WASHINGTON (CBSMiami/AP/CNN) — Presidential debate plans are up in the air after President Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden dropped out of the one scheduled for October 15 in Miami.
The campaigns for the 2020 presidential contenders say they want their next debate to be held two weeks from now.
Both candidates pulled out of next week’s debate after the Commission on Presidential Debates announced it would be virtual due to President Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis, without consulting the campaigns.
Trump, who is eager to return to the campaign trail despite uncertainty about his health, said he wouldn’t participate if the debate wasn’t in person.
“I’m not gonna waste my time on a virtual debate. That’s not what debating is all about. You sit behind a computer and do a debate. It’s ridiculous,” said Trump while talking to Fox Business by phone Thursday morning.
The comments roiled an already contentious debate process and set off a back-and-forth between the Biden and Trump campaigns. Biden’s spokeswoman swiftly said that they would have agreed to a virtual format for next Thursday’s contest, but because the President had seemingly bailed, they urged the commission to make the debate scheduled on October 22 a town hall debate format.
Hours later, Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien said they would be willing to push the October 15 debate back a week and then move the third debate to October 29, just days before the November 3 election.
But Biden’s campaign rejected their proposal, with campaign spokeswoman Kate Bedingfield saying in response, “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. 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,” Bedingfield said.
Trump’s re-election campaign says there’s no reason the debate can’t happen in person.
“President Trump’s physician, Dr. Sean Conley, says the President will be medically cleared for ‘safe return to public engagements’ by Saturday, five full days before the originally scheduled debate in Miami on October 15. There is therefore no medical reason why the Commission on Presidential Debates should shift the debate to a virtual setting, postpone it, or otherwise alter it in any way,” read the re-election campaign’s statement.
Politically, if Trump skips a debate, he’ll be deprived of a platform that he needs at a time when his campaign is trailing in every national poll and in a number of key swing states. The first event was watched by more than 73 million people.
The debate commission, which has the unenviable task of finding common ground between the competing campaigns, did not weigh in on any of the new proposals.
The organization has come under scrutiny already after the first debate between Trump and Biden deteriorated, with the president frequently interrupting his opponent and the moderator unable to take control.
With the debate schedule unclear, Biden moved quickly to make sure he would still appear in front of a television audience next week. Instead of debating Trump on Thursday, he will take part in a town hall.
As he campaigned in Arizona on Thursday, Biden said he would also attend the Oct. 22 debate, currently scheduled for Nashville, Tennessee, regardless of Trump’s plans.
“We agreed to three debates back in the summer,” Biden said. “I’m showing up. I’ll be there. And if, in fact, he shows up, fine. If he doesn’t, fine.”
For Trump, who is recovering from COVID-19 at the White House after spending three days in the hospital, the health-induced changes are an unwelcome disruption to his effort to shift focus away from a virus that has killed more than 210,000 Americans this year.
The president’s campaign manager, Bill Stepien, said Trump would stage a rally rather than debate next Thursday, though it’s not yet clear if he will be well enough to do that.
This would not be the first time Trump has skipped a debate. During the 2016 Republican primary, he boycotted the last debate before Iowa’s first-in-the nation’s caucuses, holding a fundraiser for veterans instead — a move he later speculated may have contributed to his loss in the state.
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