“We’re back, baby,” Donald Trump told Chris Christie.
It was a few days before Trump’s summer 2020 campaign rally in Tulsa, Okla., and the president was excited, thinking this rally was going to be a packed, raucous affair that injected new energy into his troubled reelection run.
But it turns out that holding a raucous indoor rally during a global pandemic isn’t exactly the best of ideas, and instead of a rager, Trump got a disaster. The rally hall was full of empty seats, and a rash of campaign staffers and Secret Service agents tested positive for Covid before the event even began. The rally is also likely where Herman Cain, a Trump surrogate and former GOP presidential hopeful, contracted a case of Covid that would result in his death.
The account of Trump’s rally comes from Jonathan Karl’s new book, Betrayal, that chronicles the final days of the Trump administration and reveals new facts about the rally in an excerpt published Thursday by Vanity Fair.
Even before the event began, staffers were testing positive for Covid-19. After eight affiliated people — six Trump campaign staffers and two Secret Service agents — contracted the virus, campaign leadership ordered them to stop testing, two senior campaign officials told Karl. That edict came because NBC News had reported the story of the positive tests, which made Trump “furious,” according to Karl.
While dozens of Secret Service members quarantined after the positive tests, campaign staff were not as cautious. Instead of isolating for 10 days, as the CDC advised individuals to do after a positive Covid test, campaign staff were instructed to drive back to Washington in rental cars. Three staffers making that journey traveled together, prompting campaign staff to joke that they were driving a “Covid-mobile” across the country. One staffer who had been concerned his preexisting conditions made him more vulnerable to Covid became so ill with the virus that he was hospitalized for a week in Tulsa. “It was really scary,” a senior campaign official told Karl. “He was actually worried he was going to die.”
Ahead of the event, Trump and his campaign manager, Brad Parscale, were touting the rally and promising the president would draw an overwhelming crowd. Pascale claimed on Twitter that the event received more than 1 million ticket requests, which reportedly thrilled the president.
“As you probably have heard, and we’re getting exact numbers out, but we’re either close to or over one million people wanting to go,” Trump told media at the White House five days before the event. “Nobody has ever heard of numbers like this. I think we’re going to have a great time.”
Privately, Trump told Christie, “This is gonna be great. We are getting back on the road and the campaign back on track.”
But when Trump was flying into Tulsa aboard Air Force One, reality set in.
“Is it going to be full?” Trump asked Parscale.
“No, sir. It looks like Beirut in the eighties,” the campaign manager replied, adding, “I’m sorry. I threw everything I could at it.”
This news irritated Trump so much, Karl reported, that Parscale warned senior staff, “None of you should go anywhere near the president today, including me.”
But things were about to get even worse. Nine days after the event, Cain, who was flown to the rally by Trump’s team, tested positive for Covid. According to the CDC, Covid symptoms may begin anywhere from 2-14 days following exposure. Photographs from the event show an unmasked Cain sitting in arena seats surrounded by unmasked Trump supporters, including Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, who also tested positive for Covid after the rally.
Re-upping this photo of Gov Stitt sitting within two feet of Herman Cain—both without masks—at Trump's Tulsa rally.
Both Stitt and Cain tested positive for coronavirus after the rally. Now one of them is dead.
— Kendall Brown (@kendallybrown) July 30, 2020
Cain — who was 74 and had battled colon cancer — was hospitalized days after his positive test and remained there for a month until he succumbed to complications from the virus. This prompted one senior staffer to tell ABC News reporter Will Steakin, “We killed Herman Cain.”
Trump, however, apparently harbored no such guilt. When asked if Cain contracted the virus at his rally, the former president responded, “No, I don’t think so.”