Donald Trump on Thursday pledged to boycott the second US presidential debate, lashed out at some of his closest cabinet members and suggested he might have caught coronavirus from the relatives of fallen soldiers.
In a television interview with Fox Business Network that lasted almost an hour, the president said he would not attend next week’s debate after the group organising the contest said it would be held virtually for safety reasons following the president’s coronavirus diagnosis.
“I’m not gonna waste my time on a virtual debate,” Mr Trump said. “That’s not what debating is all about.”
Mr Trump’s decision to pull out of the televised debate came during one of the most turbulent weeks of his presidency and as opinion polls showed him falling further behind Democratic rival Joe Biden with just 26 days until the election.
In recent days Mr Trump has been criticised for continuing to downplay the virus despite being hospitalised with it for three days, and for personally torpedoing cross-party talks on a coronavirus stimulus package.
The president also used the interview to criticise Mike Pompeo, his secretary of state and arguably his most loyal cabinet member, for not having found thousands of emails that Hillary Clinton deleted from a private server following her tenure as secretary of state.
“I’m not happy about him for that reason,” Mr Trump said of his top diplomat, who he once joked was the only official he had not argued with.
In his first interview since revealing he had tested positive for Covid-19 a week ago, Mr Trump also lambasted Bill Barr, his attorney-general, for not doing more to investigate Mrs Clinton over a conspiracy theory about her role in launching a probe that morphed into the Russia investigation.
“Bill Barr is going to go down as either the greatest attorney-general in the history of the country or he’s going to go down as . . . a very sad situation,” he said.
Mr Trump also suggested that he might have caught the virus from families of fallen soldiers who had stood too close to him during a recent event at the White House.
“I figured there would be a chance that I would catch it. Sometimes I’d be with . . . for instance gold-star families. I met with gold-star families,” Mr Trump said.
He added: “They come within an inch of my face sometimes. They want to hug me and they want to kiss me.”
With less than four weeks to the election, Mr Trump trails Mr Biden by an average of 9.2 points, according to a Financial Times analysis of data from Real Clear Politics. Mr Biden also leads in every swing state, and is close to Mr Trump in Texas, which has not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1976.
The format of the next duel between Mr Trump and Mr Biden has been the subject of much speculation since the president was diagnosed, owing to fears that he could infect others attending the debate if he is still contagious.
In a statement on Thursday, the commission on presidential debates said the second joint appearance on October 15 — a town-hall meeting in which the candidates answer questions from voters — would be held remotely “in order to protect the health and safety of all involved”.
Because the White House has not released a timeline of Mr Trump’s Covid-19 tests, some Democrats believe the president might have already been infected when he took the stage with Mr Biden at the first debate in Cleveland.
The Trump campaign said the president would hold a political rally on Thursday next week instead of taking part in the debate in Miami.
Mr Biden’s campaign issued a statement saying the former vice-president would “take questions from voters directly” on October 15. It said Mr Biden hoped the town hall with Mr Trump could be held on October 22, the date of the final scheduled debate between the two men.
“I’m sticking with the dates, I’m showing up. I’ll be there,” Mr Biden said during a campaign stop in Arizona. “And in fact, if he shows up, fine. If he doesn’t, fine.”
Mr Trump’s campaign called for a third debate to now take place on October 29, although the Biden campaign rejected the suggestion. “Donald Trump doesn’t make the debate schedule; the Debate Commission does,” said Kate Bedingfield, deputy campaign manager for Mr Biden.
Trump vs Biden: who is leading the 2020 election polls?
Use the FT’s interactive calculator to see which states matter most in winning the presidency
Larry Kudlow, the White House economic adviser, told the Fox News on Thursday that he expected there to be a “renegotiation” of the decision to hold second debate virtually because Mr Trump was getting better and would test negative before the duel.
Bill Stepien, Mr Trump’s campaign manager who has also been infected with coronavirus, accused the commission of trying to “bail out Joe Biden”.
“For the swamp creatures at the presidential debate commission to now rush to Joe Biden’s defence by unilaterally cancelling an in-person debate is pathetic,” Mr Stepien said.
Traditionally, candidates who are behind in the polls are keen to participate in debates because it gives them a nationally televised opportunity to change the direction of the race. But Mr Trump said the virtual format was unworkable.
“You sit behind a computer and do a debate, it’s ridiculous,” he said. “And then they cut you off whenever they want.”
Additional reporting by Katrina Manson in Washington