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The Greatest Failure in Presidential History: Kamala Harris Slams Trump/Pence’s Handling of COVID-19

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Separated by two plates of plexiglass, Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris met Wednesday in the only vice-presidential debate of the campaign season. Pence, who heads the White House Coronavirus Task Force, repeatedly defended the Trump administration’s handling of the crisis as the U.S. death toll from COVID-19 nears 212,000 and millions of people remain out of work. The debate also took place against the backdrop of a White House outbreak that has infected President Trump and dozens of other senior figures. “The White House has had more cases than the country of Yemen recently, than Vietnam, than New Zealand,” says Dr. Craig Spencer, director of global health in emergency medicine at Columbia University Medical Center. “How can we expect the White House to keep the U.S. safe if it can’t keep the White House safe?”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris met in Salt Lake City, Utah, Wednesday night for the only vice-presidential debate of the campaign season. Separated by two plexiglass shields, they sparred on the climate crisis, the Supreme Court, the economy, institutional racism, the pandemic and other issues. The debate began with Kamala Harris slamming President Trump’s administration’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

SEN. KAMALA HARRIS: The American people have witnessed what is the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country. And here are the facts: 210,000 dead people in our country, in just the last several months; over 7 million people who have contracted this disease; one in five businesses closed. We’re looking at frontline workers who have been treated like sacrificial workers. We are looking at over 30 million people who in the last several months had to file for unemployment.

And here’s the thing: On January 28th, the vice president and the president were informed about the nature of this pandemic. They were informed that it’s lethal in consequence, that it is airborne, that it will affect young people, and that it would be contracted because it is airborne. And they knew what was happening, and they didn’t tell you. Can you imagine if you knew on January 28th, as opposed to March 13th, what they knew, what you might have done to prepare? They knew, and they covered it up. The president said it was a hoax. They minimized the seriousness of it. …

SUSAN PAGE: The U.S. death toll as a percentage of our population is higher than that of almost every other wealthy nation on Earth. For instance, our death rate is two-and-a-half times that of Canada, next door. You head the administration’s coronavirus task force. Why is the U.S. death toll, as a percentage of our population, higher than that of almost every other wealthy country? …

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: And our nation has gone through a very challenging time this year. But I want the American people to know that from the very first day, President Donald Trump has put the health of America first. Before there were more than five cases in the United States, all people who had returned from China, President Donald Trump did what no other American president had ever done. And that was, he suspended all travel from China, the second-largest economy in the world. Now, Senator Joe Biden opposed that decision. He said it was xenophobic and hysterical. But I can tell you, having led the White House Coronavirus Task Force, that that decision alone by President Trump bought us invaluable time to stand up the greatest national mobilization since World War II.

And I believe it saved hundreds of thousands of American lives, because with that time we were able to reinvent testing. More than 115 million tests have been done to date. We were able to see to the delivery of billions of supplies, so our doctors and nurses had the resources support they needed. And we began — really, before the month of February, we started to develop a vaccine and to develop medicines and therapeutics that have been saving lives all along the way. And under President Trump’s leadership, Operation Warp Speed, we believe we’ll have literally tens of millions of doses of a vaccine before the end of this year.

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. And quite frankly, when I look at their plan, that talks about advancing testing, creating new PPE, developing a vaccine, it looks a little bit like plagiarism, which is something Joe Biden knows a little bit about. …

SUSAN PAGE: Senator Harris, would you like to respond?

SEN. KAMALA HARRIS: Oh, absolutely. Whatever the vice president is claiming the administration has done, clearly it hasn’t worked, when you’re looking at over 210,000 dead bodies in our country, American lives that have been lost, families that are grieving that loss. And, you know, the vice president is the head of the task force and knew on January 28th how serious this was. And then, thanks to Bob Woodward, we learned that they knew about it. And then, when that was exposed, the vice president said — when asked, “Well, why didn’t y’all tell anybody?” he said, “Because the president wanted people to remain calm.”

SUSAN PAGE: Well, let’s give —

SEN. KAMALA HARRIS: So, I — no, but, Susan, this is important. And I want to add —

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: Susan, I have to weigh in here.

SEN. KAMALA HARRIS: Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking.

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: I have to weigh in.

SEN. KAMALA HARRIS: I’m speaking. So, I want to —

SUSAN PAGE: You can have 15 more seconds, and then we’ll give the vice president a chance to respond.

SEN. KAMALA HARRIS: Thank you. So, I want to ask the American: How calm were you when you were panicked about where you were going to get your next roll of toilet paper? How calm were you when your kids were sent home from school and you didn’t know when they could go back? How calm were you —

SUSAN PAGE: Thank you.

SEN. KAMALA HARRIS: — when your children —

SUSAN PAGE: Thank you, Senator Harris.

SEN. KAMALA HARRIS: — couldn’t see your parents because you were afraid they could kill them?

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show with Dr. Craig Spencer, director of global health in emergency medicine at Columbia University Medical Center. In 2014, he contracted Ebola while fighting its outbreak in Africa, is now emergency room doctor here in New York City, where he’s been treating coronavirus patients.

Before we get your response to the debate that we just heard, Dr. Spencer, we wanted to get your response to the latest breaking news. The infected president of the United States — right? — President Trump has COVID-19 — has just said he will not go along with the Commission on Presidential Debates’ decision to have a virtual second presidential debate next week because of the deep concern of how many more people would be exposed to President Trump, who has COVID. Can you respond to what he is saying, not to mention what has happened throughout this weekend, President Trump in the White House breaking isolation, going to the Oval Office, talking about the miracle cure of this Regeneron cocktail and saying that COVID is a gift of God?

DR. CRAIG SPENCER: Yeah, for sure. I don’t think this is a gift from God for anybody. We have, as you’ve already pointed out, nearly 212,000 people that have died. We have increasing cases all across the country. There will be many more deaths from this. I don’t think this is a gift to anyone.

Regarding having a presidential debate in person, I certainly wouldn’t stand on stage with someone who was recently infected with coronavirus. There are guidelines for when someone is most likely no longer contagious, but we would need to have some transparency from this administration on the president’s health and how he is testing, what symptoms he’s actually having. We haven’t received that to date. I think what we saw this weekend when the president was hospitalized, we were told one thing, and then, the next day, told something different. We’re getting more information from short video clips than we are actually from the president’s doctor. So, personally, I don’t feel comfortable, and I certainly wouldn’t feel comfortable for myself, for Vice President Biden or for really anyone else to be up on that debate stage with President Trump, without knowing some really key details.

AMY GOODMAN: And how he’s behaved this weekend, from being in that hermetically sealed car to wave to his supporters, with Secret Service having to be around him in that car, as well, to breaking isolation in the White House?

DR. CRAIG SPENCER: Absolutely. I mean, I think it’s clear this is a — this is something that we’ve seen since really early on, right? This president and this administration have flouted, really, all well-known public health principles about how you prevent this disease, about how you prevent its spread. They have undermined science, again, since day one. That’s the reason that we have the world’s worst outbreak of COVID, the reason that we have the most deaths of any country in the world.

I don’t trust, quite frankly and unfortunately, the president to make the right decisions, not only about his health, but about the health of all the other Americans and those he may expose. The antics from this weekend, the joyride, completely unnecessary. Maybe for political theater it was helpful, but from a public health perspective it was just disastrous.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Dr. Spencer, obviously, now Trump has said, as you just talked about earlier, that he has refused the proposal for next week’s debate to be virtual. But many people raised concerns also about last night’s debate, given some uncertainty about whether Vice President Pence may have been exposed to the virus. And several people pointed out that the plexiglass that they put up between Kamala Harris and Vice President Pence would do virtually nothing to prevent airborne transmission. Could you respond to that? And what kinds of measures would need to be taken to prevent airborne transmission in a context like last night?

DR. CRAIG SPENCER: That’s a great question. First, I just want to clarify: The vice president was exposed. We do know, even from his own reporting, that he was in the company of the president at a time when many others in the White House had been exposed and were falling ill. So, absolutely, the vice president should have quarantined. I don’t think that last night’s debate should have been held in person. I don’t think it was safe. Even if we know that daily you test negative for the coronavirus, it does not mean that hours after you test negative you can’t test positive. That’s the way that his works. You’re negative until you’re positive. We don’t know, ultimately, if Vice President Pence will ultimately test positive. I hope, for his sake, that he doesn’t.

But regarding the debate last night, the plexiglass was pure theater. From a public health and a disease transmission perspective, it does basically nothing.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted —

DR. CRAIG SPENCER: We do know —

AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead.

DR. CRAIG SPENCER: Oh, please. Well, I was just going to say that we do know that the majority of transmission occurs in closer contact from respiratory droplets. The CDC has recently changed its wording on its own website to say that there is some component of airborne transmission. Remember that that was put up a month ago and then hastily took down. There was a question of whether this was, again, some meddling with the scientific process that we’ve seen from this administration. But we do know that there’s certainly still a risk that if the vice president was infected, he could be contagious and that some of those airborne particles, some of that airborne virus, could potentially infect others that were in the same room.

AMY GOODMAN: The number of people —

DR. CRAIG SPENCER: What would have been more effective was probably having a box fan.

AMY GOODMAN: The number of people connected to the White House coronavirus outbreak is now at 34, much higher than previously known. Many of those infected attended that Rose Garden ceremony, which happened inside and outside, a reception inside, where President Trump nominated Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. During the debate last night, moderator Susan Page asked Vice President Mike Pence about this.

SUSAN PAGE: Vice President Pence, you were in the front row in a Rose Garden event 11 days ago, at what seems to have been a superspreader event for senior administration and congressional officials — no social distancing, few masks, and now a cluster of coronavirus cases among those who were there. How can you expect Americans to follow the administration’s safety guidelines to protect themselves from COVID when you at the White House have not been doing so? …

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: If I may say, that Rose Garden event, been a great deal of speculation about it. My wife Karen and I were there and honored to be there. Many of the people who were at that event, Susan, actually were tested —


VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: — for coronavirus. And it was an outdoor event, which all of our scientists regularly and routinely advise. The difference here is, President Trump and I trust the American people to make choices in the best interest of their health. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris consistently talk about mandates, and not just mandates with the coronavirus, but a government takeover of healthcare — 

SUSAN PAGE: Thank you. Thank you, Vice President Pence.

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: — the Green New Deal, all government control. We’re about freedom and respecting the freedom of the American people.

SEN. KAMALA HARRIS: Let’s talk about respecting the American people. You respect the American people when you tell them the truth. You respect the American people when you have the courage —

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: Which we’ve always done.

SEN. KAMALA HARRIS: — to be a leader speaking of those things that you may not want people to hear, but they need to hear so they can protect themselves.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that is, of course, the debate between Vice President Pence and Kamala Harris last night. Dr. Craig Spencer, if you could respond to what they’ve said, and what it means to model behavior? And even at the end of the debate, when the spouses of the vice-presidential candidates came up, Kamala Harris’s husband, as was ordered to everyone in the room, was wearing a mask, but Karen Pence, Vice President Pence’s wife, the second lady, was not wearing a mask.

DR. CRAIG SPENCER: It’s just — it’s completely maddening. Look, the White House has had more cases than the country of Yemen recently, than Vietnam, than New Zealand. Our White House has more cases than countries. How can we expect the White House to keep the U.S. safe if it can’t keep the White House safe?

And, you know, Vice President Pence does say, “We were outside,” which is considered safer. Absolutely true. But it’s not just one of these things, right? It’s multiple things in combination. It’s being outside and distancing and wearing a mask. You can’t just choose one of a multiple choice and expect that to protect you. And I think we’ve seen that with the outbreak that’s going on now.

I also think it’s important that Vice President Pence said that we trust the American people to make decisions about their health. That is great, if the American people are getting the information that they need to make those decisions. We know that, to date, this administration has undermined and really muzzled the CDC, the organization most responsible and helpful in helping the Americans make those decisions. We know that this administration has been pushing misinformation and disinformation, much of it coming from the president’s own Twitter feed, where he has to be muzzled by Twitter for sharing, really, lies about things like the risk of COVID versus the flu. So, I agree, people should be able to make decisions about their health, but they need to be given the right information. And this administration has actively made it very difficult for people to do so.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Dr. Spencer, one of the reasons that people cite for the U.S. having such high numbers is the insufficient contact tracing that happened here early on and even now. And the White House itself, despite this outbreak, has not — has, in fact, rejected an offer by the CDC to help with contact tracing, and many people who have been put at risk say they have not been contacted. So, if you could respond to that and explain the importance of contact tracing, and then also this unprecedented editorial by the editors of the leading medical journal, The New England Journal of Medicine, criticizing the Trump administration for their handling of the pandemic?

DR. CRAIG SPENCER: Absolutely. So, on the first, on contact tracing, you know, that is such a critical part of disease detection, not just for coronavirus, but for any outbreak. We did it with Ebola. We did it, I mean, with any infectious disease that we want to control. You need to test, you need to trace, and you need to isolate. You need to find anyone that has been a potential contact of someone who could have been infectious. You need to make sure that they quarantine. You need to make sure that they have access to getting tested. And you need to continue to follow their symptoms, so that if they get sick, you can find the people who have been exposed potentially by them, as well.

This is something the CDC does extremely well. It is unconscionable that the White House is not doing this. You saw that there was really a crowdsource in USA Today with a Google doc to try to get names and identify people who were at the Rose Garden. This is something that the CDC does, and this is what their job is. And so, again, this is another instance in which the White House is basically saying good public health that’s been established over the past few centuries just isn’t crucial here. And that’s, again, I think, the reason that we see uncontrolled spread in the White House.

On the second point around The New England Journal


DR. CRAIG SPENCER: I’m sorry. Please?

NERMEEN SHAIKH: No, please, go ahead, Dr. Spencer.

DR. CRAIG SPENCER: I was going to say, on the second point, around The New England Journal of Medicine, as you pointed out, this is really an unprecedented step. And I think what this highlights is that, for months and months and months, people have been saying that people like myself, physicians and public health scientists that are getting up and talking about how poor this administration’s response has been, have been telling us that we’re political. It’s not political when public health professionals and physicians and scientists talk about how poorly our politicians have handled our public health response. It is our job as public health professionals to do so. And I think The New England Journal of Medicine making that stance is just another critical voice adding to that mass of people who have just been incredibly disappointed in how bad we’ve handled this.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to last night’s debate moderator, Susan Page, who asked Senator Kamala Harris about the Trump administration’s rush to approve a vaccine.

SUSAN PAGE: If the Trump administration approves a vaccine before or after the election, should Americans take it, and would you take it?

SEN. KAMALA HARRIS: If the public health professionals, if Dr. Fauci, if the doctors tell us that we should take it, I’ll be the first in line to take it, absolutely. But if Donald Trump tells us I should take — that we should take it, I’m not taking it. …

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: The reality is that we’re going to have a vaccine, Senator, in record time, in unheard-of time, in less than a year. We have five companies in Phase 3 clinical trials. And we’re right now producing tens of millions of doses. So, the fact that you continue to undermine public confidence in a vaccine, if a vaccine emerges during the Trump administration, I think, is unconscionable. And, Senator, I just ask you: Stop playing politics with people’s lives.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Dr. Spencer, can you respond to what both candidates said last night? When Pence said that there will be a vaccine in record time, you tweeted in response that you’ve frequently criticized this administration for its public health response, but Operation Warp Speed is one of the best investments they’ve made.

DR. CRAIG SPENCER: Absolutely. I think it’s a horrible name, but I think it’s an incredible initiative. I have been very critical of this administration for its inability to do things like contact tracing and testing and help with PPE, but the huge financial investment in Operation Warp Speed has been critical. And I am also quite optimistic that we’re going to have a vaccine in record time. We may have multiple vaccines. Many of them are in — really, in scientific research right now.

And I completely agree. I signed onto a letter within the past few weeks basically saying to companies like Pfizer that we need to make sure that these are safe before they are announced, because we have had, again, multiple episodes of this administration undermining or muzzling our public health agencies, undermining agencies like the FDA. And we saw just a couple days ago that the White House refused to accept these guidelines that were proposed by the FDA to ensure safety around any possible new vaccine. I am concerned that there’s a push to get an announcement out before the election. That could absolutely undermine public confidence in what could be a really good vaccine candidate.

We have the potential to help end the pandemic with a good vaccine or couple good vaccines, if we get enough doses by sometime in the middle of next year. We also have the potential of undermining the faith in vaccines, if we roll this out the wrong way, if there are complications, if there are side effects that are tied to a vaccine that was not adequately studied. We need to do this right, because it’s not just short-term repercussions, it’s long-term repercussions, as well, if we don’t.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go back to 2014, before Trump was president, who repeatedly attacked you, Dr. Craig Spencer, after you became the first Ebola patient in New York, contracting the disease while you were treating Ebola patients in Africa, but didn’t show symptoms for 36 hours after returning to New York. This is Trump.

DONALD TRUMP: I consider that doctor extremely selfish, who came back, and then he toured New York.


DONALD TRUMP: I mean, he went on crowded subways during rush hour, had dinner in Brooklyn, went to a bowling alley and bowled, and went all over the place.

STEVE DOOCY: That’s right.

DONALD TRUMP: I think he’s a very selfish person, frankly.

STEVE DOOCY: Well, that would be Dr. Craig Spencer. And so, Cuomo and Christie —

AMY GOODMAN: So, that was Donald Trump on Fox News in 2014 talking about you breaking the rules — the president who has broken almost every rule that scientists have put forward around containing an illness. Can you respond to what he said?

DR. CRAIG SPENCER: Sure. I mean, I don’t want to get in a tit-for-tat with the president because I don’t think he’s going to follow really any public health guidance. But what’s clear was that at that time I followed all public health protocols as we knew them, we knew around the contagiousness of the disease and the ability to infect others. You can look back, and I think that time has proven that my actions were responsible and in line with public health guidance. I infected nobody else, thankfully. I don’t know that the president himself, unfortunately, will be able to say the same.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Before we conclude, another question on another topic that neither of the two vice-presidential candidates responded to last night — namely, the one of presidential succession, given that whoever wins — Trump or Biden — next month’s election, they will be the oldest presidents in U.S. — he will be the oldest president in U.S. history. What are your concerns about having a president, either in Trump’s case, who’s 74, or in Biden’s case, who will be 78?

DR. CRAIG SPENCER: I think that we probably need younger leadership in this country regardless. I think we need some fresh ideas. But for both of these candidates, yeah, there’s absolutely concerns, right? We know that, for one, Trump is certainly not out of the woods. His own physicians have said that, even if they report he’s not having symptoms. He still had a severe case of coronavirus. And even if he’s looking and feeling better, that does not mean that he’s completely out of the woods.

I have similar concerns for Vice President Biden. We know, not just with COVID, but with many other health issues, the likelihood of having severe and negative impacts when you’re older is certainly much higher. I have very similar concerns as everyone else, and I really want to push for younger, more representative leadership in this country.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Craig Spencer is director of global health in emergency medicine at Columbia University Medical Center.

When we come back, Reverend Barber will join us from the swing state of North Carolina to talk about other issues raised, around the issue of racial justice, the ACA, Obamacare, and President Trump attempting to overturn it. Stay with us.

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