President Donald Trump on Thursday pulled out of next week’s presidential debate after organizers decided to go virtual due to his bout with Covid-19, throwing the US election into new turmoil with only 26 days to go.
Confusion reigned over the calendar of debates — usually a set piece series of three that rival candidates arrange well in advance.
After back and forth between Trump and Democrat Joe Biden’s campaign, it appeared likely that only two debates will take place in total, with the next being October 22 and the one scheduled for Miami on October 15 now scrapped.
The upheaval, which began when Trump rejected the debate commission’s decision to go online over fears of his recent coronavirus infection, reflected wider discord in the bitter last stretch to election day on November 3.
With Biden surging in opinion polls and able to travel — Arizona being his latest campaign stop Thursday — these are anxious times for the quarantined Trump.
He is still recovering from his three-night hospital stint, while the White House itself has become a viral hotspot, with dozens of people close to Trump testing positive.
Held back from the campaign trail, Trump raged on Fox Business television, calling Biden’s vice presidential running mate Kamala Harris a “monster,” illegal immigrants “rapists,” and urging indictments of former president Barack Obama and Biden.
Across Washington, the Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, questioned Trump’s claim to be rapidly recovering from Covid-19 and she announced coming legislation on evaluating whether presidents retain capacity to perform their duties — or need removal under the Constitution’s 25th amendment.
Trump, who has fully recovered his prolific Twitter habit since he got back from the hospital on Monday, responded: “Crazy Nancy is the one who should be under observation. They don’t call her Crazy for nothing!”
– Debate over debates –
Trump’s decision to boycott next week’s debate, which would have been in town hall format with audience members asking 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.
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.”
Biden announced he will do his own televised Q&A town hall with voters on ABC News instead.
Both camps agreed the next and probably final debate, on October 22 in Nashville, should be done in the town hall style.
Trump’s campaign called for a third debate taking place right before the election but Biden’s side rejected this, saying “Trump’s erratic behavior does not allow him to rewrite the calendar.”
– Bad polls, difficult message –
While Trump said that he beat Biden “easily” in their first debate, opinion polls following the combative encounter in Cleveland showed the president in a lopsided loss.
Biden is currently forecast to beat Trump in several vital swing states, even threatening him in Republican strongholds like Texas.
And Trump’s personal fight with Covid-19 has 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.
On Wednesday night, Harris debated with Vice President Mike Pence and spent much of her time hammering Trump for “the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country” over Covid-19.