On the eve of the July Fourth weekend, President Joe Biden wanted to talk about brats, not Bagram.
The White House press corps had other ideas.
“I want to talk about happy things, man,” Biden told reporters at an event ostensibly organized to celebrate Friday’s buoyant monthly jobs report. “Look, it’s Fourth of July. I’m concerned that you’re asking me questions that I will answer next week, but it’s the holiday weekend. I’m going to celebrate it. There’s great things happening.”
At one point Biden said he’d answer journalists’ “negative questions” at a later point, before quickly catching himself and amending his characterization to “your legitimate questions.”
The president appeared eager on Friday to project optimism on the eve of the holiday weekend, during which he is scheduled to host a July Fourth barbecue at the White House for military members, first responders, frontline workers and their families. The White House for weeks had loaded additional symbolic importance to Independence Day as also signifying a turning point in the United States’ fight against Covid-19.
“The economy is growing faster than anytime in 40 years, we’ve got a record number of new jobs, Covid deaths are down 90 percent, wages are up faster than any time in 15 years, we’re bringing our troops home,” Biden said before Friday’s question-and-answer session began. “All across America people are going to ball games and doing good things.”
(Shortly after his speech, Biden received members of the World Series winning Los Angeles Dodgers at the White House to celebrate their 2020 championship.)
His boosterism was complicated by the fact that the U.S. will miss Biden’s goal of administering at least one Covid-19 vaccine dose to 70 percent of adults by July 4 at the same time as the worrisome Delta variant is gaining prevalence within the country.
But the questions that appeared to irk Biden the most focused on Afghanistan and concern that its government might collapse after the United States completes its withdrawal there. On Friday U.S. officials said that troops had officially left Bagram Airfield and the facility was handed over to the Afghan National Security and Defense Force.
“We’re on track exactly as to where we expected to be,” Biden said. “There will still be some forces left, but it is a rational drawdown with our allies. So there is nothing unusual about it.”
The plan for the U.S. to put an end to its nearly 20-year engagement in the country has frustrated Afghan leaders and raised concerns that the Taliban could overwhelm Afghan security forces just months after the U.S.’ withdrawal.
Biden, who announced the September end date in an April White House address, expressed confidence in the Afghan government while also noting the challenges it faces in doing so.
“We’re in that war for 20 years — 20 years,” Biden said. “I think they have the capacity to be able to sustain a government.”
The U.S. would be available to provide some assistance, the president continued, but “the Afghans are gonna have to do it themselves.”
The president similarly vented frustration during a press conference at the tail end of his June diplomatic swing through Europe in which he expressed frustration at a CNN reporter’s line of inquiry. He later apologized to the reporter.
Later in the afternoon White House press secretary Jen Psaki discouraged people from interpreting Biden’s comments as being dismissive of the concerns about Afghanistan.
“I think what he was trying to convey to all of you is that he is heading into July Fourth weekend, a weekend for family, a weekend to celebrate America and that he was ready to be done answering questions,” Psaki said. “It wasn’t related to Afghanistan.”
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