Brian Mast, a third-term congressman from southeastern Florida, has had a lot to say about Joe Biden as of late. “President Biden has abandoned the Afghan men and women who risked their lives for our war, and rather than execute any sort of plan that protects our interests and our allies, he’s spending all of his time assigning blame to everyone but himself,” he said in a statement distributed by his office in the middle of last month. Mast, who is 41, went on to explain that around the time he lost his legs to a bomb in Kandahar 11 years ago, his team included an Afghan interpreter. Now, he said, “because of President Biden’s failures, it is a very real possibility that the next time I turn on the news” he’ll see the interpreter being beheaded. Mast, a Donald Trump ally who’s sought to cast doubt on the idea that the January 6 rioters were inspired by the then-president, went further in a fundraising note to supporters three weeks later. “Joe Biden’s words are as hollow as his head and his heart,” he declared.
The congressman’s line of criticism, though particularly serrated, was squarely in line with the loudest faction of his party, and so it earned little extra attention amid the national uproar over the chaotic American withdrawal from Afghanistan, even as the RNC tried amplifying his message alongside other veteran representatives’ in email blasts. One thing that especially distinguishes Mast, however, is his little-remembered and almost-never-mentioned connection to Jill Biden, the First Lady.
Two months after Mast was injured, as he was recovering at Walter Reed, Jill Biden invited him and his wife, Brianna, to a Thanksgiving dinner she and the then-vice-president were throwing at the Naval Observatory. The Second Lady had connected with Brianna Mast through her work with injured veterans and their families at Walter Reed, and the Masts made enough of an impression on her that, eight years later, she remembered the couple in her memoir, painting them at length as an “inspiration”: “I could see that there was so much strength and resilience in them both,” she wrote in Where the Light Enters, just two years ago. It was publicly obvious that there was a connection at the time, too. Two months after the Thanksgiving dinner, Jill Biden hosted the Masts as her guests to Barack Obama’s State of the Union address.
If that all feels like ancient history, it’s the result of not just a decade of relentless news cycles, but also today’s unforgiving and brutally partisan politics, especially from an insurrection-denying Republican Party now trying to paint Biden as too feeble for his job. When I first reached out to Mast’s office to ask about the relationship and described it as having been “friendly,” his spokeswoman replied that she thought “‘friendly’ may be an overstatement.” The First Lady’s book doesn’t note that Mast is now a congressman, and she hasn’t mentioned him publicly since its publication, let alone acknowledged that her old guest now believes her husband “does not deserve to have the words ‘commander’ or ‘chief’ anywhere in his title,” in the words of his early September fundraising email. (“The First Lady saw Congressman Mast and his wife Brianna’s strength, resilience, and determination throughout his recovery. As Second Lady, she was proud to have them as her guests at the State of the Union and honor the Congressman’s sacrifice and service. The Masts and Bidens are military families who share a common love of country and devotion to serve,” Jill Biden’s press secretary Michael LaRosa said in a statement.)
Mast himself said the relationship was forged primarily with his wife. “Wives have a way of speaking to each other in a different way. Her as Second Lady at the time, my spouse, they develop relationships outside of politics,” he said. “They’re lucky to do that, in some respects.” Mast told me he hadn’t spoken with Jill Biden since he was in Walter Reed. He said that in 2010 and 2011 he was far less politically engaged than he is now, and that while he was not an Obama or Biden supporter, “it doesn’t matter who you are in the military, if you’re Staff Sergeant Nobody or General Somebody, if the first or second in command invites you, [you go.] I was absolutely honored” by the Thanksgiving invitation. A similar logic held for the State of the Union, he said.
But there he drew a line. He told me he’d written Biden an unanswered letter after the 2020 election expressing that he “vigorously” disagreed with him on a range of issues, but that he was still interested in finding places to work together. His opposition has only grown more vocal. “The policy that’s going on right now is justly criticized, whether you want to talk about Afghanistan, or the border, or whatever,” he said. If Jill Biden were to now call him, he said, he would thank her for checking in, but “if she wanted to get into political conversations,” he would “be polite to her” but “ask her to convey the message to the commander-in-chief.”
It seems unlikely that she’d have much interest in that kind of conversation now. Three weeks before I spoke to Mast, he issued a statement calling for Biden’s resignation, saying the president allowed “himself and his Administration to be intimidated into retreat, negotiation, and ultimately, surrender to terrorists in Afghanistan. He continues to seek praise for his impotent and paralyzed response to the collapse of Afghanistan, which was caused by his actions.”
He had quite a different reaction to Obama’s 2011 State of Union, which he watched in the gallery as Jill Biden’s guest (“Army Sergeant Brian Mast and Brianna Mast are examples of the best America has to offer,” she wrote at the time). Mast called it a “great speech,” praising the president’s “valid points on education and industry.”
“Barack Obama, the first African American president, a lot of things going on in history—we’re still at war,” he said at the time, noting that Obama’s recognition of military sacrifices was touching. “It was a great honor for my wife and I.” His then-10-month-old son had stayed at the White House during the address, a babysitter having been arranged by Jill Biden’s office, and Mast said his son would have pictures from his time at the White House, including with the president.
Mast soon had one of those, too, though he doesn’t talk about it much. Two months after the State of the Union, he and his wife were back at the White House for the launch of Joining Forces, Jill Biden and Michelle Obama’s initiative to support military families. The administration published a blog post about the event the next morning. Near the top was a picture. In it, Michelle Obama is standing at a lectern clapping. Barack Obama is seated, also clapping, while Jill Biden sits, too, smiling. Sitting right behind them all, applauding in uniform near the center of the shot, is Brian Mast. He’s just a few feet away from a happy-looking Joe Biden, and just a few years away from telling Politico, “The president is full of total shit.”