Former President Donald Trump's staffers reportedly blamed themselves for the death of Herman Cain, a business executive and Tea Party activist within the Republican Party who died of COVID-19 after attending Trump's Tulsa, Oklahoma rally last summer.
The information comes from an excerpt of ABC News' chief Washington correspondent Jonathan Karl's forthcoming book, Betrayal: The Final Act of the Trump Show, published in Vanity Fair.
"We killed Herman Cain," a senior Trump staffer reportedly told ABC News reporter Will Steakin on July 30, 2020, the day Cain's death was reported.
Cain was hospitalized for coronavirus just 11 days after attending the rally, which Trump held against the advice of health experts.
Photos of Cain at the event showed he was not wearing a mask.
Cain later defended his decision to attend the rally in an op-ed published after the event, accusing the media of working "very hard to scare people out of attending" the rally.
On the same day he went to the hospital, he wrote a Twitter post in which he praised South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, a fellow Republican, for not requiring masks at an upcoming Trump campaign event, writing:
"Masks will not be mandatory for the event, which will be attended by President Trump. PEOPLE ARE FED UP!"
The revelation that Trump staffers blamed themselves for Cain's death soon spread across social media.
Many took their admission as evidence that they were fully aware of the consequences of former President Trump's rhetoric, which often downplayed the pandemic's severity, but chose to forge ahead anyway.
Others, however, suggested that Cain was solely responsible for his own death because he failed to take even the most basic precautions.
The Tulsa rally contributed to a surge in COVID-19 cases in Oklahoma, according to Bruce Dart, the director of the Tulsa City–County Health Department.
Dart noted that the Monday two weeks after the rally the county reported 261 new cases, at the time the highest the county had seen since the pandemic began.
Speaking to reporters at a press conference on July 7, 2020, Dart said:
"Right now we do have the highest number of cases [in Oklahoma]. We've had some significant events in the past few weeks that more than likely contributed to that."
"The past two days we've had almost 500 cases, and we knew we had several large events a little over two weeks ago, which is about right. So I guess we just connect the dots."
The Trump rally responded soon after, though it blamed protesters who in recent weeks had marched against racial injustice and police brutality for the spike in cases of the virus.
Tim Murtaugh, the communications director for the Trump campaign, falsely claimed that Black Lives Matter protesters were taking "literally no health precautions" though evidence from those on the ground showed that the majority of protesters wore masks during demonstrations:
"There were literally no health precautions to speak of as thousands looted, rioted, and protested in the streets and the media reported that it did not lead to a rise in coronavirus cases."
"Meanwhile, the President's rally was 18 days ago, all attendees had their temperature checked, everyone was provided a mask, and there was plenty of hand sanitizer available for all."
"It's obvious that the media's concern about large gatherings begins and ends with Trump rallies."
Further controversy arose after Cain's death when his staffers used his Twitter account to tweet that COVID-19 "is not as deadly as the mainstream media first made it out to be."
The tweet was soon deleted amid pushback from Twitter users who pointed out that Cain had, in fact, died of COVID-19.
Subsequently, the tweet inspired the creation of a subreddit, titled "r/HermanCainAward," which tracks people "who have made public declaration of their anti-mask, anti-vax, or Covid-hoax views" only to later be hospitalized with or die from COVID-19.