But some of the most intense exchanges centered on the pandemic that has now killed close to twice as many Americans as the wars in Vietnam, Korea, Iraq and Afghanistan combined, shuttered many businesses, put millions out of work, kept tens of millions of school children home this fall and devastated families across the country. With just seven weeks until the Nov. 3 election, the virus is one of Mr. Trump’s biggest political vulnerabilities, with just 35 percent of Americans approving of his handling of it in a poll released this week by ABC and Ipsos.
One man at the Tuesday night forum, who described himself as “conservative, pro-life and diabetic” and said he cast a ballot for Mr. Trump four years ago, pressed the president about his decision to reopen American society last spring before the outbreak was under control, leading to a resurgence of infections and deaths in the next months.
“I thought you were doing a good job with the pandemic response until about May 1,” the voter told Mr. Trump. “Then you took your foot off the gas pedal. Why did you throw vulnerable people like me under the bus?”
“Well, we really didn’t,” the president replied, pointing to efforts by the administration to provide medical equipment like ventilators and to develop treatments and a vaccine. “We’re starting to get very good marks.”
Asked by Mr. Stephanopoulos why he initially praised President Xi Jinping of China for his handling of the virus while he now blames the Chinese leader, Mr. Trump suggested that he soft-pedaled any criticism at first in order to preserve a new economic agreement. “We just finished a trade deal,” he explained. Then he indicated that it was because he was not knowledgeable at the time about the dangers of the virus. “So I didn’t say anything bad about President Xi initially, because nobody knew much about the disease,” he said.
The president disparaged the value of masks in stopping the spread of the virus even though public health officials have called it crucial. “A lot of people don’t want to wear masks,” said Mr. Trump, who himself almost never wears one in public. “There are a lot of people who think that masks are not good.”
“Who are these people?” Mr. Stephanopoulos asked.
“I’ll tell you who those people are — waiters,” he said. “They come over and they serve you, and they have a mask. And I saw it the other day where they were serving me, and they’re playing with the mask — I’m not blaming them — I’m just saying what happens. They’re playing with the mask, so the mask is over, and they’re touching it, and then they’re touching the plate. That can’t be good.”