September 18, 2021

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POLITICO Playbook: How the White House wants to spin the fall of Kabul – POLITICO – Politico

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President JOE BIDEN, July 8: “The Taliban is not … the North Vietnamese army. … There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of … the United States from Afghanistan. It is not at all comparable.”

Today, the fall of Kabul appears imminent. Taliban forces have effectively seized control after entering the capital city. They seek a full and unconditional surrender of the government. Afghan President ASHRAF GHANI has reportedly fled the country. In Kabul, “helicopters buzzed overhead to evacuate personnel from the U.S. Embassy, while smoke rose near the compound as staff destroyed important documents,” the AP reports from the ground, while “civilians fearing that the Taliban could reimpose the kind of brutal rule that all but eliminated women’s rights rushed to leave the country, lining up at cash machines to withdraw their life savings.”

And amid all of that, the White House is caught between its desire to spin what’s happening and a reality on the ground that is so clear that it’s hard to spin. And everything coming out of the administration this morning shows the difficult place they’re in.

— TALKING POINT 1: “This is not Saigon.”

That’s something Secretary of State ANTONY BLINKEN repeated on multiple TV hits this morning. Even top Democrats aren’t going along with that. “It does feel like [the fall of Saigon] today,” Rep. DEBBIE DINGELL (D-Mich.) said in an MSNBC hit this morning. “I’m not going to lie.” If seasoned, mainstream Democrats from the establishment wing of the party aren’t even going along with the White House on this, their message has a real credibility problem.

A sharp response to Blinken came from Reuters foreign correspondent @idreesali114: “Secretary Blinken is correct. The airlift from Saigon did not happen until two years after a peace deal was signed. The evacuation from Kabul is happening with two weeks still left under Biden’s own timeline for an end to the mission.”

— TALKING POINT 2: The White House was prepared for this.

“This is a contingency that we planned for,” a White House official told Playbook this morning. “There were no good solutions. … The U.S. government and the president are going to continue to hold their ground. We have been there for 20 years. One more year or five more years wouldn’t have made a difference if the Afghan people and their government can’t hold its own country.”

It’s an argument Blinken echoed in his many TV appearances this morning. One big problem: If this is what things going according to plan looks like, then perhaps the plan wasn’t very well-thought out.

“One can disagree with me & think the Biden administration was right to pull out all US troops from Afghanistan … but it is impossible to argue that it has gone about it in the right way,” writes Council on Foreign Relations President @RichardHaass. “This looks to be both a major intelligence & policy failure with tragic consequences.”

— TALKING POINT 3: We couldn’t wait any longer.

The Biden administration intimated that they had no choice but to pull out immediately because of the agreed-upon May 1 withdrawal date the Trump administration struck with the Taliban. There was no renegotiating with the Taliban, the Biden administration maintains.

It’s a point that some in the foreign policy community see as thin.

“Blinken said we couldn’t stay for another five, 10 years. But you could stay for another five, 10 months,” said BRETT BRUEN, NSC director of global engagement under the Obama administration.

“If we negotiated [with the Taliban] and said, ‘We’ve just taken over for [DONALD] TRUMP, we’re going to hit certain milestones but we’re going to need another 10 months,’ the Taliban wouldn’t want to risk their troops and the possibility that America would stay longer.”

If the administration had stayed even just five months longer, they would have had more time to remove personnel and process special immigration visas, foreign policy experts point out — instead of having to send 5,000 troops back to the country to evacuate an embassy while staffers quickly destroy all sensitive materials.

— TALKING POINT 4: This is all Trump’s fault.

“We inherited a deal that was cut by our predecessor,” a White House official told Playbook this morning. “It’s not finger-pointing; that’s just facts. … It’s not about blaming the Trump administration; it’s about what we inherited.”

“We had to put in place an entire system to deal with this,” Blinken said on ABC’s “This Week.” “Unfortunately none of that work was done when we came in.”

There are a few problems with this. First, Biden is the one who decided to pull out U.S. forces by the upcoming 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. That was his call, not Trump’s. Second, part of Biden’s appeal as a presidential candidate was his vast experience and foreign policy credentials. Third, this argument undercuts the other ones. You can’t say both that this is what you’d planned for, and that it’s also a catastrophe that isn’t what you’d planned on. If this is Trump’s fault, that suggests that the situation is bad enough you’re trying to blame someone else for it; but if the situation is bad and this is also what you’d planned for, then that begs the question of whether the plan was good.

You can’t argue both that pulling out was good and the right thing to do, and that Trump gave you no choice but to pull out.

However, that’s not to say that the Trump administration will come away from the fall of Kabul without a share of the blame. That point was made on ABC’s “This Week” by Rep. LIZ CHENEY (R-Wyo.). “Absolutely President Biden bears responsibility for making this decision. But there is no question that President Trump, his administration, Secretary [MIKE] POMPEO, they also bear very significant responsibility for this. They walked down this path of legitimizing the Taliban, of perpetuating this fantasy; of telling the American people that the Taliban were a partner for peace.”

Until now, Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan has generally earned widespread public support. Many Americans surely agree with Biden that we needed to pull out of Afghanistan. Many agree that Trump’s prior negotiating with the Taliban crippled this admin’s leverage. But the haphazard pace and nature of the withdrawal is on Biden, no matter how the White House would like to spin it.

LATEST — “Taliban officials: there will be no transitional government in Afghanistan,” Reuters … “Republicans trash Afghanistan ‘embarrassment’ in closed-door briefing,” by Sarah Ferris, Olivia Beavers and Heather Caygle … “U.S. military considering the need for additional forces in Afghanistan,” CNN

Good Sunday morning. Thanks for reading Playbook. Drop us a line: Rachael Bade, Eugene Daniels, Ryan Lizza, Tara Palmeri.

6 THINGS WE READ THAT STUCK WITH US …

— In the last 12 months, MACKENZIE SCOTT has given away $8.6 billion — more than the combined annual grants awarded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Ford Foundation, according to a Bloomberg analysis. (Fun anecdote: “One email about a $15 million gift, suspected of phishing, sat unopened for a month.”)

— Transportation Secretary PETE BUTTIGIEG “has become one of the White House’s favorite cabinet secretaries, since he does what he’s asked.” That, and much more, in this WaPo deep-dive into Buttigieg.

— NYT’s Maureen Dowd on BARACK OBAMA’s opulent 60th birthday party. “The Obamas are in Marie-Antoinette, tacky, let-them-eat-cake mode,” ANDRÉ LEON TALLEY, who speaks about opulence with unimpeachable credentials, told her.

— “I have put more people into body bags this year than I graduated high school with.” That’s what a 32-year-old nurse told the Tampa Bay Times about Florida’s massive Covid-19 surge.

Airmail’s Alessandra Stanley dives in on Justice STEPHEN BREYER for his 83rd birthday: “When Breyer said ‘health’ would be a determinant, he certainly didn’t mean the health of the nation; he meant his own. He also said he didn’t want politics to influence his decision, which is like an aging hedge-fund manager saying he dates women 30 years younger because age discrimination is against the law.”

— How “Stan” culture — once the province of BEYONCÉ obsessives and K-Pop fans — has colonized American politics, by POLITICO Magazine’s Derek Robertson.

MORE SUNDAY BEST …

— Rep. MICHAEL MCCAUL (R-Texas) on the Biden administration’s handling of Afghanistan, on CNN’s “State of the Union”: “They totally blew this one. They completely underestimated the strength of the Taliban. And … they didn’t listen to the intelligence community, because every time I got an I.C. briefing assessment, it was probably the grimmest assessment I have ever heard on Afghanistan. And yet they — the State Department, Secretary Blinken, the politicos in the White House — wanted to paint this rosy picture that somehow these peace talks in Doha were going to deliver a rabbit out of the hat at the eleventh hour. Well, guess what? That didn’t happen. And now they’re sending 5,000 troops in to try to save our embassy personnel.”

— NIH Director FRANCIS COLLINS on what he expects next from the Delta variant, on “Fox News Sunday”: “We can’t really predict that; all we can say is that this is going very steeply upward with no signs of having peaked out, so I will be surprised if we don’t cross 200,000 cases a day in the next couple of weeks. And that’s heartbreaking considering we never thought we would be back in that space again.”

BIDEN’S SUNDAY — The president is at Camp David and has nothing on his public schedule.

VP KAMALA HARRIS’ SUNDAY — The VP has nothing on her public schedule.

CONGRESS

THE DEMOCRATIC TWO-STEP — Which will come first in the House, a vote on the Senate’s bipartisan infrastructure bill or a vote on the budget resolution to open the door for Democrats’ $3.5 trillion spending package? It’s the question confounding both progressives and moderates. In a letter to colleagues this morning, Speaker NANCY PELOSI announced that she’d try to do both at once: “I have requested that the Rules Committee explore the possibility of a rule that advances both the budget resolution and the bipartisan infrastructure package.”

NOT GIVING UP — “Hope fades for Congress to strike police reform deal, but negotiations continue,” by NBC’s Leigh Ann Caldwell: “Bipartisan negotiators aren’t giving up, but they are increasingly talking about abandoning thornier issues and moving forward with a slimmed-down bill that would accomplish the pieces of police reform that already have consensus.

“The Senate left town for its August recess Wednesday morning, and two lead negotiators on police reform, Sens. TIM SCOTT, R-S.C., and CORY BOOKER, D-N.J., missed another self-imposed deadline after five months of talks failed to reach a deal. Reflecting the frustration after months of intense haggling without substantial progress, Scott last month laid down a new marker: If they hadn’t reached a deal by the August recess, there was no point in keeping on talking. As recently as last week, Scott refused to commit more time to negotiations.

“But now that the deadline has arrived, he isn’t willing to give up, and lawmakers are considering leaving the most contentious parts of the bill for another day, an idea likely to cause consternation.”

POLICY CORNER

IMMIGRATION FILES — “Biden Administration Ordered to Reinstate Trump’s Remain in Mexico Policy,” by WSJ’s Michelle Hackman: “The program, which DHS under Trump introduced in 2019 at the height of a surge in Central American families coming to the U.S. border, was wound down by Biden soon after he took office. In a ruling late Friday, U.S. Judge MATTHEW J. KACSMARYK of the Northern District of Texas said the elimination of the policy was arbitrary and violated federal law because the administration didn’t properly consider the benefits of the program. He also wrote that ending it has contributed to the current border surge.”

“Diversity Visa Winners Risk Losing Chance to Come to U.S.,” by WSJ’s Ava Sasani: “Tens of thousands of families around the world are at risk of losing a rare opportunity to immigrate to the United States. For the past three decades, the Diversity Visa Program has awarded a path to legal permanent residence to about 55,000 people each year from countries with low levels of immigration to the U.S. Each applicant has a less than 1% chance of winning a green card.

“The U.S. government must process the applications of lottery winners before the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30, or else the winners will lose their shot at a green card. As of June 2021, because of what the Biden administration says are Covid-19-related restraints, the State Department had only processed about 3% of the total 55,000 visa applications. Several ongoing federal lawsuits ask the State Department to reserve diversity visas to be processed after the coming deadline.”

TRY AND TRY AGAIN — “Appeals court asked to block Biden’s retooled eviction ban,” by Josh Gerstein and Katy O’Donnell: “Opponents of the federal government’s pandemic-related eviction ban asked a federal appeals court Saturday to block the latest version of the policy, which the Biden administration rolled out under pressure last week after allowing an earlier version to expire.

“Landlords and two chapters of the National Association of Realtors asked the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals for ‘immediate’ action to prevent enforcement of the moratorium issued by the CDC. The dispute, which seems certain to be resolved by the Supreme Court, looks likely to get a ruling from the D.C. Circuit by the end of this week.”

PANDEMIC

MAJOR INVESTIGATION — “Inside America’s Covid-reporting breakdown,” by Erin Banco: “[T]he coronavirus exposed a patchwork system in which state officials struggled to control the spread of Covid-19 because their outdated surveillance systems did not allow them to collect and analyze data in real-time, according to a six-month POLITICO investigation … Faced with underfunded and understaffed health departments, many state officials said they were not able to adequately identify and contain outbreaks during surge periods. …

“On a national level, the delays in receiving lab reports and broken chains of transmission impeded the federal government’s understanding of Covid-19’s spread throughout the country. … The same problems may be even more threatening in the next act of the Covid drama.”

CASES ON THE RISE — “‘This is starting to look really ominous in the South,’ expert says, as U.S. is among nations with highest rate of new Covid-19 cases,” by CNN’s Aya Elamroussi: “The US remains among nations with the highest rate of new Covid-19 cases, driven mostly by a surge in the South, where many states are lagging in getting people vaccinated against the coronavirus. … In the month of August, the US has so far reported more than 1.5 million new cases of Covid-19, more than three times the numbers for Iran and India — which now hold second and third place, JHU data shows. And the seven-day average has topped more than 135,000 cases, well ahead of other nations. On a state-by-state comparison, Louisiana has the highest rate of new cases per capita, followed by Florida.”

A HOT MASK MANDATE SUMMER — “‘I feel defeated’: Mask and vaccine mandates cause new divides as officials try to head off virus surge,” by WaPo’s Dan Diamond, Kim Mueller, Alex Baumhardt and April Capochino Myers: “The summer of 2021 is a season of mandates, with rules requiring masks and vaccines reemerging as the pandemic’s latest cultural and political flash point. In many parts of the country — including states hit hardest by a resurgence of the virus — the mandates are pitting blue cities against red governors, sparking protests and placing new burdens on already harried workers.”

“Texas takes its ban on school mask mandates to the state Supreme Court,” by NYT’s Andrea Kannapell: “Gov. GREG ABBOTT of Texas, whose statewide ban on mask mandates has drawn federal criticism — and in some Covid-stricken areas, fury — is taking his battle against one of the country’s most basic pandemic precautions to the state’s highest court. Late on Friday, after Mr. Abbott’s ban suffered at least three legal setbacks, the state’s attorney general, KEN PAXTON, said he was asking the State Supreme Court to consider Mr. Abbott’s policies. ‘The rule of law will decide,’ he wrote in a tweet.”

POLITICS ROUNDUP

COTTON’S TAKE — “Sen. Tom Cotton: Laxalt key to GOP flipping the U.S. Senate,” by AP’s Sam Metz: “Cotton, who wouldn’t say whether he planned to try the fries, compared Nevada to Arizona, Georgia and New Hampshire and said, with ADAM LAXALT as a candidate, it was perhaps the Republicans’ best chance to flip a U.S. Senate seat. Laxalt has not yet announced plans to run for office.

“‘Adam, I guess he’s not supposed to say that he’s going to be your next United States Senator. There’s some campaign finance rules against it. But what do I care about some stupid rules like that? Adam Laxalt is going to the United States Senate for the Battle Born state in 2022,’ Cotton said, speaking on a platform built atop hay bales with the vistas of the Sierra Nevadas as a backdrop.”

REGARDING CUOMO — “How Andrew Cuomo’s Exit Tarnished a Legacy and Dimmed a Dynasty,” by NYT’s Shane Goldmacher: “For 40 years, the Cuomo name has been synonymous with Democratic power in New York. Now it could mean something else.”

BEYOND THE BELTWAY

IT’S GETTING HOT IN HERE — “Crews battle largest U.S. wildfire, threats grow across West,” by AP’s Eugene Garcia and Daisy Nguyen: “Firefighters faced ‘another critical day’ as thunderstorms pushed flames closer to two towns not far from where the Dixie Fire destroyed much of Greenville last week. The thunderstorms, which began Friday, didn’t produce much rain but whipped up wind and created lightning strikes, forcing crews to focus on using bulldozers to build lines and keep the blaze from reaching Westwood, a town of about 1,700 people. Westwood was placed under evacuation orders Aug. 5.

“The fire was among more than 100 large wildfires burning in more than a dozen states in the West seared by drought and hot, bone-dry weather that turned forests, brushlands, meadows and pastures into tinder. The U.S. Forest Service said Friday it’s operating in crisis mode, fully deploying firefighters and maxing out its support system.”

AMERICA AND THE WORLD

O CANADA — “Trudeau launches Canadians into summer election campaign,” by Andy Blatchford in Ottawa: “JUSTIN TRUDEAU triggered an election campaign Sunday as he looks to regain the strong hold on power his Liberals lost nearly two years ago. … He announced that Canadians will vote Sept. 20. …

“Trudeau will look to capitalize on strong polling and his government’s record in handling the health and economic crises of the pandemic. The summer election campaign carries risk for Trudeau. Polls suggest that a majority mandate is not a lock, and the pandemic’s uncertainty threatens to create unexpected campaign conditions.”

IN MEMORIAM — “James Hormel, America’s First Openly Gay Ambassador, Dies at 88,” by NYT’s Isabella Grullón Paz: “An outspoken advocate of L.G.B.T.Q. rights, he was nominated by President Bill Clinton and appointed despite fierce opposition from the right.”

MEDIA MOVE — Jenna McLaughlin will be cybersecurity correspondent for NPR. She most recently was an investigative national security reporter for Yahoo News. Announcement

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Justice Stephen Breyer … Reps. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and Elaine Luria (D-Va.) … Devin O’MalleyAllen WeisselbergMelinda Gates … NBC’s Leigh Ann Caldwell and Rich HudockMaggie MulvaneyAnnie Wolf and Bart Reising of House Minority Whip Steve Scalise’s (R-La.) office … Meg Joseph of Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s (D-Ariz.) office … Dara Cohen of Sen. Jacky Rosen’s (D-Nev.) office … Hannah Salem of Salem Strategies … Karen FinneyLinda EllerbeeCindy Hamilton of the Progressive Turnout Project … Dave Price … McClatchy’s Kevin HallPatrice Woods WildgoosePeggy BinzelSusanne SalkindJarrett Lewis of Public Opinion Strategies … Jon BlackPatrick Gleason of Americans for Tax Reform … Kathryn PotterJennifer Holdsworth KarpMary Elizabeth TaylorElise LabottBilly PittsStephanie Lesser … Dentons’ Eric TanenblattBrett Doyle … ABC’s Mariam KhanTom Best … former Reps. Robert Pittenger (R-N.C.) and Judy Biggert (R-Ill.) … Larry CohenChristopher LoringZahava Urecki

Send Playbookers tips to [email protected]. Playbook couldn’t happen without our editor Mike Zapler, deputy editor Zack Stanton and producers Allie Bice, Eli Okun and Garrett Ross.

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