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Campaigns spar over debate plan after Trump rejects virtual faceoff

This combination of Sept. 29, 2020, photos shows President Donald Trump, left, and former Vice President Joe Biden during the first presidential debate at Case Western University and Cleveland Clinic, in Cleveland, Ohio.Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

The presidential debate scheduled for next week seemed unlikely to take place after President Donald Trump said Thursday that he would refuse to participate in a virtual matchup and Joe Biden pledged to hold a televised town-hall gathering with voters on the night of the planned event.

Trump rejected plans by the Commission on Presidential Debates, which cited concerns about the coronavirus, to have the candidates square off from separate locations next Thursday rather than onstage in Miami.

After Trump’s objections, aides to Biden said the Democratic presidential nominee would “find an appropriate place to take questions from voters directly” that evening — and the campaign did not hesitate to follow through.


A quick series of conversations between ABC News and the Biden campaign led to the network’s announcement of a town hall in Philadelphia with Biden next Thursday, to be moderated by anchor George Stephanopoulos. The debate commission — whose leaders were still en route back to Washington from Wednesday’s vice presidential debate in Utah — did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The move by Biden’s team effectively ended the possibility of the second official debate’s going forward as planned, and it appeared to lock Trump into the position he had taken early Thursday to shun the virtual forum proposed by the debate commission.

Trump, whose recent contraction of the coronavirus was a significant impetus for the commission to modify its plans, had immediately dismissed the idea of a remote debate as “ridiculous” and accused the commission without evidence of seeking to protect his Democratic opponent.

“No, I’m not going to waste my time on a virtual debate,” Trump told Fox Business anchor Maria Bartiromo. "That’s not what debating is all about. You sit behind a computer and do a debate — it’s ridiculous.

Throughout the day, the Biden and Trump campaigns were embroiled in a back-and-forth over when, where and on what terms the two candidates might meet again before Election Day.


The Biden campaign initially said it would welcome the virtual debate next Thursday, which was to follow a town-hall-style format with questions from Florida voters.

Trump’s campaign manager, Bill Stepien, said the president would agree to another matchup if it were delayed a week and held in person Oct. 22 — a move that could give Trump more time to recover from the coronavirus. Stepien also proposed an additional debate on a new date, Oct. 29.

Kate Bedingfield, a Biden deputy campaign manager, quickly rejected that proposal. “Donald Trump doesn’t make the debate schedule; the debate commission does,” she said in a statement. “Trump chose today to pull out of the Oct. 15 debate. Trump’s erratic behavior does not allow him to rewrite the calendar and pick new dates of his choosing.”

The debate commission did not consult with the Biden and Trump campaigns before announcing the virtual format early Thursday. The decision was made after members of the commission’s production team objected to the safety risks of staging another in-person event at an indoor venue, according to a person familiar with its deliberations.

The contretemps Thursday may pose the most significant test to the debate commission’s legitimacy since the group, a nonpartisan body, was founded in 1987.

No law requires presidential candidates to take part in debates. Traditions and norms govern the practice, and like many political institutions in recent years, the commission’s board now faces its own Trumpian stress test.


Newton N. Minow, 94, a member of the commission who has been involved in every general-election debate since 1960, said Thursday that the day’s developments amounted to “a big loss to the democratic process.”

“American voters are the losers — deprived of the opportunity to see, hear and evaluate presidential candidates through today’s technology,” Minow, who was appointed by John F. Kennedy in 1961 to chair the Federal Communications Commission, wrote in an email.

Directors of the debate commission include former senators, business luminaries and the Rev. John I. Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame, who tested positive for the coronavirus last week.

The commission was already under pressure to change its safety protocols after last week’s debate in Cleveland, where Trump’s family members and aides declined to wear masks in the debate hall, flouting regulations set by the organizers. Biden’s aides had also expressed concern about their candidate’s potential exposure to a president who could still be infectious.

Stepien, the president’s campaign manager, had initially issued a blistering attack Thursday against the commission, calling its members “swamp monsters” and describing the move to a virtual debate as “pathetic.”

“The safety of all involved can easily be achieved without canceling a chance for voters to see both candidates go head to head,” Stepien said in a statement. “We’ll pass on this sad excuse to bail out Joe Biden and do a rally instead.”


He also claimed that Trump “will have posted multiple negative tests prior to the debate,” although White House officials have repeatedly declined to give details about Trump’s current health status. The president has not yet tested negative for the virus.

Trump, in the Fox Business interview, said he learned of the change to a virtual format Thursday. But there were indications that people in the president’s circle were aware Wednesday of the debate commission’s thinking about a virtual debate.

The president also sought repeatedly to undermine the integrity of the debate commission. He accused the scheduled moderator of the next debate, Steve Scully of C-SPAN, of being a “never Trumper,” without offering evidence for his claim. He said the moderator of the first debate, Chris Wallace of Fox News, “was a disaster” who favored Biden. And he said the commission’s plan for a remote matchup was about “trying to protect Biden.”

In fact, a presidential debate with candidates in different locations is not unprecedented.

In 1960, the third debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon was held remotely. Kennedy debated from a television studio in New York; Nixon appeared from Los Angeles, with the men filmed on a pair of identical sets. The moderator of that debate, Bill Shadel of ABC News, conducted the proceedings from a third studio in Chicago.

How to safely stage a pair of indoor, in-person debates between Biden and Trump, who tested positive for the coronavirus last week and spent three days at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, has been the subject of intense conversations among board members of the debate commission in recent days.


Aides to Trump had privately discussed the notion of debates held outdoors, but people familiar with the commission’s deliberations said the Trump campaign had never formally proposed that idea.

Both candidates have previously said they planned to participate in the Miami debate, with Trump insisting that he was “looking forward” to attending the event, despite the uncertainty over his health.

Biden has said he would defer to the debate commission and its health adviser, the Cleveland Clinic, to ensure a safe physical environment for the audience and participants. His aides have said the onus is on Trump to demonstrate that he would not be contagious on stage.

The debate commission did not address the third debate in its statement Thursday. That matchup is scheduled to be held at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, on Oct. 22, with Kristen Welker of NBC News as the moderator.