PIKEVILLE —U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell shared his thoughts on the COVID-19 vaccine and the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, among other topics, during a recent visit to Pikeville.
McConnell visited Pikeville on Sept. 1 to speak at a joint luncheon for the Southeast Kentucky Chamber of Commerce and the Pikeville Rotary Club.
McConnell talks COVID-19 vaccines, mandates
First, he discussed the COVID-19 pandemic and how the development of the COVID-19 vaccine relates to the polio vaccine, which took almost 50 years to create and has directly led to the near-eradication of the disease throughout the globe.
McConnell said that Operation Warp Speed — a public-private partnership initiated by the U.S. government to facilitate and accelerate the development of multiple COVID-19 vaccines — helped create three highly effective, available vaccines in the span of one year.
“By any estimation, it was a modern medical miracle,” he said. “I must say, it never occurred to me that people would be reluctant to take it.”
He urged people to not listen to false information about the vaccines because the truth is that vaccinations prevent severe illness, hospitalization and death.
On Sept. 1, Pikeville Medical Center reported that, of the 86 total COVID patients being hospitalized, 80 patients were unvaccinated, while only six patients were fully vaccinated. Also, of the 18 total COVID patients that were admitted into the ICU, 17 were unvaccinated and only one was fully vaccinated.
“What we have here is a crisis of the unvaccinated, and we know a lot of people who are flooded with a lot of misinformation from a variety of different sources that are available to all of us these days, who actually seem to be buying into this,” McConnell said. “Let me just tell you: It’s a fact, not an opinion, it’s a fact that 90 percent of people in the hospital are unvaccinated. That should tell us all something. The only way to get out of this challenge is to get vaccinated.”
McConnell said, though, that he does not support blanket mandates requiring vaccinations.
“I think it’s up to the school boards and businesses to make that decision,” he said. “I think people in government throwing around mandates typically produces an adverse reaction, and it seems to me that people best able to make decisions on things like mandates are people closest to the people that are being mandated, whether it’s your employer, your school board or your local hospital. I don’t think it’s the job of someone like me to do anything other than point out what the truth is. The truth should not be unimportant in our country.”
McConnell criticizes Afghanistan withdrawal
Then, during his speech, McConnell expressed harsh criticism for the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, saying that he has always expressed support for remaining in Afghanistan throughout the past two decades.
“I argued to President Obama, and to President Trump, and to President Biden that the rather small footprint that we had in Afghanistan was in our own best interest. I think, as we’ve now seen, the total withdrawal from Afghanistan is important to remember why we went there in the first place,” he said. “We didn’t go there thinking they were going to become a Western-type democracy. We went there to keep the Taliban — a bunch of barbarians — from being in charge of the country and allowing terrorist groups like them from attacking us again here at home.”
The War in Afghanistan began under the administration of former President George W. Bush and lasted for 20 years as America’s longest war. In February 2020, former President Donald Trump signed a peace deal with the Taliban, which paved the way to withdrawal and included the promised release of at least 5,000 Taliban prisoners by the U.S. Then, President Joe Biden extended the deadline for the withdrawal from May to August this year and continued with pulling out American forces, despite the Taliban’s rapid takeover of the country earlier in August, according to NPR.
During his Pikeville visit, McConnell said that it was in the best interests of the country to remain in Afghanistan.
“Why does America occasionally have foreign presence? Because it’s in our best interest. We’re not doing this for charitable reasons,” he said. “It’s in our best interest to be in South Korea to prevent North Koreans from taking over the whole peninsula. It’s in our best interest to be in Japan, particularly given the rise in challenges we have in China. It’s in our best interest to be in Europe because of the Russians. So, this is not some charity mission. It was in our best interest to go there (Afghanistan), and I think it’s a mistake to leave.”
He said that he does not believe the withdrawal was a success because there were former U.S. translators and American allies, as well as thousands of Afghan civilians, who were left behind due to the rapid way that the evacuations took place as the Taliban quickly took over the country.
“The definition of success is to leave no one behind and leave no American behind enemy lines,” McConnell said. “Many congressional offices were being flooded with calls from American veterans, who had friends over there who were communicating with them, and they were trying to get them out. This is a botched job of gargantuan proportions and an embarrassment onto our great country.”
He also said that he believes this situation is worse than the fall of Saigon.
“I think it’s worse than Saigon. There weren’t any Vietnamese terrorist groups in Vietnam planning to attack us here at home,” he said. “They were glad for us to go, but they stayed there and they didn’t try to come over here and wreak havoc. We’ll get past this, but I think it’s a stain on our national honor and a disgraceful performance. I couldn’t feel more strongly that I think this was a huge mistake.”
While criticizing the withdrawal, though, McConnell specifically addressed veterans who served during the war and urged them not to believe that the mission in the country was a failure.
“I think the mission was a success,” he said. “If any of you in the room served in Afghanistan or know people who did — and we have plenty of Kentuckians who did — I don’t want a single one of them to think that mission was not a success. It was a success. We lost people, but it was not in vain because the goal was achieved.”
Moving forward, he said that he believes impeachment of President Joe Biden is unlikely.
“The President is not going to be removed from office,” he said. “It’s a Democratic House and a narrowly-Democratic Senate. That’s not going to happen. In this country, the report card you get is every two years and we’re trying to hold down the damage until next year.”
However, McConnell said that it is historically unlikely that the president will gain political seats in Congress during the midterm elections after his first two years.
“If the elections were held tomorrow, the president’s approval rate is down to 40 (percent), and it was at 54 percent about two months ago,” McConnell said. “So, I think the way these behaviors get adjusted in this country is through the ballot box. In the meantime, we’re trying to stop most of this as much as we can. […] I have a feeling that the American people didn’t think they voted for this government.”
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