Joe Biden

Press Gaggle by Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre and NSC Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby

January 08, 2024

Aboard Air Force One
En Route Charleston, South Carolina

10:41 A.M. EST

MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Hello. Hi, everybody.

Q: Hi, Karine.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Hello. Okay, just one quick thing at the top, and then we'll get going here. So, today President Biden is traveling to South Carolina where he will deliver remarks at an event at Mother Emanuel AME Church.

We will continue -- we will then continue on to Dallas, where the President will pay his respects to the late Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson.

And now I have the Admiral right behind me here, who's going to discuss the latest in the Middle East.

There he goes. There you go.

MR. KIRBY: Thank you, Karine. Just a quick update on trucks into Gaza. Over the last 48 hours, 210 trucks got in. That's good, but it's not good enough.

One of the things that -- I know you know Secretary Blinken is in the region right now. He's in Saudi Arabia today, heading to Israel tonight. But that's going to be one of the things that he focuses on. It has already and will continue to see if we can't increase that humanitarian assistance into Gaza.

That's it.

Q: Are you -- is the U.S. concerned, on the Lebanon blast, that the Israeli strikes in Lebanon are going to increase risk of a -- of a wider war?

MR. KIRBY: So, first, I'd let the Israelis speak to their operations one way or another. We're not going to confirm that -- reports of their operations.

From the very beginning, we have talked about our strong desire not to see this conflict escalate or widen. And that includes the potential for a second front up in the north of the country.

We believe that the displaced people in Lebanon and displaced people in Israel have a right to return to their homes, and we want to see that happen as soon as possible.

Q: What is the level of frustration at the NSC about Secretary Austin not informing the White House until later about his hospitalization? And will there be any consequences for that?

MR. KIRBY: I think -- look, our main focus right now is on Secretary Austin's health and making sure that he gets all the care and support that he needs to -- to fully recover. That's the focus.

And he has already resumed all his authorities. He's already doing all of the functions he would normally do. He's just do- -- he's doing it right now from -- from the hospital.

We'll -- we'll -- obviously, I think, as you might expect, we'll take a look at process and procedure here and try to learn from this experience. And if there's some changes that need to be made, you know, in terms of process and procedure, we'll do that.

Q: There are some -- there are some calls for him to be fired. Is that something that the President is wanting or considering doing?

MR. KIRBY: The President's number one focus is on his health and recovery, and he looks forward to having him back at the Pentagon as soon as possible.

The President respects the fact that Secretary Austin took ownership for the lack of transparency. He also respects the amazing job he's done as Defense Secretary and how he's handled multiple crises over the last almost three years now. And very much values his advice, candor, leadership, and, again, looks forward to having him back at the Pentagon.

Q: John, does the President know what elective surgery the Secretary had, even though the American people don't know? And does he know what his current symptoms are and his current health condition is?

MR. KIRBY: I know that the President had an opportunity to talk to Secretary Austin a couple of days ago, wish him well, get -- see how he was doing.

I don't know the details of that conversation, and I don't know the level of the President's personal knowledge of his medical situation. And then, that would really between -- be between the two men.

Your -- your question about that elective procedure is really better directed to the Pentagon, not -- not to us.

I want to make sure I put a fork in my answer to you. There is no -- no plans or anything other than for Secretary Austin to stay in the job and continue in the leadership that he's been exu- -- that he's been demonstrating.

Q: John, given -- John, given the delay in disclosing this, did Secretary Austin meet the President's own standard of transparency? And is the White House committed if -- if President Biden had to have some kind of medical procedure, is the White House committed to releasing that information to the public in a very timely manner?

MR. KIRBY: Well, on the second question, you're a little out of my lane. That's really -- but I don't want to speak for Karine, but I think the answer is yes. I mean, the answer is absolutely yes. We'll be as transparent as possible.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Yeah. I mean, the President has always put transparency at the center of his administration, from the beginning. And obviously, that's what we're going to continue to do.

So, we're going to continue to be transparent. Obviously, the Department of Defense will have more about the -- more to speak to about their protocol. I just don't have anything to add on -- specifically on that piece.

Q: Do you think you were transparent here, though? I mean, it took days for this -- for this -- for people to be informed about this and at a time of, you know, conflict around the world.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE: From what I --

MR. KIRBY: This --

MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Okay -- no, go ahead --

MR. KIRBY: I'm sorry --

MS. JEAN-PIERRE: No, no, no, no, no. Go ahead.

MR. KIRBY: The -- the Pentagon has talked about this. The Secretary put out a statement, took accountability for the lack of transparency. We'll let you -- we'll let the Pentagon speak to the process there.

Q: John -- John, quickly. You mentioned you guys are taking a look at process. Does the President want an official review into what happened in him not -- you know, communication not coming up through the White House?

MR. KIRBY: As I said to Jeff, I fully expect that we'll take a look at process and procedure here. We'll do what's akin to a hot wash and try to see if processes and procedures need to be changed at all or modified so that we can learn from this.

Q: John --

MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Go ahead.

Q: All right. Does the White House have an official view on, like, the duty of the Cabinet Secretaries and when they need to disclose this type of, you know, medical procedure or hospitalizations?

MR. KIRBY: Look, I think there's a -- an expectation that when a Cabinet official becomes hospitalized that there's a -- that that will be notified up the chain of command. There is that expectation.

Q: Can you say, was there any contact between Jake Sullivan and the Defense Secretary in those four days -- January 1st to January 4th -- any contact at all?

MR. KIRBY: On the morning of the 1st of January, the Secretary, as well as Secretary Blinken, Jake, other relevant officials, did have a secure conference call with the President. This was regarding operations in the Middle East. And -- and so, there was -- there was contact --

Q: (Inaudible.)

MR. KIRBY: -- and then -- on the 1st of January.

Q: John, you said at the beginning of your remarks that the most important thing right now is the Secretary's health. How is his health?

MR. KIRBY: That's really for Secretary Austin and the Pentagon to speak to, Jeff. That -- that would be inappropriate for me to -- to get into his personal health condition.

He -- he did indicate that he's recovering well in his own statement. And as -- again, he expects to be back at the Pentagon in the relatively near future.

Q: John, the Situation Room knows how to get in touch with all senior Cabinet officials at all time. Did they know his physical --

MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Can you repeat the question -- yeah, we --

Q: -- the Situation Room itself know his location? There's a board in the Situation Room. It shows where the President is at all times, the Vice President is at all times. I mean, did the Situation Room know where he was physically?

MR. KIRBY: There's a process in the -- at -- in the -- for the Situation Room, the Ops Center, to check in every morning to get the general location of all the non-White House principals, the Cabinet officers. And there is a process of connection to the agencies to do that.

But it's generic, Peter. It's what town they're in -- D.C., if they're overseas, where they are. That's the process. The -- the issue of when a Cabinet official gets hospitalized, that's -- that's really on the agency to inform that -- that that has happened.

Q: It wasn't -- it wasn't the Situation Room knew and didn't put it up the chain itself?

MR. KIRBY: That is correct.

Q: Okay.

MR. KIRBY: There was no -- you all hear- -- you all seen the press reporting on this. There was no notification or knowledge at the White House or the National Security Council until Thursday afternoon.

All right.

Q: Thanks.

Q: (Inaudible) --

MR. KIRBY: Yes, ma'am.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Thanks, Admiral.

Q: (Inaudible.) He's leaving?


Q: Oh --

MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Wa- -- Admiral.

Q: Admiral. Admiral.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE: J.J. had a question.

Well, since he was in earshot -- he's still in earshot. J.J. had something.

Q: One more. Didn't realize you were leaving already. There was some reports over the weekend about Elon Musk and some concerns about his -- his drug use and the behavior that he's been exhibiting. Some of his board members concerned. Aware of that reporting? And is there -- he'd had some contracts with the government. Any reaction to it? There's connections between --

MR. KIRBY: We wouldn't comment on that.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE: We wouldn't comment on private companies.

Q: So, Karine, should the American people -- I'm sorry. Do you need a second?

Okay. Should the American people have confidence in Austin given his lack of transparency? And then also, do the American people need to be concerned about a lack of transparency for the President given this lapse?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE: So, I want to go back to Austin's statement a couple of days ago, where he has taken responsibility.

Q: Yeah.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE: And so, I think that's important. So, I would point you to that. And I will just reiterate that the President has complete confidence -- continues to have confidence in Secretary Aust- -- in Secretary Austin.

And -- and as the Admiral just stated, I think the number one thing right now is for him -- we want to see him back at the Pentagon -- get well and back at the Pentagon.

And I'll just add one more thing is that the President -- as we have shared, the President spoke to Austin -- Secretary Austin on Saturday. They had a very good conversation. And again, you know, the President appreciated Austin's statement and taking full responsibility here. And I think that's what -- that's what matters, is him getting back to -- to the Pentagon and taking full responsibility.

Q: Do you think it's necessary -- to, sort of, like, tie up this issue -- for Austin to articulate where -- what happened? I mean, does he need to sort of explain, kind of, how the President explains when he's --

MS. JEAN-PIERRE: So, we're going to leave it to the Department of Defense to speak to this. I think they will. So, I will leave it to them to talk about their process, their protocol, the specifics -- that specific question that you're asking. So, we'll leave it there to -- to walk us -- walk -- walk all of you through the -- through what happened last week.

Q: Karine, there was a spending toplines agreement over the weekend. What is the administration's current view on whether a shutdown can be avoided in a couple of weeks?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE: So, let me just say a couple of things, since this just happened -- right? -- over the weekend, and just want to be on the record here.

So -- so, the bipartisan funding framework congressional leaders have reached moves us one step closer to preventing a needless government shutdown and protecting important national priorities. The framework reflects the funding levels negotiated as part of the bipartisan budget agreement and rejects deep cuts to programs hardworking families count on, and it provides a path to pass -- to passing full-year -- full-year funding bills that deliver for the American people and are free of any extreme policies.

Now it is for congressional Republicans -- they have to do their jobs -- they must do their jobs and stop threatening to shut down the government and fulfill their basic responsibility to fund critical domestic and national security priorities, including the President's supplemental requests. It's time for them to act. And so, that's what we expect.

As far as the process and how this moves forward, that is -- certainly congressional leaders -- we leave it to the congressional leaders to -- to figure out how this legislative process is going to be.

But look -- and we've said this over and over again -- this is their basic duty, when it comes to Congress and keeping the government open and funded. This is something that they are responsible for, and they should not play politics with this.

This is -- these are programs that the American people rely on. And so, we -- they have to get this done.

Q: Karine, just to follow up on that, you say it's the Congress's job to figure this out, but surely the White House is involved.


Q: Can you give us a sense of who's doing what and where you see the next steps happening here?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE: So, look, I mean, you know this: The first go-around -- right? -- around the debt ceiling, the President certainly got involved -- right? -- and there was a bipartisan agreement that was signed -- that was actually signed by the President and -- and it became law. And -- and it was voted by two thirds of the House -- Republican House, and it was -- certainly got bipartisan support in the Senate.

So, this is something that -- obviously, the first go-around -- that we were involved and we made it happen because we -- the President understood how important it is to get this done for the American people.

As it relates to this particular deal, the -- the administration was -- was obviously in close touch with congressional -- with congressional members of both parties throughout their negotiation process on this particular outcome. And we provided, like we always do, technical -- any type of technical guidance to lawmakers. And so, that is how we were involved in this particular new iteration of this.

Q: Is there anything in this deal that the President is unhappy with?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE: So, look, you know, this is -- if you're asking if -- like, if this is con- -- this is consistent, right? We believe this is consistent with the original agreement that I had just, kind of, went through that process.

And so, the framework both abides by the cap set in the bipartisan budget agreement and achieves the same levels for defense and non-defense discretionary spending that we and the -- the White House and the congressional leaders agreed to last May, as I just had laid out how this process had started originally.

Q: Karine --

Q: Back to Sec- --

Q: Sorry, you -- (laughter) --

Q: Back to Secretary Austin again. Could you let us know at some point if the President is aware of what landed his Defense Secretary in the ICU, at least so we know that the President is aware? If this is a secret from the President even, that's -- that's a different thing.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Yeah, I -- I hear you -- I hear -- I hear you, J.J. It's just that it is not something that we can speak to, right? This is his own medical -- it is -- it is a private thing that -- it is something that the Secretary and the Department of Defense would speak to.

As you know, they spoke on -- the President and the Secretary spoke on Saturday. They had a conversation. And the President wants to see the Secretary get well, and it sounds like he's doing well, from his own statement -- the Secretary -- and get back to the Pentagon and continue the job that he's been doing this past couple of years -- and, we believe, very well.

So, don't want to get into -- into any -- any specifics on that. That is really for Secretary Austin and the Department of Defense to -- to speak to.

Q: Karine, quickly on the -- on the border talks. Are there any plans for the President to host Johnson at the White House to discuss the border? And have they had any calls or conversations recently in the last couple of weeks?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE: So -- and you're talking about just between the President and -- and the --

Q: Between the President --

MS. JEAN-PIERRE: -- Speaker?

Q: -- and the Speaker, yeah.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE: So, I don't have any -- anything to preview for you on any conversation that he's had specifically with the Speaker.

What I can say is the President is in regular contact and conversations with congressional leaders. As you know, his team has been also in regular communication -- part of the negotiation, as we saw- -- talk about the supplemental. And so that's been going for some weeks -- for some time now. I don't have any specific conversation between the two of them on -- to preview at this time or to lay out or to announce at this time.

What I will say, though, as it relates to the supplemental: One of the negotiators -- the Republican negotiator was on one of the Sunday news networks and said that he expects, essentially -- I'm paraphrasing here -- he expects to have something go out this week. And so, I think that's important.

We -- we've always said we believe that the -- the direction of the negotiations have been going in the right direction. And we appreciate that there is a bipartisan conversation happening in the Senate on border security.

Q: Over the weekend, the former President referred to the January 6th detainees as -- as "hostages." Does -- did the -- Mr. Biden see those comments? And was there any reaction or does he plan to address that at all?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE: I mean, look, you heard -- you heard from the President on Friday. He gave a -- he gave a really important, critical speech on January 6th.

And I've said this, and the President has said this many times, right? What we saw on January 6th was an attack on our democracy. We saw -- and not just us -- the American people saw 2,000 insurrectionists, really, attack the Capitol. And we saw a confederate flag flying around in the Capitol. That's what we saw.

And not just that. We s- -- police officers were injured. Some police officers lost their lives because of that event. And so, you heard you -- heard that from -- from the President.

As it relates to what you asked me about the hostages -- look, I want to be careful. We follow the law. We don't comment on 2024. We also don't comment on DOJ investigations or legal processes.

So -- but, you know, I've seen American veterans note that -- how grotesque and offensive to compare those convicted of assaulting cops and attempting to overthrow the American government that veterans -- that veterans have died defending innocent Americans, like an Israeli -- like in Israel and -- and people of other nationalities who -- who were abducted during Hamas atrocities on October 7th.

So, it is -- like I said, it is grotesque to make those type of comparison. And the President, you know, spoke very forcefully of how he saw January 6th and laid out there's a choice that we have to make here. There's a choice that we have to make -- that the American people have to really decide.

Q: It really is a condemnation -- isn't it, Karine? -- of -- making that comparison?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Well, I want to be careful, right?

Q: Do you have to be careful?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Yeah, but -- but, look, what we --

Q: He referred to them as "hostages."

MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Yes, he did. And I just said about how January 6th was -- was an attack on our democracy, and we have to continue to call that out. That's what the President said -- right? -- that's what the President said and laid out on January 6th.

And, you know, it is -- look, what we saw on January 6th cannot be repeated again. And that is one of the things that the -- the President is making very, very clear. And he has over the last couple of years.

And what we saw was certainly something that is a dark day for -- for the history of -- of this country. And so, we ca- -- we get to make sure it doesn't repeat itself.

And there is misinformation, disinformation currently out there still about January 6th -- right? -- about -- about -- about that. And so, we have to call that out as well. And that's what you're going to continue to hear from this President.

Q: How is the President going to assess the threat level of political violence in his speech today in Charleston? And -- and is he going to specifically point to former President Trump as someone who foments violence?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE: So, just going to be really careful and mindful here as well. But I'll say a couple of things. The Vice President, the President -- I'm sorry, when the -- when the President was then Vice President, he and his family worshiped at the Mother Emanuel, and that was back in 2015, to show solidarity after the heartbreaking tragedy.

And so, the President has continued to underline that we cannot forget the act of racist hate suffered by Mother Emanuel congregation and that we must continue to stand together against those kinds of sentiments as Americans.

As he said when he signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act and when he took action to protect houses of worship and when he spoke at South Carolina State University's commencement, upholding the dignity and rights of all Americans and giving hate no safe harbor are North Star --starts -- Stars for this Pres- -- this President. So, that's what you're going to continue to expect from him.

But I'm not going to get too far ahead of the President. You'll hear directly from him in a couple of hours.

All right? Yeah. All right. Thanks, everybody.

Q: Thanks, Karine.

11:01 A.M. EST

Joseph R. Biden, Press Gaggle by Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre and NSC Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

Simple Search of Our Archives