By ZEKE MILLER and WILL WEISSERT, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump vowed Thursday not to participate in next week’s debate with Democratic nominee Joe Biden after organizers announced it will take place virtually because of the president’s diagnosis of COVID-19.
“I’m not going to do a virtual debate,” Trump told Fox Business News, moments after the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates announced the changes.
The shakeup comes a week before Trump and Biden were set to square off for the second presidential debate in Miami. 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 to prevent the spread of the virus.
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.”
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 monthslong attempts to underplay it and declare that the country was ready to move on.
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. 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.
Biden aides argued that 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.
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 Trump “shouldn’t have a debate” as long as the president remains COVID positive.
The Commission on Presidential Debates announced early Thursday the candidates would “participate from separate remote locations” while the participants and moderator remain in Miami, it said. Moments later, Trump vowed to skip the event entirely.
Trump was diagnosed with the coronavirus a week ago, but in a Tuesday tweet said he looked forward to debating Biden a second time, “It will be great!” he tweeted.
He fell ill with the virus last Thursday, just 48 hours after debating Biden in person for the first time in Cleveland. While the two candidates remained a dozen feet apart during the debate, Trump’s infection sparked health concerns for Biden and sent him to undergo multiple COVID-19 tests before returning to the campaign trail.
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.
It’s not the first debate 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.