Biden stunned by criticism from Gold Star families after Afghanistan withdrawal, former press secretary writes

President Joe Biden was silent for “a bit too long” after being told that the families of the US service members who died during the American withdrawal from Afghanistan felt that he spoke too much about his late son Beau Biden.

Thirteen service members were killed in Kabul in August 2021, and Biden later met with their families.

In a new book, Jen Psaki, the former White House Press Secretary and current MSNBC host, writes that she “paused for the president to respond” during a call with Biden.

“The silence that followed was a bit too long. I worried for a moment that our connection had been lost,” she added. “‘Sir, are you still there?’ I asked.”

Say More: Lessons from Work, the White House and the World is set to be published next week. A copy was obtained by The Guardian.

Psaki left the administration in 2022.

Biden had ordered the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in April 2021 after two decades of war in the country. As chaos raged in Kabul on 26 August, a suicide bomber attacked one of the gates at the airport in the city, killing 170 Afghans and the 13 US service members.

The bodies were returned to the US at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware on 29 August. The dignified transfer was attended by Biden and First Lady Jill Biden.

“Of all the president’s duties, this is high on the list of most heartbreaking. For President Biden in particular, it stirred feelings of his own despair about the death of his son Joseph Biden III, a.k.a Beau,” Psaki writes in her upcoming book.

Beau Biden died of brain cancer in 2015 at the age of 46 after going to Iraq with the National Guard. Between 2007 and 2015, he was the attorney general of Delaware.

Joe Biden attended the dignified transfer of the remains of fallen service members at Dover Air Force Base in Dover, Delaware, on 29 August 2021 (AFP via Getty Images)
Joe Biden attended the dignified transfer of the remains of fallen service members at Dover Air Force Base in Dover, Delaware, on 29 August 2021 (AFP via Getty Images)

Biden has brought up the possibility that his son’s cancer was caused by so-called “burn pits” in Iraq. The World Health Organization has stated that emissions from such pits include substances “known to be carcinogenic to humans,” Psaki notes.

The ex-press secretary goes on to recount how Biden lost his first wife and their one-year-old daughter in a 1972 car crash. His two sons, Hunter and Beau, were in the car but survived.

Biden “often refers to these unique and disparate, but nevertheless unbearable, experiences of grief and loss as a way to connect with others,” Psaki writes.

She called Biden to tell him that The New York Times was writing a story about the meeting with the Gold Star families.

“Beau was rarely, if ever, the focus of a negative story,” she notes.

“It was one thing to tell the president the media was planning to criticise his Covid response, and quite another to say the media was planning to criticize the way he speaks about his son, who passed away tragically young,” she adds.

She writes that she called to warn the president that The Times was writing a story that he “referenced Beau’s death repeatedly while meeting with families of the soldiers who were killed in Afghanistan” and which would “quote a number of family members making critical comments”.

“I thought I was helping them. Hearing about how other people went through loss always helps me,” Biden told Psaki, who noted that when he finally answered, it was “in a softer voice than usual”.

One of the parents, Mark Schmitz, who lost his 20-year-old son Jared, told The Times: “I respect anybody that lost somebody. But it wasn’t an appropriate time.”