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Bipartisan criticism pours in after congressmen take clandestine Afghanistan trip

Reps. Peter Meijer and Seth Moulton's trip to Kabul was called a "publicity stunt" that took resources away from the evacuation efforts.
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WASHINGTON — A bipartisan chorus of members of Congress criticized Reps. Peter Meijer, R-Mich., and Seth Moulton, D-Mass., on Wednesday for making an undisclosed trip to Afghanistan to observe the U.S. military’s frenzied evacuation efforts.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said she knew about the trip Tuesday shortly before it became public but didn't say anything because it would have endangered the two members, both of whom served in Iraq before they were elected to Congress.

"This is deadly serious," Pelosi said, reiterating that leadership does not want any more members to travel to Afghanistan because there is already a strain on resources. "There's a real concern about members being in the region."

A trip taken by lawmakers would normally require approval by congressional committees, and Pelosi said they did not have the green light from the Democratic side. Administration officials also indicated they were not made aware of the trip.

Pelosi sent a letter Tuesday night warning members not to travel to Afghanistan, saying such trips would "unnecessarily divert needed resources."

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said in an interview on Fox News on Wednesday that he didn’t think the trip was the best decision because it “put people in jeopardy” but said he understood why the lawmakers wanted to go.

McCarthy told reporters he has tried to dissuade other lawmakers from traveling to Afghanistan.

"I explained to them that I don't think they should," he said at his weekly news conference. "I think it creates a greater risk. You've got enough Americans over there that could be held hostage. They'd make a point out of a member of Congress. I think you take military away from doing their job of getting as many Americans out we can."

Image: Rep. Peter Meijer speaks at a campaign rally on Oct. 14 in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Rep. Peter Meijer speaks at a campaign rally on Oct. 14 in Grand Rapids, Mich.Carlos Osorio / AP file

Reacting to the visit, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said at a news briefing Wednesday that "they certainly took time away from what we had been planning to do that day" and the government is "not encouraging VIP visits" at this time.

The bipartisan criticism also poured in Wednesday from rank-and-file lawmakers, including from Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colo., who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He told MSNBC he was "shocked" to hear about the trip.

"I actually think this is a pretty irresponsible thing for these two members to do," Crow said. "The bottom line is we are just trying to secure our troops and soldiers, we're trying to get as many people out as possible, and the only thing that I thought about when I heard this is how many Afghan women and children were not able to be evacuated yesterday because they had to pull Marines off the line or out of rest to provide security for VIPs? It shouldn't have happened."

In a separate interview on MSNBC, Rep. Madeleine Dean, D-Pa., called the news “troubling,” especially given that a member of Congress “would come in, A, without telling the administration, but, B, knowing that they will take resources from people who desperately need it.”

Image: Rep. Seth Moulton descends the House entrance stairs in Washington on March 12, 2020.
Rep. Seth Moulton descends the House entrance stairs in Washington on March 12, 2020.Tom Brenner / Reuters file

Speaking to reporters on Capitol Hill, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., voiced frustration with the pair.

"To me, to go now is not to help; it’s selfishness," Meeks said. "To try and get, you know, some attention for yourself, and it doesn't help the people that we want to be helpful right now."

At a bipartisan press conference in which several Democrats and Republicans pleaded with the president to extend the Aug. 31 deadline to withdraw U.S. troops, Rep. Mike McCaul, R-Texas, called the trip by his fellow members a "distraction."

"I think that it's a distraction from our messaging here today because here we are talking about thousands of Americans and thousands of Afghan interpreters left behind, and now we have to talk about two members who went on their own," McCaul said.

Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., said on Fox News, "As for members going to Afghanistan on their own, I think it's a bad idea. I think it's a publicity stunt, and I think it actually is counterproductive to the effort as getting as many people out as possible."

In a joint statement Tuesday, Meijer and Moulton said they traveled to Kabul on Tuesday as part of an effort to persuade President Joe Biden to extend the Aug. 31 deadline, which would effectively end the effort to evacuate Americans and others who helped the U.S. over two decades of war.

Evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport
U.S. Air Force airmen guide qualified evacuees aboard a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III in support of the noncombatant evacuation operation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, in Afghanistan, on Tuesday.Taylor Crul / U.S. Air Force

"After talking with commanders on the ground and seeing the situation here, it is obvious that because we started the evacuation so late, that no matter what we do, we won't get everyone out on time, even by September 11," the lawmakers said. "Sadly and frustratingly, getting our people out depends on maintaining the current, bizarre relationship with the Taliban."

Biden announced Tuesday that he intended to honor the end-of-August deadline, saying he has asked the Defense and State departments to craft contingency plans if the evacuations are not complete.

On Wednesday, a White House official said 19,000 people were evacuated from Kabul in the past 24 hours. The official said that since Aug. 14, the U.S. has evacuated and facilitated the evacuation of approximately 82,300 people on U.S. military and coalition flights.

Meanwhile, House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., suggested in an interview on Fox that more of his fellow Republicans are trying to travel to Afghanistan to observe the evacuation for themselves.

"Other colleagues of mine are doing the same thing," he said. "I've talked to a lot of my colleagues who served in Afghanistan, and we've heard them very vocally talking about their translators that they worked with, friends of theirs that are still left behind enemy lines by President Biden. And they're doing things to try to get people out."