President Donald Trump said on Thursday he will not participate in the second debate with Joe Biden, the Democratic challenger, shortly after the organising body announced that the October 15 event would be held virtually.
The two campaigns were trying to rescue the debates in an ongoing exchange of statements.
“I am not going to do a virtual debate,” Trump, who is convalescing from Covid-19, said in an interview to Fox Business. “I am not going to waste my time on a virtual debate. That’s not what debating is all about. You sit behind a computer and do a debate, that is ridiculous.”
The Trump campaign then suggested two in-person debates: a delayed second debate on October 22, when the third and final debate was to take place, and pushing the third debate to October 29.
The Biden campaign, which agreed to the virtual debate on October 15, also consented to it being shifted to October 22 and be held in-person. But it rejected the suggestion to hold the third debate on October 29, saying, “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.”
The Commission on Presidential Debates, an independent body that has conducted presidential and vice-president debates for decades, announced on Thursday morning that “in order to protect the health and safety of all involved”, the second presidential debate scheduled for October 15 “will take the form of a town meeting, in which the candidates would participate from separate remote locations”.
The third debate is scheduled for October 22, less than a fortnight before the close of voting on November 3, as per the original calendar.
The commission did not cite specifics but there were concerns that President Trump might have been already infected at the first debate, which was held on September 29. He and first lady Melania Trump tested positive for the disease on October 1, which was confirmed by a more elaborate test the next day.
Calls for changing the next debates, including for vice-president, to virtual events, peaked after the president’s hospitalisation.
He has since returned to the White House to recover, but has been eager to get out, claiming he is no longer contagious. “I’m back because I’m a perfect physical specimen,” he said in the fox interview.
The president also went on to call Senator Kamala Harris a “monster”, a “communist” and “unlikeable” for her remarks at the debate with vice-president Mike Pence on Wednesday night.
The vice-presidential debate on Wednesday night was in-person but Pence and Harris were separated by plexiglass to minimise chances of Covid exposure.
Pence has tested negative but the White House has turned into a “hot-spot” with increasing infections.
The Trump administration’s handling of the deadliest health crisis in more than 100 years dominated the vice-presidential debate, with Harris, further cementing her place in US history as the first woman of colour and Indian-American of either gender to participate in such an event, landing the first punch.
“The American people have witnessed what is the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country,” Harris said, in response to a question in the first segment of the debate, held at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Utah.
“I want the American people to know that from the very first day, President Donald Trump has put the health of America first,” said Pence, defending Trump and himself as head of the White House task force appointed by the president to lead the fight against the pandemic.
Despite the underlying tensions, Harris and Pence debated calmly, unlike their respective ticket leads Biden and Trump whose debate had devolved into name-calling.
With 210,000 dead, more than 7 million infections and President Trump, the first lady and a growing number of people in their circle testing positive, Covid-19 was the top issue at the debate. They clashed also on Covid-19 vaccine, climate change, trade war with China, economy, racism, healthcare, Supreme Court, women’s right to abortion and religion.
As the running mate on a ticket that’s leading in national polls by a wide margin, Harris was expected to play it safe and not hand the Trump campaign a lifeline. She did just that, overlooking many opportunities to attack Pence, to the disappointment of supporters who had expected to see flashes of her prosecutorial skills.
“The debate was civil and constructive as compared to the Presidential debate,” said MR Rangaswami, founder of Indiaspora, a leading Indian-American advocacy group. “Kamala and Pence delivered their positions passionately and we now have 27 days to decide.”
Puneet Ahluwalia, a Republican running for Lt Governor in Virginia, a state that used to be Republican but has widely come to be considered Democratic lately, said “VP Pence clearly distinguished himself by highlighting the exemplary job done for the American people by President Trump and his administration.”