Despite it being a Friday afternoon after a long, difficult week for the country, many in the White House press corps kept up the heat against Press Secretary Jen Psaki on Afghanistan with Fox’s Peter Doocy, the New York Post’s Steven Nelson, Real Clear Politics’s Philip Wegmann, and even some liberals testing Psaki’s patience.
Doocy’s first question drew what he would later say on Special Report was “as strong a statement about anything that we have ever heard from this administration” on Afghanistan:
DOOCY: When the President says we will hunt you down and make you pay, what does that look like? Is he going to order a mission to kill the people responsible or would he be satisfied if they are captured and brought to trial?
PSAKI: Ah, I think he made clear yesterday that he doesn't want them to live on the Earth anymore.
Doocy moved ahead with the fact “some people running security for the Taliban in Kabul are terrorists with millions of dollars worth of bounties on their heads” and thus wanted to know if the U.S. would “try to bring those known terrorists to justice before we leave the country.”
Psaki deflected that question, saying “the focus is on getting the remaining American citizens” and “Afghan partners” out.
Doocy wrapped with a statement Psaki had made on Thursday that insisted the U.S. has “an enormous amount of leverage” against the Taliban after August 31 and sought clarification on how that’s possible “with no troops on the ground in Afghanistan than we do with thousands of troops on the ground in Afghanistan.”
Psaki returned to her State Department roots, insisting the U.S. and world community have plenty of diplomatic and economic advantages.
Nelson came up almost 20 minutes later and Psaki employed her strategy of insisting on “context” after the Post reporter called out the disconnect between saying they want to get all Americans out of Afghanistan while also saying it's not a guarantee (click “expand”):
NELSON: The Democratic congressman Seth Moulton told journalist Hunter Walker — a former White House colleague: “Even if you completely agree with the Biden administration's decision to withdraw, the way they have handled this is a total f-u-c-k-u-p agenda.” President Biden firmly committed last night to evacuate any remaining Americans, but you seem to say just now, "I don't think we can guarantee that.” So, which is it?
PSAKI: I think the question was actually about individuals who are still there because they don't — they’re not prepared to leave or other Afghans or others who may want to depart. Just for clarity. I know you care about context.
NELSON: So there is a commitment to evacuate all Americans? And if so, does that mean that there’s some sort of deal with the Taliban?
PSAKI: I don't even understand what your question is.
NELSON: The question is that there would — the airport evacuation obviously was disorganized. It was criticized even by Democratic congressmen. Is there actually a plan behind President Biden's commitment to evacuate any remaining Americans?
PSAKI: I think the fact we’ve evacuated more than 105,000 people including — and I can give you all the latest numbers which I know the state department is giving or about to give. So, of — of those evacuated since August 14, we’ve evacuated at least 5,100 U.S. citizens, likely more. We’ve received confirmation within the last day more than 300 additional Americans were evacuated. Based on our outreach, there are approximately 500 American citizens we are currently working with who want to leave and we are communicating directly and in direct contact with them. That speaks to our commitment, I think.
A few reporters later, Wegmann built off of a tense exchange between Psaki and The New York Times’s Michael Shear in which the latter called out the administration’s false dichotomy between staying in Afghanistan with a massive, forever presence and a chaotic, hard withdrawal.
To see that full back-and-forth, our Kyle Drennen had a full wrap-up here.
Wegmann, wondered, given the chaos, if the military “were put in the best position to carry out their mission on the ground.”
After Psaki maintained that they have all they need to succeed, Wegmann asked if closing Bagram Air Base hindered our evacuation efforts (click “expand”):
PSAKI: Well, I — I would say first that anything the U.S. military has asked for as they're working to implement this mission, they have been granted. And I think that they would confirm that as well and the President asked them that at the end of every meeting. And I would also note something that was said yesterday at the Department of Defense briefing, which is that they know — and this is why the men and women of the military are so amazing and incredible. They know they are putting themselves in harm's way when they are working to implement missions like these and they work to implement plans and put together plans that have force posture protection front and center, but when we’re dealing with a real threat from ISIS-K, you know, of course, events like yesterday unfortunately happen.
WEGMANN: And then, yesterday, the President said that — that he made the assessment after talking to his military advisers that Bagram Air Force Base was not a — much of a value.
WEGMANN: I’m curious because General Milley earlier in August said, “if we were to keep both Bagram and the embassy going, that would be a significant number of military forces that would have exceeded what we had” — or “stayed at the same or exceeded what we had.” Was that decision about leaving that Air Base — was that because it wasn't a value add or because it would have required, you know, sending more troops over there?
PSAKI: Well, Bagram is — was an enormous base that required an enormous presence. It also made it — it also had a significant different — distance, I should say, from Kabul. Significant, I guess, is all relative but it’s farther — it’s far away from Kabul, so it would have required quite a presence to protect and it wasn’t located in a place that would have been as effective in evacuating people who are located in Kabul.
Rarely one to have lengthy exchanges, Wegmann wasn’t done as he sought details on what Biden meant when he said Thursday that there are “greater threats...a heck of a lot closer to the United States” than terrorists in Afghanistan.
Elsewhere, CNN’s Phil Mattingly joined the thread on having to work with the Taliban, inquiring about the White House thinking as to whether it’s “the best of bad options right now or is it the view...that it was the only option given the dynamics on the ground.”
Speaking of threads, NPR’s Ayesha Rascoe added onto a line of questioning that has yet to yield a consistent answer: how the process will work for Americans and Afghans who want to leave after August 31 without a U.S. presence.
And a few moments after one reporter got Psaki to insist that it’s “our expectation” that the Taliban wouldn’t “harm Americans who are left behind or who choose to stay behind,” AFP’s Sebastian Smith raised an important question of what the Taliban's been asking of the U.S. in return for our requests for allowing us to evacuate.
To see the relevant briefing transcript from August 27 (including more questions not covered in the blog), click here.