Democracy & Elections

National Security Highlights from the Vice Presidential Debate

Vishnu Kannan
Thursday, October 8, 2020, 5:28 PM

Published by The Lawfare Institute
in Cooperation With

On Wednesday, USA Today hosted the first and only vice presidential debate of the 2020 election cycle, moderated by Susan Page.

We’ve combed through the transcript from the debate to present the national security-related exchanges. These excerpts are organized both thematically and chronologically.

A complete transcript is available from USA Today here.

COVID-19 and Pandemic Response

PAGE: Senator Harris, the coronavirus is not under control. Over the past week, Johns Hopkins reports that 39 states have had more COVID cases over the past seven days than in the week before. Nine states have set new records. Even if a vaccine is released soon, the next administration will face hard choices. What would a Biden administration do in January and February that a Trump administration wouldn't do? Would you impose new lockdowns for businesses and schools in hotspots? A federal mandate to wear masks?

HARRIS: And here are the facts. 210,000 dead people in our country in just the last several months. Over 7 million people who have contracted this disease. One in five businesses closed. We're looking at frontline workers who have been treated like sacrificial workers. We are looking at over 30 million people who in the last several months had to file for unemployment. And here's the thing, on January 28, the vice president and the president were informed about the nature of this pandemic. They were informed that it's lethal in consequence, that it is airborne, that it will affect young people and that it would be contracted because it is airborne. And they knew what was happening, and they didn't tell you. Can you imagine if you knew on January 28, as opposed to March 13, what they knew what you might have done to prepare? They knew and they covered it up. The president said it was a hoax. They minimized the seriousness of it. The president said you're on one side of his ledger if you wear a mask, you’re on the other side of his ledger if you don't. And in spite of all of that, today they still don't have a plan. Our plan is about what we need to do around a national strategy for contact tracing, for testing, for administration of the vaccine and making sure that it will be free for all. That is the plan that Joe Biden has and that I have, knowing that we have to get a hold of what has been going on and we need to save our country. …

PAGE: Vice President Pence, more than 210,000 Americans have died of COVID-19 since February. The U.S. death toll as a percentage of our population is higher than that of almost every other wealthy nation on Earth. For instance, our death rate is two and a half times that of Canada, next door. You head the administration's Coronavirus Task Force. Why is the U.S. death toll, as a percentage of our population, higher than that of almost every other wealthy country?

PENCE: But I want the American people to know that from the very first day, President Donald Trump has put the health of Americans first. Before there were more than five cases in the United States, all people who had returned from China, President Donald Trump did what no other American president had ever done. And that was he suspended all travel from China, the second largest economy in the world. Now, Senator Joe Biden, Biden opposed that decision. He said it was xenophobic and hysterical, but I can tell you, having led the White House Coronavirus Task Force, that that decision alone by President Trump bought us invaluable time to stand up the greatest national mobilization since World War II.

And I believe it’s saved hundreds of thousands of American lives. Because with that time we were able to reinvent testing. More than 115 million tests have been done to date. We were able to see to the delivery of billions of supplies so our doctors and nurses had the resources and support they needed. And we began, really before the month of February it was hard to develop a vaccine and to develop medicines and therapeutics that’ve been saving lives all along the way. And under President Trump's leadership, Operation Warp Speed, we believe, will have literally 10s of millions of doses of a vaccine before the end of this year. The reality is, when you look at the Biden plan, it reads an awful lot like what President Trump and I and our task force have been doing every step of the way. And quite frankly, when I look at their plan that talks about advancing testing, creating new PPE, developing a vaccine, umm, it looks a little bit like plagiarism... I think the American people know that this is a president who has put the health of America first and the American people, I believe with my heart, can be proud of the sacrifices they have made. It’s saved countless American lives.

HARRIS: Oh, absolutely. Whatever the Vice President's claiming the administration has done, clearly it hasn't worked when you're looking at over 210,000 dead bodies in our country, American lives that have been lost, families that are grieving that loss. And you know, the vice president is the head of the task force and knew, on January 28, how serious this was.


PENCE: The reality is Dr. Fauci said everything that he told the President in the Oval Office, the president told the American people. Now President Trump will tell you his boundless confidence in the American people and he always spoke with confidence that we'll get through this together. But when you say it hasn't worked- When Dr. Fauci, and Dr. Birks and our medical experts came to us in the second week of March, they said if the President didn't take the unprecedented step of shutting down roughly half of the American economy that we could lose 2.2 million Americans. But that's the reality.

PAGE: Vice President Pence, you sat in the front row in a Rose Garden event 11 days ago, at what seems to have been a super-spreader event for senior administration and congressional officials, no social distancing, few masks, and now a cluster of coronavirus cases among those who were there. How can you expect Americans to follow the administration safety guidelines to protect themselves from COVID when you were at the White House have not been doing so?

PENCE: … that Rose Garden Event, there’s been a great deal of speculation about it. My wife Karen and I were there and honored to be there. Many of the people who were at that event, Susan, actually were tested for coronavirus. And it was an outdoor event, which all of our scientists regularly and routinely advise, the difference here is President Trump and I trust the American people to make choices in the best interest of their health.

HARRIS: You respect the American people when you have the courage to be a leader –speaking of those things that you may not want people to hear but they need to hear so they can protect themselves. But this administration stood on information that if you had as a parent, if you had as a worker knowing you didn't have enough money saved up, and now you're standing in a food line because of the ineptitude of administration that was unwilling to speak the truth to the American people.

PAGE: Senator Harris… For life to get back to normal Dr. Anthony Fauci and other experts say that most of the people who can be vaccinated need to be vaccinated, but half of Americans now say they wouldn't take a vaccine if it was released now. If the Trump administration approves a vaccine, before after the election, should Americans take it and would you take it?

HARRIS: If the public health professionals, if Dr. Fauci, if the doctors tell us that we should take it, I'll be the first in line to take it. Absolutely. But if Donald Trump tells us that we should take it, I'm not taking it.

Candidate Health and Financial Transparency

PAGE: You know neither, neither President Trump nor Vice President Biden has released the sort of detailed health information that had become the modern norm until the 2016 election. And in recent days, President Trump's doctors have given misleading answers or refused to answer basic questions about his health. And my question to each of you, in turn, is, is this information voters deserve to know?

PENCE: … But the care the president received at Walter Reed, White House doctors, was exceptional. And the transparency that they practiced all along, they will continue because the American people have a right to know about the health and well-being of their President. And we'll continue to do that. …

PAGE: I wanna give Senator Harris a chance to respond to the same question I asked, which is do voters have a right to know more detailed health information about presidential candidates, and especially about presidents, especially when they're facing some kind of challenge?

HARRIS: Absolutely. And that's why Joe Biden has been so incredibly transparent. And certainly, by contrast, the President has not, both in terms of health records, but also let's look at taxes. We now know because of great investigative journalism that Donald Trump paid $750 in taxes.

And just so everyone is clear, when we say in debt it means you owe money to somebody. And it'd be really good to know who the President of the United States, the Commander in Chief, owes money to because the American people have a right to know what is influencing the president's decisions. And is he making those decisions on the best interest of the American people, of you, or self interest. So, Susan, I'm glad you asked about transparency, because it has to be across the board. Joe has been incredibly transparent over many, many years. The one thing we all know about Joe, he puts it all out there. He, he is honest. He is forthright. But Donald Trump on the other hand, has been about covering up everything.

PENCE: ... the American people have a president who is a businessman, he’s a job-creator. He’s paid tens of millions of dollars in taxes, payroll taxes, property taxes. He's created tens of thousands of American jobs. The president said those public reports are not accurate. And the President also released, literally, stacks of financial disclosures the American people can review just as the law allows.


PAGE: I'd like to talk about China. We have, as our next topic, we have no more complicated or consequential foreign relationship than the one with China. It is a huge market for American agricultural goods. It’s a potential partner in dealing with climate change and North Korea. And in a video tonight, President Trump again blamed it for the coronavirus, saying “China will pay.” Vice President Pence, how would you describe our, our fundamental relationship with China? Competitors? Adversaries? Enemies?

PENCE: … China is to blame for the coronavirus. And President Trump is not happy about it. He's made that very clear. He made it clear again today. China and the World Health Organization did not play straight with the American people. They did not let our personnel into China to get information on the coronavirus until the middle of February. Fortunately, President Trump, in dealing with China from the outset of this administration—standing up to China, that had been taking advantage of America for decades —in the wake of Joe Biden's cheerleading for China, President Trump made that decision before the end of January to suspend all travel from China. And again, the American people deserve to know, Joe Biden opposed President Trump's decision to suspend all travel to China. He said it was hysterical, he said it was xenophobic—but President Trump has stood up to China and will continue to stand strong.

We want to improve the relationship, but we're going to level the playing field and we’re going to hold China accountable for what they did to America with the coronavirus

PAGE: Senator Harris, I’m going to ask you the same question that I asked the Vice President. How would you describe our fundamental relationship with China? Are we competitors, adversaries, enemies?

HARRIS: the Trump administration's perspective, and approach to China has resulted in the loss of American lives, American jobs and America's standing. There is a weird obsession that President Trump has had with getting rid of whatever accomplishment was achieved by President Obama and Vice President Biden. For example, they created, within the White House, an office that basically was just responsible for monitoring pandemics…[T]hey got rid of it. There was a team of disease experts that President Obama and Vice President Biden dispatched to China to monitor what is now predictable and what might happen. They pulled them out. We now are looking at 210,000 Americans who have lost their lives.

Let's look at the job situation we mentioned before, the trade deal—the trade war, they wanted to call it—with China. It resulted in the loss of over 300 manufacturing jobs, and a manufacturing recession, and the American consumer paying thousands of dollars more for goods, because of that failed war, that they called it. And let's talk about standing. Pew, a reputable research firm, has done an analysis that shows that leaders of all of our formerly allied countries have now decided that they hold a greater esteem and respect Xi Jinping, the head of the Chinese Communist Party, than they do Donald Trump, the President of the United States, the commander in chief of the United States. This is where we are today, because of a failure of leadership by this administration.

Foreign Policy, Alliances, and Global Leadership

PAGE: Senator Harris, we've seen changes in the role of the United States, in terms of global leadership, over the past four years—and of course times do change. What's your definition—we've seen strains with China, of course, as the Vice President mentioned, we’ve seen strains with our traditional allies in NATO and elsewhere. What is your definition of the role of American leadership in 2020?

HARRIS: Joe, I think, he said, quite well. He says, you know, ‘Foreign policy: it might sound complicated, but really it's relationships there—just think about it as relationships.’ And so we know this, in our personal, professional relationships—you guys keep your word to your friends. Got to be loyal to your friends. People who have stood with you, got to stand with them. You got to know who your adversaries are, and keep them in check. But what we have seen with Donald Trump is that he has betrayed our friends and embraced dictators around the world.

Let's take for example, Russia. So, Russia—I serve on the Intelligence Committee of the United States Senate. America's intelligence community told us Russia interfered in the election of the President of the United States in 2016 and playing in 2020. Christopher Wray, the director of the FBI, said the same, but Donald Trump the commander in chief of the United States of America prefers to take the word of Vladimir Putin over the word of the American intelligence community. Look at our friends at NATO. He has walked away from agreements—you can look at the Iran nuclear deal, which now has put us in a position where we are less safe, because they are building up what might end up being a significant nuclear arsenal. We were in that deal, guys, we were in the Iran nuclear deal with friends and allies around the country, and because of Donald Trump's unilateral approach to foreign policy, coupled with his isolationism, he pulled us out and has made America less safe. So Susan, it's about relationships. And the thing that has always been part of the strength of our nation, in addition to our great military, has been that we keep our word. But Donald Trump doesn't understand that, because he doesn't understand what it means to be honest.

PENCE: Well, President Trump kept his word when we moved the American Embassy to Jerusalem, the capital of the State of Israel. When Joe Biden was vice president, they promised to do that and never did. We stood strong with our allies, but we've been demanding. NATO is now contributing more to our common defense than ever before. Thanks to President Trump's leadership, we strengthen our alliances across the Asia Pacific. And we've stood strong against those who would do us harm. You know when President Trump came into office, ISIS had captured an area of the Middle East, the size of Pennsylvania. President Trump unleashed the American military, and our armed forces destroyed the ISIS Caliphate and took down their leader al Baghdadi without one American casualty. al Baghdadi was responsible for the deaths of thousands. But notably, America's hearts today are with the family of Kayla Mueller, the parents of which are here with us tonight in Salt Lake City. Today, two of the ISIS killers responsible for Kayla Mueller's murder, were brought to justice in the United States. Jihadi John was killed on the battlefield, along with the other few.


We destroyed the ISIS caliphate. And you talk about reentering the Iran nuclear deal. I mean, the last administration transferred $1.8 billion to the leading state sponsor of terrorism –President Donald Trump got us out of the deal, and when Qasem Soleimani was traveling to Baghdad, to harm two Americans, President Donald Trump took him out. And America is safer, our allies are safer and the Americans should know—

HARRIS: ... So, after the strike on Soleimani, there was a counter strike on our troops in Iraq. And they suffered serious brain injuries, and you know what Donald Trump dismissed them as? Headaches. And this is about a pattern of Donald Trump's, where he has referred to our men who are serving in our military, as suckers and losers. Donald Trump, who went to Arlington Cemetery, and stood above the graves of our fallen heroes and said, ‘What's in it for them?’ Because, of course, you know he only thinks about what's in it for him. Let's take what he said about John McCain. A great American hero. And Donald Trump says he doesn't deserve to be called a hero because he was a prisoner of war. Take—and this is, this is very important. When you want to talk about who is the current commander in chief, and what they care about and what they don't care about. Public reporting that Russia had bounties on the heads of American soldiers, and you know what a bounty is? Somebody puts a price on your head, and they will pay it if you are killed. And Donald Trump has talked at least six times to Vladmir Putin, and never brought up the subject. Joe Biden would never do that. Joe Biden – Joe Biden would hold Russia to account for any threat to our nation's security or to our troops who are sacrificing their lives for the sake of our democracy and our safety.

PENCE: The American people deserve to know, Quasem Soleimani, the Iranian general, was responsible for the death of hundreds of American servicemembers. When the opportunity came, we saw him headed to Baghdad to kill more Americans, President Trump didn't hesitate and Quasem Soleimani is gone. But you deserve to know that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris actually criticized the decision to take out on Quasem Soleimani. It's really inexplicable, but with regard to Joe Biden it's explainable, because history records that Joe Biden actually opposed the raid against Osama bin Laden. It's absolutely essential that we have a commander in chief who will not hesitate to act to protect American lives and to protect American servicemembers, and that's what you have in President Donald Trump.

Race and Law Enforcement

PAGE: In March, Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency room technician in Louisville, was shot and killed after police officers executing a search warrant on a narcotics investigation broke into her apartment. The police said they identified themselves. Taylor's boyfriend said he didn't hear them do that. He used a gun registered to him to fire a shot, which wounded an officer. The officers then fired more than 20 rounds into the apartment. They say they were acting in self defense. None of them have been indicted in connection with her death. Senator Harris, in the case of Breonna Taylor, was justice done? You have two minutes.

HARRIS: I don't believe so, and I've talked with Breonna’s mother, Tamika Palmer, and her family, and she deserves justice. … We need reform of our policing in America and our criminal justice system, which is why Joe and I will immediately ban chokeholds and carotid holds. George Ford would be alive today if we did that. We will require a national registry for police officers who break the law, we will—on the issue of criminal justice reform—get rid of private prisons and cash bail and we will decriminalize marijuana, and we will expunge the records of those who have been convicted of marijuana.

PENCE: Well our heart breaks for the loss of any innocent American lives, and the family of Breonna Taylor has our sympathies. But I trust our justice system, a grand jury that reviews the evidence. And it really is remarkable, that as a former prosecutor, you would assume that in a panel grand jury, looking at all the evidence, got it all wrong. … But there's also no excuse for the rioting and looting that followed. …

HARRIS: I will not sit here and be lectured by the Vice President on what it means to enforce the laws of our country. … And the reality of this is, that we are talking about an election in 27 days where last week, the President of the United States took the debate stage in front of 70 million Americans and refused to condemn white supremacists. And—it wasn't like he didn't have a chance. He didn't do it, and then he doubled down. And then he said, when pressed, ‘Stand back. Stand by.’ And this is a part of a pattern of Donald Trump. He was—he called Mexicans rapists and criminals. He instituted as his first act a Muslim ban. He, on the issue of Charlottesville, where people were peacefully protesting the need for racial justice, where a young woman was killed and on the other side there were neo-Nazis carrying tiki torches shouting racial epithets, anti semitic slurs. And Donald Trump, when asked about it, said there were fine people on both sides. This is who we have as the President of the United States. And America, you deserve better. Joe Biden will be a president who brings our country together.

PENCE: I think that's one of the things that makes people dislike the media so much in this country. That you selectively edited, like Senator Harris did, a promise that President Trump and I, and others on our side of the aisle make. Senator Harris conveniently omitted, after the President made comments about people on either side of the debate over monuments, he condemned the KKK, neo-Nazis and white supremacists and has done so repeatedly. Your concern that he doesn't condemn neo-Nazis—President Trump has Jewish grandchildren. This is a president who respects and cherishes all of the American people. But you talk about having personally prosecuted—glad you brought up your records.


I really need to make this point. When you were DA in San Francisco, when you held that office, African Americans were 19 times more likely to be prosecuted for minor drug offenses than whites and Hispanics. When you were Attorney General of California, you increased the disproportionate incarceration of Blacks in California. You did nothing on criminal justice reform in California. You didn't lift a finger to pass the first step back on Capitol Hill. The reality is, you're representing yourself. President Trump and I have fought for criminal justice, for

HARRIS: Our agenda includes what this administration has failed to do. It will be about not only instituting a ban on chokeholds and carotid holes.

I want to talk about the connection between what Joe and I will do and my record, which includes—I was the first statewide officer to institute a requirement that my agents would wear body cameras and keep them on full time. We were the first to initiate a requirement that there would be a training for law enforcement on implicit bias, because yes, Joe Biden I recognize that implicit bias does exist, Mr. Vice President, contrary to what you may believe. We did the work of instituting reforms that were about investing in reentry. This is the work that we have done and the work we will do going forward and, again, I will not be lectured by the Vice President, on our record of what we have done in terms of law enforcement and keeping our community safe and a commitment to reforming the criminal justice system of America.

Election Integrity and the Peaceful Transfer of Power

PAGE: President Trump has, several times, refused to commit himself to a peaceful transfer of power after the election. If your ticket wins and President Trump refuses to accept a peaceful transfer of power, what steps would you and Vice President Biden then take? What would happen next?

HARRIS: So, I'll tell you. Joe and I are particularly proud of the coalition we've built around our campaign. We probably have one of the broadest coalition's of folks that you've ever seen in a presidential race. Of course we have the support of Democrats, but also independents and Republicans, in fact, seven members of President George W Bush's cabinet are supporting our ticket. We have the support of Colin Powell, Cindy McCain, John Kasich, over 500 generals, retired generals, and former national security experts and advisors are supporting our campaign. And I believe they are doing that because they know that Joe Biden has a deep, deep seated commitment to fight for our democracy, and to fight for the integrity of our democracy, and to bring integrity back to the White House. And so, we believe in the American people. We believe in our democracy. And here's what I'd like to say to everybody: vote. Please vote, vote early, come up with a plan to vote, go to You can also go to Joe We have it within our power in these next 27 days to make the decision about what will be the course of our country for the next four years. And it is within our power, and if we use our vote, and we use our voice, we will win. And we will not let anyone subvert our democracy, with what Donald Trump has been doing as he did on the debate stage last week, when again in front of 70 million people, he openly attempted to suppress the vote. Joe Biden, on the other hand, on that same debate stage—because clearly Donald Trump doesn't think he can run on a record because it's a failed record—Joe Biden said on that stage, said, ‘Hey, just please vote.’ So I'll repeat what Joe said. Please vote.

PAGE: Vice President Pence, President Trump has several times refused to commit himself to a peaceful transfer of power after the election. If Vice President Biden is declared the winner and President Trump refuses to accept a peaceful transfer of power, what would be your role and responsibility as Vice President? What would you personally do? You have two minutes.

PENCE: Well, Susan, first and foremost, I think we're gonna win this election. … When you talk about accepting the outcome of the election, I must tell you, Senator, your party has spent the last three and a half years trying to overturn the results of the last election. It's amazing. When Joe Biden was vice president of the United States, the FBI actually spied on President Trump and my campaign. I mean there were documents released this week that the CIA actually made a referral to the FBI documenting that those allegations were coming from the Hillary Clinton campaign, and of course, we've all seen the avalanche with the—what, what country’s been through for, for the better part of three years, until it was found that there was no obstruction, no collusion, case closed. And then Senator Harris, you and your colleagues in the Congress tried to impeach the president of the United States, over a phone call. And now Hillary Clinton has actually said to Joe Biden that under, in her words, under no circumstances should he concede election. So let me just say, I think we're gonna win this election. President Trump and I are fighting every day in courthouses to prevent Joe Biden and Kamala Harris from changing the rules and creating this universal mail-in voting, they'll create a massive opportunity for voter fraud. We have a free and fair election; we know we're going to have confidence in it. And I believe in all my heart that President Donald Trump's gonna be reelected for four more years.

Vishnu Kannan is special assistant to the president at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Previously he was a James C. Gaither Junior Fellow in Carnegie’s Technology and International Affairs Program, a researcher at Lawfare and the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and an intern at the Brookings Institution. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Michigan State University where he studied International Relations, Political Theory and Economics.

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