Most people recovering from a serious illness would be relieved to learn they can work remotely instead of going on a business trip. But not Donald Trump. On Thursday morning, less than an hour after the Commission on Presidential Debates announced that his October 15 event with Joe Biden would be virtual, Trump staged a tantrum. He won’t do it.
“I don’t think I’m contagious,” he added. (He is, and might still be contagious by the 15th.) Trump’s reluctance to join a virtual debate appears to stem from the speculation that a moderator would be able to mute him at will. He told Fox’s Maria Bartiromo that “they cut you off whenever they want.” The CPD had previously announced that their live debates would go forward with an option to cut off a participant’s mic. Trump himself is responsible for that adjustment; during his first debate with Biden, he repeatedly spoke over moderator Chris Wallace as well as the former vice-president.
According to CNN, the CPD didn’t consult with either campaign before it announced the new debate format. Biden’s team agreed to the change; Trump, predictably, had a problem. He tends to prefer environments where he is the only noisemaker present. The Trump camp initially suggested that instead of debating, the president will do what he does best: host a combination rally and potential superspreader event.
Then on Thursday afternoon, the Trump campaign backtracked, saying the president actually is willing to debate – but only if the second and third debates are pushed back a week (to October 22 and 29) and held in person, as The Hill reports.
“As President Trump said, a virtual debate is a non-starter and would clearly be a gift to Biden because he would be relying on his teleprompter from his basement bunker,” said Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien. “Voters should have the opportunity to directly question Biden’s 47-year failed record of leadership.”
Stepien went on to accuse the Commission on Presidential Debates and the media of trying to shield Biden from harm. “The American people should not be deprived of the chance to see the two candidates for president debate face to face two more times just because the Commission on Presidential Debates wants to protect Joe Biden,” Stepien said. “It remains extremely suspect that the CPD announced the brand new virtual format at 7:30 am ET today immediately after Vice President Mike Pence had just wiped the floor with Senator Kamala Harris. Clearly the commission wanted to shift attention away from Pence’s complete victory.”
The Biden team rejected Trump’s call to move the debates, noting that both campaigns agreed on three dates – September 29, October 15, and October 22 – in June. “Donald Trump doesn’t make the debate schedule; the Debate Commission does,” said campaign manager Kate Bedingfield. “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.”
On Thursday night, the Trump campaign issued its third statement in 12 hours saying that the debate should proceed in person, because Trump’s doctor says he has completed treatment and should be out of quarantine on Saturday.
As for Stepien, he has COVID-19 too. He tested positive as part of a White House cluster that now includes over 30 known cases. Normally this might provoke a sense of humility in a person; Stepien works for a president who’s been downplaying the virus for half a year now. But humility isn’t a quality that anyone in the Trump administration seems to possess. Neither is compassion. The CPD reportedly made the decision to shift to a virtual debate out of a desire to protect its own staff. Trump’s carelessness didn’t just expose him, or his minions, to the virus. He sickened front-line workers, too, and could do so again if he’s given a chance to travel.
And who knows, maybe he wants to spread it? He’s not exactly doing well in the polls. At least the CPD has blocked him from accomplishing the 21st-century equivalent of pitching a plague corpse at an enemy.
This post has been updated.