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The Debate Over Debates: Trump Campaign Pushes For In-Person Debate Next Week

President Trump said he won't participate in a virtual town hall with Joe Biden, after the commission that organizes the presidential debates announced a change in format because of the coronavirus.
Patrick Semansky
President Trump said he won't participate in a virtual town hall with Joe Biden, after the commission that organizes the presidential debates announced a change in format because of the coronavirus.

Updated at 8:31 p.m. ET

President Trump's campaign is calling for next week's presidential debate to be held in person in Miami, despite the organizing commission's decision to hold it virtually.

Campaign manager Bill Stepien said Thursday night there is "no medical reason" why the debate should be shifted virtually. He cited a memo from White House physician Sean Conley, who said Trump would be safe for public events by Saturday.

The Commission said it made the decision to go virtual in consultation with the Cleveland Clinic "to protect the health and safety of all involved," not directly in response to Trump's COVID-19 diagnosis. The Oct. 15 town hall was set for Miami.

Earlier Thursday, President Trump said he wouldn't participate in a virtual town hall.

The major-party presidential campaigns then spent most of the day in a back-and-forth about the remaining debates, with the Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, scheduling a separate town hall.

"I'm not going to do a virtual debate," Trump told Fox Business anchor Maria Bartiromo on Thursday morning, calling the format "a waste of time."

Instead, Trump and Biden — along with all the town hall participants — would be in in separate, remote locations, the commission said.

Thursday morning's interview was Trump's first since returning from the hospital Monday to receive the rest of his treatment for COVID-19 at the White House.

Trump told Bartiromo that he had no advance notice of the change.

Stepien, Trump's campaign manager — who also has tested positive for the coronavirus — earlier rebuked what he called the commission's "unilateral declaration."

"For the swamp creatures at the Presidential Debate Commission to now rush to Joe Biden's defense by unilaterally canceling an in-person debate is pathetic," he said in a statement. "The safety of all involved can easily be achieved without canceling a chance for voters to see both candidates go head to head. We'll pass on this sad excuse to bail out Joe Biden and do a rally instead."

The Biden campaign quickly fired back.

"Joe Biden was prepared to accept the CPD'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 deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield said in a statement. "As a result, Joe Biden will find an appropriate place to take questions from voters directly on October 15th, as he has done on several occasions in recent weeks."

Late Thursday afternoon, it was announced that Biden will instead take part in a town hall in Philadelphia hosted by ABC News on the 15th.

Bedingfield called on the commission to make the third and final scheduled presidential debate, slated for Oct. 22, a town hall.

"Every Presidential candidate since 1992 has participated in such an event, and it would be a shame if Donald Trump was the first to refuse," she said.

Stepien then sent another statement Thursday afternoon, calling on the commission to just postpone the second and third debates a week each. So the town hall would happen Oct. 22 and the third debate would be Oct. 29 — both in person.

"Voters should have the opportunity to directly question Biden's 47-year failed record of leadership," Stepien said in his second statement.

The Biden campaign quickly rejected the Oct. 29 proposal, saying the schedule is set by the debate commission, not the president.

"Trump chose today to pull out of the October 15th debate. Trump's erratic behavior does not allow him to rewrite the calendar, and pick new dates of his choosing," Bedingfield said in a statement.

These developments came a day after Vice President Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Biden's running mate, met in the sole vice presidential debate.

The candidates sat at desks more than 12 feet apart and separated by plexiglass shields. The measures were put in place after Trump and several other White House officials tested positive for the coronavirus — though Pence has not.

Stepien noted the timing of the commission's announcement of the change of format for the second debate, saying in a statement: "Clearly the commission wanted to shift attention away from Pence's complete victory."

The pandemic and the more than 210,000 Americans who have died from the virus are likely to dominate the next few weeks before Election Day, Nov. 3.

On Tuesday, Biden had said they shouldn't debate next week if Trump is still infected with the coronavirus.

Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh had suggested the format of the second presidential debate could be altered to accommodate safety concerns, saying, "Everyone agrees that an outdoor event would be the safest possible environment."

Trump's medical team said Wednesday that the president's vital signs all remain stable and in normal range.

"The president this morning says, 'I feel great!' " his physician, Dr. Sean Conley, said in a memo.

Conley told reporters Monday, the day of Trump's discharge from Walter Reed National Medical Military Center, that while he is cautiously optimistic about the president's prognosis, medical staff will remain on guard for another week.

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Barbara Sprunt is a producer on NPR's Washington desk, where she reports and produces breaking news and feature political content. She formerly produced the NPR Politics Podcast and got her start in radio at as an intern on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered and Tell Me More with Michel Martin. She is an alumnus of the Paul Miller Reporting Fellowship at the National Press Foundation. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Pennsylvania native.
Krishnadev Calamur is NPR's deputy Washington editor. In this role, he helps oversee planning of the Washington desk's news coverage. He also edits NPR's Supreme Court coverage. Previously, Calamur was an editor and staff writer at The Atlantic. This is his second stint at NPR, having previously worked on NPR's website from 2008-15. Calamur received an M.A. in journalism from the University of Missouri.