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Trump Campaign Pushes For In-Person Presidential Debate


Let's recall a few facts about the first presidential debate. President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden met face to face in late September. Extensive safety rules governed the candidates and their supporters. And according to the moderator, President Trump's campaign largely disregarded them. The president arrived too late for a coronavirus test, and many of his supporters didn't wear masks. Just two nights later, the president confirmed testing positive for coronavirus. And the debate commission now says the second meeting this coming Tuesday cannot be held in person. Frank Fahrenkopf, chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates, said yesterday on Fox that they opted for a virtual debate to keep everyone safe.


FRANK FAHRENKOPF: Too many questions as to whether or not we could present this with many, many people who are going to be present in Miami who would be vulnerable if they were going to catch something if we weren't comfortable. So we thought the best thing to do to make sure that the debate continued was to do it virtually.

INSKEEP: That has now raised questions over whether the candidates will meet at all as the president abruptly withdrew from the debate and then tried to get back in. NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez is following all this. Hey there, Franco.


INSKEEP: Is there going to be any debate?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, that's the big question. I mean, the Trump campaign is calling for next week's debate to be held in person. It cites a new memo from Trump's doctor, which says the president should be able to safely return to public events starting Saturday. Campaign manager Bill Stepien said there is, quote, "no medical reason" for the debate to be changed to a virtual setting. But the commission, as you pointed out, says the debate would be virtual because of the safety for everyone involved, not just because of Trump.

INSKEEP: We have to mention, since you said Trump's doctors said that he expects the president to be able to safely return to public events, we've been given no documentation to back that up - for example, no news the president has had a negative test at any point recently. What have the candidates said, though?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, Trump says he's not willing to participate virtually. He calls it a waste of time. Here he is talking to Fox News' Sean Hannity last night.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: No, I'm not interested in doing a virtual - I'm not Joe Biden. I'm not going to do a virtual debate, sit behind a computer screen. And that gives him the answers.

ORDOÑEZ: The commission says it has ways to make sure that things like teleprompters are not used, but the Trump campaign is obviously not happy. The Biden campaign is pushing back. They say the commission sets the rules, not the Trump campaign. Here's what Biden said in Phoenix yesterday.


JOE BIDEN: We set the dates. I'm sticking with the dates. I'm showing up. I'll be there. And in fact, if he shows up, fine; if he doesn't, fine.

ORDOÑEZ: Actually, though, Biden has booked an ABC town hall for that same night, and the Trump campaign says they may hold a rally.

INSKEEP: I'm a little baffled to return to Sean - Dr. Sean Conley's statement about the president's condition. How does he justify saying that the president, who just tested positive one week ago today - or we learned about it one week ago today - is fine to go out in public tomorrow?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, he says that Trump has finished his course of treatment, that he has responded extremely well and that there are no signs of adverse therapeutic effects. You know, he expects the president to return to public engagements on Saturday. Trump said he'll likely hold a rally in Florida that night and another one in Pennsylvania on Sunday.

INSKEEP: I guess all this is being driven by the calendar. We are considerably under a month before Election Day.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. I mean, the finish line is really coming up fast. Biden was in Arizona yesterday. He's in Nevada today. And Trump really needs to shake things up. He's behind in the polls. He did his interview with Hannity yesterday. You could actually hear him coughing. You know, the White House is trying to show that he's out there, but this really shows how the virus continues to upset everything.

INSKEEP: NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez, thanks, as always.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.