Welcome to POLITICO’s West Wing Playbook, your guide to the people and power centers in the Biden administration. With Allie Bice
Washington is always on the lookout for a fall guy.
So it’s not a surprise that there’s already quiet finger-pointing within and without the Biden administration for the humanitarian mess in Afghanistan, which is violently playing out as people swarm the Kabul airport trying to evacuate.
With JOE BIDEN acknowledging today the process has been “gut-wrenching” and “far from perfect,” there are index fingers aimed in all directions. Some point at the White House’s National Security Council (NSC) for not taking more control of the interagency process. Others look at the White House, suggesting they were wary of right-wing attacks if they allowed a rush of Afghan refugees into the country which then forced the U.S. government to plead with other countries to house Afghan visa applicants.
The administration is quick to point out that Congress didn’t amend the statutes governing the special immigrant visa (SIV) process, which further slowed things down. The State Department is drawing ire for delays in issuing the visas to Afghans who helped the U.S. The intelligence community and the military are getting heat for not anticipating the imminent fall of Kabul.
As POLITICO’s ALEX WARD pointed out today, there are plenty of people to blame from the past twenty years too.
No heads have rolled yet inside the administration, but there is now increased scrutiny on the officials in the administration who have been overseeing Afghanistan.
RUSS TRAVERS, the lead on “vulnerable Afghans” at the National Security Council, was tasked with coordinating the inter-agency process on SIV’s. There’s also his boss, Homeland Security Adviser LIZ SHERWOOD-RANDALL, who covers embassy security. A NSC spokesperson said the president still has confidence in Travers, Sherwood-Randall, and his team.
Many others have their index fingers aimed at the State Department, particularly Afghanistan Task Force Director Ambassador TRACEY JACOBSON. “She obviously did a heck of a job,” sniped one colleague. “She has a lot of questions to answer.” The State Department did not respond to a request for comment.
Others in the administration say that the White House let political fear of GOP attacks make them act too cautiously on relocating Afghans to the U.S.
As one administration official put it: “It’s like they want the credit from liberals for ending the Trump cruelty to immigrants and refugees but they also don’t want the political backlash that comes from actual refugees arriving in America in any sort of large numbers.”
Do you work in the Biden administration? Are you in touch with the White House? Are you ZEV KARLIN-NEUMANN?
Which president was the first to recite his inaugural address entirely from memory?
(Answer is at the bottom.)
NO ‘OOO’ FOR PSAKI — With the president planning to spend much of this week away from D.C., press secretary JEN PSAKI had intended to take the week off. But alas, the August curse brought her back.
Fox News tried to reach Psaki over the weekend. They received this email: “I will be out of the office from August 15-August 22nd.” But according to a pool report, Psaki was spotted in the White House this afternoon ahead of Biden’s speech on Afghanistan. We emailed both Psaki and AMANDA FINNEY, Biden’s press office chief of staff, but only received an automatic out of office message reply from Finney. So it looks like Psaki is back to work but she did not respond to our email.
BIDEN QUOTE OF THE DAY: In his remarks at the White House today, Biden summed up his feelings on Afghanistan. “Here’s what I believe to my core: It is wrong to order American troops to step up when Afghanistan’s own armed forces would not,” he said.
WHAT THE WHITE HOUSE WANTS YOU TO READ: An Atlantic story by DANIEL SILVERBERG, a former Department of Defense official, with the headline “Biden was right.”
Amid the stack of critical Afghanistan stories, it presents a counterpoint: “Kabul was not lost yesterday; the United States and our Afghan partners never truly had control of the country, nor of its capital,” Silverberg writes. “Once the Taliban had secured an agreement that the United States would be pulling out and that forces would be reduced to minimal numbers before Joe Biden’s presidency began, they merely had to wait.”
White House deputy press secretary ANDREW BATES tweeted this passage from the story: “Various critics of President Biden are engaging in fantasies amid Kabul’s collapse…These criticisms ignore the developments of the past decade and downplay the impact of last May’s announcement.”
WHAT THE WHITE HOUSE DOESN’T WANT YOU TO READ: All of the other news. From Afghanistan, to a weekend earthquake in Haiti that killed more than 1,200 people to a 7-year-old girl shot dead in Chicago (her 6-year-old sister was also shot), things seem bleak. Oh, also the number of children hospitalized with Covid in the U.S. hit a record high of 1,900 on Saturday.
ON BIDEN’S XMAS CARD LIST: The White House found a new favorite Democratic congressman this weekend in the form of Rep. JAKE AUCHINCLOSS of Massachusetts, a Marine veteran who served in Afghanistan and did a whirlwind of media hits the past few days defending Biden’s policy there.
“He made the high-integrity decision that he was not going to hand off this boondoggle to yet another administration,” he told MSNBC today, a quote that the White House communications shop quickly circulated. It was his 7th time on MSNBC or CNN since Friday, along with interviews with the New York Times, The Daily Beast, Bloomberg TV, and Slate.
NO FRIENDLY CABLE TODAY: Speaking of MSNBC, “Morning Joe” co-host MIKA BRZEZINSKI, whose brother Mark is Biden’s pick to serve as ambassador to Poland, gave a tough assessment of Biden on Afghanistan this morning.
“I don’t disagree about Trump’s involvement with this, and that his dealings with the Taliban being downright disgusting and treasonous whatever word you want to use,” Brzezinski said. “But this is Joe Biden’s. He made this decision. I just worry a little bit about the ‘what-aboutism,’ or putting it back on Trump. You can do it, he owns a lot of it, but Joe Biden made this decision.”
FOOD STAMP BUMP — The Biden administration on Monday unveiled a major permanent increase to food stamp benefits they say will help 42 million Americans buy groceries, HELENA BOTTEMILLER EVICH reports. It’s a record boost for one of the country’s largest safety net programs.
“The average monthly benefits for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program will be roughly 27 percent higher than they were before the pandemic, starting October 1, according to an administration official. That comes out to an increase of about 40 cents per meal.”
American diplomats reckon with Afghanistan’s collapse (Foreign Policy’s Amy Mackinnon and Robbie Gramer)
‘Lay out the strategy’: Corporate America grows impatient on Biden’s China trade review (Politico’s Gavin Bade)
Biden’s pro-car, pro-gasoline moves leave green allies fuming (Politico’s Ben Lefebvre, Catherine Boudreau and Tanya Snyder)
He returned to Washington, D.C. from Camp David. In the afternoon, he gave remarks in the East Room on the situation in Afghanistan, then departed the White House for Camp David again.
She watched the president’s speech on Afghanistan from the Green Room in the White House.
What is surgeon general VIVEK MURTHY’s secret to staying in shape?
According to a 2015 Men’s Health interview, he tries “to convert as many of my meetings into walking meetings as possible.”
“Taking 30 minutes you might spend sitting at a table and actually walking and talking, I find, helps me think better. I try to avoid sitting whenever possible,” he said.
He dove into his workout routine with the magazine, too: “I also run about three times a week, outdoors or on the treadmill, depending on the weather. I’ve gotten into the seven-minute workout [from the New York Times], so I do that in between.”
FRANKLIN PIERCE recited his inaugural address from memory, according to the Library of Congress.
MEA CULPA — As many of our devoted readers pointed out, we messed up on Friday’s trivia answer about the president who spearheaded the redesign of the White House. It was President CHESTER ARTHUR, not the imaginary Charles Arthur. We feel stupid about the error.
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Edited by Emily Cadei