Pence, Harris spar over federal COVID response as Trump's illness remains focal point

The two candidates were seated 12 feet apart and separated by sheets of plexiglass in a debate that has taken on a heightened importance.
/ Source: NBC News

Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris sparred on Wednesday night over the federal response to the coronavirus, as President Donald Trump’s own diagnosis remained in the forefront of the campaign.

Harris sought to depict the response by the Trump administration as an abject failure and criticized the president for what she said was dishonesty with the American people with deadly consequences.

“The American people have witnessed the greatest failure of any presidential administration in our history,” Harris, a Democrat of California, said, responding to moderator Susan Page of USA Today's question.

Pence, asked to defend the White House's health protocols as nearly 20 people tied to Trump have recently been diagnosed with the virus including many who attended an event in the Rose Garden, insisted that the president has been forthcoming.

"That Rose Garden event, there's been a great deal of speculation about it. My wife Karen and I were there many of the people that were there were tested. It was an outdoor event which our doctors and scientists regularly advise," Pence said.

"The difference here is President Trump and I trust the American people," Pence added. "Joe Biden and Kamala Harris consistently talk about mandates."

Trump's White House doctors have been criticized in recent days for not being forthcoming about the president's condition, leaving the American public unsure of the severity of the president's illness.

Pence, given an opportunity to speak to that trust gap, insisted that the doctors had been transparent.

"The transparency that they practiced all along the way will continue as the American people have a right to know about the health and wellbeing of their president," he said, adding that he was "moved" by the outpouring of support for the president.

The candidates also disagreed over the economy. Pence accused Biden of supporting tax increases. He also argued Biden would ban fracking, an industry important in the critical swing state of Pennsylvania.

"Joe Biden will not raise taxes on anyone who makes less than $400,00 a year," Harris said. "Joe Biden will not ban fracking, he's been very clear about that."

Throughout the debate Harris argued the Trump administration is at odds with science, on issues ranging from the virus to climate change.

"We have seen a pattern with this administration which is they don't believe in science,” Harris said, calling climate change an "existential threat."

Pence declined to name the climate as an existential threat, instead pivoting back to taxes, fracking and the Green New Deal.

The vice presidential debate typically draws little fanfare, Pence and Harris will be examined by voters who are choosing between two senior citizens for president.

Trump’s coronavirus diagnosis last week sparked questions over the transferral of the powers of the presidency. Democratic nominee Joe Biden has said he sees himself as a "bridge" to the next generation of Democrats, raising speculation as to whether he would seek a second term.

Regardless of who wins, Trump, 74, and Biden, 77, would both set a new record for the oldest president to take the oath on inauguration day.

The 90-minute debate is moderated by USA Today’s Susan Page and it is the only vice presidential debate of the 2020 presidential campaign.

The debate is divided into nine segments of approximately 10 minutes each and there are no commercial breaks. Topics were not disclosed ahead of time.

Harris also made history as the first Black woman and the first Asian American to participate in a general election debate as a candidate on a major-party ticket.

While Trump’s diagnosis hung over the debate hall, Wednesday's event also featured a visual reminder of the ongoing pandemic and the nearly 20 people tied to Trump who have tested positive for the virus in the past few days.

Sheets of plexiglass separated the two candidates on the stage, an extra safety measure that Harris requested because of Pence’s potential exposure to Trump. There was some concern that Trump could have infected Biden during last week’s debate. Biden has consistently tested negative.

The candidates were also separated by more than 12 feet, an increase from the 7 feet that kept Trump and Biden apart.

Masks were required by all attendees except for the candidates and the moderator. The Committee on Presidential Debates has indicated that the mask requirement would be enforced on Wednesday, following last week's debate when members of the Trump family ignored the rule.

Both Pence and Harris have tested negative for COVID-19 multiple days in a row, according to their campaigns.

This story originally appeared on NBCNews.com.