President Biden stuck to form Tuesday by refusing to take questions after his speech on the end of the war in Afghanistan, so they fell to Press Secretary Jen Psaki and she found a cadre of reporters who were loaded with queries on topics such as Biden’s “angry” tone, Biden checking his watch during Sunday’s dignified transfer or remains, blaming Americans for not getting out in time, and whether Afghanistan will resume being a terrorist safe haven.
And while it continued a petering out from previous briefings of almost universal hardballs, there were still reporters from a diverse range of outlets who came ready.
CBS’s Ed O’Keefe had the first of the difficult questions, leading with how the Biden administration will be able to track stranded Americans who escape Afghanistan and then what was up with Biden’s tone: “A few of us observed he seemed angry at the beginning of the speech today. Who’s he mad at?”
Psaki argued that she’d “give...a different assessment” with “forceful” being a more appropriate word to describe his speech.
Having another solid day in the briefing room, ABC’s Stephanie Ramos opened with a question based on where Biden and his team have placed blame for stranded Americans: “Is the administration essentially placing blame on Americans who could not get to the airport in time?”
Ramos also focused on the terror threat: “[D]oes the administration believe that Al Qaeda is no longer a threat to America and given the ISIS attacks...how confident is the administration that Afghanistan isn’t already a safe haven for terrorists?”
Psaki brushed that aside, saying that’s for the President and his team to worry about and, right now, the only threat from them would be to Americans, if they had stayed in Kabul.
Bloomberg’s Justin Sink tested Psaki’s patience by calling out Biden for having surrendered “credibility” and broke a huge promise from two weeks ago that troops would stay until all Americans are out. And later in the briefing, ABC News Radio’s Karen Travers followed up (click “expand”):
SINK: I know that the military obviously recommended to the President, or at least you said they recommended to the President that it would be best to leave — keep that August 31st deadline, but the President himself, you know, in his interview with ABC News said that if there’s American citizens left, “we’re going to stay until we get them all out.” I think the President explained his rationale for leaving a hundred plus Americans behind. But can you talk about why he allowed this credibility on this issue to sort of go out the door on making a flat promise and then not keeping it?
PSAKI: Well, first I would say that the President remains committed to getting every American citizen who wants to get out out. That’s — that’s an enduring commitment, one that will not change and one we’re going to focus on every single day. I would also note that over the course of the last two weeks, we have seen a terrorist attack that took the lives of 13 of our service members and there was an — and part of our assessment always is going to be the risks, a risk assessment. So, I think the question was, do you leave 6,000 service members as there are heightening threats, heightening risks every single day, or do you work through a diplomatic process and efforts to ensure that we will have the ability to get these American citizens out? That’s the assessment we made.
SINK: Well, I mean, after that terror attack you and he made clear that you weren’t going to let the terrorists sort of dictate the timeline, so I —
PSAKI: And we didn’t, and we’ve evacuated tens of thousands of people since then.
SINK: — I guess, can you — was it a mistake for the President to promise that we would remain until everybody left the country?
PSAKI: We are going to get every American citizen out. That has not changed.
TRAVERS: You heard the President say today that he remains committed to getting those Americans out. You said that commitment remains. You said it’s an enduring commitment. You talked about the risk assessment that’s been underway over the last couple of days or weeks, but it was less than two weeks ago when the President told ABC, “Yes,” when he was asked, “Are you committed to making sure troops stay until every American who wants to get out, gets out?” He said, “yes.” So obviously, situations have changed, the threat increases, as you’ve said, but why should those Americans believe that this commitment is enduring, when 13 days ago, that commitment changed?
PSAKI: Because he’s evacuated 5,500 American citizens and their family members and 120,000 total people over the last two weeks, nearly all of them since that time.
Doing a tremendous service a few moments later, Fox’s Jacqui Heinrich sought comment on the Gold Star families who were upset by what Biden had told them at Dover Air Force Base on Sunday and whether Biden did indeed check his watch during the ceremony.
While Psaki addressed the former, she didn’t touch on the latter, which means she refused to deny that Biden did, in fact, drift off during this solemn ceremony because he was worried about the time.
Another crucial question came from The Wall Street Journal’s Tarini Parti about her paper’s story on an Afghan interpreter who saved then-Senator Biden in 2008 but has been left behind by the U.S.
Psaki tried to take the humorous route, saying she appreciated “the role [he] played in helping a number of my favorite people out of a snow storm” and he’s the type of person the U.S. is “committed” to helping.
NPR’s Franco Ordoñez engaged in a rare act of public broadcasting doing a public good when he fired off a hardball about whether it’s “really fair...for [Biden] to say that [people] didn’t leave” Afghanistan “when they had the chance” seeing as how the exit wasn’t “safe and organized.”
Despite Biden blaming the Afghan people and Donald Trump, Psaki said “no one is placing blame here” for what happened. Sure, Jen.
Following her rare inability on Monday to get answers from her friends in power, PBS’s Yamiche Alcindor similarly failed as she tried three times to have Psaki explain what “mistakes” Biden made that he’ll learn from on Afghanistan.
Once again closing out the briefing, the indefatigable Philip Wegmann of Real Clear Politics followed up on a question Psaki ducked on Monday about the U.S. holding Kabul, what she would advise stranded Americans to do, and whether the U.S. has prepared for possible hostage situations (click “expand”):
WEGMANN: Yesterday, I asked about The Washington Post story that reported that the Taliban offered the United States control of Kabul and instead, the United States had focused on the airport. Have you been able to review that report and is it accurate?
PSAKI: Well, I’m not going to speak to private conversations, but what I will tell you is that it obviously required the deployment of 6,000 U.S. military forces to secure the airport, given the Afghan National Security Forces collapsed from that protection. Our objective has never been, and the Presidents been very clear about this, having a military presence to control Kabul. So, that’s never been our objective.
WEGMANN: And then, you’ve talked about how our commitment remains to these Americans and you talked about how we’re switching from a military effort to a diplomatic effort. For the Americans who are currently in hiding and who very much want to come home, not the other set, what is the administration’s message to them? Should they try and head to the border? Should they try and book a flight out of there? Or should they remain in hiding — and hope that the diplomacy kicks in?
PSAKI: Well, I would just note that we are in touch with a number of these Americans. Not every one, perhaps, but we are in touch — we may be — we are in touch with as many of them who we can make contact with through a range of means, that continues and what our focus is on now, and we’ll have day-by-day updates and this is a very fair and good question is, “How can we ensure operationally that there are a range of options for people to be able to depart?” Some of that may be over land, over borders, some of that may be through airplanes and so, we’re working again with the Qataris and the Turks on that. We’re working to get the civilian side of the airport operational. But those are all pieces we’re focused on.
WEGMANN: Is the administration preparing for worst case scenario, in some circumstances, hostage situations?
PSAKI: Look, our focus right now is on making clear to the Taliban and to others in Afghanistan that we are going to get these Americans citizens out, that we are going to hold them to that account and that’s our focus.
To see the relevant briefing transcript from August 31 (including even more good questions from reporters like NBC's Shannon Pettypiece and Fox News Radio's Rachel Sutherland), click here.