'I'm speaking' vs. 'If I may finish': Pence, Harris spar over COVID-19 and other top moments from the VP debate

Rebecca Morin and Jeanine Santucci, USA TODAY
·8 min read

WASHINGTON – It wasn’t, for the most part, another debate night full of cross talk.

But the first and only vice presidential debate of 2020 wasn’t exempt from tense moments.

Vice President Mike Pence and Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris hit each other on taxes, climate change and the COVID-19 responses Wednesday night in Utah.

Here are some of the top moments of the debate:

Harris: Trump has no plan on COVID; Pence: Biden's plan is basically ours

Pence and Harris shared several tense moments in a conversation on COVID-19, as the coronavirus pandemic took center stage at the start.

“This administration has forfeited their right to reelection,” Harris said, criticizing the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic that has killed more than 210,000 Americans. More than 415,000 people in the U.S. also have been hospitalized with COVID-19.

Vice President Mike Pence listens as Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., speaks during the vice presidential debate Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020, at Kingsbury Hall on the campus of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. (Justin Sullivan/Pool via AP)
Vice President Mike Pence listens as Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., speaks during the vice presidential debate Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020, at Kingsbury Hall on the campus of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. (Justin Sullivan/Pool via AP)

More: Pence uses debate against Harris to attack Biden agenda

But the vice president defended the administration’s response while taking a shot at Biden over past plagiarism scandals. Biden throughout the campaign has laid out a COVID-19 response plan that he has repeatedly said Trump should put in place now.

“The reality is when you look at the Biden plan, it looks a little like plagiarism,” Pence said. He added, that is “something that Joe Biden knows a little bit about.”

Harris, during her time to respond to Pence’s remarks, went on to criticize Trump for comments he made to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, where the president said he downplayed the virus in an attempt to avoid public panic. Pence attempted to cut in during the California senator's time.

“Mr. Vice President, I'm speaking — I'm speaking," Harris said to Pence.

Later during the debate, Harris attempted to interrupt Pence.

"If I may finish, Senator,” Pence responded.

Harris ended the segment by saying that she would only take a COVID-19 vaccine if health professionals say it’s OK.

“If the public health officials, if Dr. Fauci, if the doctors tell us we should take it, I'll be the first in line. Absolutely,” Harris said, referring to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “But if Donald Trump tells us to take it, I’m not taking it.”

More from the debate: Pence says administration trusts people to make health choices

Taxes take the limelight in a dodge of health question

Harris used a question about health transparency to instead highlight reporting that showed Trump paid only $750 in personal federal income taxes in 2016 and 2017, and he paid no income taxes at all in 10 of the previous 15 years. Trump has dismissed the reporting as false.

“When I first heard it, I said, 'Do you mean $750,000?'” Harris said.

Susan Page: Five things to know about the moderator of Wednesday's VP debate

The New York Times’ analysis of tax records revealed financial losses that helped Trump avoid paying taxes, and that he is beset by hundreds of millions in personal debt that is set to come due over the next four years.

“It would be really great to know who the president of the United States and the commander in chief owes money to,” she said. “Is he making those decisions in the best interest of the American people… or self interest?”

She touted the transparency of Biden, who has released tax information while Trump has maintained he will not while the Internal Revenue Service is auditing him. (An audit does not prevent him from releasing the records.) He is the first major candidate for president in four decades who has refused to release tax returns.

Pence said Trump has called the report inaccurate and said he paid tens of millions of dollars in payroll and property taxes. Trump is a businessman, Pence insisted in his response, who created tens of thousands of jobs. He said Trump has worked to “turn this economy around, cutting taxes, rolling back regulations, fighting for free and fair trade.”

Speaking to the question of transparency about Trump’s health, Pence maintained that information about the president's health has been disclosed in a transparent manner. But information that came out of the White House and Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where Trump spent the weekend after his COVID diagnosis, was at times contradictory.

“The transparency that they practiced all along will continue,” Pence said. “The American people have a right to know about the health of their president, and we’ll continue to do that.”

'The climate is changing. We'll follow the science'

During a discussion on climate change – a key issue for many young and progressive voters – Harris hit the Trump-Pence administration for its stance and accused the administration of not “believing in science.”

“Joe understands that the West Coast of our country is burning, including my home state of California,” she said. “Joe believes in science. We’ve seen a pattern from this administration – and that’s, they don’t believe in science.”

More than 4 million acres of land in California have been burned by wildfires this year. But the California senator didn’t answer questions about previously supporting the Green New Deal.

Pence shot back that Biden wants to ban fracking, something the former vice president has said he will not do.

“Joe Biden will not ban fracking,” Harris said.

When asked by moderator Susan Page of USA TODAY about whether he believes climate change is an existential threat to the country, Pence simply said that the administration will follow science.

“The climate is changing. We'll follow the science,” Pence said, but then quickly shifted, accusing Harris and Biden of wanting to raise taxes.

Foreign policy dredges up history with both Russia and China

Pence and Harris argued over the Trump administration’s approach to foreign policy, with the California senator asserting that Trump has betrayed allies and done the opposite with adversaries and the vice president defending his administration’s approach to trade deals.

An approach to foreign relations should be like a personal relationship, Harris said.

“People who stood with you, gotta stand with them,” she said. “Gotta know who your adversaries are and keep them in check.”

“What we have seen with Donald Trump is that he has betrayed our friends and embraced dictators around the world,” Harris said.

Regarding Russia, Harris said that when it comes to election interference, Trump “prefers to take the word of Vladimir Putin over the word of the American intelligence community.”

She ripped the administration for being cozy with U.S. adversaries and betraying the trust of NATO allies overseas, and said Trump has hurt America’s standing overseas because “Donald Trump doesn’t understand what it means to be honest.”

Vice presidential debate: Kamala Harris and Mike Pence spar over healthcare
Vice presidential debate: Kamala Harris and Mike Pence spar over healthcare

On the topic of foreign policy, Pence said that his administration has been tough on terrorists and touted the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement enacted under Trump, which was seen as a modernization of NAFTA.

Pence also said Trump stood up to China's unfair trade policies, while Biden rolled over and "never fought" the necessary war.

"Joe Biden's been a cheerleader for communist China," Pence said.

Pence invited the parents of a humanitarian aid worker who was killed in Syria to the debate to help him make a point during a discussion of global leadership.

“When Joe Biden was vice president, they hesitated for a month,” he said.

'We can and will have a respectful exchange': Harris, Pence wave to crowd, sit between plexiglass to begin vice presidential debate

Kayla Mueller was abducted in 2013, and endured rape and torture. Her parents have said the Obama administration vowed to do everything it could to investigate her abduction, but it wasn’t enough.

Pence praised Trump for taking decisive action in killing one of Mueller’s Islamic State tormenters, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Harris said to the family that she knows about their daughter and she expressed her condolences.

“What happened should never have happened,” she said. “And I know Joe Biden feels the same way.

Former Louisville police officer Brett Hankison has been indicted on criminal charges after shooting into the apartments next door to Breonna Taylor.
Former Louisville police officer Brett Hankison has been indicted on criminal charges after shooting into the apartments next door to Breonna Taylor.

Was justice served in the Breonna Taylor case?

The high-profile deaths of Black Americans, including George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, were a defining moment for the country throughout the summer, sparking nationwide protests against racism and police brutality and in some places violence.

Harris and Pence were asked if Taylor received justice after no one was charged with killing her. One officer was charged of first-degree wanton endangerment for shooting into a nearby apartment, not Taylor's.

More: Kamala Harris and Mike Pence disagree on whether 'justice was served' in Breonna Taylor case

Pence and Harris disagreed.

“I don’t believe so,” Harris said when asked whether justice was served, adding that she was heartbroken talking with Taylor’s mother and family. “Her family deserves justice. Her life was taken unjustifiably, and tragically, and violently.”

Pence said, “Our heart breaks for any American innocent life.” He added: “But I trust our justice system – a grand jury that reviewed the evidence.”

Harris detailed how a Biden administration would approach criminal justice: banning the practice of chokeholds by police, creating a registry of officers who break the law, getting rid of private prisons and the cash bail system, and decriminalizing marijuana.

Meanwhile, Pence denounced the idea that law enforcement is systemically racist, calling it a “great insult.”

“President Trump and I stand with you,” Pence said, addressing people who work in law enforcement.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Vice presidential debate: Top moments between Kamala Harris, Mike Pence