Return to Transcripts main page


Texas Targets Voter Restrictions; President Biden Delivers Address on U.S. Troop Withdrawal From Afghanistan. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired July 8, 2021 - 14:00   ET



ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN HOST: Hello, everyone. Welcome to NEWSROOM. I'm Alisyn Camerota.

VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN HOST: I'm Victor Blackwell. Good to be with you.

In moments, President Biden will speak from the White House about the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. CNN has learned that the president will reiterate his commitment to end America's longest war after close to 20 years.

Officials say the withdrawal is more than 90 percent complete and will actually finish in late August, ahead of the president's September 11 deadline.

CAMEROTA: President Biden is also expected to try to convey hope for Afghanistan's future.

But intelligence officials have warned that the oppressive Taliban regime is likely to overtake the country within the year.

CNN's Jeff Zeleny joins us from the White House.

So, Jeff, the situation in Afghanistan sounds very troubling. So, will President Biden address all of that?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Alisyn and Victor, President Biden, we're told, will address the condition in Afghanistan, but will also address what he believes, it is no longer in the national security interest of the United States to remain engaged in the longest American war in Afghanistan.

Of course, he's the fourth U.S. president to deal with Afghanistan, 20 years nearly to the month after this began, of course, in the wake of 9/11, this war began. So President Biden today will not call an immediate end to it, but this has been happening day by day, week by week, more than 90 percent of U.S. combat troops already leaving or in the process of doing so.

So we're told that President Biden will say that he does not believe it is worth it for another generation of American young men and women to engage in an intractable civil war. But he is going to be pressed on the safe passage for Afghan interpreters, these men and women, largely men, who really were essential to U.S. military forces over the last 20 years, as interpreters on the grounds whose lives now are in deep danger because of the rise of the Taliban.

So President Biden will, we are told, outline some type of flights and strategy for that, at least for some of them. But the reality here is, this is the conclusion to what President Biden campaigned on. When he was vice president in the Obama administration, he was deeply skeptical of the troop surge in Afghanistan, and now he, as commander in chief, finally directing his own foreign policy, will call for an end to America's longest war.

In fact, it is already under way. He is just going to be describing why he believes that this end is necessary. And we heard White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki just a short time ago explaining how it is not a cause or a moment for celebration. Let's watch.


JEN PSAKI, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: We're not going to have a mission accomplished moment in this regard. It is a 20-year war that has not been won militarily.

We are proud of the men and women who have served, incredibly grateful. The president will note that in his remarks today, how grateful he is for their service and the families who have sacrificed over the last 20 years.

And we will continue to press for a political outcome and a political solution.


ZELENY: So, of course, the White House well aware of the changing situation on the ground in Afghanistan, the rise of the Taliban.

But officials we are speaking to here say it has not caused second- guessing for President Biden. He believes that, at some point, at this point, that America must end its engagement in this, the longest war in our history, in Afghanistan. But the president will be explaining this momentarily, of course, controversial, but also questions ahead about what the country will become -- Victor and Alisyn.

BLACKWELL: Jeff Zeleny for us there at the White House.

Jeff, thank you.

Of course, we will bring those to you live when they happen.

And also this afternoon, the president and Vice President Harris will meet with civil rights leaders, who are pushing them to do more about voting rights. Now, the White House has been under increasing pressure, as Republicans are passing voting restriction laws.

This is happening across the country.

CAMEROTA: And, in fact, lawmakers in Texas have been duking it out on that very issue today. The governor there called a special session that began this morning to deal with supposedly pressing issues, including a revised voting bill that Republicans claim is about election security, while Democrats say it restricts voting access.

So, you are looking at live protests outside of the state capital there about all of this. The bill bans drive-through and 24-hour voting, and it also adds new I.D. requirements for mail-in voting.

You may remember that Texas Democrats blocked a previous version of this bill just a few weeks ago by walking out of the statehouse in the final hours of that regular legislative session.

BLACKWELL: CNN's Dianne Gallagher is in Austin, Texas.

Dianne, Republicans say this has some concessions. Democrats are still saying that this should not pass. What is the latest?



And, Victor, Alisyn, let's be very clear. The concessions that are in both of these two bills, the one introduced in the Senate and the one introduced in the House today, are essentially those items that were very controversial that were jammed in at the last minute during the regular session.

So it does not, neither of these bills, ban Sunday morning voting, which would have eliminated Souls to the Polls, and neither of the bills lower the threshold for overturning an election. Other than those two measures, most of what was in that original bill, SB-7, from the regular session, well, it is also in these two bills that were introduced for the special session.

And I can tell you the Senate is looking to move quickly, already scheduling a public hearing on Saturday, so not much time for the public to really get read in on what they are going to be speaking about. You mentioned some of those items, like banning 24-hour drive- through voting.

It also adds new criminal penalties for election officials. It makes it easier and empowers partisan poll watchers even further than they already are, and adds those the new I.D. requirements as well.

Democrats here in Texas, I can tell you they are ready for a fight. They are very energized. I have been speaking to them all day, saying that this is not a special session. This is, in their words, a suppression session.

CAMEROTA: Also, we know that voting rights is not the only controversial piece of legislation that they're debating on the agenda today.

So, what else is being discussed at the statehouse?

GALLAGHER: Yes, this is a pretty stacked agenda, with 11 different items that Governor Abbott set just yesterday, actually.

So some of these buzzwords that we have been seeing in state legislatures around the country, like critical race theory, also social media censorship and youth sports, which is essentially banning trans children from participating in youth sports that match the gender they identify with.

There's also something called abortion-inducing medication. Now, look, the Texas legislature effectively put in some of the most stringent abortion restrictions during the regular session. So, this is adding even more to that potentially.

Something that is not on this list, Alisyn and Victor, anything to do with the Texas electric grid.

BLACKWELL: All right, Dianne Gallagher for us there, thanks so much.

CAMEROTA: Now let's go to Surfside, Florida.

Sixty people are now confirmed dead; 80 people are still unaccounted for there. And it is officially now a recovery effort. So, after two weeks of search-and-rescue, the Miami-Dade fire chief said there was -- quote -- "no chance of life," due to the lack of spaces that remain in the rubble.

At the current death toll, this building collapse is already one of the deadliest non-weather-related disasters in the United States in the past 20 years. Of course, we know the number of dead will likely rise, moving it even higher on this list.

BLACKWELL: Now, a lot of the work at the site looks the same today, but we're told that there's a focus on reuniting families with belongings.

We will go there in a moment.

Let's go to the White House to the president speaking on Afghanistan.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: ... the status of the drawdown of U.S. forces and allied forces in Afghanistan.

When I announced our drawdown in April, I said we would be out by September, and we are on track to meet that target.

Excuse me.

Our military mission in Afghanistan will conclude on August 31. The drawdown is proceeding in a secure and orderly, prioritizing the safety of our troops as they depart. Our military commanders advised me that, once I made the decision to end the war, we needed to move swiftly to conduct the main elements of the drawdown.

And, in this context, speed is safety. And thanks to the way in which we have managed our withdrawal, one, no one U.S. forces or any forces have been lost. Conducting our drawdown differently would have certainly come with an increased risk of safety to our personnel.

To me, those risks were unacceptable. And there was never any doubt that our military performed this task efficiently and with the highest level of professionalism. That's what they do. And the same is true of our NATO allies and partners who have supported -- we are supporting and supporting us as well, as they conclude their retrograde.

I want to be clear. The U.S. military mission in Afghanistan continues through the end of August. We remain -- we retain personnel and capacities in the country. And we maintain some authority -- excuse me -- the same authority under which we have been operating for some time.

As I said in April, the United States did what we went to do in Afghanistan, to get the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11 ,and deliver justice to Osama bin Laden, and to degrade the terrorist threat to keep Afghanistan from becoming a base from which attacks could be continued against the United States.


We achieved those objectives. That's why we went. We did not go to Afghanistan to nation-build. And it is the right and the responsibility of Afghan people alone to decide their future and how they want to run their country.

Together, with our NATO allies and partners, we have trained and equipped over 300 -- nearly 300,000 current serving members of the military, the Afghan National Security Force, and many beyond that who are no longer serving.

Add to that hundreds of thousands more Afghan national defense and security forces trained over the last two decades. We provided our Afghan partners with all the tools, let me emphasize, all of the tools, training, and equipment of any modern military. We provided advance weaponry, and we're going to continue to provide funding and equipment, and will ensure they have the capacity to maintain their air force.

But most critically, as I stressed in my meeting two weeks ago with President Ghani and Chairman Abdullah, Afghan leaders have to come together and drive toward a future that the Afghan people want and they deserve.

In our meeting, I also assured Ghani that U.S. support for the people of Afghanistan will endure. We will continue to provide civilian and humanitarian assistance, including speaking out for the rights of women and girls.

I intend to maintain our diplomatic presence in Afghanistan. And we are coordinating closely with our international partners in order to continue to secure the international airport. And we're going to engage in a determined diplomacy to pursue peace and a peace agreement that will end this senseless violence.

I have asked Secretary of State Blinken and our special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation to work vigorously with the parties in Afghanistan, as well as the regional and international stakeholders, to support a negotiated solution.

To be clear, to be clear, countries in the region have an essential role to play in supporting a peaceful settlement. We will work with them, and they should help step up their efforts as well.

We're going to continue to work for the release of detained Americans including Mark -- excuse me -- Frerichs -- I want to pronounce the name correctly -- I misspoke -- so that he can return to his family safely.

We are also going to continue to make sure we take on the Afghan nationals who worked side by side with U.S. forces, including interpreters and translators. Since we're no longer going to have military there after this, we're not going to need them, and they have no jobs.

We are also going to be vital to our efforts, so they -- and they have been very vital -- and so their families are not exposed to danger as well. We have already dramatically accelerated the procedure time for special immigrant visas to bring them to the United States.

Since I was inaugurated on January 20, we have already approved 2,500 special immigrant visas to come to the United States. Up to now, fewer than half have exercised their right to do that. Half have gotten on aircraft and come -- commercial flights and come. Another half believe they want to stay, at least thus far.

We are working closely with Congress to change the authorization legislation, so that we can streamline the process of approving those visas. And those who have stood up for the operation through -- physically relocate thousands of Afghans and their families before the U.S. military mission concludes, so that, if they choose, they can wait safely outside of Afghanistan while their U.S. visas are being processed.

The operation has identified U.S. facilities outside the continental United States, as well as in third countries, to host our Afghan allies, if they choose -- if they so choose.

And starting this month, we're going to begin to relocate -- we're going to begin relocation flights for Afghanistan SIV applicants and their families who choose to leave. We have a point person in the White House and at the State Department-led task force coordinating all of these efforts.

But our message to those women and men is clear. There is a home for you in the United States, if you so choose, and we will stand with you, just as you stood with us.

When I made the decision to end the U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan, I judged that it was not in the national interests of the United States of America to continue fighting this war indefinitely. I made the decision with clear eyes. And I'm briefed daily on the battlefield updates. [14:15:04]

But for those who have argued that we should stay just six more months or just one more year, I ask them to consider the lessons of recent history. In 2011, the NATO allies and partners agreed that we would end our combat mission in 2014. In 2014, some argued one more year, so we kept fighting, and we kept taking casualties, in 2015 the same, and on and on.

Nearly 20 years of experience has shown us that the current security situation only confirms that just one more year fighting in Afghanistan is not a solution, but a recipe for being there indefinitely.

It is up to the Afghans to make the decision about the future of their country. Others are more direct. Their argument is that we should stay with the Afghan -- in Afghanistan indefinitely. In doing so, they point to the fact that we have not taken losses in this last year, so they claim that the cost of just maintaining the status quo is minimal.

But that ignores the reality and the facts that already presented on the ground in Afghanistan when I took office. The Taliban was at its strongest -- is at its strongest militarily since 2001. The number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan had been reduced to a bare minimum. And the United States in the last administration made an agreement that the -- to -- with the Taliban to remove all of our forces by May 1 of this past -- of this year.

That's what I inherited. That agreement was the reason the Taliban had ceased major attacks against U.S. forces. If, in April, I had instead announced that the United States was going to back -- going back on that agreement made by the last administration, the United States and allied forces would remain in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future, the Taliban would have again begun to target our forces.

The status quo was not an option. Staying would have meant U.S. troops taking casualties, American men and women back in the middle of a civil war. And we would run the risk of having to send more troops back into Afghanistan to defend our remaining troops.

Once that agreement with the Taliban had been made, staying with the bare minimum force was no longer possible.

So, let me ask those who wanted us to stay, how many more, how many thousands more Americans'; daughters and sons are you willing to risk? How long would you have them stay? Already, we have members of our military whose parents fought in Afghanistan 20 years ago.

Would you send their children and their grandchildren as well? Would you send your own son or daughter?

After 20 years, a trillion dollars spent training and equipping hundreds of thousands of Afghan national security and defense forces, 2,448 Americans killed, 20,722 more wounded, and untold thousands coming home with unseen trauma to their mental health, I will not send another generation of Americans to war in Afghanistan, with no reasonable expectation of achieving a different outcome.

The United States cannot afford to remain tethered to policies creating a response to the world as it was 20 years ago. We need to meet the threats where they are today. Today, the terrorist threat has metastasized beyond Afghanistan.

So, we are repositioning our resources and adapting our counterterrorism posture to meet the threats where they are now, significantly higher in South Asia, the Middle East and Africa. But make no mistake. Our military and intelligence leaders are confident they have the capabilities to protect the homeland and our interests from any resurgent terrorist challenge emerging or emanating from Afghanistan.

We are developing a counterterrorism over-the-horizon capability that will allow us to keep our eyes firmly fixed on any direct threats to the United States in the region and act quickly and decisively if needed.

We also need to focus on shoring up America's core strengths to meet the strategic competition with China and other nations that is really going to determine our future. We have to defeat COVID-19 at home and around the world, make sure we are better prepared for the next pandemic or biological threat.

We need to establish international norms for cyberspace and the use of emerging technologies. We need to take concerted action to fight existential threats of climate change. And we will be more formidable to our adversaries and competitors over the long run if we fight the battles of the next 20 years, not the last 20 years.


Finally, I want to recognize the incredible sacrifice and dedication that the U.S. military and civilian personnel serving alongside our allies and partners have made over the last two decades in Afghanistan.

I want to honor the significance of what they have accomplished, and the great personal risk they encountered, and the incredible cost to their families, pursuing the terrorist threat through some of the most unforgiving terrain on the planet -- I have been throughout almost that entire country -- ensuring there hasn't been another attack on the homeland from Afghanistan for the last 20 years, taking out bin Laden.

I want to thank you all for your service and the dedication to the mission so many of you have given and to the sacrifices that you and your families have made over the long course of this war.

I will never forget those who gave the last full measure of devotion for their country in Afghanistan, nor those whose lives have been immeasurably altered by wounds sustained in the service of their country.

We are ending America's longest war, but we will always, always honor the bravery of the American patriots who served in it.

May God bless you all, and may God protect our troops. Thank you.


QUESTION: Is the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan now inevitable?

BIDEN: No, it is not.


BIDEN: Because you have the Afghan troops, have 300,000 well- equipped, as well-equipped as any army in the world, and an air force, against something against something like 75,000 Taliban.

It is not inevitable.


QUESTION: Do you trust the Taliban, Mr. President? Do you trust the Taliban, sir?

BIDEN: Are you -- is that a serious question?

QUESTION: It is absolutely a serious question. Do you trust the Taliban?

BIDEN: No, I do not.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) the country to the Taliban?

BIDEN: No, I do not trust the Taliban.


QUESTION: Is the U.S. responsible for the deaths that happen the Afghans after you leave the country?


QUESTION: Mr. President, will you amplify that question, please? Will you amplify your answer, please, why you don't trust the Taliban?


BIDEN: It is a silly question.

Do I trust the Taliban? No. But I trust the capacity of the Afghan military, who is better trained, better equipped, more competent in terms of conducting war.

QUESTION: Mr. President, given the amount of money that has been spent and the number of lives that have been lost, in your view, with making this decision, were the last 20 years worth it?

BIDEN: You know my record. I can tell by the way you asked the question.

I opposed permanently having American forces in Afghanistan. I argued from the beginning, as you may recall -- it came to light after the administration was over, the last -- our administration -- no nation has ever unified Afghanistan, no nation. Empires have gone there and not done it.

The focus we had, and I strongly supported -- and you may remember I physically went to Afghanistan. I was up in that pass where Osama bin Laden was -- allegedly escaped or out of harm's way.

We went for two reasons, one, to bring Osama bin Laden to the gates of hell, as I said at the time. The second reason was to eliminate al Qaeda's capacity to deal with more attacks on the United States from that territory.

We accomplished both of those objectives, period. That's what I believed from the beginning, why we should be -- why we should have gone to Afghanistan.

That job had been over for some time. And that's why I believe that this is the right decision and, quite frankly, overdue.


QUESTION: ... failed the people of Afghanistan?

QUESTION: Mr. President, thank you very much.


Your own intelligence community has assessed that the Afghan government will likely collapse.

BIDEN: That is not true.

QUESTION: Is it -- can you please clarify what they have told you about whether that will happen or not?

BIDEN: That is not true. They did not -- they didn't -- did not reach that conclusion.

QUESTION: So, what is the level of confidence that they have that it will not collapse?

BIDEN: The Afghan government and leadership has to come together.

They clearly have the capacity to sustain the government in place. The question is, will they generate the kind of cohesion to do it? It is not a question of whether they have the capacity. They have the capacity. They have the forces. They have the equipment. The question is, will they do it?

And I want to make clear what I made clear to Ghani, that we are not going to walk away and not sustain their ability to maintain that force. We are. We're going to also work to make sure we help them, in terms of everything from food necessities and other things in the region.

But -- but there is not a conclusion that, in fact, they cannot defeat the Taliban.

I believe the only way there's going to be -- this is now Joe Biden, not the intelligence community. The only way there's ultimately going to be peace and security in Afghanistan is if they work out a modus vivendi with the Taliban and they make a judgment as to how they can make peace.

And the likelihood there is going to be one unified government in Afghanistan controlling the whole country is highly unlikely.


QUESTION: Mr. President, thank you.

But we have talked to your own top general in Afghanistan, General Scott Miller. He told ABC News the conditions are so concerning at this point that it could result in a civil war.

So, if Kabul falls to the Taliban, what will the United States do about it?

BIDEN: Look, you have said two things, one, that if it could result in a civil war. That's different than the Taliban succeeding, number one.

Number two, the question of what will be done is going to be implicated -- is going to implicate the entire region as well. There's a number of countries that have a grave concern about what is going to happen in Afghanistan relative to their security.

The question is, how much of a threat to the United States of America and to our allies is whatever results in terms of a government or an agreement? That's when that judgment will be made.


QUESTION: Mr. President, some -- some Vietnamese veterans see echoes of their experience in this withdrawal in Afghanistan.

Do you see any parallels between this withdrawal and what happened in Vietnam, with some people feeling betrayed?

BIDEN: None whatsoever, zero.

What you had is, you had entire brigades breaking through the gates of our embassy, six, if I'm not mistaken. The Taliban is not the South -- the North Vietnamese army. They're not remotely comparable in terms of capability.

There's going to be no circumstance where you are going to see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy of the United States from Afghanistan. It is not at all comparable.

QUESTION: Mr. President...


BIDEN: I will go to the other side. Hang on a second.

QUESTION: Mr. President, how serious was the corruption among the Afghanistan government to this mission failing there?

BIDEN: Well, first of all, the mission hasn't failed yet.

There is, in Afghanistan, in all parties, there's been corruption. The question is, can there be an agreement on unity of purpose? What is the objective?

For example, it started off, there were going to be negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan National Security Forces and the Afghan government. That didn't come to -- didn't come to fruition.

So, the question now is, where do they go from here? That -- the jury is still out, but the likelihood there's going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.

Yes, ma'am.

QUESTION: Mr. President, will the United States be responsible for the loss of Afghan civilian lives that could happen after the military exits?

BIDEN: No. No, no, no.

It is up to the people of Afghanistan to decide on what government they want, not us to impose the government on them. No country has ever been able to do that.

Keep in mind, as a student of history, as I'm sure you are, never has Afghanistan been a united country, not in all of its history, not in all of its history.


QUESTION: Mr. President, if this isn't a mission accomplished moment, what is, it in your view?

BIDEN: No, there's no mission accomplished.

QUESTION: How would you describe it?

BIDEN: The mission was accomplished, in that we got Osama bin Laden and terrorism is not emanating from that part of the world.