Donald Trump was put on trial in his absence during the vice-presidential debate as his running mate Mike Pence was accused of trying to defend the indefensible.
Hillary Clinton’s running mate Tim Kaine used Tuesday night’s face-off to attack Trump’s record throughout the contest.
Pence gave a polished performance that could have given some hope to Republicans but he was repeatedly forced on the back foot by a brutal catalogue of Trump’s actions and words.
“Six times tonight I have said to governor Pence, I can’t imagine how you defend your running mate’s position,” Kaine said. “He is asking everybody to vote for somebody that he cannot defend.”
Pence remained steady under fire during the only vice-presidential debate of the campaign, but, after repeatedly being pressed, awkwardly told Kaine: “You whipped out that Mexican thing again,” after the Democrat relentlessly brought up Trump’s comments, made when he announced his candidacy, that the Mexican government was deliberately sending rapists into the United States. “Can you defend it?” Kaine demanded.
Kaine attacked the Trump record on issues ranging from tax, nuclear weapons and Senator John McCain’s war service to his description of women as “slobs” and “pigs”, his suggestion that women who have abortions should be punished and his questioning of Barack Obama’s birthplace.
Referring to Trump’s past praise for dictators, Kaine said: “He’s got a personal Mount Rushmore: Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-un, Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein.”
Mostly Pence flatly denied that Trump had made controversial statements and, instead of defending the candidate, resorted to the strategy of gaslighting, by repeatedly challenging known facts to manipulate the truth.
He claimed Trump’s past remarks were “small potatoes” compared to Clinton’s infamous comment when she described half of Trump supporters as “a basket full of deplorables”.
The debate in Farmville, Virginia, with the candidates sitting at a table rather than standing at lecterns, was not expected to have a major impact on the presidential race, though Trump himself could not resist providing a live commentary via Twitter. He claimed: “Mike Pence won big. We should all be proud of Mike!”
Pence started strongly and looked directly into the camera in a way that the Democratic running mate Kaine did not. After a bewildering political year that has shaken the Republican party, Pence, a 12-year congressman and Indiana governor came over as a somewhat authentic voice of conservatism who may be consoling and energizing for party members who find Trump distasteful.
He attacked Clinton’s record as secretary of state, arguing: “We see entire portions of the world, particularly the wider Middle East, literally spinning out of control.” He cited the crisis in Syria and a newly emboldened Russia following a failed Clinton “reset”.
Referring to Clinton’s use of a private email server at her home, Pence, referencing the fact that he and Kaine both have sons who are US marines, remarked: “If your son or my son handled classified information the way Hillary Clinton did, they’d be court martialed.”
Seeking to play the role of Clinton attack dog, Kaine interrupted several times, perhaps a little too zealously. He delivered some evidently rehearsed lines, telling Pence: “You are Donald Trump’s apprentice,” and asking: “Do you want a ‘you’re hired’ president in Hillary Clinton or do you want a ‘you’re fired’ president in Donald Trump?”
Pence, who remained composed in manner and voice, a contrast to the thin-skinned Trump, responded: “You use that a whole lot. And I think your running mate used a lot of pre-done lines.”
Debating the economy, the Republican said with assurance: “Senator, you can roll out numbers and the sunny side, but I got to tell you, people in Scranton know different; people in Fort Wayne, Indiana, know different. I mean, this economy is struggling.”
Kaine, however, gradually found his footing and scored points when he attacked Trump. He had plenty of material to work with. He seized the opportunity to rebroadcast, before an audience of millions, many of Trump’s most offensive and infamous remarks about Mexicans, Muslims and women.
“There is a fundamental respect issue here,” the Democrat said. “And I just want to talk about the tone set from the top. Donald Trump during this campaign has called Mexicans rapists and criminals, he’s called women slobs, pigs, dogs, disgusting. I don’t like saying that in front of my wife and mother.
“He attacked an Indiana-born federal judge and said he was unqualified to hear a federal lawsuit because his parents were Mexican. He went after John McCain, a POW, and said he wasn’t a hero because he’d been captured. He said African Americans are living in hell. And he perpetrated this outrageous and bigoted lie that President Obama is not a US citizen.”
He added: “I cannot believe that governor Pence will defend the insult-driven campaign that Donald Trump has run.”
On almost every occasion, Pence offered little by way of defense. When confronted with Trump’s comments that women should be punished for having abortions, a statement the former reality TV star later attempted to walk back, Pence simply offered: “Look, he’s not a polished politician like you and Hillary Clinton.”
“Why don’t you trust women? Kaine asked retorted.
When the discussion turned to criminal justice reform, both candidates were in agreement on at least one thing: the government must do more to support the police.
But Kaine and Pence differed dramatically on how to resolve heightened tensions between law enforcement and communities of color after a series of high-profile police killings of unarmed black men.
Kaine warned of the dangers of Trump’s desire for a return to controversial stop and frisk tactics while Pence categorically denied there was racial bias in policing tactics. “Senator, please,” Pence said, turning to Kaine: “Enough of this seeking every opportunity to demean law enforcement broadly by making the accusation of implicit bias every time tragedy occurs.”
Pence dramatically broke from his running mate on several foreign policy issues, criticizing Putin as a “small and bullying leader” and expressing a willingness for the United States to engage in military action against the Assad regime. “The United States of America should be prepared to use military force to strike military targets of the Assad regime to prevent them from this humanitarian crisis that is taking place in Aleppo,” Pence said on stage.
In contrast, Trump said in May: “I would have stayed out of Syria and wouldn’t have fought so much . . . against Assad because I thought that was a whole thing.” Although the Republican nominee said Assad was “bad” in a 2015 interview with the Guardian, he has long made clear that the United States should not intervene in Syria and that the United States should cooperate with Russia, a close regime ally, in the region to combat Islamic militants.
Jason Miller, senior communications adviser to Trump, insisted last night: “Mr Trump has been very clear where he stands where it comes to Syria and while I appreciate your efforts to go and try to create a divide between the two, we have a very unified ticket.”
Miller added: “Governor Pence and Mr Trump will be right in line on Syria” and said that there was “no daylight” between the two on the issue.
David Bossie, Trump’s deputy campaign manager, insisted after the debate that “he didn’t hear that specific line” when asked about Pence’s comments about Putin. He also said he wasn’t sure if Trump agreed with his running mate on Syria. “I am going to have to talk to Mr Trump about that,” Bossie told the Guardian.
Following the debate, moderated by Elaine Quijano of CBS News in Longwood University’s basketball arena, Clinton campaign aides told reporters that Pence had arrived with a game plan to present a more reasonable posture and to avoid defending Trump at all costs.
“Mike Pence could have given the performance of his life tonight and it wouldn’t have made a dime’s worth a difference in terms of convincing the public that Donald Trump is temperamentally fit to be president,” Brian Fallon, a spokesman for the Clinton campaign, said in the spin room.
Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook said Pence essentially “threw Donald Trump under the bus” on several policy issues, including US-Russia relations and the Syrian civil war.
“That’s disturbing,” Mook said. “These two people have to work as a unit. That clearly was not on display here tonight.”
John Brabender, an adviser to the Pence campaign, said: “I thought from the opening bell, Pence looked strong and likable and articulated the issues extremely well and won the debate going away.”
He added: “More importantly did probably the best job between the two debates of somebody showing both a vision for Trump and laying out the case against Hillary Clinton. I thought he did a better job than Donald Trump did.”