President Donald Trump said Thursday he would not take part in the next presidential debate with former Vice President Joe Biden after it was moved to a virtual format due to COVID-19 safety concerns.
“I’m not going to waste my time doing a virtual debate,” he told Fox Business host Maria Bartiromo, calling a virtual debate a “joke” and an effort “to protect Biden.”
The Commission on Presidential Debates announced Thursday morning the next presidential debate would be remote to “protect the health and safety of all involved” amid the COVID-19 pandemic and Trump’s positive COVID-19 diagnosis.
Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., co-chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates, said the commission would not host a solo debate with just Biden if Trump doesn’t budge from his position.
“No, we wouldn’t have it. You can’t do that under the federal election laws and FEC rules. You’ve got to balance. You couldn’t have one person going through the debate and the other one not. That wouldn’t be a debate under the law.”
Fahrenkopf said the future of the debate rests with Trump.
“The ball’s in his court,” he said. “It’s his call. We have to take it the way it comes.”
The debate, which is scheduled to take place on Oct. 15, is set to be held in a town hall format.
Debate moderator Steve Scully, C-SPAN’s senior executive producer & political editor, and the town hall participants will be based in Miami, Florida, but the candidates would participate in “separate remote locations,” the Commission said.
Fahrenkopf said there’s “no law or requirement” that presidential candidates must debate, noting President Jimmy Carter in 1980 refused to take part in a debate sponsored by the League of Women Voters with President Ronald Reagan and independent candidate John Anderson.
“There’s no way you can force a presidential candidate to debate,” he told USA TODAY in an interview. “It’s up to them whether they debate or not.”
Trump spent three days at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where he was treated for COVID-19. He returned to the White House on Monday, and then two days later, he reentered the Oval Office.
As Biden headed to Arizona on Thursday for campaign events, he told reporters he didn’t know what to expect.
“I don’t know what the president is 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 recommendations — if he goes off and has a rally, I’ll — I don’t know what I’ll do.”
Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien, who also tested positive for COVID-19 last week, said Trump would hold a rally instead of participating in the debate.
“President Trump will have posted multiple negative tests prior to the debate, so there is no need for this unilateral declaration,” Stepien said, though the date of Trump’s last negative test has not been released.
Biden spokesperson Andrew Bates shot back, writing on Twitter, “Unsurprisingly, one candidate is leading while the other is whining.”
“In his weakness he’s proving that he only cares about himself — not even his supporters,” Bates said.
The Biden campaign had previously said they would take part in 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,” said Biden deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield.
Amid concerns about the spread of COVID-19 after the president, top White House staff, and Republican allies tested positive for the virus over the past week, plexiglass was installed between Vice President Mike Pence and Democratic vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris at Wednesday night’s debate. The two candidates were also spaced more than 12 feet apart, though neither candidate wore a face mask during the debate.
Fahrenkopf, former chairman of the Republican National Committee from 1983 to 1989, said it’s been the practice for 25 years that the debate commission names the dates, the locations, the formats and the moderators of the debates without any consultation with the campaigns.
“I heard this morning, ‘Well, they should have consulted us.’ We never consult on these sorts of things and we’ve been saying from the very beginning that we are going to follow the advice of the medical people who are advising us, the Cleveland Clinic. They supported what we are doing. We are doing this for the safety of everyone involved. “
As for the third and final debate, set for Oct. 22 in Nashville, Tennessee, Fahrenkopf said the commission is planning to move forward with an in-person debate as originally planned.
“We’re assuming that we’ll go forward even if he decides to skip the next one. We’ll still plan for the final debate in Nashville.”
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