Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jen Psaki, February 23, 2021

From The White House

1600 Pennsylvania Ave NW
Washington, DC 20500



James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

12:05 P.M. EST

MS. PSAKI:  Okay.  I have a few updates for all of you at the top.


Media  – Today, President Biden will meet with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.  President Biden’s first phone call, as you all know, was to — to a foreign leader was to the Prime Minister, and it’s a fitting testament that with this bi- — that this is his first bilateral meeting.  The President will highlight the strong and deep partnership between the United States and Canada as neighbors, friends, and NATO Allies.

Both leaders will review joint efforts in areas of mutual interest and establish a roadmap for an ambitious and whole-of-government approach on issues such as recovery from COVID-19, a sustainable and inclusive economic recovery, tackling the climate crisis, advancing diversity and inclusion, bolstering security and defense, and strengthening global alliances.

Vice President Harris, along with the Secretaries of State, Defense, Treasury, Transportation, and Homeland Security, and the Special Presidential Envoy for Climate will also be participating in the bilateral session with their Canadian counterparts.

Today, the President will also meet virtually with a group of black essential workers to thank them for their critical roles during the pandemic and to discuss how to encourage vaccinations.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the corresponding economic crisis are devastating black communities.  While black Americans comprise 13 percent of the U.S. population, they represent nearly 24 percent of age-adjusted deaths from COVID-19.  The President also looks forward to discussing how his American Rescue Plan will deliver immediate relief to the participants, their communities, and the American people by keeping frontline workers on the job with $350 billion in emergency funding for state and local governments; providing $1,400 per-person checks to working families; and investing $160 billion in supplies, testing, vaccinations, and public health workforce to defeat the virus.

Today, on his weekly governors call with America’s governors, our COVID Coordinator, Jeff Zients, announced the fifth consecutive week of supply increases.  States will now receive 14.5 million doses this week, up from 8.6 million doses per week when the President took office.  That’s an increase in vaccine allocations of nearly 70 percent during the Biden-Harris administration.

The Retail Pharmacy Program has also performed well, despite the winter storm.  We announced last week an increase of 1 to 2 million doses.  And the — our COVID Coordinator, Jeff Zients, I should say, conveyed to the governors we will increase that allocation by 100,000 doses this week.

Thanks to the President’s efforts, we are also on track to have enough vaccines for 300 million Americans by the end of July.  And we continue to encourage Americans to mask up, respect social distancing, and abide by the public health guidelines.

One more update from here.  Actually, sorry, two more updates.

On the winter storm: Yesterday, FEMA announced that Texas homeowners and renters in 31 additional counties who suffered damage from the winter storm may now apply for individual disaster assistance.  The 31 additional counties join the 77 counties previously approved for individual disaster assistance.

In Texas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma, sheltering operations continue to decrease, power and transportation are back to normal, and water restoration continues.

However, 9.8 million people are affected by water system outages and remain under boil water notices.  Over 9 million liters of water have been delivered or are en route.  There are over 200 locally managed water distribution sites supported by local, federal, private sector, and donated resources.

Finally, the — I have one travel announcement, which you all have been asking about.  We, of course, remain in close touch with state and local elected officials to monitor the recovery.  And, on Friday, the President and the First Lady will travel to Houston.  The President will meet with local leaders to discuss the winter storm — relief efforts, progress toward recovery, and the incredible resilience shown by the people of Houston and Texas.

While in Texas, the President will also visit a COVID health center where vaccines are being distributed.  Clearly, there are still more details of the trip coming together, and as we have those, we will make those available to all of you.

Go ahead.

Q    Thanks, Jen.  Two questions.  S&P reported this morning that home prices are up 10 percent over the past year.  We’ve seen inventories of homes for sale at record lows.  And that means first-time buyers aren’t able to make the step into housing that’s been a bedrock of middle-class identity.  What is this administration doing on housing affordability?  What do you deal with — do with runaway prices?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, the President is committed to ensuring homeownership is something that more Americans can participate in.  He knows owning a home is a key measure of building generational wealth, and he’s already taken steps through executive actions to help provide some security to Americans struggling to keep their homes in the midst of this crisis by extending foreclosure and forbearance moratoriums.

The American Rescue Plan would also provide $10 billion for the Homeowners Assistance Fund to help struggling homeowners keep up.

And as part of the broader Build Back Better agenda, which I know you’re all eager to hear more about, one of the tenets he is of course interested in is looking for ways to increase the supply of affordable housing, making it easier for more people to buy homes.

Q    And then, you’ve been asked repeatedly about how we should properly memorialize the deaths from the coronavirus.  After last night’s service, has this administration given any more thoughts in terms of how to honor the dead?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, first, I don’t know — I watched last night, and I’m pretty — you know, I’ve seen a lot of presidential events, and I found myself getting choked up when I watched the events happening on the television screen in my office last night.

And the President and the Vice President will continue to look for ways to memorialize the lives that have been lost and remember the families.

But our view here is that the best memorial we could offer to those who have lost their lives to COVID is to end this pandemic and reduce the numbers — the number of others who would otherwise perish and the number of families who will be impacted.  And that’s our focus now.

And when we have this crisis behind us — we’re at war, as we’ve — as we’ve said many times — we will consult broadly on the proper way to mark this horrible loss of life.  And certainly we’re open to that, but at this point of time, our focus is on the pandemic and saving more lives.

Go ahead.

Q    Thank you.  Does the White House have a plan B if Neera Tanden doesn’t work out?  And could you give us a sense of what that looks like?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, the White House’s focus, the President’s focus is on working toward the confirmation of Neera Tanden to lead — to be the OMB director.  That is our focus.

Q    And could you say anything about Gene Sperling or Ann O’Leary, who have also been floated recently?

MS. PSAKI:  There’s one candidate to lead the budget department, and her name is Neera Tanden.  And I can give you a brief update though on, kind of, the outreach that’s happened.  And I know there’s been a couple of questions along those lines.

She has had 44 meetings now with senators of both parties.  She’s spoken with 15 senators from both parties since Friday.  Some of those were repeats of people she had spoken with previously.  But as I noted yesterday, she’s committed to rolling up her sleeves, having those conversations, answering questions as they come up, reiterating her commitment to working with people across the aisle, and also sharing some of her own experience of working with people of different viewpoints.

Q    And just really quickly, on the Supreme Court decision to allow Trump’s tax returns to be shared with New York prosecutors, I just wondered if you had a reaction.

MS. PSAKI:  Sure.  There’s been reporting through many — many of your sources, probably yours as well, of multiple other ongoing investigations, so we’re not going to comment on this specific ruling.
The President did make clear on the campaign trail that the American people expect and deserve transparency from their President.  That’s why he released over two decades of his own tax returns.

Q    And just one more.

MS. PSAKI:  Oh, go ahead.  Go ahead.

Q    On the Canada meeting, I just wanted to see if you could say a little bit more about what Biden plans to bring up with Trudeau, and also what his view is of this decision by Canada recently to make Facebook pay for news content.

MS. PSAKI:  Well, the President’s focus for — of the meeting will be to continue to discuss ways for them to work together on multiple levels on the crises that are facing both countries, whether it’s COVID-19 or getting our economy back. There’s obviously a long bilateral relationship and an important one, hence the first bilateral meeting.

I’m not sure — I don’t have anything on that particular — I don’t have any reaction in particular on Canada’s announcement.  I can talk to our team and see if there’s more to provide on that front.

Okay.  Go ahead.

Q    On the outreach to senators by Neera Tanden, you said it’s 44?  Fifteen since Friday?

MS. PSAKI:  Mm-hmm.

Q    Do you know if that includes Senator Manchin, Senator Collins, Senator Portman, among those who said yesterday, at least, that they hadn’t heard from her?

MS. PSAKI:  It includes a number of Republicans.  Obviously, Republicans are — or any members, I should say — can — are free to share whether they’ve communicated with her or other nominees, or not.  But we’re not going to read out specific names from here.

Q    Has the President made any calls to senators for her nomination?

MS. PSAKI:  The President is in touch with a range of members of Congress about issues ranging from the American Rescue Plan to his nominees.  I don’t have any other calls, though, to read out from him either.

Q    So that’s a maybe?

MS. PSAKI:  That is: I don’t have any more calls to read out.

Q    Okay.  On Keystone XL, I know that’s one issue that will come up today.  Obviously, the Canadian Prime Minister feels differently about this than the President does.

MS. PSAKI:  Mm-hmm.

Q    Administration officials said that this decision, which was a day-one decision, had essentially used the Obama administration’s assessment as the reason to go back — I believe is what they said.

MS. PSAKI:  Mm-hmm.

Q    There was no other reason to explore it.  There is an economic effect though, of course, now: 11,000 people had jobs connected to this in the United States at least.  What does the White House say to those people, to the Canadian workers, who now are going to be out of a job if this pipeline is indeed shut down?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, let me first say that it was the Obama-Biden administration when the assessment was done and done by the State Department at the time.  And the President was very consistent through the campaign, and even before then, about his view that that — that it should be revoked.  And he had conversations, of course, with the Prime Minister about it.  The Prime Minister raised his concerns directly with the President — has previously — and he’s, of course, welcome to today.

But the President made clear that this is a commitment he’s — he has made in the past, that it’s not in the interest of the United States, and that we want to try to address our climate crisis while also creating good-paying union jobs.

And he has a — he has a plan.  He has talked about his plan, I should say, on the campaign trail to create millions of clean energy jobs.  And he is eager to continue to work with the policy team and outside stakeholders and experts on delivering on that in the months ahead.

But he believes you can do both.  And he has been consistent about his opposition to the Keystone pipeline.

Q    And then the Senate has launched this inquiry into the Capitol assault on January 6th.  You know that the House is going back and forth on the composition of a potential commission that would look into this further.

There are proposals that include the President appointing some of those positions to the — to a commission.  Does the White House have any opinion on that?  Is he weighing in at all with lawmakers as they put that together?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, we certainly support the desire and the interest of members of Congress to put together a commission.  It’s up to them to make that determination.  We’ve been in touch with them about a range of options, but I don’t think there’s anything final at this point, so I don’t have anything more to read out on our particular view on which proposal.

Q    And would there be concern that there could be overlap or conflict with whatever the Justice Department is doing in terms of investigations and prosecuting some of these people?

MS. PSAKI:  Sure.  Well, I certainly would venture to avoid that.  But, of course, any investigation, any process of moving forward toward a prosecution would be done independently by the Justice Department, and that is a commitment the President is firm on.

Q    And in his conversations with lawmakers, have there been any other conversations about a joint address to Congress?  I know you got asked about this recently.  And if it’s not in person, would he be willing to do it virtually if he had to?

MS. PSAKI:  Sure.  Well, he’s clearly willing to hold events virtually, hence the bilateral meeting today with the Prime Minister of Canada.  And we’re certainly open to a range of formats.  I don’t have any update on a date or a timeline for joint address.

Go ahead.  Oh, go ahead.  Go ahead.  And I’ll come around to you.  Go ahead.

Q    Thank you, Jen.  I want to ask you about a report that’s out: that the Biden administration is prepared to sanction Russia for the SolarWinds hack but also a range of other malign cyber activities.

MS. PSAKI:  Mm-hmm.

Q    Are you able to confirm that those sanctions are coming down?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, first, we announced our ongoing review, and the President spoke about it in his conversation with President Putin just a few weeks ago.

We have asked the intelligence community to do further work to sharpen the attribution that the previous administration made about precisely how the hack occurred, what the extent of the damage is, and what the scope and scale of the intrusion is.  And we’re still in the process of working that through now.

But it will be weeks, not months, before we respond, but I’m not going to get ahead of the conclusion of that process.

Q    Any more specific on the timeline, as far as weeks?  I mean, are we talking by the end of this month, or can you put any more finer point on it?

MS. PSAKI:  The end of this month is a couple days away.  That would be a very short timeline.

Q    That’s true.  February does have 28 days.

MS. PSAKI:  (Laughs.)  I was thinking, “Is it March yet?”  “Weeks, not months” is the best definition I can give for you.  Of course, we want to focus on giving our team the time they need to take additional steps to fine-tune the attribution.  And we reserve the right to respond in a — at a time and a manner of our choosing.

Q    And then, on the Tanden nomination, Senator Murkowski said yesterday that she had not heard from the White House, even though she’s undecided.  Was that an oversight by the White House, and has that been rectified?  I mean, has she been reached out to since then?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, again, you know, Neera Tanden has rolled up her sleeves.  She’s getting to work.  She’s working the phones.  People here are working the phones.  And we’re just not going to provide day-by-day updates on exactly each senator and office that we’ve communicated with, but they can communicate on their own, of course, if they’ve been reached out to or — you know, or what communication they’ve had.

Q    And then, on the Canada visit, I wanted to clear up something you had said the other day —

MS. PSAKI:  Okay.

Q    — which is on the — on the Buy America provisions, you had said there’s essentially no changes, and the Canadians had raised concerns about whether they would be able to obtain waivers like they did during the Obama administration.  So when you said you didn’t anticipate any changes to that policy, did you mean to suggest that the Canadian companies will not be able to obtain waivers under the policy of the (inaudible)?

MS. PSAKI:  No, I appreciate that — or I appreciate the ask for clarification, I should say.  So, of course, the President signed and made — signed a Made in America executive order in the first week, I believe, of the administration, and we’re still evaluating the application of that and how it will apply.  I don’t expect him to make any commitments during the meeting today.

Q    Okay.  And then just one more logistical thing on the Canada visit.  Usually during these foreign leader visits, obviously, as you know, there’s a two-and-two element for the questions.  Are we going to see that later this afternoon with Prime Minister Trudeau?

MS. PSAKI:  I don’t expect that’s going to be part of the program today.  Obviously, there are several components, as I noted: a smaller meeting, a more expanded meeting, and then some comments at the end.  But that’s the program at this point in time.

Q    Will you commit to it for future foreign leader visits?

MS. PSAKI:  We certainly — it certainly has been standard in the past, and we’ll — you can — I can assure you that, in the future, there will be one-and-one and two-and-two and other opportunities to ask questions, even when foreign leaders are not visiting.

Go ahead.

Q    Thank you, Jen.  A few on immigration really quick.  Merrick Garland was asked yesterday if illegal entry at the border should remain a crime, and he said, “I haven’t thought about that question.”  Does President Biden believe that illegal entry at the border should remain a crime moving forward?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, I think he was being asked as the Attorney General — the future Attorney General.  I think he’s looking ahead to be confirmed of the United States.  And if he wants to make considerations independently, he can certainly do that.  But the President has spoken to this, and we believe in abiding by our laws.

As you know, there of course is a process underway at the Department of Homeland Security to re- — to take a fresh look at prioritization and who is detained and who is sent back home.  So that is something happening from the Department of Homeland Security.

But again, if he’s going to lead an independent Justice Department, it is his prerogative to take a look at, you know, any policies under their purview.

Q    And, to that point, why is the Biden administration reopening a temporary facility for migrant children in Texas?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, first, the policy of this administration — as you all know, but just for others — is not to expel unaccompanied children who arrive at the border.  And the process — how it works — is that Customs and Border Control continue to transfer unaccompanied children to the HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement.  That can take a couple of days.  I just want to give this context, as people need to understand the process.

But because of COVID-19 protocols, the — like social distancing requirements — the capacity at existing Office of Refugee Resettlement shelters has been significantly reduced, because of course you can’t have a child in every bed.  There needs to be spacing, and we abide by those spacing to protect the kids who are living in those facilities for a short period of time.

And to ensure the health and safety of these kids, HHS took steps to open an emergency facility to add capacity, where these children can be provided the care they need while they are safely — before they are safely placed with families and sponsors.

So it’s a temporary reopening during COVID-19.  Our intention is very much to close it, but we want to ensure that we can follow COVID saf- — COVID protocols, as we — as unaccompanied minors come into the United States.

Q    But it’s the same facility that was open for a month in the Trump administration.  Summer of 2019 — that is when Joe Biden said, “Under Trump, there have been horrifying scenes at the border of kids being kept in cages.”  And Kamala Harris said, basically, babies in cages is a human rights abuse being committed by the United States government.  So how is this any different than that?

MS. PSAKI:  We very much feel that way.  And these —

Q    So if —

MS. PSAKI:  These are facilities — let me be — let me be clear here.  One, there’s a pandemic going on.  I’m sure you’re not suggesting that we have children right next to each other in ways that are not COVID safe, are you?

Q    I’m suggesting that Kamala Harris said that this facility — putting people in this facility was a human rights abuse committed by the United States government.  And Joe Biden said, “Under Trump, there have been horrifying scenes of border” — “at the border of kids being kept in cages.”

Now it’s not under Trump.  It’s under Biden.

MS. PSAKI:  This is not kids being kept in cages.  This is —

Q    But it’s the same facility.

MS. PSAKI:  This is kids — this is a facility that was opened that’s going to follow the same standards as other HHS facilities.  It is not a replication.  Certainly not.  That’s — that is never our intention of replicating the immigration policies of the past administration.

But we are in a circumstance where we are not going to expel unaccompanied minors at the border.  That would be inhumane.  That is not what we are going to do here, as an administration.  We need to find places that are safe under COVID protocols for kids to be, where they can have access to education, health and mental services consistent with their best interest.  Our goal is for them to then be transferred to families or sponsors.

So this is our effort to ensure that kids are treated — are not close — in close proximity and that we are abiding by the health and safety standards that the government has been set out.

Go ahead.

Q    And just quickly, on climate: Last week, the Climate Envoy John Kerry said that there are only “nine years left” to save the world from the effects of climate change.  Does President Biden share that assessment: nine years?

MS. PSAKI:  I don’t have a new timeline to give you from here.  I can confirm for you, though, that the President agrees with former Secretary Kerry that it’s a crisis, that time is of the essence.  We need to act quickly, and that’s why climate is a key part of his agenda.

Go ahead.

Q    I’m — well, I have a follow-ups on immigration —

MS. PSAKI:  Okay.

Q    — but I know Kaitlan has been waiting.  So —

MS. PSAKI:  Oh, sorry.  Go ahead, Kaitlan.

Q    Go ahead, Kaitlan.

Q    I can wait for your immigration follow-up.

Q    Well, yeah, just because — picking up on this discussion about the HHS facility versus Customs and Border Protection facilities, there’s a law that says you’re supposed to get kids out of those facilities — a CBP facility —

MS. PSAKI:  Yeah.

Q    — in three days.

MS. PSAKI:  Yes.

Q    But data we obtained said that there were at least 179 kids who had spent more than three days in those kinds of facilities in January, despite internal policy dictating that all minors should get out within three days.

Immigration attorneys — attorneys that work with these kids, advocates — seeing all of this and saying, “This isn’t that much better than what was going on before.”  In regards to the HHS — the use of the HHS facilities, they say, “It’s a step backwards.”

So there’s the criticism that was made by candidates Biden and Harris, and then there’s the criticism concerned now of these attorneys who work with and represent these children who say, “This isn’t much different than the Trump administration was doing.”

MS. PSAKI:  Well —

Q    What say you?

MS. PSAKI:  Let me — let me first say that you’re right that kids — there’s about a 72-hour time- — timeframe where kids should be transferred from CBP facilities to HHS-sponsored facilities, and that is certainly our objective.

In terms of the specific kids that you mentioned, I would send you to DHS to give you more information on that.  But that is not — that is not what we are hoping to achieve.  We want these kids to be in facilities where they are getting access to health and medical assistance, to education.  As you know, there are a number who have come into the country, and we’re trying to manage that as well and ensure that we are able to transfer them as quickly as possible.  Not just to stay in HHS facilities either — to get them into families and sponsored homes, that is our human and moral objective from this administration.

But I would send you to DHS for any more specifics on those kids.  It’s a fair question.

Q    And I asked you a few weeks ago when you guys announced the outlines of the immigration executive orders: What is the message to people in Central America who are thinking of making this trip?  You gave an answer then.  I guess I’d ask you: Is the administration — is the U.S. government doing enough to make clear to that part of the world it’s not worth making this kind of a trip?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, we can always do more.  And I think the challenge here, as you know, is that people are fleeing prosecution.  They’re fleeing very difficult economic circumstances and hardship.  And there hasn’t been enough time to do enough to impact the circumstances on the ground in a number of these communities.

And obviously, as these unaccompanied kids come to the border, it’s completely heartbreaking.  We’re not going to expel these kids.  We want to process and get them into facilities as quickly as possible.  But certainly, we’re always looking for ways to do more to communicate more effectively and clearly with communities in the region about why this is not the time to come.  We need more time to put in place a humane and moral immigration system.

Q    So parents should not be sending their kids north right now?

MS. PSAKI:  Absolutely not.  This is not the time to come.  We don’t — we have not had the time to put in place an immigration system, an immigration policy.  We don’t have the processing we need at the border.  Obviously, we’re continuing to struggle with facilities to ensure that we’re abiding by COVID protocols.  So this is definitely not the time to come.

Go ahead, Kaitlan.

Q    Okay, back to Neera Tanden.

MS. PSAKI:  Sure.

Q    Tomorrow, the committee is set to vote on her.  Does the White House still expect that tomorrow she will be President Biden’s nominee to run the Budget Office?

MS. PSAKI:  That’s certainly our expectation.  And as I noted earlier, you know, Neera has rolled up her sleeves.  She’s getting to work.  We’re getting to work.  And we understand that we need to continue to engage with a range of members, from Democrats to Republicans, and we’re going to keep doing that.  But she is the President’s choice because she’s experienced and qualified.  And we’ve — we continued to stand there.

Q    So you’re talking about the outreach to Republicans.  What we’re seeing with this, you know, potentially being derailed is how one senator can really derail, potentially, the President’s staff picks or his policy, potentially, with the minimum wage maybe not making it into the coronavirus relief bill.  Is he frustrated by that?  And how does he plan to handle that going forward?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, the President comes to this role having served 36 years in the Senate, so he has the benefit of experience of recognizing the power of any one individual senator or one individual member, and he certainly respects that.

We disagree, as we talked about a little bit yesterday, with the senators who have come out in opposition to Neera Tanden, but we al- — are also going to look for ways to work with them on the President’s agenda.  And that’s the experience he takes and the perspective he takes to this office.

Q    Senator Manchin has proposed an $11 — or says he will propose an amendment that would make the minimum wage increase $11, not the $15 that President Biden has proposed.  Would he sign a coronavirus relief bill that had an $11 minimum wage in there?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, the President proposed $15 because that’s what he feels is right for the American worker — American workers, I should say — and the men and women who are working hard just trying to make ends meet.  And that’s why that number was in his package.

It hasn’t even passed the House yet.  We expect that to happen this weekend.  There’ll be an opportunity for Senator Manchin and others to put forward ideas and proposals, and we’ll see where that process lands.

But he proposed the $15 increase for a reason, and he stands by it.

Q    And he said that he would be open to compromise with this.  So is $11 something that he would be willing to compromise with Manchin on?

MS. PSAKI:  Again, you know, there’s going to be a process that works its way through the Senate.  We don’t even know where it’s going to end up, outside of when it works its way through the “Byrd bath” — I just want to keep just using that phrase here.  And we expect that to happen in the next couple days and then we’ll see where it goes from there.

Q    Okay.  My last question is on the meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau.  Canada wants to get vaccines from the U.S., mainly the Pfizer plant in Michigan, but so far the U.S. has a contract with them that their first 100 million doses are going to the U.S.  And they expect that, according to the advisors, by the end of June.  So does that mean Canada should not expect to get vaccines from the U.S. until at least the summer, until at least June?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, the President’s first priority is ensuring every American is vaccinated.  And our focus right now is getting shots in arms at home.  He will — of course, he looks forward to engaging with the Prime Minister, as we’ve already discussed, and there are multiple ways we can work together on COVID response.

All options are on the table down the road, but I don’t have anything to update you on about Pfizer providing vaccinations, other than we remain committed to getting Americans vaccinated.

Q    So you don’t expect him to give Prime Minister Trudeau any kind of a timeline of when they can expect to be able to receive vaccines from the U.S. and Canada?

MS. PSAKI:  I don’t anticipate that.  No.

Go ahead.

Q    Thank you, Jen.  Two questions, if I might.  The first one: Polls have shown that three quarters or so of Republicans still apparently believe that the election was stolen.  This is what the President calls “the big lie.”  And obviously that has been connected to the events of January the 6th, which some liken to a terrorist action.  So in other words, a serious, serious issue.

How does the President feel about former President Trump going to CPAC this weekend?  He will have a huge audience; it’s an enormous platform.  Does the President think that’s actually a — you know, a problem — a threat, in his view?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, the President’s view is that we’ve spent a whole lot of time — not we, but in this briefing room — talking about President Trump over the last few years.  I guess for good reason; he was President.  And that his view is: We’re going to spend the time focusing about the American people, and our objective is to help them and our commitment to helping them.

So I wouldn’t say he’s thought a lot about the President — former President’s visit to per- — you know, I was going to say “performance.”  Maybe that’s appropriate at CPAC.

Q    But if he goes with the former guy’s strategy, (inaudible) could boil it down to that — you know, obviously former President Trump isn’t just sitting — going to sit on his hands.  He’s got his message to give out.  And — but the point is: This message, according to President Biden, is literally dangerous.  So, does he have a problem with such a high-profile person giving out what he thinks is a dangerous message?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, we haven’t even seen the former President speak at CPAC.  Obviously, President Biden has spoken to his concerns about the rhetoric of the former President, how he was unfit for office.  That’s why he ran against him and why he defeated him.  But we’re not going to spend too much time here focused on or talking about President Trump — former President Trump.

Q    Okay, one other, if I can, on Afghanistan.

MS. PSAKI:  Mm-hmm.

Q    Given the concerns about the timeline of this withdrawal — and it all looks rather up in the air now — is the President worried — in the longer-term, bigger picture, is he worried that the Taliban are going to take over Afghanistan once the U.S. pulls out?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, obviously there’s a timeline for a decision on the next steps here.  I don’t have any update on that.  And once that’s made, we can certainly have that conversation.

Q    Would he be okay with that — if the Taliban ruled Afghanistan?

MS. PSAKI:  Certainly, I wouldn’t say he’s — no, I don’t think he would say he’d be okay with that.  But again, there’s an ongoing process of considering the next steps in Afghanistan. That’s an ongoing discussion, and I’m not going to get ahead of where that sits at this point in time.

Go ahead.

Q    Yes.  Two questions, if I may.  The first, we’re approaching tax season, and by some estimates, of the unemployment assistance that states have paid out, more than half of it, Americans have not withheld taxes on.  So is the administration concerned that there may be millions of Americans who are going to face a surprise tax bill, some of whom are still unemployed?  And has the administration considered changing the way the IRS looks at, at least, the pandemic-related unemployment assistance, treat it like disaster aid and so it doesn’t have taxes withheld?

MS. PSAKI:  That’s a really interesting question.  I would certainly send you to the Treasury Department for that.  I’m happy to help you make a connection there to discuss that further.

Q    Okay.  And then, the other question is, does the administration have a response to the raid in the Republic of Georgia where the top opposition leader was arrested by government forces yesterday?  Is there any consideration of sanctions or other kind of pressure on the government of Georgia?

MS. PSAKI:  Yeah, I certainly saw the reports this morning.  I didn’t have a chance to talk to our national security team, but we’ll venture to get you something after the briefing on that as well.

I didn’t help you much today.  I will try to do that after the briefing.

Go ahead.

Q    Thanks, Jen.  A few points, but I just want to pick up on what Sebastian was asking about former President Trump first.

MS. PSAKI:  Sure.

Q    It sounds like you just plan to ignore him and essentially try to deprive his message of oxygen.  But do you plan, or does the White House plan, rather, to engage with him in any way, particularly if he launches political attacks on this administration and its policies?

MS. PSAKI:  In what way engage with him?

Q    I mean push back in any way on those.  I mean, again, as you say, you can’t know what former President Trump will say during CPAC, but it’s pretty likely he’ll have some things to say about the sitting — the sitting President and this administration.  So do you plan to engage with him on those things or just ignore him?

MS. PSAKI:  I guess we’ll have to watch and see.  But our overarching objective is to keep the focus not on any one individual, whether it’s the current President or the former President, but on the American people and what we’re doing to help bring them relief, to get the pandemic under control.  And certainly there’s been more than enough time spent on former President Trump.  And so if there’s not a reason to do it, we’re probably not going to be adding more commentary on it.

Q    Okay.  And on the topic of immigration, the Biden administration is also reopening a detention center in Florida, formerly known as the Homestead Detention Facility.  The administration plans to house migrant teens in that facility. Will that also be a temporary emergency center like the one you were discussing before?

MS. PSAKI:  I’d have to talk to the Department of Homeland Security about that.  I would certainly send you to them to talk to them more specifically and directly about it.

Q    It was also privately run before, which is part of the question here — is if whether or not the Biden administration plans to have that privately managed again, given the pledge by the President to close down privately run detention facilities.

MS. PSAKI:  Absolutely.  I know you’ve asked this question before, and I would be happy to connect you with someone from the Department of Homeland Security.  They obviously oversee those facilities, so they’re best prepared to answer any questions on it.

Q    Could I ask one more on Florida?

MS. PSAKI:  Go ahead.

Q    We’re on Florida.  Let’s just stay on Florida (inaudible).

MS. PSAKI:  That’s okay.  A big Florida day.

Q    All right.  So there are reports that President Biden
is considering former Florida Senator Bill Nelson to be his NASA Administrator.  Are those reports accurate?  Is he under consideration?  And when do you expect an announcement?

MS. PSAKI:  I don’t have any personnel announcements for you or any expectation of when we will have an announcement on a NASA Administrator or a list of atten- — a list of potential people.  But that’s an interesting — interesting one.

Go ahead.

Q    Thanks, Jen.  A couple questions.  One for another colleague who couldn’t be here today.  But I wanted to start with one more on the Neera Tanden nomination.

MS. PSAKI:  Sure.

Q    Does the administration believe there is a double standard at play here that Republicans and perhaps some Democrats are pointing to her partisan tweets, offensive tweets, as a reason to oppose her nomination, and that they have not held certain men to the same standard?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, the President was proud to nominate a historic set of nominees who not only were — many of them were barrier breaking, including Neera Tanden, but also incredibly qualified and experienced.  And he certainly believes that members of the Senate are going to consider them and should — will continue to consider them with the best of intention.

So, from here, we’re going to keep our eyes focused on outreach to Democrats and Republicans and working toward getting Neera Tanden confirmed so we can get the budget process moving.

Q    Okay.  Another one from a colleague regarding Postmaster General DeJoy and his appearance before the House Oversight Committee tomorrow and some proposed changes that he has put forth that some people are concerned will slow down mail further, raise the cost of mail, do away with airmail.  The question is: Is there any indication of when President Biden will appoint members to the three vacancies of the Board of Governors for the Postal Service?

MS. PSAKI:  Sure.  It’s a great question.  It is a priority for the President to appoint — to announce the appointment of, I should say, additional members of the Board of Governors.  As you are familiar with, but others may not be, it’s really up to the Board of Governors to determine the future leadership of the Postal Service, and we certainly recognize that filling those vacancies is an important step in that process.  So, it’s a priority.  I don’t have a timeline for you on when those will be announced though.

Go ahead, in the back.

Q    Thank you, Jen.  About the — again, the bilat between the Prime Minister and the President — the expression used is “a roadmap for renewing Canada-U.S. relationship.”  From the White House and the President standpoints, how did the relationship needed mending?

MS. PSAKI:  How did it need mending?

Q    Yes.

MS. PSAKI:  Well, I think that the objective for the President is to look forward and to take — you know, continue to build the relationship with Prime Minister Trudeau — obviously who he knew previously from when — or had engaged with previously from when he was Vice President — and to work together on addressing many of the shared crises we’re facing, from economic downturn, to COVID-19, to issues in the global community.

And I don’t know that they’re going to provide a lot of — spend a lot of time analyzing the past. They’re going to look to the future.

Q    Still, does the President feel that the relationship was in bad shape when he got into the White House?

QMS. PSAKI:  The President views his role as — in the global community as one who needs to rebuild relationships, rebuild trust with a range of partners, including the Canadians, and that’s why this meeting today will be forward looking and focused on a range of topics.

Q    Trust that was damaged in the last four years?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, we’ll leave that to the Prime Minister to speak to, but certainly we’re eager to continue to build the relationship moving forward.

Q    And another question, Jen.  Thank you.  My other question is — we’re talking a lot about the economic relationship and restarting the North American economy.  Would the reopening of the border be discussed (inaudible)?  Because this is a major point, like, stopping, blocking the economies from working —

MS. PSAKI:  The Canadian border?

Q    Yes.  Canadian-U.S. border being closed for a year now.  Do you know if it’s going to be discussed and if we can see an end to this in a short run?

MS. PSAKI:  Related to COVID-19, or related to —

Q    Well — so, in the “roadmap” is this discussion of restarting the North American economy.  We have the COVID crisis at the moment, but the closing of the border, and per the possibility of improving the economies between the two countries and the North American economy at large, do you think they’ll be discussing the reopening of the border faster than not?

MS. PSAKI:  I’m sure there’ll be a range of topics discussed, and obviously they’ll both bring up issues.  I can only speak to what President Biden will bring up, and we’ll have a readout after the meeting.

Go ahead.

Q    Thanks, Jen.  I have a couple on COVID, but first I’d like to follow up on the homeownership question from the top.

MS. PSAKI:  Sure.

So, the President’s economic plan from the campaign trail had a provision in there for the $15,000 first-time homebuyer tax credit.  Q    Can we expect the President to push for that in not the American Rescue Plan, but the recovery plan that’s said to come shortly afterwards?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, our focus right now is on getting the American Rescue Plan through.  We expect the House to pass it this weekend, and then it will go to the Senate.  And as we’ve been talking about a little bit here, there’ll be a robust discussion about members’ views on different components of it.  I don’t expect we’re going to preview or make — even make necessarily final decisions on what comes after.

But as you noted, there are a number of components of the Build Back Better agenda that the President talked about on the campaign trail.  Obviously, homeownership, caregiving, infrastructure, strengthening access to affordable healthcare — those are all components that are under discussion.  The order, the size, the timeline — that’s what has not been determined at this point.

Q    And then, on COVID, Jake Sullivan has been expressing some concerns about the World Health Organization’s latest assessment, specifically because China has not really handed over any of its data from the early months.

MS. PSAKI:  Yeah.

Q    So when can we see some traction on a U.S.-led assessment, like Sullivan has been suggesting, or perhaps some — some details on how we can force the world community to exert pressure on China to open up its doors and be transparent?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, you’re right that one of the concerns that we have expressed from here is a lack of data sharing.  We’ve not seen the initial data or the base of data that the report has been based on.  And we have concerns and questions about the process … and we have concerns and questions about the process used to reach the final conclusions.

What we’ve been calling for and will continue to advocate for is an open, transparent international organization, led by the World — I should say investigation — led by the World Health Organization.

And certainly getting to the bottom of what happened here, preventing it from happening in the future, is a topic of conversation in a range of conversations the President has, the Secretary of State, our National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan has, and I expect those will continue.

Q    And then, on that same report, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Matt Pottinger from NSC have both come out and said they still believe that coronavirus somehow originated from a research facility in Wuhan.  Do you know if President Biden has made a determination on whether or not gain-of-function research facilities, like the Wuhan Institute of Virology, should be eligible for U.S. funding?  They currently are, even though they’re not slated to receive any money in the near future.

MS. PSAKI:  Again, there will be — we support a robust, international investigation.  We also have taken steps under the State Department to ensure we have full staffing in our Beijing embassy to ensure we have eyes and ears on the ground.

As you noted, there’s no funding anticipated or planned to go to that facility at this point in time.  So I don’t have any additional updates beyond that.

Q    Last —

MS. PSAKI:  No, go ahead.

Q    Last one, sorry, on coronavirus.

MS. PSAKI:   Okay.

Q    Johnson & Johnson CEO Alex Gorsky has suggested that people will need a yearly coronavirus vaccine booster.  Do you know if Dr. Fauci or any of the medical experts agree with that assessment?

And then, if that’s the case, would the government shift the purchasing responsibility to American citizens after this first round this summer?  Is there a timeline on that?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, the FDA has talked about research and work they’re doing on boosters.  And some of that comes — is related to variants and addressing variants and needs they may have in the future.  But in terms of what is next, I think we’re focused now on first getting 300 million Americans vaccinated.  And then, any guidelines on whether a booster will be needed — the timeline of it — we would certainly defer to health and medical experts.

Go ahead.

Q    Thank you, Jen, and thank you for taking so many questions.  I’d like to quickly hit on three points.  Yesterday, the White House publicly confirmed that President Biden had mandated that he have full visibility on potential drone strikes overseas.  This sounds like a potential — or it sounds like resumption of the Obama-era so-called “kill list” policy.  I was hoping that you could tell us what President Biden sees as his guiding principles on deciding whether to allow a strike or not.

MS. PSAKI:  I don’t think I have anything more for you on that from the podium.

Q    And a question on New York.  I’d like to confirm that President Biden intends to pick his own four appointees for U.S. Attorneys offices — that he intends to do all four of them and not leave off the Southern District.

MS. PSAKI:  That he intends to nominate?

Q    Nominate his own people for each of the four U.S. Attorney slots in New York.

MS. PSAKI:  I don’t have anything in — to — for you either on kind of upcoming personnel announcements.  Obviously, there was an announcement made just last week or the week before about U.S. Attorneys, and that went through a normal process.  But I can certainly talk to our personnel team and see if there’s more on that front.

Q    Great.  And another one — the focus — or one of the focuses on the Hill today is on the Capitol riot, and I wanted to follow up on that.  There’s been some talk about the potential need for greater surveillance of domestic threats.   After 9/11, of course, the government secretly reinterpreted the Patriot Act as allowing the dragnet collection of our phone records.  Is the Biden administration committed to not secretly reinterpreting laws to expand domestic surveillance?

MS. PSAKI:  I think the President has spoken to this in the past, including when he was Vice President.  Our focus right now is on, of course, supporting the hearings that are happening on the Hill.  And we will remain engaged with members of Congress about how we can work together to address gaps and to prevent it from happening in the future.

We also have a process that’s underway and a review from our national security team on domestic violent extremism.  And when that process has concluded, I’m sure there will be recommendations made on policies that should be put into place.

Q    And the administration has emphasized transparency.  There would be transparency on any additional surveillance of domestic threats?  That would not be secretly interpreted?

MS. PSAKI:  I think that’s fair to say.

Go ahead, in the back.

Q    Jen, thanks so much.  I have a couple of questions. The first is: Over the last few months, we’ve seen reports that say that people outside of black and Hispanic and vulnerable communities have been able to access the vaccines in those communities.  In California, there are wealthy residents who are using access codes.  In New York, we’re seeing that happen.  What’s the White House’s plan for stopping this, and why is it still happening?  This has now been happening at least over two months.

MS. PSAKI:  You’re right. I’ve seen those reports as well.  And I think one of the reports I saw was around some of the mass vaccination sites in Oakland and the concerns about whether people in the community were actually getting access to the vaccines as planned.

I don’t have specific data and numbers.  And I can certainly talk to the COVID team, or you can, of course, ask them during one of their three briefings about the actual data behind it — beyond the anecdotal stories, which alone are certainly concerning.

But one of the pieces the President has been talking about and our team has been focused on is the fact that if you don’t have internet access — right? — if you don’t have, you know, access to ways to easily sign up to get your vaccine — we need to continue to look for ways to get deep into communities.  That’s one of the reasons that the President has been so supportive of community health centers that are embedded in communities, know the people in the communities, can make phone calls and do outreach to people they know will need the vaccine.

But we also need to continue to find ways to reach people who don’t have Internet access, who may not have the — you know, the ability to sign up in a way that others are and address some of those discrepancies.

So it continues to be a big focus.  And, as you know, we have, you know, an entire task force focusing on addressing inequities in how we address COVID, and they’re continuing to look for more ways to creatively do that and effectively address problems that are arising as we see them.

Q    Just to clarify: On that point, there’s a team that’s working specifically on trying to stop wealthy residents or we- — or people from those communities?

MS. PSAKI:   No, I think what I was conveying is, as you know, there is an equity task force that’s a part of the COVID team, led by Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith.  And obviously, reports that individuals who are not from the communities intended to, you know, be the primary recipients of the vaccines, if — you know, that is, you know, certainly something they would focus on and work on issues to address.  I would encourage you to ask them about that at the next COVID briefing though.

Q    And then a couple of other questions.  The first is: You stopped short of saying that the President — that President Biden would sign H.R.40, the bill to study reparations.

MS. PSAKI:  Mm-hmm.

Q    I’m just wondering, now that it’s been a few days after the hearing, whether or not there’s any update on that, given that the President has said that he would back a study on reparations?

MS. PSAKI:  So he would certainly would back a study.  I don’t think anything’s changed, though, from what I conveyed a couple of days ago.

Q    But you stopped short of saying he would sign the bill.

MS. PSAKI:  I said he would support a study, and he certainly would.  And we’ll take a look if there’s legislation that is passed by Congress.

Q    And then, at the joint hearing today at the — on the House, on the attack on the Capitol, there was an officer, Captain Mendoza, who said she still has chemical burns on her face and hasn’t fully healed from that attack.  I wonder if the White House is considering any sort of effort or any sort of fund or any sort of help to officers and others who are still recovering from their injuries.

MS. PSAKI:  You know, that’s certainly something we’d be happy to have a discussion with members of Congress on.  And I know they have also expressed gratitude, as has the President, for the work of the members of the Capitol Police and the sacrifices, of course, some made, but also those who have been injured in the events of January 6th.  And we’re certainly open to having that conversation.

Q    And then one more on sexual assault.  And the Pentagon says, this week, they’ll announce the naming of a commission on sexual assault in the military.  Senator Gillibrand and others have wrote — written to the President, saying that this needs to be an independent commission that’s outside of the DOD.  I’m wondering if the President is planning on appointing anyone to that commission, if he’s been briefed on this issue, and if that thought of it being set up outside of the Defense Department is top of mind.

MS. PSAKI:  It’s certainly an issue that he has thought about, talked about, engaged with policy experts internally on, and — including with Secretary Austin — I know, during the transition and probably since then.  But I don’t have anything more for you on, kind of, the format of it.  I think right now it’s under the purview of the Department of Defense, hence why they discussed the issue.

Q    Thanks, Jen.

MS. PSAKI:  Thanks, everyone.

12:54 P.M. EST

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