FORT WORTH – President Joe Biden ordered a ban on oil and gas imports from Russia on Tuesday to step up pressure over the Ukraine war, before heading to Fort Worth to meet with veterans and promote health care for those exposed to toxic fumes during overseas deployments.
“Americans have rallied to support the Ukrainian people and made it clear we will not be part of subsidizing Putin’s war…. This is a time when we have to do our part,” he declared as he announced the embargo.
On the tarmac in Fort Worth, he acknowledged that gas prices have spiked and that the import ban will affect world markets and push prices up further, adding, “Can’t do much right now….Russia is responsible.”
After snubbing the parents of one local veteran – former Marine Trevor Reed, languishing in a Russian prison on charges the U.S. deems bogus – he relented. Aides connected him by phone with the Reeds after his motorcade whizzed past them on his way to the Veterans Administration clinic.
”I just can’t imagine what you all are going through,” he said, after apologizing that he hadn’t been able to stop.
Increasingly desperate since the invasion, Reed’s parents, from nearby Granbury, resorted to parking outside the clinic with huge signs in hopes of drawing his attention. Reed’s father called it “an act of desperation” after the White House turned down a request to meet.
With the embarrassment of the snub mounting, aides arranged the call with Reed’s parents before he returned to Washington.
President Biden calls family of North Texan Trevor Reed, jailed in Russia, during trip to Fort Worth
“We weren’t able to make it happen on this trip,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters hours earlier. “We are working toward setting up a meeting with his family. The president is looking forward to doing that.”
Biden refuted complaints by Texas Republicans and others that his policies have choked the U.S. oil and gas industry and made the country more reliant on Russian imports, noting that U.S. production during his first year as president topped the level during Donald Trump’s first year.
“We’re approaching record levels of oil and gas production in the United States,” Biden said. “It’s simply not true that my administration or policies are holding back domestic energy production.”
The focus of Biden’s visit to Fort Worth was to highlight care for veterans, especially those with maladies related to “burn pits” used to incinerate hazardous materials in Iraq and Afghanistan,
The issue is personal for the president.
His son Beau Biden died of brain cancer and, as he recounted during last Tuesday night’s State of the Union address, had lived near a burn pit during his tour in Iraq.
“Veterans are the backbone, the spine, the sinew of who we are in this country. One percent you serves all the rest of us,” the president said after meeting with former service members.
“We owe you,” he said, vowing to expand funding and care for a burn pit-related injuries, just as an earlier generation owed it to Vietnam veterans exposed to the defoliant Agent Orange. “To every child with a mom or dad deployed, we owe you.”
At the clinic, Biden greeted a veteran named John Caruso, who was seated in a wheelchair, and watched him strap a device around his back to help him walk despite a debilitating spinal injury a dozen years ago.
Dr. Bridget Bennett, chief of the VA clinic’s spinal cord injury center, explained the FDA-approved exoskeleton, an answer to the question that nags veterans with spinal injuries who fear they’ll never walk again.
When the president indicated he’d like to see a demonstration, John tightened the exoskeleton and stood up, with an assist from therapist Joshua Geering.
“Without this device, John wouldn’t be able to take steps,” the therapist told the president.
The man walked away from Biden and then back, steadied by the therapist and crutches. The room erupted in clapping.
“I’ll be darned,” Biden said.
The president was joined at the clinic by three members of Congress who flew with Biden to Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth: Democrats Colin Allred of Dallas and Marc Veasey of Fort Worth, whose district includes the VA clinic, and Republican Jake Ellzey of Midlothian, a former Navy fighter pilot.
Air Force One landed at about 2:20 p.m. and left at 6 p.m.
On the tarmac, Biden chatted with Fort Worth Mayor Mattie Parker and Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley. They joined the tour, along with Veterans Secretary Denis McDonough, whose brother lives in Fort Worth.
After the tour, Biden spoke about the “sacred obligation” to care for veterans at the nearby Tarrant County Resource Connection.
“We have veterans here that are dealing with cancers that they have picked up overseas. We have veterans here that are dealing with all kinds of maladies,” Veasey said. “We all need to step up and help them and I’m so proud that the president of the United States Joe Biden has made time to come to Fort Worth, Texas, so he could hear the stories of veterans here in the Metroplex.”
“The cost of war isn’t just guns, bullets and lives during the war,” Ellzey added before Biden took over. “There’s a price to be paid for every conflict that we’re in…. That bill always comes due. We need to keep that in mind whenever we’re preparing to go to war.”
Moments later, Biden teased Ellzey for looking overly serious in an audience weighted with Democrats, including Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, state Sen. Royce West of Dallas and state Rep. Chris Turner of Grand Prairie, chair of the Democratic caucus in the Texas House.
“You can smile, Jake. It’s okay. Jake’s a Republican. I like the hell out of this guy,” he said, noting his 20 years in the Navy and multiple combat tours and calling him “the real deal.”
He and McDonough vowed to streamline the red tape facing veterans seeking help to which they’re entitled and, in particular, to expand coverage for lung injuries and other ailments whose connection to toxic fumes can be hard to prove definitively.
Fort Worth is home to 42,000 veterans, said city council member Elizabeth Beck, who served in Iraq and spoke before Biden.
“One of the things that you may know about us veterans is that for better or worse, we adapt and we overcome. We’ve been taught to suck it up, walk it off. We suffered in silence the wounds of our service. And we fought over, only to come home and read another one to have our own we’ve waited through paperwork…. I served a 12-month deployment and nearly every day of those 12 months I woke up coughing and blowing black matter out of my nose. We knew something was off,” she said.
Psaki, explaining the choice of Texas for the visit, said that “Texas is home to the second largest population of veterans in the United States, many of whom rely upon the VA for services and benefits. Nearly 55% of veterans in Texas served in the era when burn pits were used.”
Near the airport, the motorcade passed a small group of protesters with signs such as “Decertify the fraud” and “Texas for Trump.” Another small group outside the VA planted large and small “Let’s Go Brandon” signs – a euphemism for anti-Biden vulgarity coined when a TV reporter misheard the chants of a NASCAR crowd.
Other signs asserted that “Trump won” and “Democrats are Communists.”
Flags read “Impeach Biden” and “Trump 2024.”
As for the Reeds, they have sought a meeting with Biden since he took office over 13 months ago. They had similar frustrations trying to get their son’s plight on Trump’s front burner.
Biden’s visit, so close to their home, raised their hopes of Oval Office-level attention.
Trevor Reed was arrested in Moscow in August 2019 after a drunken altercation at a party. Authorities claimed he assaulted police during the drive to the station, and that he made the squad car swerve and endangered officers’ lives. But surveillance footage showed nothing amiss, and the U.S. ambassador to Russia called the allegations “absurd.”
U.S. officials have maintained that Russia is holding Reed and Paul Whelan, another former Marine imprisoned on dubious charges, as bargaining chips to exchange for spies at some point.
Psaki emphasized that Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, has met with the Reeds. That was in mid-December, before Vladimir Putin staged troops for the invasion of Ukraine and then attacked.
Earlier Tuesday, Sen. John Cornyn called on Biden to meet with the Reeds.
“Trevor Reed has been held in a Russian prison with little to no access to badly-needed health care or communication with his family, and his situation is only going to get worse given the political climate in Russia,” Cornyn said. “This administration must do more to free Americans held hostage in Russia.”
Reed recently developed tuberculosis – the result of filthy conditions and, perhaps, jailers exposing him on purpose to sick inmates. His parents say he’s been coughing up blood, deprived of medical attention and denied regular contact with U.S. diplomats. He did speak with his parents on Friday and Monday, after going months without being allowed to call home.
The headaches mounted this week with news that WNBA basketball star Brittney Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist from Houston, was detained on drug charges at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport. Authorities say they found hashish oil in her luggage, and she could face a decade or more in prison.
Griner played for Baylor University and is now a Phoenix Mercury. She was playing in a Russian league during the WNBA offseason, as she has done for the last seven seasons.
Psaki said she couldn’t discuss the case because Griner’s family has not signed a privacy waiver.
“US citizens are not political pawns,” Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, tweeted over the weekend. Griner’s detention, he said, “follows a pattern of Russia wrongly detaining and imprisoning US citizens, including Trevor Reed.”
Biden edged past Trump in Tarrant County but fell short statewide.
Tarrant County GOP chairman Rick Barnes accused him of creating an “extreme mess” for veterans and others, citing rising gas prices and ongoing security issues at the Southern border, and said he owes veterans “an apology for the manner in which he handled our departure from Afghanistan” last summer.
Political writer Gromer Jeffers Jr. reported from Fort Worth. Washington Bureau Chief Todd J. Gillman reported from Washington. Staff writer Michael Williams in Fort Worth contributed.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism