WASHINGTON (CN) — Wanting to debate in person only as he recovers from Covid-19, President Donald Trump refused on Thursday to participate in next week’s presidential debate if it would be virtual.
The president announced his position this morning in a call to Fox Business, less than an hour after the independent Commission on Presidential Debates announced it would move to a virtual format in light of the pandemic.
“I’m not going to waste my time doing a virtual debate,” Trump told Fox.
The president has been back at the White House since Monday, following an abrupt hospitalization at Walter Reed Military Medical Center in nearby Bethesda, Maryland, after he tested positive for the novel coronavirus. His diagnosis came directly on the heels of his first presidential debate against opponent Joe Biden. A senior Biden campaign official confirmed last week that the White House did not contact their campaign to warn of any possible exposure.
The White House has failed to return multiple requests for comment but during his appearance on Fox, Trump said of Biden and the debate commission: “They’re trying to protect Biden. Everybody is.”
Biden tested negative for the virus after his most recent exposure to President Trump.
Slated for Oct. 15 in Miami, the next presidential debate will take the form of a town hall meeting where candidates take questions from audience members. The commission said Thursday that it would still seat a live-studio audience, though the candidates would debate remotely.
Steve Scully, senior executive producer of CSPAN, would moderate live from the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, with the White House press pool providing coverage of the debate.
Bill Stepien, Trump’s campaign manager who is among a growing list of White House officials who also contracted Covid-19 last week, issued a blistering statement Thursday against the debate commission.
“For the swamp creatures at the Presidential Debate Commission to now rush to Joe Biden’s defense by unilaterally cancelling an in-person debate is pathetic,” Stepien said. “That’s not what debates are about or how they’re done. Here are the facts: President Trump will have posted multiple negative tests prior to the debate, so there is no need for this unilateral decision. The safety of all involved can easily be achieved without canceling a chance for voters to see both candidates go head to head. We’ll pass on this sad excuse to bail out Joe Biden and do a rally instead.”
Later Thursday, the Trump campaign released an additional statement, proposing to move the debate on Oct. 15 to Oct. 22 where both parties could participate in person. The suggested timeframe would then move the third and final debate to Oct. 29.
The White House has refused to comment on when Trump last tested negative for the virus, making a determination on whether he has actually tested negative multiple times before the debate more difficult, if not impossible, to know.
Guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate a person can be contagious at least 10 days after initial infection.
During his stay at Walter Reed, doctors administered a variety of antibody cocktail to the president. A Covid-19 antibody test now would identify antibodies, but this does not mean that the president has completely shed the virus or is no longer contagious.
After Trump backed out of the debate Thursday, Biden deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield said the former vice president would still participate.
“Vice President Biden looks forward to speaking directly to the American people and comparing his plan for bringing the country together and building back better with Donald Trump’s failed leadership on the coronavirus that has thrown the strong economy he inherited into the worst downturn since the Great Depression,” Bedingfield said.
Commission on Presidential Debate chairman Frank Fahrenkopf said Thursday no presidential candidate is required to debate under the commission rules. Former President Jimmy Carter refused to attend what would have been a three-person debate in 1980.
Though the virus is still surging through the United States, upticks are being seen in cities crisscrossing the nation and over two dozen White House officials have tested positive for the virus in recent days. Trump was insistent that the move by the debate commission to modify the format was an attempt to “mute” or silence him.
Per the rules of the debate commission — which was established in 1987 and is run by a nonpartisan board of directors — changes to debate format, including approving the use of a mute function, must be agreed upon by both parties.
The only and one vice presidential debate was held on Wednesday night between Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris, Biden’s running mate. Two layers of plexiglass separated Harris and Pence, who sat 6 feet apart at the debate to prevent even the potential spread of the virus.
Every national poll shows Biden leading by a wide margin, but Stepien trumpeted both Trump’s first debate performance — which Democrats and Republicans alike widely panned as raucous and disruptive — and Pence's turn as complete successes.
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