After debate is set to go virtual, Trump says he won’t attend

An online presidential debate has been done before, but President Donald Trump has said he won't attend the second debate against Joe Biden if it's not in person. The decision to make the debate virtual follows Mr. Trump's diagnosis with COVID-19.

Patrick Semansky/AP
President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden gesture during the first presidential debate in Cleveland, Ohio. The debate commission has proposed that both candidates be in separate rooms for the next debate.

President Donald Trump vowed Thursday not to participate in next week’s debate with Democratic nominee Joe Biden after the debate organizers announced it will take place virtually because of the president’s recent diagnosis of COVID-19.

The Commission on Presidential Debates announced early Thursday the candidates would “participate from separate remote locations” while the participants and moderator remain in Miami, where the debate was scheduled to be held. Moments later, Mr. Trump vowed to skip the event entirely. 

“I’m not going to do a virtual debate,” Mr. Trump told Fox Business News.

The shakeup comes a week before Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden were set to square off for the second of three presidential debates. Mr. Biden’s campaign insisted its candidate was ready to move forward, but the future of the event is now in serious doubt. 

The Commission on Presidential Debates made the decision unilaterally, citing the need “to protect the health and safety of all involved with the second presidential debate.”

When Republican Mike Pence and Democrat Kamala Harris squared off for their only vice presidential debate in Salt Lake City on Wednesday night, they shared a stage but were separated by plexiglass in an effort to help prevent the spread of the virus.

Mr. Trump’s campaign said the president would do a rally instead of the debate.

“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,” Bill Stepien, Trump campaign manager 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.”

Mr. Trump was hospitalized for three days but is now back at the White House recovering. He has vowed to return to the campaign trail soon. Still, the commission’s move is yet another indication that the presidential election is being dominated by the virus – defying the president’s months-long attempts to underplay it and declare that the country was ready to move on.

Mr. Trump is thought to be trailing in key battleground states. Even before his COVID-19 diagnosis, he was widely criticized for his chaotic performance during last week’s first presidential debate in Cleveland, Ohio. Next week’s debate, and a third one set for the following week in Nashville, would have been a chance for him to attempt to reset the election and potentially change its trajectory.

Mr. Biden’s aides argued that Mr. Trump’s pulling out could be a boon to their candidate. Given reactions to the chaotic first debate, they believe most voters, especially undecided voters, will see the president as avoiding a second debate out of his own interests, not because he dislikes the format.

“Vice President Biden looks forward to speaking directly to the American people,” deputy Biden campaign manager Kate Bedingfield said in a statement.

Mr. Biden said earlier in the week that he was “looking forward to being able to debate him” but added “we’re going to have to follow very strict guidelines.” He said he and Mr. Trump “shouldn’t have a debate” as long as the president remains COVID positive.

Mr. Trump was diagnosed with the coronavirus a week ago, but in a Tuesday tweet said he looked forward to debating Mr. Biden a second time. “It will be great!” he tweeted.

He fell ill with the virus last Thursday, just 48 hours after debating Mr. Biden in person for the first time in Cleveland. While the two candidates remained a dozen feet apart during the debate, Mr. Trump’s infection sparked health concerns for Mr. Biden and sent him to undergo multiple COVID-19 tests before returning to the campaign trail.

Mr. Trump was still contagious with the virus when he was discharged from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Monday but his doctors have not provided any detailed update on his status. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, those with mild to moderate symptoms of COVID-19 can be contagious for as many as – and should isolate for at least – 10 days.

The debate wouldn’t be the first in which the candidates are not in the same room. In 1960, the third presidential debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy was broadcast with the two candidates on opposite coasts.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. 

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