WASHINGTON – The second presidential debate between President Donald Trump and Democratic candidate Joe Biden, scheduled for October 15, will take place virtually, the non-partisan Presidential Debate Commission said Thursday.
However, minutes after the announcement, Trump said he would not attend.
"No, I'm not going to waste my time on a virtual debate," he said during an interview on Fox Business channel. His campaign later said Trump would hold a rally that night instead.
Trump and his allies were quick to claim, with no evidence, that the commission made the change in Biden's favor. 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 tested positive for the coronavirus. Since Trump's diagnosis, more than a dozen White House officials have tested positive for Covid-19.
Trump's doctor, Dr. Sean Conley said in a White House memo released late Thursday that the president's condition is improving. Conley also stated that Trump's vital signs were in a normal range.
"Since returning home, his physical examination has remained stable and has shown no evidence of disease progression. Overall, he has responded very well to treatment with no evidence of investigating adverse therapeutic effects," Conley said in the memo .
"Saturday will be the tenth day since Thursday was diagnosed. Based on the advanced diagnostics performed by the team, I fully anticipate the president's safe return to public engagement at this point," said the doctor.
After Trump refused to have a virtual debate, the Biden campaign proposed holding the closing debate currently scheduled for October 22 as a live town hall debate between the two candidates. The Trump campaign tentatively approved a town hall on October 22nd, but also called for a third and final debate on October 29th.
The Biden campaign rejected the idea of a third debate in the event Trump refuses to participate in the October 15 debate, arguing that Trump's rejection equates to canceling the second debate. On Thursday afternoon, ABC News announced that Biden had agreed to build a Pennsylvania town hall with the network on October 15, ending any speculation that the virtual debate would continue on October 15 without Trump.
White House staff are reportedly trying to convince the president to agree to at least one and possibly two more debates with Biden. "Surrendering the land to the former vice president is a mistake," 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 thinks the October 15 debate should be halted if the president is still infected with the coronavirus.
However, experts say it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly when a Covid patient is no longer contagious, and they urge doctors and patients to play it safe.
The question of contagion
"I don't think I'm contagious," Trump told Fox on Thursday morning. "I feel good. Really good. Perfect, and we're ready to go. I'm ready to go, except [the] quarantine situation you have for a while after you've been tested or whatever the procedure is. But I'm ready and looking forward to the rallies. "
It is unclear when or where Trump was first infected with the virus, or when he last tested negative for it prior to his positive results last Thursday. Both of these factors make it difficult to judge when the president will no longer be contagious.
Public health officials say Covid patients must be isolated from others for at least 10 days after symptoms first appear and up to 20 days depending on the severity of the viral infection.
Trump reportedly showed symptoms last Wednesday when he looked tired at a rally in Minnesota and later fell asleep aboard Air Force One on his flight home, which he almost never does.
Two days later, on October 2, the president was transferred to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where he received aggressive treatment from therapies, including supplemental oxygen, from a medical team.
Trump was released from the hospital on Monday under the care of White House doctors, who say he is steadily improving.
A day after leaving Walter Reed Hospital, Trump tweeted that he was "looking forward to the debate" even though he was still being treated for Covid-19. Trump's campaign said the president wanted to participate "personally" in the debate.
After announcing the move to a virtual format on Thursday, Trump 2020 campaign manager Bill Stepien, who was recently self-diagnosed with Covid-19, described the CPD's decision as "pathetic" and insisted that the debate continue to be safe in person could be.
"We're going to pass this sad excuse to save Joe Biden and hold a rally instead," Stepien said in a statement.
Trump's campaign had already privately discussed the possibility of holding a campaign event in Pittsburgh next week, according to people familiar with the matter. The event could take place around the same time that the debate should take place.
"Joe Biden will find a convenient place on October 15 to answer questions directly from voters, as he has done several times over the past few weeks," said Kate Bedingfield, Biden deputy campaign director.
"Given the president's refusal to attend on October 15, we hope the Debate Commission will move Biden-Trump City Hall to October 22 so the president cannot evade accountability," Bedingfield said in a statement. "Voters should be able to ask questions directly to both candidates."
"We agree that this should happen on October 22nd, and accordingly the third debate should then be postponed a week to October 29th," said Stepien, the Trump campaign manager.
Bedingfield, however, rejected the idea of postponing both debates. "Trump decided today to withdraw from the October 15th debate," she said. "We look forward to taking part in the final debate scheduled for October 22nd, which has already been set for the last debate in 40 years. Donald Trump can appear or decline. That is his choice."
The Presidential Debate Commission did not immediately respond to the rescheduling proposals. Traditionally, the non-partisan group has rejected campaign proposals to change the terms of presidential debates in the 11th hour.
Challenges for the Debate Commission
Citing the need to "protect the health and safety of all concerned," the Debate Commission said in a statement: "The second presidential debate will take the form of a city meeting where candidates would attend from various remote locations."
The Miami debate location and moderator, Steve Scully of C-SPAN, will remain unchanged, they said.
The first debate between the two candidates on September 29 in Cleveland quickly turned into a fiasco after Trump refused to stop speaking when his allotted time had expired and continued to interrupt and insult Biden for the remainder of the debate.
Biden also got frustrated during the 90-minute debate, once calling the president "a clown".
In the aftermath of the Cleveland disaster, the commission said it was looking at ways to give the moderators of the debate more opportunities to enforce previously agreed rules if candidates refused to obey them.
A virtual debate could solve two challenges for the Debate Commission at the same time: How to protect the participants, staff, moderators and candidates of the City Hall from coronavirus infection and how to give the moderator the opportunity to silence candidates who are following the rules like Trump ignore last week.
When Trump spoke about Fox Business, he seemed to acknowledge that a format in which he could be silenced for interruption would limit his style of debating.
"That is not what debates are about," he said. "You sit behind a computer and have a debate, it's ridiculous. And then they cut you off whenever they want … you have to confront people, you can't do it through a computer."
– CNBC's Brian Schwartz contributed to this article.
UPDATE: This story has been updated to include reactions from Trump and Biden's presidential campaigns.