On the menu today: The transcript of President Joe Biden’s interview with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos dropped, and the president’s incoherence, insistence that he was incorrectly briefed, denial that he was warned by his military advisers, and oddly low profile in the past week raise troubling questions about his ability to perform his duties.
What’s Going On with President Biden?
After making no public appearances for four days — during a major foreign crisis — President Biden read a 20-minute speech off a teleprompter on Monday afternoon and took no questions. He immediately returned to Camp David. He had no events on his schedule Tuesday. On Wednesday, he gave another 20-minute speech about vaccine boosters off a teleprompter from Camp David, and again took no questions. Also on Wednesday, the president sat for an on-camera interview with George Stephanopoulos that did not go well. According to the White House public records, Biden has had two phone conversations with foreign leaders in the past ten days — one with Boris Johnson and one with Angela Merkel.
As of this writing, Biden has no public events on his schedule for today. He is scheduled to receive the president’s daily briefing from the intelligence community and meet with his national-security team. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, he is scheduled to return to his house in Delaware today.
This is a highly unusual schedule for a president during a foreign-policy crisis. Yes, a president can perform his job anywhere, whether it’s Camp David or his own private residence. But Biden is barely appearing in public, not saying much of anything when he does, not answering any questions outside of his lone scheduled interview, and sounding angry when he did face questions from Stephanopoulos.
Biden began the interview by insisting that the intelligence community had given him unclear and excessively optimistic answers about the state of the Afghan military and government:
STEPHANOPOULOS: Back in July, you said a Taliban takeover was highly unlikely. Was the intelligence wrong, or did you downplay it?
BIDEN: I think — there was no consensus. If you go back and look at the intelligence reports, they said that it’s more likely to be sometime by the end of the year.
The first problem is that there is no way to square what Biden said yesterday with his July 8 declaration that the intelligence community had not stated that the Afghan government would likely collapse:
Q: Mr. President, thank you very much. Your own intelligence community has assessed that the Afghan government will likely collapse.
THE PRESIDENT: That is not true.
Q: Is it — can you please clarify what they have told you about whether that will happen or not?
THE PRESIDENT: That is not true. They did not — they didn’t — did not reach that conclusion.
Then during the Stephanopoulos interview, Biden insisted that he himself had predicted that the Afghan government would collapse by the end of the year:
STEPHANOPOULOS: But you know that Senator McConnell, others say this was not only predictable, it was predicted, including by him, based on intelligence briefings he was getting.
BIDEN: What — what did he say was predicted?
STEPHANOPOULOS: Senator McConnell said it was predictable that the Taliban was gonna take over.
BIDEN: Well, by the end of the year, I said that’s that was — that was a real possibility. But no one said it was gonna take over then when it was bein’ asked.
The president either does not remember what he said on July 8, or he is simply trying to gaslight everyone into believing that he did warn of the Afghan government’s collapsing.
This morning, Douglas London, a former CIA counterterrorism chief and former member of Biden’s counterterrorism working group, writes that the president is lying: “Ultimately, it was assessed, Afghan forces might capitulate within days under the circumstances we witnessed, in projections highlighted to Trump officials and future Biden officials alike.”
Biden not only dodged questions — we’re used to politicians doing that — he offered a barely coherent word salad in some responses:
STEPHANOPOULOS: So when you look at what’s happened over the last week, was it a failure of intelligence, planning, execution or judgment?
BIDEN: Look, I don’t think it was a fa– look, it was a simple choice, George. When the– when the Taliban — let me back — put it another way. When you had the government of Afghanistan, the leader of that government get in a plane and taking off and going to another country, when you saw the significant collapse of the ta– of the– Afghan troops we had trained — up to 300,000 of them just leaving their equipment and taking off, that was — you know, I’m not– this — that — that’s what happened. That’s simply what happened.
Stephanopolous continued, “We’ve all seen the pictures. We’ve seen those hundreds of people packed in a C-17. We’ve seen Afghans falling-”
“That was four days ago, five days ago!” Biden interjected. It was two days ago, but that’s not really what is important; what is spectacularly odd is that Biden is reacting as if he thinks Stephanopolous was bringing up irrelevant ancient history.
Why was Biden indignant that Stephanopolous was asking about those horrifying sights?
Perhaps most unsettling was President Biden’s insistence that nothing could have been done any differently, and that none of the horrors we are witnessing could have been prevented.
“So, you don’t think this could have been handled — this exit could have been handled better in any way, no mistakes?” Stephanopoulos asked Biden.
“No, I don’t think it could have been handled in a way that, we’re gonna go back in hindsight and look — but the idea that somehow, there’s a way to have gotten out without chaos ensuing, I don’t know how that happens. I don’t know how that happened,” Biden replied.
Biden is now insisting that the chaos of a Taliban takeover was inevitable, even though he stood before the country on July 8 and specifically assured the country that a Taliban takeover was not inevitable:
Q: Is a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan now inevitable?
THE PRESIDENT: No, it is not.
THE PRESIDENT: Because you — the Afghan troops have 300,000 well-equipped — as well-equipped as any army in the world — and an air force against something like 75,000 Taliban. It is not inevitable.
Biden also said that day that, “I trust the capacity of the Afghan military, who is better trained, better equipped, and more re- — more competent in terms of conducting war” and “the likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.”
Elsewhere in the Stephanopoulos interview, Biden insisted that, contrary to published reports, his military advisers had not recommended keeping 2,500 troops in the country:
STEPHANOPOULOS: But your top military advisors warned against withdrawing on this timeline. They wanted you to keep about 2,500 troops.
BIDEN: No, they didn’t. It was split. Tha– that wasn’t true. That wasn’t true.
STEPHANOPOULOS: They didn’t tell you that they wanted troops to stay?
BIDEN: No. Not at — not in terms of whether we were going to get out in a timeframe all troops. They didn’t argue against that.
STEPHANOPOULOS: So no one told — your military advisors did not tell you, “No, we should just keep 2,500 troops. It’s been a stable situation for the last several years. We can do that. We can continue to do that”?
BIDEN: No. No one said that to me that I can recall.
There are notes of these meetings that can be declassified. We can see if, as the Wall Street Journal and other publications reported, “The president’s top generals, including Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Mark Milley, urged Mr. Biden to keep a force of about 2,500 troops, the size he inherited, while seeking a peace agreement between warring Afghan factions, to help maintain stability. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who previously served as a military commander in the region, said a full withdrawal wouldn’t provide any insurance against instability.” If they did not, Biden is telling the truth and there’s been an insane effort by Pentagon brass leaking that they’re warning the president of about certain dangers, and then not doing so in the meetings. (There is a third possibility, of course: Biden genuinely does not remember what was said and recommended to him in a meeting several months ago.)
Jon Ralston, no knee-jerk critic of Biden, was appalled. “This is so bad. No mistakes? No responsibility? No contrition? My God.”
The obvious answer to why Biden rarely appears on camera or takes questions is because every time he does it, he inflicts more damage upon himself and his agenda. The president whose empathy is endlessly touted now sounds cold and dismissive when asked about Afghans’ desperately crowding into American planes or falling to their deaths. All of the available evidence indicates that the president ignored the warnings of his foreign-policy team, withdrew the armed forces before evacuating the civilians, gave up Bagram Air Base, and now is in a large-scale foreign crisis that is mostly the result of his own choices. There is no good defense to be made, so when cornered, the president invoked his late son’s military service in the Stephanopoulos interview::
STEPHANOPOULOS: I– I think a lot of– a lot of Americans, and a l– even a lot of veterans who served in Afghanistan agree with you on the big, strategic picture. They believe we had to get out. But I wonder how you respond to an Army Special Forces officer, Javier McKay (PH). He did seven tours. He was shot twice. He agrees with you. He says, “We have to cut our losses in Afghanistan.” But he adds, “I just wish we could’ve left with honor.”
BIDEN: Look, that’s like askin’ my deceased son Beau, who spent six months in Kosovo and a year in Iraq as a Navy captain and then major– I mean, as an Army major. And, you know, I’m sure h– he had regrets comin’ out of Afganista– I mean, out of Iraq.
He had regrets to what’s– how– how it’s going. But the idea– what’s the alternative? The alternative is why are we staying in Afghanistan?
The president turns 79 in November. He last released a summary of his health condition in December 2019. In May, a White House spokesman said Biden had not had a medical checkup or taken a physical this year, but that he would by the end of the year. There have been no updates on the president’s health since.
Back on July 26, John Ellis astutely analyzed how it was acceptable to acknowledge Biden’s age and mental condition if you used certain euphemisms:
Somewhere along the way of the last few years, Biden transitioned from “young old” to “old.” Veteran reporters describe the transition in code. “He’s lost a step or two.” Or: “he’s lost something off his fastball.”
You’re not supposed to talk about it. If you do, and you’re a Democrat, you’re scolded for aiding and abetting the enemy. If you do, and you’re a Republican or (God forbid) a MAGA voter, you’re a horrible hate-mongerer, trying to overturn the results of a free and fair election (and you probably watch Fox News to boot).
The problem is that it’s there for all to see. Pretending not to see it is untenable.
Something is wrong with President Biden, and we are all being asked to pretend we don’t notice.
ADDENDUM: Mario Loyola points to recent history in Iraq as a vision of what our counterterrorism mission will become in Afghanistan with no military presence on the ground:
Most of us didn’t realize at the time that when Obama pulled U.S. forces out of Iraq, he also pulled out all our “ISR”: Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance. So when ISIS began its dramatic advance across the Middle East, all we had going was satellite intelligence — not much help against fighters who dress like everyone else and roll around in Toyotas.
In a region of the world teeming with U.S. military and intelligence assets, Iraq had become a black hole: No AC-130s, no helicopters, no drones, no special forces, no regular soldiers within hundreds of miles. That’s what the “over-the-horizon” strategy looked like in Iraq. Those assets all need local operating bases, and we had none. Satellites and supersonic aircraft were of no help against ISIS.
We don’t even have an embassy in Afghanistan anymore.