Meet the Press – August 22, 2021

CHUCK TODD:

This Sunday, chaos, fear and desperation in Afghanistan.

AFGHAN MAN:

If we go outside, of course they will kill us.

CHUCK TODD:

As U.S. troops struggle to restore order at Kabul’s airport —

AFGHAN MAN:

They run behind you with the AK-47 and they, boom, boom, boom, boom.

CHUCK TODD:

— President Biden defends his decision —

PRES. JOE BIDEN:

The idea that somehow there was a way to have gotten out without chaos ensuing, I don’t know how that happens.

CHUCK TODD:

— and makes this promise:

PRES. JOE BIDEN:

Let me be clear: any American who wants to come home, we will get you home.

U.S. SOLDIER:

Push backwards, push backwards!

CHUCK TODD:

But the U.S. is relying on the Taliban to allow safe passage of Americans and our allies.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM:

This is all on President Biden.

CHUCK TODD:

My guests this morning: National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Republican Congresswoman Liz Cheney of Wyoming. Plus, our new NBC News poll — new numbers on President Biden’s approval rating, his handling of Covid, the economy in a deeply divided country. Also, kids, schools and Covid. Cases rising nationwide —

LATOYA CANTRELL:

The situation is dire and we are simply out of time.

CHUCK TODD:

— and with more and more children now falling ill —

DR. JESSICA SNOWDON:

Critically, critically ill children.

CHUCK TODD:

— local school districts are pushing back against statewide bans on mask mandates.

JUSTIN KANEW:

These school boards are having to essentially protect kids from their own governors.

CHUCK TODD:

I’ll talk to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona about the fight over masking children. Joining me for insight and analysis are: NBC News Chief Washington correspondent Andrea Mitchell, Stephen Hayes, founder of The Dispatch, Helene Cooper, Pentagon correspondent for The New York Times and Leo Shane, Deputy Editor of Military Times. Welcome to Sunday. It’s Meet the Press.

ANNOUNCER:

From NBC News in Washington, the longest-running show in television history. This is Meet the Press with Chuck Todd.

CHUCK TODD:

Good Sunday morning. We’re going to get right to it. One week after the Taliban took total control of Kabul, the crisis at the city’s airport remains a scene of chaos and panic. Fearful crowds are now being harassed and menanced by Taliban fighters. They’re still desperately trying to get into the airport and out of Afghanistan. And now, on top of all of this, there’s an ISIS threat against Americans in the area, as well. So, we’re going to get right to our Chief Foreign correspondent Richard Engel who has been covering this, obviously was in Kabul, now in Doha, Qatar, where a lot of these planes from Kabul are landing. Richard, who’s landing, who’s making it out?

RICHARD ENGEL:

Nobody really knows. People who could get onto the base could convince the Marines that they had a sympathetic case, some have paperwork, some do not. Some are unaccompanied minors. It is really a mixed bag and that is part of the problem here, that this was initially supposed to be evacuation for very limited people — for American citizens, foreign contractors, foreign nationals, and those who worked with American troops and who were at risk. But now, there is total panic in Kabul. People are rushing to that base. So, it is very, very difficult because you have, really, half a base that is trying to do this evacuation plan, this extraction plan to try and pull out the people that the United States wants to pull out, but also so many others are flooding in at the same time.

CHUCK TODD:

Richard, do we have any idea how many more people who are, who should be getting out, American citizens and our allies, are left to be gotten out? Do we have a good idea of what number that is?

RICHARD ENGEL:

Not really. Thousands, certainly. The State Department has lists, but a lot of people in Kabul were not done filling out their forms, were never able to fill out their forms. There are a lot of people in Afghanistan who think they should qualify because they worked in some sort of peripheral way for the Americans so there are many, many people qualified to get out, and then you have, I think pretty soon it’ll be millions of people in Kabul, who are trying to get out, trying to rush to that half of a base, so is it surprising that there is a threat against them from, from ISIS, this very extremist group? They’re telling them all to congregate in one place. They need another staging area.

CHUCK TODD:

That’s for sure, and then some, and perhaps more troops. Richard Engel, in Doha, Qatar for us. Richard, glad you got out. Look, politicians from both parties and four administrations have their fingerprints on America’s 20-year Afghanistan policy, but it is now President Biden who has become the face of this disastrous withdrawal. We have a new NBC News poll taken as Americans were witnessing this chaos in Kabul. Among all adults, Mr. Biden’s approval rating stands at a fairly mediocre 49%, 48% disapproving. In our polarized politics, that isn’t the end of the world, but if you compare that to last April, when the numbers were 53% approve, 39% disapprove, you start to see some erosion. Now, not surprisingly, approval of Mr. Biden’s handling of the situation in Afghanistan as we’re watching all of this is extremely low, just 25%. But the president’s overall slippage is less about Afghanistan than about two other issues. Approval of his handling of the coronavirus is down a whopping 16 points — just 53% approve now ,from 69% in April. And approval of his handling of the economy is standing at 47% — that’s upside down now because it was at 52. Mr. Biden has weeks to set things right in Afghanistan, and more than three years until the next presidential election. But let’s be honest, with headlines like this one in The Economist, the human tragedy at the end of this forever war is threatening to be a forever stain on Mr. Biden’s presidency.

PRES. JOE BIDEN:

Let me be clear: any American who wants to come home, we will get you home.

CHUCK TODD:

President Biden – defending the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

PRES. JOE BIDEN:

We have no indication that they haven’t been able to get in Kabul through the airport. We’ve made an agreement with the Taliban thus far, they’ve allowed them to go through.

DAVID FOX:

I can say definitively that that is completely untrue.

CHUCK TODD:

David Fox is an American still in Afghanistan.

DAVID FOX:

The only way you can actually get to the U.S. Marines is by fighting your way in. Just by pure physical, you know, brutal force.

CHUCK TODD:

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told lawmakers Friday that Americans trying to leave Afghanistan “have been harassed and even beaten” by Taliban fighters. And it’s not clear how many Americans remain in Afghanistan.

JOHN KIRBY:

We don’t have a perfect figure of how many are in Afghanistan, let alone Kabul. If you’re an American and you’re at a gate, you will be let in that gate.

CHUCK TODD:

Thousands of Afghans continue to crowd the airport, barred from entering by Taliban shooting, flash bangs and whips.

AFGHAN MAN:

They run behind you with the AK-47, and they, boom, boom, boom, boom.

CHUCK TODD:

The U.S. says it will bring up to 22,000 Afghans to the United States and facilitate more to other countries. The International Rescue Committee estimates more than 300,000 Afghan civilians have been affiliated with the United States mission since 2001.

AFGHAN MAN:

If we go now outside, of course they will kill us.

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL:

I’m old enough to remember Saigon. This is a lot worse than Saigon in 1975.

CHUCK TODD:

But despite the president’s claims:

PRES. JOE BIDEN:

I have seen no question of our credibility from our allies around the world.

CHUCK TODD:

Some U.S. allies are criticizing the president, and questioning America’s role in the world.

JOSEP BORRELL FONTELLES:

This is a catastrophe.

TOM TUGENDHAT:

To see their Commander-in-Chief call into question the courage of men I fought with, to claim that they ran, is shameful.

IAIN DUNCAN SMITH:

This is a shame on all of us, not just America, but also the whole of NATO.

CHUCK TODD:

President Biden ran on competence and good judgment. How much will the chaos in Afghanistan erode his standing? While just 25% of Americans approve of his current handling of Afghanistan, Americans are still sour on the war overall — 61% saying it wasn’t worth it.

PRES. JOE BIDEN:

Send your sons, your daughters, like my son was sent to Iraq, to maybe die? And for what? For what?

CHUCK TODD:

And joining me now is President Biden’s national security advisor, Jake Sullivan. Mr. Sullivan, welcome to Meet the Press.

JAKE SULLIVAN:

Thanks for having me.

CHUCK TODD:

I want to start with the security situation around the airport in Kabul. It appears to be deteriorating. And there’s now a threat from ISIS of terror attacks against Americans. Is the administration considering sending more troops to try to secure the perimeter and secure the area?

JAKE SULLIVAN:

At the moment, we believe we have sufficient forces on the ground. But every single day, the president asks his military commanders, including those at the airport and those at the Pentagon, whether they need additional resources, additional troops. So far, the answer has been no. But he will ask again today.

CHUCK TODD:

How many Americans are trying to get out of Afghanistan? This has been a question that you’ve been asked numerous times. And we haven’t known the answer. And this Sunday morning, do we know the answer?

JAKE SULLIVAN:

Well, we know that it’s roughly a few thousand, Chuck. But let me explain to the American people why we don’t exactly know. Because when people come to Afghanistan who are American citizens, we ask them to register with the U.S. embassy. Many leave and never de-register. Or others come and choose not to register in the first place. Of course, as Americans, that’s their right. So, we have been working for the past few days to get fidelity on as precise a count as possible. We have reached out to thousands of Americans by phone, email, text. And we are working on plans to, as we get in touch with people, give them direction for the best and most safe and most effective way for them to get into the airport.

CHUCK TODD:

And about our Afghan allies, how many are you committed to getting out of the country?

JAKE SULLIVAN:

Just yesterday, Chuck, we flew out a total, or facilitated the flight out, of 7,800 people: 3,900 on U.S. military aircraft, 3,900 on charter aircraft that our military facilitated from private organizations in other countries. Since the beginning of this evacuation, it’s been 30,000 people total. Since August 14th, it’s been 25,000. We’re going to continue that in the days ahead and get out thousands more Afghans who are at risk and/or who supported the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan, along with continuing to ensure that we are focused on getting American citizens out who want to leave the country.

CHUCK TODD:

I want to understand this August 31st deadline. Because this is what the president said on Friday about a so-called agreement with the Taliban. I want to play it.

[BEGIN TAPE]

PRES. JOE BIDEN:

We have no indication that they haven’t been able to get in Kabul through the airport. We’ve made an agreement with the Taliban thus far. They’ve allowed them to go through. It’s in their interest for them to go through.

[END TAPE]

CHUCK TODD:

All right. I want to understand this agreement with the Taliban. What is this agreement, and what was agreed to?

JAKE SULLIVAN:

So, the agreement with the Taliban, which is produced and reinforced daily through contacts in military channels on the ground in Kabul, is that American citizens get passage to the airport, get the opportunity to pass through any checkpoints on the way to the airport. And then it’s our responsibility to get them inside. One of the challenges, as you know, Chuck, has been that once arriving at the airport, the three main gates coming into the airport have been crowded with large numbers of Afghans, just ordinary Afghans who want to get on a plane out of the country. And so, we’ve been spending the last period working out various operational solutions to get Americans onto the air base. We are continuing to work with the Taliban to ensure that any American who faces any challenge getting from their home to the airport, that that gets resolved, that they be able to have safe passage. And then it’s up to us to get them inside the airport. That’s what we’re doing now.

CHUCK TODD:

It seems, though, that Americans are getting harassed by the Taliban, and our allies are getting harassed by them. What is, what’s the fallout for the Taliban if they’re reneging on this agreement?

JAKE SULLIVAN:

If in the end Americans are blocked from getting to the airport, blocked from leaving the country, or our operations are disrupted, or our evacuations are in some way interfered with, we have explained to them that there will be a swift and forceful response.

CHUCK TODD:

What does the Taliban get in return if they — if you believe they’ve upheld this agreement that you guys have negotiated with them?

JAKE SULLIVAN:

This isn’t some kind of quid pro quo. We haven’t made any commitments. We have laid out our expectations. We have explained to them that the United States of America intends to evacuate any American who wants to leave, as well as Afghans at risk. We intend to follow through on that. And we intend to ensure that they follow through on that.

CHUCK TODD:

Look, there’s a lot of after-action reports that are going to come out. There’s going to be a lot of this fallout. But it seems that the core mistake here, it appears, in your withdrawal plan was pulling the military out before the civilians and before our allies. Why did the military get withdrawn before the civilians? Does that — in hindsight, that looks like just a catastrophic mistake.

JAKE SULLIVAN:

Which civilians are you referring to, Chuck?

CHUCK TODD:

Our American diplomats, the Americans to get out, our Afghan allies, all the people we wanted to get out. Why did we withdraw the military and our military support before we could get that out? Why did we hand over Bagram before we got these people out?

JAKE SULLIVAN:

Let me start with our diplomats because the plan from the beginning was to sustain a U.S. diplomatic presence in Kabul after our military departed. That was the plan from the beginning. And because we believe that if necessary, we could draw down our embassy presence in a crisis and get all of our diplomats out. We had a plan in place to do that. We did that. With respect to American citizens in Kabul, we began messaging them months ago, telling them that the situation was deteriorating and that they should leave the country. We explained to them that if they didn’t have the financial resources to be able to leave the country, those resources would be provided to them. Many chose to stay right till the end. And that, of course, was their choice. And then what we did was made sure that we had a plan in place with the president ordering three military battalions pre-positioned in the Gulf to be able to fly in and secure that air field so that those American citizens could be evacuated. We are doing that now. And finally, when it comes to Bagram, the best military advice that we received was that number one: Bagram is an immense facility that would be difficult to secure over time and put our troops at risk. And second, it didn’t logistically make sense from an evacuation perspective because it is located outside of Kabul. And both American diplomats, American citizens, and most of the Afghans at risk lived inside of Kabul. That is the reason for Bagram, which was the recommendation offered to the president by his national security experts at the Pentagon and elsewhere.

CHUCK TODD:

So, you followed the military advice on closing Bagram. But the same military advisers were telling you to keep a force on the ground. They were, they told you not to pursue this withdrawal agreement with the Taliban, correct?

JAKE SULLIVAN:

There are strategic judgments that a president makes. And there are tactical judgments that you give absolute premium to the commanders on the ground to make. If a commander on the ground says, “I need this resource or this move to accomplish my mission or keep my people safe,” you weigh that very heavily. But when it comes to the fundamental question of whether the United States should remain in a civil war in Afghanistan with American men and women fighting and dying for a third decade, that is a presidential call, not a call by anyone at the Pentagon or the State Department or the intelligence community.

CHUCK TODD:

The president said on Monday, “You plan for every contingency.” If this is a plan, it doesn’t look like it’s been, it’s been well thought-out. Did you really plan for this contingency, or is this the one contingency you didn’t plan for?

JAKE SULLIVAN:

You know, Chuck, I know that the scenes around the airport are heartbreaking — large crowds of people wanting to leave. I know that there is complexity and there is turbulence on the ground in Kabul. And it’s very risky and dangerous because there’s a genuine threat from ISIS-K. That is the reality of what we are up against. And I’m not going to sugarcoat that reality. But, Chuck, let’s just review what has happened. A week after Kabul fell, we have 30,000 people evacuated from the country. We have control of an airport in a city controlled by the other side after the collapse of the government. We are moving people through and out, thousands of people at a time. We have agreements with 26 nations around the world to logistically move Afghans and Americans and third-country nationals out of the country into air bases throughout neighboring countries and further afield, all of that within seven days. No plan survives first contact with reality. No plan can account for every contingency that occurs at a tactical level on a day-to-day basis. What you do is you adjust. And we’ve adjusted. And while we are continuing to face genuine challenges, we believe we are making progress.

CHUCK TODD:

Jake Sullivan, the national security advisor to President Biden, I appreciate you coming on and sharing the administration’s perspective. Good luck.

JAKE SULLIVAN:

Thanks for having me, Chuck.

CHUCK TODD:

And joining me now is Republican Congresswoman Liz Cheney of Wyoming. Congresswoman Cheney, welcome back to Meet The Press.

REP. LIZ CHENEY:

Thank you, Chuck.

CHUCK TODD:

Look, I know you disagree with the withdrawal decision, sort of, overall. But let’s focus short term here for a moment. The National Security Advisor did say if the president gets advice that more resources are needed to get Americans out, then he would be open to that. Given the situation, should that be the next course of action?

REP. LIZ CHENEY:

We have to ensure that we get every American out and we have to ensure that we get out the Afghans who helped us. That’s our duty. That’s our responsibility. You know, as you pointed out, Chuck, what we’re watching unfold on the ground is a complete catastrophe. And to hear the National Security Advisor say, “Well, it’s a little complexity, a little turbulence,” or to suggest this is simply a civil war is fundamentally at odds with reality. Our mission in Afghanistan was to deny terrorists the sanctuary. And the Biden decision now to completely withdraw has handed them an entire country, has in fact ensured not just the Taliban, but Al Qaeda, ISIS, the Haqqani Network, terrorist organizations that want to attack the United States now have an entire country as a sanctuary from which to do so.

CHUCK TODD:

Is the Taliban a direct threat to the United States or not? That has been a dispute.

REP. LIZ CHENEY:

Absolutely.

CHUCK TODD:

What makes you say that?

REP. LIZ CHENEY:

Absolutely. Well, we know. The facts make me say it. We know that the Taliban has never renounced Al Qaeda. And this is one of the things that was such an indefensible step by the Trump administration. When President Trump and Secretary of State Pompeo decided that they were going to sign a surrender agreement with the Taliban, decided they were going to begin to negotiate with the —

CHUCK TODD:

You concur with President Trump’s own National Security Advisor. I was going to actually play that clip for you, H. R. Haldeman. He —

REP. LIZ CHENEY:

McMaster.

CHUCK TODD:

McMaster. I’ve done that a few times. Been around this town too long, I guess. And he called, basically accused Secretary of State Pompeo at the time and the president. And he called it a surrender agreement.

REP. LIZ CHENEY:

It is.

CHUCK TODD:

Why do you call it —

REP. LIZ CHENEY:

Absolutely.

CHUCK TODD:

— a surrender agreement?

REP. LIZ CHENEY:

It is. Absolutely, because we sat down and negotiated with terrorists, because we completely excluded the Afghan government from those negotiations, we gave credibility to the Taliban. Secretary Pompeo told us that the Taliban was going to renounce Al Qaeda. They told us that the Taliban was going to fight terrorists. They forced the Afghan national government, we did, to release 5,000 prisoners. So we completely undercut the Afghan national government, we absolutely emboldened the Taliban. And we know now from public reporting that at the moment that agreement was signed, the Taliban went to members of the Afghan National Army and said, “The Americans are leaving you, and you should lay down your arms when the time comes, or we’ll kill you and your families.” So that led directly to the catastrophe that we’re seeing today.

CHUCK TODD:

Do you think President Biden could have gotten out of that agreement? He feels as if, that it would have been, that we’d have paid a high price, maybe even with more attacks on our soldiers on the ground there.

REP. LIZ CHENEY:

I think there is no question. You know, President Biden is the president of the United States and he’s had no problem in reversing course on other things. He decided he’s going to rejoin the JCPOA. He decided he’s going to rejoin the Paris Climate Accord. He’s reversed a number of decisions of the Trump administration. So in this circumstance where absolutely the U.S. national security requirement was to maintain a presence on the ground, to help to frankly embolden and train the Afghans who were bearing the brunt of this and fighting for us. President Biden ignored the advice of his military leadership and decided instead he’s going to withdraw. And all you have to do is look at what is unfolding today. Look at that interview we just heard. The fact that we’re now somehow relying on the Taliban to protect Americans. And the White House is denying what we know is happening on the ground, which is that Americans are being beaten. They’re being prevented from getting to the gates of the airport. And they are probably being held hostage.

CHUCK TODD:

Ten years ago, we had a poll that showed over 70% of Americans thought that we were more likely, that this is going to end without being able to leave a stable democracy in Afghanistan. In some ways, the American public sort of foresaw this a decade ago. The American public now even as they don’t like what they see on the ground, 60% say this isn’t worth it. That seems to be why there’s no political support with — four presidents in a row have tried to get out because the public’s not been with them. Isn’t that fundamentally why we’re getting out?

REP. LIZ CHENEY:

You know, I think I actually look at it the other way, Chuck. That we need to have leaders who will tell the public what’s necessary, who will help to explain why in fact we need to have a presence on the ground in Afghanistan. So when you’ve got three presidents in a row having said we have to get out, I don’t think —

CHUCK TODD:

Even President Bush was trying to find a way out as we’re now learning in an IG report.

REP. LIZ CHENEY:

Well, I don’t think that there’s any question that we have to maintain, we needed to maintain a presence on the ground. 3,500 forces, counterterrorism operations, counterintelligence operations. That allowed us to have the kind of assurance that the Taliban would not in fact take over as they have done and create now a brand new safe haven. And again it’s not just the Taliban. It’s the Haqqani Network. It’s Al Qaeda. You’ve got ISIS. You have, you know, the very groups, particularly Al Qaeda, that attacked us 20 years ago from bases in Afghanistan now back into a position where they can do the same again.

CHUCK TODD:

It does seem as if President Biden’s going to pursue a strategy, a counterterrorism strategy that’s similar to what both of the Obama and the Trump administration started to do late there on how we go after enclaves in Syria, and how we go after enclaves in Africa. Is that possible in Afghanistan?

REP. LIZ CHENEY:

No. Right now, no. I mean, look if you look at where we are today and you look at the damage this decision has done — it’s not just damage in Afghanistan, it’s damage globally for the United States. Look at what the members of the British Parliament have been saying about us over the course of the last week. Look at what our NATO allies are saying about us. The arrangements they’re now making frankly in some cases excluding us. You know, we have to as a nation recognize evil in the world. When you see mothers standing outside those gates handing their babies off, that’s because they know the Taliban is evil. And as Americans, we have to say we must fight that and we must defend ourselves against future attacks.

CHUCK TODD:

But was nation building a step too far? I mean, was that — in some ways I understand you have to build some institutions if you want to create that stability. But it didn’t work in Vietnam. And it didn’t work here.

REP. LIZ CHENEY:

Look, you know, you have to build those institutions. I think that’s exactly the point. And I think we have to be very specific. There’s no question that there were mistakes. There were strategies that were pursued that didn’t work, strategies that were pursued that didn’t have the resources they needed. But for the United States to be in a position where we need to ensure Afghanistan is not a safe haven, that means that we’ve got to provide the support necessary to continue to have the Afghans bear the brunt of the fight. It means that we’ve got to help to build the institutions that can withstand, you know, the Al Qaeda and the Taliban threat that continues. So this isn’t about building, you know, a democracy that looks like the United States. It’s about: what can we do to maintain stability so that we don’t have further terrorist attacks from Afghan soil?

CHUCK TODD:

Unfortunately, I’m out of time. Congresswoman Liz Cheney, I’d love to get you back here, talk a little bit about that January 6th committee —

REP. LIZ CHENEY:

I look forward to it.

CHUCK TODD:

— that you’re working on as well. I appreciate you coming by and sharing your perspective–

REP. LIZ CHENEY:

Thanks, Chuck.

CHUCK TODD:

–with us. Thank you.

REP. LIZ CHENEY:

Great to be with you.

CHUCK TODD:

And when we come back, with Covid cases and hospitalizations spiking among children, the battle over whether there would be mask mandates in school. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona joins me next.

CHUCK TODD:

Welcome back. Covid cases remain on the rise in the United States with the seven day average of new cases now over 150,000. This is the highest weekly average we’ve had since the end of January. The increase is now accompanied by a spike among children and by a debate that comes with it over mask mandates in schools. The Republican governors of Florida, Texas and Arizona have been actively fighting local mask mandates, but many of these school districts in those states are now deciding to defy those governors’ bans. In Florida, for instance, Governor Ron DeSantis is threatening to cut school board salaries in the districts that voted for mask mandates. The U.S. Department of Education has since said the school districts may use other federal relief funds to replace that lost money. So joining me now is the Secretary of Education, Miguel Cardona. Dr. Cardona, welcome to Meet the Press. And I want to start with a little bit of a logistics question about this, which is you’ve said that these federal funds that have already been made available can be used to, to do this. How does a Broward County, Florida or an Alachua County, Florida go about getting that money if their own governor, usually the liaison between the states and the feds, is standing in the way? Can they actually access this money?

SEC. MIGUEL CARDONA:

Yes. And thank you for having me. And first and foremost, you know, across the country, we have children returning to school. And we’re excited about that, but we have to do everything in our power to keep them safe. I spoke to the superintendents of those two communities and I let them know that we have their back. And yes, they can draw down on the funds that were promised to them so they can safely reopen schools.

CHUCK TODD:

Right, but how do they get that money? I mean, they, you guys —

SEC. MIGUEL CARDONA:

Right.

CHUCK TODD:

— because it’s one thing to say you’re going to do it. But again, if the state legislature and the, the state executive are not doing it, don’t they control the purse strings here?

SEC. MIGUEL CARDONA:

Not really. This was approved by Congress, so they do have access to federal funds that they can draw down at any moment to make sure that schools are opening safely and that our students and staff have the confidence of returning to in-person learning. They do not have to get the green light from the governor to use these funds. They’re made available to them. And I called these superintendents personally to let them know that.

CHUCK TODD:

All right. You have an opposite problem in the state of Illinois. There are some local school districts that want to defy the state — in this case, this is the state governor there, Governor Pritzker issuing a statewide mandate in schools, a mask mandate. Is there something the Department of Education’s going to do to school districts that defy these mandate orders?

SEC. MIGUEL CARDONA:

You know, we know what works best. And the president made it very clear in his memorandum, we need to do everything in our power as the Department of Education to allow safe reopening of schools. And what we’re doing at the agency is working really closely with states, with local districts, and district leaders and our health experts to make sure that the message is clear. We know what works. We shouldn’t be putting students at risk. So yes, we are involving ourselves in conversations with those leaders, with those elected officials, to make sure that student safety is at the top of the list.

CHUCK TODD:

This week, you and President Biden seemed to talk about the idea of using your Office of Civil Rights as a way —

SEC. MIGUEL CARDONA:

Right.

CHUCK TODD:

— to investigate some of these cases as cases of discrimination if students essentially can’t protect themselves due to these bans on mask mandates. So then what’s the end game here? Is this a denial of federal funds at the end of this process if it turns out you feel as if these districts essentially discriminated against kids that wanted to stay healthy?

SEC. MIGUEL CARDONA:

You know, at the end of the day, when we talk about withholding funds, those who suffer are the students. So we want to make sure that we’re communicating with them. But as you noted, we are prepared to launch investigations with our Office for Civil Rights to ensure that all students have access to this fundamental right of education. And it’s sad that we’re talking about this now. We’re going to use our Office for Civil Rights to investigate any claims that come forward to make sure that students’ rights are kept. And we’re also going to ensure that the funds are available to those districts that are doing the right thing to make sure students come in safely. Withholding funds doesn’t usually work. If anything, it adds insult to injury to these students who are trying to get into the classroom, and to these parents who have told me repeatedly, “I just want my children back in school. That’s where they learn best.” I’ve spoken to parents of students with disabilities and I’ve spoken to students. I’ve spoken to athletes in the last week and a half, two weeks, in Kansas and New York. They just want to go back to school safely. Let’s get politics out of the way. Let the educational leaders and health experts make the decisions around how to keep students and staff safe.

CHUCK TODD:

I want to put up some statistics on our vaccination rates among different age groups. For adults, it’s now over 62%. But for those 16-17, it’s at 43%. And for those 12-15, it’s at 34%. Is there– so we’ve talked about the penalty side of funding. How about sort of borrowing from the old race for the top idea, which is financial incentives to institutions who take federal dollars, whether in elementary schools or middle and high schools, or on the higher education level? Is there an incentive program you can create to get vaccine mandates in place?

SEC. MIGUEL CARDONA:

Yes. You know, we have been really beating that drum a lot. I mean, we’ve been traveling across the country talking to governors, both Republican and Democrats who are working with us to set up pop-up vaccination clinics in high schools. I visited one in Washington, D.C. recently. I visited one in Kansas recently. We know what works and we’re engaging educators to do this. And let me remind everyone, we have in the American Rescue Plan, $130 billion available to districts to set up these vaccine clinics, to set up the testing clinics, to build confidence in our school reopening plans. We have the return to school road map that has step-by-step direction on how to get this done. So it’s all hands on deck. We do know vaccinations work, and in those communities where the vaccine numbers are higher, we’re seeing more success. Unfortunately, in those places that they’re using politics to block good practice, we’re seeing hospitalizations through the roof for young children. That’s unacceptable. We can control that. Let’s get our kids back in school where they belong.

CHUCK TODD:

Right. But are you going to try to get a vaccine mandate on college campuses by basically saying, “If you take federal funds, you’ve got to have a mandate on campus?”

SEC. MIGUEL CARDONA:

You know, the federal government’s role is very limited here. I do support efforts that are being done across the country to require vaccines on college campuses. I do support vaccine mandates in places where they’re requiring staff and students to get it to go back. We don’t have that authority, but I do support those efforts to keep students in school safely and prevent disruptions.

CHUCK TODD:

Dr. Cardona, the Secretary of Education, really appreciate you coming on and sharing the administration’s perspective on this. Thank you. And when we come back —

SEC. MIGUEL CARDONA:

Thank you.

CHUCK TODD:

— the political fallout from our withdrawal from Afghanistan. panel is next.

CHUCK TODD:

Welcome back, panel is with us. NBC News Chief Washington correspondent, Andrea Mitchell; Leo Shane, deputy editor of Military Times; Stephen Hayes, the founder of The Dispatch; and Helene Cooper, Pentagon correspondent for The New York Times. Alright, I want to get to all of you. All of you are very well-sourced reporters, particularly in national security circles. Andrea, let me start with you. This ISIS threat, what Jake Sullivan is saying, even he seemed to open the door that yes, if we need more troops, the president’s open to that. That tells me that it’s a dangerous situation.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

A dangerous situation and, you know, I think that you’re going to see after today’s meeting, they may well be putting more troops in because you do have the terror threat. They cannot do what the president said on Friday that they were going to do is guarantee that they’re going to get all Americans out and our Afghan allies. And when you think of all the hundreds of thousands of people, if not millions of people, the women, the children, as well as the human rights activists and others, the people who’ve been in education, in the orchestra, in other Taliban-banned activities, they’ve got targets on their back. And we’re not even talking about getting them out. It just seems to me that the fundamental issue is closing Bagram, no matter what they say, closing Bagram because that broke the will, the air cover that the Afghan defense force, criticizing the Afghan defense force. Leon Panetta and others saying they were really — they lost 75,000 people. They were real fighters. But once they saw us gone, once they saw Bagram closed, then they knew that why wouldn’t you flip sides if the Taliban were threatening to kill your wife and children?

CHUCK TODD:

Helene, I want to unpack. Pentagon is your beat here. Well, everybody here, I think, at this table has Pentagon as their beat these days. But it was the military that said close Bagram first? That’s what Jake Sullivan seemed to indicate that that was, they followed military advice on that decision.

HELENE COOPER:

There’s a lot of blame shifting going on at this point. President Biden wanted the optic of the American military leaving Afghanistan. For — you know, when he announced in April that we were withdrawing, he was talking about the military. The military will say that you can’t withdraw and stay at Bagram. You’re either going to withdraw or you stay. And they had been pushing for us to stay for, as we know, 20 years now. And so there’s so many different layers of sort of finger-pointing that are starting — you see starting to go on at the moment. But the one thing that I feel like this whole conversation on Afghanistan constantly doesn’t reckon with is the — what some people in the military would call the original sin. And that is the decision that President Biden made that withdrawing 3,500 troops from Afghanistan, rejecting the advice of his defense secretary and his Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to leave 3,000 to 4,500 people there was not going to lead to the insane chaos that we are seeing now. A lot of people at the Pentagon believe that there is no way you would have gotten — once you made that decision, how do you then avoid this? Because every other way that you look around, you take the diplomats out first, that triggers the fall of the government. You start taking out the SIVs, that triggers the fall of the government. It all becomes a confidence thing. Once you remove the military, people at the Pentagon will tell you you’re done for.

CHUCK TODD:

So Bagram should have been the last place we evacuated.

LEO SHANE:

I mean, it certainly seems that way now, right? I mean, sending U.S. troops back into the Kabul Airport, trying to reestablish all this, I mean, it just results in this chaotic environment. And look, there’s still a, there’s still a situation where this comes out well for the president because he is the one who withdrew because they did this. But everything is focused now on the evacuation effort and just how bungled that appears. And, you know, it’s — we’re nine days away from this August 31st deadline. There’s no way that it gets less chaotic over the next nine days. It’s just going to get worse.

CHUCK TODD:

As Richard reported, it’s a rush for the exit.

STEPHEN HAYES:

Yeah, I think that’s the key point. I mean, what we’re seeing right now seems to be, I mean, it’s been catastrophic, I would say, for the last week. And it’s striking to me that when you talk to Jake Sullivan, when you listen to President Biden, they are, in effect, saying, “Yeah, this went the way that we thought it would go,” which I find —

CHUCK TODD:

This is why we should have gotten out, this is why —

STEPHEN HAYES:

— extraordinary. Extraordinary thing. And, look, President Biden in his remarks on Friday said three things that were demonstrably, provably untrue. “Al Qaeda is gone from Afghanistan.” That’s not true. “We haven’t been criticized by our allies.” That’s not true. “Americans can make it to the airport without being harassed.” That’s not true. I mean, he seems to have lost touch with reality. And that’s a huge problem.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

And what people are seeing every day. Look, our allies are furious. And here, he went to Brussels and said, “America is back and I’m not Donald Trump and I’m not going to pull the rug out from under you as, you know, Trump did in Syria.” And now they feel that the rug was pulled out from under them. You hear criticism from the Brits, from Germany, from France. And that is really hurting American position overseas. And these cables, the descent memo and these cables now from the Afghan employees of the State Department we’ve got in the last 24 hours are devastating. We have destroyed morale that he was rebuilding. I mean, it is a real problem for America’s leadership abroad.

HELENE COOPER:

What I find so interesting about all this is for 20 years, Joe Biden has believed that he knew more about Afghanistan and he was the only realistic skeptic in a room full of people who had pipe dreams about this, this —

CHUCK TODD:

It was ’09 Biden.

HELENE COOPER:

Yes. Yes.

CHUCK TODD:

Vice President Biden.

HELENE COOPER:

When he was on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, that was the very same thing. The first interview I ever had as a foreign policy reporter with Joe Biden was back in, I don’t know, 2005 or something. And I sat in his office. And he went through the Joe Biden, “This is the world according to Joe Biden,” and all of these places —

ANDREA MITCHELL:

But isn’t that the problem, Helene?

HELENE COOPER:

— and that’s exactly the problem. Because he came in and he was not going to listen. He believed the Pentagon had rolled a successive number of administrations for 20 years. And he was going to stand up to them.

STEPHEN HAYES:

But then that’s, but then how are they unprepared for when April rolled around? When he announces the withdrawal, it seems like there was no actual plan for what he had been planning for the whole time. How do they not have some —

ANDREA MITCHELL:

Because they thought could talk him out of it. You had Joe Dunford with a congressional panel in February saying, “You should not take out the 3,500.” All of the military advice was that. And Lloyd Austin did try to fight back. You know that. But the fact is he still is the Joe Biden of 2009 who is the only one in the national security team who didn’t want the surge.

CHUCK TODD:

I can’t believe I’m going to do this to you guys here.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

And Bob Gates, Bob Gates criticized him in his book about it. And he now says, “I knew better.”

CHUCK TODD:

Isn’t David Axelrod, didn’t he nail this in Friday’s New York Times when he said this, “The way it’s ending,” — this is David Axelrod, long-time senior advisor to the Obama/Biden team — “The way it’s ending, at least thus far, is more problematic than cuts against some of the core perceived strength, competence, mastery of foreign policy, supreme empathy. It’s as if his eagerness to end the war overran the planning and execution.”

STEPHEN HAYES:

I mean, I think that’s, I think that’s why this sticks. And we should also note this is a dangerous moment. You have people talking about the Haqqani Network. Al Qaeda-linked Haqqanis taking security in Kabul. This is, this is — it could get worse quickly.

CHUCK TODD:

He’s betting on the American public either not seeing it or compartmentalizing it.

HELENE COOPER:

But that is —

CHUCK TODD:

And that’s, I know, we got more. You guys have more time. When we come back, the divided states of America. Is there anything that we all agree on? Stick with us.

CHUCK TODD:

Welcome back, Data Download time. I want to dig in a little bit more into our poll to show you just how divided we are as a country, and you’ll see how polarized we are by party. First, we’ll look at the President’s job approval rating. I showed you, it’s sort of this middling 49, 48.

Well, look at it by party, 88% of Democrats approve, 88% of Republicans disapprove. Polarized result, well, guess what? It’s the same almost across the board whether we’re talking about Biden’s handling of the economy, basically an even split there: 47, 49. Very much partisan; doesn’t budge on this one. His personal rating: 43, 44. Again, the big overly positive Democrats, overly negative Republicans. And go down the line, even the idea of a vaccine requirement in this country splits along very polarized lines: 48% favor, 50% oppose. Congressional preference, who do you want to control Congress, starting to look familiar: 47 Democrat, 46 Republican. Again, very polarizing. There’s one small group of voters that make the polls move and I want to show you who they are. They’re hardcore independents. This is less than 15% of our sample. They’re the only people that seem to be moved by events. President Biden’s job approval, in April, among independents, 61, now 46. On the economy, it dropped 15 points. On handling of Covid, it dropped a whopping 30 points. On congressional preference, you saw a swing of 15 points. The point is, these are the only voters in America that are actually moved by public events, what’s happening in the administration. This group of independents, that’s who’s going to decide who’s in charge of our politics for the next couple of years. When we come back, how this political divide is now keeping us from agreeing on whether kids should be masked in school. Stay with us.

CHUCK TODD:

Welcome back. So what do Americans care more about? Covid or what we’re seeing in Afghanistan? I want to show you something, guys. We asked people to tell us what the number one issue was that they want Congress to focus on. Here’s the Democratic word cloud here. The biggest response, something having to do with economy and jobs. Number two, Covid and the coronavirus. If I have a magnifying glass, you could not find Afghanistan on here. That’s among Democrats. Among Republicans, the number one issue, economy and jobs. Number two is immigration and the border. You need, again, you don’t see anything having to do with Afghanistan. Covid I circled up here up top, kind of small on that front. You know, Steve Hayes, is what’s happening on Covid, it’s a wet blanket on President Biden right now. Are some of the Republican governors playing with fire down south?

STEPHEN HAYES:

Yeah, I think they could be because there’s an intellectual inconsistency with some of the arguments they’re making. I mean, Republicans have long-made the argument that the government that does best is the government that’s closest to the people. And now you have Republicans saying, in effect, we’re going to make decisions at the state level, to hell with all the localities. I think that’s a hard decision to make. And a hard decision to both enforce, and a hard decision to defend when you’re looking at this. Look, the part of the problem here is negative polarization. Right? I mean, it has become part of the Republican identity, I think driven by President Trump and his time at the White House, to be skeptical of Covid, to be skeptical of the effects, be skeptical of the treatments, to be skeptical of the vaccine. Now you’ve had President Trump say, “I hope people go get vaccinated,” and he’s getting booed for it which is just extraordinary. It shows how this has kind of taken momentum on its own.

CHUCK TODD:

And this polarization, Leo, is impacting the military.

LEO SHANE:

Yeah.

CHUCK TODD:

And good luck instituting this vaccine mandate, right?

LEO SHANE:

Well, I mean, we’ll see. I mean, the military has fallen in line in the past when they’ve told these things, we’re supposed to get FDA approval of one of the vaccines tomorrow. So that will ease some of the transition here. But look, there is still a lot of friction. There’s still a lot of folks who don’t trust it and don’t want it. And we are seeing some pockets of that. You know, it remains to be seen what the military actually pushes forward here, what it will be. VA has also instituted most of their frontline health workers are going to have get vaccines. I’m hearing from folks saying they’ll quit before they do that. We’ll see if they actually do.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

What’s so dramatic and startling, really, not surprising but startling in the poll numbers, is the decline since April in the effectiveness, the job approval on Covid–

CHUCK TODD:

Yeah —

ANDREA MITCHELL:

— on handling Covid for the president which was a high point for him. And well done in the way they rolled out the vaccines. And yes, they couldn’t have anticipated Delta and how bad it has been. But just how polarized the country is to reject vaccines. There are people in the south taking horse deworming medication, not the vaccines, but horse deworming medication for Covid because they heard about it on another network from two prominent anchors like, like hydroxychloroquine. I mean, how crazy do you have to be? So they’re calling poison control because they’re taking this crazy thing for Covid and killing themselves or getting themselves sick. But they won’t take what will actually —

CHUCK TODD:

You know —

ANDREA MITCHELL:

— prevent at least serious illness and hospitalization.

CHUCK TODD:

You know, Helene, Andrea brought up the Covid issue for President Biden. And this is where to sort of how it connects to Afghanistan is it gets to the competency issue which is if you see chaos here and then all of a sudden it’s going to make people question, well, you’ve been giving us these reassurances over here. I mean, this is how the whole thing starts to collapse.

HELENE COOPER:

Yeah, I think that President Biden, He did — I mean, he got very deserved credit for the vaccine rollout. But the idea — I would disagree with the idea that he didn’t see Delta coming. He saw it coming. I think the White House saw it was in the U.K. The Delta, Delta-variant kind of spread in many, many places before it got here. And we heard as early as April that this was something that was going to be the dominant strain–

CHUCK TODD:

You know, he mentioned in his–

HELENE COOPER:

–in the United States, so.

CHUCK TODD:

–Declaration of Independence remarks.

HELENE COOPER:

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

CHUCK TODD:

He actually did mention Delta again.

HELENE COOPER:

Did he? Yeah.

CHUCK TODD:

I mean, it is this on again —

HELENE COOPER:

So it’s, like, so.

CHUCK TODD:

On one hand, he was declaring our independence, and on the other hand, he’s like, “Oh by the way, this might be a problem.” But it wasn’t really–

HELENE COOPER:

This is still a lot of–

CHUCK TODD:

— front and center.

HELENE COOPER:

— making policy on the fly. And you could argue he has not taken some of the more dramatic steps that he could take in light of the Delta-variant and the surge there. And again, you’re, you have these people on both sides of the aisle. But a lot of them on the right who won’t touch the vaccine, and who won’t —

ANDREA MITCHELL:

I would just say, in defense, that who would have anticipated such a large cohort, 19 million Americans unvaccinated because it really is spreading because of the unvaccinated?

HELENE COOPER:

Yes, absolutely.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

They are actually correct about that. And–

CHUCK TODD:

And, well–

ANDREA MITCHELL:

— it’s just, you know, amazing that–

HELENE COOPER:

But are there things that we could do to force people to get vaccines? Like, what if you did a domestic flight vaccine mandate for domestic flights. You can’t get on a plane. Sure, you know, people aren’t catching Covid on airlines. But that would certainly, like, prod a lot of people into getting —

ANDREA MITCHELL:

Exactly —

STEPHEN HAYES:

I mean, that becomes the question with the schools here at this point which is do they have a mandate? Does something come, does something force them to take a mandate?

CHUCK TODD:

I will say this, a ton of politicians are staring at something that has 60% approval and have been afraid to go down the mandate road which is fascinating to me. That’s all we have for today. Thank you for watching. Get vaccinated if you haven’t gotten vaccinated. We’ll be back next week, because if it’s Sunday, it’s Meet the Press.