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The Debate Over Debates: Trump Campaign Pushes For In-Person Debate Next Week

President Trump said he won't participate in a virtual debate moments after the commission that organizes the presidential debate announced a change in format because of the coronavirus.
President Trump said he won't participate in a virtual debate moments after the commission that organizes the presidential debate announced a change in format because of the coronavirus.

Updated at 8:30 a.m.

President Trump said Thursday he's "not going to do a virtual debate" after the independent commission that runs the debates announced that the second presidential debate, which had been scheduled for Oct. 15 in Miami, will now be virtual.

Trump told Fox Business that the change in the debate style was "not acceptable to us." "I'm not going to do a virtual debate," he said, calling the format "a waste of time."

It was Trump's first interview since returning from the hospital Monday. Trump said he said he had no advance notice of the change.

Earlier Thursday, the debate commission said the decision to change format was made "to protect the health and safety of all involved." The candidates and the town hall participants will be in separate, remote locations, the commission said.

Bill Stepien, Trump's campaign manager, rebuked what he called the commission's "unilateral declaration."

"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.

"President Trump will have posted multiple negative tests prior to the debate, so there is no need for this unilateral declaration. 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," he added.

Meanwhile, the Biden campaign said the former vice president will still participate in the debate.

"Vice President 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, Biden deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield said in a statement.

The developments come a day after Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Joe Biden's running mate, met in the sole vice presidential debate. The candidates sat at desks more than 12 feet apart and separated by plexiglass shields. The measures were put in place after Trump and several other White House officials tested positive for the coronavirus — though Pence has not.

But the pandemic, and the more than 200,000 Americans who have died from the virus, are likely to dominate the next few weeks before Election Day, Nov. 3.

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden said Tuesday, "We shouldn't have a debate" next week if Trump is still infected with the coronavirus.

Trump tweeted Tuesday that he was looking forward to the next debate, which is scheduled to take place in Miami on Oct. 15 — 10 days after the president was discharged from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and returned to the White House to continue treatment for COVID-19.

Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh suggested the format of the second presidential debate could be altered to accommodate safety concerns, saying, "Everyone agrees that an outdoor event would be the safest possible environment."

Trump's medical team said Wednesday the president's vital signs all remain stable and in normal range. Dr. Sean Conley issued the information in a memo. "The president this morning says, 'I feel great!'" Conley said in the memo. Conley also said Trump has detectable levels of COVID antibodies in his bloodwork that was drawn on Monday. On Thursday night, those antibodies were undetectable, he said.

Conley told reporters Monday, the day of Trump's discharge from Walter Reed, that while he is cautiously optimistic about the president's prognosis, medical staff will remain on guard for another week.

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Krishnadev Calamur is NPR's deputy Washington editor. In this role, he helps oversee planning of the Washington desk's news coverage. He also edits NPR's Supreme Court coverage. Previously, Calamur was an editor and staff writer at The Atlantic. This is his second stint at NPR, having previously worked on NPR's website from 2008-15. Calamur received an M.A. in journalism from the University of Missouri.
Barbara Sprunt is a producer on NPR's Washington desk, where she reports and produces breaking news and feature political content. She formerly produced the NPR Politics Podcast and got her start in radio at as an intern on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered and Tell Me More with Michel Martin. She is an alumnus of the Paul Miller Reporting Fellowship at the National Press Foundation. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Pennsylvania native.