WASHINGTON — Two House members issued a scathing statement Tuesday after they took a secret trip to the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, saying "Washington should be ashamed" about the effort to evacuate Americans and allies.
Reps. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., and Peter Meijer, R-Mich., said they traveled to Kabul, the capital, on Tuesday as part of an effort to persuade President Joe Biden to extend the Aug. 31 deadline to withdraw U.S. troops, which would effectively end the effort to evacuate Americans and others who helped the U.S. over two decades of war.
"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, both of whom are veterans, said in a joint statement. "Sadly and frustratingly, getting our people out depends on maintaining the current, bizarre relationship with the Taliban."
The two lawmakers also criticized the support U.S. troops on the ground in Kabul are receiving. Both members served in Iraq before being elected to Congress.
"Washington should be ashamed of the position we put our service members in, but they represent the best in America," they said in the statement. "These men and women have been run ragged and are still running strong. Their empathy and dedication to duty are truly inspiring."
Republicans and Democrats have vocally criticized Biden's handling of the withdrawal, which he has largely defended as necessary to ending the decades-long war.
The Taliban effectively took control of the country this month, and since then the U.S. has conducted hurried evacuations from the Kabul airport with the tacit permission of the new government. As recently as Tuesday, a Taliban spokesman warned that after the deadline, they will no longer view a U.S. presence in the country as acceptable, a position that could lead to more violent clashes if U.S. troops remain.
But U.S. officials have warned that it may not be possible to get all Americans and allies out by the deadline.
Biden announced Tuesday that he intended to honor the deadline, saying he has asked the Defense and State departments to craft contingency plans if the evacuations are not complete.
Moulton and Meijer gave House leaders and the Armed Services Committee no notice about their trip, a senior Democratic leadership aide said.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the administration advised against Americans, whether elected officials or not, trying to travel to Kabul.
"The focus must continue to be evacuating American citizens and our Afghan partners who fought alongside us for the last 20 years, and that is best left in the hands of our the Department of Defense and the State Department,” Psaki said.
An administration official told NBC News Tuesday night that the trip was “an unhelpful distraction to the mission we are trying to accomplish. Our troops need to be focused on getting evacuees out, not hosting members of Congress who want to find a way in.”
Before the trip became public, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., wrote a letter to tell members they could not travel to Afghanistan.
"I write to reiterate that the Departments of Defense and State have requested that Members not travel to Afghanistan and the region during this time of danger," she wrote, saying such trips would "unnecessarily divert needed resources from the priority mission of safely and expeditiously evacuating Americans and Afghans at risk from Afghanistan."
During her weekly press conference at the Capitol on Wednesday, Pelosi said she knew about the trip a little while before it became public but didn't say anything because it was too dangerous.
"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 that they did not have the greenlight from the Democratic side.
Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colo., who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, told MSNBC on Wednesday that 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."
House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., suggested in an interview Wednesday on Fox News 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."
Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., said on Fox News Wednesday, "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."
Rep. Sara Jacobs, D-Calif., a member of the Armed Services Committee, criticized the two for the trip.
"Whether it is Haiti or Afghanistan, taking up space in a disaster zone for your own ego helps no one," she wrote on Twitter.
Meijer and Moulton pre-emptively defended their decision to travel to the country, saying they did so secretly so they would not draw attention to their presence.
"We conducted this visit in secret, speaking about it only after our departure, to minimize the risk and disruption to the people on the ground, and because we were there to gather information, not to grandstand," they said. "We left on a plane with empty seats, seated in crew-only seats to ensure that nobody who needed a seat would lose one because of our presence."