As he did on Monday (and numerous times before that), National Security Council spokesman John Kirby helmed much of Tuesday’s White House press briefing to assist the inept Karine Jean-Pierre, but there were was still some tough exchanges and softballs. Of course, Fox’s Peter Doocy was in the middle of it as he battled Kirby over the inevitability of Afghanistan returning to its place as a safe harbor for terrorists following last year’s disastrous U.S. withdrawal.
“John, something you’ve just said is not consistent with what we were told last year. You’re saying that you’ve always known there was a small number of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. President Biden said, ‘What interests do we have in Afghanistan, at this point, with al Qaeda gone,’” Doocy began.
Kirby conceded that al-Qaeda hasn’t been “playing a major role,” but they nonetheless “had a presence.”
As he often does, it was Doocy’s second question that upped the heat: “So, we know that the Taliban was harboring the world’s most wanted terrorist. You guys gave a whole country to a bunch of people that are on the FBI Most Wanted list. What did you think was going to happen?”
With less first-hand experience with Doocy (though the Pentagon press corps are tough and professional), Kirby stammered, insisting he’d “take issue with the premise that we gave a whole country to terrorist groups.”
Before Kirby could finish, Doocy hit again: “The Taliban was harboring the world’s number one terrorist. How is that not giving a country to a terrorist-sympathizing group, if not giving them permission to have terrorists just sit on a balcony?”
Kirby then gave this truly comical answer: “[T]he way you ask that, it makes it sound like we owned Afghanistan a year ago. It wasn’t our country. It was an independent, sovereign state[.]”
Doocy continued to press by wondering what the U.S. will do in response and, when Kirby didn’t blink, the Fox correspondent suggested the U.S. would now just wait for an attack on the U.S. to take broader action (click “expand”):
DOOCY: But — so now that you know that the Taliban is not living up to the part of the deal that they made with the U.S. to not let Afghanistan be a place that terrorists feel like they can be safe, what are you going to do about it?
KIRBY: Well, that gets to Peter [Alexander]’s question. I’m not going to telegraph decisions that haven’t been made or policy initiatives one way or the other. I would just say —
DOOCY: Are we just waiting for some spectacular terrorist attack in the U.S. to then say, “Oh, well, there’s terrorists in a safe haven —
KIRBY: If we were, Peter —
DOOCY: — in Afghanistan. Now we can go get them.”
KIRBY: If we were Peter, then we wouldn’t have taken the hit on Saturday — the strike that we took on Mr. Zawahiri — if we were just waiting. This isn’t about waiting. It’s about watching and we watched very closely, and we acted on what we learned and I would go so far as to say not only the American people are safer as a result of President Biden’s decision, but the rest of the world is safer. Does that mean that the threat from al-Qaeda is over? No, of course, it’s not. Now, they’ll have to make some decisions here, and we’ll watch that too. And if we discern a threat to the American homeland again, from them or any other terrorist group, the President will reserve the right to take that action again.
While Kirby was there to primarily speak about Afghanistan, many of the questions concerned House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-CA) visit to Taiwan.
The AP’s Zeke Miller pressed from the Chinese perspective, asking Kirby whether Pelosi’s support for Taiwan “hurts U.S. foreign policy interests in the region.”
Always one to highlight China’s evils in the Briefing Room, Real Clear Politics’s Philip Wegmann asked Kirby if the administration “believe[s] that it would have been better that news of Speaker Pelosi’s proposed trip had not leaked last month” and “[w]ould it have been better if this remained secret until she was on the ground.”
Newsmax’s James Rosen also got a turn and put Kirby on the spot by wondering whether the White House agreed with Speaker Pelosi that “American stands with Taiwan” and how would it be possible for China to “construe that as anything else but that you’re supporting independence.”
Rosen would try again by asking if she “misstat[ed] administration policy” and the White House would disagree with “that language,” but Kirby deflected by saying Pelosi can “speak for herself.”
And, before moving on, Rosen pressured Kirby on whether the U.S. believes “the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps presently engaged in the conduct or support of terror activity.” Kirby also didn’t bite other than to state “the Iranian state is a...state supporter of terrorism.”
At the other end of the spectrum, The Washington Post’s Tyler Pager drew some laughs from Jean-Pierre when, during her portion, he gushed over how “[t]his has been one of the most successful weeks of the President’s tenure” and whether “it’s just a coincidence that it’s happened while he has largely been isolating” (click “expand”):
PAGER: Does the White House — This has been one of the most successful weeks of the President’s tenure in the White House so far. I’m wondering if it’s just a coincidence that it’s happened while he has largely been isolating in the White House. You know, the CHIPS bill has passed, an historic agreement with Manchin and Schumer.
JEAN-PIERRE: Oh, my gosh. [LAUGHTER] What are you trying to say?
PAGER: I’m not —
JEAN-PIERRE: Wow. [LAUGHTER]
PAGER: I’m just — I’m just wondering if the White House finds it a coincidence or — I mean, the President had a successful 2020 campaign where he was mostly working from his home. Work from home has seemed to be successful for the President. And I’m wondering if —
JEAN-PIERRE: Tyler! [LAUGHTER] My goodness! Geez.
PAGER: — any feeling that — that you guys have on that.
JEAN-PIERRE: Oh, my gosh. The cynicism. [LAUGHTER] Look, the President is going to continue to work for the American people regardless. You know, it doesn’t matter where he is.
PAGER: I’m not — I wasn’t saying just — just this spurt —
JEAN-PIERRE: I hear you, but —
PAGER: — has been a quite successful week for the President by — by all accounts.
JEAN-PIERRE: Yeah, but it’s not the first time. We had the American Rescue Plan. We had the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal. You know, we’ve had other successes in this White House[.]
PAGER: I’m not suggesting that he’s not working. It’s just at a time when, for the first time, when he has been forced by his medical diagnosis to stay in the Residence, there’s been a string of successes. I’m getting the sense that you’re saying it’s just a coincidence that the timing has aligned, but — but I don’t want to put words in your mouth. I don’t want to —
JEAN-PIERRE: Tyler, my goodness.
PAGER: —I just — I just think it’s an interesting phenomenon that we’ve seen, across a range of his priorities, they’ve all kind of come together at this moment.
JEAN-PIERRE: I think we should just be really thrilled and really excited that we’re getting work done for the American people and I think that’s — I think that’s what matters at the end of the day.
To see the relevant transcript from August 3's briefing (including one from Fox Business’s Edward Lawrence on whether corporations would pass proposed tax increases onto consumers), click here.