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Vice presidential debate 2020: Fact-checking Harris and Pence

Who told the truth and who shared a whopper? NBC News breaks down claims by Harris and Pence in detail.
Image: Kamala Harris and Vice President Mike Pence.
Chelsea Stahl / NBC News

Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., took the debate stage Wednesday in Salt Lake City for their first and only match up of the election. The event came soon after a contentious presidential debate and President Donald Trump's Covid-19 diagnosis. Harris and Pence sparred over the administration's handling of the coronavirus pandemic, as well as over climate change, voter fraud and racial inequality as relating to the death of Breonna Taylor.

In general, the event proved a stark contrast to presidential debate in both substance and civility.

NBC News fact-checked the claims made by both Harris and Pence throughout the event. Visit the debate live blog for full coverage.

Did Harris do 'nothing on criminal justice reform for California'?

Pence, during an exchange with Harris, claimed his opponent "did nothing on criminal justice reform for California."

Harris, who served as the district attorney for San Francisco from 2004 to 2011 and as California attorney general from 2011 to 2017, has, in fact, faced a large amount of scrutiny over her records in those two law enforcement positions. But the claim she “did nothing on criminal justice” is an overstatement.

Critics have argued that Harris fought to uphold wrongful convictions, filed appeals against arguments fighting the use of the death penalty and robustly prosecuted low-level marijuana offenses — actions that disproportionately affected people of color.

They have also noted that, while in those jobs, she resisted numerous progressive reforms, like opposing statewide standards for the wearing of body cameras by police officers.

She’s also faced a chorus of criticism for her support of a law that threatened to put in jail the parents of children who missed so many days of school that they were considered truant.

Harris and her supporters, however, have pointed to to her roll out of racial bias trainings, her advocacy for the use of police body cameras, and other reforms as evidence that she fought for criminal justice reform in California.

Will Trump's health care plan protect people with pre-existing conditions?

Harris and Pence sparred over healthcare and preexisting conditions, arguing over who was protecting people with preexisting conditions from losing their healthcare.

Trump “is in court trying to get rid of the Affordable Care Act, which means you will lose protections if you have pre-existing conditions,” Harris said, touting the gains that the ACA made in covering more Americans.

“Obamacare was a disaster, and the American people remember it well. And President Trump and I have a plan to improve health care and protect the existing conditions for every American,” Pence countered.

While Trump has long insisted that he and the GOP will protect people with pre-existing conditions from losing their health insurance, he has pursued legislation, litigation and executive actions to dismantle those protections under the Affordable Care Act.

A Republican bill backed by Trump included ACA state waivers that would allow insurers to charge higher prices to people with pre-existing conditions, potentially pricing them out of the market. It passed the House and died in the Senate in 2017. Trump has also used executive actions to expand the use of short-term insurance plans that aren't required to cover pre-existing conditions.

Trump recently signed a symbolic executive order affirming the protections Obamacare created, but his administration is backing a Republican-led lawsuit claiming the actual protections in the law should be struck down.

Would universal mail-in voting 'create a massive opportunity for voter fraud'?

“President Trump and I are fighting every day in courthouses to prevent Joe Biden and Kamala Harris from changing the rules and creating this universal mail-in voting that will create a massive opportunity for voter fraud,” Pence said on Wednesday night.

There's no evidence that "universal mail-in voting" would create a "massive opportunity for voter fraud."

Numerous studies have debunked the notion that there is substantial, widespread voter fraud in American elections, whether those elections are conducted predominantly by mail or otherwise. The voter fraud commission Pence himself chaired failed to find substantive evidence of voter fraud in the U.S.

Both campaigns are in court litigating over the specifics of how mail voting works, but in court filings the Trump campaign has reportedly struggled to prove that mail voting creates opportunities for fraud.

Pence’s use of the term “universal mail-in voting” is misleading, too, because every state is handling mail-in voting differently, mostly by expanding their absentee voting systems to accommodate more people than usual due to the pandemic.

The five states that already voted almost entirely by mail prior to the pandemic do not report higher rates of fraud or coercion than states that vote in person mostly at polling sites, and there are numerous systems and methods that keep mail voting secure.

When incidents of fraud do occur rarely — like a local New Jersey election in May that saw an attempted fraud operation, for example — election authorities say those are referred for prosecution.

Did the Obama administration 'spy' on the 2016 Trump-Pence campaign?

Vice President Mike Pence repeated a false claim that President Donald Trump made during the first presidential debate — accusing the Obama administration of spying on his campaign.

We checked this during the first debate, and it is false.

"When Joe Biden was vice president of the United States, the FBI actually spied on President Trump and my campaign," Pence said.

A review conducted by the Justice Department's own watchdog found in December that the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election — a probe that deeply touched the 2016 Trump campaign — was justified.

The 434-page report by Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz raised questions about the FBI's use of confidential human sources to gather information from individual members of the Trump campaign. FBI officials said it was a normal investigative technique, but the inspector general questioned whether there should be special guidelines when it comes to political campaigns.

The report did, however, clearly refute the notion that the FBI placed a "spy" in the Trump campaign.

"We found no evidence," the report said, that the FBI sent any confidential sources to join the Trump campaign, sent them to campaign offices or events or tasked them to report on the Trump campaign.

The inspector general said he examined more than a million documents and interviewed more than 100 witnesses to reach the report's conclusions.

Pence also pointed to documents released this week by the director of National Intelligence that the CIA "made a referral to the FBI documenting that those allegations were coming from the Hillary Clinton campaign."

That document, released by Director John Ratcliffe, claimed that intelligence agencies "obtained insight into Russian intelligence analysis alleging" Hillary Clinton's campaign had a plan to "stir up a scandal against" Trump by "tying him to Putin and the Russians' hacking of the Democratic National Committee."

Ratcliffe didn't declassify much else related to that accusation, and a former top intelligence official has accused Ratcliffe of selectively releasing information to play politics.

Do Biden and Harris support 'abortion up to the moment of birth'?

“Joe Biden and Kamala Harris support taxpayer funding of abortion up to the moment of birth,” Pence claimed on Wednesday, repeating an attack he used in the Republican National Convention.

This is misleading. Biden supports abortion rights, and elective abortions do not occur "up until the moment of birth." Just 1.2 percent occur after 21 weeks of gestation, according to the latest data.

Biden does, however, support government funding being used for abortions. In 2019, he reversed his longstanding support of the Hyde Amendment, which stops federal funding — including Medicaid — from being used to pay for abortions. Biden says he changed his mind on the issue because the amendment made it harder for lower income and women of color to access abortions.

Did Trump 'cut taxes across the board'?

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?

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?

"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?

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'?

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?

“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.