Appearing almost four hours late in the White House Briefing Room, Press Secretary Jen Psaki faced more excellent questions Tuesday afternoon over the Biden administration’s handling of Afghanistan. As was the case on Monday, Fox’s Peter Doocy led the way with questions about vetting Afghan refugees, whether she’d take back her claim that people aren’t “stranded” in Afghanistan, and whether the Taliban now has “the same kind of influence over military planning as” Biden.
Called on sixth, Doocy got right to work: “Is there any concern that maybe trying to reach this deadline and get everybody out, mistakes are being made, now that there is a report that at least one of the Afghan evacuated to Qatar has suspected ISIS ties?”
Psaki replied there’s “a stringent vetting process which includes background checks before any individual comes to the United States” and thus is something the administration has taken “incredibly seriously.”
Psaki also had a Baghdad Bob moment as she proclaimed that “this is now on-track, Peter, to be the largest airlift in U.S. history” and thus “I would not say that is anything but a success.”
Doocy’s second question focused on a trapped American citizen interviewed by Fox & Friends First who’s said that she went days without hearing form the government and, when she did, she wasn’t “given clear guidance” on safe passage to the airport.
Posing that case in light of how “you said yesterday it's irresponsible to say that Americans are stranded in Afghanistan,” Doocy triggered a Psaki word salad that could have fed an packed banquet hall.
This continued on for a few minutes (including Psaki offering journalists to directly forward to her contact information for those still inside)
Doocy countered by wanting to how Psaki would then characterize people still trapped:
But you say no Americans are stranded. This is someone in Kabul who says I'm stranded. So, is there a better word for somebody that can't leave the house to get to the airport because Jake Sullivan says ISIS outside the airport?
His final question, though, was perhaps the question of the day (and that’s saying something, given a Pentagon briefing hours earlier): “If the Taliban said that staying past the 31st was going to provoke a reaction and then President Biden decides, ‘okay, we won't stay.’ Do they have the same kind of influence over military planning as a commander-in-chief?”
Before moving on, Psaki deflected by blaming Donald Trump because “the Taliban's deadline was May 1, struck on a deal with the prior administration” whereas Biden’s August 31 date helped “operationalize our departure from Afghanistan.”
Elsewhere, establishment, liberal outlets brought the heat.
The AP’s Aamer Madhani, Reuters’s Steve Holland, CNN’s Kaitlan Collins, and CBS’s Nancy Cordes led off with relatively basic questions that Psaki largely either failed to answer or ducked (click “expand”):
MADHANI: First, on — a Taliban spokesman said today that the group would bar Afghans from accessing the roads leading to the airport to allow foreigners to pass. So, I guess, for evacuations efforts, what does this mean for Afghans who assisted and can't get through now? What are you going to be — does this effectively cut off those Afghans from being evacuated?
PSAKI: No, that is not how you should read it.
MADHANI: Sorry, just to follow up, the Afghan — the Taliban are saying that they don't want Afghans to leave, that now, they want these Afghans to stay, that they’re needed to rebuild the country.
MADHANI: And on your statement that you just put out about a half an hour ago, the August 31 deadline and sticking to it, the President has — from allies, both here at home and abroad have wanted him to push the deadline back some and also critics of the president are speaking out very strongly on his decision. What do you say to those that are criticizing the President, by sticking to this deadline, it amounts to him to capitulating to the Taliban?
HOLLAND: If you do have to adjust the timeline, how long are you talking about?
PSAKI: I'm not going to get ahead of any contingency plans that are drawn up by the state department and defense department. As you all know, the President has been meeting and attended and participated in briefings with his national security team once a day, sometimes twice a day, is constant and regular contact and I expect we’ll get some updates in short order.
COLLINS: So, does that mean the evacuations will stop before the actual 31st, so then there is time to get the troops and their machinery and weaponry out of there?
PSAKI: That would be correct, yes, that there would need to be time to wind down the presence.
COLLINS: And one more question, Jen. Sorry, I know it’s tight. Does this mean if he stands by the August 31 deadline that every single U.S. troop will be out of Afghanistan by August 31?
CORDES: Just to follow-up on Aamer questions, so are you saying that, despite this threat by the Taliban to stop Afghans from boarding planes, that you're not seeing slowdown in Afghans being able to get to the airport if they need to?
Of note during Holland’s turn was this other one that Psaki declined to answer: “And when do you need to start pulling troops out of the Kabul airport to make — to meet the August 31 timeline?”
NBC’s Peter Alexander drew a stunning answer when he wanted to know when exactly is the August 31 deadline (e.g. whether it’s “midnight the end of August 31 Afghan time” or “American time,” “the end of the 30th,” or “heading into the 31st”):
It’s a really great question and I want to give you a very clear and articulate answer from the team on the ground, so I'll have to get back to you on that to make sure we give you accurate information.
Fast-forward after Doocy and the hard questions continued with ABC’s Stephanie Ramos about helping Afghans post-deadline, The New York Times’s Annie Karni citing the putrid conditions at the refugee holding quarters in Doha, Qatar, The Washington Post’s Sean Sullivan on how to measure success, and Bloomberg’s Jennifer Jacobs on the G-7 meeting (click “expand”):
RAMOS: And for Afghans who at risk in Afghanistan that won't be able to get out in time, how will the U.S. try to keep them safe after August 31?
PSAKI: Well, I think — as I said in response to, I think, Alex's question, there are individuals who will be eligible after — who we expect who certainly will be eligible after August 31 and we are determining how operationally we can deliver on that. It's a good question. I don't have an update right now. Go ahead.
ANNIE KARNI: I have a question about a report on the conditions in Doha reported by Axios today. A U.S. Central Command internal e-mail describes the housing for thousands of evacuees as “awash with loose feces and urine and a rat infestation and a life-threatening humanitarian disaster.” Is the President aware of these conditions and is there anything going to improve them?
PSAKI: Absolutely and I think the report is actually from a couple of — I understand it was in Axios this morning, but I believe that the conditions were a report from several days ago and certainly, the State Department and other officials that are working in close coordination with countries who are hosting individuals as they're passing through or maybe as they’re landing there for a longer period of time have been working to improve the conditions.
KARNI: Is there anything specific you can say about how they’ve been improved over the past few days?
PSAKI: I'm happy to get you an update on that, but it is something that we're aware of. It’s something we’ve worked to improve and certainly, we want the individuals being evacuated to be treated with respect. We also want them to safe, hence the speed necessity, but we worked to improve the conditions as soon as we learned. Go ahead.
SULLIVAN: Thanks, Jen. In a statement that you released, you said the President conveyed that our mission in Kabul and based on the achievements of our objectives. Can you be more specific about the objectives would be? Are we talking about getting all Americans out? A certain number of Afghans out who helped the American effort. What — what will be the specific sort of benchmarks in deciding that the objectives of the mission have been met?
PSAKI: Well, the statement also conveys in evacuating Americans who want to come home, third country nationals, and Afghans who were allies during the war. And we, again, have evacuated 50,700 people in the last nine days. That is the mission we’re continuing to work to deliver on. I also noted in the statement — we also noted in the statement that, of course, we have to access the security threats and the security threats not only to individuals on the ground, to the men and women serving on the ground. I mean, that is front and center in the President's mind.
SULLIVAN: So, that means all the individuals in the categories that you note in the statement — getting all of them out?
PSAKI: Again, we've been clear our objective is to any American who wants to leave to help them leave. That is what we're focused on every day. I donj’t have anything more to add beyond what I said in the statement.
JACOBS: Do you know what the tenor of the G-7 meeting was today? Was there any, like, satisfaction expressed by some of the allies? Can you say if they conveyed some of their displeasure with the U.S.’s actions or the President’s actions?
PSAKI: I know Bloomberg has reporters all around the world and I will let them report on their leaders and not kind of give an evaluation of their tenors, but —
JACOBS: Can you also say it’s accurate that the U.S. is already starting to reduce the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan?
PSAKI: I would point to the Department of Defense for any operational specifics. I know they'll brief again today.
And after a softball to end Monday’s Psaki Show, AFP’s Sebastian Smith redeemed himself with a hardball about how the U.S. would shepherd its resources to rescue Americans still in Afghanistan after the deadline.
To see the relevant briefing transcript form August 24, click here.