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by Daniel WOOLLS

US President Donald Trump, who is still being treated for Covid-19, said Thursday he will refuse to take part in the presidential debate next week after it was switched to a virtual format.

“I’m not going to do a virtual debate,” he told Fox Business News, saying this was “not acceptable to us.”

He accused the bipartisan organizers of trying to “protect” his opponent Joe Biden, who won the chaotic first exchange on September 29 by a wide margin, according to most instant polls.

The Biden campaign said the former vice president looked forward to “speaking directly to the American people,” apparently open to the virtual format.

The Commission on Presidential Debates said earlier it was making the change so as to “protect the health and safety of all involved.”

It said the debate would have a town hall structure, with the candidates in remote locations.

Trump tested positive for Covid last week and spent three days in the hospital before returning to the White House on Monday evening.

Even though he was still contagious he dramatically removed his mask upon arriving at the mansion and posed for photographers.

Biden has a comfortable lead over Trump in nationwide polls and in most of the key battleground states ahead of the November 3 election.

In other remarks to Fox, Trump said he sees “really good” odds of reaching a deal with Democrats in Congress on a new round of coronavirus stimulus for the battered US economy.

– ‘Productive talks’ –

“We’re starting to have some very productive talks,” he said, referring specifically to assistance for airlines and $1,200 checks for workers.

“We’re talking about a bigger deal than airlines,” he told Fox Business News. “I think we have a really good chance of doing something.”

House speaker Nancy Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin have been negotiating a huge, new relief package for weeks but differ on how much to spend.

On Tuesday evening Trump abruptly called an end to the talks, saying Pelosi was not negotiating in good faith.

After an outcry from both parties and from business leaders, Trump changed gears and called for Congress to “immediately” pass standalone legislation to extend aid for airline workers and small businesses.

He also said he would back another round of $1,200 stimulus payments for households.

Trump’s interview came the morning after Vice President Mike Pence and Biden’s running mate Kamala Harris faced off in person in their only debate, separated by a plexiglass screen to protect against coronavirus infection.

Harris called Trump’s Covid-19 response a historic failure that disqualified him from a second term, while Pence depicted her as an extreme leftist. The pandemic has killed more than 210,000 people in the US.

The clash was pointed but civil — a far cry from last week’s raucous first debate between the principals, with Trump frequently interrupting and talking over Biden. Agence France-Presse

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