POLITICO Playbook: A reality check on Biden’s presser

In his speech on Friday afternoon, President JOE BIDEN sought to project stability and competence, and to persuade both the U.S. and its allies that after days of chaos in Kabul, he finally had the situation in Afghanistan under control.

But as of Saturday morning, there appears to be quite a distance between reality as Biden described and, well … reality — a credibility gap that is dominating the coverage right now and could threaten Biden’s standing with the public as the crisis stretches into its second week.

Here’s a breakdown of the most yawning gaps between rhetoric and reality …

What Biden said: “We have no indication that [Americans] haven’t been able to get — in Kabul — through [to] the airport. … Thus far, [the Taliban have] allowed them to go through.

— But just minutes later, that claim was contradicted by Defense Secretary LLOYD AUSTIN, who told House lawmakers in a Friday afternoon briefing that some Americans trying to flee Afghanistan “have been harassed and even beaten by Taliban fighters — a reality Austin called “unacceptable. More on that from Andrew Desiderio, Heather Caygle and Lara Seligman

— This morning, the State Department sent out a security alert “advising U.S. citizens to avoid traveling to the airport, citing “potential security threats outside the gates.

What Biden said: “I have seen no question of our credibility from our allies around the world.

— Germany: “For those who believed in democracy and freedom, especially for women, these are bitter events, Chancellor ANGELA MERKEL said this week. The man she’s endorsed as her successor, CDU leader ARMIN LASCHET, called the withdrawal “the biggest debacle that NATO has suffered since its founding.

— U.K.: “It’s sad that the West has done what it’s done, said Defense Minister BEN WALLACE. From the same article: “[Biden] hasn’t just humiliated America’s Afghan allies, said RORY STEWART, a former British cabinet minister. “He’s humiliated his Western allies by demonstrating their impotence.

— France: In a call with Biden, President EMMANUEL MACRON emphasized that NATO has a “moral responsibility to evacuate its Afghan allies — a phrase found in the French readout of the call, but omitted from the U.S. readout, reports The Guardian’s Joan Greve.

— It’s perhaps unsurprising that America’s NATO partners might feel burned. Bloomberg’s Alberto Nardelli reports that “Biden told key allies in June that he would maintain enough of a security presence in Afghanistan to ensure they could continue to operate in the capital following the main U.S. withdrawal. That no longer appears to be the case.

— “This looks like ‘America First,’ except that its officials can speak French, a former U.S. intelligence officer told FT’s Edward Luce. He writes that the execution of the withdrawal has caused a “blurring between Biden and Trump in the eyes of much of the international community.

It all amounts to a growing credibility problem. The White House has long portrayed Biden as supremely competent and a straight-shooter, especially compared to the bumbling and lies of his predecessor. But the current reality in Afghanistan undercuts both aspects of that image of Biden.

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WHAT’S MORE IMPORTANT? — You might imagine that the crisis in Afghanistan is the Biden administration’s top priority at the moment. But it isn’t — at least according to senior White House adviser NEERA TANDEN.

“The No. 1 priority for our cabinet overall, from our perspective here, is to build support throughout the [August] recess process for the legislative agenda, she told the L.A. Times’ Eli Stokols and Noah Bierman, who have a great writeup about the White House’s continued focus on domestic priorities over all else.

“Every morning this week at 8:45, a newly established ‘war room’ has convened at the White House, with about 20 staffers logging onto a Zoom call to coordinate messaging and deployment of critical resources, they report. “The operation has nothing to do with the crisis in Afghanistan — it’s about keeping President Biden’s big infrastructure push on track, and the war room is overseen by Tanden.

— Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, the DCCC is trying to rally the votes for Biden’s $3.5 trillion spending plan — and some members of the “Mod Squad are taking it as a threat.

Our Sarah Ferris reports that in recent days, DCCC Chair SEAN PATRICK MALONEY (D-N.Y.) has phoned members “to warn that their majority is in jeopardy if they derail Biden’s broader spending priorities. But some of those centrists who received calls from either Maloney or his staff … said they also took his comments to mean that their own fundraising help from the party would be at risk. And while they said there was no direct threat to withhold DCCC funds, those Democrats said the warning was implied.

On the other hand, as Bill Scher notes, is the DCCC really going to withdraw support from any vulnerable members next year when its entire mission is to retain the House for the Dems?

Good Saturday morning. Thanks for reading Playbook. Drop us a line:

GOOD READS ON THE TALIBAN TAKEOVER

— Heck of a lede: “As a Marine Corps veteran of Vietnam (1965-1966), a reporter who was among the last to be evacuated from Saigon by helicopter (1975) and a correspondent who covered the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan from the Afghan side (1980), I can say with authority that I agree wholeheartedly with Secretary of State ANTONY BLINKEN’s statement, ‘This is not Saigon,’ Phil Caputo writes in POLITICO Magazine. “It’s worse.

— A great tick-tock: “‘The Taliban Are Here’: The Final Days Before Kabul’s Collapse, by WSJ’s Yaroslav Trofimov, Vivian Salama and Dion Nissenbaum

— Will it matter in the midterms? “Biden Is Betting Americans Will Forget About Afghanistan, by The Atlantic’s Peter Nicholas

— What is it actually like to try and make it to Kabul’s airport? “The treacherous journey into Kabul airport to escape Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, a first-person from WaPo’s Susannah George … “‘Tear gas and gunshots’: Harrowing scenes grip Hamid Karzai International Airport, Army Times … Worth a look: Some deeply moving photos of U.S. Marines tending to children at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, via Marine Corps Forces Central Command on Twitter.

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— The long view: “How climate change helped strengthen the Taliban, CBS

— Reason to hope: “Anti-Taliban Forces Retake Three Northern Afghan Districts, Voice of America

… and reason to not: “Taliban fighters hunting blacklist of Afghan officials, U.S.-trained forces: Private intel report, ABC … “Cowering in the bathroom: Some Afghans dread the Taliban knock at the door, Reuters … “Khalil Haqqani, long on America’s terrorist list, is welcomed by cheering crowds in Kabul, NYT

BIDEN’S SATURDAY:

— 10:15 a.m.: The president will meet with his national security team on Afghanistan, with VP KAMALA HARRIS attending virtually.

— 12:05 p.m.: Biden will leave D.C. for Wilmington, Del., arriving at 1 p.m.

HARRIS’ SATURDAY — The VP will travel to Singapore via Anchorage, Alaska, and Tokyo, spending the night aboard Air Force Two. She’ll arrive in Singapore at 10:25 p.m. EDT.

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