For the second time in three days, President Biden delivered a major address from the East Room of the White House — but took no questions from the press corps about the unfolding debacle in Afghanistan.
Biden announced a series of measures Wednesday related to COVID-19 — including threatening to have the Education Department sue GOP governors who have barred school districts from imposing mask mandates — but made no mention of the country where up to 15,000 Americans and thousands more allies are believed to be stranded in territory now held by the Taliban.
“Quite frankly, it’s a tragedy,” Biden said at one point. “There are people who are dying, and will die, who didn’t have to.”
But he was talking about the high levels of hospitalizations due to the spread of the contagious Delta variant, and not reports from Afghanistan that Taliban fighters are whipping ordinary Afghans who attempt to cross their checkpoints in a desperate bid to catch evacuation flights out of Hamid Karzai International Airport on the outskirts of Kabul.
On Monday, in the same room, Biden had defended his decision to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan and pinned much of the blame for the ensuing chaos on his predecessor, Donald Trump, and Afghan political and military leaders.
“The Afghan military collapsed, sometimes without trying to fight,” Biden said at one point. “If anything, the developments of the past week reinforce that ending US military involvement in Afghanistan now was the right decision.”
On Wednesday, Biden struck a similarly scornful tone when discussing governors like Ron DeSantis of Florida and Greg Abbott of Texas, though he did not mention them by name.
“We need to make sure children are wearing masks in schools,” the president said at one point, later adding: “Unfortunately, as we’ve seen throughout this pandemic, some politicians are trying to turn COVID safety measures — that is, children wearing masks in school — into political disputes for their own political gain … They’re setting a dangerous tone.”
The president also made no mention of reports that the Taliban had murdered a woman for venturing out in public without a head covering, a report that surfaced mere hours after leaders of the Islamic fundamentalist group held a press conference in which they vowed that women’s rights would be honored within their highly restrictive interpretation of Sharia law.
Meanwhile, Biden announced that his administration would require nursing home staff to be vaccinated against COVID-19 as a condition for those facilities to continue receiving federal Medicare and Medicaid funding. He did not discuss congressional calls for investigations into how billions of dollars of support for Afghan security forces ended in the seizure of American weapons, vehicles and aircraft by the Taliban last week.
“This is no time to let our guard down. We just need to finish the job … Together, as the United States of America, we’ll get this done,” said the president. He was not referring to the ongoing evacuations from Afghanistan, which Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had said earlier Wednesday would continue “as long as we possibly can, until the clock runs out or we run out of capability.”
“God bless you all,” Biden concluded, “and may God protect our troops,” 6,000 of which were expected to be on the ground for the next several days securing the perimeter of the airport as desperate Afghans tried to make their way through.
As he had done fewer than 48 hours before, Biden left the East Room without slowing or stopping for shouted inquiries from the assembled media. It was the last event on his public schedule.