Joe Biden

Press Gaggle by Press Secretary Jen Psaki

January 11, 2022

Aboard Air Force One
En Route Atlanta, Georgia

12:13 P.M. EST

MS. PSAKI: Okay. Good morning, everyone. Thanks for joining us on our trip to Georgia.

Georgia is one of the 19 states where Republicans passed laws last year attacking the right to vote. While these voter suppression efforts are being driven by the Big Lie, they are reflections of some of the darkest chapters in our history.

As you all know, Georgia played a major role in the Civil Rights Movement. One of the bills we're fighting for in the Senate bears the name of the late Congressman John Lewis, a towering figure and tireless advocate for voting rights and racial equality.

The site of the President's and the Vice President's speeches -- the Atlanta University Center Consortium -- is a crossroads for students of four Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

Many of their students participated in the Civil Rights Movement through sit-ins and protests. Clark Atlanta was the first institution in the country to award graduate degrees to African Americans, Morehouse is the only all-male HBCU and is Dr. King's alma mater, and Spelman is one of only two all-women HBCUs.

One moment. I just want to give you all the background.

Before delivering the speeches, the President and the Vice President will visit the King Center, established by Mrs. Coretta Scott King as a living memorial to Dr. King.

There, the President and the Vice President will meet with the immediate family of Dr. King, including his children. They will join the King family in a wreath-laying at the crypt of Dr. and Mrs. King.

After, the President and the Vice President will meet with members of the Georgia congressional delegation at historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, including the church's senior pastor, Senator Warnock. As you know, he's traveling with us today. As you all know, Dr. King, his father, and his brother all served as pastors at Ebenezer.

With all of this in mind, Georgia is a fitting place for the President and the Vice President to make the case to the American people for protecting the right to vote against the new Jim Crow.

With that, let's get to your questions.

Q: A couple of questions on today's events. First off, Stacey Abrams isn't attending. We understand you're saying it's because of a scheduling mix-up, but it's hard to believe that someone wouldn't switch around their schedule for the President. So, can you tell us any more about why she's not going to be there? And does the President see this as a snub at all?

And then, he mentioned earlier that he spoke with her over the phone. Can you tell us about that conversation? Did he call her? How did that go?

MS. PSAKI: Sure. Well, the President had a warm conversation with Stacey Abrams this morning. He saw it as a continuation of the conversation they've had for the last several years about their shared commitment to protecting the right to vote, protecting democracy in this country. And they agreed that it's important to continue to fight for this and work together moving forward.

He is the first to say he understands what -- scheduling conflicts and how they appear in your life. Beyond that, I would point you to her and her team on any more specifics.

Q: And he's not the -- or she's not the only one that won't be attending. There are a number of leading voting rights activists that said that they're not attending, basically because they're fed up with the speeches and they want to see action. So, is the President at all concerned that he seems to have lost the faith and confidence of some of these leading activists?

MS. PSAKI: Well, I'm not going to speak to any individual who may or may not attend today. What I would note, first all -- of all, is that we have a full plane of congressional leaders and advocates for voting rights. The President will be meeting with a range of civil rights leaders from many generations while he's in Georgia today who share his commitment to getting voting rights legislation done and signing these two pieces of legislation into law.

What's important for anyone who is -- shares his commitment to know is that what he's going to be raising the question of today is, fundamentally, to people in the Senate -- Democrats, Republicans, and independents: Where do you want to be in history? Where do you want to be when the history books are written? And this is a key moment where you will be judged. Are you for protecting people's fundamental rights or not?

But he shares the desire to get this done. He shares their frustration it's not done yet. And he's looking forward to delivering the speech today.

Q: Does President Biden thinks he can change the mind of Senator Manchin and Sinema? And if not, what is the goal today?

MS. PSAKI: Look, I think the President knows that he was elected to do hard things and to advocate for hard things, even when there feels like it's -- there's an uphill battle or too challenging to get that done. He's never shied away from that. And certainly, he understands how the Senate works and that not only do you need a majority of votes to get this done, you need a majority of votes to make any changes to Senate rules in order to get this done.

His view -- and this is the case he'll continue to make -- is that the Senate is not functioning how it should be functioning. And if you look at how, for example, the filibuster has been used, if you -- when he was in the Senate for 36 years; it was used about 20 times a year -- 21 times a year on average. Last year, it was used 154 times, including 4 times to prevent us -- the Senate from moving forward and even considering and allowing a debate and a vote to happen on voting rights.

That's the case he'll continue to make. It's up to individual senators to make their decisions. But, again, the President will be very -- posing very clearly today a questi- -- a point to all senators and Americans: Which side of history are you going to be on -- Democrat, Republican, independent -- on this issue? And it's fundamental to people's rights.

Q: Does he intended to specifically mention those two senators?

MS. PSAKI: I'm not going to preview the speech more. I think it will be pretty clear that the President is speaking directly to the Senate and all members of the Senate.

Q: Will the President explain the changes that he wants to see in Senate procedures specifically? Will he say exactly what he wants changed?

MS. PSAKI: The President's speech is about getting voting rights legislation done. He will be clear he is open to changes. But it's more about the importance of it, explaining to the American people what's at stake. And that's what I think people's takeaway will be.

Q: But, Jen, is it the most effective use of the President's time that -- he essentially needs the vote of two senators to get this passed. So, is a speech like this the most effective use of his time?

And were Senators Manchin and Sinema invited on this trip?

MS. PSAKI: I don't have any more details. Obviously, the delegation with us today is from Georgia, primarily. So, that's -- and that's pretty standard for travel.

In terms of whether it's a good use of his time: Yes, the President, we, civil rights leaders, the delegation traveling with us today feel that it is a good use of the President of the United States' time to use the bully pulpit to make the case for why voting rights, the protection of them, fighting against efforts by Republicans in 19 states and more to perpetuate the Big Lie and make it more difficult to exercise your fundamental right is something people shouldn't stand for.

Q: Jen, so when people are looking to this speech for an answer about how this seemingly impossible road is going to be pushed forward on voting rights; if they want to hear strategy -- how are we going to get from A to B to C to a bill getting passed -- are they going to hear that in today's speech, or no?

MS. PSAKI: They will certainly hear the President's openness to making changes to a broken system in the Senate. They will also hear -- which I think the President believes people don't understand enough of, because sometimes we shorthand the Senate process instead of talking about what's actually at stake -- what's at stake here, whether it's in Georgia or 18 other states in the country; and when we say people's voting rights are being oppressed, what we mean by that. And that is also the case he'll be making today.

Q: Jen, Senator Manchin has said repeatedly that he doesn't want to do anything without buy-in from Republicans. Has the White House at all reached out to any Republicans about where they might be able to get something done?

And has, also, the White House seen the reporting this morning that it might not just be Manchin and Sinema, it might be people like Mark Kelly and Tester who have some questions about how far they'd want to go with that?

MS. PSAKI: I think I would turn that question back on Republicans, including many of them, including Leader McCon- -- or Senator McConnell, who voted for voting rights legislation repeatedly in the past, wrote about it in his book, talked about it publicly, how proud he was. What has changed? Why do you all want to be a part of perpetuating the Big Lie and making it more difficult for people to participate in the process? That's the question the President is raising today.

I think the question of why they are opposed to making it easier for people to vote is a question best posed to them.

Q: Outside of just the carveout for voting rights with the filibuster, are -- what would push President Biden to advocate for getting rid of the filibuster at a broader level?

MS. PSAKI: The speech today is about voting rights. In terms of specifics on Senate process, I don't have anything more to preview on that point.

Q: Jen, can you speak to Russian talks? The Russian press secretary said today that, quote, "So far…we see no significant reason for optimism" coming out of the talks. Does the White House agree? What's the path forward from these talks?

And then, in addition, Wendy Sherman, I believe, said that you came away from the talks with a better understanding of the Russian position. What did the U.S. learn from the talks?

MS. PSAKI: I would first say that it's too early to tell whether the Russians are serious about the path to diplomacy or not; or if they're prepared to negotiate seriously in good faith -- we are; or whether the -- they will use discussions as pretext to claim that diplomacy couldn't possibly work in order to proceed with the aggressive rhetoric and actions, most importantly, that they have portrayed at the border.

They have spoken very publicly about what their viewpoints are and what issues are important to them. We have also been very clear about where we stand, for example, on NATO. NATO's relationship with Ukraine is a matter only for Ukraine and the 30 NATO Allies, not for other countries, to determine.

That has been our position from the beginning. At the same time, I would say that we raised some preliminary ideas about a range of issues we're willing to have a conversation about, such as the placement of missiles in Europe or making reciprocal limits on military exercises.

There are a range of discussions that can be a part of a diplomatic path. But ultimately, it's up to the Russians to determine about whether they're going to take a serious approach to it or not.

Q: So, can you see reason for optimism then, or do you agree with the Russian press secretary?

MS. PSAKI: I think it's up to the Russians to determine which path they're going to take -- whether it's the diplomatic path or whether they are going to continue to proceed, which will lead us to put in place economic sanctions that go beyond what was done in 2014.

Q: Jen, before we leave Russia -- before we leave Russia, can I just follow up on that?

So there's been Russian military drills near Ukraine. Do you have any reaction to that?

MS. PSAKI: We, obviously, are closely -- we've noted our serious concerns about Russia's military buildup on the border of Ukraine. We continue to monitor their military activities near Ukraine's border and would reiterate that genuine progress can only take place in an environment of de-escalation, and diplomacy is the best way -- best way forward.

So, certainly, we're monitoring it. And that continues to be our position.

Q: Just one more: On the Russia side, they have -- they've said that the U.S. has promised to respond in writing to their proposals on security guarantees. Is that accurate? And what's going to be in that written response?

MS. PSAKI: I'd have to check on the specifics with the State Department on what it would look like, but I would -- I think it's important to note that where we are with the discussions, which we've always seen as a set of three, is today we're moving from Geneva into talks in Brussels tomorrow, which are focused on ensuring we continue in complete coordination with our European allies and partners.

And Deputy Secretary Sherman will spend today briefing our allies and partners. So, that's what's happening -- is happening behind the scenes. She's meeting today with NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg, briefing the NATO Atlantic Council -- the North Atlantic Council. She'll meet with European External Action Service Secretary General Sannino today and will brief the EU's Political and Security Committee.

So, the point is we are having discussions over the course of the next couple of days. It's not just with the Russians.

Q: Will we get a readout of that?

Q: Just to nail that down, are --

MS. PSAKI: I'm sure the State Department will put one out.

Q: Are you suggesting that it's too early to say whether the Russians are negotiating in good faith at these talks?

MS. PSAKI: Again, it's up to them to determine. It's too early to assess whether they are coming to these talks with a serious approach to diplomacy or not. That's up to them.

Q: Jen, tomorrow -- tomorrow there's a key report on inflation. I want to get your thoughts on that. But first of all, I want to ask: The Red Cross has issued an emergency call for blood donations. Does President Biden think it's time to drop a prohibition against gay men donating blood?

MS. PSAKI: I have seen those reports. I have not talked to our health team or the President about that. Let me check with him on that and our health team as well.

Q: And on inflation, do you have any --

MS. PSAKI: Yes, on inflation, absolutely. So I would note first that there is additional data that is coming out tomorrow. And we certainly anticipate -- forecasters generally expect elevated inflation tomorrow, especially for the year-over-year measure, which includes high inflation from nearly a year ago, when the economy was reopening. This in part reflects the fact that we continue to see consumer price increases for used cars. We just saw record-setting inflation in Europe. I would note that their headline inflation is actually above us and has been for the last several months.

And so we expect month-over-month inflation to moderate in the months ahead. And forecasters generally expect the year- over-year measures to come down to more historically typical levels by the end of the year. That continues to be the --

Q: Are there any plans that -- to address that continued rise --

Q: Like, is the White House going to take any new actions?

MS. PSAKI: We continue to press for steps in working with Congress to do that -- to do exactly that: to lower costs for the American people. That's why we want to get Build Back Better done.

Q: And any concerns that oil is at $82 a barrel today?

MS. PSAKI: I don't have any additional new assessment of that. I can check with our economic team.

Q: Just on COVID -- you know, we're seeing this month, you know, workplaces telling people not to come back to work. We're seeing, you know, kids staying home from school because of exposures. You know, people having to stay home because of infections, exposures. I'm wondering how that is affecting the West Wing at this point. Are you guys doing business differently? Are you asking more people to stay home? Are you doing your meetings in person? How is that affecting what you all are doing?

MS. PSAKI: Sure. Well, we already had very strict precautions in place long before Omicron. And we continue -- have continued those, and of course, we will continue to build on those.

So, for example, when anyone is going to see the President, they have to be tested. Same with the Vice President or other principals. Same with when they're traveling.

We wear masks in the West Wing at all times, including in your office, unless you're in your office alone. In addition, we have limited gatherings to less -- to under -- to under 30 people for this period of time. And there are times where we do do video conferences or video calls. That has been our policy, though, for months now.

Q: But has Omicron and just the surge changed the way you guys were doing business at all in the last few weeks?

MS. PSAKI: Well, again, we had very strict protocols which we had in place, many of which have gone far above and beyond CDC protocols. The limiting to 30 and below is something that is over the last several weeks. And ensuring that everybody is being very strict with wearing their masks, even in their offices, unless they're alone, is also something we've all been very mindful of.

Q: Hey, Jen, any response to the North Korean missile launch yesterday?

MS. PSAKI: Yeah, I believe I have something on that. One moment. One moment, one moment. Okay.

As the State Department and INDOPACOM have made clear overnight, we condemn the DPRK's ballistic missile launch. While we've assessed that this event did not pose an immediate threat to U.S. personnel or territory or to our allies, the launch highlights the destabilizing impact of the DPRK's illicit weapons program. The launch is in violation of multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions. It poses a threat to the DPRK's neighbors and the international community.

We call on the DPRK to refrain from further provocations and engage in sustained and substantive dialogue. And we are consulting closely with our allies and partners on this.

Q: There's a report it led to a ground stop yesterday on the West Coast, at American airports. Is that true?

MS. PSAKI: I would point you to the FAA who has put out a statement about it. I believe it was a 15-minute ground stop. And they did it out of an abundance of caution, and they were going to be assessing their approach moving forward.

Q: Hey, Jen, on testing: We're hearing some states that are trying to get their hands on tests and they've been able to distribute them -- Massachusetts, for one. But one of the complaints that we're hearing from some governors is just that there have not been enough manufacturers that are approved and authorized by the FDA to develop tests. Was it a mistake not to push the FDA to have more companies who can go about doing this sooner?

MS. PSAKI: Is there a specific governor? Or, I'm not sure what the --

Q: Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker.

MS. PSAKI: Okay.

Q: He mentioned that they've been able to get --

MS. PSAKI: I would say first that if you look back to where we were earlier this -- or a year ago, there were no approved tests, or maybe one, depending on what you're looking at; now there are nine. A number of those were approved through the course of the fall.

Obviously, we want tests to be on the market that are effective, right? But we have -- we have been advocating and pushing for more tests to get on the market. We agree: More tests on the market means more availability of tests on the market.

Q: Does the FDA have to, like, change -- cut red tape to make that happen, though?

MS. PSAKI: Again, this is a process that we have been advocating for for some time now and months. That's why there have been a number that have moved forward over the last several months. But we want to also ensure that the process allows for any tests that are on the market to be effective, and we're not going to expedite it past the -- past what data and science allows.

Q: Do vacancies at the FDA cause any problems here with this?

MS. PSAKI: I don't believe so. No.

Q: Jen, on COVID: We're seeing polls show that people think COVID is here to stay. Some of them feel like they've been vaccinated, they've been boosted, they've done all they can do to get the minimal case possible. At what point does the administration concede those who wanted to get a vaccine, have gotten the vaccine; those who aren't going to get the vaccine, aren't going to get the vaccine? And when do people, like, get to go back to the, quote unquote, "normal lives"?

MS. PSAKI: Well, I would first say that -- I'll repeat something the President has conveyed, which is that COVID, as it is right now, we're -- where we're at a very high level of a variant that is incredibly transmissible -- is not here forever and not here to stay.

And the good news is that we have the tools we know work -- masking up, getting vaccinated, getting boosted. More than 200 million fully vaccinated Americans have protection they didn't have a year ago.

Thanks to the American Rescue Plan, schools have funding. More than 95 percent of them are open across the country. That's a good sign. That's far away from where we were a year ago.

We understand people's frustration and their fatigue with the pandemic. We absolutely get it. But I don't foresee a time where we're going to not advocate for people to get vaccinated and protect themselves.

Q: Can we -- one more on voting rights. Martin Luther King III this morning had a statement that indicated it was his view that the President worked harder to get bridges passed than he's worked to get voting rights. Does the White House take issue with that characterization?

MS. PSAKI: We're -- first, we're -- we -- the President is looking forward to seeing the King family today. He'll have time to be able to spend with them today. And he is grateful for their advocacy and their work on pushing for voting rights.

I would note that the President has talked about voting rights on the national stage a number of times. He did on the 10-year anniversary of the MLK Memorial. He did in Philadelphia. He did on January 6th. It is -- he had signed a historic executive order within weeks of coming into office. He doubled -- there was the doubling of funding for voting rights protections at the Department of Justice.

It is -- it is not that we don't understand the frustration -- we do; we want Congress to pass this legislation as well.

The President is going to make a very clear case that today is the day, right now is a moment, where people will look in the history books and see where you stood at this moment. And I think that's something probably the King family would agree with.

Q: Jen, if this bill doesn't pass, what's the plan B with respect to voting rights? Because we're getting into an election year; things are going to grind to a halt. Are we getting to the point where it's too late to get anything done on this if this does not pass?

MS. PSAKI: Well, let's -- let's first advocate for the bill to pass -- these bills to pass. That's what the President is doing today.

Q: And then, the President's first year in office anniversary is coming up.

MS. PSAKI: I know. I'm aware.

Q: Exciting. Do you guys have anything planned? Can you preview any -- any of what the President will do to mark his first year?

MS. PSAKI: I expect we'll have more to say later in this week about what he'll be doing next week. But I don't have anything to detail at this moment.

Q: Did the administration play any role in the Chicago school situation yesterday and in breaking that impasse?

MS. PSAKI: Well, one, I would say we very much welcome the reopening of Chicago schools and the local -- the agreement made by local school leaders to reop- -- and leaders in Chicago to reopen the school.

My understanding is it will now go to a vote. I'm not sure if that vote has happened yet. And we hope that the next steps move quickly.

But I would note that, in addition to obviously being in touch with -- on a regular basis -- with leaders in the state, the President also advocated and pushed for $130 billion in funding for schools, including $5 billion that went to the state of Illinois, that helped ensure that states could take mitigation numbers -- measures; could put in place testing contracts; could bu- -- purchase masks; could make sure they have enough bus drivers. And certainly that has laid the groundwork for more than 95 percent of schools to be open across the country.

Q: There's talk that the President -- that there is a push to get Build Back Better passed by State of the Union. Kind of, what's the state of the talks right now? And when is the last time the President spoke with Senator Manchin? What's going on there?

MS. PSAKI: We have not set a deadline, so that would be inaccurate reporting. We are, of course, behind the scenes, engaged closely with staff, with members across -- across the Democratic Party. And that work will continue, even as the President is traveling to Georgia today to make the case for voting rights and voting rights legislation. But I don't have any specifics to update on (inaudible).

Q: Is it accurate to say that talks with Machin have stalled? Sorry, I just --

MS. PSAKI: I wouldn't characterize it that way. I would just say that we're not going to detail, in any specifics, conversations we have Senator Manchin or other members either.

Q: What are the President's own red lines on Build Back Better? Is it, like, he really wants the next iteration of the bill to include the Child Tax Credit and climate policy, for example? Or what are, like, the three things that are must-haves for him and not (inaudible)?

MS. PSAKI: I'm just not going to outline any red lines from here. The President has said he's not going to raise taxes for people making less than $400,000 a year. He proposed this package because he wants to lower costs for the American people. There are historic ways to do that in this package, whether it's creating a universal pre-K system, lowering the cost of childcare, eldercare, healthcare across the country. But again, you need 50 votes to get it across the finish line and that's what we're working to accomplish.

Q: There's a push to ban lawmakers from trading individual stocks in the House and the Senate now. What's the President's stance on that? Would he advocate for that bill and sign it if it got to his desk?

MS. PSAKI: I have not talked to him about that. I'll talk to our legislative team -- if we have a specific response on that.

Q: How closely is the President following the talks in Europe? Is he directly engaged, and to what extent?

MS. PSAKI: Very closely. He receives a nearly daily, if not daily, updates from his national security team on how the conversations are going, what the talks look like, and what the status is of those conversations.

Q: Should we expect leader-to-leader calls at a certain point?

MS. PSAKI: I don't have anything to preview for you at this point in time. I think we're going to assess where we are after we get through the next two rounds of talks, which are a part of the set of three.

Q: Jen, as the midterms approach, there will be some Democrats, plausibly, who will want to stay away from the President for political reasons. What's his -- what's his response to that sort of action?

MS. PSAKI: Do you have any examples?

Q: No, I'm saying that there are -- there certainly will be some Democrats on the campaign trail that if -- if the -- if the President's poll numbers are where are they at, et cetera, that will not want to be seen on the campaign trail with him. What is the President's feeling about that? And how would he approach that situation?

MS. PSAKI: I think we're talking about a hypothetical that doesn't yet exist. I mean, I would say that the vast majority of members who may face challenging races are people who have advocated for the President's agenda, whether it's the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill or his commitment to lowering costs for Americans across the country. So, I'm not going to speculate on politics, but also, I haven't seen evidence of that at this point in time.

Q: But, Jen, as a follow-up to that, with the midterms: We saw a very forceful speech from the President on January 6th; you've described his remarks today as "forceful." Coming into a midterm election with Congress at stake, is this what we're going to see from the President going forward? Is he going to be out on the campaign trail, engaged, giving these forceful remarks, energetic? What's your (inaudible)?

MS. PSAKI: Look, I think the President is -- is going to continue to be -- make a forceful case for the choice the American people are facing across the country: whether you're going to stand on the right side of history or not, also whether you're going to stand for protecting more people and saving more lives when it comes to COVID. Are you going to stand on the side of lowering the cost of childcare for people or not? Ultimately, this is a choice for people across the country. And I think you'll hear the President make that case.

Q: The excerpt you folks released of what the President is going to say today --

MS. PSAKI: Yeah.

Q: -- he's going to say it's a "turning point" for the nation. "Will we choose democracy over autocracy…?"

Does the President believe a vote against these two voting rights bills is a vote against democracy and for autocracy?

MS. PSAKI: I think the President's speech will make that pretty clear.

Q: Is there a discussion right now between the President and groups like the NAACP?

MS. PSAKI: I don't believe so.

Q: Because we've had some statements just that -- you know, over the course of the last several months, that voting rights should have been a bigger priority sooner. I know you spoke to this. But, you know, going into the midterms and having had voters of color play such a large role in electing this President, is there, you know -- is that in the forefront of his mind that this needs to have greater importance with the time that's left and that those groups need to, you know, really feel that they're being heard?

MS. PSAKI: Look, I think what people will hear from the President today is a strong case advocating for why the protection of voting rights is a -- an issue that will honor the legacies of many civil rights leaders, whether you're looking back at the legacy of Martin Luther King and his family, who he'll see today, or John Lewis, who is the namesake of one of these bills, or even living civil rights leaders today, whether it is Stacey Abrams or Senator Warnock, who's traveling with us today.

So, he will certainly make that case. And the real question is about what side of history you're standing on, if you're against the advocation and the protection of voting rights. And I think the American people are smart enough to see it through that lens.

Q: We're seeing more reports out of China about the virus spread there. And, of course, the Olympics are coming up. Is the administration or the government doing anything in extra preparation for those athletes going over there? And is there concern about, you know, the athletes and their safety?

MS. PSAKI: I'd really point you to the U.S. Olympic Committee on that.

All right, guys. See you soon.

Q: Thank you, Jen.

MS. PSAKI: Thanks, everyone.

12:39 P.M. EST

Joseph R. Biden, Press Gaggle by Press Secretary Jen Psaki Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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