White House seeks to regain control on Afghanistan

The White House is trying to regain control of the narrative on Afghanistan by staging more public appearances for President BidenJoe BidenBiden invokes Trump in bid to boost McAuliffe ahead of Election Day Business lobby calls for administration to 'pump the brakes' on vaccine mandate Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by Boeing — Afghanistan reckoning shows no signs of stopping MORE and highlighting the way in which evacuations have ramped up significantly over the past week. 

As of Tuesday, Biden had delivered three speeches in five days on the evacuation efforts and twice took questions from reporters. White House press briefings restarted this week following a brief hiatus, with national security adviser Jake SullivanJake SullivanSenate confirms four Biden ambassadors after delay The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - White House to host lawmakers as negotiations over agenda hit critical stage MORE appearing alongside press secretary Jen PsakiJen PsakiOvernight Health Care — Presented by Altria — FDA advisers endorse Pfizer vaccine for kids The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - White House to host lawmakers as negotiations over agenda hit critical stage MORE on Monday. Senior officials have also been dispatched to appear on leading cable news programs. 

Daily and sometimes twice daily, the White House has sent updates to reporters on the numbers of individuals evacuated from Afghanistan, with the highest tally in a 24-hour period recorded Monday as U.S. military flights transported 12,700 people out. All of this comes in addition to regular State Department and Pentagon briefings during which officials offer updates on the evacuation effort. 

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The full-court press comes as Biden has endured harsh criticism, including from some Democrats, for how his administration has handled the withdrawal from Afghanistan. The president spent the early days of the withdrawal after Kabul fell to the Taliban at Camp David, prompting criticism he was away from Washington at a pivotal time.

Last week, the widespread impression was also that Biden officials were caught flat-footed by the speed at which the Taliban overran the war-torn country. 

“They’re definitely trying to regain some control over the narrative,” said one Democratic strategist close to the White House. “This past week was a bit of a nightmare situation.”

The first six months of the Biden administration were largely defined by a projection of competence from the White House, as career officials worked to clearly communicate government guidance on the pandemic, work alongside Congress to pass an economic stimulus package and bring back Washington norms like bipartisan meetings and daily press briefings that were jettisoned under former President TrumpDonald TrumpJan. 6 panel plans to subpoena Trump lawyer who advised on how to overturn election Texans chairman apologizes for 'China virus' remark Biden invokes Trump in bid to boost McAuliffe ahead of Election Day MORE.

Afghanistan threatened to shatter that trust, and it had provoked worries in Democratic circles.

“It’s pretty clear they had to rebuild their trust with the public and regain their footing, but it appears they are doing that,” said Democratic strategist Joel Payne. “Obviously it would have been good if they had done this at the time of the Taliban offensive, but they recovered and figured out their best message and their best communicators. They made the best of a bad situation. They’ve recovered pretty well.” 

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Biden on Tuesday sought to project confidence in the administration’s ability to complete the mission while also acknowledging the risks to troops on the ground. 

“The sooner we can finish the better. Each day of operations brings added risk to our troops,” he said.

Part of the problem for the White House, some Democrats say, has been that officials didn’t prepare the public for the current state of affairs. Polls have consistently shown broad public approval for withdrawing from Afghanistan. 

“I think most Americans believed that we should have pulled out,” said Basil Smikle, a Democratic strategist and guest lecturer at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. “What I think has been problematic is that the president, the administration did not necessarily prime the voters prior to the withdrawal about what they should expect.”

Officials, including Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark MilleyMark MilleyFormer envoy: U.S. 'did not succeed' in building democratic Afghanistan Poll: New Hampshire Senate race tight Republicans would need a promotion to be 'paper tigers' MORE, have said that assessments did not anticipate the Afghan government would collapse so quickly.

Biden and members of his team have also faced criticism for refusing to engage with the idea that the withdrawal has been chaotic or was poorly executed in the early stages, when images circulated of massive crowds around the airport and Afghans clinging to a military plane as it rolled down the runway.

Former officials say the administration is wise to be putting Biden front and forward on the issue.

“It’s certainly better that the president is at the White House in the Situation Room briefing and that there is an effort to obviously deal with a massive mess that they created,” said Brett Bruen, a former Obama administration official who has been critical of the Biden administration’s handling of Afghanistan. 

Yet Bruen also said a defensiveness on the part of Biden and his team has not been helpful.

“But I have to say, it’s also not helpful from a communications standpoint that they’re just not acknowledging a whole array of errors. In some ways it harkens back to Trump. I think a lot of people are having flashbacks to this refusal to acknowledge some of the basic facts and realities,” he said.

Eric Schultz, a spokesman under President ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaBiden invokes Trump in bid to boost McAuliffe ahead of Election Day RNC targets McAuliffe, Biden campaign event with mobile billboard The real reason Biden is going to the COP26 climate summit MORE, argued that the media criticism of the withdrawal has been unfairly harsh and that the White House is doing the best it can to message a challenging situation. 

“Whenever you have a complicated foreign policy operation, it’s going to be challenging to communicate about it in the domestic political environment, and this situation is more complex than most. But the most important thing they can be doing is going out and making their case, which they have been,” Schultz said.

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He pointed to regular cable appearances by Secretary of State Antony BlinkenAntony BlinkenBlinken speaks with Sudan's prime minister after African leader's detainment Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by Boeing — Afghanistan reckoning shows no signs of stopping Senate confirms four Biden ambassadors after delay MORE, Sullivan and others.

Still, even staunch supporters of the Biden’s questioned the response and the administration’s inability to get on the offensive. 

“It’s been very sloppy,” said one Democratic donor in touch with the White House. “The execution was particularly poor. There’s nothing more I can say about it.” 

As flights out of Kabul have ramped up, the sheer number of evacuees has become a major focus for White House officials looking to amplify the progress amid reports of gunfire at Kabul’s international airport and poor conditions at overseas facilities housing Afghan refugees. Still, the U.S. is likely to leave thousands of Afghans behind as Biden sticks to plans to withdraw troops by Aug. 31.

The entire White House press shop has taken to tweeting out from their official accounts the latest updates on evacuation totals each time they are shared with reporters, flooding social media with coordinated messages touting the progress in getting Americans and Afghan allies out of Kabul.

White House chief of staff Ron KlainRon KlainOvernight Energy & Environment — Presented by American Clean Power — Dems see path to deal on climate provisions White House plans for 0B for climate in Democratic spending bill Klain says it will 'take time' to heal country's divisions MORE, who frequently uses Twitter to amplify favorable messages or offer his own perspective, has shared posts criticizing the media coverage and declaring the mission a success. He recently retweeted a message likening the current evacuation operation to the Berlin airlift and also shared a message from Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyDemocratic senator: Methane fee could be 'in jeopardy' Democrats ready to put a wrap on dragged-out talks Democrats look for plan B on filibuster MORE (D-Conn.) calling for “a bit of a reassessment by the media of this operation given the actual results.”

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“This is the best run evacuation from a war America lost,” MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell tweeted in a message shared by Klain to his nearly 500,000 followers.

Decisions by Biden to take questions at the conclusion of public addresses have had mixed results. Biden, who didn’t take questions following Tuesday’s speech, has shown that he’s able to field tough questions, but some of his statements last week were inaccurate or contradicted by reporting on the ground. 

Fox News anchor Chris WallaceChristopher (Chris) WallaceCDC director urges Americans to go outside, 'enjoy your trick-or-treating' Rep. Khanna expresses frustration about Sinema CDC director: 'We can't be complacent' amid drop in COVID-19 cases MORE subsequently pressed Blinken on Biden’s assertions during an appearance on “Fox News Sunday,” asking him why Biden had said things that are “flat-out wrong.”

“He doesn’t always need to be the messenger. I think he should allow the experts to step forward a little bit more to explain to the country what is happening on the ground,” said Smikle, of Columbia Univeristy. “He needs to look like the executive and not the spokesperson.”