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Trump Says He Won't Participate In Next Virtual Debate

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The people who run presidential debates say they would like the next event to be different. The Commission on Presidential Debates says it will make the next debate virtual. It calls on the two presidential candidates to talk from separate locations. This was supposed to be a town hall-style format. The change comes after President Trump tested positive for coronavirus and was hospitalized with COVID-19. Democrat Joe Biden had previously said there would be no debate if the president was still sick. Now, this change has been made and the president is saying he will not participate. He spoke with Fox Business News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: No, I'm not going to waste my time on a virtual debate. That's not what debating's all about. You sit behind a computer and do a debate is ridiculous.

INSKEEP: As always, duty requires us to note that the president frequently says he will do things and frequently change his course. So for now, we only have what he says he will not do and no reliable information on what will happen. But that's our starting point with NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Hey there, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: How did this change come about?

LIASSON: The commission makes the rules. This was not part of a negotiation. Yesterday, they announced that they were going to do this virtually. And remember, the vice presidential debate had plexiglass barriers. Vice President Pence didn't like that. But in the end, he said no barrier would let it stop him from debating. Obviously, the president feels differently. And because you are a presidential historian, we should point out that in 1960, in the third Nixon-JFK debate, Nixon was in Los Angeles and Kennedy was in New York.

INSKEEP: Wow.

LIASSON: But the Trump campaign - yeah. The Trump campaign has posted a statement from Bill Stepien, who is the campaign manager who also has the virus. He said that by next week, Trump, quote, "will have posted multiple negative tests." For grammar nerds out there, that's the future perfect tense. And of course, he has no way of knowing if by next week Trump will have posted negative tests. But he said that there's no need for this unilateral declaration. Trump actually has been communicating with the public virtually since he returned to the White House. He's posted two videos, but as you said, he could change his mind.

INSKEEP: And our colleague Tamara Keith noticed that, as the president said, he didn't want to participate. He also gave one reason why - he said they could cut off his microphone if he was off on a camera somewhere.

LIASSON: The simplest explanation is often the - right. The simplest explanation is often the most obvious one. There are a lot of reasons why the president wouldn't want to debate. If he was looking for an excuse, the commission gave him one. He doesn't know if he'll test negative by next week. He doesn't know if he'll be feeling well enough to debate. Also, the next debate is a town hall format. That's a fraught format for him. He prefers full bore aggression against his opponent. And that might not work as well when ordinary voters are asking the questions. But what is inexplicable about this decision is that Trump needs the debate more than Biden. He certainly doesn't want to be called a chicken. He also needs to change the dynamic of the race. Without a debate and barring unforeseen events - the debates are the only things that we know of at this time that could change the dynamic - the campaign gets frozen in place. And right now, that means that Biden is ahead and Trump is behind. And he is now going to miss an opportunity to change that.

INSKEEP: I'm just dwelling on that phrase, barring unforeseen events, given everything else that's happened in 2020. But let's set that aside because we have also heard...

LIASSON: 2020 is the year of unforeseen events.

INSKEEP: It is an unforeseen event.

LIASSON: It is an unforeseen event.

INSKEEP: We do have a response also from the Democratic candidate to this change, Joe Biden. Let's listen to a little bit of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOE BIDEN: I'm going to follow the commission recommendation. If he goes off and he's going to have a rally, I'll - I don't know what I'll do.

INSKEEP: You heard Biden there - a little hard to hear. He says if he goes off and has a rally, I don't know what I'll do. That is something that Trump's campaign manager is saying today - we're just going to go have a rally someplace. So you mentioned that this is a debate that Trump really needs. Does Biden not need it? Is it actually to his advantage to set it aside if Trump gives him that excuse?

LIASSON: Yeah, maybe. I mean, nothing much has changed the dynamic of the race, but I think that if you asked me who needs the debate more, it's Trump because he needs to change the dynamic of the race. He's sending a very clear message since he came out of the hospital that he wants to get back to normal. He was working in the Oval Office yesterday. He doesn't want to socially distance. He explained on Fox Business why he can't socially distance when he goes to events like with Gold Star military families. Here's what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: They come - they come within an inch of my face sometimes. They want to hug me and they want to kiss me. Then they do. And frankly, I'm not telling them to back up.

LIASSON: So he has eschewed masks. He doesn't seem to want to socially distance. There are still so many open questions - how he got it, last time he tested negative. That's not an unknown. It's just that his doctors are refusing to tell the public. And the president clearly wants to send a message that everything is back to normal. And if you do a virtual debate, that says very loud and clear that things are not back to normal.

INSKEEP: And I feel obliged to note something that we've heard from Sean Conley, the president's own physician. As the president was being released from the hospital the other day, he said, let's wait a week and see what happens because Dr. Conley is aware that in many patients there's an improvement at the beginning and then they get worse later. And we don't know that's going to happen with the president, but it's certainly not next Monday. We have several days to find out how healthy the president is and how the recovery is going.

LIASSON: Right.

INSKEEP: Well, Mara, thank you very much for the update, really appreciate it.

LIASSON: Thank you. You're welcome. I keep on trying to say that instead of thank you. You're welcome.

(LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: Say anything you want.

LIASSON: I get a lot of listener mail on this.

INSKEEP: Oh, OK. We'll check this out later. We'll have a debate about thank you versus you're welcome. NPR's Mara Liasson.

LIASSON: Right. OK, thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.