Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jen Psaki
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
4:15 P.M. EDT
MS. PSAKI: Good afternoon, everyone. I just wanted to provide you all an update on our ongoing efforts on Hurricane Ida. The President and his Homeland Security team are closely monitoring the impacts of Hurricane Ida as damage assessments continue. He has made clear that the state, Tribal, and local officials who have requests for anything have our full support. And we are, of course, in close contact.
Today, the FEMA Administrator and the American Red Cross Director are in Louisiana to meet with the governor and survey the damage from Hurricane Ida. Administrator Criswell is -- will travel to Mississippi tomorrow to meet with the state officials.
And as Ida continues to move to the Northeast, we expect heavy rain to continue. There's life-threatening flash flooding that remains a threat in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, D.C., and elsewhere.
In the Gulf Coast, search and tur- -- and rescue efforts are underway. Twelve Urban Search and Rescue teams are currently operational in Louisiana to support state and local efforts. The Coast Guard has been doing overhead flights, including in Grand Isle, to search for anyone in need of assistance. So far, Urban Search and Rescue teams have assisted over hundreds of survivors, and their work continues.
We're also in regular contact -- which is a huge priority for people in the region -- with private electricity companies to ensure they have the resources they need as they work to restore power in Louisiana and Mississippi, where more than 1.1 million customers remain without electricity. We've seen some people in Mississippi get electricity back, and we're hopeful we'll see continued improvements.
There are more than 25,000 linemen from 32 states and D.C. in the region racing to restore power. And FEMA has staged nearly 250 generators in the region to support impacted areas. We're going to get more generators to the area to get more power to the emergency services that need it the most.
We also want to make sure that individuals in the impacted areas of Louisiana know they can apply for federal assistance. We would encourage anyone in need of assistance to visit DisasterAssistance.gov or call 1-800-621-FEMA.
As of this morning, 48 shelters were open in affected areas throughout the Gulf Coast; FEMA has staged more than 4.4 million meals, 3.2 million liters of water, and more than 124,000 tarps in the region; and additional ambulance crews have been transported to Louisiana and Mississippi.
The Department of Transportation also issued a regional emergency declaration for the states -- including Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas -- providing flexibility for transporting fuel, as well as essential items like food, water, and power restoration equipment to support emergency relief efforts.
And today, we have two additional actions to announce to increase the availability of gasoline and ease price pressures.
First, the department will extend and amend an emergency declaration that offers temporary flexibility to how many hours a truck driver can drive. This applies nationally to goods that support the COVID-19 response, and will now include gasoline and other types of fuel, building materials, medical supplies, and food.
Because the hurricane is hitting a region that is a key center of the nation's oil production and refining infrastructure, this waiver should help reduce the risk of gasoline shortages or price increases stemming from the hurricane.
DOT's top priority remains safety, and this waiver is accompanied by additional safety-related reporting requirements to allow the department to monitor driver working hours.
And second, the EPA has approved emergency fuel waivers for Louisiana and Mississippi, effective immediately, which will expand the supply of gasoline that can be sold in these two states and increase availability at this critical time.
We are continuing to assess, and we'll continue to provide you all updates.
Why don't you kick it off, Josh. Good to see you.
Q: Good to see you. Thanks Jen. Two subjects -- first, on Afghanistan. The President said that any additional evacuations will go through diplomatic channels and that the United States has leverage over the Taliban. Can you tell us what those channels look like and what kind of leverage the United States has?
MS. PSAKI: Absolutely. Well, first, I would say -- I would point you to the remarks that the Secretary of State provided last night. But let me give you some highlights of that: We have enormous leverage over the Taliban, including access to the global marketplace; that's not a small -- it's not a small piece of leverage.
And in order to gain access to the global marketplace, we're going to be watching closely, as will the global community.
I would note that, yesterday, the U.N. Security Council also signed a -- passed a resolution that made clear to what the expectation is, in terms of safe travel and evacuation -- or departure, I should say, of individuals who want to leave Afghanistan. And nearly half of the countries in the world have also signed on a sta- -- to a statement making clear that is the expectation.
That's the diplomatic side. And the other diplomatic components that our Secretary of State will be focused on include establishing a presence in Doha -- which is already underway -- which is a place where we will be able to operate from, diplomatically, so we can have access with consular officers and diplomats who can engage with American citizens or others -- our Afghan partners who want to depart. We're working to set that up now.
The other piece is engagement with the Taliban, which we'll continue through our ongoing channels that we have with the Taliban on the diplomatic front.
The other piece of this, which is very important, is operational -- which is opening the airport and regional airports, and also ensuring that there is overland travel that is possible, which means departing -- being able to leave across borders. And the President touched on this in his statement.
On the airport front, the more specific piece we're working on with the Qataris and the Turks, who are important partners here, is getting the civilian side of the airport up and operational again so that we can use that not just for flights for people to depart, but also for humanitarian assistance -- which we would work through programs like the World Food Programme and others to distribute.
So, there are a number of channels. This is a priority the Secretary of State will be leading. They'll continue to provide updates. And we're hoping to make progress in the coming days.
Q: And secondly, on the economy, you were asked the other day about the expiration of the extended unemployment benefits. We know the Black unemployment in this country is above 8 percent. It's above 7 percent in New York, Nevada, Illinois, California. With the expiration, how do you ensure that people in those places still get the support they need?
MS. PSAKI: You're right, Josh. It's vitally important to look at the fact that there are different circumstances in different states.
So, if we just take a step back and look at the national landscape on these benefits: In about half of all states, 24 governors have already made the decision to eliminate pandemic unemployment benefits. That's a choice they have made. In the remaining 26 states, unemployment levels vary pretty widely -- from 3 percent to 7 percent -- and half of these remaining states have unemployment rates that are already less than 5 percent. So, there are differing needs in different states, and governors are making different decisions.
What we're trying to do and what we announced about two weeks ago, but obviously there was a lot of news going on, is our effort to put new tools in place to help states that choose to further extend pandemic unemployment benefits because of those needs -- because they're states like those you have mentioned or because they have higher rates of unemployment among African Americans or other groups that need additional assistance.
So, the Secretary of Treasury and the Secretary of Depart- -- of Labor sent a letter to Chairman Wyden and Chairman Neal underscoring and affirming that states can use their allocations of the $350 billion of state and local fiscal relief funds included in the American Rescue Plan. That is funding that can be used.
The Department of Labor has also made $90 million in career grants available to support comprehensive reemployment services for all Americans and $146 million in reemployment services and eligibility assessments.
And the Department of Labor also sent a letter just last week to states with information about how to leverage existing UI program infrastructure to leverage -- to deliver ongoing support to unemployed workers.
We have also been engaging directly with states -- we've been engaged now with about 30 states and counting -- to talk about what their specific needs are and how programs that are available can be eligible to people in their states.
Q: First, on Ida. Thank you for all of that information. Are you still tracking that he might go to the region at some point?
MS. PSAKI: He certainly is open to that. What he does not want to do is interrupt rescue and recovery efforts, which -- as many of you may or may not know, who have covered hurricanes before -- people leaving their homes and going to evacuation centers, that can increase in the days ahead. It isn't always just in the day after. And certainly, there are ongoing efforts on the ground, as I just noted.
So, he's open to that. I don't have anything to announce at this point in time. Obviously, the President of the United States going to region takes a lot of resources.
Q: On Afghanistan, is there any sense of if and how many Americans might have left today? Is there even a way to track that for the U.S. government at this point?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I will say, we remain in touch through a range of means of communication: email, text, WhatsApp. That's something that we could certainly do from here. But, also, having a presence in Doha and diplomats in the region will enable that to happen locally -- or close by, as well.
I don't have an update for you on the numbers, but that's something the State Department would have the best assessment of.
Q: We have asked -- and, in fact, a little bit about the President's mood over the last few days, or his -- you know, his sense of all of this. A few of us observed he seemed angry at the beginning of the speech today. Who is he mad at?
MS. PSAKI: I would say I'll -- I'll give you a different assessment of what I saw, which is that he gave a forceful assessment, laid out a forceful case to the American people as to why it was time to wind down a 20-year war that has led to the loss of thousands of lives. And in his view -- and I think he made a firm case of this -- it's not in our national security interest to be on the ground anymore.
Q: And then on North Korea and the ongoing situation there: What's your current understanding of what they're doing with their nuclear program? And is there any renewed outreach to Kim Jong Un and his regime?
MS. PSAKI: Well, we have left the door open and obviously reached out through our channels. I don't have an update for you in terms of any response to our offer. Our offer remains to meet anywhere, anytime without preconditions.
We're obviously aware of the reports we've seen over the last 24 hours, and we're closely coordinating with our allies and partners on developments and assessing closely.
Go ahead, Jeff.
Q: Jen, the President said in his remarks just a short time ago that, in April, a deadline was set for August 31st. In fact, in his April remarks, he set a deadline for September 11th. So what changed over these last few months between the August 31st deadline and the September 11th initial deadline? Was that the deadline agreed to a new -- a new timeframe agreed to by the Taliban -- or suggested by them -- or by this administration? Or what's the discrepancy there?
MS. PSAKI: The military gave their assessment that they needed 120 days to wind down our presence in Afghanistan, so we abided by that.
Q: But in the April speech, September 11th was the date. The August 31st date just arrived between April and now.
MS. PSAKI: And he based -- based his strategic decisions -- I mean tactical decisions, I should say -- on the advice of the military and commanders on the ground and the timeline they needed to wind down our presence. And hence, here we are. It was his timeline, though; it was not the Taliban's timeline.
Q: So he moved up the timeline to August 31st.
MS. PSAKI: We needed 120 days, and we abided by the advice of the military.
Q: Jen, does -- can you clarify whether the United States has an agreement with the Taliban to allow more Americans and other Afghans to leave the country?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I will say, Jeff, that it is our -- not just our expectation, but also the expectation of 100 countries around the world, the U.N. Security Council, and others that the Taliban will abide by what they committed to last Friday, which is the ability of people to leave Afghanistan should they choose to leave.
There need -- do need to be ongoing diplomatic negotiation -- or discussions, I should say. That's a part of what the Secretary of State and his team will be leading. But I would note that the Taliban conveyed that on Friday -- a leader of the Taliban.
Again, more than half of the countries in the world have conveyed clearly what they expect. And the U.N. Security Council signed a resolution yesterday. So those are the diplomatic pieces that have moved forward, but this will be a top priority in the days ahead.
Q: The President was critical today and has been critical of President Trump's -- former President Trump's deal with the Taliban. Given that, I'm wondering if this administration or if this President gave any consideration to not holding on to --former President Trump's Special Envoy to Afghanistan who stayed on.
MS. PSAKI: Look, I think the President wanted to be clear about what he was left when he took office, and he laid that out very clearly in his speech.
But just to reiterate, since you gave me a couple -- an opportunity -- a couple of the points: When the President took office, there was a deadline that was just three months away that included -- for May 1st -- that included no requirement that the Taliban work out a cooperative governing agreement with the Afghan government. It did release 5,000 prisoners last year, including some of the Taliban's top war commanders.
So, the President was walking into that circumstance. He wanted to leave Afghanistan. It's a war he has long felt we needed to depart from. He's feel- -- he's felt that was long overdue. But that was the circumstance he walked into, and, frankly, there's a little bit of selective memory loss from some of the people who served in the last administration about these circumstances.
Q: But my question was actually why hold on to that -- the Afghan envoy -- the U.S. Envoy to Afghanistan who served under President Trump? Why did President Biden hold on to him?
MS. PSAKI: The President has made changes where he saw fit and has not made changes where he felt the person continued to be the right person for the job. That's not a political decision.
Q: Thanks, Jen. So we heard from the National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan this morning on "Good Morning America." He's mentioned that 98 percent of those on the ground there in Afghanistan and a small number of who remain, they have reached out -- that they got out, you know, as many people as they could. Is the administration essentially placing blame on Americans who could not get to the airport in time?
MS. PSAKI: I think what the President stated clearly -- and I know that Jake Sullivan has stated clearly and our Secretary of State has stated clearly -- is that our commitment remains. There is not an end to our commitment to American citizens who are in Afghanistan who want to leave. That's the same for any country in the world for American citizens who want to leave and want to come home to the United States.
It's also important for people to note and understand what the process has been and what we've undergone over the past few months. And that's what the President laid out, and we think it's still important for the American people here in the United States to understand that.
Q: One on al Qaeda. So, we heard from the President a few months ago saying that one of the main reasons to go into this war was to get al Qaeda. We heard that Osama bin Laden's security chief has reportedly returned to Afghanistan and has been seen in public. Do you still believe -- or does the administration believe that al Qaeda is no longer a threat to America? And given the ISIS attacks that we've seen in the last week, how confident is the administration that Afghanistan isn't already a safe haven for terrorists?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think, first, there is a very big difference between terrorists' ability to attack U.S. troops in Kabul and to attack the homeland. And we have -- we do not assess that any terrorist group on the ground has the ability to attack the homeland in the United States.
It is incumbent upon the President, the national security team to prevent that from ever being the case, but there is a very big difference between those two.
Q: I know that the military obviously recommended to the President -- or at least he said he rec- -- they recommended to the President -- that it would be best to leave -- keep that August 31st deadline, but the President himself, you know, in his interview with ABC News said that if there's American citizens left, quote, "we're going to stay until we get them all out."
I think the President's understand- -- or explained his rationale for leaving 100-plus Americans behind, but can you talk about why he allowed his credibility on this issue to sort of go out the door on making a flat promise and then not keeping it?
MS. PSAKI: Well, first, I would say that the President remains committed to getting every American citizen who wants to get out, out. That's an enduring commitment, one that will not change and one we're going to focus on every single day.
I would also note that, over the course of the last two weeks, we have seen a terrorist attack that took the lives of 13 of our service members. And there was an asse- -- and part of our assessment, always, is going to be the risks -- a risk assessment.
So I think the question was: Do you leave 6,000 service members as there are heightening threats, heightening risks every single day, or do you work through a diplomatic process and efforts to ensure that we will have the ability to get these American citizens out? That's the assessment we made.
Q: Well, I mean, after that terror attack, you and he made clear that you weren't going to let the terrorists sort of dictate the timeline. So I --
MS. PSAKI: And we didn't. And we've evacuated tens of thousands of people since then.
Q: I guess, can you -- was it a mistake for the President to have promised that we would remain until everybody left the country?
MS. PSAKI: We are going to get every American citizen out. That has not changed.
Q: One last one on -- you mentioned the leverage that we might have and how access to the global marketplace was a big element of that. Can you kind of explain how the sanctions regime that's currently on the Taliban is going to apply to what is now the government of Afghanistan? Is there a chance for Afghanistan the country to access its reserves or sort of avoid the sanctions? Will the central bank be sanctioned? Are they going to have that ability as part of this sort of partnership that you've talked about?
MS. PSAKI: Well, it's going to be based on what their behavior is. And I think the President clearly outlined that we're going to be watching, as the world will, what the Taliban does. That is certainly allowing American citizens to depart. It's certainly allowing Afghans and our partners to depart. It's also how they operate as it relates to treatment of women, to human rights. There's a range of factors at play here. So I don't have anything to predict for you.
Obviously, there's a great deal of economic leverage -- you referenced sanctions that are already in place that we have, that the global community has, and we'll have to assess how things happen over the course of the coming days, weeks, and months.
Go ahead, Jacqui.
Q: Thanks, Jen. One question on the dignified transfer, and then I want to get to Afghanistan. Some of the Gold Star families have criticized the President -- President's conduct at the dignified transfer. There was a father of one Marine who said that the President appeared to be checking his watch every time a flag-draped transfer case came out of the plane. And a sister of another Marine said that it felt like a fake and scripted apology. Was the President looking at his watch? And does he have a message to those people who felt that
they were offended?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would say his message to all of the family members who were there, those who were not even in attendance is that he is grateful to their sons and daughters, the sacrifice they made to the country; that he knows firsthand what it's like to lose a child and the fact that no one can tell you anything or say anything -- or there's no words that are going to fill that hole that is left by that.
He's not going to speak to and I'm not going to speak to the private conversations. Of course, they have the right to convey whatever they would like. But I will tell you, from spending a lot of time with him over the past couple of days, that he was deeply impacted by these family members who he met just two days ago; that he talks about them frequently in meetings and the incredible service and sacrifice of their sons and daughters. I -- that is not going to change their suffering, but I wanted to convey that still.
Q: And then on -- on the future aid to the Taliban that Jake Sullivan was talking about this morning.
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q: He said, when it comes to economic and development assistance, the relationship with the Taliban will be about Taliban actions. Should we understand that to mean that economic and development assistance could translate to taxpayer money eventually going to the Taliban at some point? I know that's different from the humanitarian aid we've been talking about -- the World Food Programme and things like that -- but these specific references that Sullivan made this morning.
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would -- I would just go back to kind of the earlier question on this. There's an enormous amount of money they have at the federal -- in the Federal Reserve -- I shouldn't say "they" -- the government of Afghanistan has in the Federal Reserve, which they don't have access to right now. That's actually their money that's being held there. So that's one of the questions here.
There are also sanctions that are in place on a number of leaders. Obviously, that prevents them from doing business in various parts of the world. I think that's really what Jake Sullivan was referring to.
Q: To get back real quick to this lev- -- this issue of leverage, I understand the U.S. plans to use that leverage for safe passage, but what specifically does the U.S. also want to see from the Taliban that they would use that leverage to get? You mentioned human rights or women's rights. Will the U.S. use its leverage if, for example, the Taliban doesn't allow girls to go to school or it appears to be violating basic women's rights?
MS. PSAKI: I think the President said that in his speech.
Q: Okay. So, things like access to the global marketplace would be contingent on girls being able to go to school, women's -- fundamental women's rights?
MS. PSAKI: I'm not here to outline specific parameters for you, but what I can tell you broadly is that human rights, women's rights are certainly what the United States and also the global community will be looking at.
Q: And I know the President also said in his speech that that assumption about how long the Afghan government would hold on, how long the military would be able to hold on, he acknowledged that that was a failed assumption. Who is responsible for that assumption? And is the President frustrated with his team at all for having made that false assumption?
MS. PSAKI: We don't have the luxury of being frustrated. Our focus right now is on continuing to move forward on our diplomatic efforts and continuing to do everything we can to get our Afghan partners and American citizens out and to get Afghans who have fought by our side safely settled in the United States and third countries around the world.
Q: Was that, like, a military assumption though? Or was that an assumption coming from the intelligence community or --
MS. PSAKI: I don't think anyone assessed that they would collapse as quickly as they did. Anyone. Anyone in this room. Anyone in the region. Anyone anywhere in the world. If you have anyone who did, I'd be surprised.
Q: Thank, Jen. The Afghan interpreter who helped rescue then-Senator Joe Biden when he was stranded 13 years ago in Afghanistan is now in hiding. He told The Wall Street Journal, "Hello, Mr. President. Save me and my family. Don't forget me." What's your response to him? And why is he and other Afghan allies like him still in the country if the President believes, as he said today, that the mission was an extraordinary success?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would say, first, our message to him is, "Thank you for fighting by our side for the last 20 years. Thank you for the role you played in helping a number of my favorite people out of a snowstorm, and for all of the work you did." And our commitment is enduring, not just to American citizens but to our Afghan partners who have fought by our side.
And our efforts and our focus right now is, as you heard General McKenzie say and others say over the last 24 hours, is to the diplomatic phase. We will get you out, we will honor your service, and we're committed to doing exactly that.
Q: Thanks so much, Jen. Just to build on some of the things my colleagues were saying: President Biden said Americans who -- were given multiple chances to leave, dating back several months. But things, as you just noted, changed dramatically in the last few weeks.
My question is: How many of those families said they wanted to stay in Afghanistan in the last few weeks -- two, three weeks? And is it really fair to say -- for the President to say that they didn't leave when they had the chance? As you just mentioned, no one expected the collapse, as happened. And the President himself, for months, was publicly saying that the Taliban would not be running things and that this -- and also that this exit would be safe and organized.
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would say, first, that no one is placing blame here. I think it's important for people to understand, though, what the process has been. And while there are between 100 and 200 American citizens who have not yet departed, we have also evacuated more than 5,500 American citizens and their family members and 115,000 other people from Afghanistan. So, more than 120,000 people made their way to the airport or was able to evacuate from the country.
It is also very understandable, and I want to be very clear here: The vast majority, if not everyone -- though the State Department who would have to speak to this -- who is still there are dual citizens who have lived their entire lives in Afghanistan. This is about -- I know this is hard for people to understand who grew up and live here: This is where they've lived. This is where their family members are. This is their communities. Maybe they own shops. Maybe they are -- have 50 family members or 20 family members. This is not an easy decision to leave. We understand that.
And what the President is saying is: If you decide to leave next week, if you decided two days ago and we couldn't get you out, we're going to get you out. And that's what his commitment is.
Q: Can I ask about the immigration system and the refugee situation? The U.S. immigration system is already very overstretched; it's dysfunctional. I wanted to know what steps is the administration taking to ensure that the tens of thousands of Afghan people who are being resettled here in the United States are not going to be caught up in red tape and that they're going to get the resources they need.
MS. PSAKI: Well, first, the President has asked the Secretary of Homeland Security to lead this effort. And there is a process that includes not just a thorough background check and vetting process, but as individuals come to the United States, some will end up going to military bases, where they will have access to a range of resources, including vaccines. Those who are on -- who are parolees will be required to get those vaccines.
And what we are working to do is ensure we are leveraging and working with all of the incredible refugee resettlement organizations around the country who are eager and open to helping these Afghan refugees, also to veterans' organizations who are eager and open to helping these Afghan refugees resettle in the United States, and work through as orderly a process, using every lever of government -- from the U.S. military, the Department of Homeland Security -- to move this process as rapidly as we can.
Go ahead, Anne.
Q: The President was very clear today, as he has been, about why he thinks U.S. forces should not be in Afghanistan right now. But he was part of the Obama administration in 2014 when the then-President decided he needed to send troops back to Iraq after several years to deal with the Islamic State threat. Does the President rule out needing to send troops back to Afghanistan to deal with a similar threat should it arise now?
MS. PSAKI: I'm not going to look into a crystal ball in the future, but I think he's been pretty clear he doesn't have an intention to start another war and redeploy troops to Afghanistan.
And what we've seen over the past week is that our over-the-horizon capacity can work and has worked in going after ISIS targets and killing people who went after our troops. So, that's where our resources and our focus is going to be on at this point in time.
Q: I have another little bit of a crystal ball question.
MS. PSAKI: Okay.
Q: The -- I mean, ultimately, it'll be -- ultimately, it will be up to the President to decide whether to establish diplomatic relations with the Taliban-only or Taliban-led government. And while Secretary Blinken and others have set some of the parameters for that, does the President himself have a view about whether it would be appropriate to ever have a full U.S. diplomatic relationship with the Taliban?
MS. PSAKI: Well, just like in any circumstance, it would depend on the conditions. But there's no rush to recognition coming from any aspect of this government or from the international community.
Q: Building on Anne's first question, does the President envision any situation in which he might deploy a large amount of U.S. troops abroad under his presidency? Any sort of foreign conflict that would require the sort of mass troop deployment that he just said we are trying to move past?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think one of the pieces that he talked about in the speech was how he views our engagements in the world -- and I think this is probably why you're asking this question -- and the horrible scenes and memories of the last few weeks. And as we think about how we embark on or how we use military force, these moments and the visions of the last several weeks or months or years should stick in us. And he made -- stick in our minds.
He made clear, first, we must set missions with clear, achievable goals, not ones we will never reach. And second, we must stay clearly focused on the fundamental national security interests of the United States.
I mean, the President has not hesitated to use force when warranted, when he feels it's been warranted. He has done strikes in certain parts of the world. He has made very clear, and he said today: Our work with you -- we're not done with you, ISIS. That was a paraphrase, but he said it better.
But -- and that, I think, sends a clear message that he's going to go after terrorists; he's not going to hesitate to use the capacities and capabilities we have. But he also wants to be mindful about how we use thousands and large swaths of troops, and I think he was sending a clear message about how he views that.
Q: And then, the second question: The President has obviously been very consumed by this situation and by the hurricane, but as we roll into September, should we expect to start seeing him doing public events again for his economic agenda, particularly facing the months in Congress that awaits it?
MS. PSAKI: Absolutely. I think you can expect the President to be communicating over the coming weeks on a range of issues that are front and center on the minds of the American people.
Certainly, he gave a speech today on Afghanistan, but certainly you can expect to hear from him more on his Build Back Better agenda, on COVID and his commitment to getting the virus under control, to speak to parents and those who have kids going back to school. There are a range of issues he's eager to communicate about. Absolutely.
Q: Did the President watch the takeoff of the last flight home from Afghanistan yesterday? And has he been in contact with, you know, any of the servicemembers who were on the last flight?
MS. PSAKI: Well, he did -- I know there's been some reporting out there on this, but I can confirm for you that the President learned of the last flight safely leaving Afghanistan when he was in the Oval Office meeting with members of his national security team and some senior advisors. And a note was passed to his National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, who conveyed it to the President -- the news to the President.
Obviously, in those cases -- for those of you who've watched these events closely -- you have to wait until they're out of airspace, hence it was a little bit before you saw the announcement by the Pentagon.
And he has conveyed repeatedly in meetings -- that I have at least been in -- to the military how grateful he is for their work, for the fact that they oversaw a historic airlift operation -- one that evacuated more than 120,000 people in the middle of a civil war facing ISIS threats. He's conveyed his gratitude to them and to the work of his national security team repeatedly.
Q: When does the President plan to sign the bill that was passed in the Senate today that provides temporary assistance to Americans returning from Afghanistan?
MS. PSAKI: I'm sure as soon as possible, but I will have to check.
Go ahead, Karen.
Q: Thanks, Jen. Just to go back to the line of questions from Justin --
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q: We heard the President say today that he remains committed to getting those Americans out. You said that commitment remains. You said it's an enduring commitment.
You talked about the risk assessment that's been underway over the last couple of days or weeks, but it was less than two weeks ago when the President told ABC "yes," when he was asked, "Are you committed to making sure troops stay until every American who wants to get out gets out?" He said, "Yes."
So, obviously, situations have changed; the threat increased, as you've said. But why should those Americans believe that this commitment is enduring when 13 days ago that commitment changed?
MS. PSAKI: Because he's evacuated 5,500 American citizens and their family members and 120,000 total people over the last two weeks, nearly all of them since that time.
Q: You've described the drone strikes as successful and that America still has over-the-horizon capability. It appears that several children were killed in one of the drone strikes. Can you say that it was still successful if that was the collateral damage? And how will the U.S. determine that it has the intelligence necessary to carry out these drone strikes if civilians are going to be caught in the crossfire?
MS. PSAKI: Well, first, I would say we take civilian casualties and the possibility of civilian casualties incredibly seriously -- and our U.S. military -- perhaps more than any other country in the world.
There is an investigation, and I don't believe the military or CENTCOM has spoken to or confirmed what has been some reporting out there by news organizations. I will note that in CENTCOM's statement just two nights ago, they made clear that their assessment was that there was -- the vehicle that was the target also had explosives in it. And those explosives may have also led to an impact on the ground. But there's an investigation that's ongoing.
Q: And you're confident that in the two drone strikes the U.S. did, terrorists were killed in both of those strikes?
MS. PSAKI: I believe that's the assessment that's been put out by CENTCOM.
Go ahead, April.
Q: Two subjects, Jen: Afghanistan and Ida. First, I want to start with Ida. When Katrina happened, then-President George W. Bush put the Gulf Coast in a special category. And then President Obama, as you remember -- you were here at the time -- kept them in that category for a while to build it back up.
Are we at that point now where some parts of the Gulf Coast, specifically New Orleans and that area, will be placed in another category to help rebuild, yet again, because of the devastation of Ida?
MS. PSAKI: Well, April, I will say that we're only on a couple of days into the storm. I know you've covered these, as you've referenced, in the past. And we don't know how to assess yet all of the impacts.
But what I think the people of the region and the Gulf Coast should look at to evaluate how committed the President is to this is all of the preemptive resources he put in place, all of those he sent to the region, and the number of resources he's continuing to deploy from the federal government.
So, I can't assess that at this point in time, but I can tell you that the President receives briefings about the hurricane every single day, sometimes more than once a day, and has been for several days. And he's committed to delivering on whatever the needs are to help the Gulf Coast recover.
Q: And on Afghanistan: We talked to Greg Meeks, the House -- the Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. And he said there will indeed be congressional hearings on this longest war in U.S. history, from the beginning to this moment.
What is the expectation of this administration when it comes to these hearings? And what are you willing to offer -- full transparency -- as it relates to how all of this happened beyond these speeches but going into the weeds as to why, the hows, the who, what, when, where, and whys?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would say, first, we've already done several briefings with members, including in the classified setting, over the course of the last several weeks. That speaks to our commitment to answering questions they have and being able to play our role and working with them on, you know, addressing the last seven months. Now, it's a 20-year war, so there's obviously a lot to dig into.
Q: So -- I'm not finished; I got one more -- one --
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q: But -- following up on that --
MS. PSAKI: Go ahead.
Q: -- but would you be willing to -- would this administration be willing to sit before a hearing -- some in this administration go before Congress and answer questions about their part in this war?
MS. PSAKI: Again, I think we've clearly already been participating in Congress's asks, and we have already been briefing them. There haven't been specific requests made that I'm aware of. And as they come, we'll speak to those.
Q: And what are the embassies in the area doing, in Europe and Spain, to support this effort to help get Americans out and just this evacuation going and moving, shifting from the military operation to that of diplomacy?
MS. PSAKI: Well, there -- there's been a huge role that our nation's diplomats have been playing already, to date. Obviously, there's been a herculean effort by the U.S. military on the ground. But our diplomats, the consular officers -- many of them who were on the ground, or those who were making tens of thousands of phone calls to identify Afghan applicants, members of the vulnerable population, American citizens -- that work will continue. And that work will continue to help get American citizens and others who have fought by our side out of the country.
Go ahead, Rachel.
Q: Thank you, Jen. The President said there's no deadline to get the remaining Americans who want to leave out of Afghanistan. But is there an acceptable timeline for the President for them coming home?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would say, Rachel, if someone decides in a year they want to leave Afghanistan, we're going to help them leave. If somebody is now ready to, we're going to help them leave as quickly as possible. So I think that's what he was conveying.
Q: Thanks, Jen. I want to follow up on my question yesterday about deserving Afghans who did not get to leave. I think many people would understand that in the fog of war, despite the best efforts of the Marines and consular officers on the ground, mistakes are made. You know, I mean, Marines could grab people or push people out of the gate because of a security threat, for example.
But what I was talking about were these specific allegations from our sources on the ground and people who were assisting in these rescue operations who say that, because of inconsistent policies, conflicting policies, and also a lack of coordination between the State Department and the Pentagon, and also competing interests from people in Washington with influence who are pulling strings, this creates a chaos in which vulnerable Afghans, including SIVs, were left behind, but individuals who may not have a -- who is not an at-risk individual gets to leave. So, is the administration willing to admit responsibility for the situation? And what would be your remedy?
MS. PSAKI: I have no confirmation of what you've just outlined. What I will tell you is that 117,000, approximately -- many of them Afghans who -- people who are not American citizens -- were evacuated. That's more people than ever in any airlift in U.S. history.
And we -- what our U.S. Marines and what our military did on the ground was work to evacuate as many people as humanly possible, as quickly as possible. And many of those people were SIV applicants, many of them were green card holders. Obviously, we've given you the number of American citizens, and many of them were just people from the vulnerable populations who we were able to get out.
But we are committed to continuing to work in a diplomatic manner to get more people out who want to evacuate. And I would reiterate that we've worked already with -- to get support for a statement from 100 countries around the world to pass a U.N. Security Council resolution and to make clear to the Taliban that that's our expectation.
Yamiche, go ahead.
Q: Can I just follow up with the lily pad countries agreement?
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
Q: Can you give us an overall picture of the structure of these agreements with these countries? What are we paying or providing them in return? And how will we -- do we deal with local resentment? And this would also apply to, you know, people around American bases who may feel concerned about the threat of either COVID or a terrorist threat. How are we dealing with that?
MS. PSAKI: Well, what we're doing is we're relying on all of you to convey clearly what our COVID protocols are, what our security protocols are, what our vetting protocols are. And we're also communicating very closely with governors and leaders in the region.
Every country has different agreements. I wouldn't -- this is not a quid pro quo situation; this is where the international community recognized the need of the Afghan people -- and nearly two dozen countries have met this moment -- to have a place where individuals who are leaving Afghanistan can be -- some before they go to third countries, some before they come to the United States.
Yamiche, go ahead.
(Cross-talk by reporters.)
I think we've got to move on, Patsy.
Q: Thanks, Jen. My question: The President said that the U.S. should learn from its mistakes in the past. Does the President have any mistakes that he thinks he made during this withdrawal in Afghanistan that he wants to learn from?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would say: I think the President has been pretty clear that we all had an expectation that the Afghan National Security Forces would fight harder at the end, would fight against the Taliban. We all had an expectation that President Ghani would not flee the country. Those were not expectations that were clearly met.
So you can spend a lot of time looking in the rearview mirror. What our focus now on is -- is on now is moving forward our diplomatic effort; settling Afghan refugees, SIV applicants, and others who are coming to the United States -- doing that in a very thorough and clear way; and also getting them settled in communities. That's what our focus has to be on.
Q: So is the lesson that he -- that he shouldn't have made those assumptions about the Afghanis- -- about the Afghan government? Is that the lesson for him then?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think -- I think most people made that -- made that assumption, but I don't have any more for you.
Q: I only ask that because he said that the U.S. should learn from their mistakes. But if there's --
MS. PSAKI: Right. And he laid out clearly what he thinks they are over the past 20 years.
Q: And then a quick question on --
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q: -- on Louisiana. The governor said that he's worried that the power outages might start affecting the hospitals. Is it -- can you make any clarification on whether or not the -- FEMA could do anything more to help --
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q: -- utility companies, and whether or not there's any sort of estimates on whether or not hospitals will be affected?
MS. PSAKI: Well -- so, initial reports from the local hospital distributor network indicate no supply chain disruptions. But he is right. I mean, this is an area where we are all watching, and this is why we are continuing to ensure there are necessary generators there, that we are engaged closely with health administrators and others about what their needs are and how we can deliver on them.
One of the primary limiting factors on oxygen -- which we don't see a shortage on, but it is obviously an issue that we have to watch closely -- is actually HAZMAT-certified drivers. And what this is is people who can -- who can drive around these oxygen tanks -- and facilities -- out to the hospitals.
So, there's a number of pieces that we have to work through, and we are preparing in case there is a need in that regard.
Q: Thank you, Jen. Two quick follow-ups. Yesterday, I asked about the Washington Post story that reported that the Taliban offered the United States control of Kabul and instead the United States focused on the airport. Have you been able to review that report, and is it accurate?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I'm not going to speak to private conversations, but what I will tell you is that it obviously required the deployment of 6,000 U.S. military forces to secure the airport, given the Afghan National Security Forces collapsed from that protection.
Our objective has never been -- and the President has been very clear about this -- having a military presence to control Kabul. So, that's never been our objective.
Q: And then, you've talked about how our commitment remains to these Americans, and you've talked about how we're switching from military effort to a diplomatic effort.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
Q: For the Americans who are currently in hiding and who very much want to come home -- not the other set -- what is the administration's message to them? Should they try and head to the border? Should they try and book a flight out of there? Or should they remain in hiding and hope that the diplomacy kicks in?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would just note that we are in touch with a number of these Americans -- not every one, perhaps, but we are in touch -- we may be. We are in touch with as many of them who we can make contact with, through a range of means. That continues.
And what our focus is on now -- and we'll have day-by-day updates -- and this is a very fair and good question -- is how can we ensure, operationally, that there are a range of options for people to be able to depart. Some of that may be over land, over borders. Some of that may be through airplanes.
And so, we're working, again, with the Qataris and the Turks on that. We're working to get the civilian side of the airport operational. But those are all pieces we're focused on.
Q: Is the administration preparing for a worst-case scenario in some circumstances -- hostage situations?
MS. PSAKI: Look, our focus right now is on making clear to the Taliban and to others in Afghanistan that we are going to get these American citizens out, that we are going to hold them to that account. And that's our focus.
Q: Jen, two unrelated questions.
MS. PSAKI: I'll be back tomorrow. Thank you so much.
5:01 P.M. EDT
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/352128