Let's talk about The Fly. Twitter was buzzing Wednesday night when, toward the end of the first and only vice presidential debate, a small, determined insect decided to make its home atop Vice President Mike Pence's snow-white head.
You saw it, I saw it. Sen. Elizabeth Warren saw it. "My first thought was, 'Oh, it's a fly,'" she tells me over the phone, the morning after the debate. "Then, when it stayed and seemed to burrow into his head, I started to wonder if this was a drone sent by Donald Trump to control Mike Pence, who wasn't doing such a great job. But I ultimately decided, it was a real fly."
That fly is an American hero.— Gabrielle Union (@itsgabrielleu) October 8, 2020
Jokes (somewhat) aside, going into the evening's event, the bar for doing a good job was fairly low. Last week's presidential debate had been labeled the worst in American history as President Trump repeatedly interrupted Joe Biden, leaving little time for any sort of substantive conversation. Though the VP debate was surely less chaotic, Warren says she saw some of the same strategies on the Republican side.
"Mike Pence tried to run a bunch of the same plays [as Trump]," she says. "Remember the questions he was asked. The number one for me was: Can you reassure the American people that if Trump/Pence loses that you all are going to go quietly, and there will be a peaceful transfer of power? Did you hear the answer to that? I didn't hear an answer where he said yes. This is like, Constitution 101. That's the heart of the democracy. He had no answer there."
She continues, "Also, Mike Pence spoke over Kamala repeatedly. My favorite moments were when Kamala would look at him and say very calmly, 'I am speaking.' I cheered every time she did that."
Of course, it was impossible to ignore the fact that Harris was speaking to Pence through two sheets of plexiglass, a new addition after President Trump and a number of White House officials recently tested positive for COVID-19. When asked whether she was worried that Pence could have had COVID-19 while sitting on stage with Harris (there was a lot of speculation around the state of Pence's eye last night), Warren points out that the question itself is a reminder of how the Trump administration has handled the virus: "First, no one has any confidence that what the White House is saying about testing or the state of the president's health or the state of the health of anyone around him is true...second is the willingness to put other people at risk." She notes that the White House isn't following contact tracing, unlike schools and employers who "feel a sense of responsibility that people who are sick do not want to pass this onto others." She says, "But clearly that is not how either President Trump or Vice President Pence feel."
Beyond the plexiglass, COVID-19 is drastically shaping the future of the debates. On Thursday morning, the Commission on Presidential Debates announced the second presidential debate, set to be in the style of a town hall, would be virtual. Trump responded by saying he would not take part: "I'm not gonna waste my time on a virtual debate."
Trump just now on Fox Business: "I’m not gonna do a virtual debate."— The Recount (@therecount) October 8, 2020
"I'm not gonna waste my time on a virtual debate." pic.twitter.com/VRiGNN7V9q
Warren's take on the breaking news? "He knows how badly he lost the first debate, and he's looking for any excuse not to have to show up for a second one," Warren says, before imitating a squawking chicken over the phone. "If the debate commission is serious about seeing independent verification of negative COVID tests before he can appear on the debate stage, Trump may simply be unwilling to let anyone know how long he's sick with COVID. But I think the bottom-line reason is: Trump lost and, even though he works hard to construct a fantasy bubble for himself, he's got to know how badly he lost the first debate."
As for who won the VP debate, Warren was all in for her colleague and former 2020 opponent. Before the debate began, she tweeted a selfie of the two of them with the caption: "Go get him, @KamalaHarris." Harris' presence on the stage was historic; she's the first woman of color on any major party presidential ticket.
"The very first words out of her mouth were about how Donald Trump's failure to deal with the COVID crisis was the worst failure of an American president in history," Warren recalls. "It showed she could land a punch hard and with confidence and dignity. It showed a woman leader."
It was a moment that, if Warren's correct, will more than likely bother Trump for days to come. During the first debate, Trump couldn't help but bring up Warren, though he didn't call her by name, instead using the racial slur "Pocahontas."
Was it at all satisfying, I asked, to know she was still top of mind for the president?
"Strong women get under Donald Trump's skin," she says. "It's a reminder how weak the man really is."
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