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Trump Objects to Commission’s Virtual Debate Plan


President Trump on Thursday said that he would refuse to participate in the next presidential debate after organizers changed the event to a virtual format because of health concerns about the coronavirus.

The Commission on Presidential Debates, citing the “health and safety of all involved,” abandoned plans on Thursday for the in-person debate in Miami scheduled for Oct. 15, saying that Mr. Trump and Joseph R. Biden Jr. would instead debate from separate locations.

But President Trump, who tested positive last week for the coronavirus, immediately dismissed the plan, calling the idea of a remote debate “ridiculous” and accusing the debate commission without evidence of seeking to protect his Democratic opponent.

“I’m not going to waste my time on a virtual debate, that’s not what debating is all about,” Mr. Trump told the anchor Maria Bartiromo during a Fox Business television interview. “You sit behind a computer and do a debate — it’s ridiculous.”

“That’s not acceptable to us,” Mr. Trump added.

The president said he learned of the change to a virtual debate on Thursday morning, although there were indications that people in his circle were aware of the debate commission’s decision on Wednesday evening.

Mr. Trump’s campaign manager, Bill Stepien, denounced the debate commission as “swamp creatures” who were seeking to protect Mr. Biden, calling the move to a virtual debate “pathetic.”

“The safety of all involved can easily be achieved without canceling a chance for voters to see both candidates go head-to-head,” Mr. Stepien said in a statement. “We’ll pass on this sad excuse to bail out Joe Biden and do a rally instead.”

Mr. Biden’s campaign issued a more receptive statement on Thursday, signaling that the Democratic candidate would agree to the virtual format. “Vice President Biden looks forward to speaking directly to the American people,” said Kate Bedingfield, a Biden deputy campaign manager.

A presidential debate with candidates in different locations is not unprecedented. In 1960, the third debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon was held remotely. Kennedy debated from a television studio in New York; Nixon appeared from Los Angeles.

A split-screen camera feed allowed viewers to watch both candidates simultaneously, with the men filmed on a pair of identical sets. The moderator of that debate, Bill Shadel of ABC News, conducted the proceedings from a third studio in Chicago.

How to safely stage a pair of indoor, in-person debates between Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump, who tested positive for the coronavirus last week and spent three days at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, has been the subject of intense conversations among board members of the debate commission in recent days.

Members of the commission’s production crew, who must work in person at the debate sites, had objected to the safety risks involved, according to a person familiar with the commission’s deliberations.

The commission said the moderator of the next debate, Steve Scully of C-SPAN, would still conduct the proceedings from Miami at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts. The debate is to be held in a town-hall-style format with questions from South Florida voters.

Both candidates have previously said they planned to participate in the Miami debate, with Mr. Trump insisting that he is “looking forward” to attending the event, despite the uncertainty over his health.

Aides to Mr. Trump had privately discussed the notion of debates held outdoors, but people familiar with the debate commission’s deliberations said the Trump campaign had never formally proposed that idea.

Mr. Biden has said he is deferring to the debate commission and its health adviser, the Cleveland Clinic, to ensure a safe physical environment for the audience and participants.

“If he still has Covid, we shouldn’t have a debate,” Mr. Biden told reporters on Tuesday night after a speech in Gettysburg, Pa. “I will be guided by the guidelines of the Cleveland Clinic and what the docs say is the right thing to do.” His aides have said the onus is on Mr. Trump to demonstrate that he would not be contagious onstage.

The vice-presidential debate took place as planned on Wednesday evening in Salt Lake City, with Senator Kamala Harris of California and Vice President Mike Pence debating in person — albeit with plexiglass dividers between them.

The debate commission did not address the third debate in its statement on Thursday. That matchup is scheduled to be held at Belmont University in Nashville on Oct. 22, with Kristen Welker of NBC News as the moderator.

Patricia Mazzei contributed reporting.



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