Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jen Psaki
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:40 P.M. EST
MS. PSAKI: Hi, everyone.
Q: Hi. Good afternoon.
MS. PSAKI: Good afternoon. Okay, I have nothing for you at the top.
Darlene, why don't you kick us off?
Q: Thank you. That's so unusual. So unlike you. (Laughs.)
MS. PSAKI: I know. (Laughs.) I do -- I do like to load you up with updates, so stay tuned for the next briefing.
Q: So, I have one question on the speech and then two other topics I wanted to get to.
But often when we ask President Biden about Donald Trump, he will tell us, you know, he's not thinking about the former president, he doesn't want to talk to him. So, obviously, he had to think about him in order to deliver that forceful speech today. So I'm just wondering why he didn't deliver this kind of speech before today -- six months ago, a month after the insurrection, or whatever.
And also, since we are barreling toward an election this year, will he resurrect some of the themes that he sounded this morning?
MS. PSAKI: Sure. Well, let me first say, to remind you all, that the President launched his campaign on the idea that the former president posed a unique threat to the soul of our country, and he made that point throughout the campaign and over the last year in office.
I wouldn't say -- or we would argue the point that he ever shied away from making clear that form- -- that his predecessor, former President Trump, was a threat to democracy, posed a threat to democracy throughout the course of his presidency -- and that was a root reason why President Biden ran for office.
I would say, in terms of looking forward, you know, you all heard him make a very passionate case today -- the fact that we are at an inflection point; the fact that in order to protect our democracy, to preserve it moving forward, there's more that we need to do.
And I talked with him about this after the speech today, and he made very clear that the risk we have here at -- at stake here is our democracy, is burying what happened on January 6th, is not taking action -- not just in words but in action -- to protect people's fundamental rights.
You will obviously hear him speak next Tuesday about voting rights -- something he touched on very briefly today -- because he will be giving this speech next Tuesday, and you will hear him making the case about the fact that we are at an inflection point, there's more that we need to do, and we need to do everything we can to ensure the dark day in our history that happened one year ago today is not buried.
Q: And then, on the situation in Kazakhstan, does what is happening there in any way change the dynamic for the U.S.-Russia talks that are going to begin next week, from the U.S. side? And is there any thought that Putin might be less likely to invade Ukraine while this crisis is playing out in Kazakhstan?
MS. PSAKI: Well, let me touch on a couple of things. First, to provide all of you an update -- and you may have seen this -- but today, Secretary Blinken shared a productive call with Kazakhstan foreign minister -- with the Kazakhstan foreign minister, where he reaffirmed the United States full support for Kazakhstan's constitutional institutions, human rights, media freedom, including through the restoration of Internet service, and advocated for a peaceful, rights- respecting resolution to the crisis.
There have been, kind of, a range of reports about peacekeeping forces, which I think you might be referencing, but -- from Russia. We are closely monitoring reports that the Collective Security Treaty Organization have dispatched its collective peacekeeping forces to Kazakhstan. We have questions about the nature of this request and whether it has -- it was a legitimate invitation or not. We don't know at this point.
The world will, of course, be watching for any violation of human rights and actions that may lay the predicate for the seizure of Kazakh institutions, and we call on the CSTO collective peacekeeping forces and law enforcement to uphold international human rights obligations in order to support a peaceful resolution.
Of course, we will let the Kremlin speak to their own forces and the size of them and more specifics. But that's we stand now.
There has not been any change to the planned three sets of talks next week.
Q: And then, just quickly, I had one on the virus. Is it still the President's goal to defeat the virus? He had said that's what he wanted to do: to defeat it. Or is there -- is he coming around to accepting that the virus is going to be a part of life from here forward, that it's going to become endemic?
MS. PSAKI: Well, of course, the President's ultimate goal continues to be to defeat the virus. But what you have seen the President do and the administration do in recent weeks and months is really expand the tools we have to fight the virus and to reduce hospitalization, to reduce the chance of death, to purchase large quantities of treatment options in order to help people who do who do get the virus, who do get seriously ill.
So, right now, our approach is to continue to expand all of those capacities and continue to press for what we know has worked to date, which is to get people more vaccinated, get people boosted, wear masks when recommended by the CDC. And that's what we'll continue to press forward on.
Q: Thank you, Jen. President Biden did not mince words today. It was quite clear who he was talking about. He blamed former President Trump, as Darlene just said, directly for inciting the attack on January 6th. And I wonder why he made the decision not to call him out by name.
MS. PSAKI: Well, Kristen, I know the President spoke to this himself, but I would say there's only one president in the history of this country who fomented an insurrection and -- which prompted the seizing of our nation's Capitol. I think everybody knew who he was referring to.
But as the President said today, this day and the work that we need to do moving forward is not about one person. It is about the country reflecting on who we are in this moment, who we want to be moving forward, and what steps we need to take to protect our own democracy.
Q: And on the point of the former president, he did respond to President Biden's speech and he called it, quote, "political theater." What is your response?
MS. PSAKI: Well, it looks like he saw the speech. I guess that's good news. Maybe he learned something about what it looks like to meet the moment in the country, to meet the moment where people are hurting. They're thinking of the pain, all of the people who worked in that Capitol, who were there a year ago, whether they were members of Congress, their staff, janitors, or journalists, and to speak to who we can be and call for people's higher powers to reach that.
Maybe he learned something from that. I guess we'll see.
Q: Let me ask you about the big picture today, Jen, which is that most of the people who attended these ceremonies today were Democrats. There were some Republican lawmakers. You do have this pushback from the former president and from some of his supporters, and polls show that there are still a number of Republicans who believe that the election was stolen from the former president.
Does President Biden feel as though he's done enough to unify the country? And what more does he need to do, given the sharp divides that we still see on display today?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would say, Kristen, that I don't think calling this, the events of today, a partisan issue or suggesting that we have reached a partisan point is doing justice to the tens of millions of Republicans, independents, and others out there who don't feel that way.
We're talking about some Republicans in Congress, not all -- many, far too many -- who, in our view, in the President's view, need to take a look at themselves and think about what role they want to play in the history books.
When their children and grandchildren look at the history books, do they want to be perpetuating the Big Lie? Do they want to be walking like silent lemmings behind the former president, who fomented an insurrection? Or do they want to be part of saving our democracy?
So the question really should be directed at them. And that's our view.
Q: Thanks, Jen. Six former advisory board members from the Biden health transition wrote three opinion pieces in a medical article calling for a new pandemic strategy that sort of embraces living with the new normal of COVID being endemic. And they said previous claims that we've gained the upper hand, you know, now look shortsighted, and we need to change our understanding of what success is and what kind of target we're looking at.
Has the President -- has the President been advised on whether it's likely that we will have to live with COVID, in some form or another, forever by his current team?
MS. PSAKI: I have not had the opportunity -- it's obviously been a busy day -- to read these articles. I'm happy to do that. And I don't believe the President has.
I think I answered the question a little bit earlier. In terms of advice given by his health and medical experts, I'd really point you to them to ask them that question.
Q: And just sort of following up on Darlene's question, does the President believe that COVID is here to stay?
MS. PSAKI: Again, the President's goal is to defeat the virus. The President's focus and objective now is to save as many lives as possible. And we know what works. And we know that pushing more people, getting more people vaccinated, getting more people boosted, encouraging mask wearing, making sure schools have the resources they need to stay open and do that in a safe way -- these are steps that work.
It means surging capacity to communities that are harder hit -- hardest hit. It means opening federal testing sites around the country. There are a number of steps we're taking day to day to save more lives, reduce hospitalization, and that's what our focus is on.
Q: But the experts also wrote that vaccine mandates should be imposed more broadly, including for schoolchildren. Has the administration heard those concerns? And is that something that they're weighing? Are more mandates possible?
MS. PSAKI: Well, those decisions, related to schools --and I haven't read the articles, and I'm happy to -- but will always be up to local school districts in terms of what steps need to be taken. And some have taken some steps, some have not, but those will always be decisions up to local school districts.
Q: And then, the latest CDC data shows that the Omicron variant accounts for 95 percent of the country's cases right now. There is also data to show that two shots is ineffective at protecting against this variant. So, what is the point of calling someone "fully vaccinated" with only that primary series of shots if the science is showing that that's not enough to protect them?
MS. PSAKI: Well, Jacqui, what the CDC is advising is for everyone to be up to date on their shots. That means if you're scheduled at that point to have a booster, you should get a booster. And that is true -- that is how they conduct their guidance for basically any shot regimen for childhood diseases -- measles, mumps, rubella, whatever it may be.
But I would point you to them for more specifics on where they are on what "fully vaccinated" looks like. They've obviously just provided additional guidance.
Q: Wouldn't there then, at some point though, be sort of a gap between "fully vaccinated" and "up to date"? I mean, just looking at the two definitions, if they're encouraging you to be up to date -- and most people are eligible for shots if you're over the age of five -- or booster shots -- you know, at a certain point in time, given the waning protection of, you know, the primary series of vaccines and the need to get boosters in a shorter time period, won't there come a time where you're not really fully vaccinated anymore with just two shots?
MS. PSAKI: Well, when -- by "up to date," they're advising people: If they're due for a booster, they should get a booster.
Q: Thank you. Not to belabor this point --
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q: -- but back to Darlene's first question. As you said, the President, you know, has often discussed the threat to our democracy. Given that threat, given the stakes that he laid out today, why not be more forceful throughout this year? Why wait until the anniversary to deliver such a harsh rebuke?
MS. PSAKI: Well, again, I would say the President, in our view, has not backed down ever, at any point, from making clear about the need to protect our democracy, to protect the fundamental right to vote, which he feels is a key part of that.
He also believes that delivering on what the American people wanted when they sent him to govern requires him -- and it was essential for him to address the core issues that they're facing every day.
Of course, that includes protecting their fundamental rights. That also includes beating the pandemic, getting Americans back to work. And he knows that in order to restore faith in government, in institutions, in people's belief that government can actually work for them, that solving those problems and working to solve those problems needed to be his first and second priorities.
Q: But why wait until today to speak about the former president in such stark terms like he did today?
MS. PSAKI: Again, this is not about one person, even the former president. Obviously, today is an anniversary of an incredibly -- one of the darkest days in our democracy.
The President -- I know from talking to him this afternoon -- felt that personally. He felt the emotion of the people he saw in the Capitol today. He felt the weight on the shoulders of the people who were there that day, who were there again today.
But his view is that this is about looking at this moment as an inflection point, not just about a former president but about who we are as a country -- whether Republicans in Congress are going to step up; what the American people can be assured of, in terms of his efforts to fight for the protection of their fundamental rights. It's bigger than a former president.
Q: You mentioned voting rights. Majority Leader Schumer has vowed to hold a vote to change Senate rules to pass voting rights by MLK Day. Given the urgency that the President laid out today to protecting the right to vote, will we see the President directly endorse a rule change before then?
MS. PSAKI: Look, the President will speak next Tuesday, as you know. And he said right before Christmas that if that is a change that needs to happen, that he would support that. But he'll have more to say next Tuesday.
Q: And just one -- Senator Manchin has signaled that he may be willing to support a rule change. Is that something that the President has discussed with him in recent days?
MS. PSAKI: I will let Senator Manchin speak for himself on where he stands on that.
Did you have another one, Jacqui?
Q: I did. I wanted to go back to one other topic real quick.
MS. PSAKI: Okay.
Q: I'm sorry.
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q: The Manhattan District Attorney has ordered prosecutors to stop seeking prison sentences for certain crimes, including resisting arrest. And I'm just wondering, does that give the wrong message to criminals or to police who are having to enforce these laws that the District Attorney is not going to prosecute? And does this in any way undermine the Biden administration's efforts through the DOJ and federal law enforcement partners to crack down on crimes like retail theft?
MS. PSAKI: Well, you know where we stand on supporting local police officers, local cops, and not defunding the police, and also our concerns we have about the retail thefts we have seen and the need for leaders and communities to crack down on that.
I have not spoken, obviously, with our legal team or, of course, the Department of Justice about this particular issue. I can see if there's more we can add. I don't have all the details.
Q: Thanks. First, I just wanted to check -- I know you guys have said "towards the end of this week" on finalizing the contracts for the rapid tests --
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q: -- if those have been signed yet.
MS. PSAKI: I expect we'll have more in the next 24 hours. And as soon as we do and as soon as there are more details to report, we will let you all know. That's what we're working on right now.
Q: Do you remain confident that, you know, if you don't even have the contract signed yet, that you'll be able to actually set up a website, ship them out, have them available by the end of the month, which is your, sort of, stated goal?
MS. PSAKI: Absolutely. I mean, remember, a lot of these things are happening simultaneously, right?
We issued the request for proposal; that closed just a couple of days ago. We worked to fin- -- we've been working to finalize the contracts, and as we've said -- and we're on track for this -- we'll be issuing some of the first rewards for that -- awards for that very soon. And we'll have an update on that, I think, very shortly.
And we want -- we don't want to put the website up before we know we can provide -- even through pre-orders -- tests, as people want to request them.
Q: The Postal Service has asked OSHA for a temporary waiver on their vaccine mandate. I'm wondering what the response from the White House is. They've said that if they don't get the waiver, it could impact mail service.
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would say, just to remind everybody, two months ago -- more than two months ago -- OSHA issued an Emergency Temporary Standard to protect workers from the spread of coronavirus on the job everywhere -- companies, including the Postal Service. And the agency found that compliance with the rule was feasible for all employers, including the Postal Service. That was two months ago.
OSHA provided several compliance resources to help employers develop vaccine or testing requirement programs and understand the responsibilities under the Emergency Temporary Standard, including fact sheets, template plans for employers, other online resources, a webinar that walks through the obligations -- employers, and information to help them come into compliance.
We know OSHA's mission is to ensure every working person in the country has safe and healthy working environments, including the Postal Service. So, we will let OSHA speak to any response to the letter.
But again, I just wanted to remind people that when it was issued, it was made clear that the Postal Service could be compliant and had the ability to do that and still conduct their jobs.
Q: Just one last one.
MS. PSAKI: Go ahead.
Q: The President today made pretty clear that -- you know, his push for legislation to protect voting rights. But there's an effort among some senators to address what happened last year through reforming the Electoral Count Act. I know that you guys have made clear that it's not a substitute for what you want, but are you supportive of that effort in and of itself? Or do you think that it distracts, sort of, from the larger objective?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think it's really important for people who aren't watching this as closely as you and I to understand that that is not a substitute for the protections that are included in the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. That is why our focus is on those.
And just as a reminder: The Freedom to Vote Act creates standards for voter access and voter registration, outlines criteria to make redistricting laws less partisan, strengthens campaign finance laws.
The John Lewis Voting Rights Act establishes a new preclearance process to ensure that certain states and jurisdictions need approval for the Department of Justice -- from the Department of Justice before moving forward with changes that impact voting rights.
These are all important protections given the insistence by far too many Republicans out there in using the Big Lie as an excuse to make it more difficult for people to vote.
So, it is not a replacement, it is not a substitute, and our focus remains on those two pieces of legislation.
Q: Thanks, Jen. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis critiqued the Biden administration's at-home testing program, and said that "not every single person needs to be…getting tested." Quote, "That's not a good strategy. But what is a good strategy is to have those at-home tests available for our vulnerable population." End quote.
He says that he'll be sending tests to nursing homes, long-term care facilities, and within senior communities. So, does the White House have any plans to limit tests through the website it'll be launching to vulnerable communities? And what's your response to Governor DeSantis?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would first say that we have taken a number of steps to provide tests at a much larger, expansive capacity than that to vulnerable communities across the country. That has been part of the President's effort to quadruple our testing capacity to provide the 5 million tests to community health centers, rural health centers, and to work with local health officials to ensure that we're reaching communities that need help the most. And that is part of our commitment to approaching our effort to get the pandemic under control through -- through the lens of equity.
I would say it's pretty rich coming from Governor DeSantis, given he is somebody who has been advocating -- not exactly advocating for people in his state to get vaccinated, which we know is the way that people can be protected, ways that lives can be saved.
And if he wants to be a constructive part of this process, then perhaps he should encourage what scientists say is the best way to save lives, prevent and reduce hospitalization, and that is getting vaccinated and getting boosted.
Q: And on voting rights: You've talked several times today about how the President will make the case on Tuesday that the country is at an inflection point. But Democrats, such as Rep. Eric Swalwell, say they're "worried that if Republicans win in the midterm elections that voting as we know it in this country will be gone." Does the President share that opinion?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I'm not going to get ahead of an outcome of midterm elections that is many months away. What our focus is on now is getting voting rights legislation passed and signed into law and calling out, as Congressman Swalwell has, the fact that opposition -- the four times that Republicans in Congress -- in the Senate -- have prevented even a vote on voting rights legislation is obstruction. That is not the Senate working.
That is why there's a discussion right now about changes to Senate rules to protect the constitutional rights of people across the country. That's why we're having this discussion.
But I'm not going to make predictions about a midterm election and the impact.
Go ahead, Jeff.
Q: Jen, the President made very clear today that he assigns responsibility to President Trump for the January 6th riot and insurrection. He didn't really talk though about what consequences he thinks the President -- the former president, I should say, should face. What consequences does he think he should face?
MS. PSAKI: He's going to leave that to his Justice Department, which is independent.
Q: And the January 6th committee -- does he have any expectation or hope or desire for what they may or may not do with regard to the former president?
MS. PSAKI: We are going to continue to work to support their efforts, to support the important work that committee is doing. But he's not going to prejudge the outcome of that committee either.
Q: Okay. Vice President Harris, in her remarks today, compared January 6th to Pearl Harbor and 9/11. Can you elaborate on what the thinking was behind that comparison? She's faced some criticism, especially in conservative circles, for that.
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would first say that, as the President also said in his remarks, you know, when -- if we look back to some very difficult moments in our history, back in 1861, there were no Confederate flags being rai- -- being waved in the Capitol. In very dark moments in our history, there were not people storming our nation's Capitol, trying to take over the office and even threaten the Speaker of the House.
So, instead of -- for those who are being critics of the Vice President's remarks, I think instead of focusing on or analyzing comparisons of moments in history, I would suggest that they be a part of solving the threats on democracy that occurs today, that is happening today. And they're using this as an excuse not to be a part of that.
Q: Just one more --
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q: -- on another topic, Jen, if I may. Does the White House or the President have any position or have you weighed in at all in the sort of growing row now between Australia and Serbia over the tennis star -- whose name I won't try to mispronounce -- who is there now and is apparently unvaccinated?
MS. PSAKI: I don't believe we have weighed in on that. I can certainly check with the State Department and our national security team and see if we have a position to share.
Q: Thanks, Jen. Texas, this week, received about 2,400 courses of antibody therapy, which, given the Omicron surge, is not going to meet demand. Can you explain how these allocations are decided and when they will increase?
MS. PSAKI: They will continue to increase. They are done equitably across the country and to meet needs where they -- where we have them. There are obviously needs in Texas.
But there is nothing accurate in any reporting -- I'm not suggesting this is from you -- that we have held back, that we have canceled, that we have prevented. Obviously, the availability of antibody -- antiviral treatments is not unlimited. We're continuing to build on the supply we have, and we'll continue to distribute that equitably to states and communities across the country.
Q: And following on Jeff's question about consequences --
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q: The President characterized -- today, characterized the January 6th attack as "an armed insurrection." And, of course, he blamed former President Trump for inciting the insurrection. No one has been charged for insurrection, which is a specific crime. Is -- does the President want the Justice Department to press charges of insurrection against Trump or anyone else?
MS. PSAKI: The President wants the Justice Department and the Attorney General to act independently, as the Attorney General demanded when he accepted the job and as the President expected and demanded from any Attorney General he was going to select.
Q: So, I mean, he can leave the decision-making to the Justice Department and the Attorney General, but does -- I mean, he did characterize the attack today as a specific kind of crime. That -- that is his view?
MS. PSAKI: He was not making a judgment about or a direction of what the Justice Department should do or how they should behave or act. And I don't think that the Justice Department or the Attorney General sees that he did either.
Q: Yeah. Thanks, Jen. Looking ahead again to Tuesday's speech in Atlanta: How will President Biden's case for voting rights legislation be any different than the many arguments we've heard him make before in favor of that legislation?
MS. PSAKI: Well, he has made many arguments in favor of voting rights legislation before now. We -- he is going to be delivering this speech at a time where it is going to be under active discussion and debate in the Senate, which is an important component, and in the week leading up to Martin Luther King Day, which is an important moment to remember and recognize many of the sacrifices that important leaders in our history have made.
I will say, he's going to Georgia because Georgia is one of the many states where corrupt acts on the constitutional right to vote and the integrity of elections have taken place based on the Big Lie. It was also pivotal to the Civil Rights Movement.
It's important to underline that while these un-American efforts are being driven by the Big Lie, they're also in line with some of the worst episodes of the past.
But what I think you will hear him say and the Vice President, of course, talk about as well is about the urgent need to pass legislation to protect the constitutional right to vote and the integrity of our elections.
He'll talk about the specifics. And he's very focused on people in the country understanding and knowing what is in this legislation, why is it so important to pass these pieces of legislation, what is at risk, what needs to be protected. And I think you'll hear him talk about that.
And he also wants to, of course, restore the Senate working -- which is not happening right now, as is evidenced by the fact that they have blocked even the ability to vote on voting rights legislation four times. So, he'll outline all of that.
But he will make a passionate case, as he has made -- as you said -- in the past, for why we need to move forward with voting rights legislation.
Q: Earlier in the briefing, you referenced -- I think it was on ABC -- an interview that Biden --
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q: -- President Biden had before New Year's, in which he said he was open for Senate rule changes -- changes to the filibuster. You pointing that out -- are you indicating that he will be bringing up the filibuster, the Senate rules during this speech on Tuesday?
MS. PSAKI: I don't have any more to preview the speech, but I expect he will continue to talk about what he's willing to support and do, should that be needed to move voting rights legislation forward.
Q: And just looking to clarify the White House's position on the United States Postal Service's request for a waiver from the map -- from the -- sorry, for the vaccine mandate from OSHA. You know, does the White House support that request or oppose?
MS. PSAKI: We'll let OSHA respond to the letter that was sent directly to them from the Postal Service.
I was just reiterating the fact that at the time when the announcement was made, it was also determined that the entities that would be -- it would be applicable to in the government, including the Postal Service, had every ability to implement it.
Q: And one point that the United -- United States Postal Service made in its letter to OSHA was, quote, this mandate is, quote, "is likely to result in the loss of many employees -- either by employees leaving or being disciplined." Does those -- do those concerns, you know, explain why -- demonstrate why this mandate could be problematic for many businesses out there?
MS. PSAKI: Well, we know that more than 60 percent of businesses on their own accord have implemented vaccine requirements or testing requirements. They've all implemented it in different ways. Many, many have done it incredibly successfully. And they have done it because they want to create a safe working environment where people feel comfortable and confident in going to work.
And that -- to them, to companies across the country, to the United States military even -- is a priority in order to keep -- ensure their workplace and their workforce feel safe.
As we've said many times around these requirements when we announced them: Our objective here is to not punish, but to protect people, to save more lives, to make people feel more safe and comfortable in the workplace.
And as a part of the process, there is a process of consulting with individuals who are not yet vaccinated. And there's not a cliff; that is not the intention here. And that is the same in terms of how it will be applied.
Q: And one final question on a different topic. President Biden is going to Colorado tomorrow before he then goes to Nevada for Harry Reid's services. What can we expect to see from the President tomorrow in Colorado as he visits the -- what was devastating fires there?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think we're still finalizing all the details. But he will, of course, visit with -- I would ex- -- you can expect him, I should say, to visit with local elected officials who have been, obviously, dealing with the aftermath and the many families who have been going through a devastating time with homes lost, communities lost.
He typically engages and meets with -- sees families while he's on these trips as well, and I would expect that to be a part of the visit tomorrow. And then I would expect he would also deliver some remarks. But we're just finalizing the details of what it will look like.
Q: Thank you.
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q: Thanks, Jen. First, I've kind of a semi-housekeeping question --
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q: -- and then one about air travel.
First off, last month, finally, dozens of ambassadors were confirmed by the U.S. Senate, but so far only one person -- Julissa Reynoso, the First Lady's Chief of Staff and now the Ambassador to Spain and Andorra -- is getting the traditional swearing-in with the Vice President. There was one that was on the calendar originally, yesterday, for Cindy McCain that apparently didn't happen. Are these being postponed or canceled? Is this related to concerns about Omicron?
MS. PSAKI: So, it is true that some people have been sworn in here at the White House, others have been sworn in by leaders in their own communities. And as you referenced, some haven't been sworn in at all yet. There's no set ceremonial way or requirement, I should say, of swearing-in of ambassadors or how it has to take place, and everyone does it a little bit differently.
We've, of course -- yes, as we're -- as we're looking and continuing to battle COVID -- a new variant -- we've kept many of these types of gatherings smaller in size at the White House because of that, but I don't think there's really one reason as to why they're different. They are typically all different, and I expect they will continue to be.
Q: Okay. And on air travel: Earlier this month, the FAA released data revealing that unruly passenger incidents were higher than any other year in modern aviation history and that 70 percent of those incidents were related to -- they were called "mask related."
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
Q: You've talked about keeping vaccine mandates for air travel limited to people who are not from the United States coming into the United States. But has there been any consideration that a vaccine mandate for domestic air travel could potentially reduce the likelihood of these types of incidents?
MS. PSAKI: Of people getting upset on air -- on flights?
MS. PSAKI: I have not heard that explanation internally. There's obviously a range of factors that our health and medical experts look at, and they have not yet advised, at this point, the President on a requirement of vaccines domestically.
The reason they have given is, of course, that inter- -- the requirement for international travelers helps reduce and delay variants or spreading to the United States. And we know that masking is very effective, according to our health experts, in protecting people on flights.
So I have not heard that -- that explanation or argument being made by our health and medical experts. I would -- I may point you to the FAA or the DOT if they think that is a relevant argument.
Q: They pointed me to you, so --
MS. PSAKI: Okay. I have not heard that argument here.
Q: Hi, Jen. A couple of questions for you. One, as we speak right now, 350,000 kids -- school kids in Chicago remain out of school. Most are Black, Hispanic, and are poor. This administration has called for equity in education. So, who does the Biden administration blame for failing these young kids?
MS. PSAKI: Well, first of all, the President has been very clear he wants these schools to be open, including in Chicago and including across the country; that we took steps early on in the pandemic, even against skeptics who didn't think we needed this funding in the American Rescue Plan to pass $130 billion that has already been distributed to states and gone to many schools across the country to put in place mitigation measures.
It hasn't been applied everywhere, but a lot of states have used this, and a lot of communities have used this very effectively.
So, he would like to see schools open. He believes that not having them open, as you've touched on, impacts the mental health of children. We've seen that. We know that learning gaps is something that we are seriously at risk of at this point in time, and that's why we'll continue to call for schools to open. Ninety-six percent are open across the country and are doing the right thing.
Q: Will he get directly involved at a certain point? How many days have to go by before he jumps in?
MS. PSAKI: Well, we ha- -- we are in regular touch with teachers, school administrators, labor leaders across the country, nearly every single day, including in Chicago. And that will continue. And we will continue to make the case for schools to be open.
Q: Another question, please, on religious freedom. Does President Biden believe doctors and religious healthcare providers should be forced to perform medical procedures that violate their conscience rights and religious beliefs? A simple question.
MS. PSAKI: I believe there are exemptions in some cases. I'm not sure what you're referring to, specifically. Why don't you give me a little --
Q: There was -- in St. Louis, the Court of Appeals just heard oral arguments on a case involving religious healthcare providers who object to performing gender transition procedures.
MS. PSAKI: I would point you to -- that sounds like that's a legal case that's underway that I'm not going weigh into from here.
Q: And last one, in just a few weeks from now, here in D.C., the March for Life arrives. Thousands of people will be here supporting unborn children. Its theme this year is "Equality Begins in the Womb." This administration talks a lot about equality. Does the President agree with that statement?
MS. PSAKI: The President believes in a woman's right to choose. I think you're very familiar with his position on this issue.
Q: Thanks, Jen. Beyond just the former president, there have been several Dem- -- or sorry, several Republicans today who have accused the President of "political theater," exploiting the January 6th riots for political gain. You said that you talked to the President after his speech. I'm curious what his feeling was, if he's seen the response to his speech, and how he felt -- feels like it went over.
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would first say, we didn't talk about the desperate comments of many Republicans suggesting that commemorating a dark day in our democracy and calling for all of us to protect people's fundamental rights, including the peaceful transfer of power, people's right to vote across the country -- we didn't talk much about attempts to distract by some Republicans in Congress.
What I can tell you -- and I talked about this -- touched on this a little bit earlier -- is that what he was really touched by -- I mean, he is somebody who I think that -- we've said -- I know we talk about him being in the Senate a lot, but, on a day like this, it's especially important.
He served in that chamber for 36 years. The people who work there are his friends, are his family -- not just senators, but staff and people who have been working on committees; custodians; people work in the lunch rooms. And he was really impacted by the sheer emotion of a day like this and the fact that it is still a trauma for many people who lived through this day -- journalists included -- and he talked about that in his speech today -- a year ago. So, that was really what -- what weighed on him.
And, you know, he also talked about the importance of not allowing this day to be buried in history, and he said that in his speech today. But it's important that we not allow attempts to distract by some or attempts to move on by others to prevent us from taking steps to protect people's fundamental rights. And today is a reminder of that.
Q: And, kind of, on a different topic: With recent announcements of House Democrats deciding not to run for reelection -- it's up to about -- it's now over two dozen -- I'm curious what the President's thinking is on that, how much he is involved in the discussions of how to, kind of, counter that in keeping control of the House.
MS. PSAKI: Well, as I've said before, I've learned my lesson about not speaking about politics from the podium, so I'm not going to do that from here.
But what I can tell you the President is focused on and feels confident in is: Any Democrat out there in the House -- they all run every two years, right? -- they will be out there talking about what they have done to rebuild roads and rails and bridges across the country, to restore broadband, to ensure kids have clean drinking water. A handful of Republicans will be able to do that too, but not many. And they will be able to talk about how we are fighting for, and, hopefully, will have passed efforts to put in place universal pre-K, efforts to cut the cost of childcare, eldercare, and make sure that we're investing in addressing the climate crisis.
Every -- it is about a choice in this country, and we'd rather be us than them in that case.
Q: A foreign policy question: An Iranian navy commander has threatened the U.S. forces and asked him to leave the Strait of Hormuz. How does the White House see this threat? And it has been an escalation recently by the pro-Iran militias in Iraq and Syria against U.S. presence. Do you think, in the long run, that will push the U.S. to -- under the administration -- to take a decision to leave Iraq and Syria?
MS. PSAKI: Well, let me first say that I know there's been a lot of reporting, including, of course, from your outlet out there. But here, officially, we don't have any specific attribution today, in terms of the particular group by name or groups who might be responsible for this. We don't have anything new on that front.
As my colleague John Kirby said yesterday from the podium at the Department of Defense, "these sorts of attacks are very much typical of what we have been seeing in recent months" and they've been increasing even years by -- even "by militia groups that are supported by Iran."
But in terms of specifics, such as the name of groups or groups -- a group or groups -- we don't belie- -- we don't have that level of detail at this point.
In terms of intent, it's also difficult, because of that, for us to ascribe intent without any real specificity or certainty in these types of attacks. We can't say definitively who caused them or why the attacks seem to have stepped up. It is certainly possible that it can be related to the talks in Vienna or the anniversary of the Soleimani strike.
But again, right now, we're still assessing attribution; we're still assessing intent. So, we don't have much more analysis at this point in time.
Okay. Thanks, everyone.
2:20 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/354047