The US election campaign’s final debates between Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden were thrown into uncertainty on Thursday as the two rival camps offered conflicting proposals for the remaining face-offs that have been upended by the president’s coronavirus infection.
The chair of the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates told The Associated Press the final debate, scheduled for October 22, was still slated to go on with both candidates present as planned.
But next Thursday’s debate appears to have gone, after the Trump team objected to the commission’s format change.
The tumultuous day began with an announcement from the commission that the town hall-style affair set for October 15 in Miami, would be held virtually. The commission cited health concerns following Mr Trump’s infection as the reason for the change.
Mr Trump, who is eager to return to the campaign trail despite uncertainty about his health, said he would not participate if the debate was not in person.
Mr Biden’s campaign then suggested the event be delayed a week until October 22, which is when the third and final debate was already scheduled.
Mr Trump countered again, agreeing to a debate on October 22 — but only if face to face — and asking that a third contest be added on October 29, just before the November 3 election. But Mr Biden’s advisers rejected squaring off that late in the campaign.
After the release late on Thursday of a letter from Mr Trump’s doctor, Navy Commander Sean Conley, which said the president had “completed his course of therapy” and could resume campaigning this weekend, the Trump campaign called on the commission to hold next week’s debate in person as originally scheduled.
“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,” said Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien.
I’m showing up. I’ll be there. And if, in fact, he shows up, fine. If he doesn’t, fineJoe Biden
But CPD Chairman Frank Fahrenkopf later said the decision to hold the debate virtually, guided by its medical advisers at the Cleveland Clinic, was not going to be reversed.
The commission said it made the announcement in order to “protect the health and safety of all involved”, including the everyday citizens invited to ask questions of the candidates.
The debate commission, which has the unenviable task of finding common ground between the competing campaigns, has come under scrutiny already after the first debate between Mr Trump and Mr Biden deteriorated, with the president frequently interrupting his opponent and the moderator unable to take control.
Founded after the 1984 presidential election, the commission has organised every general election debate since 1988 — and typically selects the dates, moderators, formats and locations without input from the candidates.
Mr Biden moved quickly to ensure he would still appear in front of a television audience next week. Instead of debating Mr Trump on Thursday, he will take part in a town hall sponsored by ABC News. As he campaigned in Arizona, Mr Biden said he would indeed attend the October 22 debate, scheduled for Nashville, Tennessee.
“We agreed to three debates back in the summer,” Mr Biden said. “I’m showing up. I’ll be there. And if, in fact, he shows up, fine. If he doesn’t, fine.”
For Mr Trump, who is recovering from Covid-19 at the White House after spending three days in hospital, the health-induced changes are an unwelcome disruption to his effort to shift focus from a virus that has killed more than 210,000 Americans this year.
In an interview with Fox Business anchor Maria Bartiromo soon after the commission’s announcement, Mr Trump insisted he was in “great shape” and called the idea of a virtual debate a “joke”.
“I’m not going to do a virtual debate,” he declared.
The president’s campaign manager, Bill Stepien, said Mr Trump would stage a rally rather than debate next Thursday, though it is not yet clear if he will be well enough to do that.
With less than four weeks until Election Day and with millions of voters casting early ballots, pressure is building on Mr Trump to turn around a campaign that is trailing Mr Biden nationally and in most battlegrounds, where the margin is narrower.
A debate before an audience of tens of millions of television viewers could provide that reset. But another debate could also expose Mr Trump to political risks. GOP strategists say the party’s support began eroding after his seething performance against Mr Biden last week when he did not denounce a white supremacist group.
Mr Trump’s apparent unwillingness to change his style to win back voters he needs — particularly women — was on display again on Thursday during his Fox Business interview when he referred to Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris as a “monster”.
Campaigning with Ms Harris in Arizona, Mr Biden called Mr Trump’s characterisation of the first black woman on a major party’s presidential ticket “despicable” and added that it was “so beneath the office of the presidency”.