Pence defends over-the-top coronavirus rhetoric as 'understandable'

Donald Trump Jr. said Democrats "seemingly hope" that the coronavirus outbreak "kills millions of people." Mike Pence's defense of this was ... problematic
Image: Vice President Mike Pence appears in a pre-taped interview on "Meet the Press" on Feb. 29, 2020.
Vice President Mike Pence appears in a pre-taped interview on "Meet the Press" on Feb. 29, 2020.William B. Plowman / NBC News
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By Steve Benen

On Friday night, Donald Trump Jr. said Democrats "seemingly hope" that the coronavirus outbreak "kills millions of people." It led CNN's Jake Tapper to ask Vice President Mike Pence yesterday whether everyone can agree that neither side of the political divide wants Americans to die from the virus outbreak. Pence didn't exactly answer the question directly.

"[T]his is no time for politics. And, frankly, I think that was Don Jr.'s point, that there has been some very strong rhetoric directed at the president by some members of Congress and political commentators.... [R]esponding to the kind of things that have been hurled is understandable."

Remember, in context, Tapper specifically highlighted a public assertion from the president's son that Democrats "seemingly hope" that the coronavirus outbreak "kills millions of people." Offered an opportunity to distance himself from such rhetoric, Pence -- who's ostensibly overseeing the federal response to the outbreak -- said the over-the-top vitriol is "understandable."

It's really not.

There was a similar exchange yesterday morning on NBC's Meet the Press, where Chuck Todd noted the Trump Jr. quote, as well as similar inflammatory rhetoric from White House allies such as Rush Limbaugh. The vice president replied, "Well, I will tell you, there's been a lot of irresponsible rhetoric among Democrats and commentators."

As best as I can tell, Pence still hasn't pointed to any "irresponsible rhetoric" from Democratic officials at any level of government, though he did take aim at this New York Times column from Gail Collins.

Part of the problem with this is the vice president's purported leadership role. Pence can go after Democrats and pundits, while defending radical rhetoric, or he can oversee the federal response to a public-health emergency. As of yesterday, however, the Indiana Republican apparently hopes to do both, which seems untenable.

The other part of the problem is the extraordinary irony: Pence is complaining about "irresponsible rhetoric" while Donald Trump -- senior, not junior -- throws around ridiculous references to "hoaxes," contradicts scientists, misstates statistics, and lashes out at major American news organizations as "the enemy of the people."

It was just hours earlier that the vice president insisted this is "no time for politics."