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Campaigns Spar Over Debate Plan After Trump Rejects Virtual Face-Off

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Next week’s presidential debate was on the verge of cancellation after President Trump said on Thursday that he would refuse to participate in a virtual matchup and Joseph R. Biden Jr. pledged to hold a televised town-hall gathering with voters on the same night.

Mr. Trump rejected plans by the Commission on Presidential Debates, which cited concerns about the coronavirus, to have the candidates square off from separate locations next Thursday rather than onstage in Miami.

In response, aides to Mr. Biden said the Democratic presidential nominee would “find an appropriate place to take questions from voters directly” that evening — and the campaign did not hesitate to follow through. A quick series of conversations between ABC News and the Biden campaign led to the network’s announcement of a town hall in Philadelphia with Mr. Biden next Thursday, to be moderated by the anchor George Stephanopoulos.

Late Thursday, however, Mr. Trump’s team abruptly reversed course. According to Mr. Trump’s campaign manager, Bill Stepien, the president wanted to debate, after all.

Citing a claim from the president’s doctor that Mr. Trump would soon be cleared to appear in public, Mr. Stepien said in a statement that there was “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.” He went on: “The commission must stop protecting Joe Biden from this in-person debate and allow the event to proceed as it was agreed to months ago.”

In fact, it was Mr. Trump who, on Thursday morning, had declared “I’m not going to waste my time on a virtual debate” and dismissed the idea as “ridiculous.” The White House has also repeatedly declined to give details about Mr. Trump’s current health status, and the president has not yet tested negative for the virus.

The debate commission had not consulted with the Biden and Trump campaigns before announcing the new virtual format for the Miami debate, which was to follow a town-hall-style format with questions from Florida voters.

Their decision came after members of the commission’s production team objected to the safety risks of staging another in-person event at an indoor venue, according to a person familiar with its deliberations. There was also concern about Mr. Trump himself, who recently contracted the coronavirus.

Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., a co-chairman of the debate commission, conceded on CNN that he did not know if the debate in Miami next week would move forward. But he said that the commission hoped to go ahead with a debate scheduled for Oct. 22 in Nashville, and that the event could be held in person “depending on the medical advice we receive.”

But the Trump campaign had not yet committed to the event, Mr. Fahrenkopf said.

The contretemps may pose the most significant test to the debate commission’s legitimacy since the group, a nonpartisan body, was founded in 1987.

No law requires presidential candidates to take part in debates. Traditions and norms govern the practice, and like many political institutions in recent years, the commission’s board now faces its own Trumpian stress test.

Newton N. Minow, 94, a member of the commission who has been involved in every general-election debate since 1960, said on Thursday that the day’s developments amounted to “a big loss to the democratic process.”

“American voters are the losers — deprived of the opportunity to see, hear and evaluate presidential candidates through today’s technology,” Mr. Minow, who was appointed chairman of the Federal Communications Commission by President John F. Kennedy in 1961, wrote in an email.

Directors of the debate commission include former senators, business luminaries and the Rev. John I. Jenkins, the president of the University of Notre Dame, who tested positive for the coronavirus last week.

The commission was already under pressure to change its safety protocols after last week’s debate in Cleveland, where Mr. Trump’s family and aides declined to wear masks in the debate hall, flouting regulations set by the organizers. Mr. Biden’s aides had expressed concern about their candidate’s potential exposure to a president who could still be infectious.

Mr. Trump, in a Fox Business interview on Thursday shortly after he learned of the change to a virtual format, sought repeatedly to undermine the integrity of the debate commission. With no evidence, he accused the scheduled moderator of the next debate, Steve Scully of C-SPAN, of being a “never Trumper.” He said the moderator of the first debate, Chris Wallace of Fox News, “was a disaster” who favored Mr. Biden. And he said the commission’s plan for a remote matchup was about “trying to protect Biden.”

In fact, a presidential debate with candidates in different locations is not unprecedented.

In 1960, the third debate between Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon was held remotely. Kennedy debated from a television studio in New York; Nixon appeared from Los Angeles, with the men filmed on a pair of identical sets. The moderator of that debate, Bill Shadel of ABC News, conducted the proceedings from a third studio in Chicago.

How to safely stage a pair of indoor, in-person debates between Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump, who tested positive for the coronavirus last week and spent three days at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, has been the subject of intense conversations at the debate commission in recent days.

The situation only got muddier after the commission announced on Thursday morning that the next debate would be virtual.

The Biden campaign initially said it would welcome a remote debate. Mr. Trump’s campaign manager, Mr. Stepien, attacked the commission as “swamp monsters” and described the move to a virtual debate as “pathetic.”

Then Mr. Stepien, perhaps sensing some political disadvantage to skipping the remaining debates, said the president would agree to another matchup if it were delayed a week and held in person on Oct. 22 — a move that could give Mr. Trump more time to recover from the coronavirus. Mr. Stepien also proposed an additional debate on a new date, Oct. 29.

Kate Bedingfield, a Biden deputy campaign manager, rejected that proposal. “Donald Trump doesn’t make the debate schedule; the debate commission does,” she said in a statement. “Trump chose today to pull out of the Oct. 15 debate. Trump’s erratic behavior does not allow him to rewrite the calendar, and pick new dates of his choosing.”

Aides to Mr. Trump had privately discussed the notion of debates held outdoors, but people familiar with the commission’s deliberations said the Trump campaign had never formally proposed that idea.

Patricia Mazzei contributed reporting.

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