Vice President Pence and Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) faced off in the only vice-presidential debate, moderated by USA Today’s Susan Page in front of a small audience of people wearing face masks.

The first topic of the debate was the novel coronavirus and the U.S. response and death toll, coming less than a week after President Trump announced that he tested positive. The candidates also exchanged criticisms over the economy, jobs, taxes and foreign policy, as well as race and the justice system, with Pence sometimes returning to previous topics instead of answering the question in front of him.

What to know after Wednesday’s debate
4:01 a.m.
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Fly on Pence’s head creates post-debate buzz

A fly landed on Vice President Pence's head while he was answering a question on law enforcement and race during the vice-presidential debate on Oct. 7. (The Washington Post)

Pence was in the middle of denying that America struggles with systemic racism when a black fly landed on his white hair, settling in for several minutes.

The vice president seemed unaware that a fly was resting atop his head. But it didn’t escape the notice of viewers, who welcomed the levity in an otherwise contentious political debate.

The fly instantly created buzz, and people on social media did what they do best in moments like this: make many, many bad puns. There were jokes about a “Saturday Night Live” cameo, a Netflix special. Several people created Twitter accounts for the fly. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) suggested it was a “deep state” bug. Within 10 minutes the Biden campaign was selling a fly swatter. Slogan: Truth over flies.

Of course, for every fly stan there was a fly hater as well. They wished everyone would shut up about the fly and focus on the debate substance. Nothing divides the Internet like an overplayed joke.

But in this difficult year, with a relentless global pandemic creating so much devastation, others begged, just let us have the fly.

2:46 a.m.
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Final debate moment includes an attempt to reach for some form of unity

Democratic vice-presidential nominee Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) made a point to introduce herself to the American people in the Oct. 7 debate. (The Washington Post)

The final question of the debate was submitted by an eighth-grader, who asked about the political divisions in the country and the leaders who can’t get along with one another.

Pence started with a criticism of the news media, speaking to the young student and saying, “I would tell you that I don’t assume that what you’re seeing on your local news networks is synonymous with the American people.”

He went on to hail the relationship between two late Supreme Court justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia. “One very liberal, one very conservative,” Pence said. “But what’s been learned since her passing was the two of them and their families were the very closest friends. I mean, here in America, we can disagree.”

Harris used the question to focus on some of the divisions in the country, directly referencing the violence in Charlottesville in 2017, which Biden has said motivated him to run. “It’s so troubled and upset him like it did all of us, that there was that kind of hate and division,” Harris said.

She continued promoting Biden as someone who could bridge divisions.

“Joe Biden has a history of lifting people up and fighting for their dignity,” she said. “I mean, you have to know Joe’s story to know that Joe has known pain, he has known suffering, and he has known love.”

2:42 a.m.
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Amy B Wang: Harris spent a good portion of the debate looking straight at the camera when answering questions, while Pence mostly trained his responses at Page or his opponent. The effect was that Harris frequently looked like she was speaking directly to viewers at home. It was an approach Biden said he turned to out of necessity in the first presidential debate after Trump repeatedly interrupted him.
Amy B Wang, National politics reporter covering 2020 presidential campaigns
2:40 a.m.
Headshot of Toluse Olorunnipa
Toluse Olorunnipa: It’s a sign of how strange things have become that one of the last questions each candidate was asked was how they would respond if Trump refused to accept the results of the election — something the president has threatened. Harris’s answer — essentially telling people to vote — accused Trump of openly suppressing the vote and trying to subvert democracy. Pence largely dodged the question but used it as an opportunity to baselessly accuse Democrats and the FBI of spying on Trump’s 2016 campaign. Though the debate wasn’t as contentious as last week’s presidential standoff, this answer showed just how bitter the race is just four weeks ahead of Election Day.
Toluse Olorunnipa, Political investigations and enterprise reporter
2:39 a.m.
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Pence says Islamic State victim’s parents believe Trump would have prevented her killing

Pence accused the Obama administration of allowing the expansion of the Islamic State and said that parents of Kayla Mueller, a captive of the Islamic State, think she would be alive if Trump had ben in charge earlier.

Mueller’s parents were guests at the vice-presidential debate Wednesday in Utah. Mueller, an aid worker, was captured in 2013 in Syria and killed in 2015.

The Obama administration, including then-Vice President Biden, knew where Mueller was being held and could have moved to save her, Pence said.

“If President Donald Trump had been president, they believe Kayla would be alive today,” Pence claimed as part of an exchange about national security.

Harris expressed sympathy for the Muellers on behalf of herself, Biden and Obama, then immediately pivoted to call Trump insensitive toward men and women in uniform.

Trump’s strike on an Iranian commander, Qasem Soleimani, early this year resulted in Iranian counterstrikes against bases where American forces are stationed in Iraq, Harris noted.

“There was a counterstrike on our troops in Iraq and they suffered serious brain injuries. And do you know what Donald Trump dismissed them as? Headaches,” she said. “And this is about a pattern of Donald Trump’s, where he has referred to our men who are serving in our military as suckers and losers.”

That was a reference to reporting in the Atlantic and elsewhere about Trump’s references to service members.

2:37 a.m.
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Pence calls suggestion of implicit bias among police an ‘insult’

When asked whether Breonna Taylor, a Black woman killed by police in her Louisville home, received justice, Pence offered sympathies to her family. But he said he trusted that justice had been served in her case.

“It really is remarkable that, as a former prosecutor, you would assume that an impaneled grand jury, looking at all the evidence, got it wrong,” Pence said.

The vice president then segued to attacking the riots and violence that broke out in some cities amid otherwise peaceful protests against racial injustice. Pence told Harris it was an “insult” that she and Biden discuss implicit bias against African Americans.

“This presumption that you hear consistently from Joe Biden and Kamala Harris that America is systemically racist,” Pence said, “that he believes that law enforcement has an implicit bias against minorities, is a great insult to the men and women who serve in law enforcement.”

2:33 a.m.
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Fact Checker: Pence falsely claims Biden wants abortion up to ‘moment of birth’

“Joe Biden and Kamala Harris support taxpayer funding of abortion all the way up to the moment of birth, late-term abortion.”

— Vice President Pence

Neither Biden nor Harris supports “late-term abortion and infanticide.” They do not support funding abortion “up to the moment of birth.”

Biden supports abortion rights and says he would codify in statute the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Roe v. Wade and related precedents, which generally limit abortions to the first 20 to 24 weeks of gestation.

Most abortions are performed in the earlier stages of pregnancy. About 1 percent happen after the fetus reaches the point of viability. Trump and antiabortion advocates have claimed for months that Biden supports abortion “up until the moment of birth,” a claim we have awarded Three Pinocchios.

They argue that some laws and court decisions have opened loopholes that allow abortions to the very end of a pregnancy. Experts have told us abortions up to the moment of birth, what could be described as infanticide, are not happening in the United States.

Some Democrats support abortion rights, but that doesn’t mean they support “extreme late-term abortions,” experts told us. “That’s like saying everyone who ‘supports’ the Second Amendment ‘supports’ school shootings,” said Katie L. Watson, a professor at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

The Supreme Court’s rulings in Roe and Planned Parenthood v. Casey say states may ban abortion after the fetus reaches viability, the point at which it can sustain life, which happens at or near the end of the second trimester. States with such bans must allow an exception “to preserve the life or health of the mother.”

These rulings don’t force states to ban abortions. Some states don’t have gestational-age restrictions, though most do. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 43 states have laws restricting abortion after the fetus reaches a certain gestational age.

Asked whether he supported restrictions, a Biden campaign representative previously told The Post that “Biden believes in the standard laid out by Roe and Casey.”

2:32 a.m.
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Pence says he can’t presume how Barrett would vote on Roe v. Wade; activists say abortion is on ballot

Pence said on Wednesday night he couldn’t presume how Judge Amy Coney Barrett would vote on abortion cases if confirmed to the Supreme Court, but both pro-choice and antiabortion activists have eyed the possible overturning of Roe v. Wade since the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

“Trump’s appointment, in and of itself, is an anti-choice move,” said Stephanie Schriock, president of Emily’s List, which supports pro-choice female candidates, shortly after Ginsburg’s death. “People know that, because he has made it very clear that he is only going to nominate someone who is going to overturn Roe v. Wade.”

Anti-choice lawmakers and activists, meanwhile, have openly said that Ginsburg’s death could be their best chance at overturning the landmark ruling.

2:23 a.m.
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Eugene Scott: Harris said that, if elected, she and Biden would make chokeholds illegal in police departments. According to an analysis by The Washington Post, at least 32 of the country’s 65 largest police departments have already banned or strengthened restrictions on the use of neck restraints since the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died after a Minneapolis police officer held his knee on Floyd’s neck for more than seven minutes.
Eugene Scott, Reporter covering identity politics for The Fix
2:22 a.m.
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Sean Sullivan: Pence has dodged questions on major topics tonight, from climate change to abortion and other issues. When pressed on whether he thinks climate change is an existential threat, Pence within seconds redirected to Biden and taxes. When asked on what his home state should do if Roe v. Wade is overturned, Pence spoke initially about Qasem Soleimani. It’s been clear which topics he is and is not interested in elaborating on as the debate has unfolded.
Sean Sullivan, Reporter covering national politics
2:20 a.m.
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Pence dodges question on prospect of Roe v. Wade being overturned

Pence initially declined to respond when asked what states should do if Roe v. Wade is overturned, instead turning the query into a defense of Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett.

“She’s a brilliant woman and she will bring a lifetime of experience and a sizable American family to the Supreme Court of the United States,” Pence said. “And our hope is in the hearing next week, unlike Justice Kavanaugh received with treatment from you and others, we hope she gets a fair hearing.”

He also criticized Democrats for “attacks on her Christian faith,” which Harris objected to.

“Joe Biden and I are both people of faith,” Harris said. “And it’s insulting to suggest that we would knock anyone for their faith. And in fact, Joe, if elected, will be only the second practicing Catholic as president of the United States.”

She said that the Supreme Court vacancy is crucial for a host of issues, including abortion rights. "There’s the issue of choice. And I will always fight for a woman’s right to make a decision about her own body,” Harris said. “It should be her decision and not that of Donald Trump. And the vice president, Michael Pence.”

Pence used his next opportunity to elaborate on abortion.

“I couldn’t be more proud to serve as vice president to a president who stands without apology for the sanctity of human life,” he said. “I’m pro-life. I don’t apologize for it.”

“I would never presume how Judge Amy Coney Barrett would rule on the Supreme Court of the United States,” he added. “But we’ll continue to stand strong for the right to life.”

2:20 a.m.
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Fact Checker: Harris’s jab about Trump eliminating the pandemic office

“They [Obama] created within the White House an office that basically was responsible for monitoring pandemics… They [Trump] got rid of it.”

— Harris

After grappling with the 2014 Ebola epidemic, President Barack Obama in 2016 established a Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense at the National Security Council. A directorate has its own staff, and it is headed by someone who generally reports to the national security adviser.

The structure survived during the early part of Trump’s presidency, when the office was headed by Rear Adm. Timothy Ziemer. But, after John Bolton became Trump’s third national security adviser, he decided the organizational chart was a mess and led to too many conflicts. He also thought the staff was too large, having swollen to 430 people, including staffers in the pipeline.

Bolton fired Tom Bossert, the homeland security adviser, realigning the post to report directly to him. He eliminated a number of deputy national security advisers so there was just one. And he folded the global health directorate into a new one that focused on counterproliferation and biodefense. Bolton thought there was obvious overlap between arms control and nonproliferation, weapons of mass destruction terrorism and global health and biodefense, believing the epidemiology of a biological health emergency is very similar to a bioterrorism attack.

One key issue during such reorganizations is whether policy expertise is maintained. Luciana Borio, the previous director for medical and biodefense preparedness, is a practicing medical doctor and has an extensive background in medical health preparedness. She was replaced by someone with background mostly in North Korea policy.

Whether having a separate office on pandemics in the White House would have made the administration react more swiftly to the emerging coronavirus threat is questionable.

“There isn’t any organizational chart in the U.S. government that makes any difference in the Trump administration,” a former administration official told the Fact Checker. “Trump is more likely to say to Jared [Kushner], ‘What do you think we should do?’ That’s the big problem.”

2:18 a.m.
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Fact Checker: Pence repeats Trump’s false claim about preexisting conditions

“President Trump and I have a plan to improve health care and protect preexisting conditions for every American.”

— Vice President Pence

Yes, they have a plan. The plan is to kill those legal protections through a lawsuit pending before the Supreme Court and replace them with a plan that Trump has been promising for years and never delivered.

Before President Barack Obama and Democrats enacted the Affordable Care Act in 2010, insurance companies could and did deny coverage to people with preexisting conditions, such as cancer or lesser ailments.

The ACA prohibited this practice by mandating that insurance companies sell plans to anyone who wants them, and by requiring that people in similar age groups and geographic regions pay similar costs. This is known as the coverage guarantee for patients with preexisting conditions.

The Trump administration filed a brief on June 25 asking the Supreme Court to strike down the entire ACA, including its coverage guarantee. Trump has issued a brief executive order saying he supports coverage for patients with preexisting conditions, but experts, Republicans and Democrats say what’s needed is a law.

“Literally in the midst of a public health pandemic, where more than 210,000 people have died,” Harris said during the debate, “Donald Trump is in court right now trying to get rid of the Affordable Care Act, and I’ve said it before and it bears repeating, this means that there will be no more protections for people with preexisting conditions.”

When moderator Susan Page asked Pence to explain how the Trump administration would protect people with preexisting conditions, Pence falsely claimed that Biden and Harris support abortion “up to the moment of birth” and did not mention anything related to preexisting conditions.

2:17 a.m.
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Robert Barnes: Harris would not answer the question of whether Democrats will try to add seats to the Supreme Court, just as Biden refused last week. She tried to shift the subject, saying that the Trump administration was “packing” lower courts and has failed to tap a Black nominee among 50 judges for the appeals courts.
Robert Barnes, Reporter covering the U.S. Supreme Court
2:08 a.m.
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Robert Barnes: Pence did not answer what he would like his home state of Indiana to do if Roe is overturned and the issue of abortion is returned to state legislatures. But he signed a number of abortion restrictions while governor, some of them upheld by courts and others struck down.
Robert Barnes, Reporter covering the U.S. Supreme Court
2:05 a.m.
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Sean Sullivan: One name that Harris frequently mentioned tonight: Barack Obama. Obama may not be on the ballot, but he’s been a frequent topic of discussion in the campaign. Much like Biden, Harris has sought to remind viewers of Biden’s service as Obama’s vice president, bringing up the Affordable Care Act, the auto bailout and the pandemic response efforts as examples of their collaboration. The reason behind the strategy is clear: Obama remains hugely popular among Democrats, and closely associating the current ticket with the last presidency could excite voters who may be less enthusiastic about Biden.
Sean Sullivan, Reporter covering national politics
1:58 a.m.
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Toluse Olorunnipa: Harris has done more to try to introduce herself to the country, biographically, than Pence in the first hour of the debate. She mentioned her immigrant mother and how proud she would be to see her on that stage. “We have a 20-something-year-old,” she said, mentioning her stepchild during an answer about the difficult job market. Pence, on the other hand, has been in the national spotlight for the past four years and focused less on his biography, instead spending more time defending Trump.
Toluse Olorunnipa, Political investigations and enterprise reporter
1:43 a.m.
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Eugene Scott: Vice President Pence called Obamacare a disaster. But most Americans disagree with him. Fifty-two percent approve of the Affordable Care Act, according to a March Gallup poll. And last month, Trump signed an executive order that will enshrine the law’s most popular feature — protecting people with preexisting conditions.
Eugene Scott, Reporter covering identity politics for The Fix
1:38 a.m.
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Annie Linskey: One of Harris’s goals tonight is to introduce herself to the American people, since she is the least known of the four candidates on the ticket. She has used some early questions to talk about her political resume as a California Attorney General, highlighting her work leading the country’s second-largest Department of Justice and ticked through her agenda there.
Annie Linskey, National reporter covering the White House.
1:29 a.m.
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Toluse Olorunnipa: Harris accused Trump of calling the virus a hoax. But Trump and the Republicans say the president was referring to Democratic complaints when he mentioned the word “hoax” in the early days of the pandemic. Expect this to be an issue the GOP jumps on.
Toluse Olorunnipa, Political investigations and enterprise reporter
1:27 a.m.
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Amy Goldstein: In the early minutes of the debate, Pence sought to portray the administration’s management of the coronavirus pandemic as nearly identical to the plan that the Biden campaign has put forth, saying, “When I look at their plan that talks about advancing testing, creating new PPE, developing a vaccine, it looks a little bit like plagiarism.” The vice president omitted the fact that Biden has pledged to double drive-through testing sites, rather than deferring largely to states; urge states to require residents to wear masks; and ratchet up the federal role in purchasing protective gear.
Amy Goldstein, Reporter covering health-care policy and other social policy issues
1:23 a.m.
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Sean Sullivan: Trump repeatedly interrupted Biden in their first debate. But Harris signaled early in tonight’s matchup that she doesn’t intend to be cut off. “Mr. Vice President -- I’m speaking,” she said in one exchange. The moderator underscored the ground rules at the outset more than is typically seen, which also reflects the chaos that broke out at the Cleveland debate.
Sean Sullivan, Reporter covering national politics
1:15 a.m.
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Annie Linskey: Harris got the first question of the debate, on the coronavirus. The order of the debate is determined by a coin toss. Typically, debate participants prefer to go second, after the ice has been broken.
Annie Linskey, National reporter covering the White House.