Washington — The status of the second presidential debate between President Trump and Joe Biden was cast into doubt Thursday after the commission that organizes the event said it would be held virtually to minimize the risk of spreading the coronavirus.
The Commission on Presidential Debates announced that the second debate scheduled for October 15 in Miami would instead feature virtual appearances by the two candidates, a change the president quickly dismissed as "not acceptable," kicking off a dizzying day of back-and-forth statements between the campaigns that put the status of future debates in jeopardy.
"I'm not going to waste my time on a virtual debate. That's not what debating is all about," Mr. Trump said in an interview with Fox Business anchor Maria Bartiromo earlier in the morning. "You sit behind a computer and do a debate, it's ridiculous. And then they cut you off whenever they want."
Mr. Trump's decision to forgo the event led the Biden campaign to back out as well, with deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield urging the commission to reschedule the town hall for the following week. Bedingfield said the campaign was prepared to accept the new format, but would now "find an appropriate place to take questions from voters directly" on the day of the debate. Hours later, ABC News announced it would be conducting a town hall event with Biden on October 15, moderated by George Stephanopoulos.
Bill Stepien, Mr. Trump's campaign manager who also recently tested positive for the virus, confirmed the president's decision after his Fox Business interview. "We'll pass on this sad excuse to bail out Joe Biden and do a rally instead," he said in a statement. In a second statement, Stepien agreed that the second debate should be moved to October 22, and the third to October 29.
"We agree that this should happen on October 22, and accordingly, the third debate should then be shifted back one week to October 29," Stepien said.
But the Biden campaign rejected Stepien's proposal to push the third and final debate back, with Bedingfield issuing yet another statement saying, "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," she said. "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."
Then, on Thursday evening the Trump campaign released another statement calling for the second debate to go forward as planned on October 15. It pointed to the statement of Mr. Trump's physician, Dr. Sean Conley, anticipating the president would be healthy enough to resume public events on Saturday, 10 days after his initial COVID diagnosis. Noting that Saturday is five days before the debate was originally scheduled, the campaign's statement argued, "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."
"[T]he CPD must reverse course and let the debate proceed," the campaign argued.
The commission rejected this proposal, according to the Associated Press, which reported Thursday night, "The chair of the Commission on Presidential Debates says it is not reconsidering shifting the second debate from virtual back to in-person, despite a request from President Donald Trump's team."
In its unexpected announcement early Thursday morning, the nonpartisan debate commission said the second debate would "take the form of a town meeting, in which the candidates would participate from separate remote locations." The change was made "in order to protect the health and safety of all involved with the second presidential debate," the group said.
Just after the commission's statement, Biden's campaign said he would participate, with Bedingfield saying the former vice president "looks forward to speaking directly to the American people and comparing his plan for bringing the country together." But Biden himself told reporters he didn't know what he would do if the president doesn't participate, before the campaign announced he would also back out.
"I don't know what the president is going to do. He changes his mind every second," Biden said on the tarmac before boarding a plane in Wilmington, Delaware. "For me to comment on that now would be irresponsible. I think that if I can follow the commission's recommendations — if he goes off and has a rally, I'll — I don't know what I'll do."'
Mr. Trump told Fox Business that the commission had not informed the campaign of their decision to alter the format of the debate before announcing it publicly. A source familiar with the ongoing debate negotiations told CBS News that the commission did not consult either campaign before making the move, saying the commission "decided this unilaterally."
The presidentand began experiencing symptoms a week ago, on October 1, according to White House physician Sean Conley. As of Wednesday, the president had been symptom free for more than 24 hours, .
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends those who become "severely ill" from COVID-19 — including those who require hospitalization and supplemental oxygen, both of which are true for the president — to avoid being around others for at least 10 days after symptoms first appeared, and possibly up to 20 days. The CDC says patients should consult their doctor to see if that period could be shortened if and when they begin testing negative for the virus. The White House doctor has not said whether the president continues to test positive.
Mr. Trump told Fox Business he remains on, a potent steroid, as he recovers from COVID-19.
The first debate between the two candidates last week was a chaotic affair, featuring frequent interruptions by the president that prompted the debate commission to consider new rules allowing the moderator to enforce time limits. The second debate was set to be moderated by Steve Scully of C-SPAN.
Ed O'Keefe and Sara Cook contributed reporting.