Trump campaign: Why can’t we do an in-person debate on the 15th as scheduled?

This should have been their position from the start after the debate commission announced yesterday that the October 15th townhall debate would move to a virtual format. We don’t need to go virtual, the campaign could have said, because Trump will have cleared the virus from his system by then.

But in this case, as in the case of stimulus negotiations, his temper seems to have overridden strategic considerations. Upon hearing the news from the commission, he immediately growled that he wouldn’t do a virtual debate, period. Great, said Team Biden! Let’s do the in-person townhall on the 22nd — the night of the third debate — instead. Whereupon they immediately scheduled an ABC townhall with George Stephanopoulos for the 15th, giving them an excuse to say that they couldn’t do the second debate at this point even if Trump changed his mind later.

The president realized belatedly that he had handed Biden an excuse on a silver platter to skip the second debate, denying himself a precious opportunity to make something happen on a big stage that might shake up the race. So here’s his campaign last night insisting that the second debate should go on as scheduled, in person:

Does that explain why Sean Conley put out that curious statement yesterday afternoon pre-clearing Trump to return to public engagements by Saturday? That seemed inexplicable in hindsight if you watched Trump’s phone interview with Hannity last night, where he was coughing and sounded raspy. Even if he’s past the worst of COVID by tomorrow and technically fit to hold a rally, it would look terrible for him to be at a mic in front of thousands of people with visible symptoms of the disease. Which I guess explains this news:

Why was Conley so eager to pre-clear him for campaign activities? The answer, presumably, is that the campaign was freaking out about the second debate being canceled and thought a letter from Trump’s doctor insisting that he was okay to be in public again might make Biden and the commission reconsider.

And you know what? If the White House had been above board thus far with information about Trump’s health, including daily vitals, details about his regimen, and candor about when he last tested negative, they’d have a good case. If Conley and Trump’s political advisors, like Mark Meadows, had spent the last week building trust, Biden would be under pressure to accept their assurances that Trump is fine and thus the October 15th debate should proceed as scheduled. Instead, Conley’s been deceptive about Trump’s treatment. His memo last night clearing Trump to return to the trail reeks of political motives today in light of the fact that the president is still experiencing symptoms. Meadows has personally contradicted the doctors’ public evaluations of Trump’s condition at times and neither he nor anyone else is willing to answer the question of when POTUS last tested negative. Trump could have been infectious at the last debate with Biden but the White House won’t give us any info that would help us try to assess that. They wouldn’t even bring in the CDC early to help do contact-tracing because they care more about their PR problem than they do the health problem they’ve created.

So why should Biden get on a stage with Trump again in the near term? Whose assurances is he supposed to accept that Trump is fine and non-contagious when even experts can’t promise that? I suppose the president could submit to a PCR test immediately before the debate conducted by an independent authority like the Cleveland Clinic, but that’s not his style. He’s so paranoid about people not under his control having medical information about him that he made some of his doctors at Walter Reed sign NDAs as a condition of treating him when he visited last year (for still unexplained reasons). One Trump spokesman who was on MSNBC just this morning refused to answer questions about whether Trump had complied with all of the Cleveland Clinic’s guidelines for testing before the first debate, which sounds like a tacit admission that the president wasn’t tested beforehand to ensure that he was negative.

All of that being so, Biden would be nuts to risk being infected by him *again.* If there’s no chance that Trump will submit to an independent test for fear that it’ll show he’s still positive then there’s no reason for Biden to take the risk of being in his presence. Either do the debate virtually or don’t do it. Anthony Fauci was asked this week when it’ll be safe to be around Trump again and said, “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.” Well, he still had symptoms as of last night, October 8, per the Hannity interview. If he’s symptom-free for the next 10 days then the earliest it’d be safe for Biden to debate him in person again would be the 19th, not the 15th. That’s all there is to it.

Doesn’t sound like it’s going to happen either way:

In a response to Trump’s late Thursday demand for the in-person debate to occur next week, Fahrenkopf said the commission would only consider the request if Biden agreed and the Cleveland Clinic said it passed “medical muster.”

“I don’t think they’re interested,” he said of the Biden team.

Frankly, it may be to Trump’s own benefit that he’s not in a gigantic TV spotlight right now. Even if he’s not addled by COVID, he may be addled by other things:

Covid-19, an unpredictable disease, can suddenly and unexpectedly worsen during a patient’s second week of illness. Based on the information provided, “No, I would not clear him to start public engagements on Saturday,” said Dr. Phyllis Tien, an infectious disease physician at the University of California, San Francisco, where she conducts and advises on Covid-19 clinical trials.

White House aides privately expressed concern about whether the president’s animated mood in recent days stemmed from the dexamethasone. Doctors not involved with the president’s care said it could have a significant effect on a patient’s behavior.

Dr. Negin Hajizadeh, a pulmonary/critical care physician at Northwell Health, noted that the majority of Covid patients receiving dexamethasone are on mechanical ventilation and in a state of induced coma, so they do not exhibit any behavioral side effects. But, she said, large studies show that generally 28 to 30 percent of patients will exhibit mild to moderate psychiatric side effects like anxiety, insomnia, mania or delirium after receiving steroid treatments, and about 6 percent may develop psychosis.

I’ll leave you with Chris Wallace, making the conventional-wisdom case that the second debate would have been to Trump’s advantage. After the first debate, I’m not sure that’s true. But I understand his logic.

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