In the first, he sat alone at Camp David, staring upwards at a bank of video monitors surrounded by 18 empty leather chairs. Even some White House officials wondered whether the imagery, including him in a polo shirt, was helpful.
Three days later, when Biden was back at the White House, the picture was much different. He sat in suit and tie at the head of the Situation Room conference table, mask hanging off one ear as he scowled toward the assembled members of his national security team. The same team assembled a day later to “manage efforts in Afghanistan,” the White House said.
Biden has found himself caught this week in some of the most dire days of his seven-month-old presidency, accused of badly botching the end of America’s longest war even by some of his most reliable allies at home and abroad. The White House has scrambled to explain the chaos in Afghanistan through briefings, speeches and interviews — even as Biden himself remains defiant in his decision and insists the American people are behind him.
At the same time, officials have sought to proceed with their regular business, scheduling an announcement on Covid vaccine boosters for Wednesday and making clear Biden was still focused on his domestic agenda, including the infrastructure bill making its way through Congress. He spoke Thursday with Democratic lawmakers not about Afghanistan, but about his jobs and infrastructure agenda — a sign the President is intent on maintaining forward momentum, despite the calamity in Kabul.
Biden’s aides still believe the vast majority of the public supports the President’s decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, and believe his explanations that there was never a good time to end the war will resonate once the shock of the initial chaos has passed. And they have sought to highlight other achievements this week — like new pandemic-era low unemployment claims and vaccination rates ticking back up — that have been obscured by the Afghanistan crisis.
Yet Biden’s well-known stubborn streak was also on display this week, which one White House official acknowledged was not beneficial as he sought to explain and manage the crisis and seek to restore the credibility of his government.
So far, the President’s reflexive response to the crisis to deflect blame and reject criticism has done little to quiet the questions swirling about whether he properly prepared for the Taliban’s takeover. It has tarnished what had been a carefully-honed image of competence, and Biden’s own explanations for what happened — that the chaos was inevitable and the Afghan army was to blame — belie the empathy that is his chief political characteristic.
Two officials said Biden is scheduled to give remarks on Afghanistan before leaving the White House Friday, during which Biden could tout progress in evacuating people from the country and reiterate his confidence in the decision to end America’s longest war. He’s expected to decamp to his Wilmington, Delaware, home for the weekend, but a second attempt at a Rehoboth Beach vacation on his August calendar — originally set for next week — has been postponed, according to a source with knowledge of Biden’s travel plans.
During this week’s meetings in the White House Situation Room, Biden has focused primarily on bringing order to an unruly situation that he insisted this week was inevitable. He has demanded during tense meetings that his national security team find ways to bring order to the Kabul International Airport, and by Thursday, American warplanes were shuttling thousands of American citizens and Afghans fleeing the Taliban out of the country. Biden has been updated on limitations for how many non-citizens can be brought to the US and options for third-country destinations.
Biden instructed top military commanders who are facilitating the evacuation from Kabul that he doesn’t want to see any empty seats on planes, according to a senior official familiar with the directive, who said the President made clear in the meeting he wants every flight leaving the airport filled to capacity. An official cautioned that, given the chaotic nature of the evacuation, the presidential directive doesn’t always mean it will happen for every flight.
“I told ’em, ‘Get ’em on the planes. Get them out. Get them out. Get their families out if you can,'” Biden said, describing the instructions he delivered to his team in an interview with ABC News.
Caught off guard
The increased pace of evacuations and relative calm inside the Kabul airport was a marked improvement from the start of the week. From the moment the Taliban entered the presidential palace in Kabul on Sunday, it became clear that Biden’s own predictions from last month for how the withdrawal would proceed were wrong. White House officials began discussing then when and how Biden should return from Camp David, the mountainside retreat where he’d originally planned to spend most of this week with members of his family.
Administration officials in Washington had trouble ascertaining what precisely was happening on the ground in Kabul for much of Sunday. Briefing lawmakers by phone, senior officials including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin could provide only the broad outlines of what the situation looked like, according to people familiar with the call.
Even as American diplomats fled the embassy to set up shop inside the Kabul airport, Biden’s aides were wary of putting the President in front of cameras before knowing exactly what was unfolding 6,700 miles away. Officials did determine by Sunday morning they had little choice but to admit they were caught off guard by the speed of the Taliban’s advance.
The next morning, images of desperate Afghans clinging to the fuselage of a departing C-17 cargo plane, some of them falling to their deaths after it took off, left many of Biden’s aides heartbroken and shaken.
“We were stunned,” one senior White House official said.
By midday, Biden had finalized an address to the nation that he flew back to the White House to deliver from the East Room.
In it, he acknowledged the Afghan government’s downfall came more quickly than anticipated, conceding the end of the war was “hard and messy.” But he also cast blame elsewhere: on the Afghan army for collapsing, the country’s president for fleeing and the last administration for tying his hands.
“I stand squarely behind my decision,” he said. “After 20 years, I’ve learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw US forces.”
His remarks did little to quiet critics. A senior White House official said a day later that “there is no second-guessing of the President’s strategy,” but acknowledged that far more had to be done to explain how the crisis escalated and the government was blindsided by the Taliban’s surge.
Still, the official stressed the administration was focused “on looking forward, not looking back.”
“Yes, our competence is being questioned,” the official told CNN. “The only way to fix that is to stabilize the airport and safely withdraw Americans and our partners to the best of our ability.”
Having it both ways
Attempting to contain the fallout of the US’ harried exit, Biden has often tried to have it both ways. He declared “the buck stops with me,” yet he also shifted blame to his predecessor and to an Afghan government and military unwilling to stand up to the Taliban.
He promised not to “shrink from my share of responsibility for where we are today,” yet he also insisted the roundly panned US exit could not have been handled better. And even as he claimed the US had prepared for “every contingency,” he also concluded that chaos in Kabul was inevitable.
The defiance was especially striking in light of Biden’s pledge to Americans to acknowledge mistakes and “take responsibility for what I do and say,” a vow that was meant as a contrast to his predecessor, former President Donald Trump, who never took responsibility for his administration’s failings.
Behind the scenes, White House officials have been wary of characterizing the lightning fast fall of Kabul as an “intelligence failure” even as they acknowledged they did not anticipate the rapid takeover. On Wednesday, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said even the most concerning US intelligence estimates of a rapid collapse of the US-backed government in Kabul spoke of “weeks to months.”
A senior White House official said there are no plans for anyone to be fired or resign over how the exit unfolded, as some critics have suggested.
Biden’s speech also did little to allay the growing demands from members of Congress for answers from the administration about what went wrong. An aide to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she has requested several briefings from the White House on Afghanistan, including an unclassified virtual briefing for all House members on Friday and a Tuesday morning in-person classified briefing when Congress returns from its summer recess next week.
All senators will receive an unclassified virtual briefing from Blinken, Austin and Milley on Friday afternoon, two Senate officials said. And the so-called “Gang of 8,” which includes top House and Senate leaders and intelligence committee chairs, is also due to be briefed by administration officials soon.
White House officials have taken seriously the pointed questions even from some Democrats — including Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the Democratic chairman of the Intelligence Committee, who said he and other lawmakers had “tough, but necessary questions about why we weren’t better prepared for a worst-case scenario involving such a swift and total collapse of the Afghan government and security forces.”
Top White House aides have been communicating with Democratic lawmakers this week, including by sending a set of talking points on Monday in an effort to contain the criticism coming from some of Biden’s allies. But the points contained some factual errors and were missing important context — like claiming there are no “boots on the ground” in Syria, despite around 900 troops still there.
But two decades after the war began, many veterans are now members of Congress, with pointed criticism and tough questions of their own that go well beyond any talking points from the administration.
“I’m not sitting here on TV and criticizing President Biden because I’m trying to get attention or something. This is just the right thing to do,” said Democratic Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, a Marine who served in Iraq. “So I don’t really care whether the President wants to talk with me or not. I just want him to execute this mission. I want him to get it right.”
The questions of competency go beyond the events of the past week.
Democratic Rep. Jason Crow of Colorado, a former Army Ranger who served in Afghanistan, said the administration must answer for why the evacuation of American citizens and Afghan allies didn’t start earlier this summer.
“I’m still trying to figure out what their plan was,” Crow said. “We could have been so much further ahead.”
Across the government, major questions remain unanswered about how Americans in other parts of Afghanistan will get to Kabul for flights out. White House officials have quietly inquired with the Pentagon over ways to help those not within the capital city. And those trying to access the airport still must pass through a gauntlet of Taliban checkpoints, and the scene just outside the facility remains volatile.
Asked how many American citizens remain in Afghanistan on Thursday, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby answered frankly: “I don’t know.” Pressed on the same matter, State Department spokesman Ned Price also couldn’t say.
At the White House, Biden huddled Thursday morning with members of his national security team, who were seen arriving to the West Wing around 10 a.m. ET. The White House also made a point of telling reporters Biden was focused on other areas of his agenda, including Covid and his “Build Back Better” agenda, which he was phoning members of Congress to discuss.
After going 48 hours after Kabul fell without speaking with a foreign counterpart, Biden placed calls on Tuesday and Wednesday to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and was expected to speak with France’s Emmanuel Macron by the end of the week. He will face the entire Group of 7 in a virtual session next week that was scheduled due to the emergency unfolding in Afghanistan.
Like Biden, those leaders are now scrambling to extricate the Afghan workers who assisted during the war as interpreters, guards and fixers. Thousands of Afghans who supported the US war effort remain mired in paperwork and red tape, unable to benefit from the safe passage they were promised by the American government. Why the effort to evacuate those Afghans did not begin earlier this year has become the subject of scrutiny for members of Congress, who warned the administration repeatedly that it was lagging behind.
Administration officials have said Afghanistan’s ousted president Ashraf Ghani — who surfaced this week in the United Arab Emirates after fleeing Kabul on Sunday — had pleaded with Biden to hold off on a mass evacuation earlier this week, saying it could erode confidence in his government.
They have also pointed to various hurdles that slowed the processing of the “special applicant visas,” including a massive Covid outbreak at the US embassy in Kabul. And an official said Biden’s deputy national security adviser Jonathan Finer had chaired 11 meetings on SIVs between April 13 and August 6.
Still, the backlog has prompted anger and sparked an informal network of former US service members and diplomats to try and secure safe passage for their former colleagues.
And after describing photos of desperate Afghans as “gut-wrenching” on Monday, by Wednesday Biden appeared largely dismissive of the images of crowded warplanes and falling bodies: “That was four days ago, five days ago!” he said in the ABC News interview, two days after the incident occurred.