On Thursday, the Commission on Presidential Debates announced that the second presidential debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden would proceed with a new format and go virtual. Trump, who is currently recovering from COVID-19, was to answer questions from the White House, with Biden answering the questions from his own remote location.
The Oct. 15 debate would still originate at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, Florida; C-SPAN anchor Steve Scully will be the moderator, and the format will still be a “town hall meeting,” with an audience of undecided voters set to ask the questions of the candidates from the Arsht Center.
Shortly after the announcement was made, however, Trump said he would not participate in a virtual debate.
In a Fox Business interview, Trump said the updated arrangement is “not acceptable to us.” Saying, “I’m not going to do a virtual debate. I’m not going to waste my time at a virtual debate.”
Trump added that he wouldn’t “sit at a computer” to debate, calling that “ridiculous.”
“They’re trying to protect Biden,” Trump said. “Everybody is.”
Trump’s campaign manager Bill Stepien quickly followed up with a statement supporting Trump’s comments. “Here are the facts: President Trump will have posted multiple negative tests prior to the debate, so there is no need for this unilateral declaration,” Stepien said in part. “We’ll pass on this sad excuse to bail out Joe Biden and do a rally instead.”
Initially, Biden’s deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield said in a statement that 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.”
But later in the morning, after briefly commenting on Trump’s stance to reporters (“I don’t know what the president is going to do. He changes his mind every second. 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,” said the mask-wearing Democratic nominee), the campaign released a revised statement.
“Joe Biden was prepared to accept the CPD’s proposal for a virtual Town Hall, but the president has refused, as Donald Trump clearly does not want to face questions from the voters about his failures on COVID and the economy,” said Bedingfield in the updated statement on Thursday. “As a result, Joe Biden will find an appropriate place to take questions from voters directly on Oct. 15, as he has done on several occasions in recent weeks. Given the president’s refusal to participate on Oct. 15, we hope the Debate Commission will move the Biden-Trump Town Hall to Oct. 22, so that the president is not able to evade accountability. The voters should have a chance to ask questions of both candidates, directly. 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.”
Thursday afternoon, Stephen released a statement saying the Trump campaign would agree to hold debates on Oct. 22 and Oct. 29, but Bedingfield responded shortly thereafter by releasing a statement saying, “Donald Trump doesn’t make the debate schedule; the Debate Commission does.”
“Trump’s erratic behavior does not allow him to rewrite the calendar, and pick new dates of his choosing,” she added. “We look forward to participating in the final debate, scheduled for October 22, which already is tied for the latest debate date in 40 years. Donald Trump can show up, or he can decline again. That’s his choice.”
The decision by the CPD to go virtual came the morning after the first and only vice presidential debate between Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris. That debate featured enhanced coronavirus protections, including desks placed 12 feet apart and separated by plexiglass barriers.
The final presidential debate of the cycle had been scheduled for Oct. 22 in Nashville, Tenn., with NBC News correspondent Kristen Welker scheduled to moderate. That debate was supposed to use the same format as the first debate moderated by Chris Wallace, though the CPD previously said it was considering tweaks in an effort “to ensure a more orderly discussion of the issues.”
5:19 a.m. This story has been updated with Trump saying he won’t participate in a virtual debate.
6:04 a.m. This story has been updated with statements from the Trump and Biden campaigns.
7:05 a.m. This story has been updated to include Biden’s comments to the press.
9 a.m. Updated with statement from Biden campaign. 10:15 a.m. Updated with new statements from the Trump and Biden campaigns.
Jackie Strause contributed to this story.