“The safety of all involved can easily be achieved without canceling a chance for voters to see both candidates go head-to-head,” Mr. Stepien said in a statement. “We’ll pass on this sad excuse to bail out Joe Biden and do a rally instead.” He also claimed that Mr. Trump “will have posted multiple negative tests prior to the debate,” although White House officials have repeatedly declined to give details about Mr. Trump’s current health status and the president has not yet tested negative for the virus.
Mr. Trump, in the Fox Business interview, said he learned of the change to a virtual format on Thursday, and senior Trump campaign officials insisted that they had not been consulted about the decision ahead of the commission’s morning announcement. But there were indications that people in the president’s circle were aware on Wednesday of the debate commission’s thinking about a virtual debate.
The president also sought repeatedly to undermine the integrity of the debate commission. He accused the moderator of the next debate, Steve Scully of C-SPAN, of being a “never Trumper,” without offering evidence for his claim. He said the moderator of the first debate, Chris Wallace of Fox News, “was a disaster” who favored Mr. Biden. And he said the commission’s plan for a remote debate was about “trying to protect Biden.”
In fact, a presidential debate with candidates in different locations is not unprecedented.
In 1960, the third debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon was held remotely. Kennedy debated from a television studio in New York; Nixon appeared from Los Angeles.
A split-screen camera feed allowed viewers to watch both candidates simultaneously, with the men filmed on a pair of identical sets. The moderator of that debate, Bill Shadel of ABC News, conducted the proceedings from a third studio in Chicago.
How to safely stage a pair of indoor, in-person debates between Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump, who tested positive for the coronavirus last week and spent three days at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, has been the subject of intense conversations among board members of the debate commission in recent days.
Aides to Mr. Trump had privately discussed the notion of debates held outdoors, but people familiar with the commission’s deliberations said the Trump campaign had never formally proposed that idea.