WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden visited all three sites of the Sept. 11 attacks Saturday as the nation marked the 20th anniversary of that day.
The president began the day in New York, attending a memorial event at ground zero Saturday morning along with first lady Jill Biden and former Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former first lady Michelle Obama.
He traveled next to the Flight 93 memorial in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where former President George W. Bush and Vice President Kamala Harris both delivered remarks, participating in a wreath-laying ceremony there before visiting the local fire department.
He later participated in a wreath-laying ceremony at the Pentagon. He did not deliver official remarks at any of the events.
“These memorials are really important," Biden said at a stop at the local fire department in Shanksville. "But they’re also incredibly difficult for the people affected by them, because it brings back the moment they got the phone call, it brings back the instant they got the news, no matter how years go by.”
Biden — who praised Bush's remarks about the nation's response to 9/11 as "a genuinely good speech about who we are" — was marking the milestone anniversary, his first as president, weeks after the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan nearly two decades after the U.S. first knocked them from power in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.
In April, Biden had set that date this year as the deadline for full U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan — recently acknowledging he did not foresee a rapid Taliban takeover that would return them to rule by then.
On Saturday, Biden defended his decision. "Can al Qaeda come back? Yeah. But guess what, it's already back other places," he said. "What's your strategy? Every place that al Qaeda is, we're gonna invade and have troops staying there? Come on."
Biden said he had been told that an overwhelming majority of Americans "think it was time to get out of Afghanistan, spending all of our money. But the flip of it is, they didn't like the way we got out! But it's hard to explain to anybody, how else could you get out?"
Afghanistan withdrawal fallout wasn't the only thorny challenge facing Biden in the weeks leading up to the anniversary. As the day approached, a group of 1,800 family members of Sept. 11 victims and first responders said they would oppose Biden’s participation in any anniversary events unless he declassified documents they were seeking from relevant FBI investigations on the planning of the attacks.
On Friday, Biden signed an executive order granting their request to release documents they say may show a link between Saudi Arabian leaders and the attacks. Biden directed the documents to be released over the next six months, barring a clear national security justification for keeping them classified.
"As the 20th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, the American people deserve to have a fuller picture of what their Government knows about those attacks," he said in a statement last week.
Biden, no stranger to loss, has embraced the role of consoler-in-chief throughout his presidency. He held a candle-lighting ceremony marking 500,000 Covid-19 deaths in February and gave a prime-time address to the nation to mark a year of lockdown.
His itinerary Saturday harks back to how some of his predecessors over the past 20 years have marked other milestone anniversaries of the national day of mourning.
On the first anniversary of the attacks, Bush made remarks at the Pentagon, visited a memorial service in Shanksville, then gave a speech that evening with the Statue of Liberty in the background. He again journeyed to all three sites on the fifth anniversary of that day.
At the 10-year mark, Obama also made stops at all three of the sites, speaking at ground zero. Biden, then vice president, spoke at the Pentagon of his empathy for those who lost loved ones that day.
"I know what it’s like to receive that call out of the blue, that the dearest thing in your life is gone," he said then.
On Friday, Biden again pointed to the pain of the loss suffered that day.
"To the families of the 2,977 people from more than 90 nations killed on Sept. 11, 2001, in New York City; Arlington, Virginia; and Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and the thousands more who were injured, America will commemorate you and your loved ones," he said in a prerecorded video released by the White House.
"It's so hard, whether it's the first year or the 20th," said Biden. "No matter how much time has passed, these commemorations bring everything painfully back as if you just got the news a few seconds ago."