It was an odd, factually inaccurate assertion from the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that sounded more at home in a Donald Trump 2020 campaign attack than a serious hearing about U.S. foreign policy.
It’s another example of how Republicans are latching onto made-for-cable-news attacks of Biden. Often it’s low-hanging fruit that can come at the sake of substantial, legitimate criticism of the president’s Afghanistan withdrawal. Republicans such as Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) have also recently shared misinformation about Biden’s decision to leave and had to backtrack.
Here’s a key part of Risch’s exchange with Biden’s top diplomat:
“Somebody in the White House who has authority to press the button and stop the president, cut off the president’s speaking ability and sound. Who is that person?” Risch asked.
“I think anyone who knows the president, including members of this committee, knows he speaks very clearly and very deliberately for himself,” Blinken replied. “No one else does.”
“Well, are you saying there is no one in the White House who can cut him off? Because yesterday that happened, and it’s happened a number of times before,” Risch pressed. “It’s been widely reported that somebody has the ability to push the button and cut off his sound and stop him from speaking. Who is that person?”
“There is no such person,” Blinken replied, not hiding an amused smile. “Again, the president speaks for himself.”
“Are you telling this committee there is no one in the White House who has the ability to push a button and cut him off mid-sentence?” Risch asked.
Blinken said that’s exactly what he was saying.
This wasn’t just a quick detour from talking about Afghanistan. Risch spent about half of his allotted time asking questions to press Blinken on this mysterious button-pusher. It was one of the first things Risch brought up in his opening statement.
Risch seemed to think this line of questioning was integral to what happened in Afghanistan. The point he was trying to make was that Biden somehow wasn’t in charge of his own administration. “One thing we need to get to the bottom of is: Who is responsible for this? Who is making the decisions?” he said.
But his assumption that Biden is being shut down by his aides during speaking engagements was factually inaccurate.
His main piece of evidence was Biden’s appearance Monday in Idaho, Risch’s home state, at a national fire center, where the White House’s live feed cut off as Biden started questioning state officials. As Washington Post Fact Checker Glenn Kessler points out, the live feed was telecasting only the moments when reporters were allowed into the room to briefly capture Biden visiting with state fire fighting officials.
Kessler has a fuller fact check here.
The odd thing about focusing on Biden’s mic is that Republicans have plenty of material to weaponize against Democrats when it comes to Afghanistan. Just before Risch spoke, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (N.J.) — a Democrat — described the withdrawal as “clearly and fatally flawed.” Biden himself has said the buck stops with him on all decisions Afghanistan.
And instead, Risch was appearing to ask whether there is really a shadow White House aide who should be faulted for the withdrawal. And Risch is no regular member of the committee; he’s its ranking member, and he got to ask the GOP’s first questions of the day.
The senator’s line of questioning seemed derived from conservative media. Fox News commentators were questioning the same thing that same morning, noted Daily Beast media reporter Justin Baragona.
The idea that Biden is being controlled by his aides has roots, the best we can tell, in a March appearance by the president at a video conference with House Democrats. Biden offered to take reporter questions, and a live video feed ended before he did. The moment went viral on the right, but Biden did take questions, fact checks Kessler. The video feed ended because the questions were not intended to be aired publicly.
In August, as Biden wrapped up appearance at the White House where he wasn’t taking reporter questions, an NBC reporter asked Biden about Afghanistan as Biden’s audio feed cut off. Biden did answer the question — albeit flippantly — and reporters in the room were able to report immediately what he said.
This is a prominent line of attack from the Republican National Committee; it comes up every time there’s an apparent mic cutoff when the president is speaking. And it’s obvious why: Painting a picture of a president whom his own aides don’t trust fits right in with Trump’s 2020 campaign attacks that Biden is too gaffe-prone to lead.
But it’s odd to elevate this campaign-style attack in the place of serious, unanswered questions about how the end of the Afghanistan war led to 13 U.S. service members being killed and unknown numbers of Americans and thousands of Afghan allies being stranded. And it’s telling of the Republican Party that Biden’s microphone is a prominent line of questioning they’re elevating at this time.