The Commission on Presidential Debates on Friday canceled the second debate between President Donald Trump and Joe Biden after the president declined to do a virtual debate despite concerns over his COVID-19 diagnosis, a source familiar with the plans told CNN.
The cancellation is the culmination of a furious 48-hour back-and-forth between the commission and both campaigns and means what would have been the third debate in Nashville on Oct. 22 will likely be the final meeting between the two candidates. The Wall Street Journal was first to report on the commission’s decision.
The commission, with the backing of their health advisers, announced on Thursday morning that — because Trump tested positive for the coronavirus — the debate that was scheduled for Miami would be held virtually, with the two candidates appearing from remote locations. Trump swiftly rejected that plan, saying he would not show up and setting off a series of events that put the future of all general election debates into question.
In response to Trump’s cancellation, a Biden spokeswoman swiftly said that they would have agreed to a virtual format for next Thursday’s contest, but because the president had seemingly bailed, they would book another format for the former vice president to take questions. And they did just that when, later in the day, ABC News announced they would be hosting a town hall with the former vice president.
The Trump campaign, in response to their candidate backing out of the debate, issued three statements on Thursday that slammed the commission, pushed the Biden campaign to agree to an in-person debate and said they would be willing to push the Oct. 15 debate back a week to Oct. 22 and then move the third debate to Oct. 29, just days before the Nov. 3 election.
But Biden’s campaign rejected their proposal, with campaign spokeswoman Kate Bedingfield saying in response, “Donald Trump doesn’t make the debate schedule; the debate commission does.”
The Trump campaign has argued that because the president’s physician, Navy Cmdr. Dr. Sean Conley, has cleared him for travel, the commission should move the debate to an in-person setting.
“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,” Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien said in a statement.
The cancellation is a political loss for Trump, who is down in all national polls and either behind or tied with Biden in key swing states. The loss of a debate deprives the president of a platform that he needs at a time when his campaign is trailing. The first debate between Trump and Biden, a chaotic affair, was watched by more than 73 million people.
The reality for the commission, however, is that once Trump backed out and Biden agreed to an ABC town hall, a second debate between the candidates was unlikely, according to multiple sources familiar with the negotiations.
And commission head Frank Fahrenkopf told CNN on Thursday night that Trump campaign’s push to hold an in-person debate next week in Miami after the president had already backed out of the contest did little to change the Commission on Presidential Debate’s belief that any debate next week must be virtual.
“The Cleveland Clinic would have to clear it,” Fahrenkopf said. But, he added, that does not get the Biden campaign back involved, something the head of the commission believed was unlikely to happen after conversations with top Biden aides.
“They’ve moved on and are going to do this thing with ABC,” Fahrenkopf added. “It doesn’t look good unless the Biden campaign changes their mind.”
Negotiations between the campaigns and the commission earlier on Friday did nothing to change the fact that the likelihood of a Miami debate was low.
“It is fair to say it is looking like Miami will be canceled,” a source familiar with today’s negotiations told CNN. “I don’t think there is any movement on either side that will make Miami happen.”