In the middle of chaos 20 years ago, Sen. Joe Biden wanted to get inside the US Capitol.
That was the safest place to be on September 11, he argued when his daughter Ashley called him, pleading that he leave Washington as the terror attacks were unfolding. Blocked as he strode up the marble steps by Capitol Police officers, Biden milled about in a nearby park instead, resisting calls from the White House to evacuate to a “safe cave” in West Virginia.
Only in the months and years afterward did it become clear the Capitol was the likely target for United Flight 93, the hijacked airliner whose passengers and crew thwarted the planned attack and brought the plane down in a Pennsylvania field.
On Saturday, now-President Biden will visit that field to honor those victims – they may have saved his life – along with the two other sites of tragedy on September 11: lower Manhattan and the Pentagon. Former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama will participate as well, bringing together all the US leaders of the post-9/11 era except former President Donald Trump, who instead is providing commentary on a boxing match, though a person familiar told CNN that Trump will visit some sites and that he had recorded a video to be played at the “Let Us Worship” prayer event on the National Mall that is being held Saturday.
For Biden, the 20th anniversary of 9/11 is a moment to reflect and remember, briefly, the unity of spirit that existed in the aftermath. Yet embedded within Biden’s commemoration of the attacks is a desire to move past them, as threats evolve elsewhere and the conflicts borne from that day outlast their objectives.
“The fundamental obligation of a President, in my opinion, is to defend and protect America – not against threats of 2001,” Biden said last month, “but against the threats of 2021 and tomorrow.”
Another cataclysmic event – the coronavirus pandemic – is defining Biden’s presidency, killing more than 200 times the number who died on 9/11 and opening another distinct era in American life, this one defined by masks and tests instead of airport searches and concrete barriers. A spirit of national unity has been overtaken by acrid, tribal politics almost unfathomable two decades ago.
Climate change and cyber-threats have escalated into major concerns that now keep security experts and government analysts awake at night alongside the threat of extremists abroad targeting the homeland.
And nearly 20 years after the Flight 93 attack was thwarted by the heroic actions of ordinary Americans, the US Capitol was breached – not by foreign terrorists but by would-be insurrectionists, goaded on by American politicians in a stark display of how far the country’s political life has devolved from the days immediately following 9/11.
A muted presence on a somber day
Biden is not planning to deliver major public remarks to mark the 20th anniversary; instead, his events on Saturday will include laying wreaths and observing moments of silence alongside his predecessors.
He will, however, appear in a video produced by the White House reflecting on the attacks that will be released Friday.
“We’re releasing the video today because we want you to hear from him and he wants the American people to hear from him directly on what 9/11 means to him 20 years later,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said during a press briefing Friday.
Psaki would not say what calls Biden has made in the lead-up to 9/11 or how he’s prepared his remarks.
Aides had contemplated an address, but ultimately decided against a speech pegged to the infamous date in history. Biden’s muted presence on the anniversary reflects a shift that has occurred over time, as leaders who served in the years after the attack found themselves caught, often against their best laid plans, in its lingering effects.
These members of the Presidents Club are bound in a unique way, with the deadliest terror attacks on American soil – and its complicated aftermath – a tapestry that has imperfectly woven their presidencies together.
For Bush, the attacks defined his young presidency and all but assured his reelection in a country still rife with fear. The era also ushered in Obama, whose skepticism about the war in Iraq first propelled him to the national political stage.
Trump, who is not expected to be on hand to pay his respects on Saturday, spoke critically of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In doing so, his views have dramatically altered the Republican Party’s foreign policy.
Biden has made it his own driving objective to move past the two decades of foreign conflict that came to define the early 21st century, illustrated most starkly in his withdrawal of all American troops from Afghanistan.
Before announcing the withdrawal, Biden placed phone calls to Bush and Obama to inform them of his decision. The conversations were cordial, aides said at the time – but not particularly long.
Since then, Bush has offered mild rebukes of his decision to bring troops home, voicing concern for the fate of Afghan women. Obama has said less, keeping his views of how the war ended closely held.
Defiantly looking forward
Even as he honors the victims of the worst terror attack on US soil in modern times, Biden makes no apologies for finding fault in how the ensuing years unfolded: in wars that drained the country of money and lives; in politics that failed the middle class; in a unity of spirit that didn’t last.
“As we turn the page on the foreign policy that has guided our nation the last two decades, we’ve got to learn from our mistakes,” he said last week, defending his decision to end the Afghanistan war.
Biden believes he inherited the missteps of his three predecessors and did what none of them could: end America’s longest war.
“I know my decision will be criticized,” Biden said in the midst of the chaotic August evacuation of American citizens and Afghan partners. “But I would rather take that criticism than pass this on to a fifth president.”
He’s not the first president to use an anniversary of 9/11 to try and move on. Ten years ago, Obama sought to usher in his own era of foreign relations during a speech at the Kennedy Center’s “Concert for Hope.”
“Our strength is not measured in our ability to stay in these places,” Obama declared after honoring Americans who died in the wars begun in the preceding decade. “It comes from our commitment to leave those lands to free people and sovereign states, and our desire to move from a decade of war to a future of peace.”
Yet Obama couldn’t fully withdraw troops from Afghanistan and wound up sending more troops to Iraq to combat Islamic State terrorists.
Desperate Afghanistan withdrawal leaves a sour taste
The chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan has taken a toll on Biden’s approval ratings, which reflect Americans’ unease at how the country’s longest war ended. Biden and his advisers believe that over time, the images of mayhem that defined the end of the war will fade from Americans’ memory, replaced by appreciation for Biden’s willingness to end an unpopular conflict after his two predecessors were unable.
Yet concerns persist over Afghanistan once again becoming a haven for terrorists. Only 8% of respondents in a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll said the withdrawal from Afghanistan made the United States safer; 44% said the country was less safe. A terror attack committed by ISIS-K that killed 13 American troops in the final days of the war only fueled concerns about terrorism in the country.
The White House is adamant that ISIS-K does not currently have the capacity to carry out attacks on the US homeland and argues Biden has maintained “over the horizon” capabilities in Afghanistan to thwart terror attacks in the future.
Yet current and former officials say that with no US troops left on the ground, gathering intelligence in Afghanistan will become infinitely more difficult. Counterterrorism efforts will inevitably require some cooperation with the new Taliban government, a partnership that inspires little confidence among some US officials.
The ultimate fallout of the Afghanistan withdrawal, for Biden and his administration, remains an open question. Yet it will forever be a historic bookend to the day terror struck the United States.
A complicated commemoration
Biden had been leading the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for only three months on the day of the attacks in 2001, becoming chairman when Democrats suddenly gained the majority after Jim Jeffords of Vermont suddenly left the Republican Party to become a Democrat.
After he appeared in a television interview on 9/11, Biden received a phone call from Bush, who was flying aboard Air Force One somewhere over the Midwest and unable to return to the White House.
“Mr. President,” Biden told Bush, “come back to Washington.”
Whether the advice of a Delaware senator is what prompted Bush to eventually return isn’t clear. But Biden’s insistence on that day that democracy be seen working, even in moments of chaos, has persisted into his presidency.
Two decades later, Biden is the only person who was serving on the Foreign Relations Committee who remains in elected office – a sign of the remarkable turnover and transformation in American politics. The ranks of Congress are now filled with veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, both Democrats and Republicans alike, many of whom have pointed questions about Biden’s handling of the Afghanistan withdrawal.
The President has also faced heat from the family members of those killed on 9/11 as they’ve insisted that he make public more documents related to the attacks. Biden last week ordered a review of classified documents to see if any of them can be declassified and released publicly, which he said fulfilled a pledge he made on the campaign trail.
The 10th anniversary of the terror attacks came only four months after Osama bin Laden was captured and killed, a moment of vindication for the country. Speaking in Shanksville then, Biden said he and others who were in Washington on 9/11 owed the Flight 93 victims “an overwhelming special, personal debt of gratitude” for their actions.
And he paid tribute to the “9/11 generation” of Americans who enlisted in the armed forces after the attacks, hailing the “thousands giving their lives and tens of thousands being wounded to finish the war that began right here.”
The commemoration on Saturday is far more complicated, with the culmination of two decades of war under closer examination from Biden and all three American presidents whose decisions as commander in chief shape this dark period of history.
CNN’s Jasmine Wright, Rachel Janfaza and Mike Warren contributed to this report.