Republicans grilling Antony Blinken on Afghanistan wanted a scandal so badly they ruined the hearing

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Congress Afghanistan (2021 Getty Images)
Congress Afghanistan (2021 Getty Images)

When Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member James Risch got his turn to question Secretary of State Antony Blinken at Tuesday’s hearing on how America’s longest war came to an end last month, he chose to lead with a query about the status of the thousands of Afghan refugees now making their way to the United States.

He did not ask about whether intelligence failures led the Biden administration to overestimate the Afghan security forces’ ability to fight the Taliban. Nor did he ask about how the administration plans to bring thousands of Afghans who worked for US-backed news outlets out of the country.

Instead, the Idaho Republican — who served as the committee’s chairman until Democrats took control of the Senate in January — decided to ask the 71st Secretary of State about the operations of the White House’s livestream broadcasts.

“We’ve all seen this… somebody in the White House has pressed a button to stop the president, cut off the president’s… speaking ability and sound — who is that person?” asked the top Republican on the committee charged with oversight of the country’s foreign policy.

Secretary Blinken, appearing slightly confused by the line of questioning, replied that “no such person” has the ability to prevent President Biden from speaking, and stressed that the nation’s chief executive “very much speaks for himself”.

What Risch was referring to was the White House’s practice of ending its broadcast of the president when he has finished making his public remarks, before a subsequent “closed press” event. It is neither a new phenomenon nor one unique to the Biden administration. During the Trump administration, the White House regularly stopped their broadcasts when President Trump had concluded public remarks and was engaging with attendees at White House events that were not intended to be broadcast in their entirety.

When asked to confirm that the Secretary of State is not in charge of livestreaming the president’s events, White House spokesperson Mike Gwin replied: “Senator Risch is cheapening this hearing by peddling baseless and bizarre conspiracy theories. Secretary Blinken and the administration will continue to engage in good faith with Congress in hopes of having a serious conversation about the president’s decision to end our military presence in Afghanistan — instead of re-escalating it — after 20 years and more than American 2,400 servicemembers lost.”

Although Risch’s inquiry had nothing to do with the US exit from Afghanistan, it was consistent with a general theme that has been present in right-wing media since Biden assumed office in January. This theme posits that the president is not in charge of the country and is beholden to unnamed “handlers”. Indeed, much of Secretary Blinken’s time at both Tuesday’s hearing and his Monday appearance before the House Foreign Affairs Committee was taken up by members who chose to expound on themes, memes, and tropes about Biden and the end of the Afghanistan war that are in wide circulation on social media and in right-wing news outlets but otherwise bear no relationship to reality.

“The Republicans have recycled talking-points that they tell each other and are caught in their own inner feedback loop on their own disinformation platforms,” said Joel Rubin, a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs.

Rubin, whose portfolio included preparing State Department officials to testify before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, noted that Secretary Blinken had shown far more respect for Congress’ role than his predecessor did. Blinken, after all, agreed to stay long enough to be questioned by all 52 members of the House committee. In return, he was treated to angry rants by junior House members in search of social media fame rather than substantive questions.

One such GOP member, Florida Representative Brian Mast, shouted at the Secretary about his supposedly providing “aid and comfort to the enemy” and spreading what he called “lies” to the point where Chairman Gregory Meeks had to repeatedly gavel him down to allow for Blinken’s response to be heard. Another, South Carolina’s Joe Wilson, used his allotted five minutes of questions to read from a New York Post op-ed detailing more alleged lies and demanding that the Secretary resign his office — a demand repeated by many of his colleagues.

Representative Wilson was subsequently rebuked by Democrat Gerald Connolly of Virginia, who recalled his colleague’s disruption of then-President Obama’s 2009 address to Congress on healthcare. “I would say to my friend from South Carolina: If I were the member of Congress who committed one of the most grievous acts in a State of the Union address... to shout out, “You lie,” I might take more care about enumerating other alleged lies in a hearing with the Secretary of State,” he said.

Rubin said such shenanigans reflect Republicans’ lack of interest in conducting serious oversight of a withdrawal that even many Democrats see as having been executed in a less than elegant manner. “They didn’t want to have a real conversation — they just wanted to try to use [phrases like] ‘betrayal’ and ‘left Americans behind’ and other stuff that was all just pure right-wing gotcha memes that nobody in the real world agrees with,” he said. “They’re looking for some kind of way to frame it as some scandal, and they didn’t land a punch.”

One GOP consultant who works with House and Senate Republican candidates said many of Risch’s Senate colleagues conducted themselves well during Tuesday’s session but lamented what they called a general lack of seriousness on the part of his party’s members. “They’re trying to rerun the Benghazi playbook and turn Blinken into Susan Rice or Hillary Clinton,” they explained. “The problem with that is no one really knows who Blinken is outside of Washington, and he’s not the president or a candidate for office. Plus he’s a pro and doesn’t lose his cool, so they end up looking like a bunch of clownish screaming hyenas when they don’t get a rise out of him.”

While Rubin described Blinken’s performance as a “master class” in congressional testimony, Brett Bruen, a former National Security Council official who has been critical of the Biden administration’s execution of the Afghanistan withdrawal, was more critical.“He didn’t blink and didn’t give them much, which on the one hand could be seen by the administration and Democrats as a minor victory,” he said. “But on the other? I think that it can’t be said that he acquitted himself well when the American public still wants answers to these questions. So stonewalling and stubbornly sticking to the same talking-points, I don’t think that’s the answer.”

Although Bruen said Blinken’s “intransigence” could damage the administration by giving Republicans “fuel for the fire that they are trying to stoke with the notion that there’s something there to hide,” he, too, had harsh words for Republicans’ performance.

“I think it is absolutely reprehensible that you’ve got members of Congress trying to use the committee’s time not to get answers to questions, but simply to try and increase their own Twitter following by creating a viral moment or using their time to pompously pontificate on points that have nothing to do with accountability,” he said. “Obviously, many of the Republicans didn’t even feign an effort at engaging with the Secretary — they simply wanted to yell and talk and use the Secretary as backdrop for their own political propagandizing — but that’s not the point of a congressional hearing.”

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