The first claim that Vice President Pence made in the vice-presidential debate on Wednesday night was not true. He claimed that President Trump had “suspended all travel from China” in order to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus in the United States. The travel restrictions were sufficiently porous that nearly 40,000 people traveled from China to this country after the restrictions went into place.

Pence’s second claim wasn’t much better, insisting that former vice president Joe Biden had called the restrictions “xenophobic.” Biden did call Trump xenophobic, but not obviously in relation to the restrictions that had been announced only minutes before and of which Biden was not aware.

Hitting two-for-two on false or misleading claims right out of the gates is hardly a novelty in the Trump administration. The difference between Pence and Trump is largely one of style.

In the first presidential debate, Trump’s strategy was to interrupt repeatedly and hopefully unsettle his opponent. Pence’s was far more traditional, coming prepared with talking points and offering those up regardless of context. Moderator Susan Page gamely attempted to introduce new subjects and keep Pence hemmed into the agreed-upon time constraints. Pence was having neither.

Vice President Pence repeatedly continued to speak after his time was up, ignoring moderator Susan Page, during the vice-presidential debate on Oct. 7. (The Washington Post)

Where Pence really excelled, however, was in offering sweeping rhetoric that was either hopelessly cynical or endlessly ironic. I’ve watched a lot of debates over my years, but I am not sure I’ve ever literally gasped in the way that I did when Pence challenged Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) on her skepticism about a Trump-approved coronavirus vaccine.

“The fact that you continue to undermine public confidence in a vaccine if the vaccine emerges during the Trump administration, I think is unconscionable,” Pence said. “And, Senator, I just ask you, stop playing politics with people’s lives.”

First, Harris didn’t say she wouldn’t accept a vaccine produced in the Trump administration. She said that she would only have confidence in it should it be endorsed by the administration’s scientists, and not solely by Trump.

But the more egregious aspect of Pence’s response, of course, was Pence’s insistence that Harris not “play politics with people’s lives.” This is the vice president serving Donald Trump, saying that a politician should not play politics with the pandemic.

That’s the Donald Trump who on Tuesday tweeted this:

The Donald Trump who has encouraged states to reject economic closures, risking broader spread of the virus, in hopes that the economy would rebound before Election Day. The Donald Trump who refused to wear a mask or embrace social distancing and mocked Biden for embracing those measures, relishing the applause of his base when he did so. The Donald Trump who has talked about how the death toll in the United States should be blamed on deaths in states that didn’t vote for him in 2016.

Of course Biden and Harris are integrating the pandemic into their political pitch. But to say that trusting Anthony S. Fauci’s word on a vaccine over the guy who is mad the vaccine won’t be announced before the election seems like a sound position to hold.

Pence attempted to defend Trump’s record on the pandemic — and his own, given that he’s ostensibly in charge of the response — by pretending that a challenge to the administration’s record was somehow a disparagement of the public.

“When you say what the American people have done over these last eight months hasn’t worked,” Pence charged, “that’s a great disservice to the sacrifices the American people have made.”

I mean, you work with what you’ve got. But this seems unlikely to work as a strategy.

There’s the fact that Trump isn’t very popular, making it unlikely that most Americans will see themselves as standing by his side. That’s exacerbated by the fact that there’s been a broad, largely partisan divide in how earnestly Americans have been trying to contain the virus. Trump’s base has been much less likely to take the virus seriously and embrace the measures needed to contain it. Those who have been the most committed to combating the pandemic are probably not the ones who will see themselves as standing beside the president in the trenches.

The balance Pence tried to strike between what he wanted to say Trump had done and what Trump had actually done hit its rockiest shoals on a different topic: climate change.

Pence was asked whether global warming posed an existential threat and, for once, he chose to answer.

“With regard to climate change, the climate is changing,” Pence said. “But the issue is what’s the cause and what do we do about it? President Trump has made it clear that we’re going to continue to listen to the science.”

That sound you hear is climate scientists punching the wall.

The science says people are causing the world to warm and we need to curtail greenhouse gas emissions to slow or halt that warming. Not complicated! But Pence needs to present Trump as somehow being aligned with science on this and the pandemic, so he in one breath assured America that the administration was listening to scientists but somehow also not hearing anything that the scientists were saying.

This was the pattern. Pence has spent much of the past three years serving as Trump’s political interpreter, transforming Trump’s outbursts into D.C.-friendly verbiage.

“It was found that there was no obstruction, no collusion. Case closed,” he said of the investigation into Russian interference and possible overlap with Trump’s campaign. “And then, Senator Harris, you and your colleagues in the Congress tried to impeach the president of the United States over a phone call.”

This is all untrue! There was lots of evidence of obstruction in the investigation led by former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. There wasn’t enough evidence for Mueller’s team to bring conspiracy charges, but there was certainly some evidence. And the impeachment wasn’t about a phone call, despite Trump’s efforts to convince America that it was; it was about Trumps willingness to leverage his position to aid his reelection, something that he’s demonstrated repeatedly since.

Then there was this:

“President Trump and I have a plan to improve health care and protect preexisting conditions for every American,” Pence said at one point. “But look, Senator Harris, you’re entitled to your own opinion, but you’re not entitled to your own facts.”

They don’t have a plan. They want to end the existing protections for preexisting conditions. Trump’s presidency is almost entirely centered on his opinions and not objective facts. This is all demonstrated and obvious, but Pence barely blinked in offering it as though it was true and fair.

A two-sentence paradox large enough to collapse the universe.