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Essential Politics: This is how a coronavirus outbreak unfolds

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The coronavirus arrived at the White House, and the news fallout threatens to eclipse just about everything else.

By now the insidious spread of the virus is familiar — 7.5 million Americans have become infected over nine months, and more than 210,000 have died. What’s different about the White House outbreak is that nearly every case is either a public official — including the commander in chief, no less — or an associate, raising the stakes and the demands for transparency given the potential ramifications for the government’s operations and a presidential election already underway.

The still-breaking story is a chance for a wide audience to understand and follow the virus’ spread within a group, a particularly elite one, in real time. And the episode is a distillation of the nation’s approach to the pandemic generally — there’s Trump’s political theater, his denialism even in the face of his own illness, the dread of more cases to come and the disparities in healthcare.

Here’s how it all unfolded.

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Day by day: A virus spreads among the VIPs

Saturday, Sept. 26: Trump appears in the Rose Garden to announce his nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. About 100 people are present, including a dozen members of the media, Chris Christie, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), Notre Dame president the Rev. John Jenkins, Kellyanne Conway, Vice President Mike Pence and wife Karen Pence and prominent Riverside pastor Greg Laurie. Later, Trump attends a campaign rally in Middletown, Pa., near Harrisburg.
Known case count: 0

Sunday, Sept. 27: Trump holds a press conference in the White House briefing room, along with Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany, Christie and Rudolph Giuliani. Separately, First Lady Melania Trump attends a reception for gold star families with the Pences.
Known case count: 0

Tuesday, Sept. 29: Trump and his entourage of aides and family members — including Hope Hicks, Giuliani, McEnany, the first lady, sons Don Jr. and Eric Trump and daughters Ivanka and Tiffany Trump — arrive in Cleveland for the first presidential debate against Joe Biden.
Known case count: 0

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Wednesday, Sept. 30: Trump attends a campaign rally in Duluth, Minn. He meets with several lawmakers and attends a private fundraiser. According to later media reports, Hicks begins to feel unwell on the return trip and quarantines aboard Air Force One.
Known case count: 0

Thursday, Oct. 1: Trump flies to New Jersey for a campaign fundraiser. News breaks that evening — not from the White House, but from a leak — that Hicks has tested positive for the coronavirus. Trump and his wife are tested.
Known case count: 3
New cases: Hope Hicks, Donald Trump, Melania Trump

Friday, Oct. 2: Shortly before 1 a.m. Eastern time, Trump tweets the news that he and Melania are positive for the coronavirus. Both are reported to be experiencing mild symptoms. Then the floodgates open: Lee, Tillis and Conway are reported positive. Ronna McDaniel, the chair of the Republican National Committee, reports she’d tested positive earlier in the week after a family member was diagnosed. Jenkins and a colleague are positive. So is Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien. City officials in Cleveland report at least 11 cases linked to “pre-debate planning and setup.” Three journalists who cover the White House test positive. In the afternoon, Trump is taken to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
Known case count: At least 25
New cases: Mike Lee, Kellyanne Conway, Bill Stepien, John Jenkins and a colleague, Thom Tillis, Ronna McDaniel and a family member, debate cluster, three journalists

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Saturday, Oct. 3: Nick Luna, the president’s “body guy” — the young aide frequently with a president — tests positive. So does Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.). Questions swirl about the timeline of Trump’s diagnosis as doctors offer conflicting information. Christie announces he has tested positive and later checks into a hospital, calling it a precautionary measure due to his history of asthma.
Known case count: At least 28
New cases: Chris Christie, Nick Luna, Ron Johnson

Sunday, Oct. 4: Doctors say Trump has been given supplemental oxygen and the powerful steroid dexamethasone. The drug is used to combat lung damage caused by inflammation, which is one of the major ways the disease can kill patients. On Sunday afternoon, Trump stages a motorcade drive-by outside Walter Reed, to wave to supporters through the window of his armored black SUV. The brief trip by the highly contagious president drew sharp criticism from medical experts.
Known case count: At least 28

Monday, Oct. 5: Laurie announces he has tested positive. McEnany issues a statement saying she, too, has the virus, and soon it’s learned that two other staffers in her office are also positive. Trump leaves Walter Reed that evening and returns to the White House by helicopter. He continues to downplay the danger of the virus, tweeting: “Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life.”
Known case count: At least 32
New cases: Greg Laurie, Kayleigh McEnany and two members of her staff

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Tuesday, Oct. 6: In his first full day back at the White House, Trump shuts down talks with Democrats over further pandemic aid, saying he wants to wait until after the election, as the stock market plummets. He again downplays the risk of the virus and insists he is “FEELING GREAT.” Senior policy advisor and speechwriter Stephen Miller tests positive for the virus. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark A. Milley and several members of the Pentagon’s senior leadership go into quarantine after Adm. Charles W. Ray, the vice commandant of the Coast Guard, tests positive. Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-Santa Barbara) announces he, too, has tested positive.
Known case count: At least 35
New cases: Stephen Miller, Charles Ray, Salud Carbajal

President Donald Trump wears a mask and waves as he boards the Marine One helicopter to return to the White House
President Trump boards Marine One to return to the White House on Monday, after receiving treatment for COVID-19 at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.
(Associated Press)

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Covering the outbreak

White House reporter Eli Stokols chatted with fellow White House reporter Chris Megerian and national politics reporters Seema Mehta and Tyrone Beason about what’s happened so far, the challenge of covering this unprecedented story and the crucial question: What happens next?

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The four shared where their reporting has taken them and what they’re watching in the final four weeks of a uniquely chaotic election.

Megerian was part of the pool of reporters that accompanied Trump on his trip Thursday to Bedminster, N.J. “I actually made a comment to my fellow reporters that it was a really quiet day. It felt really strange,” he said. “And little did we know the president was going to announce he had COVID a couple hours later.”

Here’s what else they had to say.

On the responses to Trump’s diagnosis:
TB: [Trump] engenders a kind of hostility and aggression from his own countrymen and women that is quite shocking to see in real time. And there are people obviously on Twitter who were wishing him death from this virus. But even besides that, there were people who just felt as if they couldn’t muster the sort of compassion and empathy for a man they believe doesn’t ever show it to other people. ... I was at a COVID testing site — and these are the people who are being responsible and going to get tested — and even at a moment like that, they couldn’t find common cause with the president.

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On how voters are feeling:
SM: In the last couple of days, I went back and called up some of the voters I’d met in the battleground states, particularly Michigan, to talk to them about how they’re feeling about the president’s diagnosis and how he’s handling it. And the thing that struck me was that people on both sides, people who are voting for Joe Biden and people who are loyal Trump supporters, were basically like, “I hope he learns from this.” And I think that’s because ... in times of trauma, we look to our leader, we look to our presidents to guide us and provide us with comfort, and it goes across party lines.

On reporting during the pandemic, and how the White House outbreak affects it:
CM: I would say my anxiety ebbs and flows. I got used to going to the White House, even under these circumstances. Every now and then I would go and I would get my [COVID] test, and I felt OK. But there’s also a sense of expectation that everybody else is taking it seriously — other people are getting tested, other people are being safe. When we go out and do these things, there’s sort of an unspoken bond: I’m doing this, and I expect that you’re going to do it, too. And that bond has been broken.

The latest on the debates

The vice presidential debate takes place tonight in Salt Lake City. Here’s what to know:

— Vice President Mike Pence and California Sen. Kamala Harris will debate Wednesday, during a time of intense scrutiny on Trump’s campaign. Here’s what to expect, from 2020 reporter Brittny Mejia.

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Susan Page, the longtime Washington bureau chief for USA Today, will be in charge of keeping the candidates in line.

The latest from the campaign trail

— In Gettysburg, Pa., Joe Biden called Tuesday for an end to the divisions and partisanship that now define U.S. politics, writes Janet Hook. He did not mention President Trump in his speech.

— Last week’s presidential debate — so raucous that the debate commission is contemplating changes — does not appear to have helped Trump, the night’s provocateur, at all. Some polls suggest it may have cost him support, writes Brian Contreras.

— Melanie Mason writes that while some voters still praise Trump for his economic policies, his edge over Biden is blunted by opposition to his handling of the pandemic.

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— Also from Seema Mehta: Trump has alarmed Jewish leaders and others with remarks that appeared to endorse “racehorse theory” — the idea, associated with eugenicists and German Nazis seeking “racial purity” in the last century, that selective breeding can improve a country.

On the West Coast

— Voting has begun. The Times has compiled a guide to the 2020 election, including primers on the major ballot issues facing Californians and how to vote this year. (And if you’re curious, here’s who our editorial board is endorsing. Learn about how the board makes its decisions — and why it’s separate from the newsroom — in our sister newsletter, Essential California.)

— Thousands of ballots have already made their way to California residents, and at least 2,100 of those sent to L.A. County residents had a crucial flaw: no way to vote for president, writes Andrew Campa.

— Gov. Gavin Newsom on Monday appointed Martin Jenkins, a moderate Black former prosecutor and judge, to the California Supreme Court. Jenkins will become the first openly gay justice on the court and only the third Black man ever to serve, write legal affairs reporter Maura Dolan and state politics reporter Patrick McGreevy.

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