Vice President Mike Pence went into Wednesday’s vice presidential debate versus Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) with a big stain on his record: his prominent leadership role in the White House’s failed response to Covid-19.
“The American people have witnessed what is the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country,” Harris said, referring to Trump and Pence’s approach to Covid-19.
Starting in February, Pence was made the head of the White House’s coronavirus task force, which was charged with coordinating the federal response to the pandemic on a day-to-day basis. This put Pence in a leadership position for everything dealing with the coronavirus: testing, scaling up production and distribution of protective equipment, creating public health guidelines, spurring production of a vaccine, and so on — none of which, save the potential future success of a vaccine, went well.
Pence and the task force still answered to President Donald Trump. As Pence’s chief of staff, Marc Short, said upon Pence’s appointment: “He is uniquely qualified for this because of his close relationship to the president. Basically there’s no confusion that the president’s in charge.”
It was an admission that Pence would be a yes-man, spearheading and implementing Trump’s Covid-19 agenda — an agenda that has focused on downplaying the pandemic and urging the country to reopen rather than containing a disease that’s so far killed more than 210,000 Americans.
Pence is “basically just a parrot for the president,” Céline Gounder, an epidemiologist at New York University and CNN medical analyst, told me. “He just comes across as a more sane adult.”
At first, Pence’s position put him at the forefront of the Trump administration’s botched rollout of coronavirus tests. The White House effectively punted the issue down to the states and private sector, calling the federal government merely “a supplier of last resort” — which the New York Times described as “perhaps one of the greatest failures of presidential leadership in generations.”
Pence claimed “any American could be tested” in March only to acknowledge days later that “we don’t have enough tests today to meet what we anticipate will be the demand going forward.” The US struggled for months to build up testing — it still doesn’t have enough, many experts argue — and Pence was often the public face of that failure, like when he had to call governors to talk them down from fiercely criticizing the administration.
As the epidemic continued, Pence’s positions were often an echo of Trump’s. When Trump pushed for places to reopen quickly, Pence called on states to implement phased reopening plans. When Trump denied coronavirus cases were spiking over the summer, Pence said the rise was a result of more testing and wrote an op-ed titled “There Isn’t a Coronavirus ‘Second Wave’” — an argument that was proven wrong within weeks. As Trump attempted to bend public health agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to do his political bidding, Pence’s staff led the push to get the CDC to loosen its guidelines for reopening schools.
The results speak for themselves. More than 210,000 people have died from Covid-19 so far in the US — the highest death toll in the world. Among developed countries, the US has the fourth-highest death rate relative to its population, with America recently surpassing the UK as more than 700 Americans continue dying of the coronavirus each day.
Much of this is, of course, on Trump and his erratic leadership. (The White House didn’t respond to a request for comment.)
But Pence closely tied himself to Trump’s response, as the chair of the White House task force and a constant advocate for the president. So far, Pence hasn’t publicly criticized the administration’s response to Covid-19 once — but he has defended it plenty as one of the administration’s leaders on this issue.
He is as close to this mess as anyone but Trump can get.
Pence was a leader in Trump’s failed response to Covid-19
Trump’s failures on Covid-19 are now well-known. He’s called for states to reopen quickly despite experts’ warnings. He’s pushed for less testing. He’s mocked masks and often refused to wear one — even after falling sick with the virus himself. And even as he deals with his own case of Covid-19, he’s continued to downplay the virus, doing everything in his power to push a message that America is back to normal in order to boost his reelection chances.
But much of the behind-the-scenes work that’s enabled Trump and implemented his agenda was done by the White House’s task force — led by the vice president. Trump summarized the setup at the time of Pence’s appointment: “Mike is going to be in charge, and Mike will report back to me.”
As the coronavirus became a more prominent threat in the US over February, and as the country struggled to build up testing in what experts now call a “lost month,” the Trump administration scrambled to right its response. The White House put Pence in charge of fixing the mess.
It’s not clear why, given Pence’s bad record on public health issues. When he was governor of Indiana, parts of the state saw spikes in HIV cases, largely because Pence refused to allow needle exchanges — a public health intervention with decades of evidence behind it — in the state. The epidemic only subsided once Pence, under public and expert pressure, eventually gave in and allowed needle exchanges.
Before that, in 2001, Pence wrote an op-ed claiming that “smoking doesn’t kill” — flouting the decades of scientific evidence proving otherwise.
One of Pence’s first tasks on the coronavirus task force was to muzzle officials that contradicted Trump’s positive spin. For much of February, Trump claimed that the US had kept the coronavirus under control and even said at one point that it would soon disappear “like a miracle.” But a CDC official, Nancy Messonnier, on February 25 contradicted Trump’s magical thinking, telling reporters that Americans should prepare for community spread of the coronavirus, social distancing, and the possibility that “disruption to everyday life might be severe.” It was the right call, as we now know, but the negative outlook reportedly angered Trump.
Two days later, the New York Times reported, the White House moved to take control of public messaging on the coronavirus, requiring federal public health officials and scientists to “coordinate all statements and public appearances with the office of Vice President Mike Pence.” From then on, the bulk of federal communication came from the White House press conferences, which spanned from genuinely helpful advice by officials like Anthony Fauci to Trump musing about injecting bleach as a Covid-19 treatment.
The dynamic — Trump pushing for something and Pence or his task force making it happen — has continued throughout the pandemic.
As the summer’s coronavirus surge began, Trump and his administration pushed back on the possibility of a spike, arguing that any increase was an artifact of more tests picking up more cases. Pence put that into writing in his op-ed denying a “second wave,” boasting that Covid-19 cases and deaths were in decline across the US in “a testament to the leadership of President Trump.” Within days, it was clear that Covid-19 cases were rising. Within weeks, the US hit records for daily new coronavirus cases as new outbreaks popped up in Southern and Western states, particularly, Arizona, Florida, and Texas, and eventually the rest of the country.
Even with these outbreaks in the background, Trump continued his demands that states reopen quickly. That included schools, with Trump publicly criticizing the CDC’s guidance on schools as “very tough” and “expensive.” Once again, Pence dutifully implemented what Trump asked for: As the Times reported, Pence’s staff, including his chief of staff, pressured the CDC to relax its guidelines. The agency eventually gave in.
In a similar scenario, Trump said he told his people to “slow the testing down, please,” because, in his view, more tests made the US look bad. It’s unclear how personally involved Pence was in this, but, at least under his watch, the White House task force pushed the CDC to in effect recommend less testing: The agency no longer said people without symptoms should get tested if they come into close contact with someone known to have Covid-19. The CDC later reversed course — once again recommending testing for people without symptoms — after experts nearly universally condemned the politically motivated change.
America’s coronavirus epidemic could still get worse
The result of Trump and Pence’s leadership: The US leads the world in Covid-19 deaths. If you control for population, the country is still among the worst: The US is now in the top 15 percent for Covid-19 deaths per capita among developed nations, with seven times the death rate as the median wealthy country. If the US had the same Covid-19 death rate as Canada, more than 125,000 more Americans would likely be alive today.
To make matters worse, the US is still extremely vulnerable to the coronavirus — something underlined by Trump’s infection, confirmed last week. (Pence has so far avoided the same fate, testing negative multiple times.)
Experts also warn that the US should brace itself for a potential surge of the virus this fall and winter. School reopenings are already leading to some large outbreaks, particularly in colleges and universities. The cold in northern parts of the country will push people inside, where the virus has an easier time spreading than it does outdoors. Friends and family will likely come together for holidays such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve. On top of all that, another flu season may be around the corner.
The US is vulnerable to all of this because the federal government, under Trump and Pence, has done such a poor job responding to Covid-19. The US still doesn’t have enough tests — with a positive rate of 5 percent only meeting the bare minimum experts recommend and above the 3 percent some experts believe is necessary. Contact tracing is nonexistent in much of the country, with experts estimating the number of contact tracers nationwide is less than half of what it needs to be. Americans’ adherence to masking is still spotty, with 17 states still not mandating masks. Cities, counties, and states are now reopening high-risk settings, such as bars and indoor dining, under pressure from Trump, Pence, and other Republican leaders.
Given all of this, some experts worry that the worst is yet to come. “The next number in the fall is likely going to shoot way up,” Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, told me. “Likely well beyond 65,000, 70,000” — the summer’s previous peak. “I think this fall is going to be the biggest spike of all.”
This isn’t because the answers to Covid-19 are unknown. The solutions are all the things that experts have called for again and again throughout the pandemic: social distancing, testing and tracing, and masking. That’s what the research supports, and what the experience of places ranging from San Francisco to New York to Germany and South Korea shows.
“It’s not rocket science. It’s not that we need some new thing that hasn’t been thought of before,” Jen Kates, director of global health and HIV policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, told me. “There are things that have been done in some cases, or can be done. But if there was a stronger, coordinated federal role … that could really make a difference. It’s happened in other countries.”
By failing to adequately support these policies, Trump and Pence have left America with one of the worst Covid-19 epidemics in the world, and on very shaky ground as the risk of fall and winter coronavirus surges looms.
Despite this, the Trump administration hasn’t shown a willingness to change its approach. Even after Trump got sick with Covid-19, he and his staff have continued pushing the idea that everything is fine — with Trump tweeting, “Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life.” Pence has also downplayed the need for stricter measures, down to plexiglass at the vice presidential debate, as the White House does everything it can to avoid reminding people that the coronavirus is still very much around.
It’s this record, one in which Pence consistently stuck with Trump’s botched response, that followed the vice president at Wednesday’s debate.