Sparring between Biden, Trump teams puts debate schedule in doubt

Trump expressed indignation at the unexpected change of format — which neither he nor Biden had been consulted about — and insisted that he was prepared to take the debate stage despite still battling Covid-19 from the confines of the White House.

“I’m not going to waste my time on a virtual debate. That’s not what debating is all about,” Trump said in an interview with Maria Bartiromo of Fox Business. “You sit behind a computer and do a debate. It’s ridiculous, and then they cut you off whenever they want.”

The president’s outright rejection of the new terms came shortly after the nonpartisan debate commission revealed Thursday morning that the town hall on Oct. 15 would feature the two candidates beaming in “from separate remote locations.”

The town hall’s participants and moderator Steve Scully of C-SPAN will be positioned as planned at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, the commission said.

Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien, who has himself tested positive for Covid-19, quickly reaffirmed the president’s position in a statement Thursday, saying Trump will “pass on this sad excuse to bail out Joe Biden and do a rally instead.”

Stepien predicted Trump “will have posted multiple negative tests prior to the debate,” and argued that the “safety of all involved can easily be achieved without canceling a chance for voters to see both candidates go head to head.”

Trump‘s physician, Sean Conley, said in a memo released Thursday evening that the president had completed his therapy and that he expected Trump to be able to participate in public engagements as of Saturday. Shortly after, Stepien released another statement saying there was “therefore no medical reason why the Commission on Presidential Debates should shift the debate to a virtual setting, postpone it, or otherwise alter it in any way.“

In her own statement, Biden deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield initially suggested the Democratic nominee would take part in the virtual event, saying Biden “looks forward to speaking directly to the American people.”

But later Thursday morning, Bedingfield said in a longer statement that while Biden “was prepared to accept the CPD’s proposal for a virtual” debate, Trump “clearly does not want to face questions from the voters” on the pandemic and the economy.

Bedingfield said Biden will instead “find an appropriate place to take questions from voters directly” on Oct. 15, and she urged the commission to reschedule the town hall for Oct. 22 — the date of the third debate — so Trump “is not able to evade accountability.”

Stepien retorted less than an hour later, agreeing with Bedingfield’s plan to move the town hall to Oct. 22 — as long as the previously scheduled third debate also was shifted back one week to Oct. 29, just five days from Election Day.

Bedingfield rebuffed Stepien’s altered timetable in yet another statement. “Donald Trump doesn’t make the debate schedule,” she said, noting that the dates for the three forums have been set since last June.

The president’s “erratic behavior does not allow him to rewrite the calendar, and pick new dates of his choosing,” Bedingfield said.

Amid the tit-for-tat between the two campaign chiefs, Biden posited that it was still possible Trump would show up because “he changes his mind every second.”

“We don’t know what the president’s going to do,” Biden told reporters in Delaware, adding that he was “going to follow the commission recommendations.”

If Trump opts to hold a rally instead, “I don’t know what I’ll do,” Biden said.

By Thursday afternoon, however, ABC News had announced plans to host its own town hall on Oct. 15 featuring Biden.

When asked on CNN why Biden would not use the commission’s town hall that had already been planned, Bedingfield replied: “Because Donald Trump isn’t going to show.”

“If Donald Trump isn’t going to be there, then we’re going to use the opportunity to talk directly to the American people,” she said.

Frank Fahrenkopf, the commission’s co-founder and Republican co-chair, told POLITICO on Thursday that “of course” the decision to conduct a virtual debate “has to do with the question of whether or not [Trump] might still be contagious.”

There is no requirement for a candidate to participate in a presidential debate, Fahrenkopf said, citing President Jimmy Carter’s refusal to take part in the first forum of the 1980 election.

Fahrenkopf also emphasized that there was “no consultation” with the Trump or Biden campaigns regarding the decision to have the candidates debate remotely.

“We let them know minutes before,” he said, adding: “We’re doing it for health reasons and safety reasons. Period. End.”

Even if Trump presents the commission with a negative Covid-19 test, the debate is not likely to proceed in-person, Fahrenkopf indicated.

“You’re going to have people say, ‘Well, yes, he’s clear. He can go.’ Then have other people say, ‘Well, that’s not long enough. He still may be shedding,’” Fahrenkopf said. “I don’t know. We’re going to rely on medical advice.”

Trump said Thursday he did not think he was “contagious at all,” describing himself as feeling “perfect” and “essentially very clean.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people who have tested positive for Covid-19 isolate for at least 10 days, and perhaps longer if they still have symptoms.

Sean Conley, the president’s personal physician, reported in a memo Wednesday that Trump had been “symptom-free for over 24 hours.”

But the White House has not provided evidence that Trump is not contagious, and 10 days have not elapsed since his diagnosis was announced last Friday.

The White House also has refused to provide a definitive timeline of the president’s Covid-19 tests in the days leading up to his diagnosis, and the current condition of his lungs has not been disclosed.

Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel, who also is infected, said Thursday that if the president tests negative in the days before Oct. 15, “then this should be an in-person debate.”

McDaniel said voters deserve to hear the candidates spar in-person with a “gloves-off approach,” and claimed without evidence that Biden would use a teleprompter during the debate.

“This is not good for our country right now,” she told Fox News.

Former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, a top Biden surrogate, said it was “too bad” Trump was declining to debate, because “the more the American people can hear two candidates side by side — even if it’s virtual — the better.”

Buttigieg also told Fox News that he did not know why Trump “would want to be in a room with other people if you were contagious with a deadly disease,” adding that “maybe the president doesn’t care about other people.”

Trump had previously signaled that he intended to take part in the debate despite his diagnosis, tweeting Tuesday that he was “looking forward” to the forum on Oct. 15 and that it “will be great!”

Trump’s top aides and advisers also expressed hope in recent days that the president would be able to attend.

Biden said Monday that he would be willing to participate in the debate “if scientists say that it’s safe,” but advised that “we should be very cautious” in organizing the event.

On Tuesday, however, Biden concluded that “we shouldn’t have a debate” if Trump remains infected.

The commission had already been exploring alternative formats for the Oct. 15 debate in the aftermath of the first clash between Trump and Biden — which saw the president repeatedly interrupt his opponent and moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News.

The commission said last week that the first debate demonstrated the need for “additional structure” in the format of the remaining forums to “ensure a more orderly discussion.”

The latest announcement from the commission Thursday infuriated the president’s advisers, who said they were blindsided.

The Trump campaign already was rankled by the commission’s handling of the vice presidential debate Wednesday night and its decision to erect plexiglass barriers between incumbent Mike Pence and Biden’s running mate, California Sen. Kamala Harris.

Trump’s team objected to the move, saying it was medically unnecessary because it would do little to prevent coronavirus transmission.

The reelection effort held a conference call with reporters last week during which they accused the commission — which has been producing presidential debates for decades and has long had a reputation for being a neutral arbiter — of acting as partisan outfit bent on helping Biden.

The campaign was angered by the commission reassessing the need for more structure at future debates, and complained that Wallace showed bias toward the former vice president.

Should Trump decide to attend, next week’s forum would not be the first to feature presidential candidates debating from separate locations.

John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon met remotely for their third debate in 1960, with the Democratic Massachusetts senator stationed in New York and the Republican vice president broadcasting from Los Angeles.

Still, it is not immediately clear what effects the virtual nature of the debate will have on the 90-minutes of prime-time programming.

The format change could facilitate the implementation of additional measures to enforce rules governing debate speaking time that some Democrats and media commentators have demanded over the past week.

Alex Isenstadt contributed to this report.