Moulton and Meijer Make Unauthorized Afghanistan Trip

Grandstanding in the midst of chaos is a bad look.

U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Evelyn Chavez

WaPo (“Two Congress members make unauthorized trip to Kabul amid evacuation efforts“):

Two members of Congress made an unauthorized whirlwind trip to Kabul early Tuesday, leaving less than 24 hours later on a flight used for evacuating U.S. citizens, allies and vulnerable Afghans.

The visit by Reps. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) and Peter Meijer (R-Mich.) — which was not approved as part of the normal process for congressional fact-finding trips — served as a distraction for military and civilian staffers attempting to carry out frenzied rescue efforts, according to two people familiar with the trip who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk about the matter.

It is not clear how the lawmakers, both of whom served in Iraq before being elected to Congress, first entered Afghanistan. Moulton’s office did not confirm the trip until the plane evacuating the members of Congress left Afghanistan’s airspace. Meijer’s office did not respond to an email seeking comment.

The cloak-and-dagger trip infuriated some officials at the Pentagon and the State Department, where diplomats, military officers and civil servants are working around-the-clock shifts in Washington and at the Kabul airport to evacuate thousands of people from the country every day.

“It’s as moronic as it is selfish,” said a senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to provide a frank assessment of their trip. “They’re taking seats away from Americans and at-risk Afghans — while putting our diplomats and service members at greater risk — so they can have a moment in front of the cameras.”

In a joint statement from Moulton and Meijer emailed to The Washington Post by Moulton spokesman Tim Biba, the two pushed back on the notion that their trip caused a distraction.

“We have been on the other side of this argument while we were serving and it just isn’t accurate,” Moulton and Meijer said. “Trust us: the professionals on the ground are focused on the mission. Many thanked us for coming.”

As a general matter, I’m skeptical of the notion that Members of Congress need the permission of the Executive to conduct fact-finding trips. But flying into the middle of a chaotic extraction from a war zone is another matter entirely. Of course they were a distraction.

While I’m sure that the people on the ground were indeed professional and thanked them—I mean, what else are you going to do with two US Representatives?—the very nature of fact-finding means that they had to take time out from more important matters to answer questions from two VIPs. Oh, and now they have an escalated crisis on their hands: two VIPs who need to be protected and who might even make an attack more likely.

Officials expressed disgust at having to divert resources and accommodate sitting members of Congress while racing to get evacuees out of the country. “It’s one of the most irresponsible things I’ve heard a lawmaker do,” said one diplomat familiar with the matter who was not authorized to discuss it and spoke on the condition of anonymity. “It absolutely deserves admonishment.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a letter sent to House members Tuesday afternoon, “I write to reiterate that the Departments of Defense and State have requested that Members not travel to Afghanistan and the region during this time of danger.”

“Admonishment” and “requests” are about all Moulton and Meijer can expect in the way of punishment for this and they know it. But, yes, it was “irresponsible” and “selfish;” whether it was “moronic” is unclear.

The two lawmakers began their journey to Kabul via a commercial flight to the United Arab Emirates, paying for the tickets using their own funds, Biba said. From there they “figured out a way onto an empty military flight going into Kabul,” Biba said, without providing additional specifics. They landed at Hamid Karzai International Airport around 4 a.m. Washington time, according to a person familiar with their travel.

It was unclear how the pair had initially planned to get out of the country.

Biba said the lawmakers pledged to leave only on a plane with at least three empty seats — their way of ensuring that the flight they took out had extra capacity. When they boarded to return home about 2:30 a.m. Kabul time, he said, they sat in seats designated for crew members.

“They ensured the flight was not going to be full,” Biba said. “They also believe this method of travel, which will take them to an area where evacuees have been temporarily relocated, will provide them with additional information and increase their ability to provide oversight.”

The flight “was not going to be full” because officials on the ground damn well ensured that it would not be so they could get these clowns out safely. One imagines that the seats were “designated for crew members” so that the flight crew could sit in them.

So why was it so all-fired important that two backbenchers fly into the middle of chaos?

In their statement, Moulton and Meijer cited their military experience when explaining why they chose to make the trip.

“America has a moral obligation to our citizens and loyal allies, and we wanted to make sure that obligation is being kept,” they said. “As members of Congress we have a duty to provide oversight on the executive branch. There is no place in the world right now where oversight matters more. We conducted this visit in secret to minimize the risk to the people on the ground.”

The two lawmakers said that they met with service members and State Department officials during their brief time at the airport and said that they believe Biden should extend the Aug. 31 deadline for evacuating Americans, allies and vulnerable Afghans. “After talking with commanders on the ground today and seeing the situation for ourselves, it is obvious that because we started the evacuation so late, no matter what we do, we won’t get everyone out on time, even by 9/11,” they said.

So, yes, they diverted State and Defense Department officials from doing their job to conduct their “fact-finding.” And the facts they “found” were what I could have told them from reading the newspapers. Indeed, they’d have know this if they’d been reading OTB and I’ve been really busy at work and haven’t had that much time to blog.

And, come on, they conducted the trip “in secret” because they’d have been told No had they asked.

Moulton is a member of the House Armed Services Committee and has pushed in recent years to expand and hasten special immigrant visas for Afghans who the Taliban could target. His last trip to Afghanistan was in 2016, and he requested a trip to the country after Biden’s April announcement that troops would be withdrawn, according to Biba.

He has been one of his party’s most outspoken critics of Biden’s handling of the situation in Afghanistan, privately raising the prospect of whether Biden should fire Sullivan, according to two Democrats with knowledge of the situation.

Publicly, he has also been sharply critical of the president’s response. “To say that today is anything short of a disaster would be dishonest,” Moulton said in a statement released Aug. 15, the day Kabul fell. “Worse, it was avoidable.”

Meijer enlisted in the Army Reserves after graduating from college and deployed to Iraq as a noncommissioned officer, according to a biography on his congressional website.

He was one of 10 Republicans who voted to impeach President Donald Trump earlier this year.

In an Aug. 16 interview with WUOM, a Michigan public radio station, Meijer was also critical of Biden’s handling of Afghanistan.

“The U.S. has been embarrassed at the way in which intelligence signals were ignored, in which assumptions that were made were found to be baseless, and the sad reality is that thousands of Afghans are going to pay for their lives for our mistakes and incompetence,” he said on the program.

It’s perfectly reasonable for Mouton and Meijer to be concerned about the situation on the ground here. I share their belief that we’ve betrayed the Afghans with the nature of our exit, although think Trump and his team deserve most of the blame for it . But flying into the Kabul airport for a short visit is grandstanding, not oversight.

Further, Trump’s team negotiated a May 1 exit date with the Taliban and Biden unilaterally extended it to August 31. The Taliban have made it quite clear that they will not brook an extension and have in fact made it increasingly hard for people to make it to the airport. Yes, Biden and company should almost certainly have started the evacuation considerably earlier. But, Cher’s hopes notwithstanding, we can’t turn back time. Having gotten off to a rocky start, the evacuation is going about as well as could be expected at this point. There will be plenty of time for recriminations starting in September.

FILED UNDER: Afghanistan War, Congress, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Sleeping Dog says:

    Grandstanding, yes. Grandstanding idiots, or course. Both are from safe districts so there’ll be little push back there

  2. KM says:

    Are they going to be held accountable for diverting those resources? Someone should ask about the people we didn’t get out *because* we had less resources available during that day during this rush. After all, if you’re so damn worried about saving as many people as possible why were you taking up space on planes or not cramming as many people as possible in with you when you left? Bet there was a ton of space when they took off – how many did they rescue?

    Zero. They rescued zero and they caused people to be left behind. Selfish monsters looking for attention.

  3. CSK says:

    Moulton represents the district next to mine. He’s always had a reputation as a grandstander.

  4. Scott says:

    About 64,000 have been evacuated since end of July (according to CNN). What seems to be hard to find is what is considered to be the universe of evacuees to be flown out. Americans, Americans and families, Afghan US employees?, Afghan govt officials?, etc.

    Now I’m reading about students at the American University as being “at risk”.

    I guess it is all a judgement call but it would be easier to identify who doesn’t want to leave Afghanistan.

  5. Kathy says:

    If I’d been the commander at the scene, I’d have thanked them for coming, then told them they’ll be leaving in the last flight out on August 31st.

    If there’s room for them then.

  6. James Joyner says:

    @Kathy: The problem is that even ordinary Representatives are 15th in the order of precedence. The only person at State or DOD they don’t outrank is the Secretaries themselves. The Deputy Secretaries are ranked 20th. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs is 21st. (And there are dozens, or even hundreds, of people in some of these “ranks.”)

  7. Kurtz says:

    @Kathy: @James Joyner:

    Technicalities aside, I’m sure it would have felt gratifying for the senior decision-maker on the ground to shake hands with the two Congressmen.

    “Thank you for coming, sirs. Your support means a lot. I’d love to have lunch, but I’m a little busy. Excuse me.”

    After taking five departing steps adding, “Back of the line fellas” with a jab of a thumb over the shoulder and unbroken stride.

    Pesky orders of precedence.

  8. Kathy says:

    @James Joyner:

    I’d still play the odds.

    Despite a rather large number of presidential deaths (3 or 4) and assassinations(3), for a democracy, no one lower than the sitting VP has ever succeeded a dead president, in the last 232 years. The odds of reaching the 15th place (not the 15th person, BTW) are so small as to be zero.

    Tom Clancy level governmental extinction events happen only in fiction.

  9. James Joyner says:

    @Kathy: I’m not talking about replacing dead presidents. Moulton and Meijer waaaaaaaaaaay outrank anyone on the ground at the Kabul airport. That’s what makes their appearance there such a giant pain in the ass.

  10. Kathy says:

    @James Joyner:

    I may be wrong about this, but I don’t think Representatives are in the chain of command.

  11. keef says:

    LOL A “distraction” amid complete and total chaos. Sure.

    As we have learned from reports on internal briefings, the Administration is lying through its teeth to the public. They don’t want transparency. They want to control the message.

    Who are you gonna believe, the Administration or these guys lyin’ eyes. That’s what this is really all about.

    Four thumbs up to these guys for not swallowing spoon fed BS.

    “Today with @RepMeijer I visited Kabul airport to conduct oversight on the evacuation.

    Witnessing our young Marines and soldiers at the gates, navigating a confluence of humanity as raw and visceral as the world has ever seen, was indescribable.

    It’s a reminder of why America’s values—when we live up to them—matter to people all over the world.

    I’ve never talked to more public servants, from salty Marines to the most seasoned State Department officials, who came to tears describing their work.

    The world has truly never seen anything like what America is doing in Kabul this week—deeply tragic and highly heroic. Fear and desperation at their worst; hope and humanity at their finest.

    We did this visit in secret to reduce risks and impact on the mission and we insisted on leaving in a plane that was not full, in a seat designated for crew so that we didn’t take a seat from someone else.

    Washington should be ashamed of the position we put our service members in, but they represent the best in America. These men and women have been run ragged and are still running strong. Their empathy and dedication to duty are truly inspiring.

    The acts of heroism and selflessness we witnessed at HKIA make America proud.

    We came into this visit wanting, like most veterans, to push the president to extend the August 31st deadline. 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. Sadly and frustratingly, getting our people out depends on maintaining the current, bizarre relationship with the Taliban.

    In the coming days we’ll have more to share with our colleagues & the American people about what we learned, but after meeting Marines, soldiers, & dedicated State Dept. officials on the ground—we want the world to know first & foremost we have never been prouder to be Americans. “

  12. OzarkHillbilly says:

    It was unclear how the pair had initially planned to get out of the country.

    I would have suggested hitchhiking on the Kabul – Jalalabad Highway. Lots of traffic there this week.

  13. Mu Yixiao says:

    @James Joyner:

    Moulton and Meijer waaaaaaaaaaay outrank anyone on the ground at the Kabul airport.

    General McKenzie is currently in command at the Kabul airport.

    Moulton and Meijer are civilians, outside the military chain of command, if I’m correct. If they’re not civilians, then… Moulton is a captain and Meijer is a sergeant.

  14. KM says:

    These glory hogs diverted needed resources on the ground in a crisis to protect and cater to them – something they *KNEW* would happen as former service members. Brass showing up is always a big deal and they weren’t going to be allowed to wander around unescorted, meaning at least one person had to tag along with this attention whores so they could verify what everyone else has been saying if not more. Security reasons also mean empty space on the plane that could have held some of the people they were “worried” about…. meaning someone’s likely gonna die because they couldn’t get that space a Congressman needed to put his feet up.

    There’s a few military terms for people like that, ones they would have used themselves back in the day for time wasters like this. Bravo Foxtrot is one of the nicer ones but hey, it was never about getting the perspective on the guys on the ground who have better things to do then random Congressmen showing up to ruin an evac. It’s all about impressing folks like you who “question the official line” with no basis and cause disasters with your intransigence.

  15. gVOR08 says:

    @James Joyner: No, you linked to the order of precedence for diplomatic protocol purposes, i.e where they get seated at state dinners and such. I’m failing to see the relevance.

  16. Michael Reynolds says:

    How many people would have had to die if these jackasses managed to get themselves picked up by Taliban? Bipartisan fools.

  17. KM says:

    Even if it were true, it means they intentionally displaced someone serving there’s place in the evac order and thus endangered them. Push come to shove and they needed to haul ass right now, two Congressmen means two service members left behind on the airstrip. Two service members risking their lives and safety would be left behind and possibly killed to protect these idiots who just showed up uninvited to wander around for a photo ops. Space is a limited quantity and they are straight up stealing it away from those with skin in the game.

    Way to protect the troops, especially since you were those troops once and should know better!

  18. CSK says:

    Somewhat related: The World Bank has frozen aid to Afghanistan.

  19. a country lawyer says:

    @gVOR08: Order of Precedence means more than seating at a diplomatic dinner. Among other things it determines precedence in seating in government or military aircraft. The lower number can “bump” a higher number for available seats. The order of precedence also determines the treatment when arriving or departing a military installation. The military has a VIP code based upon the order of precedence. Each code is entitled to varying degrees of ceremony. The President would be a “code one”. The pilot of an a military aircraft with a “code” aboard is required to announce to the controller that he has a “code ____” aboard and the base commander will know based on that number how to prepare. Is a personal appearance required, is a vehicle and driver required and any other perquisite merited by the code’s status. Members of Congress always get VIP treatment.

  20. Richard Gardner says:

    Twenty years ago I was at an air station (NAS Keflavik Iceland) that was a frequent refueling stop for the USAF Gulfstreams often used by Congressional Delegations traveling to Europe and beyond. All the O-6s (CAPT/Colonel) were on a standby list (watchbill) to escort them around, even the hospital Commander! So you had an O-6, a driver, and a flunky taking notes as they were given a windshield tour around the base, with a possible stop at the USO gift shop so they could buy souvenirs – all for the 30-60 minutes they were on the ground.
    But in the confusion that is Kabul Airport? Add on security and probably a General to talk to (plus the drop everything and scramble to figure out the agenda and requirements).

  21. inhumans99 says:

    I guess I am just glad that Biden or VP Harris were not part of this surprise visit to Afghanistan. I wonder if Trump would have said inconvenience for the troops on the ground be dammed and been talked into a “surprise” visit if he thought it would get him a bump in favorability ratings. Anyway, yeah…grandstanding by both members of the House but at least it was bi-partisan grandstanding. Imagine if just the Democratic Rep had done this.

  22. CSK says:

    I think Trump is far too cowardly to risk a badly dyed hair on his head in a danger zone.

  23. Lounsbury says:

    @Scott: No, it wouldn’t be easier, that’s more American self-deception mistaking English speaking Kaboul elites for Afghanistan popular opinion writ large. Of course the students at the American University in Kaboul are rather likely to be at risk, but they also are certain to map very closely to “children of the Kaboul elite tied to the failed regime. Not the kids fault but understanding Afghanistan via the eyes and attitudes of a certain profile of the elite, that’s partly what led you all into this situation

  24. Gustopher says:


    LOL A “distraction” amid complete and total chaos. Sure.

    When you organize the departure of 70,000 people during a government collapse, I think will listen to your pronouncements of chaos.

    Given where they were two weeks ago, this is amazing. It is the best, safest, most orderly withdrawal imaginable.

    Makes you wonder if the pronouncements two weeks ago were wrong, and noting a very transitory issue.

  25. Gustopher says:

    Somewhere a Harris staffer is reading the reactions and canceling plans for her Asia trip to have a surprise visit to Afghanistan.

  26. Scott says:

    @Lounsbury: I guess my question still stands. What is the universe of people we think we are responsible for evacuation? That info may be out there but I haven’t seen it.

  27. Lounsbury says:

    @Scott: Whatever Public Relations requires I would suppose. I rather suppose that imprecision may be strategically wise else one rather opens oneself up to more risk.

  28. Just nutha ignint cracker says:


    As we have learned from reports on internal briefings, the Administration is lying through its teeth to the public. They don’t want transparency. They want to control the message.

    And that’s different from every other administration in any country ever in what way?
    (Keeping in mind that FG’s was the most opaque one since… maybe Nixon’s.)

  29. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    “…in a seat designated for crew so that we didn’t take a seat from someone else.”

    Serious question: What does that statement actually mean? Does the fact that they were sitting in “crew seats” mean that some member of the crew was holding onto a strap somewhere for however long the flight lasted? Does it mean that the flight would end up shorthanded in case of an emergency because it was short 2 crew members?

    It sounds a lot like Senator Gore, Sr.’s statement about his son Al going “so that no other boy in the town would have to go in his place”–as if anybody in their town wouldn’t have rather gone to Nam as a journalist in Saigon than as infantry in Khe San. I thank Senator Gore, Jr. for all of his service to our country, but don’t give me this shit about went to Vietnam so someone lower than his status wouldn’t have to. I’m not in the market for it, nor am I in the market for Congressman Bloviatori’s “protecting the little people” line of bs.

  30. JohnSF says:

    @James Joyner:
    Hand the over to the care of 2 Para.
    I’m sure they’d be treated with the appropriate “respect”.

  31. JohnSF says:

    And of course “elites” aren’t real people at all.
    As long as they can have that label pinned on them, their lives are just a little things that can be cast aside, I suppose.

  32. JohnSF says:

    It was a transitory issue solely because the Taliban have chosen, out of the goodness of their sweet little hearts, to stay their hand.
    As I said before:
    Why should they care about who gets out, when in a few days they will have there long desired rule restored.

    And they’ve had a score of years of having the basics of PR drilled into their heads by the ISI.
    “Kill them off-camera, you fool. As far as the westerners are concerned, if there are no pictures, it never happened.”
    Any bad publicity, I’m sure they can pose on some fairground rides again.

  33. JohnSF says:

    You are a fool.
    Trump’s Doha agreement led to this.
    Have you read it?
    It was a surrender, not a treaty; the terms a mere figleaf.

    Trump, being a idiot, albeit a malevolent one, probably didn’t realise the precise consequence.

    “Blow up the forts”, indeed.

    Pompeo, and Khalilzad, are not idiots, though; they knew exactly what their deal implied, and may they be damned for it.

  34. KM says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:
    The important part of the sentence preceded it “we insisted on leaving in a plane that was not full“. WTF? Since all the planes should be as full as can be, it means they demanded a plane carry less then expected (shorting the crew or passenger list) or the plane was MADE less full to accommodate them against their “wishes” (again shorting crew or passengers to get the brass safely out). I suppose there could be empty seats on some flights but since they’re at a premium in a damn crisis time crunch they should have been insisting “NO SEAT BE EMPTY” rather than “hey, if you’ve got an empty crew spot we’ll take it”. That would be the more humane and strategic answer.

    Either way they’re trying to dodge the extremely relevant question of why they got in and out easily and quickly while whining it’s a mess to get everyone else out. Elementary logic would tell you to not go as simply by being there, your butt’s in a seat that could go to someone else be they crew or not. You in the way of an evac by just by existing and stating you insisted on not being a problem doesn’t mean you weren’t one.

  35. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @KM: Actually, your question is my follow up one once I understand in what circumstances these seats were “empty.” Couldn’t those “empty seats” been used to evacuate someone with a more pressing need/deserving status than Congress critters out on a lark?

    Either way, another opportunity for grassroots Congressional reform lost.

  36. Lounsbury says:

    @JohnSF: Everyone are real people my dear tedious pedant, including the Talebans who you so strenously try to minimize.

    Their reality as people is utterly irrelevant to the question and misapprehension to which I replied.

    Their reality as people is utterly seperate from confusing the opinions of a narrow and previously priviledged social set for Afghan opinion writ large is rather similar to the fools who mistook the Whites or the French Aristos opinions as the best weather vane for a political direction post-regime change. Or the numbers of persons desirious to side with the Americans (not to be confused with the number of Afghans regardless of their political sympathies who should very much like to flee Afghanistan under cover of being a refugee and get out of a place in a state of perpetual economic collapse).

    So your boring red herring, it rather smells of boring overripe posturing.

  37. JohnSF says:

    I don’t regard the Taliban as minimal so much as unpleasant.

    And they also are the representatives of a perhaps broader, but nonetheless restricted opinion, who wish to be a privileged social set, because they wish to rule.
    On the basis, mainly, of their own claim to right of conquest.

    Pushtunwalia is however not necessarily the political order desired by Tajiks, Uzbeks and Balochi; or Deobandi Sunni domination seen as desirable by the Hazara.

    Taliban rule is, of course consistently desired by a narrow and privileged group; it’s just those elites tend to reside in Islamabad rather than Kabul.

    Incidentally, the aristos were arguably at least as good a guide to the longer term post-revolutionary direction of France as were the Jacobins.
    And if the Whites had been a better weather vane, then just possibly some 5 to 10 million Russian might have lived who died.

    Tediously pedantic enough for you so far? Or just Red herrings?

  38. dazedandconfused says:

    The seat issue was likely the least of the military’s worries. C5s have a bunch of crew positions which would not need to be manned for this sort of mission, and there is a bunk area for crew behind the cockpit which is certainly off-limits to non-VIP passengers and at least partially unused.

    I’ll beg to differ with the assertion they ranked anyone on the ground in Kabul though. In some legal sense that might be true, but in every practical sense it absolutely wasn’t. If the commanding officer on that field had ordered them placed on board the next flight out, it happens, dragged aboard cuffed if need be. No two junior jackass congress critters are pulling rank on that guy, not there, not now.

  39. Just Another Ex-Republican says:

    @KM: Not that I disagree with the general consensus that the whole trip was a stupid idea, but the truth is many flights are going out without being full. There is only so much space at the airport–if another plane is coming in to pick up the next batch of refugees then one on the ground has to get airborne, whether it’s full or not.

    Now, the reason they are not full is questionable, don’t get me wrong. Apparently we are still processing paperwork in Afghanistan to see who is eligible to leave, and we have more lift capacity coming through than the bureaucracy can completely fill. I would argue that if a security check shows they aren’t wearing a suicide vest or otherwise armed, and they want to leave, just lift them out and sort it out later if they should be allowed refugee status or not. Then you could evacuate many more people more quickly. But that’s not what we are doing.

    But anyway, it’s very likely that the 2 Congress-critters were easily able to get a flight that was legitimately not full per the current process and plane schedules.

  40. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @dazedandconfused: Thanks for giving me an answer to my question. It would appear possible that they were genuine “extra” seats. We can move on to the “is giving them to junketing bloviators the best use available” question now.

  41. dazedandconfused says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    I doubt the next set of jackasses will find it as easy to Congressional badge-barge their way onto a flight to Kabul, now that the problem has been demonstrated to the high brass.

  42. gVOR08 says:

    @a country lawyer: Thank you. I was unaware of that.

  43. gVOR08 says:

    @a country lawyer: Thank you. I didn’t know that.

  44. James Joyner says:


    I may be wrong about this, but I don’t think Representatives are in the chain of command.

    Neither is the Vice President. Or the US Ambassador. But they’re accorded extremely high VIP status and deference. Whole commands scramble to respond to simple phone calls from Congressional staff.