Looking back, Vice President Pence’s celebratory rejection of the idea that the United States was seeing a renewed threat from the coronavirus pandemic was spectacularly badly timed. On June 16, he boasted that the administration had the pandemic well in hand, with new cases “stabilizing” at about 20,000 per day.
Nine days later, the seven-day average of new cases was up nearly 50 percent.
The surge in new cases, centered mostly in the South and the West, prompted the White House coronavirus task force (which Pence helms) to hold on Friday its first public briefing in months. During the briefing, the vice president and his team tried to assuage any concerns about the recent increase, repeatedly suggesting that it wasn’t as bad as the first surge in cases and that the increase was attributable to relatively small geographic regions.
At the heart of the briefing was the tension inherent in having an elected official leading the coronavirus response effort. Pence is shackled by two impulses that are often in conflict: He needs to present the opinions of the medical experts tracking the pandemic for the government and he needs to simultaneously adhere to the political boundaries established by President Trump, his boss. This is a tension that would be present in any instance of a vice president running a science-based outreach effort, but it’s particularly sticky for a vice president serving Trump. The president’s messaging is often implicitly or explicitly at odds with the recommendations of the health officials, making it that much harder for Pence to strike a balance.
But, like any politician, he did his best.
Over and over, Pence and the medical officials with him offered advice on limiting the spread of the virus.
“We will speak,” he said, as he began the briefing, “about what every American can do to play their part in reducing the spread and the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.”
After touting the same successes that the administration and Trump have offered repeatedly, he noted the significant drop in coronavirus-related deaths.
“This week — because of the extraordinary work of our health-care workers, because of the availability of new medicines like remdesivir,” he said, referring to an antiviral medication, “new treatments like steroids, and because of the cooperation of the American people heeding the guidance that we gave at the federal level and that state and local officials gave — this week, there were two days where we lost less than 300 Americans.”
He repeatedly reiterated the need for young people in particular to be cognizant of their potential for being silent carriers of the virus. More than once, he noted that young people don’t want to infect older Americans and put them at risk.
“We would just encourage every American to follow the guidelines for all the phases,” he said, “continue to practice good hygiene, wash your hands, avoid touching your face, disinfect frequently. People who feel sick should stay home.”
After touting the success of curtailing new infections in a number of states, Pence declared that those successes were “a result of the American people stepping forward, heeding the guidance of federal, state and local authorities.”
“And,” he added, “we encourage you to continue to do just that.”
You might have noticed that Pence’s laundry list of things to do didn’t include one of the recommendations being offered by federal health experts: wearing a face mask. The website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a page outlining how Americans can protect themselves from the virus. It mentions hand-washing, distancing — and mask-wearing.
Deborah Birx, who leads the coronavirus response for the administration, pointedly mentioned wearing a mask when she took the lectern after Pence spoke.
“We said the most important thing that would change the spread … is really individual behavior,” she said, “and our respect for one another through social distancing, wearing a mask and ensuring that we’re protecting the most vulnerable that may be in multigenerational households.”
Pence’s failure to mention masks was not unnoticed by the reporters in the room.
“Wearing a mask has kind of become a political statement — or, I guess, the decision not to wear a mask,” a reporter noted. (Polling supports that idea.) “Are you concerned about that? And is there a message that you would like to send to people about the importance of wearing masks?”
“Well,” Pence replied, “we think that … the first principle is that people ought to listen to their state and local authorities.”
Suddenly, the federal authorities he’d twice touted as leaders to follow get pushed to the side. He noted that there were some rules about mask-wearing at state and local levels.
But those rules can be in conflict. In Arizona, for example, the governor forbade local ordinances mandating mask-wearing. The state is now seeing massive growth in new cases.
“We just believe that what’s most important here is that people listen to the leadership in their state and the leadership in their local community and adhere to that guidance,” Pence added, “whether they have to do with facial coverings, whether it has to do with the size of gatherings. And we’ll continue to reinforce that message.”
Pence’s point about listening to local officials — and, in particular, the size of gatherings — had already been the point of a tense question posed to him.
On Saturday, Trump and Pence held a rally in Oklahoma, where new coronavirus cases were surging. Local health officials expressed concern about the rally, with the director of the city’s health department saying in an interview that he wished it could be postponed. Other city leaders expressed similar concern about the event. At the rally, wearing a mask wasn’t mandated, nor was social distancing. A city limit on large gatherings was similarly unenforced.
Pence was asked why the campaign moved forward with that and similar events.
“Well, the freedom of speech and the right to peaceably assemble is enshrined in the Constitution of the United States,” Pence replied. “And we have an election coming up this fall.”
“We still want to give people the freedom to participate in the political process,” he added a bit later, “and we respect that.”
The campaign deciding against holding a rally is not an example of its First Amendment rights being infringed upon, of course.
Pressed on this point later, Pence reiterated the same argument.
“We’re creating settings where people can choose to participate in the political process,” he said, accurately. “And we’ll continue to do that.” He then added, “I think it’s really important that we recognize how important freedom and personal responsibility are to this entire equation.”
Pence said that his goal was to “equip … people with the knowledge of the part that they can play in stemming the rising tide of new cases.” But he also pointedly refused to share the knowledge of how masks can be effective to that end, insisted that such recommendations should come from state officials and not himself, shrugged at concerns about holding large rallies and suggested that behavioral recommendations were necessarily moderated by concerns about personal freedoms.
Why? Because Trump clearly doesn’t like wearing a mask and doesn’t want to say that people should do so. Because many of the president’s most vocal supporters reject the need to do so. So, despite the ample scientific evidence that wearing a mask significantly reduces the spread of the virus — evidence certainly familiar to the other administration officials who spoke — Pence instead adhered to Trump’s political position.
Listen to the experts, he insisted, unless Trump was saying something else.
The split between those two competing mandates is almost certainly why the United States is where it is. And why Pence’s optimistic assessment on June 16 collapsed so quickly.