Trump Says He Won’t Participate In Virtual Debate As Commission Changes Format

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Updated at 9:55 a.m. ET

WASHINGTON, D.C. (NPR) — President Trump said Thursday that he’s “not going to do a virtual debate” after the independent commission that runs the debates announced that the second presidential debate, which had been scheduled for Oct. 15 in Miami, will be virtual.

Trump told Fox Business anchor Maria Bartiromo that the change in the debate style was “not acceptable to us.”

“I’m not going to do a virtual debate,” he said, calling the format “a waste of time.”

President Trump said he won't participate in a virtual debate in comments made moments after the commission that organizes the presidential debate announced a change in format because of the coronavirus.
President Trump said he won’t participate in a virtual debate in comments made moments after the commission that organizes the presidential debate announced a change in format because of the coronavirus. [Patrick Semansky | AP]
It was Trump’s first interview since returning from the hospital Monday to receive the rest of his treatment for COVID-19 at the White House.

Trump said he had no advance notice of the change.

Earlier Thursday, the debate commission said the decision to change format was made “to protect the health and safety of all involved.” The candidates and the town hall participants will be in separate, remote locations, the commission said.

Bill Stepien, Trump’s campaign manager — who also has tested positive for the coronavirus — rebuked what he called the commission’s “unilateral declaration.”

“For the swamp creatures at the Presidential Debate Commission to now rush to Joe Biden’s defense by unilaterally canceling an in-person debate is pathetic,” he said in a statement.

“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,” Stepien added.

Meanwhile, the Biden campaign said the former vice president will move forward with the debate.

“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,” Biden deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield said in a statement.

Biden told reporters Thursday morning it’s impossible to anticipate the president’s decisions.

“I don’t know what the president’s going to do. He changes his mind every second,” Biden said. “For me to comment on that now would be irresponsible. I think that if I can follow the commission’s recommendation — if he goes off and has a rally — I’ll, I don’t know what I’ll do.”

The developments come a day after Vice President Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Biden’s running mate, met in the sole vice presidential debate. The candidates sat at desks more than 12 feet apart and separated by plexiglass shields. The measures were put in place after Trump and several other White House officials tested positive for the coronavirus — though Pence has not.

The pandemic, and the more than 210,000 Americans who have died from the virus, are likely to dominate the next few weeks before Election Day, Nov. 3.

On Tuesday, Biden had said, “We shouldn’t have a debate” next week if Trump is still infected with the coronavirus.

Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh had suggested the format of the second presidential debate could be altered to accommodate safety concerns, saying, “Everyone agrees that an outdoor event would be the safest possible environment.”

Trump’s medical team said Wednesday that the president’s vital signs all remain stable and in normal range. Dr. Sean Conley issued the information in a memo.

“The president this morning says, ‘I feel great!’ ” Conley said in the memo.

Conley also said Trump has detectable levels of COVID-19 antibodies in his bloodwork that was drawn on Monday. On Thursday night, those antibodies were undetectable, he said.

Conley told reporters Monday, the day of Trump’s discharge from Walter Reed National Medical Military Center, that while he is cautiously optimistic about the president’s prognosis, medical staff will remain on guard for another week.

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