WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump said Thursday he would not take part in the next presidential debate with former Vice President Joe Biden after it was moved to a virtual format because of COVID-19 safety concerns.
It would leave the president and Biden just one more debate before Election Day on Nov. 3.
Trump’s decision set off a furious back and forth between the two campaigns on the debate schedule and formats, culminating with Biden scheduling his own televised town hall for Oct. 15, the night of the previously scheduled second of three debates. Trump won’t be present.
The Commission on Presidential Debates announced Thursday morning the next debate would be remote to “protect the health and safety of all involved” after Trump’s positive COVID-19 diagnosis and the subsequent White House outbreak.
“I’m not going to waste my time doing a virtual debate,” Trump told Fox Business host Maria Bartiromo, calling it a “joke” and an effort “to protect Biden.”
A White House memo released Thursday night announced Trump had completed his course of therapy for COVID-19 “as prescribed by his team of physicians.” White House physician Dr. Sean Conley cleared Trump to return to public life on Saturday, 10 days since his diagnosis, saying, “I fully anticipate the President’s safe return to public engagements at that time”
In their third statement on the topic today, Trump Campaign Manager Bill Stepien cited the letter from Dr. Conley, insisting the second presidential debate should be held in person and there is no reason to “shift the debate to a virtual setting, postpone it, or otherwise alter it in any away”
White House officials and Trump’s physician have not said when the president’s last negative test was.
The Biden town hall, hosted by ABC News and moderated by anchor George Stephanopoulos, is not affiliated with the Commission on Presidential Debates, the nonpartisan panel that sponsors presidential debates.
Co-chairman Frank Fahrenkopf said the commission would not host the virtual debate with Biden alone.
“No, we wouldn’t have it,” he said. “You can’t do that under the federal election laws and FEC (Federal Election Commission) rules. You’ve got to balance. You couldn’t have one person going through the debate and the other one not.”
Fahrenkopf said the future of the next debate rests with Trump.
“The ball’s in his court,” he said.
The debate scheduled Oct. 15 was originally to be a town hall format. Under the virtual format, debate moderator Steve Scully, C-SPAN’s senior executive producer and political editor, and the town hall participants would be based in Miami, and the candidates would participate in “separate remote locations,” the commission said.
Biden wants Oct. 22 debate changed to town hall; Trump seeks debate delays
As Biden headed to Arizona on Thursday for campaign events, he said he didn’t know what to expect.
“I don’t know what the president is going to do. He changes his mind every second,” Biden said.
Kate Bedingfield, deputy campaign manager for the Biden campaign, called for the third and final debate – still set for Nashville on Oct. 22 – to be changed to a town hall format. The final debate is slated to feature only Trump, Biden and moderator Kristen Welker of NBC News.
Bedingfield said Biden was “prepared to accept” the commission’s proposal for a virtual town hall.
“But the president has refused, as Donald Trump clearly does not want to face questions from the voters about his failures on COVID and the economy,” she said. “The voters should have a chance to ask questions of both candidates, directly. Every presidential candidate since 1992 has participated in such an event, and it would be a shame if Donald Trump was the first to refuse.”
Stepien originally proposed delaying the final two debates each one week under their same format. That would move the Miami town hall to Oct. 22 and the Nashville debate to Oct. 29.
“Voters should have the opportunity to directly question Biden’s 47-year failed record of leadership,” said Stepien, who tested positive for COVID-19 last week. “We agree that this should happen on Oct. 22, and accordingly, the third debate should then be shifted back one week to Oct. 29.”
Bedingfield fired back that “Trump’s erratic behavior does not allow him to rewrite the calendar.” She said dates had been set. “Donald Trump can show up, or he can decline again. That’s his choice.”
Fahrenkopf said the commission is moving forward with an in-person – not virtual – debate in Nashville on Oct. 22 “even if (Trump) decides to skip” the second debate. He said the commission intends to keep the originally planned format, not shift to a town hall as requested.
“They can do what they want to,” he said of the campaigns. “Right now, we’re going forward as originally planned.”
Can Trump do that?
The first presidential debate took place in Cleveland last week. Two days later, Trump announced he tested positive for COVD-19. Vice President Mike Pence and Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris took part in the lone vice presidential debate Wednesday night.
Fahrenkopf said there’s “no law or requirement” that presidential candidates must debate, noting President Jimmy Carter refused to take part in a debate sponsored by the League of Women Voters with Republican nominee Ronald Reagan and independent candidate John Anderson in 1980. The debate went ahead with Reagan and Anderson.
“There’s no way you can force a presidential candidate to debate,” Fahrenkopf told USA TODAY. “It’s up to them whether they debate or not.”
Stepien said Trump would hold a rally instead of participating in the debate.
“President Trump will have posted multiple negative tests prior to the debate, so there is no need for this unilateral declaration,” Stepien said, though the date of Trump’s last negative test has not been released.
Trump spent three days at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where he was treated for COVID-19. He returned to the White House on Monday, then two days later, he reentered the Oval Office.
Amid concerns about the spread of COVID-19 after the string of positive tests for the president, top White House staff and Republican allies, plexiglass was installedbetween Pence and Harris at Wednesday night’s debate. The two candidates were spaced more than 12 feet apart, though neither candidate wore a face mask during the debate.
Fahrenkopf, chairman of the Republican National Committee from 1983 to 1989, said it’s been the practice for 25 years that the debate commission names the dates, the locations, the formats and the moderators without any consultation with the campaigns.
“I heard this morning, ‘Well, they should have consulted us.’ We never consult on these sorts of things, and we’ve been saying from the very beginning that we are going to follow the advice of the medical people who are advising us, the Cleveland Clinic,” he said. “They supported what we are doing. We are doing this for the safety of everyone involved.”
Contributing: David Jackson and Bart Jansen