White House communications director Kate Bedingfield has insisted that President Joe Biden “never shies away from taking questions” after days of avoiding the White House press corps about the chaos unravelling in Afghanistan.
The president has come in for criticism over the harrowing images from Hamid Karzai International Airport as the US rushed to evacuate American personnel.
Former RNC spokesman Douglas Heye tweeted: “In a sense this is true. Biden doesn’t shy away from questions as much as his team shields him from them.”
Mr Biden has often been coaxed into answering questions following public engagements, at times too often for his staff’s liking.
The president has recently not been as available to the press as he was during the initial months of his presidency.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki told David Axelrod of CNN in May that the communications staffers are not always happy about Mr Biden stopping to speak to reporters who shout questions at him during public events.
“That is not something we recommend,” Ms Psaki said. “In fact, a lot of times we say ‘Don’t take questions.’”
But she also added that “he’s going to do what he wants to do because he’s the president of the United States”.
Mr Biden did a sit-down interview with George Stephanopoulos of ABC News this week but ignored reporters’ questions after he spoke to the nation about the state of the Covid-19 pandemic on Wednesday.
“He just did a full sit down interview on this just yesterday. So he is always willing to take questions, and I’ll let him decide if he is going to do that after his remarks today,” Ms Bedingfield told MSNBC.
Mr Biden also chose to not answer questions after his defiant speech on the US withdrawal from Afghanistan on Monday.
The last time Mr Biden held a press briefing was on 10 August after speaking about the Senate passing part of his infrastructure plan.
On 2 July, Mr Biden said “I want to talk about happy things man,” when he was asked about the situation in Afghanistan.
Ms Bedingfield was asked about Mr Biden’s comments on 8 July.
“Is a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan now inevitable?” Mr Biden was asked last month.
“No, it is not,” he responded. “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.”
He added that the Taliban takeover was “highly unlikely” and that Kabul wouldn’t descend into chaos.
“He was talking about whether this was a possibility and not an inevitability. And that’s an important distinction. Look, obviously as we’ve seen in all the reporting the last week, the president saw a wide array of intelligence,” Ms Bedingfield said on Friday.
“But you heard from [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] General Milley, you heard from Director [of National Intelligence] Haynes – they saw no intelligence that suggested that Kabul would fall within 11 days. That was not a scenario that was put in front of the president,” Ms Bedingfield added.
“So he saw a wide array of intelligence. But ultimately at the end of the day, he’s the commander in chief and the buck stops with him. He made the decision.”
The communications director said 9,000 people have been flown out of the country since it was taken over by the Taliban, and 14,000 have been been able to leave since last month.
“We have taken control of the airport. Flights are leaving regularly. And I would say, that’s not something that happens without planning, that’s not something that just happened. The president planned for multiple contingencies,” Ms Bedingfield said. “And that’s why he prepositioned troops in the Gulf able to move in immediately, taking control of the airport and setting up flights to get people out of the country. It’s the mission that he is laser-focused on, getting every American who wants to leave Afghanistan out of Afghanistan, and moving people out as quickly as possible.”
But CNN’s Clarissa Ward reported on Friday morning that no US flights had taken off for a period of eight hours.
Ms Bedingfield was asked why the US didn’t start evacuating Americans and Afghan allies sooner, before the Taliban overthrow of the US-backed Afghan government.
“I think it’s important to remember that at any point that we began a mass evacuation of Americans and Afghan allies out of Afghanistan, it was going to signal the imminent collapse of the Afghan government it was going to be a chaotic situation whether it happened five months ago, whether it happened five weeks ago or whether it happened this week,” she said. “So our effort was to continue to try to ensure that the Afghan government had the opportunity to remain in place.”