Presidential debate series may have ended in Utah as Trump chafes at virtual format

Banners are removed from a structure at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020, the day after the vice presidential debate.

Banners are removed from a structure at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020, the day after the vice presidential debate. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — It looks like the debate between Republican Vice President Mike Pence and Democratic California Sen. Kamala Harris, held at the University of Utah Wednesday night, will be the final time candidates at the top of the ticket debate in person this election year — or maybe at all.

The Commission on Presidential Debates announced Thursday that President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden would participate virtually in the second of three scheduled presidential debates, set for Oct. 15 in Miami.

But the Republican president, who was hospitalized over the weekend with COVID-19 and is now downplaying the severity of a virus that has killed more than 210,000 Americans, rejected that plan that the commission said is intended “to protect the health and safety of all involved.”

“I am not going to do a virtual debate,” Trump told Fox Business. “I am not going to waste my time on a virtual debate.”

Frank Fahrenkopf, the commission’s co-chairman, told CNN that both campaigns were told about the format change “just before” they announced it.

“We did not consult with them,” Fahrenkopf said, adding that their decision to have the presidential candidates participate virtually is “supported by the Cleveland Clinic,” the commission’s Ohio-based health advisers. He said it’s up to the candidates to decide whether they want to debate.

Biden’s campaign backs the change. The former vice president said earlier this week if Trump still has COVID-19 on the date of the second debate, it shouldn’t be held.

The format CNN reported was unanimously approved by the nonpartisan commission and calls for the town hall participants in the debate as well as moderator Steve Scully, C-SPAN senior executive producer and political editor, to be at Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts and for the White House press pool to provide coverage.

In the 2016 GOP presidential primary, Trump turned down a debate in Salt Lake City that had been added to the Republican Party’s schedule, saying he didn’t see a need for it. The debate, which would have been with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and then-Ohio Gov. John Kasich, was then canceled.

Utah’s vice presidential debate employed a number of precautions to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, including limiting attendance and requiring everyone in the secured area around Kingsbury Hall where the event was held to have tested negative for COVID-19, wear masks and social distance.

Lisa Riley Roche

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