President Donald Trump’s announcement that he won’t participate in the next presidential debate because it will be held remotely is appalling, if not surprising. It’s consistent with his ongoing rejection of basic pandemic safety measures — this from the world’s most prominent coronavirus victim and potentially one of its worst spreaders.
Hopefully, Trump will do what he so often does and change his mind. The American people deserve to see the candidates engage each other on the issues, and last week’s chaotic first debate hardly accomplished that. Should Trump persist in his boycott, voters should view it as the self-serving snub against the nation that it is.
In their more than half-century history, televised presidential debates have had their low points, but none lower than last week’s first encounter between Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden in Cleveland. Trump’s bullying, personal insults and constant interrupting — along with his usual torrent of lies — made it less a debate than a verbal cage match. The subsequent news that Trump’s coronavirus infection might have been transmissible at that point prompted calls to move the final two debates to a remote format.
Early Thursday, the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates announced it would do exactly that for next Thursday’s scheduled second debate in Miami. Biden agreed, but Trump told Fox Business Thursday morning it was “not acceptable.”
“I’m not gonna waste my time in a virtual debate,” Trump said. “That’s not what debating is all about. You sit behind the computer and do a debate, ridiculous. And then they cut you off whenever they want.” That’s rich, given how often Trump cut off Biden in the first debate. And it indicates that he views this as his only viable debate strategy going forward.
Trump’s campaign claims the commission’s decision is intended to “bail out Joe Biden.” It’s a silly allegation, given that the decision was announced by commission co-chair Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., a former Republican National Committee chairman. It also sounds like a prediction from Trump’s own camp that any format that hinders childish on-stage antics would be an inherent disadvantage to Trump — which, admittedly, may be true. But, as Fahrenkopf said, “It has to be safety first.”
Given Trump’s penchant for impulsive declarations that he later discards, there is still the possibility he will agree to the new format. As the underdog, any debate would be in his own interest, especially since Biden now says he will conduct his own town-hall style event on Thursday should the debate be canceled. If Trump persists in sitting out the virtual showdown — refusing, even now, to set a responsible example to a pandemic-wracked nation — that should provide its own message to voters about whether he deserves a second term.
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