Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jen Psaki, January 20, 2021
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
7:06 P.M. EST
MS. PSAKI: Good evening, everyone. Thank you for joining us on this historic day. It’s an honor to be here with all of you.
When the President asked me to serve in this role, we talked about the importance of bringing truth and transparency back to the briefing room, and he asked me to ensure we are communicating about the policies across the Biden-Harris administration and the work his team is doing every single day on behalf of all American people.
There will be times when we see things differently in this room — I mean, among all of us. That’s okay. That’s part of our democracy. And rebuilding trust with the American people will be central to our focus in the Press Office and in the White House every single day.
So we had a very busy and active day today, as you all know, but I wanted to take a moment to go through the 15 executive actions — or highlights of them, I should say — and some of the steps that the President asked agencies to take today. You should have all received copies of the executive orders, as well as the accompanying fact sheets, but I want to take this moment to highlight them for the American public, who are watching at home.
To combat the deadly virus, the President launched his 100 Day Masking Challenge, asking Americans to do their part and mask up for 100 days. He’s doing his part, as well, issuing a mask mandate that will require anyone visiting a federal building or federal land or using certain modes of public transportation to wear a mask.
He signed an executive order reversing Trump’s decision to withdraw from the World Health Organization. This will strengthen our own efforts to get the pandemic under control by improving global health. And tomorrow — we’re not wasting any time — Dr. Fauci will participate remotely in the meeting of the World Health Organization as the U.S. head of delegation.
President Biden also officially appointed a COVID-19 response coordinator — a position and team we had already previously announced, but made it official today — to create a unified national response to the pandemic. And he reestablished the national security team responsible for global health security and biodefense.
The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered an almost unprecedented housing affordability crisis. He took immediate action to confront the crisis and ask relevant agencies to extend nationwide moratoriums on evictions and foreclosures. The pandemic has also increased the hardship on millions of Americans who owe federal student loans. In response, the President asked the Department of Education to extend the pause on student loan payments and interest.
He rejoined the Paris climate agreement, putting the United States back in a position to exercise global leadership in advancing the objectives of the ambitious agreement.
Sorry, hope you’re comfortable. There’s a few more.
And a second broad executive order will roll back harmful regulatory reversals made by the previous administration to protect public health and the environment. This order protects our nation’s treasures by reviewing the boundaries for several national monuments, places a temporary moratorium on all oil and natural gas leasing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and reestablishes the Interagency Working Group on the Social Cost of Greenhouse Gases.
He also launched a whole-of-government effort to advance racial equity and root out systemic racism from federal programs and institutions.
He directed the Secretary of Homeland Security, in consultation with the Attorney General, to take all appropriate actions to preserve and fortify DACA, which provides temporary relief from deportation to DREAMers, young people who are brought to this country as children.
The President also put an end to the Muslim ban, a policy rooted in religious animus and xenophobia.
He signed a proclamation, effective immediately, halting further funding or construction of the previous administration’s border wall and terminating the so-called “national emergency use” to wastefully divert billions for wall construction.
Also today, President Biden sent an immigration bill to Congress. The U.S. Citizenship Act modernizes our immigration system. It provides hardworking people who’ve enriched our communities and lived here for decades an opportunity to earn citizenship. The President’s priority reflected in the bill are to responsibly manage the border, keep families together, grow our economy, address the root causes of migration from Central America, and ensure that America can remain a refuge for those fleeing prosecution.
With that, I’d love to take your question, Zeke. Why don’t you kick us off?
Q Thanks, Jen. First off, congratulations. And one question about your role. You touched on this a little bit at the top, but when you are up there, do you see yourself — your primary role as promoting the interests of the President, or are you there to provide us the unvarnished truth so that we can share that with the American people
MS. PSAKI: Well, let me first say, Zeke, that I come to this podium having served both in the White House and at the State Department, as the spokesperson there, and I traveled the world on trips to promote democracy, where I saw the power of the United States and, of course, the power of this podium, and the power of truth, and the importance of setting an example of engagement and transparency.
So I will just state — because you gave me the opportunity — I have deep respect for the role of a free and independent press in our democracy and for the role all of you play.
As I noted earlier, there will be moments when we disagree, and there will certainly be days where we disagree for extensive parts of the briefing even perhaps. But we have a common goal, which is sharing accurate information with the American people.
If the President were standing here with me today, he would say he works for the American people. I work for him, so I also work for the American people. But his objective and his commitment is to bring transparency and truth back to government — to share the truth, even when it’s hard to hear. And that’s something that I hope to deliver on in this role as well.
Q And, again, just one substantive one since I know we’re short on time. When will President Biden begin making some foreign leader calls? Who is on that initial list? And during the transition, he didn’t speak with President Putin. Does he plan on doing that? And is he going to discuss retaliation for the SolarWinds hack on the federal government?
MS. PSAKI: Sure. Let me try to get to those. And I’ll just note, since Zeke mentioned it, I know some of you have to get to another event this evening, because we’re not fully done with the day. So we will have longer briefings in the future, but we’ll try to get to as many questions as possible.
So his first call — foreign leader call will be on Friday with Prime Minister Trudeau. I expect they will certainly discuss the important relationship with Canada, as well as his decision on the Keystone Pipeline that we announced today.
He — I don’t have any plans — or any plans to read out for you, in terms of a call with President Putin. I will note for you that I would expect his early calls will be with partners and allies. He feels it’s important to rebuild those relationships and to address the challenges and threats we’re facing in the world.
On SolarWinds, we’ve spoken with this — about this previously a bit, prior to his inauguration, I should say, today. We are — of course, we reserve the right to respond at a time and in a manner of our choosing to any cyberattack. But our team is, of course, just getting on the ground today. They’re just getting onto their computers, so I don’t have anything to read out for you or to preview for you at this point in time.
Peter, go ahead.
MS. PSAKI: Jen, let me — I have a question for you on policy. First, a quick housekeeping question. A short time ago, President Biden said that he received a very generous letter from President Trump. Of course, he said it was private. He said, “I will not talk about it until I talk to him.” Is President Biden planning to call now former President Trump? And is this White House working in any way to try to put the two in touch?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think, Peter, that was a reflection of President Biden’s view. And I was with him when he was reading the letter in the Oval Office right before he signed the executive actions — was that this is a letter that was private, as he said to you all. It was both generous and gracious. And it was just a reflection of him not planning to release the letter unilaterally, but I wouldn’t take it as an indication of a pending call with the former President.
Q Let me ask you on policy, if I can quickly. You talk — obviously, your role is sort of in terms of delivering the best information to the American people on behalf of this White House. The battle for truth may be as tough a fight right now as is the battle against coronavirus. How do you and President Biden plan to combat disinformation that, in many ways, led to that assault we witnessed two weeks ago today on the Capitol?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think, Peter, there are a number of ways to combat misinformation. One of them is accurate information and truth and data, and sharing information even when it is hard to hear, and even when it is not meeting the expectations of people at home who are desperate for this crisis to be over.
We’ll have more to share with you in the next few days — hopefully before the weekend. But what we plan to do is not just return these daily briefings, Monday through Friday — not Saturdays and Sundays; I’m not a monster — but on — but also to return briefings with our health officials and public health officials. We want to do those regularly, in a dependable way, with data, shared with all of you and with the public so that they can also track progress we’re making on getting the pandemic under control.
Q And as it relates to the Cabinet, if I can, quickly: We know President Biden is beginning without a single member of his Cabinet confirmed. What is your understanding on how quickly those confirmations will happen? And when should we expect additional nominations and ambassadorships to be announced?
MS. PSAKI: Well, Peter, the desire to get his Cabinet in place and get his team confirmed is front and center for the President. It is an issue — a topic he discussed with members of Congress from both the Republican and Democratic Party today during the course of the day and the course of events.
I think, as we were coming out here, Avril Haines should be on her way to confirmation. I don’t know if it’s officially voted — been — happened yet, but she’s on her way.
We have prioritized getting our national security team in place, given the crises we’re facing, given the importance of keeping the American people safe at this time. But we are eager for those to move forward quickly in the coming days, ideally tomorrow, by Friday. We’d like to move them quickly. It’s something that he is raising in his conversations, as we all are, with members of Congress and their teams.
Q Thank you.
MS. PSAKI: Thank you. Karen.
Q Jen, has President Biden invited congressional leaders to sit down and talk about the COVID relief measure that he introduced?
MS. PSAKI: Well, he has been discussing the COVID relief measures — the entire package that has, as you know, unemployment insurance; it has relief and assistance for the American people. It also has money to reopen schools, which I know, as a mother, impacts all of us.
But he has been discussing that with Democrats and Republicans since long before he was sworn in today. Today was a day where he had conversations about working together in terms of getting his team in place, on his agenda moving forward. But I expect he will be picking up the phone in the coming days and having more of those conversations.
In terms of when he will meet in person, I will say soon, and we hope to have more of an update on that for you soon as well.
Q What role do you expect him to play in these negotiations? There was a lot of comments today about his familiarity with the Senate. How involved will he be in that process?
MS. PSAKI: He will be quite involved. There is — the issue that he wakes up every day focused on is getting the pandemic under control. The issue he goes to bed every night focused on is getting the pandemic under control.
This package is a pivotal step to doing that, and it has assistance for the American people to make that bridge, financially. It also has essential funding for vaccine distribution.
He will be very involved. He will not be the only one. We have a whole team here of senior staff, of course. But, as you noted, he is not a stranger to the Senate; he served there for 36 years. Many of these people he — many of the members on both sides of the aisle he served with over that time, and I expect he will be quite involved in the process.
Go ahead, Jen.
Q So, on this COVID relief package: Senator Romney was already saying to reporters today that he doesn’t see a need for another virus relief package, and he’s the kind of Republican vote you’re likely going to be trying to get.
So, how long are you willing to try to work to get Republican support before you decide to go through the budget reconciliation process instead
MS. PSAKI: Well, as you know, because you all cover it and as I’ve stated a couple times here today, we are in the middle of an urgent crisis in this country. It’s not just impacting Democrats; it’s impacting Republicans. It’s impacting red states and blue states. And this plan is intended to address the suffering of the American people. So we hope — and, frankly, we expect — Republicans in Congress and Democrats, too, will support assistance that will bring relief to the people they represent.
This is a conversation. He, of course, gave a primetime address, as you all know, last week — it seems like a long time ago, but it wasn’t — to announce his specifics, and he has already had a number of conversations with Democrats and the Republicans. Those will continue. His clear preference is to move forward with a bipartisan bill. There’s no question about it. But we’re also not going to take any tools off the table for how the Senate — House and Senate can get this urgent package done.
So, we are only — less than a day has he been President of the United States, but he’s going to continue to work with members of both parties to get it done.
Francesca, go ahead.
Q Thank you, Jen. I have a — I do have a question about reopening schools, but I just want to pick up where she left off on that, and note that Republicans — including Lindsey Graham, who is expected to be the Senate Budget Committee ranking member — have already said that the price tag on the President’s proposal is too high for them. So, is there any wiggle room on that number? And has he already begun negotiations with Mitch McConnell?
MS. PSAKI: Well, first, the package wasn’t designed with the number 1.9 trillion as a starting point; it was designed with the components that were necessary to give people the relief they needed.
So, what’s challenging is: What are you going to cut? Are you going to cut funding for vaccinations? Are you going to cut funding for unemployment insurance? Are you going to cut funding for reopening schools?
But it was laid out as his proposal based on recommendations from economists, recommendations from health experts. And as you’ve also seen, there have been also an outpouring of support from everyone from Bernie Sanders to the Chamber of Commerce for the package and the components in it. But this is a discussion. It’s a conversation. And he is no stranger to the process of bill making.
So we’re at the beginning of the process. And as we continue, there’ll be conversations with members of both parties of what will be in a final package, and rarely does it look exactly like the initial package that is proposed.
Q With regards to reopening schools, what level of vaccination in teachers or students or level of testing does the administration think would be appropriate in order to meet the target date that the President has said?
MS. PSAKI: This is a great question. And as I noted at the beginning, as a mom myself, I want to know all the details as well. We’re going to have more to share from our health experts in the coming days, and I will venture to get them in here to give you all a briefing on the specifics. But we really want to lean into them on their expertise on that front.
Go ahead. I’ll come right to you, right next. Go ahead.
Q So, President Biden promised to end all new oil and gas leasing on federal lands when he was a candidate. The order that you just mentioned, that he signed today, was much narrower than that; it’s a temporary moratorium and it only applies to ANWR. And there is some debate about whether he has the legal flexibility to even follow through with his full promise. Does the administration still have that commitment today to (inaudible)?
MS. PSAKI: We do. And the leases will be reviewed by our team. We just have only been in office for less than a day now, and I will just — since you gave me the opportunity, just also confirm for all of you: All of our executive actions that we released today were reviewed by the career staff at the OLC. We went through that process in advance of releasing them. That took a great deal of work from our policy teams, but that was a vital part of the process for us as well.
Q And could you talk a little bit just about the — kind of, the preparations for getting the White House ready and safe for the new president? It’s been reported that you did $500,000 worth of deep cleaning. Could you talk about the measures that you took to ensure that the President is safe?
MS. PSAKI: Well, the — I would refer you to the General Services Administration who oversees any steps like that. What I can speak to, if it’s of interest, of the steps we’re all taking to make sure that we are safe, he is safe, you are all safe. Those include daily testing when we’re in the White House. It includes wearing N95 masks. I wore it out, of course, here today and will continue to do that. It includes stringent rules about social distancing and abiding by that in the building. That keeps us safe, but we’re also — the President has asked us to also be models to the American people, and that’s vitally important to us as well.
So there are a number of new COVID steps, precautions that we’ve put in place as of today.
Go ahead, all the way in the back.
Q Thank you so much, Jen. Thank you for doing this on a daily basis again.
So climate change being one of the priorities, how does President Biden plan to work with Brazil? During the campaign, Biden criticized Brazil on deforestation, and then the Brazilian President criticized Biden back, and he was the last one to congratulate President Biden on his election. What is the expectation for their relationship? And does he plan to speak with the Brazilian President?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I don’t have anything to predict for you or advance for you in terms of a call or conversation. What I can convey on climate change, of course, and addressing the climate crisis — it’s one of the four crises that he’s identified will impact his administration; is impacting not just the American people, but the global community — is that rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement is a vital step toward doing that. The United States was one of the only countries in the world, as you all know, that was — has not been — has not had a seat at the table in the last few years.
A little technical step there is: We have submitted that to the U.N. Secretary General, and it will take approximately 30 days for that to take place. But I use that as an example because that’s one step, but we also know that we need to be models here at home as we are addressing an issue like this. The United States continues to be one of the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases, and we need to put in place policies and take steps here to address that as well.
But I’m sure we’ll have more to discuss on Brazil in the coming months.
Go ahead, right there.
Q What are the next steps when it comes to Iran? And does the President have any plans to rejoin the nuclear deal?
MS. PSAKI: Well, the President has made clear that he believes that through follow-on diplomacy, the United States should seek to lengthen and strengthen nuclear constraints on Iran and address other issues of concern. Iran must resume compliance with significant nuclear constraints under the deal in order for that to proceed.
I will say that, as I noted a little bit earlier, we would expect that some of his earlier conversations with foreign counterparts or foreign leaders will be with partners and allies, and that we would certainly anticipate that this would be part of the discussion.
Q And then, could you just give us some color about what it was like for him going into the Oval Office? He’s been waiting for this for so long. What was his reaction?
MS. PSAKI: Well, you know, I spent a little time with him earlier, and he had an incredible sense of calm. And he — and a sense of some joy, of course. He spent the day with his family and his grandchildren and his children, and that always has an impact, I think.
But, you know, he also said he felt like he was coming home. Remember, he spent eight years here as the Vice President, playing an important role as a partner to President Obama. And, you know, that was the emotion that overtook him today.
He’s also eager to get to work. He was asking questions about policy and COVID and what’s next. And so, you know, that also reflects his desire to roll up his sleeves and get going.
Let’s see. I’m sorry, I told you I was going to ask you — I just skipped over you. Go ahead.
Q That’s all right. I’ll take it now. So, if President Biden wants a theme of his presidency to be “unifying the country,” does he think that Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer should drop a potentially divisive Senate impeachment trial?
MS. PSAKI: Well, he spoke today, as you all saw, about unity in his inaugural address and the importance of unity and bringing the country together, and the resolve of the American people in helping to get through this moment.
You know, we are confident though that, just like the American people can, the Senate can also multi-task, and they can do their constitutional duty while continuing to conduct the business of the American people.
And his view is that the way to bring the country together is to address the problems we’re facing. And so that means getting this COVID relief package through, having Democrats and Republicans take a serious look at that and have conversations with each other about how to move it forward. And he’s going to leave the mechanics, the timing, and the specifics of how Congress moves forward on impeachment to them.
Q And a quick follow-up: On President Trump’s Inauguration Day, he filed the paperwork to run for reelection –- same day. Does President Biden have any plans to do that today, late, or in the coming days?
MS. PSAKI: I will say, having talked to him today, his focus is not on politics; it is on getting to work and solving the problems of the American people. So — and as he noted on the campaign, he will wait until sometime into his first term to speak more about his political plans moving forward.
Q Yeah. Thank you, Jen. The President pledged today to repair alliances. Has he planned his first foreign trip yet?
MS. PSAKI: Well, we’re only seven hours in here. You’re ready for the foreign trip.
Q I’m looking ahead. (Laughter.)
MS. PSAKI: I’m ready, too. I don’t have any details on a foreign trip to lay out for you at this point in time. Hopefully we will at some point in time.
Go ahead, all the way in the back.
Q Hi, congratulations on your new position. Owen Jensen with EWTN, Global Catholic Network. Two big concerns for pro-life Americans: the Hyde Amendment, which of course keeps taxpayer dollars, as you know, from paying for abortions — Medicaid abortions — and the Mexico City Policy, which, under the previous administration, they expanded to keep tax dollars from overseas paying for abortions. So what are President — what is President Biden planning on doing on those two items right now?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think we’ll have more to say on the Mexico City Policy in the coming days. But I will just take the opportunity to remind all of you that he is a devout Catholic and somebody who attends church regularly. He started his day attending church with his family this morning. But I don’t have anything more for you on that.
Q Yeah, as President-elect, he talked about the possibilities of using the Defense Production Act to ramp up production of vaccines.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hm.
Q Having looked at more data, does he still feel that’s necessary? Was that included, for example, in anything that he signed today?
MS. PSAKI: Well, stay tuned. We’ll do this again tomorrow, and there may be more specifics to share on plans on COVID tomorrow. I expect there will be, including more details on the Defense Production Act.
He absolutely remains committed to invoking the Defense Production Act in order to get the supply and the materials needed to get the vaccine out to Americans across the country and remains committed to his goal of getting 100 million shots in the arms of Americans in the first 100 days.
Q Thank you very much. The President talked movingly about unity today. And I’ve heard from people who say, “Well, that’s just talk.” They want to know what action they’re going to see to show that kind of unity. Can you — I mean, Peter mentioned impeachment, right? Can you tell us what kind of action we can expect to see that will assure people that he wants to reach out to people who voted for him and people who did not?
MS. PSAKI: Sure. Well, first, I think anybody who has covered President Biden for some time or worked for him or spent time with him knows that he is somebody who always sees the optimistic side of working with people who may disagree with him, people across the aisle. And that has long been his commitment and desire through his many decades in public service. So his own history tells you how committed he is.
But, you know, part of it is his words, which he shared today with the American public on quite a big stage — also, his actions. He has reached out to not just Democratic members of Congress, but also Republicans; not just Democratic governors, but also Republicans; not just Democratic mayors, but also Republicans.
And he said today, in his speech — the biggest platform most Presidents have through the course of their presidency — that he will govern for all Americans. And, you know, that, of course, has to be backed up by actions, as you conveyed. But he’s going to venture to do that in — in every policy he pursues, every engagement he has, because he feels if we can come together, we’ll be a stronger country.
Q Jen, will we see a death penalty moratorium under this administration?
MS. PSAKI: The President, as you know, has stated his opposition to the death penalty in the past. He remains — that remains his view. I don’t have anything more for you in terms of future actions or mechanisms, though. I can — I’ll circle back if there’s more I can share with you.
Q On a lighter note, will he keep Donald Trump’s Air Force One color scheme change?
MS. PSAKI: This is such a good question. I have not had the opportunity to dig into that today, given the number of executive actions, orders, the inauguration — a few things happening. I will venture to get you an answer on that, and maybe we can talk about it in here tomorrow.
Q Jen, just one quick one before we let you go. Just following up on Peter’s question: Does President — President Biden believe that President Trump needs to be held accountable for the Capitol insurrection a couple of weeks ago? And does that accountability require that President Trump be barred from holding future federal office?
MS. PSAKI: Well, Zeke, you know, he has spoken very firmly and fiercely, publicly, about his views of the horrific events — on the horrific events on January 6th. And he has also, of course, spoken with members of Congress about that, as you all know. But he is going to leave it to members of Congress to carry out their constitutional duty and determine what the path forward is — and what the mechanisms are going to be, what the process will be, and what the timeline will be.
And certainly, he ran against Donald Trump because he did not think he was fit to serve in office, long before the events of January 6th. He is here today because he decided to run against him. But we’re focusing on moving forward. We’re focusing on addressing the — the issues facing the American public. And, as you know, that means we’re focused on our COVID package.
Q If I can follow up on that a little bit, Jen. Is the President being updated, first of all, on the progress of the FBI investigation? And we know the FBI is leading the investigation into the assault on the Capitol. Does President Biden have confidence in FBI Director Wray?
MS. PSAKI: Well, Peter, as you noted, there’s an ongoing investigation, which we certainly support. I’m not sure that he has received an update today on anything about the investigation, but we certainly support those ongoing. And we will, I’m sure, be receiving updates in the days ahead.
Q Does he have confidence in the FBI Director?
MS. PSAKI: I — I think — I have not spoken with him about specifically FBI Director Wray in recent days, Peter, but I’ll circle back with you if there’s more to convey.
Q Jen —
MS. PSAKI: Go ahead, Karen.
Q The President did not mention the word “Trump” in his Inaugural Address today.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hm.
Q What was the intention behind not making any direct reference to his predecessor in that speech?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think the intention was to make the speech not about any individual elected official, any current President, former President, but make it about the American people and the moment we’re facing in history right now — the the struggles that millions of Americans are facing who don’t have jobs, the fear people have about the health of their grandparents and their cousins and their brothers — and to make it more about the strength of the American people when they come together and not about any individual.
But as you saw in his speech, it was forward looking; it was not meant to look back on the past.
Q Jen, one more.
MS. PSAKI: Go ahead.
Q How does President Biden plan to recover the United States’ image around the world? And what is his priority globally?
MS. PSAKI: Well, his priority is, first, rebuilding our partnerships and alliances around the world and regaining America’s seat at the global table. And you can see that as evidenced in his rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement, rejoining the World Health Organization; his plans to engage with partners and allies and work together to address many of the threats and issues we’re facing around the world.
But I think that is what you will see as his focus in the weeks ahead.
Q Thank you, Jen.
MS. PSAKI: Thank you, Zeke.
Q Thank you, Jen.
MS. PSAKI: Thank you, everyone. Let’s do this again tomorrow.
7:37 P.M. EST