‘I’m not going to waste my time’

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WASHINGTON — The second presidential debate between President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden, scheduled for Oct. 15, will be held virtually, the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates said Thursday. 

Minutes after the announcement, however, Trump said he would not participate.

“No I’m not going to waste my time on a virtual debate,” he said during an interview on the Fox Business channel. His campaign later said Trump will hold a rally that night instead.

Trump and his allies quickly claimed, without evidence, that the commission had made the change to favor Biden. A Biden campaign source told NBC News that the CPD made the decision independently.

The format change comes six days after Trump announced that he and first lady Melania Trump had tested positive for the coronavirus. Since Trump’s diagnosis, more than a dozen White House officials have tested positive for Covid-19.

Following Trump’s refusal to do a virtual debate, the Biden campaign proposed that the final debate, currently scheduled for Oct. 22, be held as a live town-hall debate between the two candidates. The Trump campaign tentatively agreed to a town-hall on Oct. 22, but also called for a third and final debate on Oct. 29. 

The Biden campaign rejected the idea of a third debate if Trump refuses to participate in the Oct. 15 debate, arguing that Trump’s refusal is tantamount to canceling the second debate. On Thursday afternoon, ABC News announced that Biden had agreed to do a town hall with the network on Oct. 15 in Pennsylvania, ending any speculation that the Oct. 15 virtual debate would proceed without Trump. 

White House aides are reportedly trying to convince the president to agree to at least one and possibly two more debates with Biden. “It’s a mistake to cede ground” to the former vice president, a senior official told NBC News. “If he lets Biden speak more, the public will see Biden’s shortcomings.”

Earlier this week, Biden said he thought the Oct. 15 debate should be called off if the president were still infected with the coronavirus.

But experts say it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly when a Covid patient is no longer contagious, and they urge doctors and patients to err on the side of caution.

The question of contagion 

“I don’t think I’m contagious,” Trump told Fox on Thursday morning. “I am feeling good. Really good. Perfect, and we are ready to go. I am ready to go, except [the] quarantine situation that you have for a while after you get tested, or whatever the procedure is. But I am ready and looking forward to doing the rallies.”

It is unclear exactly when or where Trump was first infected with the virus, or when he last tested negative for it before his positive results last Thursday. Both of these factors make it difficult to assess when the president will no longer be contagious. 

Public health officials say Covid patients need to be isolated from others for at least 10 days after first showing symptoms, and up to 20 days depending on the severity of the viral infection.

Trump reportedly began displaying symptoms last Wednesday, when he appeared tired at a rally in Minnesota and later fell asleep aboard Air Force One on the flight home, something he almost never does. 

Two days later, the president was transferred to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Oct. 2, where he received an aggressive treatment of therapies, including supplemental oxygen, from a team of doctors. 

Trump was discharged from the hospital on Monday into the care of White House physicians, who say he is steadily improving.

A day after he left Walter Reed hospital, Trump tweeted that he was “looking forward to the debate,” despite still being treated for Covid-19. Trump’s campaign said the president wanted to participate in the debate “in person.” 

Following Thursday’s announcement of the switch to a virtual format, Trump 2020 campaign manager Bill Stepien, who was recently diagnosed with Covid-19 himself, called the CPD’s decision “pathetic,” and he insisted the debate can still be held safely in person.

“We’ll pass on this sad excuse to bail out Joe Biden and do a rally instead,” Stepien said in a statement. 

Trump’s campaign had already been privately discussing possibly holding a campaign event next week in Pittsburgh, according to people familiar with the matter. The event could end up being around the same time that the debate was slated to take place.

“Joe Biden will find an appropriate place to take questions from voters directly on October 15th, as he has done on several occasions in recent weeks,” said Kate Bedingfield, Biden’s deputy campaign manager.

“Given the President’s refusal to participate on October 15th, we hope the Debate Commission will move the Biden-Trump Town Hall to October 22nd, so that the President is not able to evade accountability,” Bedingfield said in a statement. “The voters should have a chance to ask questions of both candidates, directly.”

“We agree that this should happen on October 22, and accordingly, the third debate should then be shifted back one week to October 29,” said Stepien, the Trump campaign manager.

But Bedingfield rejected the idea of shifting both debates. “Trump chose today to pull out of the October 15th debate,” she said. “We look forward to participating in the final debate, scheduled for October 22, which already is tied for the latest debate date in 40 years. Donald Trump can show up, or he can decline again. That’s his choice.”

The Commission on Presidential Debates did not immediately respond to the rescheduling proposals. Traditionally, the bipartisan group has rejected 11th hour requests from campaigns to change the terms of presidential debates.

Challenges for the debate commission

Citing a need to “protect the health and safety of all involved,” the debate commission said in a  statement, “The second presidential debate will take the form of a town meeting, in which the candidates would participate from separate remote locations.”

The debate’s location in Miami and the moderator, C-SPAN’s Steve Scully, will remain unchanged, they said.

The first debate between the two candidates on Sept. 29 in Cleveland quickly devolved into a fiasco after Trump refused to stop talking when his allotted time was finished, and he continued to interrupt and insult Biden for the remainder of the debate. 

Biden also grew frustrated during the 90-minute debate, at one point calling the president “a clown.” 

Following the disaster in Cleveland, the commission said it was exploring how to give the debate moderators more ways to enforce the previously agreed upon rules, if and when candidates refused to obey them.

A virtual debate could solve two challenges at once for the debate commission: How to protect the town hall attendees, staff, moderators and candidates from coronavirus infection, and how to provide the moderator with the option of silencing candidates who ignore the rules like Trump did last week.

Speaking on Fox Business, Trump seemed to acknowledge that a format where he could be silenced for interrupting would cramp his debating style.

“That’s not what debating is all about,” he said. “You sit behind a computer and do a debate, it’s ridiculous. And then they cut you off whenever they want…You have to confront people, you can’t do it over a computer.” 

— CNBC’s Brian Schwartz contributed to this article.

UPDATE: This story has been updated to include reactions from both the Trump and Biden presidential campaigns.

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