🚨: "Secretary of State Antony Blinken made an unannounced stop in Afghanistan on Thursday for meetings with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, who is heading up negotiations with the Taliban, to reassure them that Washington’s support for the war-torn country will continue despite the U.S. decision to withdraw all military forces by Sept. 11," our colleague John Hudson, who is traveling with Blinken, reports.
- “Ghani and his advisers met Blinken and his aides at Kabul’s ornate presidential palace. At the top of the meeting, Ghani told Blinken, ‘We respect [President Biden’s] decision and are adjusting our priorities.’”
At the White House
BIDEN'S NORTH STAR: He's the first president in 40 years to have a child who served in a war zone, President Biden reminded the American public in a speech yesterday explaining his decision to withdraw all 2,500 U.S. troops remaining in Afghanistan by Sept. 11.
The president who has said his late son should have been “the one running for president, not me,” has publicly reflected on Beau Biden during some of the most consequential moments of the past year. Biden's decision to end the longest war in American history was no different:
- “Throughout this process, my North Star has been remembering what it was like when my late son Beau was deployed to Iraq,” Biden said. “Every one of those dead are sacred human beings who left behind entire families.”
- “I’ve concluded that it’s time to end America’s longest war. It’s time for American troops to come home,” Biden said. “I am now the fourth American president to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan. Two Republicans. Two Democrats. I will not pass this responsibility to a fifth.”
As such, the president put a decidedly personal twist on what is perhaps the most consequential foreign policy decision of his young presidency.
He contended the war was “never meant to be a multigenerational undertaking” and said since becoming vice president 12 years ago, he's carried a card with him of the exact number of American troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan: “As of today, [2,448] U.S. troops and personnel have died in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Freedom’s Sentinel — our Afghanistan conflicts. 20,722 have been wounded.”
- “Nearly 800,000 people served in Afghanistan in the U.S. military, and many of them are reflecting anew on what the war achieved and the meaning of their individual parts in it,” our colleagues Dan Lamothe and Alex Horton report of the feeling those who have served are grappling with in the wake of Biden's announcement.
- “I think for the people who fought on D-Day, it was probably nice for those who survived to go on vacation in France 30 years later and see what they were looking at,” Loren Crowe, who deployed to Afghanistan twice as an Army infantry officer, told Dan and Alex. “We’re not going to get that, and that’s fine. That doesn’t make it a meaningless experience. But it also doesn’t do very much to justify the cost that we paid.”
Reaction to Biden's decision was fast, and in many cases critical.
- Victory? “Biden did not declare a military victory, saying instead that a perpetual presence in the country would not serve U.S. interests,” our colleagues Anne Gearan, Karen DeYoung and Tyler Pager report.
- Many Republicans also lashed the decision along with some NATO members. “After a day-long meeting in Brussels with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, NATO members — who still have thousands of troops in Afghanistan — released a statement saying they, too, would start withdrawing by May 1,” per Anne, Karen, and Tyler.
- More: “The allies have long said they could not continue to operate in Afghanistan without U.S. security and logistical support, and a handful of NATO members reportedly questioned the U.S. decision in a closed-door meeting.”
- Austin only indirectly answered whether he agreed with the decision: “What I can tell you is this was an inclusive process and their voices were heard, and their concerns taken into consideration,” Austin told reporters.
- And the Pentagon: " … top military leaders advocated for keeping a small U.S. presence on the ground made up primarily of special operations forces and paramilitary advisers, arguing that a force of a few thousand troops was needed to keep the Taliban in check and prevent Afghanistan from once again becoming a haven for terrorists, according to nine former and current U.S. officials familiar with the discussions,” Politico's Lara Seligman, Andrew Desiderio, Natasha Bertrand and Nahal Toosi report.
- “But in the end, Biden and his top national security deputies did what no previous president has done successfully — they overrode the brass,” Politico reported.
Part of the problem: The terms of victory were never clearly defined by the U.S. government, our Craig Whitlock reports.
- Bottom line: “At first, the objective was to destroy al-Qaeda and ensure that the terrorist group could not use Afghanistan as a base to launch another terrorist attack on the United States. But within six months, that goal had been accomplished. Al-Qaeda's leaders had either been killed, captured or had fled Afghanistan.”
- President George W. Bush then broadened the mission and announced the U.S. would help Afghan allies build a stable democracy — “an opaque endgame that each administration struggled to articulate, according to those involved,” writes Craig.
- Private doubts: “As the war dragged on, U.S. officials kept insisting publicly that they were winning — even in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary. In private, however, they expressed serious doubts.”
What's next?: “Uncertainty hangs over virtually every facet of life in Afghanistan. It is unclear what the future holds and if the fighting will ever stop,” the New York Times's Thomas Gibbons-Neff reports. “For two decades, American leaders have pledged peace, prosperity, democracy, the end of terrorism and rights for women. Few of those promises have materialized in vast areas of Afghanistan, but now even in the cities where real progress occurred, there is fear that everything will be lost when the Americans leave.”
- “Afghans watched with cautious optimism when Mr. Biden assumed office in January. Many had hoped he would reverse the Trump administration’s rushed pledge to withdraw all U.S. troops by May after brokering a shaky peace deal with the Taliban last year.”
- “It is not the right time to withdraw their troops,” Major Saifuddin Azizi, a local commander, told Gibbons-Neff. “It is unreasonable, hasty and a betrayal to us. It pushes Afghanistan into another civil war. Afghanistan’s destiny will look like it did two decades ago.”
The White House said Biden told Afghan President Ashraf Ghani ahead of his speech the U.S. “would continue to support the Afghan people through development, humanitarian and security assistance,” the Associated Press's Aamer Madhani and Matthew Lee report.
- “We’ll continue to support the government of Afghanistan. We will keep providing assistance to the Afghan National Defenses and Security Forces …. And we’ll continue to support the rights of Afghan women and girls by maintaining significant humanitarian and development assistance,” Biden declared.
On the Hill
HAPPENING TODAY: “House lawmakers are bracing for scathing testimony about the intelligence failures and operational lapses that left Capitol Police woefully underprepared for the deadly pro-Trump riot on Jan. 6,” our colleague Karoun Demirjian reports.
Capitol Police Inspector General Michael Bolton “has disclosed his initial findings and recommendations to lawmakers in two confidential reports, the summaries and findings of which were obtained by The Washington Post.”
- “Bolton’s investigation has uncovered an alarming level of disorganization within the Capitol Police,” including lack of training to analyze intelligence and that units aimed at civil disturbances had “outdated rosters” and “inadequate equipment.”
- Bolton's March report on the Capitol Police's “Civil Disturbance Unit,” which hasn't been made public, outlined “specific failures caused the force to operate ‘at a decreased level of readiness’ that cost them the security of the Capitol perimeter and, ultimately, lives.”
REPUBLICANS SWING AT INFRASTRUCTURE: “A group of moderate Senate Republicans on Wednesday signaled they are preparing to offer their own proposal to reform the nation’s infrastructure, as GOP lawmakers seek to significantly pare back the roughly $2 trillion in new spending endorsed by Biden,” our colleagues Tony Romm, Mike DeBonis and Seung Min Kim report.
- Who? “10 Republicans, including Sens. Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.), Mitt Romney (Utah) and Bill Cassidy (La.).”
- What? “The Republican alternative is expected to be less than half the size of the White House’s plan … its total price tag could ultimately cost between $600 billion and $800 billion.”
- “Moderate GOP members have pledged to narrow their focus to include only the elements they consider traditional infrastructure, such as roads and bridges, while jettisoning the corporate tax increases that Biden has endorsed in favor of other ways of financing the overall package.”
Not $15: “Sens. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) are in the process of crafting bipartisan legislation to increase the minimum wage, Romney confirmed to HuffPost on Wednesday," HuffPost's Igor Bobic and Tara Golshan report.
- “We’re negotiating a minimum wage proposal which we would ultimately take to our group of 20 and see how they would react to it and go from there,” Romney told them, referring to a bipartisan group of 20 senators trying to make the Senate function better.
- “I think it’s $11,” Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said when asked about the bipartisan measure.
- Reminder: “A $15 minimum wage doesn’t even have full support among Senate Democrats, including Sinema and Manchin. Manchin has repeatedly said he would favor something closer to $11 per hour phased in over two years. Other Democrats, such as Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, have expressed concerns about how a $15 minimum wage would affect the restaurant industry.”
In the agencies
AN UPDATE: Monthly child tax credit payments are on track to begin in July, CBS News’s Sarah Ewall-Wice reports.
- “The Internal Revenue Service commissioner confirmed the agency expects to launch its portal for the credit on July 1, despite concerns about the challenges the IRS would face implementing a program so quickly after the passage of the American Rescue Plan.”
- “Meanwhile, congressional Democrats are aiming to make the monthly payments permanent … [But] questions still remain about how to pay for a permanent expansion.”
EMBATTLED LAWMAKER TAR-GAETZ CNN: “Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) on Wednesday announced a six-figure ad buy for a spot that targets CNN, as he fights to save his political career amid sexual trafficking allegations,” Politico’s Benjamin Din reports.
- “The ad offers some insight into Gaetz’s strategy moving forward by embracing the ‘fake news’ label popularized by [President Donald] Trump. The ad incorporates footage obtained by Project Veritas, a conservative activist organization that has been known to use deceptive practices and spread misinformation in attempts to expose what it views as ‘corruption, dishonesty, self-dealing, waste, fraud, and other misconduct’ from liberal organizations or individuals.”
REPUBLICANS STAY SILENT ON TRUMP, HOPING HE FADES AWAY: While Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and “a few other Republicans have been directly critical of Trump’s conduct following the Capitol riot, most are trying to avoid alienating the former president, knowing he will set his sights on them for withering attacks, and hoping that someone or something else intervenes to hobble him,” the New York Times’s Maggie Haberman writes.
- But “even as Trump makes clear he will not leave the public stage, many Republicans have privately said they hope he will fade away, after a tenure in which the party lost both houses of Congress and the White House.”
- Trump “'intimidates people because he will attack viciously and relentlessly, much more than any other politician, yet somehow people crave his approval,'” GOP strategist Mike DuHaime told the Times.
- Not everyone, though: “Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), the highest-ranking GOP woman in the House, who drew the ire of some of her Republican colleagues when she voted to impeach Trump, said she would not support Trump if he was the party’s presidential nominee in 2024,” our colleague Colby Itkowitz reports.
She said what she said:
… And so did he:
From the courts
ALL EYES ON SCOTUS: “House and Senate Democrats will introduce legislation [today] to expand the number of Supreme Court justices to 13 from nine, drawing more attention to the debate surrounding court reform,” Politico’s Marianne Levine reports.
- “The bill, led by Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), is the first legislation in recent years designed to add seats to the high court, and its introduction comes as progressive organizations are pushing for court expansion, after watching Senate Republicans fill three Supreme Court vacancies in four years under Trump.”
- “Biden, however, has said he is ‘not a fan’ of the idea, also known as ‘court-packing.’ Instead, the White House announced last week the creation of a bipartisan commission to study reforms to the Supreme Court and produce a report.”
EX-OFFICER FACES MANSLAUGHTER CHARGE: “Former Brooklyn Center police officer Kimberly A. Potter was charged Wednesday with second-degree manslaughter in the death of Daunte Wright, joining just a handful of officers who have faced charges after shooting someone they said they intended to tase,” the Minneapolis Star-Tribune’s Matt McKinney reports.
- “Potter was released from jail Wednesday evening after posting $100,000 bond.”
Outside the Beltway
CDC CONTINUES J&J PAUSE: “A federal vaccine advisory committee said Wednesday it wanted more data before deciding whether to resume use of Johnson & Johnson’s coronavirus vaccine,” our colleagues Lena H. Sun and Carolyn Y. Johnson report.
- “Advisers to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agreed to reconvene within 10 days … When the panel reconvenes, members could vote to recommend the vaccine for people 18 and older, continue an overall pause or pause use for certain age groups.”
- “The decision not to reinstate the vaccine has painful consequences, nationally and globally. It may further erode public confidence in vaccination in general and slow the rollout of desperately needed shots to rural and underserved areas and homebound people,” the Times’s Denise Grady and Carl Zimmer report.
U.S. PLOTS RUSSIA RETALIATION: “The Biden administration is poised to take action against Russian individuals and entities in retaliation for alleged misconduct including the SolarWinds hack and efforts to disrupt the U.S. election,” Bloomberg’s Alberto Nardelli, Nick Wadhams, and Jennifer Jacobs report.
- “As part of the moves, which could be announced as soon as [today], the U.S. plans to sanction about a dozen individuals, including government and intelligence officials, and roughly 20 entities. The U.S. is also expected to expel as many as 10 Russian officials and diplomats from the country.”
- “The actions follow a review ordered by Biden on his first full day in office into four key areas concerning Russia: interference in the election, reports of Russian bounties on U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, the SolarWinds attack and the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.”
CANCELLED: “The White House Correspondents’ Association on Wednesday said it was canceling its annual dinner for the second year in a row over concerns about the ongoing pandemic,” Politico’s Benjamin Din reports.
- *Returns dress*: “We have worked through any number of scenarios over the last several months, but to put it plainly: while improving rapidly, the covid-19 landscape is just not at a place where we could make the necessary decisions to go ahead with such a large indoor event,” WHCA executive director Steven Thomma wrote in an email to members.
- Please, no: “We will do all this in person next year, with the WHCA annual dinner on April 30, 2022.”