Pence Hails Terrorist Takedowns, Harris Raises Russian Bounties in Veep Debate

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Sen. Kamala Harris and Vice President Mike Pence debate
Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Vice President Mike Pence applaud after the vice presidential debate Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020, at Kingsbury Hall on the campus of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

The first and only vice presidential debate came the same day that the U.S. announced the indictment of two notorious British ISIS detainees -- and Vice President Mike Pence made hay of the moment, hailing the Trump administration's victories against terrorism.

After a chaotic and combative presidential debate that saw little in the way of substantive policy discussion, the vice presidential debate, held Wednesday night, represented something of a return to normalcy. And while much of the discussion focused on response to and impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, the candidates also veered into national security and defense.

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Democratic vice presidential contender Sen. Kamala Harris challenged the administration on damaged alliances and its close relationship with Russia, while Pence focused on the bad actors eliminated over the last four years, including ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who died during an October 2019 raid, and Iranian Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani, killed in a U.S. drone strike in January.

Pence cited Kayla Mueller, an American humanitarian aid worker taken hostage by ISIS in 2013 and killed by the terrorist group in 2015, noting that her parents were present for the debate at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

"Today, two of the ISIS killers responsible for Kayla Mueller's murder were brought to justice in the United States," Pence said, referring to the two members of the British militant group known as "The Beatles" indicted Wednesday. The two other members had previously been killed.

"The reality is that when Joe Biden was vice president, we had an opportunity to save Kayla Mueller. It breaks my heart to reflect on it, but the military came into the Oval Office, presented a plan ... but when Joe Biden was vice president they hesitated for a month, and when armed forces finally went in, it was clear she'd been moved two days earlier," Pence said. "And her family says with a heart that broke the heart of every American, that if President Donald Trump had been president, they believe Kayla would be alive today."

Harris addressed Mueller's parents directly, saying on behalf of herself and presidential candidate Joe Biden that "what happened to her is awful and it should have never happened."

But she pivoted then to the deadly strike on Soleimani, after which the United States briefly seemed on the brink of war with Iran. Hostilities declined following an Iranian counterstrike on two Iraqi bases housing U.S. troops.

"[American service members suffered serious brain injuries, and do you know what Donald Trump dismissed them as? Headaches," Harris said.

She cited a recent explosive story in The Atlantic that reported Trump had called troops "losers" and "suckers," and referred to his public remarks prior to getting elected about the late Sen. John McCain in which he questioned McCain's heroism because he had been captured by the enemy.

"Donald Trump, who went to Arlington cemetery and stood above the graves of our fallen heroes and said, 'What's in it for them?'" Harris said. "Because of course, he only thinks about what's in it for him."

She then referred to reporting from earlier this year that Russia had placed bounties on U.S. troops in Afghanistan. U.S. military commanders have said intelligence reports on this possibility were not definite, but acknowledged they were worrisome.

"Donald Trump had talked at least six times to Vladimir Putin and never brought up the subject," Harris said. "Joe Biden would never do that. ... Joe Biden would hold Russia to account for any threat to our national security or to our troops who are sacrificing their lives for the sake of our democracy and our safety."

Though Pence and Harris throughout the night tended to talk past each other and often did not directly address points raised by their opponent, Pence did call reports of Trump disparaging service members "absurd."

"My son [Michael Pence] is a captain in the United States Marine Corps," he said. "My son-in-law [Lt. Henry Bond] is deployed in the United States Navy. I can assure all of you with sons and daughters serving in our military, President Donald Trump not only respects, but reveres all of those who serve in our armed forces and any suggestion otherwise is ridiculous."

Harris, who has no direct military ties, but served on the Senate Intelligence Committee, landed perhaps her most solid blows on national security issues when challenging the administration on its relationships with allies and adversaries. She charged that Trump had opted to take the word of Russian President Vladimir Putin over his own FBI director on matters related to alleged Russian interference in the U.S. elections. She cited Trump's abandonment of the controversial Iran nuclear deal, saying the nation is less safe because it had abandoned allies in the agreement.

"What we have seen with Donald Trump is that he has betrayed our friends and embraced dictators around the world," she said. "... The thing that has always been part of the strength of our nation in addition to our great military has been that we keep our word, but Donald Trump doesn't understand that because he doesn't understand what it means to be honest."

It's not clear whether there will be a next debate; the Commission on Presidential Debates announced Thursday that the next showdown between Trump and Biden would be virtual, prompting Trump to respond that he would not participate in a virtual debate.

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at hope.seck@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.

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