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Kamala Harris' Chief Of Staff On The Strategy For Vice Presidential Debate

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Tonight in Salt Lake City, there will be a vice presidential debate like no other, down to the physical setup. Viewers tuning in will see the candidates, Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris, sitting 12 feet, 2 inches apart. They will be separated by large, vertical plexiglass dividers. Now, those were the requests of the Biden-Harris campaign because of the ballooning White House COVID-19 outbreak. And they were measures that the Trump-Pence campaign resisted, arguing plexiglass was unnecessary.

Elsewhere in the program, I talk to the vice president's camp. Right now we're going to hear from Karine Jean-Pierre. She is Kamala Harris' chief of staff. I started by asking her about that back-and-forth over plexiglass.

KARINE JEAN-PIERRE: Well, let me just first say - like, Mike Pence, you know, his team should have no problem with extra precautions, given the vice president himself is in charge of COVID-19 task force and should be advocating for additional protections. And so, yeah, there will be a plexiglass in between them or one - each person will have their own plexiglass on each side. And I think that is what we need to do, once again.

KELLY: And the plexiglass, the physical distancing - all of that, obviously it's a visual. There's actual physical barriers that will be there onstage. But there's also symbolism here. You noted the Vice President Pence and President Trump have been arguing that the U.S. is beating the virus, that the country has turned the corner. What is Senator Harris' message going to be tonight on the pandemic?

JEAN-PIERRE: Yeah, well, what Senator Harris is going to do is what Joe Biden did last week in his debate - is really lay out how a Biden-Harris administration will handle this crisis differently. You know, she's looking forward to to lay out the plan that a Biden-Harris administration will have for our economy because COVID-19 is also - while it's a pandemic, it's caused another crises, which - crisis - which is the economy. And so - and also, too, we have to remember, like, we have to expand, not take away health care in the middle of a pandemic. Donald Trump and his administration right now is in the court trying to take away Obamacare, ACA, away from tens of millions of people in the middle of a pandemic. And so that's the contrast. That's what she's going to talk about.

KELLY: It is - how hard is she going to go after him tonight on the administration's coronavirus record? Because on the one hand, everybody would like - or not everybody, I won't say - but many people would like to see a more civilized debate than we saw last week with the presidential candidates. But Pence has been in charge. He's head of the White House task force on coronavirus.

JEAN-PIERRE: Yeah, he is. You know, we expect Mike Pence to have a good debate. And he makes things sound good. He's a really, if you think about it, a talking points machine. But really, it's just lies and distortions delivered with confidence. And you know, just because you deliver a strong line doesn't make it true. And so it's going to be - you know, this is something that's really key. It's going to be up to the moderator and the media's responsibility to fact-check Pence and to push back on the deflection. And clearly, our campaign is going to do that.

KELLY: I heard you say you expect Mike Pence to have a good debate, managing expectations there.

JEAN-PIERRE: (Laughter).

KELLY: How has she been prepping?

JEAN-PIERRE: Yeah. So you know, Kamala Harris is a preparer. You know, she is - she, I think, more than prepared for tonight. She's...

KELLY: She been doing mock debates with a member of her team?

JEAN-PIERRE: Oh, yeah. I mean, you know, she has been working with an incredible team, diverse team of seasoned political operatives who have experience preparing for debates at this level, really.

KELLY: With the president having tested positive, with questions about the 25th Amendment and what would happen if a president needed to transfer powers to his vice president - that is an open conversation all over the country this week. And I wonder how the stakes feel to you. Does Senator Harris feel even more pressure than you might normally expect about how she needs to perform tonight?

JEAN-PIERRE: You know, I will say this. I think, as a campaign, we understand what's at stake. Our lives are at stake. Our democracy is at stake. This is the most consequential election of our lifetime. And so, yes, so much is at stake. Everything is at stake. And we all feel it as a campaign. Joe Biden feels it. She feels it. And so we're just going to continue to make the case, bring that contrast. And like I said, I mean, if you just look at the last 24, 48 hours, like, our lives are on the ballot. You know, I don't think that's hyperbole. That is the real situation that we're in right now as a country.

KELLY: That is Karine Jean-Pierre. She's Kamala Harris' chief of staff - speaking to us there from Salt Lake City.

Good to speak with you. Thank you very much.

JEAN-PIERRE: Thank you so much for having me. Have a wonderful day. Thank you.

KELLY: And you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.