On Thursday morning, a day after Mike Pence debated Kamala Harris behind plexiglass shields that protected the two candidates and the moderator Susan Page from possible infection with the coronavirus, and shortly after learning that the Commission on Presidential Debates had determined that next week's debate between himself and Joe Biden would be held virtually for health safety reasons, President Trump announced during a TV interview that he had no plans to show up.
Calling into the morning show of Fox Business News anchor Maria Bartiromo, Trump said that the commission did not give him a heads-up about switching the planned town hall-style debate in Miami on Oct. 15 to one in which the candidates would appear virtually.
"I’m not going to waste my time on a virtual debate," Trump told Bartiromo. “The commission changed the debate style and that's not acceptable to us.” He added, “That’s not what debating is all about. You sit behind a computer and do a debate—it’s ridiculous.” He then charged, without any evidence to back up his claim, that the debate commission was changing the rules to help his opponent. "They’re trying to protect Biden," Trump said. "Everybody is.”
Though polls have swung sharply in favor of Biden since the two men first debated last week, and most observers agreed that Trump was badly damaged by his erratic, truculent performance, the president insisted to the FBN anchor that "I beat him in the first debate, I beat him easily." He added, that he would "beat him in the second debate also."
Shortly after Trump made his pronouncement, Biden, about to board a plane for a campaign event in Arizona, was asked by reporters for his reaction. He said he wasn't sure whether or not to take Trump's statement seriously because "he changes his mind every second.” (A few minutes later, Bernie Sanders, being interviewed on MSNBC, made the same point about the famously mercurial president. “That was 12 seconds ago right?" said Sanders. "He may have changed his mind since then.”)
But by midday, the Biden camp seemed to accept Trump at his word and began moving forward with alternative plans, including possibly holding their own town hall meeting on the 15th. A spokeswoman for the Biden campaign said that the commission should push the debate back a week “so that the president is not able to evade accountability.”
“Joe Biden was prepared to accept the [commission's] proposal for a virtual Town Hall, but the president has refused, as Donald Trump clearly does not want to face questions from the voters about his failures on Covid and the economy,” Biden's deputy campaign manager and communications director, Kate Bedingfield, said in a statement.
According to The New York Times, the debate commission did not consult with either the Biden and Trump campaigns before announcing the change to a virtual format. “The decision came after members of the commission’s production team objected to the safety risks of staging another in-person event at an indoor venue,” the paper said.
In her statement, Bedingfield said that Biden would “find an appropriate place to take questions from voters” on Oct. 15, the day the town-hall-style debate was originally scheduled to be held in Miami.
What was to be the third and final presidential debate of this campaign season is currently slated to be held in Nashville on Oct. 22. But it's looking increasingly like the debate last week might end up being the sole face-off between the two candidates.