Why Didn't Biden Start Evacuating Americans Sooner? We Asked Him. : The NPR Politics Podcast President Biden spoke about the situation in Afghanistan again Friday, emphasizing his commitment to evacuating all Americans and Afghan allies after the Taliban's swift takeover. NPR's Scott Detrow asked him why these evacuations didn't begin months ago when the U.S. still had more control in the country.

And as COVID cases continue to rise, many school administrators are implementing mask mandates for teachers and students despite orders in some states that prohibit the rules. The Biden administration said this week that ensuring a safe learning environment for students is a civil rights issue.

This episode: congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell, White House correspondent Scott Detrow, White House correspondent Ayesha Rascoe, and education reporter Clare Lombardo.

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Why Didn't Biden Start Evacuating Americans Sooner? We Asked Him.

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ALICE: Hey. This is Alice in Virginia Beach, Va. It's Friday night, and I've just put my kids to bed. I'm about to listen to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST while I do the dishes. And there's no way that this is an exciting enough time stamp to get on the podcast. Well, you are also listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST, which was recorded at...


It's 2:42 p.m. on Friday, August 20.

ALICE: Things may have changed by the time you hear this. OK, here's the show.


SNELL: Hey. Bedtime is exciting for all of the people involved in this (laughter).


AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Yeah, that sounds like a very exciting Friday night.

SNELL: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Kelsey Snell. I cover Congress.

RASCOE: I'm Ayesha Rascoe. I cover the White House.

DETROW: And I'm Scott Detrow. I also cover the White House.

SNELL: President Biden made another set of remarks at the White House today about the situation in Afghanistan. In the face of continued chaos after the swift takeover of the Taliban, Biden said he would keep the full force of the American military behind evacuation efforts.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: But as commander in chief, I can assure you that I will mobilize every resource necessary. And as an American, I offer my gratitude to the brave men and women of the U.S. armed forces for carrying out this mission. They're incredible.

SNELL: So I guess just to start with, guys, what seemed to be the goal of this speech? How was it different than what we heard before?

DETROW: So I was in the East Room on Monday when President Biden first spoke about Afghanistan and again just now. And the message and the tone were wildly different. And even when we're talking about a life-and-death situation like this, I do think messaging and tone is important because it tells us a lot. At the beginning of the week, what the president said in the East Room, what he said in that interview with ABC News, the message from the White House all week was we made a decision. We're confident in the decision we made. It was right. It was the right decision. And there was always going to be some sort of chaos, whether it was now, five years ago, five years from now. This is part of the process. It's kind of almost baked in, he essentially said to George Stephanopoulos.

This was a very different tone. This was - Biden came out flanked by his national security team, the secretary of defense, secretary of state, vice president, Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser. And it was all about this is a crisis. I'm managing it. Here's what we're doing. Here's what we're promising. We are committed to seeing this through. And it seems like, you know, obviously we all see it because we see what's happening in Afghanistan. But there's a realization that this is a serious, serious problem that needs the full resources of the federal government.

SNELL: So is this a communications problem? Because that seems to be the way that they're approaching this - right? - That they are not communicating it the way that they need to.

RASCOE: I would say that if it's a communications problem, it's a communications problem in the fact that they are not communicating with the Americans and Afghans in Afghanistan right now on how they can successfully and get to the airport safely and get there and get on the planes. And that is the communication. It's not about trying to sell this to the American people. It is about the operation. There seem to be a lot of people on Twitter and elsewhere who like, well, how could this have been gone done better? I am not an operations expert. I don't know.

But there are people on the ground who are just saying they cannot get there to get to their flights. And even though they say this this chaos was baked in, the administration did not make clear to the American people or to the Afghan people that this was going to be extremely chaotic, get ready, it's going to be bad. They did not do that.

DETROW: I mean, to be clear, a lot of this is how President Biden is talking about it or framing it. But there has been some changes on the ground. There was a scramble to get the military up to speed, to send thousands of troops to the airport to secure it. And you are seeing more and more flights taking off. There was a pause for a little bit today, which is something Biden talked about. But as of about midnight last night, the White House sent out an update that about 9,000 people have been evacuated from Kabul's airport.

But President Biden kind of had this all-is-fine-things-are-going-well message. And at one point in the press conference, he said that any American who wants to get to the airport can. So he called on me. And I just asked a pretty basic question at that point, because that is not what we've been seeing from reporting in Afghanistan and from video around the airport.

That doesn't really square with the images we're seeing around the airport with the reporting on the ground from our colleagues who are describing chaos and violence. Are you saying unequivocally that any American who wants to get to the airport is getting there and getting past the security barrier and to the planes where they want to go?

BIDEN: Oh, I thought the question was, how can they get through to the airport outside the airport? And the answer is to the best of our knowledge, the Taliban checkpoints, they are letting through people showing American passports. Now, that's a different question when they get into the rush and crowd of all the folks just outside the wall near the airport. That's why we had to - I guess, was it yesterday day or the day before? - we went over the wall and brought in - how many? - 169 Americans.

So it is a process to try to figure out how we deal with the mad rush of non-Americans, those who didn't help, those who were not on the priority list, just any Afghan, any Afghan to be able to get out of the country. And so my guess is that no matter what, under what circumstances we - anyone - there's not a whole lot of Afghanis. There's a whole lot of Afghanis who just assume come to America whether they're any involvement with the United States in the past at all, rather than stay under Taliban rule or any rule. So what I was saying is that we have an agreement that they will let pass through the checkpoints that they, the Taliban, control. They're letting Americans through.

DETROW: I mean, that wasn't a clear answer.

SNELL: Right. I mean, there were a lot of answers in there, but they weren't really clearly directly answering your question.


SNELL: You know, it seemed like another goal of this speech today was to try to take the wind out of the sails of the people criticizing - basically undercut the criticism that has been out there in the world. He was basically saying now is not the time to be second-guessing.


BIDEN: There'll be plenty of time to criticize and second-guess when this operation is over. But now, now I'm focused on getting this job done. I would ask every American to join me in praying for the women and men risking their lives on the ground in the service of our nation.

RASCOE: It really kind of harkened back to the days - of the early days of this war in Afghanistan, which is to question the mission was to question the troops. And it seemed to be to kind of be pulling from that strain, like, don't question this mission because you have the best fighters on the ground. You have the, you know, the best military force in the world on the ground. And they are going to get this done. And questioning it is questioning the military, the people who are putting their lives on the line.

DETROW: And just one other quick thing to add. The other thing I asked Biden is something that, you know, a lot of people have been been saying of, you know, clearly this was going to happen at some point or the other. Why were these people not evacuated? Why were these evacuation operations not undertaken while there were more troops on the ground to begin with instead of rushing people back in? And he didn't really have a good answer for that. He kept going back to what he was saying before. Nobody anticipated this would happen this quickly.


BIDEN: But the point was that although we were in contact with the Taliban and Doha for this whole period of time, that some point wasn't expected to be the total demise of the Afghan National Force, which was 300 persons. Let's assume the Afghan National Force had continued to fight and they were surrounding Kabul - be a very different story, very different story.

SNELL: You know, on that kind of thread, one of the big pieces of news that came out of the speech was when the president was asked by Zeke Miller of the Associated Press if he would commit to evacuating any and all of the Afghans who aided the war effort. He said he would. But like we've talked about on this podcast a lot, that's way easier said than done.

RASCOE: Biden said that obviously Americans are top priority, but almost as important or maybe almost equally important are the Afghans who helped the U.S. military over this 20-year conflict. The problem is trying to get all of these people out of Afghanistan, get them processed elsewhere, because even when they were sending them to Qatar, that place got filled up. Now they're trying to find other places. This is very difficult. And getting through all the checkpoints, if you're not an American, is also an issue. And are they going to send the troops out to help people who are not Americans get to the airport? This is a very difficult situation, which is why I think Biden emphasized that this is very risky.

DETROW: Yeah. And actually, as we were talking, we just got another update. And it's up to 13,000 people have been evacuated. This is going to continue. The pace is going to pick up. Look. Big picture, taking a look at the politics of this, and I've been trying to work on some stories about this over the past few days, I mean, I do think this is something that's going to stick with us for a while. You know, among other things, there's thousands and thousands of people who still need to get out of Afghanistan. This is going on for a while.

But, you know, we've talked about this so much. President Biden ran on the idea that he was the expert. He was the adult in the room. He was going to bring the competent administration after the chaos of the Trump years. And this is something entirely within his control. This is a decision he made. This is planning that he and his team put forward. And we're at a situation now where the American military is really scrambling. It seems to have been caught flat-footed.

So I think this is something we're going to be talking about for a very long time. And for one other reason on top of that, we're looking at a couple of weeks at the 20th anniversary of September 11. So the fact that the Taliban is back in control - certainly going to be on a lot of people's minds for a long period of time.

SNELL: All right, Scott, thank you so much.

DETROW: Thanks, everybody.

SNELL: We are going to take a quick break. And when we get back, COVID and schools.


SNELL: And we're back. Kids all across the country are headed back to school. And of course, the pandemic continues to make that a really complex thing. So Clare Lombardo, reporter on NPR's Education team, is here to talk about all that. Hi, Clare.


SNELL: Thank you so much for joining us because I really want to start with the fight between school leaders and state leaders over whether they can require masking in school. So where are these fights happening right now?

SNELL: Yeah, so these are happening in a handful of states - Florida, Arizona, Texas, Oklahoma. There are a couple others that banned mask mandates. Iowa is one of them. Utah is another one. Kind of the TL;DR is that things are a total mess in all of these places.

RASCOE: And TL;DR is what - too long, didn't read? I just want to - for the people out there who may not be up on the lingo of the kids these days.

SNELL: If you're not up on the lingo, things are a mess.


LOMBARDO: Yes, things are a total mess. Just watching it play out this week has been really hard to keep up with, honestly. Yeah. I can't tell you the number of emergency meetings in school districts where kids have had to quarantine, and then school boards are getting together to reevaluate whether they should actually require masks when they didn't in the first place, school board meetings that have turned vicious because parents are mad that they might be requiring masks. In a lot of states, it's actually been really interesting to watch because school superintendents are really standing their ground, especially in a lot of the biggest school districts in the country, like in Dallas and Broward County, Fla., where they're saying, you know, despite the pressure of a lot of parents and also state leaders, they're going to keep requiring masks no matter what.

SNELL: And we should say it's confusing from, like, a macro perspective looking at the whole country. But it's also confusing for teachers and for students and for parents who are trying to make decisions right now.

LOMBARDO: Yeah, especially in a couple of districts where they have just had ping-ponging decisions back-and-forth. In Texas, there have been a couple of court cases that, you know, they had the state Supreme Court tell them that, no, they're not supposed to be requiring masks. And then a day later, a district court told them, actually, yes, you can require masks. And you've got school districts that are changing their decision by the hour. There was a school district just this week that issued a statement basically saying, we're so sorry that we're caught in the middle of this, to their parents. And, yeah, it makes sense. It's a horrible position to be in.

RASCOE: And part of this is happening, the back-and-forth is happening because some of the school districts that have opened already, they've already had to quarantine a bunch of students because of contact with positive cases for the coronavirus, right?

LOMBARDO: Yeah, exactly. I mean, you had school districts in the country that already before school started, you know, on the first day, kids couldn't come to school because they tested positive or they had been exposed or teachers couldn't come to school and then on the first day were exposed and couldn't come to school the second day. So this is playing out day-by-day. I talked to superintendent in Kentucky who said, every single day I'm having students and teachers test positive. And he expects that to continue throughout the year, he told me.

SNELL: And this is kind of happening as a predicate to, like, all the things happening before you can even start to talk about the actual education process and kids who may be delayed because of a year of being virtual or any number of things that have made education the reason they're going to the schools more complicated in the pandemic.

LOMBARDO: Exactly. You know, during the summer, as education reporters, we were talking about, you know, what are the things we should expect for the coming school year? And what are the things that teachers are going to be trying to catch their kids up with in the classroom? But that's really hard to focus on when kids can't even come to school. And then, I mean, one complicating factor is that in a lot of these states and school districts, last year, as they were wrapping up the school year and it seemed like things were going to be totally different in the fall, states kind of put limits on how much virtual or remote schooling schools could do.

So one example is in Texas. Earlier this week, the Dallas school superintendent said, you know, they no longer have state funds for virtual schooling. So as they were looking forward to the school year and thinking, OK, kids might start quarantining, kids might start isolating, they needed to set aside some budget for that. And they didn't have that from the state. So these are the kinds of questions that school districts are wrestling with now and also parents might be wrestling with as they're thinking about, you know, where do I send my kid to school?

SNELL: So all of this is happening at the state and school district level or even at the school - individual school level. But this is something that President Biden recently weighed in on.

RASCOE: So you have President Biden. What he has said is that he is - that the Education Department is going to view this as possibly a civil rights issue. And that, you know, that could mean a number of things from investigations to possibly at the latest level, if these things went further, it could mean fines or things of that nature. But the problem, Clare, as I understand it, is that all of these things that the president could try to do will take a lot of time because all of this is really local issues. The federal government doesn't run local school districts. So for those kids who are already struggling, especially, we know, children of color, we know, children with less resources, that they have been struggling because of all of the circumstances of the coronavirus, there is no quick help that is coming to them, right?

LOMBARDO: Right. Yeah. Biden is calling school superintendents that have mask mandates. And Secretary Cardona is sending letters to state leaders who are prohibiting them. But no matter what they do, there's not a lot of quick fixes here. They've said that this is going to be a civil rights issue. So if parents file complaints, you know, the Education Department will review those. And if kids are disproportionately impacted - maybe a child has a preexisting medical condition or maybe they come from a community that has a higher risk of complications, maybe they don't have access to health care. If families don't send those kids to school, then they're not going to be learning. That's going to become a civil rights issue. And the Education Department is taking that seriously.

But obviously, those sorts of reviewing those complaints - that takes a long time. So these aren't quick fixes. And regardless of whether, you know, Biden is calling the superintendent and, obviously, they're throwing their support behind these school leaders, nothing is happening quickly. And these families and parents and kids obviously are caught in the middle right now.

SNELL: I kind of want to stay with the kids because - have you been talking to any of them? How are they feeling about this? Because they're the ones whose lives are really being directly impacted here.

LOMBARDO: Yeah, yeah. I have been. I - the - what's really heartbreaking about all of this is because - is that I think that kids were super, super excited to go back to school this year, especially because in the springtime, it kind of seemed like things might be going back to normal in the fall.

SNELL: Yeah.

LOMBARDO: And they were seeing this school year as a time when they would get back together with their friends.

SNELL: Yeah.

LOMBARDO: You know, a lot of kids haven't been back in school buildings since the pandemic started. Even the ones who had been, you know, their school year was totally different. Maybe half their friends were, you know, learning at home while they were, you know, spaced out in their school buildings. Things were weird last year, so they were really excited.

I - last week, I went to school with an eighth grader in Georgia. Her name is Natalie McCray (ph), and she said she was super excited to be in school buildings. But she's vaccinated. She's 13. And in a middle school, lots of kids are unvaccinated. So she's kind of in a weird position where there's a chance that she might end up having to go virtual or, you know, things are going to change this year. And this is what she told me, why she's scared.

NATALIE: Because I'm scared I'm going to get used to face-to-face again and be thriving in face-to-face and then everything gets shut down. And I'll be back to the way I was six months ago in school.

LOMBARDO: And Natalie, like a lot of kids, really did not like virtual school. She said that she does much better when she's with her peers, learning from her teachers in the classroom. I think a lot of other kids feel that way.

RASCOE: I can attest for my soon-to-be second grader that virtual schooling sucks. I think that's the scientific word for it. (Laughter) I mean, it's not good. He didn't say that. My sweet son would never say that, but I say that. It sucks. And it's really bad. It's rough.

SNELL: Well, Clare, thank you so much for all of your reporting. Do you want to stick around and you Can't Let It Go with us?

LOMBARDO: Absolutely.

SNELL: Great. We're going to take a quick break. And then, yes, it's time for Can't Let It Go.


SNELL: And we're back. And it's time to end the show like we do every week with Can't Let It Go, the part of the show where we talk about the things from the week that we just can't stop talking about, politics or otherwise. And as my usual way, I'm going completely otherwise (laughter).

The thing I can't let go of is a very sweet moment that happened with my personal, you know, home team in baseball, the Chicago Cubs. Right now, they have a pair of brothers playing for them, Andrew and Austin Romine. And they got to do a little bit of history-making on a day when they were just kind of losing. So they had this terrible outing, and they were really far behind playing against the Milwaukee Brewers. And their manager decided, well, you know what? If we're already going to lose, why don't we do something fun?


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: And here for your viewing pleasure...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: ...Romine to Romine.

SNELL: And he shifted one of the brothers to pitcher and put the other one in catcher so they could be, for the first time, brothers, you know, basically playing ball with each other.

RASCOE: (Laughter).

SNELL: Pitcher and catcher for the first time in 60 years. And it's just kind of like a nice, sweet way to salvage a really bad game. So I don't know. I'm a big baseball fan, and this brought a little bit of a smile to my heart.

RASCOE: Well, I like the thinking on that. It's like, this is going badly for us. Let's just have some fun. Let's have some fun, guys. Just go on out there (laughter).

SNELL: And their manager, David Ross, was - he was on the team. He was on the team when they won the World Series. And he's kind of like this beloved figure on the team as, like, a guy who kind of gets it and a guy who understands what it feels like to be playing an epically long season of baseball. And you know what? Sometimes, you just got to find a way to make the day work (laughter).

RASCOE: Clare, do you play baseball?

LOMBARDO: I certainly don't play baseball.

RASCOE: (Laughter).

LOMBARDO: But I watch baseball. I love baseball.

RASCOE: You watch it. Do you have siblings? Would you want to play baseball with your siblings?

LOMBARDO: I don't know that I would want to play it with my siblings, but I think that's sweet.

RASCOE: (Laughter).

SNELL: Would you ever want to do anything professionally like that in, like, the public eye with your siblings? Because I wouldn't.

SNELL: No. No. No.

LOMBARDO: But I love my brother. I love my - I don't want to say that - yeah.


SNELL: Yeah, this is not saying that I do not adore my siblings. I just - I don't want to do something competitive professionally with my siblings.


SNELL: Like, let's just not do them.

RASCOE: No, no, no. I don't want to do that. I love them dearly, but no.


SNELL: Clare, what about you? What is it that is just on your mind? What can't you let go?

LOMBARDO: OK, so do you guys know the movie "Almost Famous"?

SNELL: Yes, absolutely.

LOMBARDO: OK, this is a movie that came out in 2000. And it was about a kid who was 15. And he wanted to be a music writer and write for Rolling Stone. And he followed this fictional band called Stillwater in the 1970s. I think it was 1973. Basically, like a lot of people love this movie. I think POLITICS PODCAST listeners might know this movie. It's a really heartwarming movie about music journalism and music in the seventies. And the point is that this kid ends up going on tour with this band and profiling them for Rolling Stone and writing a cover story. And that cover story, obviously, the people who watch the movie never read it. And today, Rolling Stone published what that cover story would be.

RASCOE: Oh, wow.

SNELL: I totally missed that.

LOMBARDO: Very heartwarming. And just for anyone who watched that movie and loves it, it's just very sweet. So go read it.

SNELL: Now I want to know if he mentions the part where the lead singer is on top of the roofs screaming, I am a golden god.

LOMBARDO: I am a golden god. A classic scene.


SNELL: So, Ayesha, what is on your mind? What can you not let go of?

RASCOE: Well, I think something I can't let go of when I saw this news - and at the time, it had just finished raining where I'm at. And it was a dark Friday. But I saw this news and it lit up my heart. And it was - and I said, look at God, because Mike Richards, who they had chosen to be the new "Jeopardy!" host, he done stepped down. I said, look at God (laughter). That was good news on - and I usually - I do not believe in, you know, I do not take pleasure in people's downfall or anything like that. Mike Richards, you know, you know, God bless them. I, you know, I don't wish bad on anyone.

But reporting came out in The Ringer about an old podcast he did where he made very offensive comments about women, Jewish people. Just - it was offensive stuff. So a lot of offensive comments. And that reporting came out, and he stepped away. But I feel like the way that situation was handled, for people that don't know, haven't been following this, I don't know where you've been - but "Jeopardy!" - they are looking for a new host. And then they they bring in all these people, you know, LeVar Burton, you know, "Reading Rainbow," "Star Trek" fame, others to test them. And then they end up going with the executive producer of the show.

SNELL: He's like a guy who's picking who's going to do it?

SNELL: Yes, who's like a part of the search. They pick him, who nobody had even really thought of. And people were enraged because they felt like this search was rigged. This is not a real search because he like Dick Cheneyed (ph) the situation where Dick Cheney was on the search committee for the vice president. He said, you know what? How about me? And then he became the vice president. And so that - people felt like this was unjust. So this was a situation where Sony, they missed - they did not read the room. And it did not work out. And I felt like this was a stain on Alex Trebek's legacy. That's what I felt like. Clare, I don't know, do you watch "Jeopardy"?

LOMBARDO: Do I watch "Jeopardy"? Yes, I watch "Jeopardy!" Long-time watcher of "Jeopardy!" here.

RASCOE: "Jeopardy!" is a staple, right? It's a staple. Whether you watch it every day or not, it's a staple. Alex Trebek was, you know, a U.S. hero, even though he was Canadian. He was a U.S. hero.

SNELL: He was a TV hero.

RASCOE: He was a TV hero, and that he deserved better than this search that they did for him.

LOMBARDO: I agree.

SNELL: Wait. But now I want to know. Who would you have - who did you want it to be? Clare, Who did you want it to be?

LOMBARDO: Wasn't LeVar Burton the front-runner for everyone?

SNELL: Yeah.

RASCOE: Not for Sony. For everyone on social media, he's the front-runner.

SNELL: I mean, obviously not for Mike Richards.


RASCOE: No, he wasn't. And our eagle-eyed - one of our eagle-eyed producers pointed out that today, LeVar Burton tweeted happy Friday.


SNELL: I was just going to say, I bet he's got his phone ringing off the hook.

RASCOE: Before this news came out, he tweeted, happy Friday. So what did he know, and when did he know it? (Laughter).

SNELL: Oh, gosh. Well, on that note, that is a wrap for today. Clare, thank you so much for joining us. Clare Lombardo from the NPR Ed team. Thank you.

LOMBARDO: Thanks for having me.

SNELL: Our executive producer is Shirley Henry. Our editors are Muthoni Muturi and Eric McDaniel. Our producers are Barton Girdwood and Elena Moore. Thanks to Lexie Schapitl and Brandon Carter. Our intern, Miacel Spotted Elk, it's her last day today. Thank you for everything you've done for the show. I'm Kelsey Snell. I cover Congress.

RASCOE: And I'm Ayesha Rascoe. I cover the White House.

SNELL: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

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