May 13, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Psaki's new book falsely recounts Biden's watch check in troop ceremony

President Biden looks at his watch in a photo taken at 11:51am on Aug. 29, 2021, during a ceremony for soldiers killed in an explosion during the Afghanistan withdrawal.

President Biden looks at his watch in a photo taken at 11:51am on Aug. 29, 2021, during a ceremony for soldiers killed in an attack during the Afghanistan withdrawal. Photo: Carolyn Kaster/AP

Former White House press secretary Jen Psaki claims in her new book that President Biden never looked at his watch during the ceremony for soldiers killed during the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 — contradicting news photos and firsthand accounts of Gold Star families.

Why it matters: In TV ads and social media posts, Donald Trump and his allies repeatedly have used images of Biden checking his watch during the ceremony to try to undermine the president's brand as an empathetic leader.

  • Psaki's book is the latest instance of current and former Biden administration officials downplaying or misrepresenting controversial episodes from the Afghanistan withdrawal ahead of the 2024 election.

Driving the news: In her new book "Say More," Psaki writes that "the president looked at his watch only after the ceremony had ended. Moments later, he and the First Lady headed toward their car."

  • Psaki, now a star anchor at MSNBC who has described herself as a journalist, writes that Biden's critics were engaged in "misinformation" and used the image to make "him appear insensitive, concerned only about how much time had passed."
  • The story stands out because her account of Afghanistan is one of the few parts of the book where Psaki goes deep behind the scenes of the Biden White House.

Reality check: Psaki's new account is at odds with fact-checks at the time, news agencies' photos from the ceremony at Dover Air Force Base, and on-the-record statements from Gold Star families who were there.

  • The Associated Press photographer on the tarmac snapped two photos of Biden looking at his watch twice and 10 minutes apart, as fact-checkers at USA Today and Snopes noted soon afterward.

Psaki also mistakenly cited a passage from The Washington Post to bolster her account.

  • The sentences she quoted were from USA Today's fact-check article — not the Post.
  • That article noted Biden looked at his watch at the end of the dignified transfer of the troops' bodies, but also concluded that "photos and video show [Biden] also checked his watch during the ceremony."

Many family members of the 13 soldiers killed during the explosion at the Abbey Gate base in Kabul have consistently said in interviews and appearances before Congress that Biden checked his watch as the caskets went by.

  • Mark Schmitz, the father of Marine Lance Cpl. Jared Schmitz, told Congress in August of 2023 that "while I stood there on the tarmac watching you check your watch over and over again, all I wanted to do was shout out, 'It's two f***ing thirty, asshole.' "
  • The day after the ceremony on Aug. 29, 2021, Shana Chappell, the mother of Marine Lance Cpl. Kareem Nikoui, wrote on Facebook: "I watched you disrespect us all 5 different times by checking your watch!!! What the f*** was so important that you had to keep looking at your watch????"

What they're saying: Psaki initially declined to comment, but after this story was published she said in a statement that the "detail in a few lines of the book about the exact number of times he looked at his watch will be removed in future reprints and the ebook."

  • She added: "The story on Afghanistan is really about the importance of delivering feedback even when it is difficult told through my own experience of telling President Biden that his own story of loss was not well received by the families who were grieving their sons and daughters"
  • Psaki's publisher, Scribner, did not respond to a request for comment.

Zoom out: Psaki's account is part of a larger pattern of Biden officials trying to recast the administration's handling of the Afghanistan withdrawal.

  • Last year when a reporter asked White House spokesperson John Kirby about the "chaotic process of evacuation," Kirby defended the work of U.S. officials on the ground and said that "for all this talk of chaos, I just didn't see it, not from my perch."
  • Psaki and Kirby have so far declined to be interviewed by the Republican-led House Foreign Affairs Committee for its probe into the withdrawal.

The administration's review of the withdrawal directed blame toward Trump, concluding that "Biden's choices for how to execute a withdrawal from Afghanistan were severely constrained by conditions created by his predecessor," according to a summary of the report released in April 2023.

  • At the time of the withdrawal, Biden had praised what he called the "extraordinary success of this mission."
  • The White House declined to comment.

Between the lines: Biden had pushed to exit Afghanistan since the Obama administration and was determined to do so when he came into office in January 2021. He believed Barack Obama had made the wrong call in surging troops there a decade earlier.

  • Biden still believes it was the right choice to end America's longest war, but the withdrawal and its execution have come with a heavy political toll.
  • Since the withdrawal in August 2021, more Americans have consistently disapproved of Biden's performance than approved, according to FiveThirtyEight's polling average.
  • Trump also supported the withdrawal, but has attacked Biden's handling of it.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with Psaki's comment.

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