Pelosi says House members were freelancing on trip to Kabul

Speaker urges other members not to go to Afghanistan and the region

Reps. Seth Moulton, left, and Peter Meijer are military veterans who served in Iraq and announced Tuesday they had made a trip to Afghanistan. (Caroline Brehman and Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photos)
Reps. Seth Moulton, left, and Peter Meijer are military veterans who served in Iraq and announced Tuesday they had made a trip to Afghanistan. (Caroline Brehman and Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photos)
Posted August 25, 2021 at 10:51am

Speaker Nancy Pelosi made clear Wednesday morning that she didn’t support a whirlwind trip to Afghanistan by two House members.

The speaker’s warning came after Reps. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., and Peter Meijer, R-Mich., announced Tuesday they had made a trip to the region themselves. The trip by the lawmakers was first reported by The Washington Post.

“It was not, in my view, a good idea,” Pelosi said. “We put out the word to the committee chairs that there ain’t going to be no planes or this or that for going to the region, or any facilitation.”

Pelosi told reporters it was her understanding that Moulton and Meijer were freelancing.

“I don’t know what happened on the Republican side, but my understanding is that they didn’t have any approval from the Democratic side,” she said.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy later said he also had no prior knowledge that Meijer and Moulton were visiting Afghanistan and cautioned other members “not to go.”

“They’re both veterans and they’re both frustrated,” the California Republican said of Moulton and Meijer.

“So yes, I don’t think it’s right that they went, but I understand their frustration of why they would want to go. By the lack of answers they were getting, the time they served their nation," McCarthy said. "The individuals they knew over there.”

The Pentagon, which sent top officials to the Capitol on Tuesday for an all-members briefing on Afghanistan, also was unaware ahead of time.

"The secretary would have appreciated the opportunity to have had a conversation before the visit took place," Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said of Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III.

Kirby said the presence of the lawmakers did require operational changes at the airport.

"There was certainly a pull-off of the kinds of missions we were trying to do to accommodate this visit," Kirby said. "They certainly took time away from what we had been planning to do that day."

Pelosi said lawmakers traveling to the region could take resources away from efforts to evacuate Americans, coalition partners and Afghan supporters from Kabul.

“The secretary of Defense, secretary of State — there’s a real concern about members being in the region," Pelosi said. She also confirmed that a letter she sent to colleagues on Tuesday making that point had been prompted by the travel by Moulton and Meijer.

“Given the urgency of this situation, the desire of some Members to travel to Afghanistan and the surrounding areas is understandable and reflective of the high priority that we place on the lives of those on the ground,” Pelosi wrote.

Both of the members on the secretive trip Tuesday are military veterans who served in Iraq. Moulton, who launched a long-shot bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2019, served in the Marine Corps. Meijer, a freshman whose family owns a chain of supermarkets in the Midwest, was an Army Reservist.

In response to criticism that their presence would interfere with the evacuation mission, Moulton and Meijer pointed to the importance of congressional oversight in times of emergency.

“There is no place in the world right now where oversight matters more. We conducted this visit in secret, speaking about it only after our departure, to minimize the risk and disruption to the people on the ground, and because we were there to gather information, not to grandstand,” they said in a statement. “We left on a plane with empty seats, seated in crew-only seats to ensure that nobody who needed a seat would lose one because of our presence.”

Both lawmakers voted by proxy on Tuesday, as the House was in session to consider the fiscal 2022 budget resolution, voting rights legislation and the rule setting up consideration of a Senate-passed bipartisan infrastructure bill in September. Proxy voting requires a declaration of necessary absence because of the ongoing COVID-19 emergency.

The pair challenged President Joe Biden’s Aug. 31 deadline to have all U.S. military personnel out of Afghanistan, a date he reiterated in remarks on Tuesday.

“We came into this visit wanting, like most veterans, to push the president to extend the August 31st deadline,” Moulton and Meijer said in their statement. “After talking with commanders on the ground and seeing the situation here, it is obvious that because we started the evacuation so late, that no matter what we do, we won’t get everyone out on time, even by September 11.”

The Biden administration has been engaging directly with the Taliban, which now controls much of the territory of Afghanistan, seeking to ensure safe passage to the U.S.-controlled international airport in Kabul from which evacuation flights are departing.

Biden said Tuesday that an effort to withdraw by the end of August remained on track, though he conceded that Taliban cooperation is needed.

Moulton and Meijer said, “Sadly and frustratingly, getting our people out depends on maintaining the current, bizarre relationship with the Taliban.”

Moulton is a member of the House Armed Services Committee, although Pelosi’s comments Wednesday indicate that the trip was not sanctioned by the panel, which is scheduled to take up the fiscal 2022 defense authorization bill next week. Republican members of the committee are already planning to use amendments to focus on the Afghanistan situation, including the evacuation effort and Biden’s policy at-large.

Andrew Clevenger and Chris Marquette contributed to his report.