Debates Up in the Air as Trump Rejects Virtual Format amid COVID-19 Recovery and Asks to Postpone the Dates
It was to be a town hall-style debate with voters and was changed to a virtual format in the wake of the president's hospitalization with the novel coronavirus.
In an initial statement Thursday afternoon, Biden's top spokeswoman said the town hall should be rescheduled for the final debate date, on Oct. 22, arguing it would be a "shame" for Trump not to have to participate in one.
The Biden campaign also said that, since Trump said he would not participate in the remote Oct. 15 debate, Biden would take questions from voters in another forum.
"Joe Biden was prepared to accept the CPD'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," read the statement signed by Biden's deputy campaign manager and communications director, Kate Bedingfield.
"As a result, Joe Biden will find an appropriate place to take questions from voters directly on October 15th, as he has done on several occasions in recent weeks," Bedingfield said. "Given the President's refusal to participate on October 15th, we hope the Debate Commission will move the Biden-Trump Town Hall to October 22nd, so that the President is not able to evade accountability."
"The voters should have a chance to ask questions of both candidates, directly," Bedingfield's statement continued. "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."
The back and forth began on Thursday morning, shortly after the Commission on Presidential Debates announced that the Oct. 15 event would be held virtually — with each candidate answering questions remotely, in light of the White House coronavirus outbreak.
Trump, however, told Fox Business' Maria Bartiromo later Thursday morning that he would not be participating.
Calling the new format "ridiculous," Trump said, "I am not going to waste my time on a virtual debate."
He also argued the change was in an effort to aid his rival rather than out of health concerns, echoing a key talking point that Biden, 77, is too enfeebled to govern and benefits from remote appearances where he can use a teleprompter. (The president also uses a teleprompter at some events.)
A first follow-up statement issued by Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien — who himself tested positive for COVID-19 last week — backed the president's decision and said Trump would hold a rally. That would be less than two weeks after the president left the hospital, where he received supplemental oxygen, steroids, an antiviral and experimental antibodies.
"Here are the facts: President Trump will have posted multiple negative tests prior to the debate, so there is no need for this unilateral declaration," Stepien's statement read. "We’ll pass on this sad excuse to bail out Joe Biden and do a rally instead."
In a "further statement" issued early Thursday afternoon, the Trump campaign said that while "a virtual debate is a non-starter" they would agree to the remaining debates in person if the debates were shifted back by a week — presumably when Trump is no longer infectious.
Though that position largely aligned with the Biden camp, Trump's campaign manager knocked him nonetheless.
"The American people should not be deprived of the chance to see the two candidates for president debate face to face two more times just because the Commission on Presidential Debates wants to protect Joe Biden," Stepien said in his latest statement.
"We agree that this should happen on October 22, and accordingly, the third debate should then be shifted back one week to October 29," he continued.
In a second statement reacting to Stepien's second statement, Biden's spokeswoman Kate Bedingfield dismissed the new requests.
"Donald Trump doesn't make the debate schedule; the Debate Commission does," she said. "We accepted the three dates — Sept. 29, Oct. 15, and Oct. 22 — in June. Trump chose today to pull out of the October 15th debate. Trump's erratic behavior does not allow him to rewrite the calendar, and pick new dates of his choosing."
"We look forward to participating in the final debate, scheduled for October 22, which already is tied for the latest debate date in 40 years," she continued. "Donald Trump can show up, or he can decline again. That's his choice."
The ultimate schedule and logistics of the remaining debates was not immediately clear amid the war of words.
Democrats had not initially placed much stock in Trump saying he would skip the debate, responding that the president would possibly change his mind.
"We don't know what the president's going to do. He changes his mind every second," Biden said in initial remarks made to reporters on Thursday morning. "So, for me to comment on that now would be irresponsible."
“I'm going to follow the commission's recommendation. If he goes off and has a rally, I’ll — I don’t know what I’ll do,” Biden added.
His reaction was shared by Sen. Bernie Sanders, who was asked by MSNBC's Stephanie Ruhle about the president's decision to forgo the chance to debate his opponent before the American people.
"That was 12 seconds ago right?" Sanders said. "He may have changed his mind since then."
Trump announced his positive COVID-19 diagnosis early Friday and could still be contagious on Oct. 15.
Despite seeing his fever spike and oxygen levels drop in the days after, the president was prescribed a number of medications and has publicly said he is feeling "great," while his doctors said Monday he may not "entirely be out of the woods."
Trump has been trailing Biden in state and national polls, seeing his support slip with key demographics crucial to winning the election.
Skipping the debate would mean losing a platform that reaches millions of American voters — some of them undecided. According to ratings compiled by Nielsen, the first presidential debate, held Sept. 29, was watched by more than 73 million people.