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Pence's tough debate task is to defend Trump's actions over the past week

First Read is your briefing from "Meet the Press" and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.
Image: Mike Pence
Vice President Mike Pence speaks in Atlanta on Sept. 30, 2020.Brynn Anderson / AP

WASHINGTON — President Trump hasn’t exactly made tonight’s vice-presidential debate easy for Mike Pence.

The vice president will have to defend:

  • Why the president held non-socially distant and largely mask-less events at the White House – with indoor activities – from which several attendees apparently got infected by the coronavirus.
  • Why Trump, after being hospitalized at Walter Reed, jumped into a hermetically sealed SUV with Secret Service agents to wave to supporters.
  • Why the president, after returning to the White House, took off his mask in public, despite still being potentially contagious.
  • Why Trump instructed Americans not to be afraid of the coronavirus, and why he compared it again to the flu.
  • And why the president — over Twitter — scuttled any chance for another coronavirus aid package before the election.

None of these is easy for Pence to answer, especially for a vice president who just happens to head the White House’s coronavirus task force.

You could have made the case that, after last week’s presidential debate, Pence had a lower bar to clear Wednesday night: just by not interrupting and hurling insults, the vice president was going to improve on Trump’s Sept. 29 performance.

You also could have argued that expectations for Democratic vice-presidential nominee Kamala Harris were way too high. (We remember the last VP debate, back in 2004, when the super-lawyer Democrat was supposed to best the low-key sitting vice president, but it didn’t turn out that way.)

But after the past week, it’s now Pence who has the higher degree of difficulty.

All that said, the Washington Post makes a smart point: Pence sure has a lot more practice defending Trump than Kamala Harris has of defending Joe Biden’s decades in American politics.

Panic walks in

As for Trump scuttling the chances for another coronavirus relief package before the election, that creates a problem for GOP senators and members of Congress.

Trump owns it; you really can’t blame both sides.

So we saw Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who’s facing the challenge of her political life, call it all “a huge mistake.”

"Waiting until after the election to reach an agreement on the next Covid-19 relief package is a huge mistake,” Collins said in a statement on Tuesday, per NBC’s Julie Tsirkin. “I have already been in touch with the Secretary of the Treasury, one of the chief negotiators, and with several of my Senate colleagues.”

And Collins’ criticism comes a day after Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who’s facing his own competitive Senate race, said Trump “let his guard down” in fighting in the coronavirus.

Data Download: The numbers you need to know today

7,532,697: The number of confirmed cases of coronavirus in the United States, per the most recent data from NBC News and health officials. (That’s 37,486 more than yesterday morning.)

212,070: The number of deaths in the United States from the virus so far. (That’s 646 more than yesterday morning.)

109.65 million: The number of coronavirus tests that have been administered in the United States so far, according to researchers at The COVID Tracking Project.

Seven out of eight: The members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who are quarantining after meeting with an admiral who tested positive for Covid.

More than $100,000: How much Trump’s stay at the hospital would have likely cost for someone who is not president, according to a New York Times analysis.

$1,200: The amount of new stimulus checks for Americans that the president now says he supports, just hours after saying on Twitter that he was halting stimulus negotiations until “after I win.”

400 points: How much the Dow dropped yesterday after Trump said he was calling off stimulus talks.

2020 Vision: Everybody wants some (plexiglass)

Before the vice-presidential debate tonight, Vice President Mike Pence and Democratic VP nominee Kamala Harris already debated over the need for plexiglass barriers separating them.

And in their first sparring match, Harris seems to have won.

The Harris camp fought for the glass barrier given President Trump’s Covid-19 diagnosis — and CDC guidelines state one of the ways to make workplaces and public spaces safer is barriers. But the Pence team argued that it was an unnecessary precaution, because Pence was not a “close contact” to Trump when he was contagious and there’s already about 12 feet separating the two candidates.

Earlier this week, Pence spokesperson Katie Miller, who tested positive for Covid-19 in May and whose husband, Stephen Miller, tested positive yesterday, mocked Harris for the decision:

“If Sen. Harris wants to use a fortress around herself, have at it,” Miller said.

As of this morning, plexiglass had already been installed by both desks where the candidates will be tonight, and the Pence team won’t object to them.

On the campaign trail today

Mike Pence and Kamala Harris debate beginning at 9:00 pm ET at the University of Utah.

Tweet of the day

Ad Watch from Ben Kamisar

In yesterday’s Ad Watch, we told you about how the Biden campaign is using Kamala Harris in a new Spanish-language ad to help him shore up support from Latino voters. That got us wondering: Ahead of the vice-presidential debate, how are both campaigns utilizing their running mates in TV ads?

It turns out, there’s a big difference in strategy.

The Biden campaign released a handful of ads on Tuesday that center on Harris — one about a young, Black girl deriving confidence from seeing Harris being tapped as Biden’s vice presidential pick; another featuring Harris talking about the campaign’s message; and the Spanish-language spot from yesterday.

But the Trump campaign is barely using Mike Pence in any of the ads captured by Advertising Analytics over the last seven days. One or two feature a brief glimpse of the vice president, but he doesn’t take center stage in any of the television ads that ran over the last week.

Pence gave Trump a boost in 2016, helping him reassure religious conservatives and unite a party that was hesitant to get on board with Trump. But now that the Republican Party has been remade in Trump’s image, Pence is taking a significant back seat on the airwaves ahead of his only debate.

The Lid: Why can’t this be love?

Don’t miss the pod from yesterday, when we looked at how the North Carolina Senate race may have changed a whole not (or maybe not?) after a wild weekend.

ICYMI: What else is happening in the world

Here’s what you need to know about tonight’s vice presidential debate.

Stephen Miller has tested positive for coronavirus.

A new study finds that coronavirus patients who are sick enough to be hospitalized often experience neurological symptoms.

Economists are worried that “chaos” could erupt in the markets if Trump’s condition worsens before the election.

The Arizona Senate debate got pretty heated.

The New York Times writes that top Justice Department officials were a “driving force” in Trump’s family separation policy.

We know a bit more now about Amy Coney Barrett’s participation in the group “People of Praise.”