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Where Trump, Democrats stand on additional coronavirus relief

Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris are preparing for the campaign’s only vice presidential debate Wednesday. The face-off comes as the Trump White House has evolved into a COVID-19 hot spot -- and as the president has reversed course on negotiations over additional pandemic aid legislation. Yamiche Alcindor reports and joins Lisa Desjardins and Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's debate night for the Democratic and Republican vice presidential nominees, and it comes as the Trump White House has morphed into a COVID-19 hot spot, an issue sure to be a prime topic tonight.

    Our White House correspondent, Yamiche Alcindor begins our coverage.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Tonight's face-off in Salt Lake City is the first and only time that Vice President Pence and his Democratic challenger, California Senator Kamala Harris, will debate before the election.

    But the debate stage itself will feature a stark visual reminder of this historic pandemic year, Plexiglas panels. The dividers are meant to create a protective barrier between the two.

    The Trump campaign, which has often ignored CDC social distancing guidelines, initially pushed back on the Plexiglas. But the Biden campaign succeeded in getting them added. In fact, just 27 days until the election, positive coronavirus test results continue to plague the White House, with more than two dozen cases, including at least three journalists who work there.

    Today, Chief of Staff Mark Meadows insisted the Trump administration is responding appropriately.

  • Mark Meadows:

    We have actually also done some additional protocols in terms of cordoning off different working groups.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    The outbreak at the White House includes more than 10 of the president's family and close associates, with White House senior adviser Stephen Miller testing positive last night.

    Today, the White House doctor sent an update, noting that President Trump is symptom-free, and that he says he is — quote — "feeling great."

    Later, as a Marine stood guard outside, the president, who is likely still contagious with the coronavirus, returned to the Oval Office. He held meetings and briefings with aides.

    But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sharply criticized the White House's refusal to adhere to its own guidance.

  • Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.:

    I wouldn't go anywhere near the White House. It's one of the most dangerous places in the country, both in terms of the assault it makes on truth, as well as health. There's something wrong about the disconnect between what the president's responsibilities are and what's happening.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    For its part, the Democratic ticket has taken increased campaign precautions. And team Biden says it's the White House's responsibility to make others feel safe along the campaign trail, including at Biden's upcoming debate with President Trump in Miami.

  • Kate Bedingfield:

    There will be real people. There'll be citizens there in attendance asking questions, so the obligation is on Donald Trump to prove that he is not contagious.

    We have every expectation that he will do that, and when he does, we're looking forward to being there to debate.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    So, even as the vice presidential candidates stay at least 12 feet apart tonight, the campaigns' pandemic responses remain seemingly worlds apart.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And Yamiche joins me now, along with our Capitol Hill correspondent, Lisa Desjardins, who is also covering the Biden/Harris campaign.

    So, Yamiche, to you first. With this backtracking by the president, the White House now saying it's open to smaller isolated bills. What do we know about why the president reversed himself and what looks possible?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, the president is eager, now that he's really gotten a lot of backlash for calling off negotiations on this COVID-19 relief bill, to try to say, yes, I am interested in doing something.

    And just a few moments ago, the president released a video from the White House, saying that he feels like the coronavirus was really a blessing in disguise for him, because now he has ideas on what kind of treatments Americans can get.

    He said at one point that he feels like he had a cure for the virus. That, of course, we don't have any evidence for a cure for the virus, and the FDA hasn't approved any treatment, final treatment, for the coronavirus.

    But the president essentially is eager to say: I am still at work for the American people.

    Last night, when he sent that surprising tweet, essentially unilaterally saying, I'm going to call off these negotiations until after I win the election, there are a lot of people, including Republicans, who said: Why are we the ones taking blame for this?

    The president is now saying that he wants to do some sort of piecemeal deals. He's looking possibly doing at a bill for the airline industry, as well as maybe doing stimulus collection for some Americans.

    But what's complicating this is that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at one point was saying, what about — why not do an airline bill? And House Republicans were the ones who were pushing back.

    So, now the White House is essentially saying, after the president said, I didn't want to do a deal, he's now saying, well, let's do a small deal. But it's not clear whether or not Democrats will play ball, especially as the president is continuing to release videos, as he's sick, really wanting to try to talk about the fact that this presidency is at work.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Lisa, to you.

    How — do we know how close the two sides had been to reaching an agreement? And is some sort of — or smaller, isolated bills, is that doable?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    The two sides were much closer than they had been in May. But, Judy, they still had a long way to go.

    I want to look at some graphics about where things stood on the coronavirus talks.

    First, here's areas where the president and Democrats overlap too, as Yamiche mentioned. The $1,200 stimulus payments, that's something that the House passed in its versions of coronavirus relief, and then also $25 billion to $30 billion for airlines.

    Judy, the issue is, though, that the House Democrats feel that there is so much else that needs to be done now. Let's look at that list of where the disagreements are, where the president and Democrats do not agree.

    First, relief for the unemployed. House Democrats feel that must be much more robust. Schools, food aid, it's another one, states and cities. And then there's another dozen or so on that list.

    So, there was a large gap. And to say that they were right on the edge of an agreement is not accurate. However, they were continuing to talk. Now I think that it is — Speaker Pelosi has offered that airline deal. However, it's up to the White House to accept her terms for that, the way she wants that to work.

    She now is waiting to see if the White House will get back to her on that. Everything else Judy, Democrats really don't have a lot of motivation for reengaging with this president, who keeps shifting positions.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, let's turn to tonight's debate, Yamiche.

    We are just a few hours away from the only vice presidential debate of this — of this election.

    Tell us, what is known about Vice President Pence's strategy here?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Vice President Pence is taking a more traditional look at debate prep. He was doing mock debates. He had someone playing Senator Harris.

    And his number one issue is going to be defending the president's response to the coronavirus. He's coming, of course, as the vice president, but he's also coming as the head of the Coronavirus Task Force. So, he's going to really be trying to make the case that they did all that they possibly can.

    Another thing to note is that he's going to have some guests in the crowd. He's going to have the parents of Kayla Mueller. She was a young woman who was killed by ISIS. So, he's also going to be making the case that terrorism and foreign policy should also be on the minds of Americans in the middle of this pandemic.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And to Lisa.

    From the Democrats, side, Biden and Harris, what have you learned about what Harris' strategy is tonight?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Right.

    Harris will have to do a few things, obviously defend her own record, in addition to that, talk about Vice President Biden and his record. But we do expect her to be firm and aggressive and — perhaps in talking about the Coronavirus Task Force that Vice President Pence has chaired.

    I also think what the Biden campaign is hoping, perhaps more than anything, is that Harris can break through kind of the weariness that a lot of voters fear — feel right now about politics, and that she can connect with voters on a personal level.

    We saw her ability to do that in the primary debates. So, I think we should expect her to talk about personal experiences.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, finally, a different subject, yet another subject, Yamiche.

    And that is, there was news today out of the Centers for Disease Control. Tell us about that.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    That's right.

    A former director of the CDC wrote a letter to the current director of the CDC, essentially telling him that he should orchestrate his own firing to call attention to what he sees as undue political pressure coming out of the White House and onto the CDC.

    William Foege, wrote, in part, that the president essentially should be called out for pushing the CDC to do things that are not right when it comes to science.

    Now, William Foege is someone who is seen as a public health expert. He's someone who worked on smallpox and other issues. We don't have a graphic up, but I want to read part of what he said, which is: "It's a slaughter, not just a political dispute."

    So what he was talking about there is the coronavirus pandemic, essentially saying that too many Americans have died, and this administration has really not done what it needed to do for the virus.

    So, as a result, he's saying that the CDC really needs to be called — calling out the president, and that the director should be the one speaking up.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So important to hear that.

    Yamiche Alcindor for us reporting on the White House, Lisa Desjardins reporting on the Capitol and the Biden campaign, thank you both.

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