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Overnight Defense: Pentagon retracing steps of top officials after positive coronavirus case | Trump suggests Gold Star families could have infected him | VP debate brings up military topics

Overnight Defense: Pentagon retracing steps of top officials after positive coronavirus case | Trump suggests Gold Star families could have infected him | VP debate brings up military topics
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Happy Thursday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I'm Ellen Mitchell, and here's your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. CLICK HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.

THE TOPLINE: The Pentagon is retracing the steps of its top brass after a positive coronavirus case among senior officials forced Defense Department heads into quarantine.

News of Coast Guard Vice Commandant Adm. Charles Ray testing positive, which came after he attended a Sept. 27 White House event, broke after Ray had met with several other senior leaders at the Pentagon last week.

The Defense Department has since raced to conduct contact tracing, highlighting the stark difference between the Pentagon and White House, where administration officials have been reluctant to reveal key timeline details after President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump alludes to possible 2024 run in White House remarks Trump threatens to veto defense bill over tech liability shield Tiger King's attorney believes they're close to getting pardon from Trump MORE and top aides tested positive.

“Simply because it is such a threat to readiness and can disable a ship, a building, a base, they take this very seriously,” Steve Morrison, a public health expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said of the Pentagon’s response.

“It didn’t seem they were looking to be micromanaged by anyone, they sort of kicked in to gear,” he added.

What the Pentagon is doing: Top Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said Tuesday that the Pentagon is “conducting additional contact tracing and taking appropriate precautions to protect the force and the mission.”

Asked for specifics regarding its contact tracing and what additional precautions are being taken, a Pentagon spokesperson would only say that the department "follows CDC guidelines for contact tracing, as well as guidance from state and local public health officials."

Hoffman said Tuesday that all potential close contacts from the meetings involving Ray “are self-quarantining and have been tested.”

The newest case: One of those close contacts, Gen. Gary Thomas, assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, has since tested positive. He was quarantining when his results were announced by the Defense Department.

"We are aware of General Thomas’ positive test for COVID-19. At this time we have no additional senior leader positive test results to report. We will continue to follow CDC guidance for self-quarantining and contact tracing," the Pentagon said in a statement Wednesday night.

Others in quarantine: Most members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, including Chairman Gen. Mark MilleyMark MilleyOvernight Defense: Mike Rogers slated to be top House Armed Services Republican | Defense bill hits another snag | Pentagon dinged for 0M loan to trucking company using COVID funds Israeli military instructed to prepare for Trump strike on Iran: report Top Pentagon official tests positive for COVID-19 MORE, are self-quarantining following Ray’s positive test.

Others who are quarantining include Joint Chiefs Vice Chairman Gen. John Hyten, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday, Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Brown, Chief of Space Operations Gen. John Raymond, National Guard Bureau chief Gen. Daniel Hokanson and Gen. Paul Nakasone, commander of U.S. Cyber Command and director of the National Security Agency.

The officials were possibly exposed during several meetings that Ray attended last week.

Ray tested positive on Monday after experiencing mild symptoms over the weekend. He had been indoors at the White House on Sept. 27 for a Gold Star family event in which several other top defense officials, including Milley and Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperISIS Task Force director resigns from Pentagon post in continued post-election purge The perils of a US troop drawdown to the Afghan army and tribes Acting Defense secretary makes surprise trip to Somalia MORE, were in attendance.

Milley and Esper have so far tested negative for the illness. Both were traveling last week when others held meetings with Ray.

A stark difference: The White House has come under scrutiny for not being forthcoming about which staffers who have contracted the virus, with news of the diagnoses often coming from news leaks or aides offering up the information themselves.

Defense experts say things are different at the Pentagon.

Retired Lt. Gen. Tom Spoehr, a defense expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said contact tracing and coronavirus containment in the Defense Department is perceived as more ironclad than other government agencies since those who work at the Pentagon are far more likely to follow orders and adhere to procedures and precautions.

“The Pentagon, to their credit, they all follow the rules,” Spoehr said.

Before Ray’s positive test result, Pentagon staff were already operating to a remote degree since the beginning of March, with most working in the building two days on and three days off, Spoehr noted.

Contact tracing in the military is also aided by meticulous record keeping and strict schedules. 

Read more here.

TRUMP SUGGESTS GOLD STAR FAMILIES COULD HAVE INFECTED HIM: President Trump suggested during an interview Thursday that he could have caught the coronavirus from Gold Star families who recently visited the White House.

"I figured there would be a chance that I would catch it. Sometimes I’d be with ... Gold Star families. I met with Gold Star families. I didn’t want to cancel that. But they all came in and they all talked about their son and daughter and father," Trump said in an interview with Maria BartiromoMaria Sara BartiromoWisconsin formally declares Biden won election following recount GOP lawmaker says he's been called a 'traitor' by people close to him for recognizing Biden win Pa. lawmaker was informed of positive coronavirus test while meeting with Trump: report MORE on Fox Business's "Mornings with Maria."

Trump recounted the families telling stories of their loved ones who died serving in Iraq or Afghanistan, saying he "went through like 35 people."

"And I can’t back up, Maria, and say give me room, I want room. Give me 12 feet, stay 12 feet away when you talk. They come within an inch of my face sometimes," Trump told the host.

White House tries to deflect: When asked later on Thursday if Trump was blaming the Gold Star families for his COVID-19 diagnosis, White House communications director Alyssa Farah said that was not the case.

"His point was merely that in the timeframe that he was potentially exposed, there were a number of different venues he'd been at and individuals he had interacted with that it could have come from – and by no means are blaming anyone who was present," Farah told reporters at the White House.

"And we did take a lot of precautions for that event. So based on contact tracing, the data we have, we don't think it arose from that event," she added.

Details on the outbreak: Doctors have not disclosed how or when Trump may have contracted the virus. After he announced his diagnosis, a host of White House officials and campaign aides who worked closely and traveled with the president also tested positive, including White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany and campaign manager Bill StepienBill StepienParscale says Trump should have been more empathetic on coronavirus Former Trump campaign chief Parscale reportedly planning to write a book The Memo: Trump hits out as tide moves for Biden MORE

Numerous administration officials and allies who attended a Rose Garden nomination ceremony for Judge Amy Coney Barrett have tested positive for the virus, including White House aides Stephen MillerStephen MillerPresident says Trump Jr. doing 'very well' after COVID-19 diagnosis Donald Trump Jr. tests positive for COVID-19 Giuliani's son, a White House staffer, tests positive for coronavirus MORE and Hope HicksHope Charlotte HicksWomen set to take key roles in Biden administration President says Trump Jr. doing 'very well' after COVID-19 diagnosis Donald Trump Jr. tests positive for COVID-19 MORE and former White House counselor Kellyanne ConwayKellyanne Elizabeth ConwayWomen set to take key roles in Biden administration Lara Trump mulling 2022 Senate run in North Carolina: report Press: Where is Jim Baker when we need him? MORE. Three GOP senators, Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonGrassley returns to Capitol after having coronavirus McConnell halts in-person Republican lunches amid COVID-19 surge Loeffler isolating after possible COVID-19 infection MORE (Wis.), Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeGrassley returns to Capitol after having coronavirus McConnell halts in-person Republican lunches amid COVID-19 surge Loeffler isolating after possible COVID-19 infection MORE (Utah) and Tom Tillis (N.C.), have also tested positive.

Pentagon officials, meanwhile, have scrambled to respond to a potential outbreak after Coast Guard Vice Commandant Adm. Charles Ray, who attended a separate Sept. 27 White House event with military leaders and Gold Star families, tested positive. Six of the seven members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have self-isolated in response, including Chairman Mark Milley.

FROM THE VP DEBATE LAST NIGHT: Wednesday nights vice presidential debate brought up a range of defense issues.

Vice President Pence invoked slain ISIS hostage Kayla Mueller as he sought to tout what he described as President Trump’s foreign policy accomplishments in his debate against Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisSenate GOP's campaign arm rakes in M as Georgia runoffs heat up Biden, Harris to sit with CNN's Tapper in first post-election joint interview The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Capital One — Giuliani denies discussing preemptive pardon with Trump MORE (D-Calif.).

The parents of Mueller, a humanitarian aid worker taken hostage by ISIS and executed in 2015, were Pence’s guests in the debate hall. The Trump administration earlier in the day announced criminal charges against two alleged members of the cell that killed Mueller.

In hailing the territorial defeat of ISIS, Pence recalled a failed rescue operation the Obama administration undertook in 2014.

“The reality is that when Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump alludes to possible 2024 run in White House remarks Tiger King's attorney believes they're close to getting pardon from Trump Cruz urges Supreme Court to take up Pennsylvania election challenge MORE was vice president, we had an opportunity to save Kayla Mueller,” Pence said. “But when Joe Biden was vice president, they hesitated, for a month. And when our armed forces finally went in, it was clear she'd been moved two days earlier. And her family says with a heart that broke the heart of every American that if President Donald Trump had been president, they believe Kayla would be alive today.”

Harris hits at Trump military comments: Harris, Biden’s running mate, replied directly to the Muellers, saying she was “so sorry” about what happened to their daughter.

“What happened to her is awful,” Harris said. “And it should have never happened. And I know Joe feels the same way. And I know that President Obama feels the same way.”

She then quickly pivoted to tangling with Pence over allegations of Trump disrespecting the military.

Harris cited the contents of an article in The Atlantic in which Trump reportedly called fallen U.S. service members “suckers” and “losers.”

Biden also hit Trump over the issue at last week’s chaotic presidential debate.

Attacks on Trump’s previous comments: On Wednesday night, Harris brought up Trump’s dismissal of U.S. troops’ brain injuries after a missile strike in Iraq, as well as his comments that the late Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainSen.-elect Mark Kelly visits John McCain's grave ahead of swearing-in McCain, Kristol battle over Tanden nomination Biden's favorability rating rises while Trump's slips: Gallup MORE (R-Ariz.), who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam, was not a war hero because he was captured.

She also raised Trump’s disregard for an alleged Russian bounty program targeting U.S. troops in Afghanistan, which he has said he never raised in calls with Russian President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinScarborough says he'll never return to Republican Party after GOP supported Trump Will Biden choose a values-based or transactional foreign policy? Russian vessel threatens to ram US warship in disputed waters in Sea of Japan MORE.

“Joe Biden would never do that,” Harris said. “Joe Biden would hold Russia to account for any threats to our nation's security or to our troops who are sacrificing their lives for the sake of our democracy.”

Pence calls ‘slanders’ against Trump ‘absurd’Pence defended Trump from the allegations that he has disparaged the military and U.S. soldiers killed in action.

“The slanders against President Donald Trump regarding men and women of our armed forces are absurd,” Pence said.  

Trump has denied that he made such comments and has been buoyed by administration officials

The reporting set off a firestorm of criticism of the president, who has sought to portray himself as building back America’s military might, ending so-called endless wars and bringing U.S. soldiers home. 

ICYMI

-- The Hill: COVID-19 sparks national security concerns with top brass in quarantine

-- The Hill: Trump's new Iran sanctions raise alarm over humanitarian access

-- The Hill: White House adviser says troops in Afghanistan to be reduced to 2,500 in 2021

-- The Hill: Trump official to attend unveiling of painting honoring ISIS victim Kayla Mueller

-- The Hill: Kardashian West uses star power to pressure US on Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict

-- The Hill: Two members of ISIS 'Beatles' cell arrive in US, appear at court hearing

-- The Hill: US seizes 92 domains used by Iran for 'global disinformation campaign'

-- Military Times: Senior military leaders will have access to same COVID-19 treatments as Trump

-- The Washington Post: A U.S. soldier is returning from abroad. CBP may not allow him back.