The Commission on Presidential Debates announced Thursday that former Vice President Joe Biden and President Donald Trump would be facing off from "separate remote locations"

By Georgia Slater
October 08, 2020 09:17 AM
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President Donald Trump said Thursday he would not participate in the second presidential debate — issuing his refusal shortly after the Commission on Presidential Debates announced that the Oct. 15 forum would be held virtually due to novel coronavirus concerns sharpened by Trump's own hospitalization with the virus.

In a nearly hour-long phone call with Fox Business' Maria Bartiromo, however, the president insisted the format change was actually an effort to aid his rival, former Vice President Joe Biden.

"I'm not going to do a virtual debate," Trump told Bartiromo on her Mornings with Maria. "I'm not going to waste my time at a virtual debate."

The 74-year-old — who tested positive for the coronavirus disease COVID-19 last Thursday, the White House has said — said on Fox Business he refused to "sit at a computer" to debate Biden, calling the new format "ridiculous."

"The commission changed the debate style and that's not acceptable to us," he continued.

Trump attributed the format change to the commission "trying to protect Biden."

The president's comments came just minutes after the commission announced that the second debate would go virtual to "protect the health and safety of all involved" following the president's positive COVID-19 diagnosis last week, after which he was treated at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for three days.

The commission's statement noted that the debate is still scheduled for Oct. 15 and will "take the form of a town meeting," as planned.

Debate moderator Steve Scully, C-SPAN's senior executive producer and political editor, and the town hall participants will be located at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of in Miami, Florida, while the candidates will participate from "separate remote locations."

Bill Stepien, Trump's campaign manager and one of several senior aides who was infected with the virus in the recent White House outbreak, said in a statement that the commission's decision to be remote for the next debate was "pathetic."

Echoing the president's rhetoric about his opponents, Stepien said "the swamp creatures at the Presidential Debate Commission" were in a "rush to Joe Biden's defense."

Former Vice President Joe Biden (left) and President Donald Trump

"The safety of all involved can easily be achieved without canceling a chance for voters to see both candidates go head to head," Stepien said.

Despite those protestations, the president's aides and doctors have continued to provide some information about his health such as confirming when he last tested negative — and whether it was before or after attending several large events last week, including the first presidential debate. His doctors have also declined to discuss if the virus caused pneumonia or lung damage.

"We'll pass on this sad excuse to bail out Joe Biden and do a rally instead," Stepien said in his statement. The campaign's position was a reversal of a recent talking point to attack Biden: that it would be him and not Trump who pulled out of the remaining debates.

Asked for comment later Thursday morning, Biden told reporters that Trump has a habit of reversing himself.

"We don’t know what the president’s going to do. He changes his mind every second," Biden said.

During Wednesday night's vice-presidential debate, Sen. Kamala Harris  55, and Vice President Mike Pence, 61, did not shake hands or physically touch during the event to abide by COVID-19 safety precautions.

Both candidates were seated roughly 12 feet apart and with panes of plexiglass between them as part of additional measures put into place by debate organizers after the White House virus outbreak.

The president announced on Twitter on Monday that he would be leaving Walter Reed after his three-day stay, adding that he was "feeling really good."

"Though he may not be entirely out of the woods yet, the team and I agree that all our evaluations — and most importantly, his clinical status — support the president’s safe return home,” the White House physician, Dr. Sean Conley, told reporters at a briefing outside the hospital on Monday.

Conley said that, in the medical team's view, there was no longer any part of the president's treatment that he could not receive back at the White House.

Trump’s doctors and the White House gave a conflicting account of his health over the weekend, and his medical team admitted they were projecting optimism about his condition.

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