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Who the White House trusts on TV to address Afghanistan

Welcome to POLITICO’s West Wing Playbook, your guide to the people and power centers in the Biden administration. With Allie Bice and Louis Nelson.

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Last Sunday as Kabul fell, Secretary of State TONY BLINKEN was the lone Biden administration official to appear on the Sunday Shows, as NBC’s “Meet the Press” and the like are referred to.

It didn’t go well, even close Biden allies and people in the State Department admit, although they argued Blinken was put in an untenable position.

The administration has since gone into damage control mode, with a flurry of officials and the president himself appearing on television — and a healthy dose of NPR — to defend the administration’s handling of Afghanistan.

But as is typical for this White House, communications aides have been very deliberate about which officials they choose to appear on television and which shows are most important. News producers who have requested to interview senior officials like Defense Secretary LLOYD AUSTIN, for example, have received a response from the White House detailing which administration personnel are available for interviews (not Austin, apparently).

West Wing Playbook examined which officials the White House chose to put on the air — and which they didn’t — during this particular national security crisis.

The White House’s most trusted messenger this week was national security adviser JAKE SULLIVAN, who conducted the majority of the White House briefing on Tuesday and appeared on NBC’s “Today,” ABC’s “Good Morning America,” NBC’s “Nightly News,” and CBS’s “Evening News.” Sullivan’s deputy, JON FINER, was also a go-to emissary, with four television appearances this week plus NPR. Some television producers were surprised because Finer had not appeared much on television up until now. One didn’t even know how to spell his name (it’s “Jon,” not “John”).

Other officials were not made available for television interviews. Neither Austin nor Gen. MARK MILLEY have popped up for any media hits, though they did a joint press briefing Thursday. Austin will make his first appearance Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.” Blinken has not appeared on television since Sunday, though officials told us he may be back on the Sunday Shows this weekend. Blinken, Austin and Vice President KAMALA HARRIS — who also hasn’t done a television interview on Afghanistan — were stationed behind Biden as he addressed reporters about evacuation efforts from Kabul this afternoon.

Members of the White House’s press shop like JEN PSAKI and KARINE JEAN-PIERRE have not appeared on television to discuss Afghanistan, either. Outside of the White House briefing, the first person from the White House communications or press team to appear on TV was communications director KATE BEDINGFIELD, who did a pair of interviews this morning.

State Department spokesman NED PRICE has yet to be deployed, but his Pentagon counterpart, JOHN KIRBY, has been one of the administration’s leading spokespeople this week, with appearances on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” CNN’s “New Day,” ABC’s “Good Morning America,” and NPR’s “Morning Edition.” Notably, Kirby was the only one to venture onto Fox News — a Thursday appearance on Brett Baier’s show. (Both Kirby and Price have also held on-camera briefings throughout the week.)

On Tuesday and Wednesday, the White House pushed out U.N. Ambassador LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD, who participated in three TV interviews and one on NPR. Her appearances centered on the plight of Afghan women and girls under Taliban rule and whether the Taliban can be trusted to keep its word.

“We will be looking at what this government does, not just what it says,” the ambassador said on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” echoing comments peppered throughout her other interviews.

The White House also stays away from the primetime cable shows, with a strong preference for morning shows and network nightly news.

The White House’s carefully orchestrated television strategy includes the president himself. Biden has done relatively few lengthy one-on-one interviews thus far, and when he does, it’s often with familiar faces like columnist DAVID BROOKS or ABC’s GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, whom the White House chose to interview Biden this week to address the swirling controversy on Afghanistan.

All told, Biden has done two interviews with Stephanopoulos since becoming president, but has yet to agree to a single sit-down with reporters from The New York Times, The Washington Post, or The Wall Street Journal. Reporters and representatives at all three papers confirmed to West Wing Playbook that they have requested such interviews.

The White House’s media preferences were evident again on Friday. After days of criticism for not taking questions after his public remarks, Biden answered some at the White House this afternoon — from reporters on a pre-selected list.

The Associated Press, Bloomberg, PBS, ABC News, and NPR got to ask questions. The rest of the White House press corps was left shouting questions at the president’s back as he walked swiftly out the door.

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With MIKE RICHARDS stepping down from “Jeopardy” this morning, we’re sneaking in some “Jeopardy” presidential trivia. In 2009, which three presidents did the late ALEX TREBEK say he thought would be the best “Jeopardy” contestants?

(Answer is at the bottom.)

Every Friday, we’ll feature a cartoon of the week — this one is courtesy of MICHAEL RAMIREZ of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Our very own MATT WUERKER also publishes a selection of cartoons from all over the country. View the cartoon carousel here.

THE BEAU FACTOR — Biden’s choices in Afghanistan are influenced by his late son BEAU’s deployment to Iraq. “Speaking to veterans and military families, Biden often mentioned that when his son Beau had served in Iraq, he came to understand what the poet John Milton meant when he wrote, ‘They also serve who only stand and wait,’” SAMANTHA POWER recalled in her 2019 memoir.

That influence was apparent again Friday when Biden explained to reporters his decision to withdraw from Afghanistan. “And the idea that if I had said on May the 2nd or 3rd, ‘We are not leaving; we are staying’ — does anybody truly believe that I would not have had to put in significantly more American forces — send your sons, your daughters — like my son was sent to Iraq — to maybe die? And for what? For what?” he said.

THE BUBBLE: The first question Biden took today after making remarks on U.S. evacuation efforts in Afghanistan was from AP’s ZEKE MILLER, who asked, in part, what the president’s message is to America’s partners around the world who have criticized the “conduct” of the withdrawal, which has “made them question America’s credibility on the world stage.”

Biden responded, “I have seen no question of our credibility from our allies around the world.” Later, he said the removal of troops from Afghanistan would allow the U.S. to focus on other pressing security and foreign policy challenges. “This is about America leading the world and all our allies have agreed with that.”

He may have been referring to what national security adviser JAKE SULLIVAN said earlier this week: all NATO members were consulted and had “signed up” to the U.S. timetable for withdrawal. But that wasn’t Zeke’s question.

Here’s a small sampling of on-the-record quotes from foreign policymakers and politicians in recent days:

“Let me speak clearly and bluntly. This is a catastrophe.”JOSEPH BORRELL, the European Union’s foreign policy chief. Also, “What has happened raises many questions about the West’s 20-year engagement in the country and what we were able to achieve.”

“I say this with a heavy heart and with horror over what is happening, but the early withdrawal was a serious and far-reaching miscalculation by the current administration. This does fundamental damage to the political and moral credibility of the West.” — NORBERT ROTTGEN, chairman of the German parliament’s foreign relations committee.

“Afghanistan is the biggest foreign policy disaster since Suez. We need to think again about how we handle friends, who matters and how we defend our interests,” tweeted TOM TUGENDHAT, the Conservative chair of the U.K. parliament’s foreign affairs committee.

KLAIN LIKES: Chief of staff RON KLAIN has been retweeting lots of supportive voices but his “like” of a tweet from @moira228 caught our eye.

RAHM TIME — Biden announced another batch of nominees for ambassadorships, and former Chicago mayor and Obama chief of staff RAHM EMANUEL was finally on that list — to be U.S. ambassador to Japan.

In June, West Wing Playbook unpacked how Emanuel has been preparing for his possible move to Tokyo. Last year, Emanuel was bypassed as Transportation secretary when Biden chose PETE BUTTIGIEG. But an ambassadorship was next on his wish list, sources have told us. Can’t wait for that confirmation hearing.

The White House also announced NICHOLAS BURNS, a career diplomat, as Biden’s pick to be ambassador to China. MICHAEL BATTLE, former U.S. ambassador to the African Union and military chaplain, has been tapped to be ambassador to Tanzania.

EVICTION BAN LIVES TO FIGHT ANOTHER DAY — A federal appeals court on Friday declined to block the Biden administration’s new eviction moratorium, KATY O’DONNELL and JOSH GERSTEIN report, setting up a showdown at the Supreme Court.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit denied an emergency motion by two chapters of the National Association of Realtors to stop the ban. The moratorium, which is implemented by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is set to expire Oct. 3.

BIG WHOOPS: Defense Secretary Austin told lawmakers on Friday that Americans trying to leave Afghanistan have been beaten by Taliban fighters, several people who participated in a briefing call and top officials told ANDREW DESIDERIO, HEATHER CAYGLE and LARA SELIGMAN.

“Austin’s remarks to House members appeared to directly contradict President Joe Biden’s assessment from minutes earlier, in which Biden said the U.S. was not aware of Americans having trouble getting through Taliban checkpoints and to the airport in Kabul — the only evacuation point in the country for Americans and Afghan allies.”

Biden assured NATO allies in June U.S. would ensure Kabul’s stability (Bloomberg’s Alberto Nardelli)

Kamala Harris to campaign in California for Gavin Newsom (Politico’s Jeremy B. White)

He met with his national security team to get updates on the evolving situation in Afghanistan this morning. Later, he gave remarks in the East Room on the government’s efforts to evacuate American citizens, partners, and vulnerable Afghans from the country.

She attended the national security briefing on Afghanistan and the president’s remarks in the East Room. Later tonight, she departs D.C. en route to Singapore to start a six-day trip to Southeast Asia.

KATE CHILDS GRAHAM became a political speechwriter because of a divine force, of sorts.

Graham, director of speechwriting for the veep, told political consulting firm The Campaign Workshop that she always intended to be an activist. But a Catholic nun gave her advice she took to heart.

“I wanted to make change in the world. It wasn’t until a Catholic nun pointed it out that I discovered my ability to make meaningful change rests in my pen — or, perhaps, my keyboard,” Graham said.

Graham isn’t the only Biden-Harris staffer to credit nuns for a formative experience. Biden deputy press secretary KARINE JEAN-PIERRE spent hours tracing loops — learning how to correct her bad cursive — with elderly sisters in their nineties, she wrote in her book “Moving Forward: A Story of Hope, Hard Work, and the Promise of America.” It was actually the result of an ultimatum: Her cursive was so bad that her teacher refused to read her work.

Trebek told Time Magazine in a video interview that WOODROW WILSON, JIMMY CARTER and BARACK OBAMA would make “legitimate ‘Jeopardy’ contestants.”

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Edited by Emily Cadei

CORRECTION: This newsletter has been updated to correct the description of Michael Battle’s previous career experience.