By Chris Megerian
Los Angeles Times
President Donald Trump rejected the idea of remotely debating former Vice President Joe Biden, shortly after the Commission on Presidential Debates announced on Thursday that the next event would be held virtually.
“I’m not going to waste my time on a virtual debate. That’s not what debating is all about,” Trump said to Maria Bartiromo on Fox Business.
Trump’s decision comes as questions continue to swirl about his health and how long he will remain infectious with COVID-19.
The debate, scheduled for Oct. 15, would be held with Trump and Biden in separate locations “in order to protect the health and safety of all involved with the second presidential debate,” the commission said.
Biden accepted the idea of a virtual debate shortly after Trump turned down the idea.
“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 campaign manager Kate Bedingfield said.
Bill Stepien, Trump’s campaign manager, said there was no reason to hold the event virtually because the president “will have posted multiple negative tests prior to the debate.”
“We’ll pass on this sad excuse to bail out Joe Biden and do a rally instead,” Stepien said.
Public health experts have worried that Trump’s rallies can spread the coronavirus because large numbers of supporters cluster together without masks.
Trump’s decision to pull out of the second debate could cost him an opportunity to make up for his ruinous first performance. Public opinion surveys show voters were repelled by his bullying demeanor as he repeatedly mocked and interrupted Biden.
The former vice president’s already significant lead in polls has expanded by several percentage points since that debate, which took place in Cleveland just over a week ago.
For the trailing candidate to turn down a chance to debate is highly unusual — typically, it’s the front-runner who wants to avoid unpredictable events such as live debates.
But Trump’s decision-making has been erratic in this closing stretch of the campaign, even by his standards. Earlier this week, he abruptly canceled stimulus talks with House Democrats, ruling out the possibility of providing more financial relief to Americans struggling with the economic fallout from the coronavirus crisis. Then, equally abruptly, he sought to restart negotiations after a sharp decline in the stock market.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has publicly questioned whether the drugs Trump is taking, especially dexamethasone — a steroid that can cause irritability, mood swings and trouble sleeping and give a false sense of extra energy — have impaired the president’s judgment.
Trump said during the interview that he’s feeling much better after his hospitalization but is still taking dexamethasone, which is prescribed for COVID-19 patients facing lung trouble.
The town-hall-style debate had been scheduled to feature questions from voters and to be moderated by C-SPAN’s Steve Scully.
The pandemic has been a challenge for the debate commission, especially since the White House has refused to say when Trump last tested negative for the coronavirus. The repeated refusal to answer that question has suggested that Trump did not receive a negative test before the debate with Biden last week.
After Trump announced his diagnosis early Friday morning, Biden was tested multiple times over the course of a few days to ensure he had not contracted the coronavirus while on stage with the president; he tested negative each time.
Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris — the running mates for Trump and Biden — have also tested negative. But the commission placed plexiglass barriers between the two of them on stage for the vice presidential debate Wednesday night.