Trump refuses to participate in virtual debate on Oct. 15: 'I'm not going to waste my time'

Key Points
  • The second debate between President Trump and Joe Biden, scheduled for next Thursday, will be held virtually, the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates announced. 
  • 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.
  • The commission's decision came six days after Trump announced that he and first lady Melania Trump had tested positive for coronavirus. 
Second presidential debate between Trump and Biden on Oct. 15 will be virtual
Second presidential debate between Trump and Biden on Oct. 15 will be virtual

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Thursday said he would not participate in his second official presidential debate with Democratic nominee Joe Biden, after the bipartisan Presidential Debate Commission shifted the event format from a in-person town-hall to a virtual one.

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

The second of three presidential debates this fall was originally slated to take place in Miami, Florida on Oct. 15. Both the Biden and Trump campaigns had agreed to the date, location and format back in June.

Then last Friday, Trump announced that he and first lady Melania Trump had tested positive for the coronavirus. Since then, more than a dozen White House officials have tested positive for Covid-19.

Citing a need to "protect the health and safety of all involved," the debate commission announced Thursday morning that the Miami debate would remain in a town-hall format, but that "candidates would participate from separate remote locations."

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.

Over the course of the day Thursday, the Biden and Trump campaigns issued a flurry of competing proposals for what should happen next. 

Following Trump's refusal to do a virtual debate, the Biden campaign proposed that the third and final debate, currently scheduled for Oct. 22, be held as a town-hall debate, instead of just the two men and a moderator. 

The Trump campaign tentatively agreed to a town-hall on Oct. 22. But then they demanded a third and final debate on Oct. 29, arguing that an Oct. 22 town hall was essentially a rescheduling of next week's debate. 

The Biden campaign rejected the idea of adding another debate day, noting that it was Trump, not Biden, who blew up the Oct. 15 debate by refusing to participate under the rules set by the commission. 

On Thursday afternoon, ABC News announced that Biden had agreed to do a town hall with the network on Oct. 15 in Pennsylvania, effectively closing the door to additional negotiations.

Trump, however, wasn't finished negotiating. At around 7:00 p.m. ET, the White House released a memo from Trump's physician, Sean Conley, saying that he expected the president could make a "safe return to public engagements" this Saturday, exactly 10 days after Trump was first diagnosed with Covid-19.

Citing the latest memo, Trump's campaign then put out a statement arguing that there was "no medical reason why the Commission on Presidential Debates should shift the [Oct. 15] debate to a virtual setting, postpone it, or otherwise alter it in any way." 

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.

As of 8:30 p.m. ET on Thursday, the debate commission had no plans to reverse its decision on holding a virtual debate, co-chairman Frank Fahrenkopf Jr. told the Associated Press.

Fahrenkopf said the decision to shift the debate to a virtual format was made upon the recommendation of medical experts at the Cleveland Clinic, which has partnered with the commission to ensure that the events feature comprehensive safety measures to keep people safe during the pandemic. 

Challenges for the debate commission

The first debate between Biden and Trump 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 have solved 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 Thursday morning, Trump seemed to acknowledge that any debate 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 continuously updated to include statements from both the Trump and Biden presidential campaigns throughout the day Thursday.