Donald Trump suggested on Thursday that relatives of fallen soldiers could have given him coronavirus after they visited the White House – as the timetable for the remaining two presidential debates between Trump and Biden was thrown into turmoil.
In a phone interview with the Fox Business TV channel on Thursday morning, Trump complained about coming into close contact with the veterans’ families in a gathering one day after an event at the White House where Trump nominated a new supreme court justice. Many senior figures in attendance at that event later tested positive for Covid-19.
Of the Gold Star families event at the White House on Sunday 27 September, Trump told Fox he “went through, like 35 people” whose family members had died, “and everyone had a different story”, adding: “I can’t back up and say: ‘Give me room. I want room. Give me 12 feet. Stay 12 feet away when you talk,’” he said.
The military family members had “come within an inch of my face, sometimes”, Trump said. “They want to hug me, and they want to kiss me. And they do. And, frankly, I’m not telling them to back up. I’m not doing it.”
He also said he would not agree to debating his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, in a virtual setting, rather than in person, on 15 October, after the commission in charge of presidential debates said it was moving the debate online because of coronavirus concerns. There followed hours of back and forth between the two sides’ election campaigns that remained unresolved on Thursday afternoon.
The White House has not disclosed when Trump contracted coronavirus, which he announced early last Friday via Twitter, adding that his wife, Melania Trump, had tested positive for the disease. He was taken to hospital by helicopter that evening and given pioneering treatments, returning to the White House on Monday.
The White House has refused to provide details on Trump’s Covid-19 test results in the days leading up the announcement he had tested positive. When he first announced he had coronavirus, speculation swirled around his close aide Hope Hicks, who, it was revealed, had tested positive two days before Trump’s announcement.
But it later emerged that many other White House figures have tested positive in recent days after attending the 26 September event, when they gathered closely in the White House Rose Garden and at indoor receptions, mostly maskless, to witness the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to fill the court vacancy left by the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
The press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, the former White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, Rthe epublican National Committee chair, Ronna McDaniel, three Republican senators who were at the event, and others have coronavirus. The source of the infections has not been firmly established.
Meanwhile, Trump told Fox: “I’m back because I’m a perfect physical specimen.”
On the Tuesday after the two White House events, Trump and Biden faced off in the first presidential debate. It has not been verified whether Trump was already harboring Covid-19.
On Thursday morning after the vice-presidential debate, the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) said that the next presidential debate, due on 15 October, would be a virtual affair, with the candidates appearing remotely.
In a statement, the CPD said: “In order to protect the health and safety of all, the second presidential debate will take the form of a town meeting, in which the candidates would participate from separate remote locations.”
Shortly afterwards, Trump spoke in a pre-arranged phone interview on the Fox Business TV channel, saying: “I heard that the commission a little while ago changed the debate style. That’s not acceptable to us. I’m not going to do a virtual debate. I’m not gonna waste my time on a virtual debate, that’s not what debating is all about. You sit behind a computer and do it, debates? Ridiculous. And then they cut you off whenever they want.”
Related: Trump calls Covid diagnosis ‘blessing from God’ amid false treatment claims
Trump appeared to claim that the CPD had made the announcement without first informing his campaign.
An official statement from the Trump campaign said: “President Trump won the first debate despite a terrible and biased moderator in Chris Wallace, and everybody knows it. 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. That’s not what debates are about or how they’re done.”
The statement went on to claim that Trump would test negative for Covid ahead of the event, and that they would plan to hold a rally instead of taking part.
Biden said he would be willing to debate virtually, then later in the morning suggested the debate be postponed until 22 October, by which time it was hoped that Trump could safely debate in person.
Soon after, the Trump election campaign also recommended pushing the program back to 22 October, followed by the final one on 29 October, less than a week before the 3 November election.
But Biden refused that suggestion. Kate Bedingfield, Biden’s deputy campaign manager and communications director, said in a statement: “Donald Trump doesn’t make the debate schedule; the Debate Commission does. We accepted the three dates – Sept. 29, Oct. 15, and Oct. 22 – in June. Trump chose today to pull out of the October 15th debate. Trump’s erratic behavior does not allow him to rewrite the calendar, and pick new dates of his choosing.”
The two campaigns now await final decisions from the CPD.