For much of the summer, President Trump argued that Joseph R. Biden Jr. was scared to debate him, reliant on performance-enhancing drugs and barely able to remain upright for 90 minutes because of his purportedly failing health.
That was then.
Now, Mr. Trump is receiving medication to treat a case of a virus he has failed to control, and he has become the candidate casting doubt on his participation in the next debate. After the Commission on Presidential Debates announced plans to hold next week’s town hall virtually, Mr. Trump threatened to skip the event entirely, plunging the two campaigns into a daylong debate over debates.
The president’s central concern: the possibility of a mute button.
“I’m not going to waste my time on a virtual debate,” he told Fox News. “You sit behind a computer and do a debate — it’s ridiculous, and then they cut you off whenever they want.”
The White House’s approach to avoiding accountability for its record is becoming clearer than ever: to distract, interrupt and even blow up debates that might focus attention on Mr. Trump’s handling of the virus and other issues.
The strategy was on vivid display Wednesday night, when Vice President Mike Pence repeatedly interrupted Senator Kamala Harris and talked over the moderator, Susan Page, ignoring rules about speaking time.
While Mr. Pence’s behavior paled in comparison to the barrage of hectoring from Mr. Trump during the first presidential debate, it was a notable deviation from the norm. Mr. Pence, a soft-spoken former governor, frequently takes on the role of the polite neighbor minding his own business amid the leaf-blowing din of the Trump administration.
The president’s threatened refusal to debate virtually is in keeping with the disorder that Mr. Pence generally sidesteps. But it may be little more than a negotiating tactic. Mr. Biden has said he plans to take questions from voters next week — with or without Mr. Trump present. For the president to forgo the opportunity to make his case before one of the biggest audiences of the campaign would be strikingly out of character for the former reality television host.
“If you think Trump is going to refuse an audience of 80 million people, I got a gold tower on Fifth Avenue to sell you,” said Matt Gorman, a Republican strategist. “This is a negotiating mechanism.”
The president has been known to engage in projection, accusing his political opponents of the same charges they make against him. The debate may be no different. After the first debate, Mr. Trump accused Mr. Biden of not wanting to face off against him for a second time.
“I hear he doesn’t want to go forward,” he told reporters, hours after Mr. Biden had said in an appearance that he was looking forward to the next debate. “That’s up to him. I don’t mind debating him.”
Yet, at a time when American life is defined by the singular political force of the pandemic, the president is grasping for opportunities to change the topic. Months of effort by Mr. Trump to dismiss the disease or shift attention to other issues, like racial justice protests or the Supreme Court, have largely failed. Now, with Mr. Trump infected and the virus ravaging his White House, his last option may be simply not to let anyone else get a word in.
“You could list a thousand things in the world that they would rather talk about than coronavirus and how they’ve dealt with it,” said Robert Gibbs, a Democratic strategist who helped prepare former President Barack Obama for debates. “It goes back to this idea that if you can’t control the narrative, then flood the zone and muddy the waters.”
On Wednesday, Mr. Pence’s attempt to control the narrative was evident primarily in the questions he sidestepped and the time limits he ignored.
Four years ago, Senator Tim Kaine came across more as the aggressor, often interrupting a more restrained Mr. Pence in their vice-presidential debate. Karen Finney, a Democratic strategist who helped prepare Mr. Kaine, said her team had expected Mr. Pence to stick with his talking points with a respectful smile — a tactic he largely adopted.
Wednesday night, he took a far more assertive approach. According to a CBS News tally of the debate, Mr. Pence interrupted Ms. Harris twice as often as the reverse, though the two got nearly the same amount of speaking time.
The fact that Ms. Harris and Ms. Page are women only made his approach more noticeable — and more difficult to counteract. As the first woman of color on a presidential debate stage, Ms. Harris was acutely aware, as she and her team prepared for the debate, of avoiding an obstacle course of gendered and racial pitfalls.
“Part of why his performance last night was so striking is we haven’t seen Pence behave that way,” Ms. Finney said. “They are resorting to the classic tropes to try to attack her, diminish her and undermine her.”
Republicans reject the idea that Mr. Pence was leveling sexist attacks by interrupting Ms. Harris.
Kellyanne Conway, the former counselor to the president, who is close to Mr. Pence and used to work as his pollster, said Ms. Harris’s attempt to accuse the vice president of interrupting her seemed canned.
“These are the highest offices in the land,” she said. “You can’t absorb the accolades for making history as first woman of color on the ticket and then cry damsel in distress.”
Others made a similar observation. In a post-debate round table, the veteran broadcaster Martha Raddatz, who was a moderator at a 2016 presidential debate, expressed some frustration with the idea that the vice president had been “mansplaining” onstage. “A man can interrupt another vice-presidential candidate,” she said.
The vice president’s team and the Trump campaign both viewed the night as a success, arguing that the vice president’s challenge had been even greater than four years ago because this time he had to defend the president’s record of actions and statements, which Ms. Harris was prosecuting.
“I think he was terrific in not only defending our record, but in indicting theirs,” said Marc Short, the vice president’s chief of staff.
As for any interruptions, Mr. Short shrugged it off, claiming it would be difficult to make any real drama out of Mr. Pence’s behavior, which did not fall outside any political norms and is typically gracious to the point of parody. Indeed, Mr. Pence went out of his way to thank his opponent and the moderator at multiple points throughout the evening, seemingly as a nice-guy device designed to kill the clock.
“It seems contrived and preplanned on their part,” Mr. Short said of the suggestion that interruptions had been conspicuous. “I didn’t feel that in the midst of the debate. He was a gentleman and as kind as they come.”
Before the debate, Mr. Pence had practiced what to do should Ms. Harris interrupt him. Pam Bondi, the former Florida attorney general, stood in for Ms. Harris in a debate prep session and used her prosecutorial skills to interrupt Mr. Pence and accuse him of not answering questions. Some officials were surprised that they didn’t see more of that on the stage.
Supporters of Ms. Harris said she was constrained by how voters perceive women, particularly Black women. Academic research has shown that voters have different expectations for how people of different identities should act onstage and that a Black woman’s expressing of anger could become a liability, even if her emotion was justified.
Some Democrats believe that was part of Mr. Pence’s calculus.
“They cannot win a debate on the coronavirus,” said Christina Reynolds, a vice president of Emily’s List, a leading Democratic women’s group. “To them, you get it to a draw by making the story either about the interrupting or you push the other side into angry reactions, knowing that she will get punished for that more than they will.”
Annie Karni contributed reporting.