Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jen Psaki
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:39 P.M. EST
MS. PSAKI: Hi, everyone. Hello. Okay. I have quite a few things at the top. Lots of news happening here at the White House.
Today, in our COVID team's weekly meeting with the governors, we announced another supply increase for states, tribes, and territories — from 14.5 to 15.2 million doses per week. This is up from 8.6 million when we came into office. Furthermore, states are also receiving 2.8 million of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine this week, so they are receiving a total of 18 million doses.
Later today, President Biden will deliver remarks on the status of our COVID-19 response, and he will announce an unprecedented, historic step: The two largest healthcare and pharmaceutical companies, Merck and Johnson & Johnson — usually competitors — are coming together to expand production of the vaccine — Johnson & Johnson's vaccine drug substance, as well as increase its fill-finish capacity. They will enter into a historic manufacturing partnership to expand that, I should say.
The U.S. government will facilitate this partnership in several key ways, including invoking the Defense Production Act to equip two Merck facilities to the standards necessary to safely manufacture the vaccine, and asking the Department of Defense to provide daily logistical support to strengthen Johnson & Johnson's efforts.
And, of course, he'll have more to say on that later this afternoon.
Also today, the Biden-Harris administration is announcing key conclusions from an intelligence community assessment on the poisoning of Aleksey Navalny, as well as measures to hold Russia accountable for this action.
The intelligence community assesses with "high confidence" that officers of Russia's Federal Security Service used a nerve agent to poison Russian opposition leader Aleksey Navalny on August 20, 2020. The use of any chemical weapon directly violates international legal obligations and norms of civilized conduct. And our actions today fall into a number of categories and reflect a whole-of-government response.
We are also working with Congress to ensure we're faithfully implementing the Chemical and Biological Weapons Act.
Today, the United States is announcing sanctions on seven senior members of the Russian government, an expansion of sanctions under the Chemical and Biological Weapons Control and Warfare Elimination Act, new export restrictions on items that could be used for biological agent and chemical production, and visa restrictions.
And the Department of State, Commerce, and Treasury will also have releases out shortly with further details.
As a demonstration of our transatlantic unity and cooperation with partners over the ocean, many of the actions we are taking mirror the steps the EU took in October and match additional EU measures being taken today.
We also reiterate our call for the Russian government to immediately and unconditionally release Mr. Navalny.
I know you're all interested in what we're doing on the American Rescue Plan and how we're engaging with members of Congress, so I have an update for all of you.
President Biden and his team continue to engage closely with congressional leadership and members of the — and with members about the American Rescue Plan, including with Republicans.
Yesterday, the President met with a group of nine Democratic senators, and today he's meeting with the full Senate Democratic Caucus for their weekly lunch.
In the past two weeks alone, we've engaged with over 375 members and offices, over 100 of which were bipartisan engagements. And our COVID team has also started bi-weekly bipartisan member briefings with the Senate and House, where, of course, we talk about the American Rescue Plan and the impact it can have.
I had one other item. I actually had an item on the travel of the First Lady, and I will venture to get that to all of you after the briefing.
So, with that, Zeke, kick it off.
Q: Thanks. First, on this Merck-J&J deal, what role did the President and the White House have in making this partnership happen? The DPA is (inaudible) the details of it. How did these two companies come together?
MS. PSAKI: Well, as I noted in the opening, these obviously are two companies that are — historically been competitors. So the fact that they are coming together speaks to the ability of this administration, broadly, to bring them to the table and work together to address the pandemic in the country.
It was an across-the-administration effort. I'm not going to detail exactly which individual was in charge of each component, other than to say that when the President came into office, and as soon as we learned about the fact that Johnson & Johnson was behind in the manufacturing steps and efforts, we took steps to ensure we could expedite that and partner them with the — one of the world's biggest manufacturers.
Q: And so is the administration doing this because J&J needs this production capacity from Merck to meet its commitments to the federal government for 100 million doses by the end of June? Or is this separate from that?
MS. PSAKI: Well, certainly our objective is to build on the incredible announcement that we now have three vaccines that the American people can have access to, can use to vaccinate them from — and protect them from the virus. And we knew — we learned early on that they were — or not "early on," but in the recent days — it's all relative — that they were behind on their manufacturing capacity. And so we took steps to ensure we could capitalize on the scientific breakthrough.
Q: No, but this was necessary for the company to meet its commitments to the federal government?
MS. PSAKI: I wouldn't put it in those terms, Zeke. I would just say that it was a step that helps ensure that Johnson & Johnson's vaccine can be — the production of it can be expedited, that the manufacturing of it can be expedited, and that's, of course, good news for the American people.
Q: And then, on vaccines — yesterday, the topic of sharing vaccines came up in the President's conversation with the President of Mexico. The President said he was going to talk about it in that conversation. Is the President open to flexibility in terms of sharing these vaccines now with longtime American allies? And what is the threshold at which the President will share — start exporting some of these American-made vaccines overseas?
MS. PSAKI: Well, that's diplomacy in action right there. The President has been at it for a long time. And — but the President did not make any commitments, nor did he give a timeline.
His focus is on ensuring the American people are vaccinated. And, yes, now we have more than enough doses — we will have more than enough doses to vaccinate the American people, but there are a couple of factors that our team looks at, including the fact that we don't know which vaccine will be most effective on children. We don't know the impact of variants still under consideration and being looked at by our health and medical experts. We are, of course, securing all of these doses so we can plan for a range of scenarios.
We have contributed to COVAX, which is the international coordinating body to help provide assistance around the world. And certainly when we get to the point where the majority — where we have vaccinated the American public, of course, we want the global community to be vaccinated. That makes us all safer.
Q: And we've heard from the scientists, on some of these calls, calling on governors to not roll back mask mandates and other restrictions on public gatherings. It looks like Texas and some other states are in the process of rolling back some of those very restrictions right now. We've not really heard from the President on that. Should we expect to hear from the President? Has the President been directly lobbying governors and state officials against rolling back these, in private? And then, should we expect to hear from him publicly, going forward, encouraging American — the American people to follow his guidelines but not their governors'?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I will say, having traveled with the President to Texas on Friday, he made clear that we need to be vigilant. And that's also what Dr. Walensky conveyed over the last several days.
It may feel a little bit better out there; that's good news. If you go to the grocery store, there's more toilet paper on the shelves, there's more Clorox wipes on the shelves. It's getting warmer out there. More people are getting vaccinated. People feel better; that's a good thing. But we need to remain vigilant. We are still at war with the virus. The President, of course, will continue to convey that publicly and also privately in his conversations.
Let me see. Go ahead.
MS. PSAKI: Thank you, Jen. Just a couple questions on the partnership. Can we expect — and, you know, what is the timeline by when we can expect the first vaccine to roll off of the lines of Merck's facilities? And has Merck started working on this new vaccine already?
MS. PSAKI: I would expect there'll be more details from the Department of Health and Human Services on the contract and the specifics later this afternoon, after the President's announcement.
Q: And you mentioned that you are — that the government has or is willing to invoke the DPA. Can you give us any more details on that?
MS. PSAKI: We did invoke the DPA in order to alleviate two of the biggest bottlenecks facing Johnson & Johnson. One is fill-finish capacity, which is actually kind of the bottle — the top that's put on these bottles of vaccines, and the other is drug substance availability, which is some of the components that make up the ingredients in the vaccine. So those were pieces that — or steps — we invoked the DPA in order to implement those particular pieces.
But the other piece that we are focused on here is ensuring that the Merck facilities are up to capacity of what's needed to manufacture the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Q: And the production here, will that be used for — used in the United States, or is it earmarked for global use? How will the vaccines be used once they are (inaudible)?
MS. PSAKI: Well, we've ordered — or we have ordered a set number of about 100 million vaccines. There's a contract that was in process before these steps were taken. So that's what these actions will be focused on.
Q: And one question on the COVID rescue package, Jen. Does President Biden and the White House feel any need to perhaps reduce the unemployment benefits in the bill? As you're aware, you know, lawmakers such as Senator Manchin support a lower threshold, in many ways — $300 over $400 per week. What is your position on that?
MS. PSAKI: Well, the President obviously had a discussion with a number of senators just yesterday. Senator Manchin was certainly one of them, and he's long said that he would be open to hearing ideas that make the bill and the package stronger. It's an ongoing process, but I don't have anything more to read out in terms of their conversation.
Q: Jen, on Russia, Navalny, and the sanctions that you just announced at the top of this briefing here: The Biden administration didn't punish Mohammed bin Salman directly for Khashoggi's death; you're not punishing Vladimir Putin directly for Navalny's imprisonment — only those around them. So how is that going to deter these leaders from this behavior in the future?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would say first that our national security team, as it relates to Saudi Arabia — let me — let me take these pieces slightly separately, Peter — made a determination that from the beginning of the moment — from the moment the President came into office, we were going to treat that relationship differently. And we did not wait for the release of this unclassified report. By the way, it didn't have much information you didn't know or NBC and other outlets were not reporting previously. It confirmed but we have long known: that an innocent reporter, doing his job, committed to telling the truth, was killed in a horrific crime.
Our objective is to recalibrate the relationship. We took a number of steps, including releasing this report, including ceasing our support for offensive operations in Yemen, including ensuring engagement was counterpart-to-counterpart, and also pushing for the release of U.S. citizens and human rights activists, who were released.
We also took additional steps last week, which were determined by our national security team were the right steps to deter and to change the behavior moving forward. Those included sanctioning the former deputy head of general intelligence. It included imposing visa restrictions on 76 Saudi individuals. It included designating the Saudi Rapid Intervention Force, which is a crucial step because it structurally addresses an unacceptable pattern of targeted monitoring, harassment, and threats to journalists and dissidents. And it included the "Khashoggi rule."
And our conversations with the Saudis, at every level, make clear that we expect additional reforms to be put in place that their behavior will change. We've seen some evidence of that, but we will continue to press on that moving forward.
Q: But, ultimately, this is on the back of the new announcement as it relates to Russia right now. So if you don't do anything that directly touch — touches MBS or Vladimir Putin, why do you expect those leaders to stop this behavior?
MS. PSAKI: Well, again, Peter, with all due respect, this — these decisions were made on the basis of decades of experience and consideration by our national security team on what would be most effective in not only deterring actions like this in the future, preventing this from ever happening again — which is, of course, our objective — but also being able to maintain a relationship moving forward. And, of course, we have important work we do with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, from intelligence sharing to deterring the actions of militants in the region. And those are in the national interest of the United States.
Q: Let me ask you about immigration if I can. Yesterday, you brought into the briefing room the Department of Homeland Security Secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas, who said the following. He said, "We are not saying, 'Don't come'" to those migrants. He said, "We are saying, 'Don't come now because we'll be able to deliver a safe and orderly process to them as quickly as possible.'" So the message was, "Don't come now." It sounds like the message is, "Come later." So when should these migrants come?
MS. PSAKI: Well, as you know, the President has put forward an immigration reform package that will not only provide a pathway to citizenship but will help put in place smart security measures at the border, will also address root causes in the region.
There also is time — and he talked about this quite a bit yesterday, as you know — that we need to dig out from the immoral and ineffective approach to immigration of the last administration. That's going to take time, probably months, for us to be able to process people at the border, to get people on the right path for consideration of asy- — for asylum seekers and others. Now is not the moment for that.
Q: So, for clarity, it sounds like, even if unintentionally, you're sending the message that these migrants can come; they just got to wait a little bit longer. Is that the message you're sending?
MS. PSAKI: Well, we've been also clear, as he was yesterday, the majority of people who come to the border are turned away, even — even undocumented — even kids who come in at the border — unaccompanied minors who come in. And we have emphasized time and time again, we want to keep them safe, we want to treat them with humanity. They are not guaranteed to stay in the United States; they still go through the processing. We just don't want to send them back — and the consideration of whether they can stay here through what is possible through our laws.
It is still a difficult time. It's a difficult journey. We are not encouraging people to come, but we also believe, differently from the past administration, that we are not going to turn away kids who are under 18.
Q: Is the President going to be briefed on this from the Domestic Policy Council? Today, DHS assessing 117-or-so thousand unaccompanied children. 117,000 unaccompanied children will arrive in the U.S., by their projection, this year. Will he learn about it today? And that number seems like a crisis. The Secretary said it isn't. How would we define a crisis?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I'll leave that to the Secretary of Homeland Security to define. He said it was a "challenge." It is a challenge. We have more than 7,000 unaccompanied kids who have come into the United States, and that is certainly a lot of children that we are trying to treat humanely and safely and process through the system as quickly as we can. That's — that's not easy. That is a challenge.
Certainly, the President receives briefings and regular updates from his team. And, you know, we typically don't confirm those publicly, but he is — he is briefed regularly by his team, the Domestic Policy Council, and other members of his policy team.
Q: Thank you, Jen.
MS. PSAKI: Sure. Go ahead.
Q: Thank you. One additional question on the timeline coming out of this announcement. You mentioned that J&J is set to deliver 100 million vaccines by the end of June. Will this new partnership help Americans get these shots any sooner?
MS. PSAKI: It should. It definitely will expedite the efforts of the United States government having enough vaccines on hand to vaccinate the American public. The President will talk more about that and give more specifics later this afternoon when he provides — when he speaks to all of you.
But certainly, having three vaccines approved by the FDA — the fact that we have taken these actions, we have used the full power of the federal government to expedite the manufacturing — that certainly should expedite the process and should make vaccines more readily available to Americans.
Q: Great. And one question on the First Lady. You mentioned her travel. She is set tomorrow to go out and tour some schools with the new Education Secretary.
MS. PSAKI: She is.
Q: I'm wondering if you have any additional preview on this. I think she's visiting two schools that have found a way to reopen. Will she be speaking to some of the challenges that communities across the country are facing now as they deal with this?
MS. PSAKI: She will be. She'll be traveling. That's what I was intending to provide more detail on at the top. I must have moved the paper out of my — out of my binder here. But she will be traveling with the Secretary of Education, who was just confirmed, as you all know.
They will be having a conversation with — at these schools that they're visiting, that have reopened, about what has been effective, what has worked, what are the lessons learned, what do they need more assistance with.
And certainly that is information that they will take back with them after these visits they're doing tomorrow. Secretary Cardona — his number one priority is reopening schools. And so, certainly, taking a trip with the First Lady is an indication of his commitment to that.
Q: Thanks, Jen. A question about Governor Andrew Cuomo. Vice President Kamala Harris was one of the most vocal critics of Justice Brett Kavanaugh, of Senator Al Franken, when they faced similar allegations. She said repeatedly, "I believe them" — the women. But she hasn't said anything about the three women who are accusing Governor Andrew Cuomo. And now this third accuser, Anna Ruch, she actually worked for the Biden-Harris campaign. So at what point is the first female Vice President going to say something about this?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I know that's how the Vice President continues to feel. And the benefit of doing a briefing every day is that I can certainly speak on behalf of the President and the Vice President, and so let me reiterate that they both believe that every woman coming forward should be heard, should be treated with dignity, and treated with respect.
As you all know, the New York Attorney General will oversee an independent investigation with subpoena power, and the governor's office said he will fully cooperate. And we certainly support that moving forward.
Q: But as you know, it's one thing to hear it from you — and it's appreciated — but it's another thing to hear it from the Vice President or the President himself. Can we expect to hear from either of them on this topic anytime soon?
MS. PSAKI: Well, again, I'm speaking on their behalf. That's how they feel. They're personally — both view this as a situation where both — all of the women coming forward should be treated with dignity and respect and should have their voices heard. And that's the representation of their points of view.
Q: And one question on immigration, just to pick up from where Peter left off. You know, I know you have said that you don't want to label this a crisis. Secretary Mayorkas was in here yesterday saying, "It's not a crisis." But now you have Axios reporting that the administration needs 20,000 beds to shelter these children. Based on our own reporting, 97 percent of the beds through the Office of Refugee Resettlement are full. So I don't want to sound like a broken record here, but at what point does it become a crisis?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would say I don't think we need to meet your bar of what we need to call it. We had the Secretary of Homeland Security conveying it's a challenge. We've provided numbers publicly about how serious that challenge is.
We, of course — because we are approaching this humanely and we are approaching this in a way where we will keep the children safe — in a great break with the past administration — and because we're doing this at a time of COVID, that is even more challenging because most of these facilities are at 40 percent capacity, hence the number of beds that are being utilized.
But, again, we're going to approach this without labeling. We're going to approach this with policy, with humanity, and with a focus on what we can do to keep these kids safe and keep them — and get them in homes as quickly as possible.
Q: I was wondering first on the Merck and Johnson & Johnson announcement. Is the administration in talks with any other vaccine manufacturers to pick up either on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, or Pfizer and Moderna, to get more doses out right now?
MS. PSAKI: I don't think we have anything to preview for that — on that for you. I will say that the manufacturing process for Pfizer and Moderna does not allow for smooth transfer from one manufacturer to another in the same capacity. So this was a step taken because the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is a more traditional vaccine, and Merck's experience manufacturing other vaccines will allow it to scale and effectively produce the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Q: And then, I wanted to follow on a question you got yesterday about the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. You explained that it was being distributed by population, state to state. But there's, I guess, a question of whether it might not make more sense, you know, to distribute more of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to more rural states where they might not have the capacity for the — where it might be tougher to ship something that needs to be stored at an extremely cold temperature where they might only have, you know, centralized hospitals, so not be able to distribute that.
And so I'm wondering if you could explain the administration's strategy of why Johnson & Johnson isn't being sent out to places where it might logistically make more sense. You could balance that out by maybe having more Pfizer and Moderna in, like, Washington, D.C., where, you know, it's easy to get from one side of the city to the other.
MS. PSAKI: Sure. Those are all important considerations. But what the clear advice from our health and medical team is — and they've looked closely at all of the questions you've raised, all important ones — is that if you have access — for the American people: If you have — whatever vaccine you have access to, you should take that vaccine. And, of course, all of these vaccines are being distributed in communities across the country.
As we've talked about a little bit here, we're going to have more than enough vaccine doses to distribute to communities across the country and to the American people, and we expect to have that done at an expedited pace from what we had been predicting previously.
But the guidelines from our health experts, which is what we rely on, is that anyone — that every American should take whatever vaccine they have access to in their pharmacy, at their health provider, at their community center, at the mass vaccination site, whatever it may be.
Q: And the last one is: I know you've gotten some questions on this, but again, the Chief of Staff, at the beginning of the administration, had promised a sort of central clearinghouse — phone, Internet — for vaccine information. And you've kind of pointed to this effort where you can go on —
MS. PSAKI: VaccineFinder? Yes.
Q: Yeah. Well, I guess this is my question: Do you find that to be sufficient? Because I think what we're hearing a lot from Americans is that it's — you know, Americans who want to take — get this vaccine is — it's extremely hard to navigate —
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q: — and get an appointment. It's not really functioning. And one promise of your administration was, "We're going to federalize this. We're going to be a central clearinghouse for (inaudible). We're going to, kind of, step in and help what has been scattershot so far."
MS. PSAKI: You're right. And the VaccineFinder website is available in about a half a dozen states. There are also websites in many states that provide access and provide guideline — or guidance for people looking for where they can get a vaccine and access. So that is true in different states across the country as well.
But one of the things we've also found — and the prism at which we're looking at this through — is that it's not just about people being able to go on websites; people also don't all have access to the Internet, including many people who are in communities where there's higher level of vaccine hesitancy or rural communities.
And so we've also taken a number of steps — call centers, proactive outreach to communities from health centers — to get people to come and take the vaccine, because a website is not going to be the silver bullet that solves everything. It's a pilot. And so our intention is to expand it, but it's not going to be the only thing that helps solve this for the public.
Q: Hey, Jen. Two questions — a follow-up on the vaccine, and then a Navalny question, if I may. On the timing of the administration's efforts to help pull this deal together, you said that it was within, I think, the last few weeks. Is that what you had said?
We wrote our first story at The New York Times about a possible partnership between Merck and J&J for manufacturing, on January 21st. That was when it published. So — and my understanding is that talks between those companies had been in the works before that even, in terms of, sort of, the corporate discussions between them.
So, I mean, could you help explain how it is that the Biden administration deserves credit for bringing these two together, when it looks like the discussions had been underway long before you guys got here?
MS. PSAKI: Well, Mike, just to be clear, I'm talking about when it was finalized so that we could move it forward. Of course, there are conversations between companies, but in terms of getting it to a point — and obviously, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was only approved last weekend — right? — and we were waiting on the FDA to make the final approvals of the vaccine.
But there's a difference between conversations and it moving forward, and the use of the Defense Production Act — which is something this President, and not the prior President, committed to invoking. And also the commitment to help upgrade the manu- — or help get the manufacturing facilities to the place where they needed to be in order to produce the vaccine.
So I'm only conveying what got it across the finish line, and I think it's clear that that has only happened relatively recently. But certainly the history of conversations between Merck and J&J, long before the J&J vaccine was even approved, you know, you certainly might have more information on than I do.
Q: A second question on the timing of all of this. It's our understanding that the time that it's going to take Merck to spin up the production of any kind of — either the finish and then also the production of the vaccine itself is months from now. I mean, the phrase "fourth quarter" has been talked about, which would seem to undercut your assertion — I think to a couple of questions earlier — that this partnership in particular is going to have any benefit to the 100 million dose pledge. Right? I mean, if you're 100 million dose pledge is by the end of July, and Merck's production isn't going to get started until, you know, September, October, November, would that be —
MS. PSAKI: The commitment — the contract is by the end of June, but I expect the President will have more to say this afternoon on the impact on the timeline.
Q: Okay. And then, one question on the Navalny and Russia sanctions. You know, the — Russia was sanctioned in very much the same way in the wake of the previous poisoning that was attributed — that was attributed to Putin and the Russian government. And, you know, those sanctions essentially were ignored. Right? I mean, we now have the Navalny poisoning that came despite the, sort of, series of similar sanctions that were imposed.
So I guess the question is — and I think maybe Peter had a similar question — but what is it that makes — that gives your national security team a level of confidence that some different outcome is going to happen from essentially doing the same thing that was done before? I mean, is there some — is there something that we all don't know about why this is going to be effective, these limited steps, when essentially they weren't effective before?
MS. PSAKI: Well, first, the announcement we're making today was done in harmony with the EU announcement. It was not meant to be a silver bullet or an ending to what has been a difficult relationship with Russia.
We expect the relationship to continue to be a challenge. We're prepared for that. And we're neither seeking to reset our relations with Russia, nor are we seeking to escalate.
There's also an ongoing process, as you know, with — to consider a number of steps of concerning behavior taken by the Russians that is still ongoing. And we made this announcement because we wanted to do it in a timeline aligned with the European Union, which sends — does send a powerful message.
But we're not naïve about the challenge. We continue to believe it's a challenging relationship. The President made that clear, and made clear what our focus is when he spoke with President Putin. And that review is ongoing.
And we, of course, reserve the right to take additional steps and take any additional actions at the conclusion.
Q: So, just one final thing. So is that essentially a concession that you recognize that the steps taken today are not likely to prevent further attempted assassinations by the — by Putin or the regime?
MS. PSAKI: No. I appreciate the option. I'm certainly not making that concession. I'm conveying that it was taken today in order to be in the same timeline as the European Union. There is an ongoing review. There — we reserve the right to take any additional actions at the conclusion of that review.
And just reiterating that the tone and the tenor and the type of relationship that this President intends to have with President Putin will be quite different from the last administration.
Q: Yes, Jen, sort of following up on that. You had mentioned also being able to maintain a relationship, moving forward, with Russia —
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
Q: — despite the sanctions. What specific areas are you considering, such as Iran, Syria, the START talks? Can you be a little specific?
MS. PSAKI: Well, we of course — we already signed the extension on New START a couple of weeks ago; that is a good example. And that is an example of where engagement is in the interest of the United States — in our national security interests.
There are also areas, some of which you touched on — of course, depending on where things land with the invitation for diplomatic talks on Iran — Russia is a P5+1 partner. They were, as we pursued the JCPOA, under the Obama-Biden administration, and they certainly would be a key — a key partner if that diplomatic process were to move forward.
So, the point is: There are areas where we disagree. There are areas where there is significant challenge. There are also areas where we are going to work with the Russians, as we would with most global partners, in — when we need to take steps that are in the interest of the United States.
Q: And just one more, if I may. Some unfinished business with Democratic Party lawmakers who are still peeved about this lack of congressional notification. Senator Tim Kaine says, "I learned about it on the news." And he's a member of the Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committee. He says, "I don't think I should be learning about it this way." What do you say to Senator Kaine and others who are upset on the Hill?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I know that statement was from a couple of days ago. I would say that there were notifications done of committee chairs. I don't have any more specifics on that. There was also additional notifications and conversations that happened on Friday, and we've made an offer of classified briefings for anyone who would meet that bar. Senator Kaine is a important — important partner for this administration. He's somebody the President has known for quite some time, and we look forward to continuing to work with him on a range of issues.
Q: Thank you.
MS. PSAKI: Either would — we're not going anywhere. Go ahead.
Q: Okay. We're seeing a couple of questions on COVID. We're seeing reports out of Kansas and Missouri that small rural areas are receiving large quantities of doses and that larger urban areas are receiving smaller shipments of doses relative to their populations. So I'm wondering if the White House is satisfied that local — state and local governments are doing what they need to do in terms of ensuring vaccine equity.
MS. PSAKI: Well, we certainly track when we see if — for example, if there were one of the vaccines that were distributed primarily into certain demographic communities or neighborhoods; that would be a concern to us as well. We track that closely.
I'm not familiar with these specific issues, but it is something that our COVID team looks at. And as there are issues, they raise them directly with state leaders.
Q: On mobile vaccination sites, I'm wondering what the federal role is and if the federal government is helping to select the sites that these mobile sites are (inaudible).
MS. PSAKI: We are working in close — as I noted a little bit earlier, our COVID Coordinator, Jeff Zients, has a weekly meeting with governors where he provides an update, they have a discussion. We're also involved and engaged with local and state leaders on a regular basis. And certainly mobile vaccination sites, and the implementation of those and where they can most effectively be utilized, is something that is part of that discussion.
Q: And I'm wondering what the administration is doing to avoid some of the problems that might arise with the J&J vaccine that have plagued the AstraZeneca vaccine in Europe, where in Germany and France, the AstraZeneca vaccine seems to be treated as a secondary vaccine or the second choice because of the perception that it has a lower efficacy rate. Is there a concern that that might be an issue with the J&J?
MS. PSAKI: Well, one of the reasons that we've been very clear, and why Dr. Fauci was very clear about this on Sunday — on four Sunday shows, let me just note — is that these are now — we now have three vaccines that are safe, that are effective in preventing serious illness, effective in preventing death. And anyone in the country who has access to any of these vaccines should take them.
But it is certainly something that we are aware of, in terms of that concern. And we are going to continue to communicate broadly and through a range of channels how effective all of these vaccines are.
Q: Thanks, Jen. A couple of questions on New York and then one on Russia. You know, obviously, this third allegation against Governor Cuomo has come out. This woman did work for President Biden during the campaign. I'm wondering what the President thinks about the calls for Governor Cuomo to resign, and whether he's spoken directly, either to his former staffer or the governor, about this situation.
MS. PSAKI: The President believes, as I've noted, that every woman who comes forward should — deserves to be heard and treated with respect. There is an investigation — an independent investigation — that's over — being overseen by the attorney general, and — which has subpoena power. And we certainly support that moving forward.
In terms of any other conversations, I did not work on the campaign, as you know. I know that she did work on the campaign. I believe she was an organizer in Southwest Florida. I don't know if they had — I'm not aware of a personal relationship that they had or that he knew her personally, but I don't have any other engagements. I'm sure she has a number of people she still remains in touch with from the campaign, but I don't have any calls or engagements to read out.
Q: And then, as you know, Governor Cuomo is also facing questions over the nursing home situation and COVID. He's currently chair of the NGA. He came up here to the White House in that capacity to discuss COVID with the President. His top aide, Melissa de Rosa, who's been pretty embroiled in this nursing home situation, was also advising the administration on COVID response during the transition. Does the President believe he should step aside from the NGA? And are you still, you know, seeking advice from his administration on COVID?
MS. PSAKI: Well, that's a decision for the NGA, not a decision for the President or the White House. But I would say that New York, as you know, continues to be one of the hardest-hit states by the COVID pandemic. It's one of the hardest-hit states by the resulting economic downturn. And of course we're going to continue to work with officials in that state to help the people of New York, help get the pandemic under control, and help get people back to work.
Q: And just going back to Russia —
MS. PSAKI: Yep.
Q: — you know, as Michael was pointing out, we're now, I believe, right in the midst of the seventh anniversary of the Crimea crisis. And we have seen, you know, similar sanctions before against the Putin regime. I'm wondering if you're considering anything — you know, what's the next step? What could be beyond sanctions?
And also, as this discussion is happening, is the administration factoring in the captive Americans, Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed, in their response to this and in potential future actions?
MS. PSAKI: Well, of course, we raise the fact that American citizens are held by the Russians at every opportunity and at every level. I would say that, as I noted earlier, the review is still ongoing — underway of several actions — concerning actions, including the reports of bounties being on the heads of U.S. soldiers, of intervention — or hacking of the 2020 Election, and, of course, of the SolarWinds cyberattack. That's all underway.
The President, the national security team reserves the right to respond at a time and manner of their choosing. Certainly sanctions is part of that, but they reserve the right to respond in a manner seen and unseen once that policy — once that process has concluded.
Q: Thanks very much.
MS. PSAKI: Sure. Go ahead.
Q: Thank you, ma'am. One question from me and then two from my colleagues who can't be in the room.
MS. PSAKI: Okay.
Q: First off, something that sort of touches, I guess, on immigration and then also on vaccines. We're five weeks into the new administration and the President hasn't named a permanent FDA Commissioner. And then, yesterday, we heard from the DHS Secretary who said that he's trying to rebuild an agency dismantled by the previous administration, but so far, the President hasn't named a nominee for director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, a director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. What's taking so long?
MS. PSAKI: You're right. And he's eager to nominate individuals to fill all of those spots. We need to find the right people and the right nominees, and hopefully we'll have news on that in the coming weeks. But I don't have anything to preview for you, unfortunately, on personnel.
Q: All right. Very good. And then, from Christian Datoc of the Daily Caller: Interior announced yesterday it's giving out more than $260 million in grants to help coal production states create green energy jobs. Is the White House launching any programs to help those states transition to fossil fuel workers into green tech, or are they leaving that up to the governors?
MS. PSAKI: I'm not familiar with the Interior program. I'm happy to certainly check on that. As I've noted in here before, the President is committed to moving forward on the rest of his Build Back Better agenda, and we're going to wait until we're through the American Rescue Plan and that is signed into law, direct checks are going out to the American people, more money to get vaccines into arms, schools are starting to reopen with money.
So that's our focus now, but he believes that we can invest in areas like infrastructure and do that in a way that creates good-paying green jobs that are good-paying union jobs. And so I have nothing more to preview other than that remains his commitment.
Q: And then, similar question — or similar agenda issue-type of question from Ella Nilsen of Vox. She's wondering where House Democrats' anti-corruption voting rights bill H.R. 1 falls in the line of the administration's list of priorities.
MS. PSAKI: Well, it is certainly — I believe we put out a statement of administration policy yesterday. If not, it's coming soon. (Laughs.) So — but I believe we put it out yesterday.
And the administration and the President remains committed to protecting the fundamental right to vote and making it easy for all eligible Americans to vote. That's something he talked about on the campaign trail, and he — that's why we need to pass reforms like H.R. 1, the For the People Act, and restore the Voting Rights Act.
And so it is a priority to the President, something he'll be working with members of Congress to move up — move forward on.
Q: A quick follow-up from my question —
MS. PSAKI: Go ahead.
Q: — yesterday —
MS. PSAKI: Okay.
Q: — in terms of the virtual visitor logs.
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q: You released the names of Democrats — Democratic senators who were speaking with the President virtually. Is there any discussion about making that standard operating procedure — as in, he has a virtual meeting, you release the names? Or should we expect to ask you each time there's a meeting?
MS. PSAKI: We proactively — most of the — I can't even think of a meeting we haven't, but we have — we plan to proactively release, as we did yesterday. I think when I said that, it was released while I was up here, which is sort of a magical moment. But I didn't really have anything to do with that. We were intending to release the names. We will release the names of members that he meets with.
Certainly, we believe in being transparent and making that available to all of you. Of course, today, it's a meeting with the caucus, so that is whoever attends that. I don't have that list. You'd have to talk to the leadership about that.
Q: Thank you, Jen.
MS. PSAKI: Go ahead.
(A document is handed to the Press Secretary.)
Oh, thank you. So this is a little "phone a friend" on the — on the First Lady's trip that I can give more details on. But go ahead.
Q: Hi. Owen Jensen, EWTN Global Catholic Network. A couple of questions, if I may.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
Q: There's pro-life groups, right now, who are very concerned about the phrase "pregnancy discrimination" in the Equality Act — you're familiar with that, I'm sure — that it would force doctors perform abortions even if it violates their conscience. There are also concerns the bill would force doctors to perform gender transition surgeries and sterilizations, again, even if the violates their conscience. What does the President — President Biden — say about those concerns?
MS. PSAKI: The President has been a longtime supporter of Roe v. Wade. It has been his consistent belief that should be law, and he will fight to continue to protect that as being law.
Q: So conscience concerns is not a concern of his?
MS. PSAKI: I think, again, I'm just going to state what the President's policies are. Did you have another question?
Q: I do. Will President Biden keep the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division at HHS — the office that was put in place under President Trump — but keep it in place to receive conscience complaints from those doctors?
MS. PSAKI: You'll have to talk to a future Secretary Becerra, once he is confirmed.
Q: And then, quickly, if — on another subject, on education: Every day that goes by — some kids are in school year round; have been, for example, in Nebraska. Kids have been in the schools since day one, back in August. In other states, strictly virtually. The education gap is widening; no doubt about that. When fall rolls around, if some schools are still not in person, full time, will the President accept that, or will he have a firm deadline in mind that gets kids back in the classroom?
MS. PSAKI: Well, the President wants schools to be back in the classroom. His wife is a teacher. He believes that not only do students want to be in school, but teachers want to be in school, and he wants them to be open five days a week.
He put — you know, there were CDC guidelines that were put out. We now have a Secretary of Education, as of just yesterday. This will be his number one priority. And certainly the President looks forward to having schools open across the country.
Q: So he does not have a firm deadline in mind for when kids should be back? I know he can't demand it; he can't do that. I realize it's up to school districts, but certainly he can create a sense of urgency, right?
MS. PSAKI: Well, one of the steps that you could certainly advocate for is the — or any of these folks could advocate for is the signing of the American Rescue Plan, which has $160 billion in it to help ensure schools can make the changes to their facilities, can hire enough teachers so that they can have socially distant kids in classrooms, so that they can have enough bus drivers. And that's an important component of getting this done as well.
Q: Thank you, Jen. I have two questions. The first one, I just want to go back on this concept of vaccination — vaccine diplomacy.
MS. PSAKI: Okay.
Q: We see that China and Russia, by the tens of millions, are giving vaccine to African and South American countries. We understand, because you repeat this every day, that the President wants first every American to be vaccinated. But at what point, at what moment aren't you worried that the U.S. are going to be left far behind, and Russia and China will have gone — made major successes with these countries?
MS. PSAKI: Well, let me first say that we've also made a major contribution to COVAX, which is an international body coordinating the safe, equitable, fair distribution of vaccines across the country. That is the — across the world, I should say. I'm sorry. That is the mechanism and the body that we feel this should be done through. They also ensure that these vaccines reach the standards and meet the standards that we would fully expect them to meet.
Of course, we're concerned by Russia and China using vaccines to engage with countries in a way where they're not holding them, at times, to the same standard the United States and a number of other countries would hold them to — on human rights, on freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of media, even. Of course, that's a concern.
But the President's focus is on ensuring the American people are vaccinated. Once we are — and, of course, we look forward to engaging with and continuing to engage with, and contributing to the global community's efforts to do that. But our first priority is vaccinating the American people.
Q: And my second question is on FBI Director Chris Wray. In Congress, today, acknowledged — or recognized, said that what happened on January 6th at the Capitol was domestic terrorism. It sounds like the review is done — the review you talked about a month ago. You don't remember? Canada —
MS. PSAKI: I do remember, but the President also called it domestic terrorism on January 6th. So, he agrees.
The review has not concluded. That's a 100-day review. They're looking at not just one incident, but many incidents. They want to do it comprehensively, not through a political lens. And when that's concluded, I'm sure we'll have more to say.
Q: So you wouldn't — you're not ready yet to say, just like Canada a month ago, that the Proud Boy is a terrorist organization?
MS. PSAKI: Again, I think that we're going to conclude the review. We're looking at organizations — white supremacist organizations, a range of organizations across the country and their impact. We're not looking at individual incidents on their own. It's important that it's a comprehensive review. When that review is concluded, we'll have more to say.
Q: Thank you, Jen.
MS. PSAKI: We'll come back to you.
Q: Two vaccine questions —
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q: — and one from someone who's not in the room because of all of the social distancing.
On the vaccine questions: If there are state, local governments, hospital systems who are having real problems with their websites and their implementation of vaccine registration systems, is the federal government offering assistance — technical contractor support, maybe using the Defense Production Act, to require a federal contractor in the technology space to help them out? Is there — what's being done to help, sort of, fix some of these technical challenges that state and local governments are having?
MS. PSAKI: It's an interesting question. I'm not aware of our engagement on IT support directly — I think which is what you're asking about — with state and local governments.
Obviously it's — I'm sure there's a lot of traffic in certain places, and that may have an impact. I can see if there's more we can convey on that.
Q: And following up somewhat to a question from a little bit earlier: If there are areas where it seems like a governor may be giving preferential treatment — say, to an area where there are more people who vote for one political party or another, in terms of the allocation of the vaccines and the location of sites — is there anything that the federal government can do directly to, sort of, steer more vaccine doses to locations where the governor may not be allocating them?
MS. PSAKI: Well, one of the things we saw when we went to the Pfizer facility — and this is true for every vaccine — is that they're tracked; we know where they go. And we certainly know if vaccines are going more heavily to one part or one demographic over another. And that would certainly be a concern. It would be something we would raise directly with leaders in that state, but it is something that we watch closely.
Q: Are there any examples where that has happened? Or would that be something you would, at this point, keep under wraps if it had happened?
MS. PSAKI: I think — I'm not aware of specific incidents, but it is something we track and we watch closely. And I think our first step in those scenarios would be to raise it directly with leadership in the states.
Q: And the question I got from someone who's actually in California, who was asking whether or not the President plans on engaging in the recall and in support of the governor in the event that the — there is a recall election in the California gubernatorial race.
MS. PSAKI: We've expressed support for the governor, but I don't have any other plans on — related to the President to preview for you.
Kristin, do you have another question?
Q: A question about Dr. Seuss, since this may be the only day that you can bring up Dr. Seuss in the briefing room. It is National Read Across America Day. It's also Dr. Seuss's birthday. Both former Presidents Obama and Trump mentioned Dr. Seuss in their Read Across America Day proclamations, but President Biden did not. Why not?
MS. PSAKI: Well, first, the proclamation was written by the Department of Education, and you could certainly speak to them about more specifics about the drafting of it.
But Read Across America Day, which has — you're right, has not existed forever; it has only been around for a short period of time — elevates and celebrates a love of reading among our nation's youngest leaders. And the day is also a chance to celebrate diverse authors whose work and lived experience reflect the diversity of our country. And that's certainly what they attempted to do or hope to do this year.
And as we celebrate the love of reading and uplift diverse and representative authors, it is especially important that we ensure all children can see themselves represented and celebrated in the books that they read.
Q: So does the omission have anything to do with the controversy about the lack of diverse characters in the author's books?
MS. PSAKI: Well, again, I think it is important that children of all backgrounds see themselves in the children's books that they read. But I would point you to the Department of Education for any more details on the writing of the proclamation.
Q: Did the President have any reaction to the passing of Vernon Jordan?
MS. PSAKI: I expect we'll have a statement out shortly, even maybe as we speak, but shortly about his passing.
Q: A little bit of news on the media front. Your predecessor, Kayleigh McEnany, has just signed on as a Fox News contributor. I'm wondering if you have any good wishes for her, advice, and if she does have a show, if you'd be willing to go on it.
MS. PSAKI: Sure. I've done Fox News Sunday twice now. I'm happy to go on a range of shows. I will say that I knew Kayleigh a little bit, not well. I met her when we were both CNN contributors and we did a few shows — I'm not sure how many — together.
Like many Americans, we disagree on political issues, but we talked about our families, our spouses, sports, all sorts of things in the green room, and I certainly wish her the best in her future endeavors.
Q: Thank you, Jen.
MS. PSAKI: Thank you, everyone.
AIDE: You didn't do the First Lady's —
MS. PSAKI: Oh, oh, sorry. Can I do one more thing?
MS. PSAKI: Zeke, I feel like I'm violating a rule here.
Oh, sorry. I just want to give you more details about the First Lady's — I actually woke up this morning and said I want to talk about this, and then I didn't do it.
So, as you all know and we've talked about, the Senate confirmed the President's Secretary of Education, Miguel Cardona, a fellow Nutmegger — go Connecticut — in a wide, bipartisan vote of 64 to 33. He will be sworn in by the Vice President this evening.
Tomorrow, the First Lady and Secretary Cardona will travel to his hometown of Meriden, Connecticut, and to Waterford, Pennsylvania, to tour K-through-8 public schools that are open for in-person learning.
So as Mary asked about earlier, they're both lifelong educators. They will highlight the key CDC mitigation strategies that the schools have implemented successfully in these locations; listen to the challenges they are facing due to the pandemic, including the academic, social, and emotional needs of students; highlight the additional resources in the American Rescue Plan needed for schools to open — remain open; and address the needs of students, and thank educators for their work in supporting students and their families.
As I noted, this is the top priority — reopening schools — for Secretary Cardona, and I will expect you'll learn more soon on who will be running point on that in the Department of Education as well.
So thank you, everyone. Have a good afternoon.
END 1:32 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/348255