page document from 2016 was a National Security Council guidebook created to assist leaders “in coordinating a complex U.S. government response to a high-consequence emerging disease threat anywhere in the world.”
Harris: “Today they still don’t have a plan” to deal with the pandemic.
Biden said the same thing during the first presidential debate. The Trump administration does have a plan to distribute vaccines once they are produced. But experts say the administration has failed to produce a national testing plan or a national strategy to address the COVID pandemic. The administration maintains its emphasis has been on helping the economy reopen. However, it has fallen short in executing a coordinated response between the federal government and states to combat the coronavirus. More than 210,000 Americans have died of COVID-19, more deaths than in any other country.
Pence (to Harris): “The fact that you continue to undermine public confidence in a vaccine, if a vaccine emerges during the Trump administration, I think is unconscionable.”
Harris said during the debate that she would not take Trump’s word that a vaccine is effective, insisting she would instead trust the opinion of an expert, such as Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases: “I will be the first in line to take it, absolutely.” Harris recently suggested Trump would push a vaccine before it was ready to help his electoral chances. But Harris is voicing concerns shared by many Americans. Last month, a Pew poll found Americans are divided on whether to get a COVID vaccine, with 78% saying they are worried it will be approved too quickly.
Harris: “The president hasn’t been transparent in terms of health records.”
After Trump announced his COVID diagnosis and was admitted to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for treatment, his physician, Dr. Sean Conley, briefed reporters on the president’s health. Conley provided selective information and declined to answer questions, such as when the president first tested positive for the disease or the condition of his lungs. Conley said he couldn’t share this information, citing HIPAA — the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996. Experts told us HIPAA does prohibit Conley from sharing any health information the president hasn’t authorized him to share. However, if Trump wanted his doctor to be transparent, he could waive HIPAA protections. Beyond the recent questions about his COVID infection, Trump has shared less general health information than past presidents. But no law requires presidents to disclose information about their health.
Pence: Biden and Harris support abortion “all the way up to the moment of birth.”
Biden and Harris have not said they support abortion up to the moment of birth. They say they support Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court case that legalized abortion while giving states the ability to regulate it after a certain point. Biden and Harris say they want to codify Roe v. Wade into law and are against state laws that they say violate the rulings in the case. Supporting Roe is not the same as supporting abortion up to the moment of birth, experts say.
“Because Roe allows states to prohibit abortion once a fetus is viable, agreement with the case does not indicate support for abortions ‘up to the moment of birth,’” said Darren Hutchinson, a professor at the University of Florida’s Levin College of Law.
KHN reporters Emmarie Huetteman and Victoria Knight and PolitiFact staff writers Daniel Funke, Jon Greenberg, Louis Jacobson, Noah Y. Kim, Bill McCarthy, Samantha Putterman, Amy Sherman and Miriam Valverde contributed to this report.