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2020 Election Live Updates: Biden Agrees to Virtual Debate, Setting Up Standoff With Trump

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President Trump and Joseph R. Biden Jr. held their first presidential debate in Cleveland last week.
Credit…Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

The Commission on Presidential Debates announced Thursday morning that next Thursday’s debate between President Trump and Joseph R. Biden Jr. would be held virtually because of health concerns about the coronavirus.

But while the Biden campaign raised no objection to the conditions, Mr. Trump declared that he would not participate and called the idea of a remote debate “ridiculous.”

The high-stakes standoff between Mr. Trump and the debate organizers emerged on Thursday morning, after the commission, with no warning to campaign representatives, said the Oct. 15 debate would feature candidates debating remotely “in order to protect the health and safety of all involved.”

Mr. Trump, who tested positive last week for the coronavirus, immediately objected to the concept in an interview on Fox News, saying: “I’m not going to waste my time on a virtual debate, that’s not what debating is all about. You sit behind a computer and do a debate — it’s ridiculous.”

Kate Bedingfield, a deputy Biden campaign manager, said in a statement, “Vice President Biden looks forward to speaking directly to the American people and comparing his plan for bringing the country together and building back better with Donald Trump’s failed leadership on the coronavirus that has thrown the strong economy he inherited into the worst downturn since the Great Depression.”

Mr. Trump accused the debate commission of “trying to protect Biden.”

Marc Short, the chief of staff to Mr. Pence, in an appearance on CNN Thursday, left the door open to Mr. Trump’s participation in the next debate.

“We’re hopeful that they’ll actually enter into negotiations so we can hear what their concerns are,” Mr. Short said of the Biden campaign. “The rules are very specific that the sides are supposed to negotiate.”

Mr. Short sidestepped questions on when the last time was that Mr. Trump had tested negative for the virus, which has become a focus of concern after Mr. Trump took part in last week’s presidential debate shortly before his diagnosis was made public.

“You’ll have to ask the president’s team that,” Mr. Short said.

The Trump campaign has sought to shift attention away from the administration’s response to the pandemic in the debates, and a virtual debate would by its very structure call attention to the degree to which the virus has upended the country.

The format would also presumably make it easier for the moderator to cut off the candidates from going over their time limit or interrupting each other, which would further impede any effort by the president to change the subject away from the virus.

The virus was front and center, both visually and verbally, at last night’s vice-presidential debate between Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris, who faced off from behind plexiglass barriers. Ms. Harris delivered a stinging indictment of the missteps by the federal government.

President Trump left Walter Reed military hospital on Monday after being treated for Covid-19. 
Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

President Trump attacked two cabinet members who are closest to him, insisted he wouldn’t take part in a virtual debate against his Democratic challenger and revisited the events of the 2016 campaign in a meandering, hour-long telephone interview on Fox Business on Thursday.

Mr. Trump also referred to the Democratic vice-presidential nominee as a “monster,” called the director of the F.B.I. “disappointing,” posited that he might have contracted the coronavirus from a member of a military family, maintained that he is almost off medical treatments for the coronavirus and complained about not being allowed to hold rallies while he remains in quarantine.

“I don’t think I’m contagious at all,” Mr. Trump said, without citing evidence. Of his treatments, he insisted, “I think I’m taking almost nothing.” His doctor has not said how long he will remain on steroids.

Mr. Trump’s interview effectively wiped out attention being paid to the vice-presidential debate the night before, which Trump allies felt had gone well for Vice President Mike Pence.

The president’s circuitous conversation with Maria Bartiromo on Fox Business Channel came as he has been eager to dispel questions about his health after he spent four days at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center following a drop in his oxygen levels and a fever, chills and a cough related to the coronavirus.

But Mr. Trump’s standing in the race against former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., whom he is trailing badly in polls, was clearly frustrating to him.

Mr. Trump criticized both Attorney General Bill Barr and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, two cabinet members often described as among his closest aides.

“Bill has got to move,” Mr. Trump said of investigations into the origins of the probe of his 2016 campaign and whether it was conspiring with Russian officials. “Bill Barr is going to go down — he’s either as the greatest Attorney General in the history of the country or he’s going to go down as a very sad, sad situation. I mean, I’ll be honest with you. He’s got all the information he needs.”

At another point, Mr. Trump criticized Mr. Pompeo for not releasing documents related to Hillary Clinton, his predecessor.

“They’re in the State Department, but Mike Pompeo has been unable to get them out, which is very sad,” Mr. Trump said.

“These people should be indicted — this was the greatest political crime in the history of our country,” Mr. Trump said. “And that includes Obama, and it includes Biden.”

Mr. Trump also criticized the F.B.I. director, Christopher A. Wray, for not backing up Mr. Trump’s view, despite overwhelming evidence, that voting by mail is rife with fraud, and he declined to commit to keeping Mr. Wray in a second term.

And he twice referred to Senator Kamala Harris, Mr. Biden’s running mate, as a “monster” and a “communist.”

Early in the interview, Mr. Trump said he would not take part in the second presidential debate if it’s held virtually, as the Commission on Presidential Debates said it would be.

He maintained that he was barely on any medication and tried to downplay the seriousness of what he’d been taking, as well as the virus itself. After calling an experimental antibody cocktail that is still being studied a “cure,” Mr. Trump claimed he didn’t think he really needed to take medicine.

“It’s not a heavy steroid,” Mr. Trump said of the heavy steroid he’s been taking, dexamethasone.

And he theorized that he could have caught the virus from a relative of a fallen service member at a ceremony he hosted for Gold Star families.

Mr. Trump said those relatives insisted on hugging him or thanking him. “I can’t back up and say, ‘give me room, one room, give me 12 feet, stay 12 feet away,’ when they come, they come within an inch of my face sometimes,” he said. “They want to hug me and they want to kiss me. And they do. And frankly, I’m not telling them to back up.”

Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris faced off over the coronavirus, jobs and health care at Wednesday night’s debate.
Credit…Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

As Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris clashed over the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic Wednesday night, Mr. Pence defended the White House’s record without addressing its fundamental failures, while Ms. Harris accused him and President Trump of presiding over a public-health catastrophe.

Ms. Harris delivered a comprehensive denunciation of the Trump administration’s policies, ranging from the economy and climate change to health care regulation and taxes.

As Ms. Harris attacked Mr. Trump, the vice president sought to recast Mr. Trump’s record on the pandemic and other issues in conventional and inoffensive terms, though often in plain defiance of the facts.

The vice president made misleading or plainly false claims about White House policies on a range of subjects weighing down Mr. Trump in the presidential race.

Mr. Pence claimed that the president had a plan to protect people with pre-existing medical conditions, even though he does not; hailed the “V-shaped recovery” of the economy despite the latest government data; and repeatedly claimed that Mr. Trump would always “follow the science” on climate change even though he has spent his term denying the scientific consensus on global warming and dismantling environmental regulations.

After Mr. Trump’s belligerent performance against Mr. Biden last week, the Harris-Pence forum in Salt Lake City mostly stood out for how different it was from that debate. It was for the most part a gloves-on affair, more akin to conventional political debates of yesteryear, albeit one playing out in a moment of national crisis.

Vice President Mike Pence is well-practiced at translating President Trump for those who might find him objectionable.
Credit…Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

Vice President Mike Pence approached his task on Wednesday as he has approached his four years as the executive straight man to an unruly leader: not merely defending President Trump but effectively insisting, with poker-faced conviction, that those who doubt his boss should not believe their eyes and ears.

The trouble this time was not Mr. Pence’s skill on this front, which remains peerless. It was the facts underpinning this debate, which remains inconvenient to an administration so overwhelmed by the virus that its own West Wing has become a hot spot.

And so Mr. Pence — stripped of most politically palatable explanations for the White House pandemic response — set off on a curious charge when Senator Kamala Harris said that the Trump team’s leadership “clearly” had not worked: He chose to hear it as a direct affront to the American people.

“When you say what the American people have done over these last eight months hasn’t worked,” Mr. Pence said gravely, as controlled as his president is rambunctious onstage, “that’s a great disservice to the sacrifices the American people have made.”

At last, the strain seemed to be showing, at least a little. Perhaps that is what a full term of wear-and-tear can do to even the most accomplished rhetorical gymnast.

Or perhaps the reality is simply too bleak for any administration to explain away entirely: The president has contracted the virus that has killed more than 210,000 people in the United States on his watch. His behavior, since leaving the hospital on Monday, appears to be a continuation of the kind of scientifically dubious happy talk that has left the Trump-Pence ticket at a significant polling disadvantage four weeks before Election Day.

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Pence Deflects Question on Accepting Election Results

In Wednesday night’s debate, Kamala Harris and Mike Pence were asked if the election results would lead to a peaceful transfer of power.

“President Trump has several times refused to commit himself to a peaceful transfer of power after the election. If Vice President Biden is declared the winner and President Trump refuses to accept a peaceful transfer of power, what would be your role and responsibility as vice president? What would you personally do? You have two minutes.” “Well, Susan, first and foremost, I think we’re going to win this election, because while Joe Biden and Kamala Harris rattle off a long litany of the establishment in Washington, D.C., an establishment that Joe Biden’s been a part of for 47 years, President Donald Trump has launched a movement of everyday Americans from every walk of life. When you talk about accepting the outcome of the election. I must tell you, Senator, your party has spent the last three and a half years trying to overturn the results of the last election. It’s amazing. We’ve all seen the avalanche — what what you put the country through for the better part of three years until it was found that there was no obstruction, no collusion, case closed. And then, Senator Harris, you and your colleagues in the Congress tried to impeach the president of the United States over a phone call. And now Hillary Clinton has actually said to Joe Biden that under — in her words, under no circumstances should he concede the election. So let me just say, I think we’re going to win this election.”

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In Wednesday night’s debate, Kamala Harris and Mike Pence were asked if the election results would lead to a peaceful transfer of power.CreditCredit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

Vice President Mike Pence was asked during Wednesday night’s debate, in a question similar to one put before President Trump at last week’s presidential matchup, what he would do if Mr. Trump refused to accept the election results should he lose to Joseph R. Biden Jr.

Just as Mr. Trump has done repeatedly, Mr. Pence declined to say what he would do — nor did he offer any commitment to accepting a negative result.

“First and foremost, I think we’re going to win this election,” Mr. Pence said before turning his attention to his debate opponent, Senator Kamala Harris. “When you talk about accepting the outcome of the election, I must tell you, Senator, your party has spent the last three and a half years trying to overturn the results of the last election. It’s amazing.”

Mr. Pence never got around to saying what he would do if Mr. Trump declined to accept a losing result.

Senator Kamala Harris was asked a similar question about what she and former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. would do if Mr. Trump refused to step aside. She offered few specifics, but instead made a plea for supporters to vote as soon as possible.

“I’d like to say to everybody, vote,” she said. “Please vote. Vote early, come up with a plan to vote.”

She added: “We have it within our power in these next 27 days to make the decision about what will be the course of our country for the next four years. And it is within our power and if we use our vote and our voice, we will win.”

Research shows that voters see certain behavior as assertive or authoritative when it comes from men but aggressive or condescending when it comes from women. The double standard is more severe for women of color.
Credit…Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times

It was the first time a woman of color had ever appeared on a presidential or vice-presidential general election debate stage, and the tightrope Senator Kamala Harris had to walk was never far from sight.

Just consider the reaction in the Republican pollster Frank Luntz’s focus group of undecided voters: “She is applauded for her knowledge,” Mr. Luntz wrote on Twitter, “but they just don’t like her ‘condescending reactions.’”

That some voters would view Ms. Harris’s reactions as condescending, and recoil at them — the laughs, head shakes and “are you kidding me” expressions she displayed at various points in response to Vice President Mike Pence — was not surprising. Nor was the lack of comparable backlash to Mr. Pence’s head shakes and unamused expressions.

Research shows that voters see certain behavior as assertive or authoritative when it comes from men but aggressive or condescending when it comes from women. The double standard is more severe for women of color, and the specific criticism lodged against Ms. Harris has both racial and gendered components.

“Her facial expressions and the eye rolls and neck movements were quintessential Black woman — she was signaling, ‘Don’t start,’” said Nadia E. Brown, an associate professor of political science and African-American studies at Purdue University.

“However, what came out of her mouth was what people tuned in to the debate to hear,” Dr. Brown said. “She gave clear policy contrasts, and that’s really what the debate should be about.”

Dr. Brown and other experts who study women of color in politics said that while double standards were very much present, Ms. Harris may also have helped herself and the Democratic ticket by calmly asserting herself when interrupted.

“I’m speaking,” she said less than 15 minutes in, a line she would repeat more than once: “I’m speaking.” “Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking.”

Women of all political persuasions can relate to being spoken over and dismissed, Dr. Brown said, and that does not necessarily help the Trump campaign win over, say, white suburban women — who helped lift Mr. Trump to victory in 2016, but among whom he is badly trailing in the polls.

“With the tightrope she’s walking, she’s definitely not going to make everybody happy,” said Amanda Hunter, research and communications director at the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, which supports women in politics. But, she added, “it’s so important that a woman candidate stand up for herself in a debate, and that can display strength to voters.”

The Biden campaign, for its part, sought to use the gendered dynamics to its advantage in the post-debate spin.

“He didn’t just mansplain,” Symone Sanders, a senior adviser to the Biden campaign, said of Mr. Pence. “He man-dodged.”

A debate watch party at the Stampede Saloon in Fort Worth.
Credit…Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times

The vice-presidential debate on Wednesday night appeared to drive people back into their partisan corners. How you viewed the candidates depended mostly on your partisanship.

Republicans cheered Vice President Mike Pence; Democrats praised Senator Kamala Harris. And few minds were changed.

When Mr. Trump selected Mr. Pence as his running mate four years ago, the decision was in large because of the differences between the two. More reserved in style and practiced in political speechmaking, Mr. Pence has always been skillful in smoothing out his boss’ rougher edges.

“Trump should let Pence sub for him at the next debate,” said Rich Lowry, editor of National Review.

“Man is shiving people left and right with a smile,” said Ned Ryun, a conservative strategist, of the vice president’s low-key style.

While many of the vice president’s critics expressed frustration that he often ignored the questions from the moderator, Susan Page of USA Today, his supporters noted the same tendency to evade — and were impressed. “Susan, allow me not to answer your question,” said Guy Benson, a conservative writer and radio host.

Ms. Harris’s ability to lash her opponent with effective one-liners provided some of the more memorable moments of the evening.

“Biggest breakthrough sound bite: Harris wins. ‘If you have preexisting condition they are coming for you,’” said Mike Murphy, a Republican strategist who has been critical of the president and vice president.

Hanging over the assessments and perceptions of Ms. Harris’s performance was the historic nature of her candidacy. Never before had a woman of color participated in a presidential or vice-presidential debate, leaving many to wonder whether she would be judged harshly for being animated or emotional, and to praise her for navigating those difficult waters.

“The needle Kamala threaded tonight as a Black woman needs to be acknowledged,” said Natasha Rothwell, a screenwriter. “How we’re perceived is based on a short list of ‘permissible’ behavior. She was strong, uncompromising and authentic without falling for bait meant to cast her as an ‘angry black woman.’ I’m in awe.”

A debate viewing party at the Women’s National Democratic Club in Washington on Wednesday.
Credit…Anna Moneymaker for The New York Times

About an hour into Wednesday night’s presidential debate, a fly suddenly appeared on Vice President Mike Pence’s head, resting motionless yet extremely visible set against his silver hair. It sat there for two minutes and three seconds, enough time to spawn thousands of memes and somehow crash Twitter’s trending topics.

Even a comedian who spent nearly a decade finding humor in the travails of the vice presidency was impressed by the fly’s appearance.

The Biden campaign even turned the fly into its latest get-out-the-vote canvasser and fund-raiser.

The Trump campaign had put out no fly content as of late Wednesday.

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