FARMVILLE, Va. ― Donald Trump’s running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R), spent much of the first and only vice presidential debate Tuesday night doing his damnedest to get Americans to forget all of the offensive things Trump has said.
Pence repeatedly tried to skirt around statements Trump actually said — or simply shook his head and ignored the question.
“I’m happy to defend [Trump],” Pence said.
But Pence rarely actually defended Trump. Instead, he dodged or outright denied his running mate’s statements. Some examples:
When Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Hillary Clinton’s running mate, accused Trump of praising Russian president Vladimir Putin as a “great leader,” Pence denied it and called Putin a “small and bullying leader.” But Trump has repeatedly praised Putin.
When Kaine said that Trump recently claimed Putin was not going into Ukraine, Pence denied it. But Trump did say, “He’s not going into Ukraine, OK, just so you understand. He’s not going to go into Ukraine, all right? You can mark it down. You can put it down. You can take it anywhere you want.” Putin took the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014.
When Kaine challenged Pence to defend Trump’s comment that more nations should get nuclear weapons, Pence said “he never said that.” But Trump did.
When Kaine pointed out that Trump had once promised to release his tax returns, Pence replied, “He said he will do it.” Trump has repeatedly said he can’t release his returns because he is being audited by the IRS. (The IRS has said nothing prevents him from releasing them.) There is absolutely no evidence that Trump will actually release his returns. His son, Donald Trump Jr., has admitted that there’s a more political reason the campaign is not releasing the returns: It would be a distraction and create too many “questions.”
Kaine said Trump wants to have a “deportation force”: “They want to go house to house, school to school, business to business, and kick out 16 million people.” Pence called Kaine’s statement “nonsense.” Last year, Trump himself used the term “deportation force” in an interview with MSNBC’s “Morning Joe”: “You’re going to have a deportation force, and you’re going to do it humanely. And you’re going to bring the country – and frankly, the people, because you have some excellent wonderful people, some fantastic people that have been here for a long period of time.”
Pence tried to defend Trump’s comments about Mexicans after Kaine pointed out that the GOP presidential candidate has called immigrants from the country “rapists.”
“He also said, ‘many of them are good people,’” Pence replied.
Trump’s actual quote last year was: “When Mexico sends its people they’re not sending their best. They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists, and some, I assume, are good people.”
When Kaine said that Trump had said women should be punished for abortion, Pence said, “Donald Trump and I would never support legislation that punished women who made the heartbreaking choice to end a pregnancy.” But Trump did say that women who have abortions should be punished.
Immediately after the debate, GOP operatives piled into the spin room and dismissed the idea that Pence had dodged any topic.
“What didn’t he stand up for?” asked Sean Spicer, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee. “That’s silly to suggest. He defended Trump on every single issue.”
When The Huffington Post cited Pence’s pivot away from the question about Trump’s comments on Putin invading Ukraine, Spicer opted to ... pivot.
“I think Trump had clarified at the time...” he said, trailing off. “Frankly, if I were Democrats right now, I’d be ashamed of the job that Tim Kaine did. He didn’t defend Hillary Clinton.”
Democrats, of course, said Pence spent the whole night trying to avoid Trump’s controversies.
“What you saw was Pence not defending Donald Trump and, frankly, lying or running away,” said Clinton campaign spokeswoman Karen Finney. “The most egregious example was on Vladimir Putin. Donald Trump said he believed Vladimir Putin is a better leader than Barack Obama. When asked about it, Pence said he absolutely agreed with that. Tonight, he said something completely different.”
For his part, Pence argued that Clinton is the truly offensive candidate in the race for president.
He attacked Clinton and Kaine for suggesting that a black police officer could be biased. People “seize upon tragedy as a reason to use a broad brush to accuse law enforcement of implicit bias or institutional racism,” Pence said. “That really has got to stop.”
And he slammed Clinton for suggesting that many of Trump’s supporters are motivated by bigotry. “Hillary Clinton said that half of our supporters were a basket of deplorables,” Pence said. “She said they were irredeemable, not American. It is extraordinary. She nailed one after another ‘ism’ on millions of Americans who believe we can end illegal immigration once and for all.”
Pence was “gaslighting,” MSNBC’s Chris Hayes tweeted. As Huffington Post reporter Melissa Jeltsen explained in March, gaslighting — questioning and undermining someone else’s sense of reality — is a favorite tactic of Trump’s. And Pence used it repeatedly.
Kaine wasn’t having it. Trump “started his campaign with a speech where he called Mexicans rapists and criminals, and he has pursued the discredited and outrageous lie that President Obama was not born in the United States,” he said. He deployed a tactic that the Clinton campaign has used in its TV ads: Simply repeat what Trump himself has said. But Pence deflected or denied each time, calling it part of his opponents’ “insult-driven campaign.”
Because it takes a while to see any changes in polling, we won’t know who “won” the debate for a few days. But there’s not much evidence that winning or losing the debate will swing the election. Presidential debates don’t normally change voters’ views much. Vice presidential debates matter even less.
Nor is there any evidence that Pence or Kaine will help their running mates carry their home states. “A vice presidential candidate’s state of residence generally has no effect on how a presidential candidate performs in that state,” Politico Magazine found in April. “The vice presidential home state advantage is, essentially, zero.”
Here’s the real reason you should care about what happened Tuesday night: One of these men could very well become president. Fourteen of the 44 presidents of the United States served as veep. Eight of them got the top job because the president died in office.
“You’re not going to take it, are you?” Grace Coolidge asked her husband, Calvin, when he was picked for the vice presidency in 1920. “I suppose I’ll have to,” he replied. Three years later, he was president.
Jennifer Bendery reported from Farmville, Virginia. Nick Baumann and Amanda Terkel reported from Washington, D.C.