United States President, Donald Trump, on Thursday said that he will not participate in the second presidential debate with Joe Biden after the Commission on Presidential Debates said the event will be held virtually in the wake of the the President’s positive coronavirus diagnosis, CNN reports.
“I am not going to do a virtual debate.I am not going to waste my time on a virtual debate,” Trump said on Fox Business.
Biden’s campaign on Thursday swiftly agreed to the virtual format, scheduled to be held on October 15. But Trump’s comment throws the debate into question after the commission took the significant step to wholly remake the event. The move was seen as needed by members of the debate commission given the uncertainty around the President’s health.
Politically, if Trump skips the debate, he’ll be deprived of a platform that he needs at a time when his campaign is trailing in every national poll and in a number of key swing states. The first event was watched by more than 73 million people.
Frank Fahrenkopf, head of the debate commission, told CNN that the commission spoke with both campaigns “just before” they announced that the second debate would be held virtually.
“We did not consult with them,” he said, adding that their decision is “supported by the Cleveland Clinic,” the commission’s health advisers.
Biden campaign spokeswoman, Kate Bedingfield responded to Trump’s refusal to participate by noting Biden would be happy to appear virtually, but said if the President declines to appear, the former vice president “will find an appropriate place to take questions from voters directly on October 15th.”
Bedingfield also asked the commission to push what would have been a town hall style debate — where actual voters ask questions to October 22 so that “the President is not able to evade accountability.”
“The voters should have a chance to ask questions of both candidates, directly,” she said.
Trump complained during the interview with Fox that a virtual debate would mean he would have to “sit behind a computer” and the moderator could “cut you off whenever they want.” But a virtual debate is not unprecedented — the third contest between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy in 1960 occurred with both candidates in different locations.
Bill Stepien, Trump’s campaign manager, accused the commission on Thursday of “unilaterally canceling an in-person debate” to help Biden and said the President will be holding a rally instead of attending the debate.
Fahrenkopf noted that it was fully within the President’s right to decline to debate.
“There is no law requiring any presidential candidate to debate. In fact, in 1980, Jimmy Carter, president of the United States, refused to participate in the first debate, but he did participate in the second debate. So it is up to every candidate to decide whether they want to debate or not,”Fahrenkopf said.
The commission met on Wednesday to discuss the change. The group, made up of three co-chairs and 10 board members, voted unanimously to make the change, two members of the commission tell. One member was absent and did not vote.
Thursday’s announcement by the commission came hours after the Vice President, Mike Pence and Democratic vice presidential nominee, Kamala Harris debated in person on Wednesday night, albeit separated by plexiglass.
Biden allies celebrate announcement
People close to Biden are elated with the current state of play around debates, feeling that Democrats are in a win-win position whether or not Trump decides to debate next week.
The thinking goes like this: The first debate worked well for Biden, so they are fine with having another. But Trump fuming about a virtual debate because of his own coronavirus diagnosis plays directly into their messaging on his recklessness around the virus and, if the President doesn’t backtrack, having no debate deprives the incumbent of a massive TV audience he needs right now.
“Here is Joe Biden’s thought process: He wants to do the debates. It was a big win for him in the first debate and any time Joe can stand on stage with Trump, it is good for Joe Biden,” said Terry McAuliffe, a former Virginia governor and close Biden ally.
“Biden is going to go on, and if Trump doesn’t want to go … We could not be in a better place on these debates,” McAuliffe added.
McAuliffe, who is also a CNN political commentator, said there is a sense that Trump won’t stick with his no-debate position and will eventually agree to the virtual format.
“Trump needs debates like he needs oxygen. He needs a Hail Mary. He is down everywhere. Ultimately, I can’t see him not doing it. He needs the exposure,” the former Virginia governor said.