Jake Sullivan becomes public face of Biden’s crisis on Afghanistan
President Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, is coming under stark criticism, including from some Democrats, for the messy U.S. exit from Afghanistan.
The first major crisis of Biden’s administration has come down squarely on the shoulders of the 44-year-old Sullivan, a foreign policy veteran who worked as a senior adviser to Hillary Clinton when she was secretary of State.
Afghanistan’s government collapsed far more quickly than Sullivan and other advisers to Biden had anticipated, leading to embarrassing comments by the president and ugly scenes in Kabul.
The evacuation of Americans and Afghan allies has also been messy, with the U.S. unable to ensure those looking to escape can safely reach Kabul’s airport. It’s led to fierce criticism from both parties for the White House, criticism Sullivan sought to respond to during a lengthy appearance Tuesday at the White House briefing room.
Reporters pelted him with questions, including whether U.S. troops would stay past an Aug. 31 deadline to ensure Americans and Afghan allies can safely evacuate.
“I’m not going to focus on hypotheticals,” said Sullivan, who didn’t lose his composure while answering tough questions throughout the appearance. “I’m going to stay focused on the task at hand, which is getting as many people out as rapidly as possible, and we will take that day by day.”
When CBS reporter Weijia Jiang pressed, “So you can’t commit to bringing back every American?” Sullivan moved on to another question.
Sullivan, a Minnesota native whom Clinton has referred to as a “once-in-a-generation talent” and “potential future president,” is among those taking the most heat from Democrats unhappy with how the Afghanistan exit was handled. Most Democrats support ending the 20-year war, but there is deep displeasure with how the last week has been carried out.
“This was an abject failure. People should be held accountable. There’s no way to spin it,” said Democratic strategist Chris Kofinis. “It’s not about whether we stay or go. This is about how we left. And you don’t leave like that.”
He noted that Sullivan’s “primary job is to forecast ahead the potential of any consequences the president makes.”
Earlier this week, Brett Bruen, who served as the director of global engagement in the Obama White House, urged Biden to fire Sullivan.
“President Biden needs to fire his national security adviser and several other senior leaders who oversaw the botched execution of our withdrawal from Afghanistan,” Bruen wrote in a USA Today op-ed on Monday. “He has to restructure how and with whom he is making foreign policy decisions, allowing for more input from career experts.”
Inside the White House, Sullivan, the youngest national security adviser to a president in more than 60 years, is a trusted member of Biden’s Cabinet. And administration officials predict he’s not going anywhere because “he’s one of the brightest minds out there on both policy and politics,” as one source close to the White House said.
“The president trusts him 1,000 percent,” the source said.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki also made clear later during a briefing this week that Biden has confidence in his national security team, including Sullivan.
“When you’re at a point where things are happening more quickly than anyone would have anticipated — not just people in this White House, but certainly people in Afghanistan, people in the international community, probably people in Congress — then you’re going to have some chaotic scenes,” Psaki said.
“The president is confident in his national security team and their ability to get the mission done and get the mission accomplished,” she said.
Republicans have signaled they are coming for Biden and his top aides on how the Afghanistan exit was handled.
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) on Wednesday described the fall of Afghanistan “the worst foreign policy debacle since Vietnam” and called for mass resignations from those responsible.
“Biden’s entire defense and foreign policy team must resign, and there must be a full congressional inquiry,” Hawley, a possible 2024 presidential candidate, wrote on Twitter.
Two dozen House Republicans on the Foreign Affairs Committee singled out Sullivan, expressing fury after he could not commit to ensuring the evacuation of all Americans and allies.
“It is reprehensible that National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and President Joe Biden are now refusing — repeatedly — to commit to continuing the evacuation of American citizens and our Afghan partners until they are all safely out of the country,” the GOP lawmakers said in a statement led by Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), the top Republican on the committee.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) has called on Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to testify before his committee next week, when the House briefly returns from its August recess. Three Senate committee chairmen also are planning hearings into the Afghanistan withdrawal.
Asked if any heads should roll, one House Democratic lawmaker who knows Sullivan replied: “Yeah, I think certainly there should be some accountability.” Sullivan’s survival “depends on who made the call.”
“You’ve got to understand that it seems like they got bad intelligence or maybe they just shrugged off the intelligence,” the lawmaker said. “That’s what we’ve got to get to the bottom of.”
A second House Democrat who has known Biden for years acknowledged that Sullivan has a target on his back. But the lawmaker said Biden values loyalty.
“It seems Jake is most at risk, if there needs to be a sacrificial lamb. But I doubt this will happen,” the second House Democrat said. “Joe Biden is big on loyalty and also believes [Sullivan] has been right on Afghanistan all along” and that it was unsustainable for America to continue its war in Afghanistan for a third decade.
Some political observers say it’s too soon to call for resignations and that much of the responsibility in any event is Biden’s.
“The call for heads to roll is premature,” said William Galston, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution who served as a policy adviser in the Bill Clinton White House.
Galston said the committee hearings will ask tough questions and offer some accountability.
“The country needs a thorough accounting, what did we know and when did we know it,” he said.
Still, he added that he would be “astonished” if Biden asked for resignations from anyone.
“The bucks stops with Biden not just proverbially but literally,” he said.
Morgan Chalfant contributed to this story.