By JUSTIN GOMEZ and LINSEY DAVIS
(WASHINGTON) — Vice President Mike Pence defended President Donald Trump’s return to holding large rallies, typically with thousands of supporters seen standing shoulder-to-shoulder and not wearing masks, even after 200,000 Americans have died from the novel coronavirus.
“Well, we’re in an election year,” Pence told ABC News Live Anchor Linsey Davis on Wednesday. “President Trump and I trust the American people. We truly do believe in this freedom-loving nation that the American people know how to look after themselves, look after their families, and look after their neighbors and look out for the future of this country.”
Trump tweeted a photo from his Tuesday night rally in Philadelphia showing just how packed the event was.
Davis showed Pence, the head of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, the president’s photo and asked him how he can justify such a scene given the conflicting advice of health experts seeking to mitigate virus spread.
“We’ve trusted governors in our states, and most importantly we’ve trusted the American people,” Pence said.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf has limited outdoor events and gatherings to 250 people, a figure clearly violated by the Trump Campaign. But it’s not just social distancing recommendations that are being ignored at the president’s rallies — very few people are wearing masks.
On Sept. 16, Centers for Disease Control Director Robert Redfield testified before the Senate that he believes “face masks are the single most important public health tool we have,” but Trump mocked his Democratic Presidential opponent, Joe Biden, for embracing them.
Asked if he’s concerned about the optics of putting political aspirations above American lives, Pence reiterated to Davis that Americans know enough to take care of themselves.
“The American people, really throughout the course of the last eight months, have demonstrated the ability to put the health of their family and their neighbors first,” he said.
The president also held his rally just hours after the U.S. death toll from the coronavirus surpassed the 200,000 milestone. The U.S., which has about 4% of the world’s population, has accounted for 20% of the global death toll.
Davis asked Pence to explain that, but he didn’t have a direct answer, instead defending the administration’s efforts, which he said “saved hundreds of thousands of lives.”
“It’s a heartbreaking milestone, and — and really, our — our thoughts are will all of the families that have lost loved ones in the course of this pandemic,” Pence said. “I’m absolutely convinced that, because of the decisive action of President Trump, because of the dedication of the health officials at the state and federal level, our doctors and nurses in hospitals around the country, and because of the sacrifices the American people made, that we saved hundreds of thousands of lives that could have been lost in the midst of this pandemic.”
Pence pointed to Trump’s travel restrictions from China that went into effect on Feb. 2, but an ABC News investigation found that some 18,000 Americans returned home from China in February and March.
During the course of 18 on-the-record interviews with Bob Woodward, Trump also admitted during a Feb. 7 phone call that he knew the virus was “more deadly” than the flu even as he held packed campaign rallies through March 2 and repeatedly downplayed its severity.
“I always wanted to play it down,” Trump told Woodward, claiming he didn’t “want to create a panic.”
Over the course of the pandemic, he referred to the virus as being similar to the flu and that it would just “disappear,” telling ABC News Chief Anchor George Stephanopoulos during a town hall in Philadelphia that he actually “up-played” the danger of the disease and had no regrets about his response.
During a rally in Ohio on Sept. 21, Trump falsely claimed that the virus affects “virtually nobody,” saying it was only elderly individuals and “that’s it.” Davis asked Pence if he agreed with Trump’s assessment and if this is another example of the president playing down the virus.
“I’ve never heard the president downplay the coronavirus,” he said. “What the president’s made clear is that this is an infectious disease that has affected people all across the country.”
As the nation mourns the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the vice president said he remembers her as a “tenacious advocate for her judicial philosophy,” and told Davis that Trump soon will nominate “a woman who will bring a judicial philosophy in the tradition of Justice Antonin Scalia.”
“It’ll be his focus entirely on choosing a woman who brings the background, the intellect and the judicial philosophy that is — that is consistent with justices the president has appointed and the more than 200 federal judges we have appointed to the courts,” Pence added.
Trump has said he would announce his nominee from the White House on Saturday.
A leading contender for the vacancy is Judge Amy Coney Barrett, a former Notre Dame law professor who clerked for Scalia. She’s a devout Catholic and a favorite pick for religious conservatives who see an opportunity to overturn Roe vs. Wade, though Barrett has not ruled on any abortion-related cases.
“Judge Barrett is an extraordinary jurist,” Pence said. “And she’s among a number of women that are currently under consideration.”
The 2020 presidential campaign has been shaped by mass protests following the deaths of Black Americans, including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, by white police officers, and demonstrations calling for racial justice.
On Wednesday afternoon, a Kentucky grand jury indicted one officer for allegedly endangering her neighbors in the March 13 shooting that killed Taylor, but after months of calls for justice in her case, no others officers involved in her killing were charged.
“What happened to Breonna Taylor was a tragedy,” Pence said. Asked by Davis what he would say to protesters who are calling for systemic change, he shifted the question to the scenes of rioting and looting in some American cities, though the vast majority of those protesting racial injustice have been peaceful.
“We’re going to stand with law enforcement,” Pence said. “We owe our Black families across this country nothing less than safety in our streets, and we’re going to continue to work to advance that cause — and remain very confident that when tragic circumstances arise that are, that justice will be served.”
During campaign speeches, Pence routinely tells supporters that “Joe Biden says that America is systemically racist and that law enforcement in his words has a ‘implicit bias against minorities."”
A study by researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that black men are three times more likely to be killed by police than white men. Davis asked Pence if Black and white men are treated equally by U.S. police officers.
“President Trump and I believe the men and women who serve in law enforcement of every race and creed and color, are some of the best people in this country,” the vice president responded. “And we reject the notion from Joe Biden and others that there’s an implicit bias toward minorities in law enforcement.”
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