Senator Kamala Harris of California wasted no time in prosecuting the case against the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus.
“The American people have witnessed what is the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country,” she said in her opening remarks in Wednesday’s vice-presidential debate.
Ms. Harris, in her debate debut as former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s running mate, accused President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence of hiding the truth of the pandemic from the American people.
“They knew what was happening and they didn’t tell you,” she said. “They knew and they covered it up.”
Ms. Harris said a Biden administration would implement a “national strategy” for contact tracing and coronavirus testing, which she said would be free for all Americans. Mr. Trump, she said, does not deserve any more chances to solve the problem.
“This administration has forfeited their right to re-election,” she said.
And we’re off: Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris have taken the stage for the only vice-presidential debate of 2020, after what was an extraordinary week even by 2020 standards.
The coronavirus hangs over the event as it has hung over all of American life for months. There was no handshake. The candidates are seated 12 feet apart. Two plexiglass dividers stand between them, providing an illusion of protection that scientists said would not actually do anything against an airborne virus.
After President Trump was hospitalized for the coronavirus, Ms. Harris’s team had been pushing for stronger safety measures, including the plexiglass, in case Mr. Pence was infected. (He has tested negative, but tests are not always accurate until several days after exposure.) Aides to Mr. Pence had criticized the plans, but after negotiations, his staff accepted the placement of the dividers.
At last week’s presidential debate between Mr. Trump and Joseph R. Biden Jr., Mr. Trump’s family members took off their masks immediately after sitting down, in violation of the rules. Debate officials said that this time, anyone who violated the mask requirement would be removed from the auditorium.
The first question, to no one’s surprise, was about the coronavirus.
The plexiglass dividers that will separate Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris when they face off at their debate tonight in Salt Lake City will serve as powerful reminders of how the coronavirus has upended the presidential campaign and life in America.
A pandemic that has killed more than 210,000 people in the U.S. and cost millions of jobs was always going to be front and center in the campaign, but the physical dividers — the subject of a mini-debate about the debate when aides to Mr. Pence briefly objected to them — underscore the extent to which the outbreak has spread in recent days through the top levels of government, infecting President Trump, military leaders and several members of the Senate.
The outbreak served as a grim reminder of the main role of a vice president: to be able to step in and lead should the president become incapacitated or die.
Ms. Harris, still a relative newcomer to national politics who arrived in Washington as a senator in 2017, will have to make the case that she is ready to be a heartbeat away from the presidency. And Mr. Pence, the head of the White House coronavirus task force, will likely have to defend the government’s response to the virus — an effort that lagged behind other developed countries in Europe and Asia.
Both candidates have been preparing carefully. Mr. Pence went to Salt Lake City with two core players in his debate prep: Marc Short, his chief of staff, and the former Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, who played Ms. Harris in several formal 90-minute debate prep sessions that were held with the answers timed. (Aides said that Mr. Pence likes to prepare with people he feels comfortable with, and so they chose Mr. Walker — who had helped him prepare for his debate four years ago — rather than someone who was trying to look or sound like his opponent.)
At Ms. Harris’s mock debate sessions, Mr. Pence was played by Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., who ran in the Democratic presidential primary. Mr. Buttigieg was selected, aides said, for his debating skills and also because of his knowledge of Mr. Pence’s record as governor in their shared home state, Indiana.
As they prepare for their debate, Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris are confronting an electorate that is more or less divided. About one-fifth of voters say they don’t have much of an opinion of each candidate, but among those who do, strong opinions outnumber mildly favorable or unfavorable views.
Here’s what polling can tell us about the candidates and the debate.
Has Pence’s role in the virus response affected views of him?
Ms. Harris is unlikely to let Mr. Pence easily escape the fact that he was appointed to lead the White House’s coronavirus response — an effort that a wide majority of Americans not only disapprove of, but also have come to resent.
More than two-thirds of Americans said in an Axios/Ipsos poll late last month that they had little confidence in the federal government to look out for their best interests when it comes to the pandemic.
Still, in CNN polling conducted after President Trump announced his positive coronavirus test results on Friday, 62 percent of Americans said they thought Mr. Pence was qualified to serve as president. Just 35 percent said they didn’t think so. (Men were 12 points more likely than women to find him qualified.)
Harris is the only top candidate with net-positive ratings, but not by a lot.
Ms. Harris tends to fare slightly better than Mr. Pence in public perception and, on average, national polling shows that more Americans view her positively than negatively. In a Monmouth poll from early September, 43 percent gave her positive marks, and 37 percent saw her negatively. As with Mr. Pence, one in five said they had no opinion.
How will the fight over the virus and the debate itself play?
Despite widespread concern over the virus, recent polling showed that a large majority of Americans wanted the debates to go forward. More than three-quarters of likely voters in both Pennsylvania and Florida told New York Times/Siena College pollsters last week that they thought the other two presidential debates should go ahead as planned. But many of those respondents were contacted before Mr. Trump announced he had tested positive.
In the CNN poll taken after his diagnosis was made public, 63 percent of Americans said they thought the president had acted irresponsibly toward those around him in handling the risk of infection. That included more than seven in 10 women, and even a majority of white people without college degrees, a core Trump constituency.
While he has tested negative in recent days, Mr. Pence attended a White House event that has been linked to numerous officials who have since tested positive. Medical experts say there is still a chance that he could be carrying the virus.
Americans have consistently said in polls that they preferred to lean toward caution on lifting virus restrictions.
Unlike most debate moderators, the journalist guiding Wednesday’s event may not be familiar to many television viewers.
Susan Page, the Washington bureau chief of USA Today, is the first print journalist to moderate a general-election debate since 1976, when James Hoge of The Chicago Sun-Times moderated the first formal vice-presidential debate.
Ms. Page, 69, is a veteran political reporter who started covering the White House at USA Today in 1995. She has interviewed nine presidents and written a biography of Barbara Bush, the former first lady; her biography of Nancy Pelosi, the current House speaker, is forthcoming.
Although highly respected in Washington media circles, Ms. Page faced scrutiny last month after it was revealed that she had hosted a reception in 2018 at her Georgetown home in honor of Seema Verma, President Trump’s Medicare chief.
The event, described as a “girls’ night,” was part of a public-relations push that Ms. Verma orchestrated to ingratiate herself into the elite world of the capital. A spokeswoman for USA Today told The New York Times that Ms. Page had paid the party’s costs — roughly $4,500 — and was “unaware” that the event had been organized by a paid consultant.
The events were “well within the ethical standards that our journalists are expected to uphold,” the spokeswoman added.
Ms. Page, who did not release a list of the topics she planned to ask the vice-presidential candidates about, told USA Today that the bumpy experience of Chris Wallace, moderator of last week’s presidential debate, had not bothered her.
“It didn’t change anything,” Ms. Page said, “but it kind of reinforced the idea that this is an event for which you have to be very, very prepared.”
On Wednesday, Facebook said it would take more preventive measures to keep political candidates from using it to manipulate the election’s outcome and its aftermath. The company now plans to prohibit all political and issue-based advertising after the polls close on Nov. 3 for an undetermined length of time. And it said it would place notifications at the top of the News Feed notifying people that no winner had been decided until a victor was declared by news outlets.
The moves come after executives at the company, including Mark Zuckerberg, became increasingly alarmed by the presidential race. They have discussed President Trump’s evasive comments about whether he would accept a peaceful transfer of power if he lost the election and had conversations with civil rights groups, who have privately told them that the company needs to do more because Election Day could erupt into chaos, Facebook employees said.
“This is shaping up to be a very unique election,” Guy Rosen, vice president for integrity at Facebook, said in a call with reporters on Wednesday.
For years, Facebook has been striving to avoid another 2016 election fiasco, when it was used by Russian operatives to spread disinformation and to destabilize the American electorate.
The company is doing more to safeguard its platform after introducing measures to reduce election misinformation and interference on its site just last month. At the time, Facebook said it planned to ban new political ads for a contained period — the week before Election Day — and would act swiftly against posts that tried to dissuade people from voting. Mr. Zuckerberg also said Facebook would not make any other changes until there was an official election result.
But the additional moves underscore the sense of emergency about the election. On Tuesday, to help blunt further political turmoil, Facebook also said it would remove any group, page or Instagram account that openly identified with QAnon, the pro-Trump conspiracy movement.
President Trump said on Wednesday that he considered his struggle with the coronavirus a “blessing from God,” and promoted an experimental cocktail of drugs that is still in clinical trials.
“I call that a cure,” Mr. Trump said during a video address in which he claimed that he would provide hundreds of thousands of doses of the unapproved treatment to Americans free of charge.
Mr. Trump, whose skin appeared darkened by makeup and who appeared to struggle to get air at times, repeatedly mentioned the name of the company that produces the cocktail, Regeneron.
Asked about the president’s comments, his Democratic rival, Joseph R. Biden Jr., treaded cautiously.
“I’m going to think before I speak,” Mr. Biden said, according to a pool report. “I think it’s a tragedy the president deals with Covid like it is something not to be worried about when already 210,000 people have died.”
Asked if the medication Mr. Trump was taking for his illness was affecting his mental health, Mr. Biden demurred. “I have no idea and I’d never comment on the president’s mental health,” he said.
It is impossible to know the president’s exact status with the disease. Most people with the coronavirus eventually recover, and medical experts have said that Mr. Trump is most likely still battling it.
The president said that everyone should have access to the still-unapproved drug for “free” and that he would make sure it was in every hospital as soon as possible. He did not provide any details, other than saying the military could help distribute it.
“Good luck,” Mr. Trump said, ending the video.
A box fan, an air filter — and duct tape to attach them. With four such devices cobbled together for a grand total of about $150, the vice-presidential debate on Wednesday night can be made much safer than with the plexiglass barriers being used, according to experts in airborne viruses.
Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris will be seated more than 12 feet apart, with barriers between them. But the barriers will do nothing to protect Ms. Harris if Mr. Pence is infected and exhaling virus that can be carried through the air, experts said.
On Monday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new guidelines indicating that indoors, the virus can be carried aloft by aerosols — tiny droplets — farther than six feet. In one study in August, scientists found infectious virus at a distance of 16 feet from an infected patient.
Linsey Marr, an environmental engineering professor at Virginia Tech and an expert in airborne viruses, laughed outright when she saw a picture of the debate setup.
“It’s absurd,” she said. When she first heard there would be a plexiglass barrier, she said, she imagined an enclosure with an open back or top. “But these are even smaller and less adequate than I imagined.”
Other experts said the barriers would have made some sense if the debaters were seated close together.
“Those plexiglass barriers are really only going to be effective if the vice president or Kamala Harris are spitting at each other,” said Ellie Murray, an epidemiologist at Boston University.
“Those are really just splatter shields.”
“At 12 feet 3 inches apart, spray droplet transmission is not the issue,” said Donald Milton, an aerosol expert at the University of Maryland. “What is the ventilation like? What is the direction of the airflow?”
Dr. Milton and his colleagues contacted the debate commission and both campaigns to recommend purchasing plug-and-play air filters — excellent ones run to just about $300 each — or four box fans and air filters taped together. Each debater would have one device positioned to suck up and clean the air exhaled, and another to produce clean air.
In research conducted with singers over the past few months, they have found that this so-called “Corsi box” — named for Richard Corsi, the scientist who cobbled together the first one — can significantly decrease aerosols.
The safest solution, experts said, is to move the debate online.
The hashtag #AAPISheRose was trending on Twitter on Wednesday, as Asian-Americans shared stories of their family members and prominent women who have paved the way for what they see as a historic moment: Senator Kamala Harris, a Black and Indian-American vice-presidential candidate, taking the debate stage.
The hashtag was started by a group of prominent Asian-Americans that included Jeff Yang, a writer and journalist; Curtis Chin, a filmmaker; and Hannah Kim, the former chief of staff for Representative Charles B. Rangel, as a way to encourage the community to share personal stories and honor the strong female role models in their own lives.
As they discussed ways to celebrate Ms. Harris’s groundbreaking status as the first woman of color on a major party’s presidential ticket, Mr. Yang said, “the conversation turned to the idea of resilience, of standing up in the face of crisis, which so many of the AAPI women in our lives, from moms to mentors to pioneering icons, have done. They rose to the moment, rose to the occasion — and they raised us!”
“This is my mom, Bailing,” Mr. Yang wrote on Twitter. “She was the first of 12 siblings of a single mom to go to college in the US. On the day our first AAPI VP candidate @KamalaHarris takes the stage, I honor her and celebrate all the badass AAPI women who made us possible.”
“I’d like to honor 2 AAPI women who paved the way for so many,” the actor Daniel Dae Kim wrote on Twitter. “@TisaChang & #JadinWong, I will always remember the support you gave this young struggling actor.”
Sujata Day, an actress and director who shared her mother’s story, said that when she heard about the hashtag, it resonated immediately.
“My mom cried the day that she was chosen,” Ms. Day said in an interview about Ms. Harris’s selection. “For me, honestly, it’s always been my mom — she’s been such a cheerleader of me and everything that I do.”
The hashtag held special relevance, Ms. Day said, because Asian-Americans are typically taught to keep their successes hidden and to stay humble.
“I know that these amazing women don’t usually use their own voices to talk about all the amazing things that they’ve done,” Ms. Day said. “So it’s important for our generation to, you know, toot their horns.”
“This is my grandmother who dressed up like a boy to hitch a ride to town to go to school, and a lifelong advocate for teacher’s rights,” Alice Wu, a director and screenwriter, wrote in her tribute. “I honor her today as our first aapi candidate for VP @KamalaHarris takes the debate stage. You got this, Kamala. We got your back.”