WASHINGTON -- The fate of final debates between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden was thrown into uncertainty Thursday as the campaigns offered dueling proposals for moving forward with face-offs that have been upended by the president's coronavirus infection.
The nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, which said the next debate, a town-hall-style affair set for Oct. 15 in Miami, would be held virtually. The commission cited health concerns after Trump's infection as the reason for the change.
Trump said he wouldn't participate if the debate wasn't in person. Biden's campaign then suggested that the event be delayed a week until Oct. 22, which is when the third and final debate is already scheduled.
Trump agreed to a debate on Oct. 22 -- but only if face-to-face -- and asked that a third contest be held on Oct. 29, just before the election. But Biden's advisers rejected squaring off that late in the campaign.
Frank Fahrenkopf Jr., the head of the commission organizing the presidential and vice presidential debates, declined to comment.
An official familiar with the debate commission's process said both sides would need to agree to adding a later debate, and it would be a challenge to pull off the logistics with so little time to spare. "It might not even be possible to do it then," the official said.
The debate commission, which has the task of finding common ground between the competing campaigns, did not weigh in on any of the new proposals. The organization has come under scrutiny already after the first debate between Trump and Biden deteriorated, with both candidates interrupting each other, and the moderator unable to control the event.
With the debate schedule unclear, Biden moved quickly to make sure he would still appear in front of a television audience next week. Instead of debating Trump on Thursday, he will take part in a town-hall event sponsored by ABC News.
As he campaigned in Arizona on Thursday, Biden said he would also attend the Oct. 22 debate, currently scheduled for Nashville, Tenn., regardless of Trump's plans.
"We agreed to three debates back in the summer," Biden said. "I'm showing up. I'll be there. And if, in fact, he shows up, fine. If he doesn't, fine."
Trump is recovering from covid-19 at the White House after spending three days in the hospital.
TRUMP SAYS NO
In an interview with Fox Business anchor Maria Bartiromo shortly after the commission's announcement, Trump insisted that he was in "great shape" and called the idea of a virtual debate a "joke."
"I'm not going to do a virtual debate," he declared. "I'm not gonna waste my time in a virtual debate. That's not what debating is all about -- you sit behind the computer and do a debate, ridiculous. And then they cut you off whenever they want," Trump said.
The president's campaign manager, Bill Stepien, said Trump would stage a rally rather than debate next Thursday.
"For the swamp creatures at the Presidential Debate Commission to now rush to Joe [Biden's] defense by unilaterally canceling an in-person debate is pathetic. That's not what debates are about or how they're done," Stepien, who has been in isolation because of his own coronavirus diagnosis, said in a statement.
"Here are the facts: President Trump will have posted multiple negative tests prior to the debate, so there is no need for this unilateral declaration. The safety of all involved can easily be achieved without canceling a chance for voters to see both candidates go head to head."
Biden told reporters in Wilmington, Del., on Thursday morning that he was not sure the president would actually back out of a virtual debate.
"We don't know what the president is going to do. He changes his mind every second, so for me to comment on that now would be irresponsible," Biden said. "I'm going to follow the commission's recommendations. If he goes off and he has a rally, I don't know what I'll do."
Also on Thursday, during his Fox Business interview, Trump referred to Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris as a "monster."
Campaigning with Harris in Arizona, Biden called Trump's characterization of the first Black woman on a major party's presidential ticket "despicable" and added that it was "so beneath the office of the presidency." However, Biden also has received recent criticism for his name-calling during the first debate and for telling a sitting president to shut up.
Trump fell ill with the virus on Oct. 1, just 48 hours after sharing a stage with Biden in person during the first presidential debate in Cleveland. While the two candidates remained a dozen feet apart, Trump's infection sparked health concerns for Biden and prompted him to undergo multiple covid-19 tests before returning to the campaign trail.
His campaign announced Thursday that Biden had undergone his fifth such test and was found to be negative.
Chris Wallace, the moderator, also said he had tested negative.
Concerns also rose because the president's entourage at the first debate had violated rules requiring all parties inside the debate hall to wear masks, removing theirs even as the Biden team wore facial coverings.
On Wednesday night, with the same mask mandate in effect, Pence's wife, Karen, walked maskless onto the stage after her husband's debate with Harris, hugged him and turned to wave at the audience.
The changes for the next debate were announced nine hours later.
Trump was still contagious with the virus when he was discharged from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Monday. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people with mild to moderate symptoms of covid-19 can be contagious for as many as 10 days.
Trump insisted Thursday that he is ready to resume campaign rallies and feels "perfect," as his doctor said the president had "completed his course of therapy" for the disease.
The president has not been seen in public -- other than in White House-produced videos -- since his Monday return from the military hospital where he received experimental treatments for the virus.
On Thursday, his physician, Navy Cmdr. Sean Conley, said in a memo that Trump would be able to safely "return to public engagements" on Saturday. He added that Trump was showing no evidence of his illness progressing or adverse reactions to the aggressive course of therapy prescribed by his doctors.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government's top infectious disease expert, said two negative PCR lab tests 24 hours apart are a key factor in determining whether someone is still contagious.
"So, if the president goes 10 days without symptoms, and they do the tests that we were talking about, then you could make the assumption, based on good science, that he is not infected," Fauci said Thursday on MSNBC.
Separately, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he hasn't been to the White House in two months because of concerns that the White House wasn't following proper social distancing or mask-wearing protocols.
"I haven't actually been to the White House since August the 6th, because my impression was their approach to how to handle this was different from mine, and what I insisted we do in the Senate, which is to wear masks and practice social distancing," McConnell said at a news conference Thursday in Kentucky.
McConnell said some people are "paying the price" for failing to wear masks and practicing social distancing.
"If any of you've been around me since May the 1st, I've said 'wear your mask, practice social distancing', it's the only way we know of to prevent the spread until we get a vaccine," he said.
Information for this article was contributed by Zeke Miller, Will Weissert, Bill Barrow, Jonathan Lemire and Jill Colvin of The Associated Press; by Chelsea Janes, Annie Linskey and Josh Dawsey of The Washington Post; and by Steven T. Dennis of Bloomberg News.