Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jen Psaki
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:54 P.M. EST
MS. PSAKI: Hi, everyone. Happy Friday.
Okay. A lot happening in the world; I don't have to tell all of you. Just a couple of notes for you all at the top.
This morning, we learned the unemployment rate is 4.2 percent, down by a historic 2 full percentage points since President Biden took office.
Prior to the American Rescue Plan, CBO estimated that the U.S. would not have a 4.2 percent unemployment rate until the end of 2024. So, this gives you that chart, just to give you a sense of exactly what the CBO projections were and how much more quickly we move to that unemployment rate.
After the Great Recession, it took nine years for the United States to reach a 4.2 percent unemployment rate -- just to give you a sense.
The unemployment rate is dropping even more -- even as more people are reentering the workforce and looking for jobs. That's good news.
There is no doubt that the Biden economic agenda is getting people back to work. In November, we added an additional 210,000 jobs for a total of 6 million jobs in the first 10 full months of the President's administration. That is a record for a new President.
Wages are also up. And thanks to the American Rescue Plan, the President and Congressional Democrats delivered significant tax cuts for families raising kids.
On average, Americans have about $100 more in their pockets each month than they did last year, even accounting for higher prices. The United States is the only leading economy in the world where household income and the economy are stronger than they were before the pandemic.
And our COVID strategy is allowing millions of workers to find jobs and ensuring our country can weather any challenges without shutting down our businesses or our schools.
We know there is more work to do, and the historic Build Back Better Act will cut costs that American families have struggled with for years, create more jobs, and continue growing our economy.
Just some notes on the week ahead for all of you. On Sunday, the President and First Lady will return from Camp David to host the Kennedy Center Honors -- Honorees Reception, where they will be joined by the Vice President and Second Gentleman. They will then attend the 44th Kennedy Center Honors.
On Monday, the President will deliver remarks on how his Build Back Better and Act will lower the costs of prescription drugs for millions of Americans by finally letting Medicare negotiate drug prices, imposing a tax penalty if drug companies increase their prices faster than inflation, putting a cap on how much seniors and people with disabilities have to pay for drugs, and lower insulin prices so that Americans with diabetes don't pay more than $35 per month for their insulin.
The President thinks it's absolutely unacceptable that the American people are forced to pay the highest prices for prescription drugs in the entire world -- two to three times as much as other developed countries, and this is an example of how Build Back Better will reduce many of the biggest costs families face.
On Thursday and Friday, the President will host the virtual Summit for Democracy, bringing together over 100 participants, representing governments, civil society, and private sector leaders. The President will deliver the Summit's opening and closing remarks, and will participate in plenary sessions.
I know we've previewed (inaudible) components of that, and we'll have more in the coming days.
Go ahead, Alex.
Q: Thanks, Jen. I have a few questions on Russia and then one on Iran.
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q: So, today Putin's foreign affairs advisor told reporters that arrangements have been made for a Putin-Biden call in the coming days. Can you tell us anything about that? Will there be a call with Zelenskyy as well?
And then can you clarify what the President meant when he said earlier he was putting together a, quote, "comprehensive and meaningful set of initiatives" to deter Putin?
And then, one more on that. Does the administration think that Ukraine has to do anything more than it's doing to deter Russia? Should there be concessions from Ukraine?
MS. PSAKI: Well, let me start with a second one first, and then I'll try to make sure I cover all of them.
First, while I can't, of course, speak to Russian intentions, I think you've heard us and Secretary of State Blinken express growing concerns about what we're seeing on the border of Russia and Ukraine.
He has been in Europe this week consulting with our partners, European partners. And we have also been consulting, at the same time, closely with Congress.
And we want to make sure that we are prepared. We know what President Putin has done in the past. We see that he is putting in place the capacity to take action in short order. And should he decide to invade, that is why we want to be prepared and -- in an area we have expressed serious concern about.
So, what he means by a group of -- a package -- is there's a range of tools at our disposal. Of course, economic sanctions are an option. But we are going to do that in coordination with our European partners, with Congress.
Those consultations have been ongoing. And we just want to be prepared.
As it relates to the potential for a call, we have been engaged in the possibility of that. When we have -- if and when we have that finalized, we will make that make that -- we will make you all aware of that.
As you know, the President is somebody who believes in leader-to-leader diplomacy. It certainly would be an opportunity to discuss our serious concerns about the bellicose rhetoric about the military buildup that we're seeing on the border of Ukraine.
Go ahead. You had another question.
Q: On Ukraine. Follow-up.
MS. PSAKI: Yes.
Q: Does the administration think that Ukraine should be offering anything more to Russia to try to deter some of that bellicose rhetoric, the actions that we've seen?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think we are not the only country who feels that the onus is really on Russia to reduce their bellicose rhetoric, to make some changes as it relates to the buildup of military troops that we see at the border and will really -- the onus is really on them.
Q: And then on Iran: The Iran talks have not been going well. There are reports that the Western negotiators told Iran negotiators they're opening proposals were, quote, "unserious."
So, will those talks continue as planned? Is the administration still hopeful for a diplomatic approach?
MS. PSAKI: We are always hopeful for a diplomatic approach. That's always the best option.
The seventh round of talks did end today in Vienna. Special Envoy Malley and his interagency team are returning to Washington now.
The new Iranian administration did not come to Vienna with constructive proposals.
The first six rounds of negotiations made progress finding creative compromise solutions to many of the hardest issues that were difficult for all sides.
Iran's approach this week was not, unfortunately, to try to resolve the remaining issues. So -- and even more importantly, Iran started this new round of negotiations with a new round of nuclear provocations, as reported by the IAEA on Wednesday. And they've still failed to reach an understanding with the IAEA to restore the cooperation and transparency they have degraded in recent months.
We know why we're here. The previous administrations decided to withdraw from the JCPOA. That's led to a dramatic and unprecedented expansion of Iran's nuclear program.
This cannot continue, and the President continues to believe that there is a better alternative. He's committed to returning the United States to compliance with the JCPOA and staying in compliance so long as Iran does the same. He means it.
If Iran is equally committed, a solution is at hand. But we did not see that from them this week.
Q: Thanks, Jen.
Just, first -- just clarifying what you said on Ukraine there. So, it's fair to say that the White House is preparing for the possibility that Russia might invade?
MS. PSAKI: Well, we can't predict from here what President Putin's calculus is or what the Russians' calculus is. We saw what they did in 2014. We've seen what they're doing on the border. And we're going to consult with our allies and partners and Congress here to be prepared for a range of options.
Q: I want to switch gears totally to a comment from -- a statement from Senator Manchin last night. He voted with Repub- -- he voted against a Republican amendment to zero out funding for the vaccine mandate, but then he put a statement saying that he would actually support that idea in the coming weeks.
What's your reaction to Manchin saying that he's against the President's mandate that much?
MS. PSAKI: Well, one, it's "vax or test." And obviously, that is something we feel we have every authority to do based on a 50-year-old law that Congress put into place 50 years ago.
We simply disagree. We disagree based on what we feel is a preponderance of evidence of the effectiveness of requirements, vaccinating, or testing.
You look at the private sector. There are a range of companies, airlines, hospital associations who have implemented these types of requirements effectively.
We are the largest employer -- the United States government -- in this country. We have implemented requirements, and we have seen 96.5 percent compliance -- something we're going to continue to build on.
And these companies and the federal government are doing it for a range of reasons. It creates certainty, it allows people to feel safe in the workplace, and it's good for the economy.
So, we disagree on that front. And we're going to continue to press forward with these requirements.
Q: But, to that point, if the companies are doing that -- I mean, that's Manchin's statement was that we should just continue to incentivize companies.
Why -- you know, what are you going to do if he votes with the Republicans and tries to really gut funding for these mandates?
MS. PSAKI: I'm sure we'll be having discussions with him and anyone who is an opponent of these steps, but I don't have all the details of what this would actually propose.
We're talking about implementing requirements through a 50-year-old law. It's obviously in the courts now.
It is a good sign -- no question -- that companies are doing this in the private sector. But we still feel, at this point in fighting the virus, it's important to move forward with these requirements.
Q: Just a quick follow-up on Ukraine. Russia has been pretty clear for the past several months about what they're looking for out of the U.S., out of NATO in terms of this crisis. They want firm, legally binding security guarantees. They don't want NATO and Ukraine -- they don't want to see a military buildup on the other side. And they don't want to see Ukraine become a member of NATO. Where is the flexibility for the White House on this? Are you willing to budge on any of those issues?
MS. PSAKI: Well, NATO member countries decide who is a member of NATO, not Russia. And that is how the process has always been and how it will proceed.
I think it's important to remember where the provocative action is coming from at this point in time. It's not the United States; it's not Ukraine.
Q: Okay. So, let me ask you about abortion rights. You mentioned yesterday about the President's support for the Women's Health Protection Act --
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q: -- which was passed by the House and the Senate -- the House, in September -- and is awaiting action in the Senate.
President Biden has talked a number of times about there being areas where he is open to reforming the filibuster -- to preventing a default is one of those examples that he's given. Is passing this bill one of those things? And does he want to see quicker, faster, stronger action on that?
MS. PSAKI: Well, again, we don't have a ruling from the Supreme Court. We don't expect that for several months. The President continues to believe that codifying Roe is something that should be done, and he supports this piece of legislation. But I think we're getting a few steps ahead in the process at this point.
Q: Okay. So -- but again, that bill was passed in September. Schumer said it will come up very soon in the Senate, back in September. Where is that? And is the White House doing anything to push that along?
MS. PSAKI: I would point you to Leader Schumer's office on any status of when that would come forward. Again, it's something the President strongly supports, and he is a strong advocate for codifying Roe.
Q: In the President's remarks earlier today, when he was asked about his cold, he said that he was te- -- he is being tested daily for COVID-19. My understanding was that it was done with less frequency of that. I know Dr. O'Connor said that he was tested three times this week, but is there a change in protocol where he is going to be tested daily? And what kind of test is he getting: antigen or PCR test?
MS. PSAKI: Yeah, I think we just put out some details from Doc O'Connor that outlines how many times he's been tested and, I believe, the kind of tests that he received. He received those tests because he had a cold, which would be considered a symptom and -- but it's not a change in protocol.
Q: And so he is not going to be tested daily?
MS. PSAKI: No.
Q: Okay. And then, yesterday, President Biden said that he spoke with Senators McConnell and Schumer on government funding. But has he spoken with Leader McConnell when it comes to the debt limit? And would the President be opened to tying the debt limit to the NDAA?
MS. PSAKI: The -- I don't have any calls to read out for you, but we are encouraged by the conversations that are happening between Leader Schumer and Senator McConnell about how to address a range of issues that are in front of Congress, including the debt limit. And beyond that, we -- I don't have any update from here.
Q: Thanks, Jen. Just to clarify: The President did say he was tested every day for COVID, so did he just misspeak there?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think, Weijia -- I would point you to the transparent note we put out from the doctor to all of you that outlines how many times he was tested and exactly what he was tested for.
Q: Okay. And then shifting to the new travel policy that goes into effect on Monday. The burden is on airline workers to verify test results to make sure they're negative. Is the administration doing anything to help train them so they know how to do that and so that they can spot fraudulent results, for example?
MS. PSAKI: I would really point you to TSA, a division, of course, of the government. I'm sure that they are taking steps to make sure people are prepared to look for how to verify, but I'd really point you to them for more details.
Q: Okay. And the President just announced it yesterday. It goes into effect Monday. Can you share what you're doing to get the word out to international travelers, especially to Americans who might be coming home? Are airlines sending out the message to all those travelers?
MS. PSAKI: This is not -- I would just remind everyone that this is from three days, to the day in advance. So, it is a change in that regard. It is not an entirely new component.
We have communicated that effectively. I think travelers has been able to abide by the three-day requirement. We will communicate through a range of channels we've done in the past, but we don't expect there to be an issue.
Q: And then just one more quick one. A lot of these at-home tests come with a stick. So your test result is the stick that either has one line or two lines on it. But the FAQ section says that you need -- you will need to show a paper or a digital copy of your test result. So is the stick the test result?
MS. PSAKI: Again, Weijia, we've been implementing these requirements for the three-day requirements since we returned to international travel effectively. I would point you to TSA and others for specifics. But this is not an area where we've had issue, and we don't anticipate them in advance of Monday.
MS. PSAKI: Go ahead.
Q: Thanks, Jen. The Build Back Better plan's price tag is being described as "incomprehensible" by Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger, a Democrat. And Lindsey Graham says that he has heard from the CBO that they're going to do an alternative cost estimate and that it's going to cost more and add more to the debt. So, is there any thought around here to maybe waiting for Build Back Better until a month that you don't have this big miss in the jobs report?
MS. PSAKI: There's a lot of things gathered into that question so let me --
Q: There is not. There is like three.
MS. PSAKI: -- let me do the best I can. Let me do the best I can for you here.
In terms of the report of a new CBO, that is not exactly how it works. There has been -- and let me just start with the irony here -- that there's an irony that a number of Republicans -- who forced an unpopular tax giveaway to the rich that increased our debt by $2 trillion and certainly didn't ask for a score for a continuation of that legislation that did add to the deficit -- are now asking for a score -- an additional score, post this bill being concluded, for something that isn't even going to be law.
They're asking about a potential continuation of these components of the package that, again, the President has said he would pay for. I can't get into the psyche of why. I would suggest that it might be -- have something to do with their opposition to raising taxes on corporations. That seems to get under their skin a little bit. We disagree with them on that front.
I would say: The CBO has put out a score; a number of economists have put out scores. We have outlined in the past that CBO does not have the -- have not have a great deal of experience scoring components like the IRS tax savings -- that's something that the former head of the CBO has also spoken to in the past -- and that there are estimates about those cost savings that lead to not only our assessments of the cost and savings from the package, but the assessments by many economists.
Q: Okay. On the pandemic. It's been more than two weeks since President Biden had a call with Xi. And on that call, we know he did not press him to help with the COVID origins investigation -- because you said that Xi just understands he's supposed to be transparent. So, in the two-plus weeks since, has he helped and been transparent yet?
MS. PSAKI: I don't believe that's exactly what I said. I believe what I said is that we have pressed for this repeatedly, we will continue to, and we'll continue to do that at a range of levels. I don't, unfortunately, have any updates on the participation or willingness of the Chinese to add and provide additional data.
Can I provide one other update to you, since you asked me about crime yesterday and I have a little more information for you?
Q: About crime? My question was about Xi and China.
MS. PSAKI: Well, you asked me a question about crime yesterday.
Q: Okay. Sure. Yeah.
MS. PSAKI: So I was going to give you a little extra information.
MS. PSAKI: I followed up for you, Peter.
Q: Great. Thank you.
MS. PSAKI: So, I would note, what I -- what I should have added yesterday but I learned afterwards is that the Justice Department, the FBI, and the federal law enforcement have been in touch -- in contact with jurisdictions where we have seen this high level of retail theft.
So, for example, in Los Angeles, we've seen a rash of robberies. The FBI is providing assistance to a multi-jurisdictional task force led by the LA Police Department.
I'd also note that, on top of that, the Department of Justice announced last week that San Francisco, where a number of high-profile retail thefts have happened, will get money to hire 50 more police officers through the COPS Program that the President has championed -- that came as part of nearly $150 million in similar grants nationwide.
So just a few updates for you.
Q: Thank you for that. We will include that in our coverage.
MS. PSAKI: I look forward to seeing it on Fox later today.
Q: It's on Fox right now, I think.
MS. PSAKI: Okay. I bet it is.
Q: One more topic, to follow up on some of the questions from earlier. The President was hoarse and coughing today. A lot of people in the workforce are encouraged not to go to work if they are exhibiting those symptoms, even if they are fully vaccinated. So, are the rules different for the President?
MS. PSAKI: The President, again, was tested, as we put out in some -- in a transparent piece of information from his doctor, where he received a response quickly from that test, enable him -- enabling him to proceed. People also had -- he had a cold, which is what you know from the information put out by the doctor.
Q: But as you know from your own experience, it is possible to test negative several times before there's a positive test. So is there any concern about having him at work while he's got these symptoms, even if he is showing negative tests?
MS. PSAKI: I can assure you that the President follows every protocol. He wants to keep everyone safe in the White House. And that's why, obviously, he -- we consult with the doctor and we put out that information to make it available to all of you.
Q: If I can ask you about the announcement the President made yesterday. Right now, some European countries are subsidizing the testing process overseas. The decision was announced here that the government would be having Americans submit to insurance for reimbursement. Why that decision, to not follow what's been a successful path for a lot of European countries -- which is the subsidizing of those tests?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would note first, Peter, that the announcement made yesterday builds on the steps we have taken to date, which includes ensuring there are eight FDA-approved tests available out in the market -- home tests. There were none available at the beginning. There were half that number available just a few months ago. We've also quadrupled the size of our testing program and capacity just since this summer.
We've also invested billions of dollars here in the testing market. That market here includes reliable tests that meet the FDA's gold standard. Some of those tests might not meet that standard. And that's what we think the American people expect and deserve.
We also want to ensure the testing market continues scaling up and remains competitive and innovative. We believe this will help drive down costs. So, our view is we want to -- and we share the objective with others -- we want to make them more accessible; we want to lower the costs of tests.
We also announced that we're going to be donating 50 million tests to rural and community health centers. That's what we're trying to achieve here, and we feel this builds on the steps we've already taken to date.
But we have different tests, we have different market approaches here, and we're going to continue to build on what we're doing here in the United States.
Q: The President, in his remarks earlier today, said talking about progress is "not enough" if Americans aren't seeing it -- aren't effectively feeling it -- in their everyday lives. Why do you think that is that Americans aren't feeling it yet? Is that a policy issue? Is it a messaging issue? What's the disconnect?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I've answered versions of those questions before, but I -- we feel, here, that COVID still has an overlaying effect -- impact on people and how they're seeing things day to day, for good reason.
People's lives don't look like they did a few years ago. You're worried about going to work. You're worried about your kids getting sick. You -- you're worried about whether you're going to be safe in a restaurant or going to a concert. That impacts how people feel about how they're experiencing the economy.
And there's no question, as much as we're seeing encouraging economic data, data doesn't move people; I can tell you that as a communicator. Their experiences in their daily lives move people.
So, he's going to be out there talking about how his plans will lower their costs, make their lives better, and hopefully that will give people a bridge to what he's trying to achieve here.
Q: Two last little thoughts just following up on the questions about his health. Obviously, like everybody else, we wish that he will get well soon. The question though is: Given the fact that he has a cold right now, are there any things that are being done differently? Have meetings been scaled back? Is he doing something separately or does everything continue as planned, given the test?
MS. PSAKI: It's continuing as planned. He's taking some over-the-counter cold medication and probably some cough drops and some tea. But otherwise, he's proceeding with his schedule.
And then, just to -- finally, to punctuate that very quickly, just for clarity: You said earlier that the reason he had these tests was because he was showing symptoms. So, he gets tested though when he's not showing symptoms, correct?
MS. PSAKI: Correct, yes. On a regular basis, not as frequently. And even cold symptoms --
Q: So, three times this week was because he was showing symptoms --
MS. PSAKI: Correct.
Q: -- on other weeks, it would be less than the three times this week.
MS. PSAKI: Yes. Exactly. Exactly. Thank you for the clarification.
Q: Back on the new requirement for international travel to the United States --
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q: -- what gives you confidence that it won't be an issue or a problem for travelers coming into the United States having to get a test one day before boarding their flights?
Are you confident that there's going to be enough supply, accessibility for every traveler who wants to come here everywhere in the world?
MS. PSAKI: Well, there have been some exemptions announced by the State Department where tests are not as readily available. So, we look at all of the factors here, Steve, and we're not trying to make it more difficult for people to return home. We're trying to take every step to protect the American public.
There have already been these requirements in place for three days. So, yes, it is a difference, but people who have traveled have adjusted to that requirement, and this is just narrowing that requirement.
Q: So, the requirement takes effect Monday. What is your advice, right now, to Americans who are watching or listening to this -- they have only a few days left, what should they do?
MS. PSAKI: Americans who are here or Americans who are --
Q: Americans who are who are abroad and tuned into this briefing on --
MS. PSAKI: Sure, no, I just wanted to make sure I understood.
MS. PSAKI: A day in advance of their international flight, they should get a test, as opposed to three days in advance. That's the difference.
Go ahead, Sabrina.
Q: Thank you, Jen. A number of cities, including New York, LA, San Francisco require proof of vaccination to access indoor dining, bars, and other non-essential businesses. Given the new variant, does the administration believe that more cities and localities should enact similar proof of vaccination requirements?
MS. PSAKI: They may decide to do that. Our -- our approach and our view has always been that's up to cities and localities. It is not, as you know, that CDC guidance has changed on this front. There's a lot we don't know about the variant. We're learning more every single day.
But again, we continue to believe that's up to states and localities on what they need to do to protect people in their community.
And just similarly, with respect to states, cities, and localities, there are a number of cities that still have not reinstated mask mandates, but they do fall within the substantial- or high-transmission category that the CDC has outlined for areas where there should be indoor mask mandates in place.
So, do you think cities like D.C. and New York, which are still in substantial- or high-transmission, should abide by the CDC guidelines?
MS. PSAKI: Of course, they should; every city should. I would note, just -- and this wasn't exactly your question, but I thought this was an interesting piece of data as it relates to vaccination rates: Yesterday, 1 million people received booster shots; 2.2 million shots total. That's our highest day since May.
So, just to give you a sense of how people are consuming information. We obviously don't want that to be a respo- -- you know, our objective is not for people to be scared. That is not what we're trying to do here. But certainly, you're seeing that the impact of how this is being communicated about is being felt in communities. People are taking steps to protect themselves.
Q: In the State Dining Room earlier, the President said he was putting together "the most comprehensive and meaningful set of initiatives to make it very difficult for Mr. Putin to go ahead" with actions towards Ukraine. Are any of those initiatives military in nature?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I'm not going to outline them in more detail from here, but I would note that, obviously, economic sanctions in a range of formats, economic steps are always a part of the option.
We have, of course, provided a range of security assistance to Ukraine in the past, and that's something that remains under consideration. But that's what I can preview at this point in time.
Q: And just on the next tranche of Fed nominees, has President Biden finished the interviews for those three slots?
MS. PSAKI: I don't have any update on the personnel process. He continu- -- you can all continue to plan for him to announce the additional nominees in short due time, but I don't have an update on the day.
Q: Afghanistan, please?
MS. PSAKI: Go ahead.
Q: Thank you very much, Jen. Winter is very close, and Afghan people are still in a bad situation -- food crisis. Any plan of the United States for humanitarian assistance to Afghan people?
And also, the U.S. victims' families -- 9/11 -- they expect to receive some money from the frozen money in Afghanistan. Do you have any comment about that? Although Afghan people lost so many people, like 165 people is dead -- have been dead in Afghanistan, and Osama bin Laden was found in Pakistan. I think that the 9/11 victim families receive this -- expect this amount from Pakistani authority. And Afghan people just --
MS. PSAKI: So, I would just note on the last question you asked -- very important question, good question. It's under -- the Department of Justice is really the right entity to discuss that with. There's some discussion of litigation around that with some of the 9/11 families, so I would point you to them on that, in that regard.
On the earlier question you asked about humanitarian assistance: Absolutely. The United States continues to be the largest -- if not one of the largest -- providers of humanitarian assistance to the Afghan people in the world. We will continue to discuss with our partners, with the U.N., with others, the best means of getting that assistance to the Afghan people. And that is an ongoing discussion and one we were -- we are committed to continuing to contribute to.
Q: Jen, thank you. Germany has decided that unvaccinated people should not be allowed to go into public places. That may be a great way to incentivize people to be vaccinated. Let's assume that would not fly in this country.
Let me ask you -- the serious part of the question really is -- there seems to be, no matter what, this 27, 30 percent of the population -- the eligible population -- that refuses to be vaccinated for a variety of reasons.
MS. PSAKI: It's a little lower than that. I mean, more than 82 percent of people have received their first dose.
Q: Okay. But what makes the President think that this new winter initiative of trying to get people to get vaccinated -- what makes him feel confident that that's going to work on those people who absolutely refuse to be vaccinated?
MS. PSAKI: Well, first, we know what works. I would remind you that, almost a year ago, only about 30 percent of eligible adults in this country felt open to getting vaccinated. Now we're -- it's more than 82 percent have received one -- at least one dose.
That is clearly not against -- on partisan lines. Because you know -- you know how divided our country can be. That -- those are people who took a step to protect themselves, to protect their neighbors, to protect their loved ones.
I'd also note that we saw -- I just gave you some data on the vaccination rate from just yesterday -- the highest we have seen since May. And we know that vaccinations are what can save lives, but, also, it's important to continue to build our testing and masking capacity. That's what we also announced yesterday.
So, I would just say: We know what works. We also know what's standing in the way. And you're right, there are things that we can't change.
For reasons I will never begin to understand, some members of the Republican Party have decided that their political platform is going to be running in favor of protecting people from getting vaccinated or from getting tested. That's why people tried -- some people tried to shut down the government. As crazy as that sounds, people hear that. They hear misinformation traveling on social media. Those are all entities we're fighting.
But you're right, there are some forces against us.
Q: When does he -- the President throw up his hands?
MS. PSAKI: Never. You can't do that as President.
Q: Just a real quick clarification. The letter that you all sent out from the President's doctor --
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q: -- does not indicate whether the COVID test was a PCR test or --
MS. PSAKI: Okay, fair. I --
Q: -- an antigen test. If you -- if you could you --
MS. PSAKI: I will get the clarification from him. Absolutely.
Q: Great. I mean, it's --
MS. PSAKI: I read it too quickly up here. Yes.
Q: It's important, given the difference in accuracy for the --
MS. PSAKI: Sure. Understood.
Q: That's all. Thank you.
MS. PSAKI: Okay. Sounds great.
Q: Thank you, Jen. My question is about the travel restrictions. And, right now, the African people are still very concerned about these restrictions. Because of that, there is a little chaos in the continent because many countries are closing their borders and people are not traveling as usual. And many people in Africa still have problem to really understand the real reasons behind those travel restrictions, so -- and why it's still in place.
You have said in the past that there is no political reasons behind this decision. And the President and you yourself have mentioned that this is to protect the American people and it's for the safety of the American people. But if this was really about the safety of the American people, why some countries in Europe and even Canada that has the variant are not included on this travel restriction list? And even African countries that doesn't have the variant are on the list.
So, how do you explain to the African people who are watching you right now that there is no political reasons behind, even though it looks like there is?
MS. PSAKI: So, I would say directly to the people in Africa that these restrictions were announced a week ago, on the recommendation of our health and medical experts, because what we saw and what we have continues to see is that, in South Africa, the variant and the spread of the variant led to hundreds and thousands of cases. And I don't have the exact number in front of me, but now it's definitely far into the thousands of cases.
We also put the -- the restrictions were recommended by our health and medical experts for neighboring countries. These steps were taken in order to slow the spread of the variant and to give our medical experts here more time to assess this variant and more time to assess what we needed to do to protect people in the United States.
At the same time, we have been donating not only vaccines, but know-how and expertise to South Africa, to neighboring countries. And we've been in touch with officials there on a daily basis as we help to -- work to address this variant and this virus.
And we are assessing, on a daily basis, what is needed, whether it's adding additional restrictions or removing restrictions. So that's what I would say.
Q: And, Jen --
MS. PSAKI: I think I have to keep going.
Q: One last -- one last question, please.
MS. PSAKI: I'm sorry. I have to keep going because we're going to --
Q: One last question.
MS. PSAKI: -- we'll run out of time.
Q: One last one. Please.
MS. PSAKI: Okay, last one.
Q: Yes. We have seen President Biden in the past strongly defend the South African people from the apartheid regime when he was in Congress. And not only that, even normally, he used to advocate for the rights of the African people. Does the mind of President Biden change over the time towards the Africans?
MS. PSAKI: Absolutely not. What we're trying to do here is work in partnership to address a variant and address a virus. And we are in touch on a daily basis with leaders there, with health officials there about everything we can do to be a partner in that effort.
At the same time, the President needs to take steps to err on the side of protecting the American people from the spread of a variant we knew little about and we're learning more about on a daily basis.
Q: Thanks. Apple alerted U.S. diplomats that their iPhones had been hacked in recent months by spyware from the NSO Group. This is the first confirmed cases of the Pegasus software being used to target American officials. I'm wondering if the administration has any comment on that?
MS. PSAKI: I have seen this particular report. And I'm not sure if the State Department will have more to say about it -- they may. We have been acutely concerned that commercial spyware, like NSO Group's software, poses a serious counterintelligence and security risk to U.S. personnel, which is one of the reasons why this administration has placed several companies involved in the development and proliferation of these tools on the Department of Commerce's Entity List. We have also mobilized a government-wide effort to counter and curb proliferation of these commercial hacking tools.
But in terms of this specific incident, I'd point you to State; they may have more up-to-date information on it.
Q: And just one more on the shooting in Michigan. I'm wondering if the -- if you have any update on whether or not the President has had any contact with state or local leaders, or families impacted by it?
And then, secondly, gun control is obviously something that he's talked quite a bit about. There is no -- he nominated someone for the ATF.
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q: That nomination has been pulled. Do -- should we expect someone else to be nominated for that -- the role, or any more of a focus from the President on gun control, given what happened this week?
MS. PSAKI: Well, absolutely. I mean, gun safety is something that has been a core issue for the President for decades. As you know, and you've heard me say from here before, you know, he led the effort to pass the Assault Weapons Ban, to get the Brady bill passed and background checks.
And even since he's come into office, in April, he announced a set of actions to reduce gun violence, including reining in the proliferation of ghost guns, an issue that -- ghost guns are something that has really been a rising contributor to violent crime -- to crimes out there and to gun violence; better stable -- regulating stabilizing braces; and encouraging states to adopt red flags through the Justice Department, an issuance of model legislation; and in June he announced a comprehensive plan to reduce gun crime.
The fact is, there are three bills right now that have passed the House: the Violence Against Women Act, which includes provisions to keep more guns out of the hands of abusers; the bill to require background checks for all gun sales; and also Build Back Better, which includes a historic proposal to invest $5 billion in evidence-based community violence interventions.
So, this is central. He will continue fighting for this. And he will continue to look at what steps can be taken through executive action as well. But this will continue to be a cause for the President.
On your other question, I will check. I have not -- I don't have any calls at this point to read out. I will check and see if there's any update to that.
Q: Yeah, back to the travel restrictions. Once these restrictions are in place, it seems like it can often be pretty hard for them to go away. India had a travel ban for months and months and months. The UK had a travel ban for like a year.
So, are there specific metrics that the White House is looking for to decide, "Okay, let's let these people travel here again" -- you know, especially given that it's here; there's community spread in the United States?
MS. PSAKI: And there are tens of thousands of cases in South Africa. And there are --
Q: Oh, of course.
MS. PSAKI: -- a half a dozen, we're aware of, here in the United States. That will grow and increase.
I would say -- I would refute one notion. We can make the decision, based on the health and medical experts -- and their meeting on a daily basis -- to rollback any restrictions. There are some, as you have said, that had been in place for weeks or months for a reason. Right?
Q: And then --
MS. PSAKI: And if there had been a recommendation to roll those back sooner, we would have abided by those recommendations. So, this is being evaluated on a daily basis with our health and medical experts and team. We really rely on them for their assessment of when it is appropriate and the right -- and a science-based decision to do exactly that.
Q: And do you know if there any particular metrics that they use for those decisions?
MS. PSAKI: I -- there are, but I would really point you to the health and medical experts to speak to that more effectively.
Q: Just following up on the Afghanistan question. You mentioned ongoing discussions. Given the level of crisis that's happening there and how it's worsening, is there something more specific that you guys are asking for? A deadline? Is the Pres- -- will the President entertain lifting some of the sanctions? Can you get a little more specific on what -- what you --
MS. PSAKI: Well, what I was trying to get at is that one of the challenges in Afghanistan -- I think you can agree on this -- is the logistics of getting humanitarian assistance around to different communities. And that's one of the areas we've been discussing. So that's what I was getting at.
We have provided an enormous amount of humanitarian assistance and we will continue to. And that is something that other -- others of our partners are as well. But we also recognize the logistical challenges. That's something we've been discussing. So that's what I was referring to.
Q: What about the sanctions? Would -- is there any entertainment of lifting some of the sanctions?
MS. PSAKI: There hasn't been a change to that. I would point you to the State Department.
Tom West obviously had some discussions with the Taliban, but our policy on that has not changed that I'm aware of.
Q: The national debt is now over $29 trillion. That's more than double a decade ago when then-Vice President Biden went across the street and led discussions with lawmakers at the Blair House.
You said that he's encouraged that Leader Schumer and Leader McConnell are discussing this issue. But does he want any direct engagement himself? Do you see any sort of scenario where the President tries to strike some sort of grand bargain like President Obama and John Boehner tried to attempt a decade ago?
MS. PSAKI: I think you're combining a few things there. So, let me do my best here. One, the debt limit is about paying the bills that are already due. Right? And so, our pro- -- our proposal -- our preference is always to do that through regular order and just raise the debt limit to ensure that we are protecting the full faith and credit of the United States government.
As it relates to what the debt looks like, we agree. That's why the President was opposed to the $2 trillion in tax cuts for the highest income that contributed to a portion of that. That's why Build Back Better is entirely paid for by asking corporations and the highest-income Americans to pay more.
So, the debt limit, I would say, is –- you know, the President is encouraged by the conversations between Leader Schumer and Senator McConnell. And what his hope is, is that we can –- through regular order –- raise the debt limit, as has been done 81 times in the past, so we don't play around with the full faith and credit of the United States.
Q: Thanks, Jen. There's reporting on an alleged Chinese submarine in the Taiwan Strait. Has the President been briefed on that? Is he concerned about it potentially escalating into an unintended conflict?
And just on a more broader level, is the administration preparing for any kind of potential increased Chinese provocations, either in the Taiwan Strait, South China Sea, anywhere, in case Beijing decides to express their frustration ahead of the Democracy Summit?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would say, first, we always raise concerns we have about any provocations or escalatory behavior that we see. I have not seen this exact report, so let me check with our national security team and see if there's more that we can get back to all of you.
Q: Just really quickly -- just to double check some more reporting that the President is pursuing or planning an in-person summit between the U.S. and ASEAN leaders in January. Can you confirm that?
MS. PSAKI: I'm not tracking that plan, but I will check and see. Where was that supposed to be?
Q: I think it was reported by some Asian media, including Japan (inaudible).
MS. PSAKI: Oh, got it. Okay, the ASEAN Summit. I will get you -- and see if there's more details on that.
Q: Thank you, Jen. You've been clear, going back until at least September, every time I ask, about the administration's position on the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act. You've said numerous times that the President doesn't have a position.
There's new reporting in the Washington Post that in October the Deputy Secretary of State was telling lawmakers to slow the bill down.
So, is the administration on the same page? And why does it seem that the Deputy Secretary of State was saying in private to lawmakers to slow this down while in public the White House has been saying that the President is neutral?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I wouldn't say we're neutral. I would say we share Congress's concern about forced labor in Xinjiang, and, in fact, have taken a number of concrete measures, as you know, on our own, including but not limited to visa restrictions, Global Magnitsky and other financial sanctions, export controls, import restrictions, the release of a business advisory, and rallying the G7 to commit action.
So I would say, we are hardly neutral. We have strong concerns, serious concerns. And we are absolutely not lobbying in any way against the passage of this bill.
There are negotiations and discussions between members of Congress. The executive branch often offers Congress technical advice to make legislation effective and implementable by the agencies responsible.
Those are the conversations that are happening. But we absolutely support and have been advocates for doing more to hold -- to put in place accountability here.
Q: You laid out a number of executive steps the President has taken and then also how he's rallied the world, you know, at the G7, on this issue. Does he want Congress to do anything additional?
I mean, is he -- he's leading on the world stage; is he going to lead in Congress, in terms of actually getting something in the law?
MS. PSAKI: There's negotiations he fully supports between members of Congress, and he supports the objective of doing more here and -- as is evidenced by the fact that we have done a great deal. We're offering technical assistance.
Again, we're not lobbying against this bill in any way, shape, or form. That's a normal part of the process in order to make sure we -- legislation can be effective and implementable.
That's where the status of it is at this point in time.
Q: Thank you, Jen.
MS. PSAKI: We got to -- we got to wrap it up.
Q: Thanks, Jen. I wanted to ask you about Mitch Landrieu's team and the infrastructure bill.
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q: Can you talk about what specific tasks that team is going to be handling, what kind of staff he's going to get, and who are they're already meeting with and working with?
MS. PSAKI: Well, in terms of the staffing question, I think that's still being determined. But what his -- what his role will be, I would say, is akin to the role Gene Sperling has had in implementing the Bipartisan Infrastructure piece of legislation.
That includes engaging closely with local elected officials, mayors, governors -- fortunately, he's got some experience doing exactly that.
It includes working closely with agencies, and he has this group of agency leaders he meets with on a regular basis to talk about what their plans are for implementation.
So, it includes overseeing all of those components to make sure this piece of legislation is effectively implemented and is done so with minimizing -- eliminating waste, fraud, and abuse.
Q: Can you talk about -– you mentioned mayors and governors that he's worked with. A lot of this money, through grants, is going to end up with those local officials who have to distribute it in whatever way they're going to.
Are you at all -- like how are you -- you mentioned that he's talking to them, but are you doing anything to prepare those officials to be able to get this money out the door and use it in the way that the President wants it to be used and the law intends it to be?
MS. PSAKI: Right. There was an executive order that laid out kind of the six priorities of how this would be approached -- investing the public dollars efficiently, buying American, creating good-paying opportunities for millions of Americans, investing public dollars equitably. That's the model that he is pursuing this through.
There are a number of different agencies that are overseeing key components of the implementation, as you know. Some of these programs are grant making, some of them are programs that are already up and running where we're augmenting and adding more to it.
You may have seen that there was an announcement from EPA yesterday -- right? -- about a project that was going to get -- be underway to knock down and replace lead pipes. That's a program that could happen on the earlier end.
We've talked a little bit about how taking steps to continue to address congestion at ports is a top priority. That continues to be the case.
There are some components of this -- massive infrastructure projects -- that will require a longer-term approach because we want to do it effectively and we want to do it right.
He is overseeing all of that working in close coordination with agencies and leaders, mayors, governors in these states to implement not just short-term but also longer-term projects.
Okay. We have a visitor today.
Hello. Great meeting you, Rafael. From Univision. Thanks for joining us. I like your backdrop.
What can I answer for you today? Oh. Can we hear you? Uh oh. Are you trying to talk?
Q: Yes. I guess you can.
MS. PSAKI: Oh, great. Okay. We had a -- we had an audio issue last week. Okay.
Q: Hello, Secretary Psaki, and thank you for taking my question. I'll ask you something that is a cause of concern for our communities here in Georgia.
As you probably know, our state is only -- we have only 51 percent of our population fully vaccinated, and we even have counties where only 20 percent of our residents are vaccinated.
Yesterday, Dr. Cameron Webb from the White House COVID-19 Response Team told me that states like Georgia are potentially some of the most vulnerable ones to the new variant.
Nevertheless, our Governor, Brian Kemp, has been laser focused on fighting federal vaccine requirements, calling them "unlawful" and "unconstitutional."
And as cases of Omicron variant increase in the U.S. and with Georgia as one of the most vulnerable states, I would like to know what is the White House's message to Governor Kemp?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would say our message to Governor Kemp is: If you're not going to be a part of protecting the people of Georgia, ensuring that they can take steps to save their own lives, save their neighbors' lives and their children's, then you should get out of the way, because businesses are implementing steps across the country, including in Georgia, to put in place vaccine or testing requirements, hospital associations are, universities are, and people -- and what we've seen as one of the biggest barriers -- and this is something we can do from the federal government -- is access.
So, our hope is that we can continue to work in a nonpartisan way with health officials in Georgia, as we do across the country, to incl- -- increase and expand access to not just testing but also vaccination.
That's something that we announced that we're going to take additional steps on yesterday, and we're looking forward to building on.
Thank you very much. Everybody, have a great weekend. I'm sorry. We've got to wrap it up. More to come on Monday.
2:43 P.M. EST
Joseph R. Biden, Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jen Psaki Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/353636