Vice President Mike Pence appeared via phone Thursday afternoon for an interview with right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh to discuss the latest progress in the coronavirus pandemic — again legitimizing and elevating a voice that has peddled conspiracy theories and denialism about the crisis since it began.
As with his previous interview with Pence back in late February, Limbaugh seemed to hold back all his conspiracy theories and dismissals of coronavirus as being a public health threat, instead playing the role of a responsible host interviewing a government official during this crisis. (After that past interview, Limbaugh was almost immediately back to his usual tricks with the same kinds of “irresponsible rhetoric” about the pandemic that Pence has called for tamping down.)
Limbaugh began the interview by asking Pence for updates on how soon the economy could reopen.
“How are you holding up? What’s the progress?” he asked. “I’m detecting from the briefings every day, there’s now a shift toward the reopening of the economy as an objective, rather than just a daily update on the medical aspects, characteristics.”
But this analysis was a long way from Limbaugh’s continued insistence, even just earlier this week, that the economic shutdown was never necessary — but was instead a conspiracy by Democratic governors to tear down society and “put it back together in their own dream” — or the many times he has alleged that the death counts from COVID-19 have been inflated.
While Limbaugh has recently cheered on the small minority of people who have mounted public protests against the economic lockdowns — even casting doubt on the risks by declaring that “people instinctively know now that however bad this is, it isn't as bad as they all told us” — his question this time was framed around a general impatience to reopen society, and trying to negotiate a way out of it.
“They’re protesting in certain states, because their attitude, ‘Hey, my state’s not New York, it’s not the New York metro area. Why can’t I go back to work?’” he said. “And these people protesting are being ripped to shreds by the media — doing their best to mischaracterize what their objectives are. What do you make of the protests? And if we’re getting closer, what’s the demarcation point, where you can see that we can make an official shift to reopening from the flattening of the curve policies?”
Pence sought to address the protesters in a conciliatory fashion while recognizing concerns about a potential “resurgence” of the outbreak, an approach with which Limbaugh eventually went along:
MIKE PENCE: But I have to tell you, seeing protests around the country, seeing people stepping forward, I share their passion, I know the president shares their passion for reopening America, getting America working again. But we want to do it in a way that ensures that we won’t have a resurgence of the coronavirus, and that once we — once we open America again, that we’ll keep America open. That’s what we’re working toward every single day.
RUSH LIMBAUGH (HOST): Yeah, you don’t want to have to —
PENCE: And I just have to tell you —
LIMBAUGH: You don’t want to have to shut it down again after it reopens.
This acknowledgement was a long way from Limbaugh’s position just a week ago. “I mean we’re going to have to adapt, and accept that people will continue to die after we reopen the economy,” he said at the time. “We have to remember that people die every day in America, before the coronavirus came along.”
Limbaugh had also been girding his listeners for just such a political confrontation with the media when the shutdowns end, saying: “The first death after reopening, Donald Trump’s going to be blamed for it. We all know it, he knows it. That’s what they’re going to do. Whoever, whoever is the first on record to die after we reopen — you wait, this person’s going to get hero treatment like you can’t believe.”
But none of that cavalier attitude toward coronavirus deaths was on display here.
Limbaugh also asked about the efforts by Republican Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp to partially reopen his state — efforts which Trump suddenly broke from on Wednesday evening, saying it’s “too soon.”
RUSH LIMBAUGH (HOST): Now, Gov. Kemp is a Republican governor of Georgia. He has decided to open up nail salons and barber shops and bowling alleys soon, restaurants next week.
And everybody is reacting like this is the absolute worst thing he could do — “It’s a big, big, big mistake.” But he’s saying he’s got his own data. He’s got his data in Florida. He’s got his statistics, he’s got his health experts are telling him it’s going to be fine. And he’s saying his constituents are getting impatient, they want to go back to work and save their livelihoods. Yesterday, the president said, “I wish he wouldn’t do it, but I’m not going to tell him not to.” Dr. Fauci, same thing. What kind of challenge does this give you as you’re trying to marshal your policy across the country? What do you expect to happen in Georgia that you wish wouldn’t happen?
MIKE PENCE: Well, I think the president was very clear yesterday that he thought there were aspects of Georgia’s plan that, to him, seemed too soon. But to your point, I mean, the president — the president has created a framework here where we want governors to make those decisions on a state-by-state level. The one thing — you know this president well, Rush. I mean, you’ll always know where President Trump stands. But — and our health experts weighed in on that yesterday, as well.
But our conviction is that by laying out the guidelines for opening up America again, we’ve given every governor in every state and territory in the county what we believe is the best counsel for how to safely and responsibly reopen. We’ll continue to share that guidance and that counsel, but ultimately it’ll be up to those states, up to their health advisers, and up to the people of their state to determine the best course forward.
This kind of nuanced dialogue was nowhere to be found in Limbaugh’s declaration from just last week: “I’m hoping that there’s a state somewhere out there that grows so fed up with this — some governor that grows so fed up with it, that he just reopens.”
At the end of the interview, Pence very cordially thanked Limbaugh for all his public support: “And I want to thank you, and I want to thank your millions of listeners, for the prayers that they have prayed for all of us that are working at every level.”
Pence’s notion that Limbaugh and his listeners had offered up prayers and support to “all of us that are working at every level” is directly contrary to the things Limbaugh has actually said. Earlier this month, for example, Limbaugh had alleged that medical experts such as Dr. Anthony Fauci were “Hillary Clinton sympathizers,” adding, “And we know that one thing has not changed, and that is these people’s desire, above everything else, to get rid of Donald Trump.”
Limbaugh has also claimed that the medical experts and statistical modelers were trying to take “control of all kinds” in society: “We're going to be prisoners to these models, because people are going to be the experts, and they can now tinker with them however they want.”
Make no mistake: By appearing once again on Limbaugh’s show, Pence and, by extension, the Trump administration have conferred a legitimacy on the talk radio host to continue sending messages that undercut and incite against official medical advice and guidelines during this public health crisis.
And if the last two months are any guide, Limbaugh is only going to keep on getting worse from here.