NEW YORK — US Vice President Mike Pence touted his administration’s 2017 decision to transfer the American embassy to Jerusalem and the killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in January, while his Democratic challenger Kamala Harris attacked the US president for leaving the Iran nuclear deal and failing to condemn white supremacists at a debate Wednesday.
The mostly civil debate, which avoided much of the name-calling, insults and interruptions that characterized last week’s slugfest between US President Donald Trump and Democratic candidate Joe Biden, mostly focused on domestic issues, with the White House’s response to the coronavirus and anti-racism protests taking center stage. But the candidates, who will not meet again before the November 3 vote, also touched on foreign policy issues, including the US’s stance toward the Middle East.
Responding to a question on foreign policy, Harris highlighted the importance of “keep[ing] your word to your friends,” lamenting how US President Donald Trump has abandoned traditional allies while “embrac[ing] dictators around the world.”
Unlike his predecessors, Trump has expressed a willingness to meet with Iran’s leadership, following a model used with North Korean Kim Jong Il. The overtures, coupled with a US military pullout from northern Syria last year that was seen as an abandonment of Washington’s Kurdish allies and a blow to efforts to stymie weapons transfers to Iran-backed fighters, have alarmed some in Israel.
Harris criticized the administration’s decision two years ago to pull out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which she said “has put in a position where we are less safe because they’re building up what might end up being a significant nuclear arsenal.”
“We were in that deal with friends and allies…and because of Donald Trump’s unilateral approach to foreign policy coupled with his isolationism, he pulled us out and…and made America less safe,” she added.
Pence argued that Trump had firmed up its alliance with Israel, noting that the administration had relocated its Israel embassy in 2018 and recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital months earlier, drawing praise from Israel and anger from the Palestinians
“President Trump kept his word when he moved the American embassy to Jerusalem, the capital to the state of Israel,” he said.
“When Joe Biden was vice president, they promised to do that and never did,” he added.
Former US president Barack Obama did vow to make the move while campaigning for office, but not upon his entry. Similar promises were made by George W. Bush and Bill Clinton; all three American presidents made use of waivers allowing the president to delay the transfer of the embassy to Jerusalem on security grounds, as did Trump for his first two years in office.
Pence also defended his administration’s hardline Iran policy, saying the Obama administration had “transferred $1.8 billion to the world’s leading sponsor in terror,” in an apparent reference to the $1.7 billion payment the US made to Iran in 2016 to settle a decades-old financial dispute.
Pence also highlighted the Trump-ordered killing of Soleimani by drone strike earlier this year, saying the former Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps chief had been traveling to Baghdad last January “to do harm to our Americans” and that America is safer [and] our allies are safer” as a result of the assassination.
The killing sparked widespread anger in Iran and among its Middle Eastern allies, setting off days of fiery protests and an eventual missile attack on US service members in Iraq.
Harris noted that dozens of US troops in Iraq were seriously injured in the Iranian counter-strike on an Iraqi air base. The Pentagon disclosed in late January that 34 US service members suffered traumatic brain injuries, undermining Trump’s initial claim that no Americans were harmed. The US president later characterized the injuries as “not very serious.”
“Donald Trump dismissed [their injuries] as ‘headaches,'” she charged, adding that the president has shown similar disrespect for American soldiers in the past when “he refer[red] to them as suckers and losers,” as was reported last month in The Atlantic.
Harris also recalled Trump’s failure to condemn white supremacists at last week’s presidential debate when he was pressed to do so.
“And it wasn’t like he didn’t have a chance. He didn’t do it, and then he doubled down, and he said when pressed, ‘stand back, stand by,'” said Harris.
Trump’s comments drew a firestorm of criticism, though he has since denounced white supremacists and neo-Nazis on several occasions.
“This is a part of a pattern of Donald Trump’s. He called Mexicans ‘rapists and criminals,’ he instituted as his first act a Muslim ban,” she said.
Like her running mate did last week, Harris went after Trump over his response to the 2017 far-right protests in Charlottesville, Virginia.
The “Unite the Right” rally in August 2017 drew hundreds of white nationalists to Charlottesville to protest the planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. The incident, which saw an anti-racism protester killed in a car-ramming attack, stirred racial tensions around the country. Afterward, Trump was criticized for appearing to equivocate when asked whether he would denounce the white supremacists and neo-Nazis.
“People were peacefully protesting the need for racial justice… a young woman was killed and on the other side there were neo-Nazis carrying tiki torches shouting racial epithets, anti-Semitic slurs and Donald Trump when asked about it said, ‘there were fine people on both sides,'” said Harris.
“This is who we have as the president of the United States and America you deserve better,” she added.
Pence accused Harris and the media of “selectively edit[ing]” Trump’s words and insisting that Trump has condemned the KKK, neo-Nazis and white supremacists “repeatedly.”
“You’re concerned that he doesn’t condemn neo-Nazis, President Trump has Jewish grandchildren. His daughter and son-in-law are Jewish,” Pence shot back, referring to senior White House adviser Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner.
For the last question of the debate, the candidates were asked to respond to the question by an elementary school student who lamented the intensifying polarization of American political discourse.
Pence responded by highlighting the relationship between the late Jewish Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died last month, and her colleague Antonin Scalia.
“They were on polar opposites on the US Supreme Court — one very liberal and one very conservative — but what’s been known since [Ginsburg’s] passing is that the two of them and their families were the very closest of friends.”
“Here in America we can disagree and we can debate vigorously as Senator Harris and I have on the stage tonight, but when the debate is over we come together as Americans,” Pence added.
Harris in her response said that “one of the reasons that Joe Biden decided to run for president was after Charlottesville it so troubled him that there was that kind of hate and division.”
Biden, who stepped back from politics after leaving office in 2017, has said on several occasions that Trump’s comments following the Charlottesville violence were what drew him back in.
Agencies contributed to this report.