YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Crises foreign and domestic. The Taliban captures key cities in Afghanistan in stunning speed.
PENTAGON SPOKESMAN JOHN KIRBY: (From video.) This is the prudent thing to do given the rapidly deteriorating security situation.
MS. ALCINDOR: And the Pentagon prepares to send in 3,000 U.S. troops to evacuate American personnel. Plus –
NIAID DIRECTOR ANTHONY FAUCI: (From video.) We believe sooner or later you will need a booster for durability.
MS. ALCINDOR: As the Delta variant surges, the FDA authorizes vaccine booster shots for Americans with compromised immune systems.
NEW YORK GOVERNOR ANDREW CUOMO (D): (From video.) The best way I can help now is if I step aside.
MS. ALCINDOR: And New York Governor Andrew Cuomo resigns after accusations he sexually harassed multiple women. What happens now amid the #MeToo movement? Next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Yamiche Alcindor.
MS. ALCINDOR: Good evening and welcome to Washington Week. Tonight we begin with breaking news, the deepening crisis in Afghanistan. The Taliban have quickly taken control of large parts of the country. That’s led the Pentagon to announce it’s moving some 3,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan and another 4,000 troops to the region.
PENTAGON SPOKESMAN JOHN KIRBY: (From video.) This is a temporary mission with a narrow focus.
MS. ALCINDOR: U.S. officials say the forces will be helping American personnel and Afghan interpreters evacuate. The move is jeopardizing President Biden’s goal of a total withdrawal by the end of this month.
Meanwhile, the Delta variant keeps igniting COVID hotspots and political battles. This week President Biden pledged to support local officials defying bans on mask mandates passed by GOP leaders.
PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) Thank God that we have heroes like you, and I stand with you all, and America should as well.
MS. ALCINDOR: Joining me tonight to discuss all of this and more: Ronan Farrow, investigative reporter and contributing writer to The New Yorker; Vivian Salama, national security reporter for The Wall Street Journal; and joining us here in studio, Jonathan Martin, national political correspondent for The New York Times; and Eva McKend, congressional correspondent for Spectrum News. Thank you, all of you, for being here.
Vivian, I want to start with you. White House sources tell me that they were surprised by the speed at which this is happening. President Biden, of course, has said he has no regrets and that Afghans must fight for themselves, but there are a lot of critics who see this as a big failure. What’s happening on the ground in these cities that are falling to the Taliban, especially as women in particular face danger, and what’s the political foul out – fallout, possibly, for President Biden choosing to rip off this – Band-Aid in this way?
VIVIAN SALAMA: Well, Yamiche, you know, the U.N. secretary-general, Antonio Guterres, probably said it best today where he said Afghanistan is spinning out of control. That was his quote. We have seen major cities, including Kandahar, Helmand, and a couple of others fall in just the last couple of days, meaning that the Taliban has essentially taken over the south and western parts of the country and they’re positioning themselves to move into Kabul, which for them would be the big prize – but also one catastrophe after another, Kabul being the largest one. And so what, you know, the Biden administration keeps on saying, you know, we are surprised by the speed at which the Taliban has been moving on these cities, but a lot of people including within the intelligence community are not surprised. They’ve been warning for months that U.S. withdrawal could jeopardize the security situation and empower the Taliban, and that is exactly what we’ve seen in recent days. And yes, it is rather shocking to a lot of people, including within the administration, how quickly this is happening, but to others who have seen the Taliban getting stronger and stronger in recent months and years and Afghan security forces likewise getting weaker, this is not a surprise. And so the Biden administration now grappling with this situation where President Biden adamant about the fact that the scales are tipping in favor of leaving. It was a lose-lose situation, but ultimately he believes the problems at home are so great that he wants the focus there. Twenty years was too long to be in Afghanistan, and the Afghan people, the Afghan government, and military needs to help themselves, but obviously they relied so heavily for 20 years on the U.S. and NATO forces that now they’re left on their own and a lot of people see them crumbing quickly.
MS. ALCINDOR: Yeah, and a lose-lose situation, as you put it. President Biden also, though, in defending himself, said the U.S. equipped and trained hundreds of thousands of Afghans, yet veterans now – U.S. veterans are saying why did my friend get blown up? What happened, for what? So tell me what happened – tell us what happened to all that training and sacrifices made in Afghanistan. How is the Taliban able to move this quickly, given all of the sacrifices there?
MS. SALAMA: You know, Yamiche, I think it’s going to take us years to really dissect what went wrong with regard to that, but a lot of really obvious things. First of all, the U.S. – the Afghan military relied so heavily on U.S. airpower, air support, so targeting from the air any targets that they needed to support their ground forces, and now we’re taking a lot of that away although the military says that’s possible – it’s possible they might still provide some air support. You also have widespread corruption within the Afghan government and the military, and that’s really plagued and weakened them over the years. And also, pay is a big issue. The salaries to these Afghan military and police officers is so meager that it is hardly an incentive for them to go out there and risk their lives to the Taliban, that is much stronger, much more organized, and moving fast by the day, and very, very ruthless in terms of their objectives. And so this is what we’re seeing, and unfortunately, you know, a lot of U.S. officials who risked their lives, some people who lost limbs out there because of roadside bombs and other horrible, horrible situations are now looking back at the last 20 years and they said, you know, we went in there to try to help Afghanistan get on the road to sort of a path post-Taliban, but strategy was the big question. And it’s not just on the Biden administration; it goes to his predecessors as well – did the U.S. ever really have a strategy going in 20 years ago that they could help the Afghan government sort of construct itself and form institutions and all the things that you need to actually form a country, or did they focus just on the military aspect? And so these are the questions now in the closing days of this war for the U.S.
MS. ALCINDOR: It’s an important question, and I was talking to a White House official today who said our mission was to get the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11, not to nation build, but the questions that you’re asking go to the heart of this.
Ronan, I want to come to you. You’ve worked and covered the State Department. You also wrote a book on American diplomacy called War on Peace. Some have said America seems very good at creating war but has a weak record in creating peace. What’s this mean for the U.S.’s standing and influence in the region and the world?
RONAN FARROW: I think there’s, as is so often the case, Yamiche, a sense of history repeating in this moment of Afghanistan, as Vivian said, spinning out of control. Richard Holbrooke, who ran the Afghanistan team at the State Department during the first Obama administration that I worked on, spent his final days – he lost his life in that job – arguing that we had lost a moment of leverage when we had military muscle on the ground in that country and a credible threat that it might continue. He felt that could have been used as a lever in more robust negotiations with the Taliban, and at that point in time the U.S. government didn’t want to do that. That fits with a pattern over time of military-first approaches to Afghanistan. And even right now what we see is, yes, talks ongoing, multilateral talks that the U.S. is a part of in Doha right now about the Taliban and its future in Afghanistan, but what we don’t see is any coordination between our military withdrawal and those talks. And I think, you know, certainly Richard Holbrooke, a person many people disagreed with in Washington, were he around would argue that we are yet again in a position where we squandered the moment when we actually had boots on the ground. Once you’re in talks with a complete withdrawal already underway, you really don’t have any teeth – you don’t have anything to back the talks up with – and so yet again what we’re seeing is a failure of diplomacy as well in this moment. And you know, the consequences are going to be on a human level acute for Afghans. I think they’re going to start to be felt politically. You know, if Kabul falls, as women’s rights are threatened in I think even the very immediate future in Afghanistan, if there’s a return to – if you will – the Dark Ages in Afghanistan, that’s something that the Biden administration is going to feel.
JONATHAN MARTIN: Well, I mean, speaking of the echoes of history, this is so tragic and poignant coming up on the anniversary of 9/11, and the specter of Kabul falling on the – on or near the 20th anniversary of 9/11, politically, obviously, is terrible for the Biden administration. And it also – speaking of history, it also echoes the fall of Saigon. You know, speaking of Holbrooke, someone who knows all too well the sort of challenges that we had in Vietnam, and here we are again pulling out of a country where winning and losing was sort of never clearly defined, and we’re leaving and having to evacuate the embassy and the capital of the country. It’s just eerie.
And look, I think the challenge for Biden here is the most severe yet of his presidency. The honeymoon’s clearly over here. He’s facing enormous challenges abroad and at home. You have a resurgent COVID. You have, you know, rising inflation, which is obviously creating challenges for Americans at the pump, at the grocery store, which is overshadowing the economy which actually is gaining steam. Unemployment’s falling, but the inflation part is sort of overshadowing that. And schools opening back up now with COVID coming back. He’s got a lot on his plate going into the fall.
MS. ALCINDOR: Yeah, well, thank you so much, Vivian. Thank you so much for your reporting. That’s such an incredible and important conversation, so I appreciate you coming on.
Meanwhile, of course, the Delta variant is fueling spikes in COVID cases across the country. Politics continues to be at the center of this health crisis. President Biden has been calling out the governors of Florida and Texas. Both have banned local officials from enacting mask mandates. We also saw this video, and I want to – we’re going to put it up for folks – from Tennessee this week of anti-mask protesters surrounding health-care workers who were attending a schoolboard meeting to advocate wearing masks. Eva, I want to come to you. What’s this scary scene tell you about really the impact of weaponizing anti-science views?
EVA MCKEND: Well, we are seeing what you saw on the video – not to the same extent – but we are seeing the same tone in Congress, a fierce resistance among congressional Republicans, specifically in the House on mask mandates and vaccine requirements. And at the outset, it was just a few Republicans, but now it’s even coming from the leadership. Kevin McCarthy, very vocal against continuing to take these measures to suppress the virus.
Senator Rand Paul getting into a very public spat with YouTube, where they banned him for a week over a video where he argued that cloth masks are ineffective. And just to give you a sense of how long he’s been making that argument, I asked Dr. Deborah Birx in the previous administration, in the Trump administration, about this – are cloth masks completely ineffective – and she said no. She said no, that that was not the case, that Senator Paul’s comments are inaccurate. But we are seeing this really a live political issue among Republicans. I don’t know if they think that it’s going to help them electorally or they fundamentally feel as though these measures and mandates have gone too far.
MS. ALCINDOR: Yeah. And, JMart, I want to come to you. I want to, in some ways, marry the conversation we’re having now with the one we just had, which is President Biden has really liked setting these markers. July 4th, we’re going to celebrate normalizing parts of our life after COVID. August 31st, we’re going to withdraw totally from Afghanistan. Now we’re seeing both of those dates kind of go up. What’s it say? And what’s the political risk here? Is he setting consequence – or, setting deadlines, rather, too soon? What do you make of what’s going on?
MR. MARTIN: Well, I think he was trying to sort of undersell and overdeliver in the first months of his administration. And he did effectively. But as in every administration, events are what drives the administration, not any kind of arbitrary deadline that you set. And the events that have now taken place, both with regard to COVID being resurgent because of Delta and because of the sort of unexpected surge of the Taliban in Afghanistan, have kind of overwhelmed those two dates that you mentioned, and his administration more broadly.
And it’s frustrating to the White House folks because they are saying: We have gotten this big bill passed through the Senate with 69 votes in a polarized Washington – an unheard-of bipartisan majority. I’m talking, of course, about the bipartisan bill on infrastructure, Yamiche. You don’t hear about it. Why? Well, because Afghanistan’s about to fall to the Taliban, because, you know, COVID is surging. And so those two issues have squeezed out the good news story that they have to tell in the White House.
MS. ALCINDOR: And I want to turn now to another story that has dominated, and that did dominate, the beginning of this week. On Tuesday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo – once a star in the Democratic Party – resigned. The move came a week after an investigation found that he had sexually harassed multiple women and created a toxic work environment.
NEW YORK GOVERNOR ANDREW CUOMO (D): (From video.) There are generational and cultural shifts that I just didn’t fully appreciate. And I should have. No excuses.
MS. ALCINDOR: Now Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul is set to become the first woman governor of New York. She said she plans to remove any staffers who acted unethically.
NEW YORK LIEUTENANT GOVERNOR KATHLEEN HOCHUL (D): (From video.) At the end of my term, whenever it ends, no one will ever describe my administration as a toxic work environment.
MS. ALCINDOR: Now, Ronan, you’ve written extensively about high-profile men accused of sexual harassment and sexual abuse. What patterns of power and abuse emerge from Cuomo’s alleged behavior? And what do these allegations say about who the governor is?
MR. FARROW: I think it’s important to note, Yamiche, that what we saw happen with the sharp downfall of Andrew Cuomo is, in many ways, not a traditional #MeToo story. For sure, there is a serious dimension that has to do with sexual harassment and abuse. You know, the attorney general’s report on Andrew Cuomo included at least one allegation that would be classified as, you know, as Class C misdemeanor in New York that could be theoretically punishable with a few months in jail – you know, groping. So that’s serious.
But I think that what we’re seeing in the political landscape around Cuomo is equally a consequence of years and years of corruption, bullying, a willingness to subvert and manipulate processes around him. My most recent reporting on Andrew Cuomo was about that strain of his leadership, the fact that over the years he dismantled corruption commissions that were looking into him, he bullied and intimidated officials who sought to scrutinize his actions. You know, one of the incidents we document around the closure of an anti-corruption commission in 2014 was a call he made to the White House, seemingly – if not trying to get the top federal prosecutor in Manhattan fired, certainly trying to undercut him and interfere with an ongoing investigation.
And we saw around the release of the sexual harassment report from the attorney general’s office similar tactics. Some of the very same players that he has undermined in the past being undermined and smeared again. One of the authors of that report being the subject of leaks from his team that sought to imply that that author, Joon Kim, was, shall we say, less than impartial, that his motive was personal or political. These are tactics that Andrew Cuomo relied on again, and again, and again.
And I do think part of how this connects to the #MeToo movement, a swath of reporting by a whole bunch of journalists, a swath of work by a whole bunch of activists over the last few years, is that there is less tolerance of that particular leadership style. Has it gone away? No. But I think we see in the Andrew Cuomo case a diminished willingness to put up with that as a hallmark of leadership.
MS. ALCINDOR: And, Jonathan, news broke today that the New York State Assembly is suspending its impeachment investigation into the governor. That’s, of course, interesting timing. I was wondering, why is he staying on for 14 days? What do you make of the timing of that?
MR. MARTIN: Well, if Cuomo wants to run again, the fact that they’re not going to impeach him is actually helpful because if he was to be impeached it would obviously impede his ability to run for office in the future. Look, I think it’s a long shot that he could rehab himself and run for office down the road, but he has a history of trying to come back and run again. In 2002 he dropped out of a race for governor, came back, became state AG, and ran again for governor, of course. So it’s not totally crazy. And by not impeaching him, he would still technically have that opening to try to come back down the road.
MS. ALCINDOR: An opening to try to come back. Eva, you were a reporter in New York state, in the Hudson Valley. I’m struck by the idea that Republicans, especially when you think of former President Trump, they’re able to hold on, but – and not, in a lot of ways, face the political consequences. But on the Democratic side, you can name only a couple but there are men like Al Franken who really had to pay the political price. Is there a double standard here when it comes to the politics of this?
MS. MCKEND: Well, Democrats and Republicans, on this issue in particular, have come out and expressed different positions on this, different values. You know, Democrats often say: We are the party of women. We trust and believe women. So when it is one of their own that is accused of sexual misconduct, it becomes very complicated. You can’t pick and choose who you want to protect, and so that is why we see the response that we did.
I also think what was really powerful about this moment is that I think collectively we are asking ourselves: Is this a moment that we’re seeing a shift in our politics? Because some of hallmarks of Governor Cuomo, right, this gravitas, this bullying, the family legacy – it seems as though we are moving away from prizing that as the most significant aspects of our – of our modern-day politicians. And to the people in the Hudson Valley, in Sullivan County in the Catskills, I think the heavily Republican law enforcement community there, thrilled by this outcome, maybe not necessarily for the allegations against him but for other issues that he has long championed like gun control, and often they feel as though they don’t have a voice in New York state because the large voting population always reelects Democrats. And so no one happier than them, I think, with this outcome.
MR. MARTIN: His persona really is a throwback, though, and it’s striking that he got away with it for as long as he did. Obviously, on most policies he was progressive, certainly culturally, and where the state was, but his persona, though, in the year 2021 for Democrats in a progressive state, hard to take.
MS. ALCINDOR: Ronan, you’re nodding here. I want to – I want to give you the last word in some ways here. People who had never spoken out are now speaking out, including to you. Where do you see this going next, and could you face – and could Governor Cuomo face criminal prosecution? You can also, of course, jump in on JMart and Eva’s great points there.
MR. FARROW: Well, I think both of them are correct. Jonathan makes a really good point about this being a leadership style that is out of vogue right now, and I think that’s something to be thankful for. You know, we’ve seen in industry after industry that kind of rough-hewn bullying style sort of lose its purchase, and in Andrew Cuomo we see someone who presided over an administration – I think it could be fairly argued – that was fairly corrupt. The kind of interference that I mentioned before was widespread. We saw, you know, before his tenure as well – it’s true this is not a problem that originated with him – but certainly also during his tenure New York remain one of the more corrupt states in the country. There’s a lot of ways to slice the data, but on a lot of lists that is true. Albany has a special interest politics and a special interest money problem. It has tolerated this kind of interference and bullying across party lines, but certainly within the Democratic Party, and I think we’re seeing a wakeup call where those changing standards that Jonathan alluded to are colliding with an old-school style of leadership that now is being shown the door.
MS. ALCINDOR: Well, I have to tell you, Eva – I’m going to – all the great points that you made, but really this – you started out this strain of the changing times and the shifting ideas, and the idea that the personalities we saw, maybe it will work on the GOP side, but this kind of gravitas and really running on your family’s name, that’s a changing, changing idea in American politics. So I really, really appreciate both of you coming on, and of course Ronan coming on. I want to say thank you so much to the reporters here. That’s all the time we have.
I have to leave you a couple minutes early so we can support – so you can support your local PBS station. So thank you again to Ronan, to Jonathan, to Eva for your insights, and thank you for joining us. Remember to tune in on Monday to the PBS NewsHour for the latest on the Taliban’s takeover of Afghan cities. Jane Ferguson, my colleague, will have exclusive reporting from the region. Our conversation will continue on the Washington Week Extra. Find it on our social media and on our website. We’ll be talking about the dire warning this week on climate change from the – from a U.N. report.
I’m Yamiche Alcindor. Good night from Washington.