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Trump, battling COVID, says he won't 'waste his time' after virtual debate announcement

The president's campaign said it would host a rally instead, though Biden said he would join the virtual debate.
/ Source: NBC News

President Donald Trump on Thursday pulled out of the next presidential debate, saying he won't "waste his time" on it after the Commission on Presidential Debates announced it would take place virtually to protect "the health and safety of all involved."

His campaign said it would hold a rally instead, and accused the commission of changing the format to benefit former Vice President Joe Biden.

Trump is still being treated for COVID-19, but his doctor on Thursday night said the president could be cleared to return to public events within days.

The debate is still set to take place in the form of a town hall, but the commission said that Trump and Biden would be invited to participate remotely. Moderator Steve Scully of C-SPAN is to be at the venue that was slated to host the debate, the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, next Thursday, Oct. 15.

In an interview on the Fox Business Network on Thursday morning, Trump said the new debate format is "not acceptable to us."

"I'm not going to waste my time on a virtual debate," Trump said, adding that he doesn't like the idea of a virtual debate because a moderator could cut him off at any time.

Bill Stepien, Trump's campaign manager, said it was "pathetic" for the commission to have "unilaterally" moved to make the debate remote, claiming that Trump will soon be able to test negative for COVID-19. The White House has repeatedly declined to say when Trump last received a negative test result.

"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," he said in a statement, adding, "We'll pass on this sad excuse to bail out Joe Biden and do a rally instead.”

Biden's deputy campaign manager, Kate Bedingfield, criticized Trump for threatening to skip the debate.

"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," she said in a statement.

She called on the commission to move the town hall debate to the following week "so that the president is not able to evade accountability."

Stepien later called for both of the two remaining presidential debates to instead be delayed by one week, to October 22 and 29.

Bedingfield pushed back, 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."

ABC News announced later Thursday that it would host a town hall event with Biden the night of Oct. 15.

Frank Fahrenkopf, chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates, told NBC News that "no presidential candidate is required to debate."

A person familiar with the commission's plans said the decision was not made in consultation with the campaigns, and they were told Thursday morning just prior to the information being released publicly, adding that the assumption is the third debate will go forward as planned, provided that both candidates are healthy.

The president first showed symptoms of the coronavirus last Thursday, according to the White House, which was 14 days before the next debate. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines say people should isolate for 10 days from the point of showing symptoms and 20 days in severe cases.

Fahrenkopf later told NBC News on Thursday that debate staff is still traveling from Salt Lake City, which hosted the vice presidential debate, to Miami to prepare for the second presidential debate on Oct. 15 “until we definitively know whether it’s going to blow up or not.”

“President Trump blew it up this morning," he said, adding that it appears Biden is not going to participate in the second debate since the Democratic nominee’s campaign has already agreed to the ABC town hall the same night.

“We will prepare just in case it comes back,” he said.

Fahrenkopf said the commission is still planning for the third presidential debate in Nashville on Oct. 22.

He said the commission would consider moving the town hall debate to Nashville if both campaigns agreed, but noted that the Cleveland Clinic would have to sign off that it’s safe to do it there and then the commission would have to determine if it is a feasible venue for a town hall.

Fahrenkopf rebuffed criticism that the commission made the “virtual debate” decision without consulting the campaigns.

“We pick out dates, places, formats, and moderators without any consultation whatsoever. We’ve done that for almost 30 years," he said. "That’s the reason the commission was created back in the early ‘80s."

This week, Biden, who shared a debate stage with the president just a few days prior to his positive diagnosis, signaled that if Trump was still contagious, the debate may not take place as planned.

"I don't know what exactly the rules are going to be and I'm not sure that what President Trump is all about now — I don't know what his status is," Biden told reporters. "I'm looking forward to being able to debate him, but I just hope all the protocols are followed which is necessary at the time."

Earlier that day, Trump tweeted he was "looking forward" to the debate.

The president's doctors have said he is recovering, though he was placed on a steroid therapy typically used in more severe COVID-19 cases.

Trump's physician, Dr. Sean Conley, said in a memo released by the White House that the president's condition is improving and suggested his vitals were within a normal range.

"Since returning home, his physical exam has remained stable and devoid of any indications to suggest progression of illness. Overall he's responded extremely well to treatment, without evidence on examination of adverse therapeutic effects," Conley said in the memo.

"Saturday will be day 10 since Thursday's diagnosis, and based on the trajectory of advanced diagnostics the team has been conducting, I fully anticipate the President's safe return to public engagements at that time," the doctor said.

So far, 23 people close to the White House and three Republican senators have tested positive for the virus in the days surrounding Trump first showing symptoms.

Biden has repeatedly tested negative since his encounter on the debate stage with Trump last Tuesday, his campaign has said. Meanwhile, in Wednesday's vice presidential debate, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., was separated from Vice President Mike Pence by a plexiglass barrier.

Image: Plexiglass installed onstage for the vice presidential debate in Salt Lake City
Commission on Presidential Debates staff clean the protective plexiglass panels put in place as a coronavirus disease precaution between the candidates' seats for the 2020 vice presidential debate on Oct. 6, 2020. Brian Snyder / Reuters

Pence has tested negative for the virus several times in recent days, his team has said.

The commission was considering changes to the debate format, as well as the rules, after the first Trump-Biden matchup descended into a chaotic shouting match with the candidates — particularly Trump — interrupting during their allotted speaking time.

Speaking with MSNBC's Stephanie Ruhle on Thursday, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., suggested Trump's decision to back out of the debate may not be final.

"That was 12 seconds ago right?" Sanders said. "He may have changed his mind since then."

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