Less than an hour after President Biden addressed the nation early Thursday night on the deadly terror attacks at the Kabul airport, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki took to the podium and continued her terrible, horrible, no good, very bad return from vacation as reporters from across the spectrum kept up the heat in seeking answers on the collapse of Afghanistan.
Thursday’s episode of The Psaki Show featured usual cast members in Fox’s Peter Doocy, the Daily Caller’s Shelby Talcott, Real Clear Politics’s Philip Wegmann, and plenty of liberal media reporters, but it also featured the briefing debut of Fox Business Network correspondent Hillary Vaughn (who also happens to be Doocy’s wife).
Fresh off his back-and-forth with Biden, Doocy was called on third and wanted to know how it’s possible the U.S. will “still...work with the Taliban...to get American citizens and Afghan allies out” considering one of the suicide bombers had successfully passed through Taliban security without being stopped.
Psaki stuck to the party line, which was that “they’re not a group we trust” but it’s “necessary” to rely on them because they control most of the country.
In addition to security lapses, Doocy kept pressing about how can we even assume they’ll “be reliable partners if we’re already getting reports that they're not letting Afghans to the airport and the U.S. is still at the airport.”
Psaki naturally dodged this by citing the raw numbers of those already evacuated and claimed the U.S. has “an enormous amount of leverage” over the Taliban.
Skip ahead about 25 minutes and Talcott used her time to find out how the administration would “defin[e] the end of the mission” to evacuate Afghanistan (e.g. numbers, time, etc.), and how they’ll “ensure the safe evacuation for U.S. citizens” after the August 31 deadline “without troop presence when even with troop presence we just saw this attack happen.”
On the first, Psaki said it would be the August 31 deadline and, on the second, she reiterated they’ll “need to continue to coordinate with the Taliban.”
Wegmann came with an inquiry about whether Biden meant to signal in his speech that Americans are likely to be left behind in Afghanistan (click “expand”):
WEGMANN: Moments ago, you said that the commitment doesn't end at the end of the month and that, you know, despite August 31st, the commitment remains. During his remarks a moment ago, the President said that we were going to try to get, “as many people out as we can.” Is he trying to prepare the American public for a sort of harsh reality that some Americans might still be left on the ground there when we leave?
PSAKI: There are some Americans who may not have decided to leave by the 31st. That is possible. Many of these Americans who remain are dual citizens. They may have extended family members, 20 family members, 30 family members, others who they want to bring with them and they're not ready to make that decision yet. Our commitment to them does not end. We will continue to work to get them out, but his objective and focus and laser focus, which he asks for many updates a day on, is getting every American who wants to leave out now in the next few days. That is what our U.S. military is working to deliver on.
Taking the penultimate question of the briefing, Vaughn posed a simple question about what “Americans and Afghan allies still in Afghanistan are facing”: “Either they stay where they are and risk being hunted down by the Taliban or they try to go to the airport and risk being blown up by ISIS. How does this evacuation mission continue without evacuees risking their lives?”
As she often does with her husband, Psaki gave an insubstantial answer that consisted of the modes of communication the government has had with Americans and how any plans to leave would be tailored to them, so she couldn’t offer anything further.
Not to be left out, mainstream reporters had some solid questions of their own.
In the first 15 minutes alone, the AP’s Aamer Madhani, CBS’s Ed O’Keefe, CNN’s Kaitlan Collins, and Reuters’s Trevor Hunnicutt had important and tight questions about alternatives to leaving the country, blaming the Taliban for the security failure, whether Biden saw this coming, and even his mental state throughout the day (click “expand”):
MADHANI: And just real quick, on the Taliban, they are in charge of the perimeter. For the suicide bomber to get in, they would presumably have to get beyond the Taliban guard. So why isn't the Taliban in part responsible for what happened today?
O’KEEFE: Did the President, based on his public comments over the last few days — did the President see this coming?
O’KEEFE: And does — what does today's attack say about the U.S.’s ability to keep the terrorist threat in check once the U.S. pulls all military forces out of Afghanistan? Cause this is something he talked about in early July when he reiterated what the plan was.
COLLINS: You just noted you were in some of these meetings today. Was there ever a point where the President was reconsidering this deadline of having all U.S. forces out by August 31st?
COLLINS: Is there an alternative plan being discussed for how to get these people who are seeking to leave to the airport given it is potentially perilous to go and wait outside the gates right now to get in?
HUNNICUTT: Is it your opinion that the President has the authority he needs from Congress or wherever else to continue operations beyond August 31st? He kind of talked about pursuing ISIS-K wherever, whenever he needs to. Is there any expectation that he'll need any authority to do so?
O’KEEFE Just to clarify, since you said you were with him —
O’KEEFE: — how was he? How was his mood? How was he in dealing with all these — with the incoming information? How was he in asking the questions of military commanders and such?
Though we had a few clunkers and stale questions (two of which we’ll highlight below), the remaining 20-plus minutes had some gems.
This was thanks in part to Bloomberg’s Josh Wingrove and the Los Angeles Times’s Eli Stokols on what those still seeking to leave should do now, ABC’s Rachel Scott on threats from other terror groups besides ISIS-K, and then two other reporters touching on advice to stranded Afghans and whether Biden spoke to any foreign leaders since the bombings (click “expand”):
WINGROVE: Can you speak a little bit to what the impact on flights has been in touting U.S. and coalition flights, but this attack has slowed some of those flights from coalition partners. Other countries are now out. Does this restrict bandwidth that you thought you would have for the next five days to get people out? Are fewer Americans and Afghan allies, SIVs, etc. are going to get out because of this attack?
WINGROVE: What you believe to be the end of the case at the airport now as opposed to — not particularly at this hour, given what — would be there —
WINGROVE: — but can Americans go, should Americans go? Are Afghan SIVs getting through Taliban check points and to the airport? Are you discouraging them from doing that? What is the situation on the ground in that perimeter?
ELI STOKOLS: Given that Kabul has been the main — the only departure point in the country, I wonder if the administration knows how many of the American citizens left, the green card holders, SIVs in the country still are outside of Kabul and if there have been or may be in the future efforts to go out and rescue people from those more far flung places.
RACHEL SCOTT: Earlier today, General McKenzie said that, right now, they are focused on active threats to U.S. service members there on the ground. Are all the threats the U.S. is currently facing from ISIS-K? Are there other groups that may be bad actors?
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: What will you do for the thousands or tens of thousands of Afghans with and without visa papers who were finding it impossible to get to the airport prior to the attacks today and who will now be presumably even more full of fear and confusion as to how they could possibly get out? What — what do you say to them?
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Has Joe Biden spoken with any foreign leader after the attacks in Kabul?
PSAKI: This — today? I will have to check on that for you. That’s a — that’s a great question. I'm not sure he has today. But I will check on that for you. And as you all know, he's going to be meeting with the prime minister of Israel tomorrow.
And, as we’ve done throughout the week, we’ll end with the yo-yo that is AFP’s Sebastian Smith. On this day, he went in the softball direction by twice wondering whether, considering over 100,000 people have safely been evacuated, the U.S. could establish a “long term” and productive relationship with the Taliban.
To see the relevant briefing transcript form August 26 (including even more questions not covered in the blog), click here.