The big question going into the vice presidential debate was how Mike Pence, who is essentially a standard-issue Republican politician, would defend Donald Trump’s various insults, untruths, and bizarre moments.
It turns out he just wouldn’t.
When Tim Kaine or moderator Elaine Quijano challenged Pence to defend Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns or that time Trump called Mexican immigrants rapists, or to address the New York Times’ report that Trump could have avoided taxes for 18 years, Pence simply started to talk about something else.
The result could, at times, seem surreal. Pence plowed on through the debate as if some of Trump’s most infamous statements had never happened. He didn’t defend Trump’s birtherism, or his insults to an American judge of Mexican heritage, or his remark about John McCain. He simply pretended those comments didn’t exist
1) Pence was asked to defend Trump’s most infamous moments — and said Clinton was the insulting one
Kaine started early by trying to put Pence on the defensive: “He started his campaign with a speech where he called Mexicans rapists and criminals, and he has pursued the discredited and outrageous lie that President Obama was not born in the United States,” Kaine said, later adding, “I cannot imagine how Gov. Pence can defend Donald Trump.”
And Pence didn’t. Instead, he turned the accusation against Kaine and Clinton. “You and Hillary Clinton would know a lot about an insult-driven campaign,” he shot back.
He eventually had to address the “rapist” line: “He also said ‘And many of them are good people,’ Sen. Kaine. You keep leaving that out of your quote.” (Trump actually said “Some, I assume, are good people,” which is a slightly less ringing endorsement.) But he never did have to answer for Trump’s continued insistence that Obama was born abroad.
2) Pence was asked about Trump paying taxes. He ignored the question.
The biggest, and most damaging, story for the Trump campaign so far this week was the New York Times’ speculation that, due to a nearly $1 billion loss in 1995, Trump might have avoided paying income taxes in 1995 and then for the 15 years after.
“Mr. Trump said he brilliantly used the laws to pay as little taxes as legally possible,” Quijano asked Pence. “Does that seem fair to you?”
Pence’s response was to accuse the Obama administration of causing the Great Recession. “The policies of this administration, which Hillary Clinton and Sen. Kaine want to continue, have run this economy into a ditch,” he said. He didn’t even pretend to address Quijano’s question.
3) Pence was asked about taxes again, and said Trump “is a businessman”
Kaine and Quijano went on to press Pence on the tax issue again, and finally Pence offered an explanation, sort of: “Donald Trump is a businessman, not a career politician. He built a business. Those tax returns … showed that he faced pretty tough times 20 years ago. Like virtually every other business, including the New York Times, he used operating laws, a tax code that actually is designed to encourage opportune ownership — encourage entrepreneurship.”
4) Trump called women “pigs,” but Clinton called voters “deplorables”
Part of the way through a discussion on racism and policing, Kaine brought up Trump’s habit of insulting large groups of people: calling Mexicans “rapists and criminals” and women “pigs, dogs, disgusting.” “He said the judge was unqualified for a federal lawsuit because his parents were Mexican,” Kaine said:
He went after John McCain, a POW, and said he was not a hero because he had been captured. If you want to have a society where people are respected and respect laws, you cannot have someone at the top who demeans every group he talks about. I cannot believe that Gov. Pence would defend the insult-driven campaign that Donald Trump has run.
Pence, a few minutes later, didn’t try to defend anything Trump said. He just pointed out that Hillary Clinton had called “about half” of Trump supporters “a basket of deplorables.” Anything Trump said “is small potatoes compared to Hillary Clinton,” Pence said.
Meanwhile, since the debate began, Donald Trump had already retweeted a Twitter fan who said that Kaine looks “like an evil crook out of the Batman movies.”
5) Kaine asked about McCain, Alicia Machado, and birtherism again, and Pence ignored it
Kaine, though, was not letting Trump’s questioning of Obama’s birth certificate — or his insults to John McCain and former Miss Universe Alicia Machado — slide.
“Did Donald Trump apologize to Sen. John McCain for calling him — did Donald Trump apologize for taking after somebody in a Twitter war and making fun of her weight?” he asked. “Did he apologize for saying that President Obama was not a citizen of the United States? You will look in vain for Donald Trump apologizing.”
This is basically true — Trump almost never apologizes — and so Pence ignored it and just kept talking about immigration, which is what Quijano asked about in the first place.
6) Kaine brought up Trump and nuclear weapons — and Pence mentioned 9/11
Kaine literally asked Pence to defend statements Trump had made about a more nuclear world. And instead Pence talked about being in Washington, DC, on September 11, 2001.
“Donald Trump believes that the world will be safer if more nations have nuclear weapons,” Kaine said. “He said Saudi Arabia should get them, Japan should get them, and South Korea should get them … When he was confronted with this, he said ‘Go ahead, folks, enjoy yourselves.’ I would like Gov. Pence to say what is so … comical about nuclear war.”
“That had a lot of creative lines in it,” Pence said.
“See if you can defend any of it,” Kaine answered.
Pence couldn’t, really: “America is less safe today than it was the day that Barack Obama became president of the United States … I will give you that. I was in Washington, DC, on 9/11. I saw the clouds of smoke rise from the Pentagon.” He went on to talk about ISIS.
7) Kaine mentioned that he was trying to get Pence to defend Trump — and Pence still wouldn’t
Pence is a much better, more polished debater than Trump. But every time that Kaine asked him to defend something Trump said, he was setting a trap as clearly as Clinton did at the first presidential debate.
Kaine even made this explicit: “Six times tonight I have said to Gov. Pence, I cannot defend how you would defend your running mate's position,” he said. “And in all six cases, he has refused to defend. And yet, he is asking everybody to vote for somebody he cannot defend.”
If Pence is wondering what an attack ad against him out of this debate will look like, he just found out.