Nancy Solomon: It's the Brian Lehrer show on WNYC. I'm Nancy Solomon from the WNYC and Gothamist newsroom. I'm filling in for Brian Lehrer who's on a well-deserved vacation this week. First, I just want to acknowledge that, well, tropical storm, now, tropical depression re-spared our region from any catastrophic damage or loss of life as far as we know. Parts of New Jersey saw major flooding and power outages and some of you might still not have power.
As Michael Hill has been telling us this morning, much of the region is still under a flood watch until late tonight, so we'll keep our eyes on the weather and hopefully, we'll continue to be as lucky as we were with [unintelligible 00:00:52] as hurricane season continues. Coming up on the show today, we have a virologist to talk joining us. She'll answer your COVID questions, including booster shots, breakthrough cases, and somewhat concerning data out of Israel and more.
Plus, the chair of New Jersey's Cannabis Regulatory Commission shares the brand new timeline for when you'll be able to buy legal weed and the tyranny of meal planning. Maybe tyranny is a strong word. Have you tried feeding two toddlers plus yourself three meals a day, seven days a week forever and ever? We'll talk about the emotional and invisible labor of meal planning with the journalist Virginia Sole-Smith.
To start, it's our regular segment on Monday morning politics. The crisis in Afghanistan continues to grab dramatic headlines. As you might expect, the Sunday morning news shows were filled with a defense by Biden administration officials who insist they haven't made a huge mistake and that the US military is running a successful evacuation. Republicans have gone on the attack.
On Face the Nation, the former ambassador to Afghanistan under President Obama offered to take that neither defended nor completely blamed the President. Ryan Crocker says the pullout has been nothing short of catastrophic.
Ryan Crocker: President Biden didn't create this whole scenario. President Trump did by engaging the Taliban in talks without the Afghan government in the room. That began a process of delegitimization of the state and its security forces. That was a huge contributing factor to where we are now. That said, President Biden owns it. He's taken ownership of the policy, he has taken ownership of the envoy who negotiated this thing. Lots of blame to go around here.
Nancy Solomon: Crocker says this isn't just a humanitarian crisis. The swift victory of the Taliban will now embolden extremists across the region.
Ryan Crocker: It has created a global crisis, quite frankly. It has emboldened violent Islamic radicals. I think we're all going to see the fallout of that, certainly in Pakistan. They championed the Taliban because they felt they had no choice. Well, the Taliban victory, the narrative of defeating the great infidel empowers radicals in Pakistan.
Nancy Solomon: Joining us now to talk Afghanistan and the fight in Washington over infrastructure spending and the federal budget is Susan Page, USA Today, Washington bureau chief, and the author of Madam Speaker: Nancy Pelosi and the Lessons of Power. Hey, Susan, thanks so much for joining us.
Susan Page: Hey, Nancy, it's great to be with you on this very newsy Monday morning.
Nancy Solomon: I'll say, I'll say. Catch us up from what the President had to say about Afghanistan over the weekend and what the response has been so far.
Susan Page: Well, the President spoke to the nation on Friday about Afghanistan, and then he and his officials spent the rest of the weekend correcting and explaining what he said. He's been a very sure-footed president up to this point, but with this Afghanistan withdrawal, we've seen little of that surefootedness on Friday address to Americans and taking some questions. He said several things that were simply not true. He said al-Qaeda is no longer present in Afghanistan. He said our allies have not questioned our credibility in the wake of this catastrophic withdrawal.
He said that Americans were not having trouble with the Taliban and getting to the airport in Kabul, the Americans there who want to evaluate. All those things were not accurate. This has been really an issue that has created some serious credibility problems for the president that the White House is continuing to have to deal with.
Nancy Solomon: How do you account for that misstep? Just in terms of communicating and transparency, he seems to be adding to his problems rather than helping himself. Why do you think that is?
Susan Page: Part of Biden's selling point to Americans during the campaign was he was experienced in steady, that he was competent and empathetic, that he'd be a contrast to what we saw with President Trump's administration. There have been a lot of issues on which that has been true. On the issue of Afghanistan, Joe Biden has, for a long time, opposed the expansion of the US mission in Afghanistan. He was a lonely voice during the Obama administration arguing against trying to continue to do nation-building there.
Now, as president, he is in his way delivering on a promise he made a long time ago, following through on his views that the United States should not have any forces there, that this was a mission that was guaranteed to fail. The problem is, Americans don't necessarily disagree with the idea that we should be out of Afghanistan. That's a popular position. Americans are, I think, distressed when they see the chaos at the airport that human cost, including two Afghans who served with us during this long war and the plight ahead for women and girls in Afghanistan. It's not the basic decision to withdraw. It's the ineptitude, in handling that withdrawal.
Nancy Solomon: Now, the roots of this crisis go back to the Trump administration's negotiations with the Taliban that left out the Afghanistan government. The analysis has been that signal to the army that they were being abandoned by the US, and that's what led to the collapse two weeks ago. How might have Biden dealt with this hand of cards that he inherited from Trump differently?
Susan Page: Of course, that's true. Every president decries the mess that the previous president left for him to deal with. Although on this issue, President Trump and President Biden had the same fundamental view that it was time for this war of 20 years to end. With the benefit of a little bit of hindsight, we have a lot of hindsight now and there's going to be a lot of examination of what went wrong in these last few weeks.
With the benefit of a little bit of hindsight, the idea has said that President Biden said on August 31, depth-first September 11, and then August 31 deadline withdrawal, lots of questions about that. Just yesterday, the President said that might be extended. All of the Taliban have said that they have pushed back against the idea that they are willing to see American forces there past that August 31 deadline. Clearly, we should have begun evacuation efforts earlier and with more vigor than we did.
Because I think, whatever your views on the war in Afghanistan, whether it was worth it, there is almost united American view that we have an obligation to those who served us as translators and in other roles during this war. We see this mob at the Kabul airport and worry about the cost that those people are going to be paying.
Nancy Solomon: The response in the Sunday news shows from the Biden administration yesterday, to this particular criticism of not getting enough people at before they pulled out the military. The administration officials, including Jake Sullivan, made the case that they got a lot of people out and that they couldn't have foreseen just how swiftly the Taliban and we've heard this a lot over the last couple of weeks, how swiftly the Taliban would take control.
It's hard to believe that though because how do they not have CIA intelligence, telling them what the Taliban is up to in the weeks before this happens and the fact that they're sweeping through and getting meeting with tribal leaders and forcing people involved in the military to commit to laying down their arms and melting away as what then transpired. Has there been any analysis of why this misstep occurred?
Susan Page: Well, it was either a failure of intelligence or a failure to heed intelligence. Those are two different things. The president and some of his top aides said it was a surprise that Afghanistan basically fell in 11 days and that is a speedy collapse. That is catastrophic and truly surprising, but the idea that we didn't have much time. That just fits the common sense test of what was going to happen in Afghanistan once US forces withdrew.
One of the tough questions that Antony Blinken, the Secretary of State had to face yesterday, in the appearance he did on Fox News Sunday was his handling of a memo through what they call the descent channel from some US diplomats in the region warning that they were sitting on the edge of a catastrophe. Secretary Blinken acknowledged that he had seen that memo and responded to it in these internal state department channels but it took a while for the US policy to catch up with that warning.
Nancy Solomon: This is the Brian Lehrer show on WNYC. I'm Nancy Solomon filling in for Brian today. We're talking with Susan Page, Washington Bureau Chief for USA Today. Listeners. What do you want to see the president do about Afghanistan and what questions do you have? Give us a call? It's 646-435-7280. That's 646-435-7280. You mentioned the Sunday shows Republicans were having a field day yesterday with these missteps. On Face the Nation, Nikki Haley, defended the deal Trump made with the Taliban but then blamed Biden for pulling out.
Some Republicans have accused Biden of negotiating with terrorists because the State Department is communicating with the Taliban about evacuation efforts in Kabul. Nikki Haley took a different tack.
Nikki Haley: They're not negotiating with the Taliban, they've completely surrendered to the Taliban. They surrendered Bagram Air Force Base, which was a major NATO hub. They surrendered $85 billion worth of equipment and weapons that we should have gotten out of there. They have surrendered the American people and actually withdrew our troops before they withdrew the American people.
They've abandoned our Afghan allies who kept people like my husband safe while they were overseas deploying. No, there was no negotiating. This was a complete and total surrender and embarrassing failure.
Nancy Solomon: What do you think Susan? Is that a fair criticism?
Susan Page: Well, let's remember that Nikki Haley was UN ambassador for President Trump. It was President Trump, who not only negotiated with the Taliban, but was prepared to invite Taliban leaders to Camp David, a huge global prize to get an invitation like that, and not have the Taliban government along for those negotiations. Now, that ended up not happening, but not because President Trump didn't want it to happen.
One of the things I think drives Americans crazy about politics, is when they see politicians flip positions, based on who's making the argument. Even Republicans who defended President Trump's willingness to negotiate with the Taliban now criticize President Biden's attempts to do the same, and democrats do this, too. At the moment, it's Republicans who often seem to have very short memories about the positions they were taking a year ago.
Nancy Solomon: I find it quite, quite annoying. Now, to this point about surrendering $85 billion worth of equipment and weapons. There's also been a lot of different numbers thrown around about how many Afghans and/or US citizens are still in the country. Can you clarify any of that in terms of what the situation is on the ground there?
Susan Page: I cannot I think the situation is pretty murky, in some ways, murky because the situation is chaotic, in some ways, perhaps murky for strategic reasons to not put Americans who may still be trapped somewhere other than the airport, as we tried to evacuate them. That goes also for Afghan allies. The latest number I've heard is that 37,000 people have been evacuated in evacuations facilitated by the United States.
That is a lot of people but we know there are at least some people who are still there and still in harm's way. It's going to take a while for this situation to sort itself out. The situation gets much more difficult after August 31st, which is the deadline that we have set for us to be out of there. At that point, it complicates our mission when we said we were going to leave. This is one reason that diplomats and strategists sometimes urge politicians not to set deadlines, because those dates come up, and you don't know quite what your situation is going to be there. This is going to be a very perilous situation for at least the next couple of weeks.
Nancy Solomon: The calls are coming in, we're going to go to Daniel in West Point. Hi, Daniel, you're on the air with Susan to talk Afghanistan.
Daniel: Hi, good morning. as I listened to your conversation, I take your guest's point about putting dates on this being incredibly difficult and maybe it's a frustrating enterprise to try to get this done within a timeframe but setting goals, I think is reasonable for the President to do. Maybe he should describe them as goals. As long as the priority is to do the right thing, which is to take our allies and our partners and our US citizens out of that country, moving that date doesn't frustrate me.
What would frustrate me is if we abandon that goal because of some artificial timeline. If the timeline continues to change, as long as we are actively and pursuing that goal, I'm all right with that. I just do not want our priorities to change and for us to actually abandon the people that we're supposed to care about.
Nancy Solomon: Susan.
Susan Page: Daniel, that's a great point and I think a lot of Americans would agree with you on that. The question is, will the Taliban agree with you? After August 31, will they make the argument that the US no longer has the standing to keep forces there? I think that may end up being one of the pushes and poles we see there. You worry about you both respect deadlines. Deadlines sometimes force action. I have a deadline on a story I'm writing, it makes me finish it in time. Deadlines can have a goal.
In this case, President Biden very much wanted to be able to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the 911 attacks by saying our mission was done in Afghanistan, and we had finally pulled out of America's longest war. The setting of a deadline, in this case, is really created such incredible difficulties and we'll color our-- It's not a celebration of that 20th anniversary but our analysis of where we stand after 20 years,
Nancy Solomon: Is that the pressure that President Biden is operating under this idea that the 20th anniversary of 911 should be the moment that he can come to the country and say, he pulled all the troops out. Ryan Crocker, who we heard from at the top of the show, he had an op-ed yesterday in the New York Times and it's not his first one, making this argument saying that Biden should have left the 5,000 troops in Afghanistan, the number that was there when Trump left office. He called it a small cost in blood and treasure. Is there any other pressure on Biden to pull out the entire military, but so quickly, besides this 911 anniversary?
Susan Page: I think that there were a lot of advisors who felt it was sensible to leave a few thousand US troops 2,500, 5,000, whatever, as a counterterrorism force not fighting. It's been more than a year since an American soldier died in Afghanistan, but there as an advisor and supporter of the Afghan military, but that has not been President Biden's view. It has not been his view, not just as President, but earlier as vice president.
In a way, he is following through on what he has always expressed his view, which is, we don't have a role there. We need to get out. One of the things has been, I think, frustrating in this debate is that President Biden has been criticized for the execution of the policy and he has responded by defending the policy of withdrawal. In the moment in these weeks, as we watch these scenes from Kabul, the issue isn't really was that original decision or anything to do. It's how could it be executed in a way that would have been cleaner, stronger, more sensible, less costly?
Nancy Solomon: What do you thinking about the politics of this misstep at this point? Is this the biggest trouble Biden has found himself in since he became president and what are you seeing in terms of the impacts on his presidency?
Susan Page: I think it is the biggest problem, the biggest failure he's faced for things directly under control. If you're thinking just about the cold-blooded politics of it. I actually think the resurgence of COVID is a bigger political problem for President Biden as we see this forced surge in this highly contagious Delta variant coming on, but one thing affects another.
The sense that the Biden administration wasn't very competent withdrawing from Afghanistan, doesn't help the president when he makes the case that they're trying to be competent in responding to COVID and all that has an effect on his overall approval rating. We had a couple of new polls come out yesterday, an NBC poll and a CBS poll that showed the president's approval rating taking a pretty big dip, especially among independents.
This collection of issues, this has raised some questions about Biden's presidency that he needs to be addressing. Now, I'll tell you one thing, the White House says, you know what? It's August 2021, and the next big political task is more than a year away with the midterm elections. By then we will be talking about something else.
Nancy Solomon: Most likely. This is the Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC. I'm Nancy Solomon filling in for Brian today. We're talking with Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for USA Today. Listeners, what do you want to see the president do about Afghanistan? What questions do you have for Susan Page? Give us a call at 646-435-7280, 646-435-7280. We're going to take a short break and when we come back, we'll take your calls and we'll also get to a new USA Today poll on mask and vaccine mandates, and what they found might surprise you a little bit. Stay with us.
It's Brian Lehrer show on WNYC. Good morning again, everyone I'm Nancy Solomon filling in for Brian today. My guest is USA Today, Washington bureau, chief Susan Page. Political recently reported that White House advisor Neera Tanden says Afghanistan is not currently their main focus at the White House, and that the number one priority for the cabinet is getting the infrastructure bill and the budget passed. To what extent is Afghanistan affecting Biden's domestic agenda do you think?
Susan Page: Well, there is this separate track, this issue of getting through both the trillion-dollar hard infrastructure bill that's passed the Senate and also this big-budget reconciliation bill, $3.5 trillion that has the guts of Biden's domestic agenda. We're going to see some key tests for that in the House today and tomorrow because at the moment there's a dispute, not between Republicans and Democrats, it's between moderate Democrats and progressive Democrats over which comes first.
At this moment, it is hard to see the path to victory for the White House and Democrats on this. Although I do have to say that after writing a book about Nancy Pelosi, I never count her out and her ability to pull a rabbit out of a hat.
Nancy Solomon: Well, let's dig into that a little bit because, we have a local angle to that fight going on among Democrats because Bergen County Congressman, Josh Gottheimer, is leading this small group of Democrats who say they won't vote for the budget unless they can vote for the infrastructure bill first and Progressive activists have actually been protesting at Gottheimer's office trying to stop him so, what's it play here? Why do these I think the problem-solvers caucus are usually called moderate Democrat? They're in the middle there, some of them are pretty conservative what's driving this?
Susan Page: Yes, Congressman Gottheimer has definitely gotten everyone's attention here. You said it's a small group. It is a small group, it's just nine members of Congress, but Pelosi can only lose three Democrats and still get something through this sharply divided, closely divided House. Nine turns out to be a big number at this particular moment in time.
The one thing that's has surprised people some is that these nine moderates led by congressmen from your vicinity have not backed down.
Pelosi has unfurled a lot of pressure on them to get in line with her plan, which is to pass the budget reconciliation bill first and delay that bipartisan infrastructure bill but they have doubled down with another op-ed today saying that they won't bend. That is something we're all watching here because if nobody bends, it won't get through.
Nancy Solomon: What are the stakes here? I think when we talk infrastructure bills and the federal budget people's eyes glaze over. Is there a way to sharpen people's attention on this and to give us the stakes?
Susan Page: Well, let's talk about the budget reconciliation bill, which is I think the most ambitious set of legislative proposals in the domestic front that we've seen, at least since the great society in the '60s, and maybe since the new deal with FDR. This is history-making legislation that would extend a pre-kindergarten federal aid for young kids to go into pre-kindergarten and extend federal support on the other end into community colleges, it would expand Medicare benefits for seniors.
It includes extension of broadband access to rural areas. It would significantly expand the federal safety net for Americans, but only if it's passed and Democrats don't have the luxury of waiting till like, let's wait till next year and we'll pass this because this is, I think they're very narrow majority in the House and the fact that they're dealing with a 50/50 Senate, they're either going to do this now, or it is not going to get done.
This is Biden's agenda. The Democrats agenda. It's on the line and this may be the week in which we find out if they will hang together in a way that lets it get through.
Nancy Solomon: It'll also be very interesting for those of us who live and breathe politics in our region here. It'll be really interesting to see what the impact is on Josh Gottheimer if he is able to really torpedo all of this. If it drags the whole thing down, it'll be interesting to see to what extent people locally hold him responsible.
Susan Page: Nancy, that's exactly the point that your name twin Nancy Pelosi is making to them that if you bring this down, you're going to call yourself a Democrat. There are some indications, some implicit threats that they might lose funding for their campaigns. The pressure on this is going to be pretty enormous. What that tells you is that they surely they work it out because the stakes are so high, but until they work it out, it's not worked out.
Nancy Solomon: Well, Josh Gottheimer generally faces a fairly strong primary challenge every two years because he does straddle the politics of that district and there is always a pretty sizeable, liberal and progressive coalition that would like to see him unseated, and others who support him argue that he's exactly the Democrat that needs to represent that district.
Yes, it'll be really interesting to see what happens there. We have a response from Michael on Twitter who writes, "I hear this narrative that the president is losing support due to the COVID surge, but what is it they have not done or done poorly, stronger mandates for vaccines and masks, problems with COVID seem to be a Republican-Trump issue" This is a byway of let's pivot a little bit here to COVID because I know a USA Today has a new poll out about masking and the mask mandates, I believe. Tell us a little bit about the poll and then we can talk about what Michael on Twitter asks.
Susan Page: We wanted to look at the debate between where's the right balance between individual Liberty and the common good when it comes to COVID. What we found was that Americans over what Americans recognize a right for people to live the way they want to refuse to get a vaccine, but they then support really tough rules against people who could get the vaccine and choose not to buy 70 to 30 and 70% in a divided America is a really big majority by 70 to 30.
Americans told us that they thought people had a right not to get the vaccine, but then they did not have a right to be around people who had gotten the vaccine. The 72% said mask mandates were a matter of health and safety, not an infringement on personal safety. Two-thirds supported all kinds of rules governing the behavior of people who have not been vaccinated, keeping them out of concerts, keeping them out of stores, keeping them off airplanes.
This shows really, that Americans are willing to support all kinds of mandates that make the large population safe. Although they also recognize that you do also want to preserve personal liberties. This is a debate we see on all fronts and it's really been sharpened with COVID. Especially with this resurgence of COVID, after we thought we were getting out of the woods.
Nancy Solomon: Yes, and in fact, just this morning, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the city will mandate the vaccine for all Department of Education employees, teachers, principals, and DOE staff. There won't be an option as originally planned to opt out and get a weekly COVID test. Do you see more institutions going this way of a full-on, you've got to get vaccinated to come back to work?
Susan Page: It's just a fierce debate in so many places, and you look at places like Texas and Florida, where the governors have banned mask mandates. Some of the school districts are imposing mask mandates. I know one district has made it part of their dress code in an effort to get around the governor's restriction. Some of the people who feel these mandates go too far feel that very strongly.
We hear from them. Some of them booed President Trump in Alabama last night and if you saw that, Trump said something he rarely says. He says he had gotten a vaccine, it was a good thing. He got booed by this rally made up of some of his strongest supporters. He then said, Well, of course, you have a right not to have a vaccine. That indicates how strongly a minority of Americans feel about that issue.
You really see political leaders trying to both walk a difficult line in terms of politics, but also address the health aspects of it in a serious way. I think a lot a lot of Americans worry that the messaging about what we're supposed to do, where do we stand on this pandemic has been a little muddled. They want clear answers. They want to understand what's going on. And they're willing to support common-sense rules that try to protect the common good.
Nancy Solomon: Do you have more information about the 30% to oppose mask mandates? Are we talking about the hardcore Trump supporters and which gets to Michael's question on Twitter? Are the problems continuing to be driven by Republican supporters of Trump on this?
Susan Page: Well, when we ask the question when it comes to COVID, which should take precedent, the common good or individual liberty, democrats overwhelmingly said the common good. A majority of Republicans said individual liberty. 62% of Republicans, that's a significant number of Republicans. A surprising number of independents also felt that way. It's not only Republicans who feel that way.
In a way, it's a debate that goes back to many other issues that we face as a country like gun control, or like paying taxes, or like registering for the draft. This is not a new debate in America, but COVID has made it in some cases a matter of life and death.
Nancy Solomon: Okay, we're gonna have to leave it there. We've been talking with Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for USA Today. and author of Madam Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, and the Lessons of Power which came out earlier this year. Susan, thanks so much.
Susan Page: Nancy. Thank you.
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