Mike Pence talked coronavirus response on three Sunday morning talk shows yesterday, and boy, did CNN’s Jake Tapper and NBC’s Chuck Todd let him off the hook. (Obviously, Fox News did the same.) Both Tapper and Todd were content through most of their interviews, to sit back and let Pence trot out his talking points: Donald Trump is on top of things, Donald Trump has kept things from being much worse, testing kits are coming, masks are coming … to hear Pence tell it, the administration’s COVID-19 response is a well-oiled machine.
For that matter, to hear Pence tell it, there are just 22 cases of coronavirus transmission inside the U.S., with another 46 people having returned, under quarantine, from China or the Diamond Princess cruise ship. Which may have been true if the interviews were taped ahead of time, but as of Sunday morning, when they aired, Reuters reported “more than 75” confirmed cases, including the 46. By Monday morning it was 89—and that’s confirmed cases in a country that has lagged on testing for the disease. But the big lapse in these interviews didn’t come from failing to challenge Pence on that moving target.
Neither Tapper nor Todd got around to asking Pence even a single question about what qualifies him to head up the administration response to the epidemic. In particular, Pence should be answering some tough questions about his terrible public health record, which includes presiding over an HIV outbreak in Indiana that was made quantifiably worse by his actions. As a bonus, Pence should get questions about how it was that in the year 2000 he was still arguing, “Despite the hysteria from the political class and the media, smoking doesn’t kill.”
But instead, Pence got to brag, uninterrupted, that “after three days leading the president’s effort on the coronavirus, I’m more confident than ever that we are bringing the whole-of-government approach. The president has directed the full resources of the federal government.” And, “We are going to continue to lean into this effort to protect the American people.” He got lightly pressed about when there will be more testing kits available and about the stockpile of masks, but emphasis on lightly pressed.
Both Tapper and Todd picked one issue to really challenge Pence on. In a telling moment for the media, they both picked the same issue, and it wasn’t about public health; it was about politics. Donald Trump Jr. had accused Democrats of hoping that people will die in a pandemic for political reasons. Tapper asked, “That seems like very extreme rhetoric. I don’t expect you to criticize the president’s son, but you don’t think that Democrats want people to contract this disease, do you?” From Todd, “None of this seems to match the facts. What facts are there that Democrats are doing this?”
They’re not wrong! But of course Pence dodged—heaven knows the man has plenty of experience justifying Trump family lies and attacks with a sober frown on his face—and viewers didn’t get any extra information about the COVID-19 response. Pence himself escaped without a challenge to his role in charge of that response.
Then again, it’s better than we get from Fox News.