Mike Pence’s Big Lie About Trump and the Coronavirus at the Republican National Convention

From the opening of their Convention on Monday, the Republicans have been propagating a huge falsehood about the coronavirus pandemic. Amy Ford, a nurse from West Virginia, got things going when she said, “As a health-care professional, I can tell you without hesitation, Donald Trump’s quick action and leadership saved thousands of lives during covid-19.” Carefully edited videos and other testimonials have been used to reinforce this bogus narrative, but the ultimate rewriting of history was left to Vice-President Mike Pence, whose speech on Wednesday night from Fort McHenry, in Baltimore, amounted to a travesty of the truth.

A good deal of Pence’s speech was devoted to over-the-top attacks on Joe Biden, whom he described as “a Trojan horse for the radical left,” a supporter of “open borders,” and “a cheerleader for Communist China.” But he also defended Trump’s response to the coronavirus, claiming he has overseen “the greatest national mobilization since World War Two.” In Pence’s telling, “President Trump marshalled the full resources of our federal government from the outset. He directed us to forge a seamless partnership with governors across America in both political parties.” Under his leadership, the Administration reinvented testing, coördinated the delivery of billions of pieces of personal protective equipment, and “enacted an economic rescue package that saved fifty million American jobs.”

The great irony, and outrage, of Pence’s speech is that, as the head of the White House’s coronavirus task force since February, he’s had a unique and closeup view of Trump’s actual response to the pandemic: the constant belittling of the virus’s threat; the claims that it would go away of its own accord; the quack remedies, including injecting disinfectant into stricken patients; the squabbling with governors, even Republican ones, who called out the inadequacy of his actions; the urging of states to reopen their economies even as they failed to meet the guidelines that Pence’s task force had laid down; the months of defiant refusal to wear a mask; and, in the end, the decision to effectively give up on the whole thing and move on.

Pence didn’t mention any of these things, of course. He focussed on the one significant policy decision Trump made early—to ban travel from China. Of course, the Vice-President didn’t point out that the ban was only a partial one—more than forty thousand people subsequently entered the United States on flights from China. And the first confirmed cases in New York, where the virus has killed more than thirty-two thousand people, arrived from Europe, not Asia. Nevertheless, throughout his speech, Pence presented Trump as everything he isn’t: engaged, diligent, and dedicated solely to acting in the interests of the American people. “In a city known for talkers, President Trump is a doer,” he said with an impressively straight face. “Few Presidents have brought more independence, energy, or determination to that office.”

With the national death toll approaching a hundred and eighty thousand, it seems unlikely that Pence’s speech will have much impact on public opinion. Americans can see reality with their own eyes. One poll published earlier this week showed that Trump’s approval rating for his handling of the pandemic has dropped to thirty-one per cent. Still, Wednesday’s address will go down in history as a memorable example of how establishment Republicans like Pence have utterly capitulated to Trump, debasing themselves and their party in the process, and, ultimately, betraying the country, which, in its hour of crisis, deserved honesty rather than pro-Trump spin.

Sadly, Pence’s performance was predictable. Behind the scenes at the White House, according to an extensively reported article that Politico published on Wednesday, he has sometimes been “a force for moderation and fact-based decision making” on the coronavirus. In mid-March, for instance, he and other members of the task force went to Trump in the Oval Office and pressed him to approve nationwide guidelines for social distancing. However, the Politico piece also detailed how Pence slowed down the Administration’s response by allowing officials with no health expertise to play a role in the task force’s deliberations, and how he “felt pressure to appease Trump.” “Mike is the ultimate good soldier,” one Administration official was quoted as saying. “He’s not going to be pounding his fist on the table demanding change. . . . That’s not Mike Pence.”

In public, Pence continued to exalt Trump even as it became clear that a public-health catastrophe was unfolding. “Mr. President, with your leadership, the American people are beginning to step forward,” he said at a White House ceremony in April. In June, as case numbers were surging in California, Florida, and Texas, he claimed on “Face the Nation” that the country was “in a much better place to respond” because of “the leadership that President Trump has provided.” Last week, as the death toll passed a hundred and seventy thousand, he told “Good Morning America,” “I couldn’t be more proud of the leadership President Trump has provided from the early days of the coronavirus pandemic.”

Wednesday night’s speech represented merely a continuation of this theme. After repeatedly praising Trump’s leadership, Pence dismissed Biden’s statement last week that there was no miracle in the offing to end the pandemic. “America is a nation of miracles,” Pence said. “We’re on track to have the world’s first safe, effective coronavirus vaccine by the end of this year. After all the sacrifice in this year like no other—all the hardship—we are finding our way forward again.”

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Pence’s bowing and scraping to Trump is that he seems to revel in it. In an interview with the Times, his chief of staff, Marc Short, said Pence has studied previous Vice-Presidencies, and he “exemplifies servant leadership.” Even in these twisted days, when Trump’s takeover of the G.O.P. seems virtually complete, it isn’t every elected Republican who would like to go in the history books as the forty-fifth President’s most loyal and obsequious servant. As he demonstrated on Wednesday night, when he once again acted as Trump’s lickspittle, Pence seems to fill the role naturally.

John Cassidy