UPDATED, with comments from Debate Commission co-chair: Frank Fahrenkopf, co-chair of the Commission on Presidential Debates, told Deadline that they have yet to directly hear from the Trump campaign that they will skip next week’s debate after it switched to a virtual format.
Fahrenkopf also said that in a virtual format, there would be media in both locations with the candidates, so that they would not be able to read from notes or a Teleprompter.
After the announcement was made that the Oct. 15 event would switch to the virtual format, Trump’s supporters quickly argued that Biden would use notes, in line with their general argument that the Democratic nominee is too feeble to be president.
Fahrenkopf said that they gave a heads up to the campaigns at about 7 AM ET, about 20 minutes before the announcement went out, but said that it was the type of decision, made in consultation with the Cleveland Clinic, that they normally do not discuss with campaigns.
“For 25 years we have picked the date and the locations and the format without any consultations of the campaign,” he said, adding that if the campaigns “want to come talk to us, they can come talk to us.”
PREVIOUSLY: President Donald Trump told Fox Business that he won’t participate in the next debate on Oct. 15 after organizers announced that the candidates would participate virtually.
“I’m not going to waste my time on a virtual debate,” Trump told Maria Bartiromo in a phone interview this morning. “That is not what a debate is all about. You sit behind a computer and do a debate. It’s ridiculous. And then they cut you off whenever they want.”
His campaign manager, Bill Stepien, also announced, “Here are the facts: President Trump will have posted multiple negative tests prior to the debate, so there is no need for this unilateral declaration. We’ll pass on this sad excuse to bail out Joe Biden and do a rally instead.”
Kate Bedingfield, deputy campaign manager of Biden’s campaign, indicated that Biden would participate. In a statement, she said, “Vice President Biden looks forward to speaking directly to the American people and comparing his plan for bringing the country together and building back better with Donald Trump’s failed leadership on the coronavirus that has thrown the strong economy he inherited into the worst downturn since the Great Depression.”
Biden later told reporters,” I don’t know what the president is going to do. He changes his mind every second. 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.”’
On Thursday morning, the Commission on Presidential Debates announced that the Oct. 15 event, which will have a town hall format, will feature Trump and Biden from remote locations and moderator Steve Scully and the town hall participants from the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County in Miami, FL.
Trump’s coronavirus diagnosis triggered the most recent move, amid concerns over whether he would be fully recovered by then. (Stepien also has tested positive).
In his first interview since his diagnosis, Trump said that he is feeling “perfect,” adding, “I don’t think I’m contagious at all.” Even though he is still within the quarantine period, Trump went to work in the Oval Office on Wednesday amid concerns over the extent of the coronavirus outbreak in the White House.
Trump took a drubbing in the polls after the first debate, after he was widely criticized for repeatedly interrupting Biden and moderator Chris Wallace. Wallace called the debate “awful,” and said he tried to get Trump to abide by agreed upon debate rules.
In his interview with Bartiromo, Trump claimed that he beat Biden and said that the Democratic nominee had Wallace as a “protector.”
“I thought Chris Wallace was a disaster,” Trump said.
Trump then claimed that Scully was a “never Trumper,” even though he is widely seen as one of the most even handed of all TV personalities in Washington, D.C.
Trump said that the commission “didn’t even tell us” about the change in format before it was announced.
A virtual debate is not unprecedented. In 1960, the third debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy featured Kennedy in a New York TV studio and Nixon in Los Angeles, with moderator Bill Shadel of ABC News joined by a panel of journalists.
If Trump follows through and does not participate in the debate, and skips the debate the following week on Oct. 22, it will mean that there will have been only one matchup with him and Biden.
Frank Fahrenkopf, co-chairman of the debate commission, told Deadline after Trump’s announcement that no presidential candidate is required to participate. “It is up to the individual candidate whether they want to debate,” he said.
Fahrenkopf noted that in 1980, Jimmy Carter boycotted the first scheduled debate because it would have also featured third party candidate John Anderson. Anderson and Reagan ended up participating. Carter did participate in one solo debate with Reagan several weeks later.
The debate commission already had been mulling over new rules to try to rein in candidates who interrupt, but the Trump campaign also has been balking at additional safety measures. At the vice presidential debate on Wednesday, plexiglass dividers separated Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), but Pence’s team at first objected to the barriers.
Alan Schroeder, the author of Presidential Debates: Risky Business on the Campaign Trail, said in an email that he is not “100 percent convinced” that Trump won’t reverse himself on his decision, given the president’s history of erratic comments and that he needs additional debates right now a lot more than Biden does.”