President Trump on Thursday blew up the schedule for the remaining presidential debates, saying he won’t square off against Joseph R. Biden if the candidates can’t participate in person on Oct. 15.
Allies of the president swiftly cheered the move, saying the debate commission’s sudden decision to move to a virtual format while Mr. Trump recovers from COVID-19 is an invitation for mischief and cheating on the part of his Democratic challenger.
Mr. Trump laid down his red line after officials at the Commission on Presidential Debates said they were making the move out of public health concerns.
“I’m not going to waste my time on a virtual debate,” the president said on 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 made the declaration minutes after the Commission on Presidential Debates said the Oct. 15 town-hall-style debate would involve an in-person moderator and voters but that the president and Mr. Biden would participate remotely to protect the health and safety of the organizers.
After Mr. Trump’s comments, Mr. Biden’s campaign said it would plan for the candidate to be elsewhere on Oct. 15 and that the town-hall debate should be pushed to Oct. 22 — the day the third and final debate was scheduled to take place.
Campaigning in Arizona, Mr. Biden said the two sides agreed to three debates over the summer and that the format and schedule have been set in stone for years.
“I’m sticking with the dates. I’m showing up,” Mr. Biden said. “If he shows up, fine. If he doesn’t, fine.”
The Trump campaign floated the idea of pushing back the final two debates to Oct. 22 and Oct. 29 — an idea swiftly rejected by the Biden camp — before citing a note from Mr. Trump’s doctor to demand the debate proceed in person as originally scheduled.
“The American people can see through this obvious attempt to shield Biden from another shellacking like he got two weeks ago in Cleveland and the CPD must reverse course and let the debate proceed,” said Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien, who, like the president, is dealing with an infection from the coronavirus.
There’s a political risk for the White House in the stand-off: Trailing in many polls and unable for now to hold the kinds of energizing rallies with supporters he is known for, Mr. Trump may have only the debates as a way to shake up a race that is entering the home stretch.
Before the Trump campaign’s latest demand, ABC News had already announced that the network will host a town-hall event with Mr. Biden in Philadelphia on Oct. 15.
Mr. Trump appeared to be doing much better after spending three days in a military hospital and returning to the White House on Monday evening. He revealed that he and first lady Melania Trump had tested positive for COVID-19 in the early hours of Oct. 2.
Mr. Trump even worked out of the Oval Office for a period Thursday and kept up his rampant tweeting. His posts said news media are too soft on his Democratic rivals and warned Pennsylvania that it will lose its vital fracking industry if Mr. Biden wins the election. He also released Twitter videos to promote his efforts on military funding and the development of drug therapies for COVID-19.
“I want you to get the same care that I got,” he said in a video recorded Wednesday on the White House South Lawn.
Vice President Mike Pence, fresh from his debate Wednesday night with Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala D. Harris, told supporters in Nevada that the president is recuperating well.
“I spoke to the president this morning. He’s back to the White House, and he and the first lady are doing great,” Mr. Pence said.
Mr. Biden took what is called a PCR test for COVID-19 on Thursday and the result came back negative, his campaign said.
His team has been announcing his test results more regularly since Mr. Biden shared a debate stage with Mr. Trump on Sept. 29 in Cleveland.
Eric Beach, founder of the pro-Trump group Great America PAC, said Mr. Trump is capable of leveraging the debate commission’s decision to his advantage.
“The reality is this is a guy that understands how to generate buzz,” Mr. Beach said. “I think the disdain for the American media and really kind of the elites that think, ‘Oh, they control the process in who should be president’ — that, again, is a message that works in the president’s favor. So he ought to exploit it.”
Benefits for Trump
Others said it might not make sense for Mr. Trump, who trails Mr. Biden in much of the recent public polling on the race, to pass up one of his remaining chances to share any stage with his rival.
“Making the debates virtual is to Trump’s disadvantage, as would be his not participating at all,” said Richard Vatz, a professor of rhetoric and communication at Towson University. “First, it implies that Trump is still sick, a bad image for a candidate, and Trump’s physical presence, despite denials by the Biden people, is intimidating to Biden.”
David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center, said polling from Florida found that Trump voters were more likely to have watched the first debate between the two candidates than were Biden voters.
“Based on that one crosstab from one state, it made sense to me that Trump wasn’t going to budge on the debate mechanics,” Mr. Paleologos said. “Either he was playing high-stakes poker by saying, ‘No, I’m not going to do it virtually,’ or maybe he felt, generally speaking, that more people [who] are Trump supporters would be debate watchers and less impacted by what was said and done at the debate.”
Public health experts say Mr. Trump should self-isolate for 10 days at a minimum from the onset of his symptoms, which would bring him to this weekend.
The president’s doctor, Sean P. Conley, said Saturday will be “day 10 since Thursday’s diagnosis, and based on the trajectory of advanced diagnostics the team has been conducting, I fully anticipate the president’s safe return to public engagements at that time.”
Amesh Adalja, a senior health scholar at Johns Hopkins University, said successive negative readings from PCR tests, which are a sensitive form of diagnostic, could also be used to determine when it is safe, assuming the president is also free of other symptoms.
The statement from the commission doesn’t say whether it believes Mr. Trump would still be infectious by Oct. 15. It says the change was made “to protect the health and safety of all involved.”
It’s unclear where or how Mr. Trump, who tested positive on Oct. 1, was infected with the coronavirus. The White House has declined to specify when the president last tested negative.
Two events are attracting scrutiny. Mr. Trump held a White House reception and Rose Garden ceremony to announce his pick for the Supreme Court, Amy Coney Barrett, and he joined Mrs. Trump in greeting the families of fallen soldiers the following evening.
A Coast Guard admiral who attended the indoor event with Gold Star families tested positive, leading top military brass to quarantine after they came into contact with him.
Speaking to Fox Business, Mr. Trump said it is difficult, as president, to adhere to guidelines and keep the public at an arm’s length, so it is not surprising he became infected.
“I met with Gold Star families. I didn’t want to cancel that,” he told Fox Business’ Maria Bartiromo. “But they all came in, and they all talked about their son and daughter and father. And, you know, they all came up to me and they tell me a story.”
He said he greeted dozens of people who shared their heartbreaking stories of sons or other family members who died in battle.
“I can’t back up, Maria, and say, ‘Give me room. I want room. Give me 12 feet. Stay 12 feet away when you talk,’” he said. “They come within an inch of my face, sometimes. 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.”
The president doesn’t have to tell Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to keep his distance from the White House. The Kentucky Republican revealed Thursday that he has been doing it on his own.
“I haven’t actually been to the White House since August the 6th,” he said during an event at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport. “Because my impression was their approach to how to handle this was different from mine and what I insisted that we do in the Senate, which is to wear a mask and practice social distancing.”