WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump on Thursday pulled out of next week’s presidential debate following a switch by organizers to a virtual format, due to Covid-19, but then suggested a new clash be held less than a week before election day.
Far behind Democrat Joe Biden in the polls and with only 26 days until the November 3 election, Trump’s reelection bid is in as much upheaval as the debate schedule.
Even as he touts his recovery from coronavirus in near miraculous terms, Trump remains off the campaign trail, while Biden increases his travel, with a trip Thursday to Arizona.
Now, Trump’s decision to boycott the second presidential debate — an October 15 town hall format in Miami, with audience members putting questions — will mean missing a rare opportunity to try and best Biden in a direct televised confrontation.
Trump told Fox Business that the bipartisan debate commission’s decision to make the debate a virtual affair, citing the need for safety after his infection with Covid-19, was “not acceptable.”
He accused organizers of trying to “protect” Biden after their angry first debate in Cleveland on September 29. Campaign manager Bill Stepien called organizers “pathetic” and announced that a rally would be held instead.
– New debate? –
At the Biden campaign, spokeswoman Kate Bedingfield accused Trump of not wanting “to face questions from the voters about his failures on COVID and the economy.”
She called on debate organizers to ensure that the third and final scheduled debate, which had been arranged as a one-on-one confrontation for October 22 in Nashville, would instead be turned into a town hall “so that the President is not able to evade accountability.”
“Voters should have a chance to ask questions of both candidates, directly,” Bedingfield said.
In a surprise twist, the Trump campaign later agreed to this adjustment.
But the campaign also called for a new debate to be scheduled on October 29, just five days before the November 3 election day.
“Americans deserve to hear directly from both presidential candidates on these dates, October 22 and 29,” Stepien said.
The Biden team quickly nixed the idea of extending the debate schedule, insisting that the final meeting will be, as originally planned, on October 22.
“Donald Trump can show up, or he can decline again,” Bedingfield said. “Trump’s erratic behavior does not allow him to rewrite the calendar.”
The organizers’ worries about health safety at the debates follow a major outbreak in the White House and around Trump, who himself was hospitalized for three nights last week.
On Thursday he again declared himself free of coronavirus, telling Fox Business: “I’m feeling good, really good.” But he said he is still taking steroids to fight the virus and remains in quarantine.
In addition to Trump, several dozen people ranging from aides to senators and top military officers have tested positive for the coronavirus in the last few days.
Although Vice President Mike Pence has repeatedly tested negative, he debated Biden’s VP pick Kamala Harris on Wednesday while separated by a plexiglass screen and with all audience members wearing masks.
– Bad polls, difficult message –
While Trump said that he “beat” Biden “easily” in their first debate, opinion polls following the chaotic encounter in Cleveland fell even further for the president.
Biden is currently forecast to beat Trump in several vital swing states, also threatening him in Republican strongholds like Texas.
And it’s not clear how Trump would have fared in next week’s Miami follow-up, since he has often appeared less comfortable in a town hall setting where audience members ask the questions.
Trump’s fight with Covid-19 and the wider outbreak through his inner circle have thrown the spotlight back on an issue where polls find a big majority of voters see him as having failed.
Trump is trying to make a virtue of the calamity by boasting that he has personally defeated the virus.
“I’m back because I’m a perfect physical specimen and I’m extremely young,” Trump, 74, joked on Fox Business.
But the drama has made it almost impossible for Trump to shift the narrative of the campaign back onto what he sees as the more favorable territory of the economy, which was doing strongly before the coronavirus hit early this year.
Even there, Trump faces difficulties in selling his message.
Latest data Thursday showed 840,000 new unemployment claims last week, barely changed from the previous week — again indicating the economy’s struggle to shake off the effects of the shutdown.
Adding to voters’ worries, the White House and Congress continue to squabble over a new stimulus bill that would seek to keep businesses and individuals afloat.
Trump expressed optimism on Fox Business, saying “We’re starting to have some very productive talks.”
“I think we have a really good chance of doing something,” he said.