The claim was tailor-made for President Trump’s most steadfast backers: Federal guidelines are coaching doctors to mark Covid-19 as the cause of death even when it is not, inflating the pandemic’s death toll.
That the claim came from a doctor, Scott Jensen, who also happens to be a Republican state senator in Minnesota, made it all the more alluring to the president’s allies. Never mind the experts who said that, if anything, the death toll was being vastly undercounted.
“SHOCKING,” tweeted Chris Berg, a conservative television show host on KX4, a Fox affiliate in Fargo, N.D., after interviewing Dr. Jensen last month. Soon after, Laura Ingraham, the Fox News host, invited Dr. Jensen onto her show. His assertions were picked up by Infowars, the conspiracy-oriented website founded by Alex Jones. They were shared by followers of Qanon, who subscribe to a web of vague, baseless theories that a secret cabal in the government is trying to take down the president.
“What is the primary benefit to keep public in mass-hysteria re: Covid-19? Think voting. Are you awake yet?” a Qanon follower known as John the White wrote on Twitter, saying the pandemic was being used to manipulate the electorate.
The likes of John the White may view the world through the most conspiratorial of lenses, but they are hardly the only people weighing the political impact of the virus’s death toll. With implications for how quickly businesses and their employees return to something like normalcy, the fight to shape the official record is adding a grim new front to the presidential campaign.
Since the outset of the crisis, elements of the right have sought to bolster the president’s political standing and justify reopening the economy by questioning the death toll. Climate-change skeptics have employed techniques perfected in the fight over global warming to raise doubts about the deadliness of the virus. Others, including Mr. Trump’s media allies as well as some in the anti-vaccine movement, have repurposed fringe theories about “deep state” bureaucrats undermining the president to argue that the official numbers should not be trusted.
They have a found a receptive audience, and a booster of their ideas, in Mr. Trump himself. For the president, the death toll has become a pivotal political indicator, as important to his re-election prospects as his approval ratings and his standing against former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. in swing-state polls.
Late last month, with the number of dead in the United States approaching 75,000, according to figures compiled by The New York Times, projections foresaw another spike in Covid-19 cases and deaths as social-distancing rules relaxed. One draft government report projected as many as 3,000 deaths a day by the end of May. Yet according to administration officials, Mr. Trump has begun privately questioning the models and the official death statistics.