WASHINGTON — Representative Seth Moulton said he decided to make a surprise, unauthorized trip to Afghanistan after a sleepless night last weekend when he attempted to get four Afghan families on flights out of Kabul through a series of frantic texts and calls.
In the end, only one family escaped. But the experience launched Moulton on the brief visit to Kabul on Tuesday with Republican Representative Peter Meijer that has drawn criticism from the Pentagon, the White House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, as well as some of his congressional colleagues, all of whom slammed it as an unwelcome distraction from the troops’ mission of evacuating US citizens and Afghans.
But Moulton, who initially cast the trip in a joint statement on Tuesday as a necessary act of congressional oversight, said the surprise mission was also about saving lives of Afghans who worked for or aided the US during its long occupation of Afghanistan.
“I don’t care one bit about anonymous quotes from Washington when I’m saving the lives of our allies,” Moulton said in a telephone interview from Doha, Qatar, on Wednesday, where he visited Afghan refugees housed at a US airbase on his way back to the United States.
Moulton, a decorated Marine veteran, and Meijer, an Army veteran and first-term congressman from western Michigan, served in Iraq. Meijer later worked for an aid organization in Afghanistan.
Moulton added that he had requested official permission to visit Afghanistan several times in recent months, but was turned down. He and Meijer flew to the United Arab Emirates on their own, before waiting for empty seats on a military flight into Kabul and surprising commanders on the ground with their arrival.
“I got several not just families but groups through the gates,” Moulton said of his time in Kabul. “It’s amazing that people think this is about politics when it’s about innocent lives and saving people who have given everything to us from torture and death. Every single person that we can get through the gates who is one of our allies, that is the difference between freedom and death.”
The trip drew an unusual public rebuke from the Biden administration of a member of the slim Democratic majority in the House, with Pentagon spokesman John Kirby saying that providing security for the “VIPs” — Moulton and Meijer — was an unwelcome distraction for the military.
“They certainly took time away from what we had [planned] to do that day,” Kirby said earlier Wednesday.
But Moulton, a fourth-term congressman from the North Shore, said the pair only ever were accompanied by one or two members of the military at a time during the trip and otherwise stayed in the headquarters, where they required no assistance. They packed their own food, water, and toilet paper for the trip to be less of a burden on the operation, he said.
Moulton also argued that the 14 hours on the ground helped him expedite some Afghan families’ cases by better understanding how the process works. He also shrugged off the criticism from the administration and Pelosi, who on Wednesday urged other members of Congress not to follow in Moulton’s footsteps and “freelance” trips to a volatile conflict zone.
“The scoldings mean nothing when we’re saving a few lives,” he said, adding that diplomats and troops in Afghanistan appeared grateful for the visit.
A Pentagon spokesman declined to comment on Moulton’s claims that his trip was not a security burden and helped Afghans.
The episode puts Moulton, who unsuccessfully ran for the Democratic presidential nomination last year, on familiar ground: at the center of controversy. From an ill-fated battle with Pelosi in 2019 over her leadership bid to his recent spat with the Biden administration on Afghan refugees, Moulton has shown himself willing to both seek the spotlight and tangle with his fellow Democrats.
He has pushed the Biden administration to more quickly process thousands of backlogged visas for Afghans who assisted the US military effort, and urged Biden officials to evacuate visa applicants to safety ahead of the looming US withdrawal date. He was one of just a few Democrats in Congress who criticized President Biden for his failure to evacuate refugees before the Taliban took over Kabul earlier this month, saying the administration handled the situation “terribly” — a harsh assessment echoed by some refugee advocacy groups.
Some of Moulton’s colleagues acknowledged his concerns, but questioned whether traveling on their own to the Kabul airport, which faces threats by a faction of ISIS and just a week ago slipped briefly out of US military control, was the correct approach.
“I respect Seth’s service to our country as a Marine, and his passion for evacuating Americans, our allies, and vulnerable Afghans,” said Representative Ro Khanna, a California Democrat who serves on the Armed Services Committee with Moulton. “It is important at this moment, however, for any congressional activity to be coordinated with the State Department and Department of Defense so we are all rowing in the same direction.”
Others suggested the two lawmakers had hijacked attention from a disaster zone in the service of their own egos. Representative Sara Jacobs, a Democrat from California who used to work in conflict zones for UNICEF, said she understood the impulse, especially among Americans, to do as much as possible to help. But, she called the pair’s actions “disrespectful” to those working to speed up evacuations. Her office alone is helping coordinate efforts for more than 400 people.
“When people just show up in these places ... it just adds more work, more chaos for those who are doing the important work on the ground,” said Jacobs, a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, on which Meijer sits. “I know it is a very emotional and difficult time, but it is incumbent on us as leaders to separate our emotions from what is needed on the ground.”
Moulton said he’s heard from many veterans who feel compelled to help get Afghans who assisted them out of a dire situation. “I can’t tell you how many veterans out there feel exactly the same way, but aren’t in a position as I was to take action themselves,” he said.
Official congressional trips to hot spots such as Afghanistan take weeks of planning and security coordination with the Pentagon and State Department. Moulton and Meijer skipped that process entirely, and aides familiar with the situation confirmed that the chairs of the House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees were not consulted.
While few sitting members of Congress stepped forward to defend the men on Wednesday, there were also no signs yet either would face consequences, such as being kicked off of their committees or censured, which would be at Pelosi’s discretion. And, as long as the members paid for their travel themselves, it would likely not break any official rules.
Moulton said he had not spoken to anyone in the administration or Pelosi’s office since he took the trip, but that he did speak to Armed Services Committee Chair Adam Smith to report on his findings.
The fallout for Moulton might be more personal than professional, as he drew at least one colleague into the controversy by asking fellow Massachusetts Representative Jim McGovern to vote for him in absentia while he was in Afghanistan. McGovern is the chairman of the powerful Rules Committee, and believed Moulton was in Massachusetts when he voted by proxy for him on Tuesday. As a member of Pelosi’s leadership team, McGovern has defended proxy voting from Republican attacks and is adamant that members vote in absentia only for COVID-related reasons.
“If Congressman McGovern is mad at him for lying, that’s a big problem he’s going to have to deal with,” said Jim Manley, a former top aide to Senators Harry Reid and Edward M. Kennedy. “He’s not only the chair of the Rules Committee, he’s a senior member of the delegation.”
A spokesman for McGovern confirmed he was unaware of Moulton’s true whereabouts when he filed the proxy vote, but did not respond to a request for comment on whether the chairman intended to speak to Moulton about the apparent rules infraction.
McGovern has come to Moulton’s aid in the past, serving as a mediator when Moulton tried and failed to block Pelosi’s bid to be speaker in 2019. Moulton argued Pelosi and her leadership team should step aside to let younger people take the reins.
Moulton declined to comment on the proxy vote, but said generally about the incident that “politics and critics, they don’t matter.”
Follow her on Twitter @lizcgoodwin.