President Donald Trump said on Thursday that he wouldn’t participate in next week’s presidential debate after organisers announced it would be held virtually “in order to protect the health and safety of all involved”.
Democratic nominee Joe Biden initially agreed to take part, but suggested the debate be postponed after Trump rejected the new format.
Trump, still recovering from Covid-19, said the altered debate format that the Commission on Presidential Debates announced earlier in the day was unacceptable.
“I’m not going to waste my time on a virtual debate,” the president, in a hoarse voice, told Fox Business host Maria Bartiromo in a phone interview.
The debate commission had said the next event would take place October 15 in a town hall format as previously planned, but that each candidate would participate remotely. Town hall participants and the debate moderator, C-SPAN anchor Steve Scully, would attend in person at the debate venue in Miami.
Biden’s campaign quickly said the Democratic nominee would participate and “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.”
But later, after Trump declared he would not participate, Biden urged that the town hall event be postponed until October 22, when a third presidential debate was already scheduled to take place. The Biden campaign said that should be the final debate.
“Trump’s erratic behavior does not allow him to rewrite the calendar, and pick new dates of his choosing,” Biden’s communications manager Kate Bedingfield said, noting October 22 was already one of the latest debate dates in recent history.
Biden will dedicate the October 15 day to another event.
“Donald Trump clearly does not want to face questions from the voters about his failures on Covid and the economy,” Bedingfield said. “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 added that the commission could delay the planned town hall debate for one week “so that the President is not able to evade accountability.”
“The voters should have a chance to ask questions of both candidates, directly,” Bedingfield said. “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 Trump campaign appeared to agree to the new date of October 22, and, as opposed to the Biden campaign, called for the third and final debate to shift to October 29. It also accused the nonpartisan debate commission of being favourable to Biden and resumed attacking the former vice president for taking Covid-19 safety measures, such as falsely suggesting he was “hiding” in his “basement bunker”.
“As president Trump said, a virtual debate is a non-starter and would clearly be a gift to Biden because he would be relying on his teleprompter from his basement bunker,” Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien said in a statement. “The CPD and the media cannot hide Joe Biden forever. Americans deserve to hear directly from both presidential candidates on these dates, October 22 and 29.”
Earlier, Stepien, who also has tested positive for Covid-19, called the virtual format a “sad excuse to bail out Joe Biden” and said in a statement that Trump would “do a rally instead”.
Days after last week’s presidential debate in Cleveland, Trump tested positive for Covid-19 and was hospitalised for three days. Since his diagnosis, dozens of people in his orbit have also tested positive, including White House officials, campaign aides and associates who helped in his debate preparations.
On Friday, hours after Trump announced he had tested positive, Biden said he tested negative for Covid-19. He has since tested negative several more times, according to his campaign.
Meanwhile, Trump and his team have flouted coronavirus health guidelines, such as wearing face masks. Members of Trump’s family refused a doctor’s admonition to keep their masks on in the debate audience in Cleveland.
Wednesday night’s vice presidential debate was held in person with a plexiglass barrier between vice president Mike Pence and Democratic nominee Kamala Harris. Audience members were required to wear masks.
However, at the end of the debate, Pence’s wife Karen appeared on stage without one, ignoring guidelines both campaigns had agreed to observe.
Throughout the pandemic, Trump has continued to hold campaign rallies with mostly maskless crowds. He also has mocked Biden for wearing a face mask and observing other coronavirus health guidelines.
“I don’t wear face masks like him,” the president said during last week’s debate. “Every time you see him, he’s got a mask. He could be speaking 200 feet away ... and he shows up with the biggest mask I’ve ever seen.”
Nearly 212,000 people in the US have died of Covid-19.
Lydia O’Connor contributed reporting.