WASHINGTON – Two members of Congress made an unauthorized whirlwind trip to Kabul early Tuesday, leaving less than 24 hours later on a flight used for evacuating U.S. citizens, allies and vulnerable Afghans.
The visit by Reps. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., and Peter Meijer, R-Mich. – which was not approved as part of the normal process for congressional fact-finding trips – served as a distraction for military and civilian staffers attempting to carry out frenzied rescue efforts, according to two people familiar with the trip who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk about the matter.
It is not clear how the lawmakers, both of whom served in Iraq before being elected to Congress, first entered Afghanistan. Moulton’s office did not confirm the trip until the plane evacuating the members of Congress left Afghanistan’s airspace. Meijer’s office did not respond to an email seeking comment.
The cloak-and-dagger trip infuriated some officials at the Pentagon and the State Department, where diplomats, military officers and civil servants are working around-the-clock shifts in Washington and at the Kabul airport to evacuate thousands of people from the country every day.
“It’s as moronic as it is selfish,” said a senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to provide a frank assessment of their trip. “They’re taking seats away from Americans and at-risk Afghans – while putting our diplomats and service members at greater risk – so they can have a moment in front of the cameras.”
In a joint statement from Moulton and Meijer emailed to The Washington Post by Moulton spokesman Tim Biba, the two pushed back on the notion that their trip caused a distraction.
“We have been on the other side of this argument while we were serving and it just isn’t accurate,” Moulton and Meijer said. “Trust us: the professionals on the ground are focused on the mission. Many thanked us for coming.”
From securing the airport to stamping visas to processing biometric data, U.S. officials in Kabul are racing to rush U.S. citizens and allies out of the country in a dire security environment. The threat of a terrorist attack on the airport by the Islamic State is “real” and “acute,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan warned Sunday.
U.S. officials in Afghanistan are also under pressure to meet President Biden’s stated Aug. 31 deadline to accommodate tens of thousands of Americans, Afghans and others seeking to leave. The Taliban has vowed to impose “consequences” if U.S. operations extend beyond that date, though the White House said Tuesday that contingency plans were being readied if U.S. troops needed to stay longer.
Officials expressed disgust at having to divert resources and accommodate sitting members of Congress while racing to get evacuees out of the country. “It’s one of the most irresponsible things I’ve heard a lawmaker do,” said one diplomat familiar with the matter who was not authorized to discuss it and spoke on the condition of anonymity. “It absolutely deserves admonishment.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a letter sent to House members Tuesday afternoon, “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.”
The two lawmakers began their journey to Kabul via a commercial flight to the United Arab Emirates, paying for the tickets using their own funds, Biba said. From there they “figured out a way onto an empty military flight going into Kabul,” Biba said, without providing additional specifics. They landed at Hamid Karzai International Airport around 4 a.m. Washington time, according to a person familiar with their travel.
It was unclear how the pair had initially planned to get out of the country.
Biba said the lawmakers pledged to leave only on a plane with at least three empty seats – their way of ensuring that the flight they took out had extra capacity. When they boarded to return home about 2:30 a.m. Kabul time, he said, they sat in seats designated for crew members.
“They ensured the flight was not going to be full,” Biba said. “They also believe this method of travel, which will take them to an area where evacuees have been temporarily relocated, will provide them with additional information and increase their ability to provide oversight.”
In their statement, Moulton and Meijer cited their military experience when explaining why they chose to make the trip.
“America has a moral obligation to our citizens and loyal allies, and we wanted to make sure that obligation is being kept,” they said. “As members of Congress we have a duty to provide oversight on the executive branch. There is no place in the world right now where oversight matters more. We conducted this visit in secret to minimize the risk to the people on the ground.”
The two lawmakers said that they met with service members and State Department officials during their brief time at the airport and said that they believe Biden should extend the Aug. 31 deadline for evacuating Americans, allies and vulnerable Afghans. “After talking with commanders on the ground today and seeing the situation for ourselves, it is obvious that because we started the evacuation so late, no matter what we do, we won’t get everyone out on time, even by 9/11,” they said.
Congressional fact-finding trips are not typically authorized when the House is in session, as it is now. Both lawmakers arranged to vote by proxy this week, including for Tuesday’s House vote approving a $3.5 trillion budget.
Moulton is a member of the House Armed Services Committee and has pushed in recent years to expand and hasten special immigrant visas for Afghans who the Taliban could target. His last trip to Afghanistan was in 2016, and he requested a trip to the country after Biden’s April announcement that troops would be withdrawn, according to Biba.
He has been one of his party’s most outspoken critics of Biden’s handling of the situation in Afghanistan, privately raising the prospect of whether Biden should fire Sullivan, according to two Democrats with knowledge of the situation.
Publicly, he has also been sharply critical of the president’s response. “To say that today is anything short of a disaster would be dishonest,” Moulton said in a statement released Aug. 15, the day Kabul fell. “Worse, it was avoidable.”
Meijer enlisted in the Army Reserves after graduating from college and deployed to Iraq as a noncommissioned officer, according to a biography on his congressional website.
He was one of 10 Republicans who voted to impeach President Donald Trump earlier this year.
In an Aug. 16 interview with WUOM, a Michigan public radio station, Meijer was also critical of Biden’s handling of Afghanistan.
“The U.S. has been embarrassed at the way in which intelligence signals were ignored, in which assumptions that were made were found to be baseless, and the sad reality is that thousands of Afghans are going to pay for their lives for our mistakes and incompetence,” he said on the program.