James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

12:50 P.M.  EST

MS. PSAKI:  Hi, everyone.  Okay, a couple things at the top.  Mondays, there’s always a lot to report.  I’m sure you feel that way. 

Later today, the President, the First Lady, the Vice President, and the Second Gentleman will mark the solemn milestone of 500,000 American lives lost to COVID-19.  They will ask all Americans to join in a moment of silence during a candle-lighting ceremony at sundown.  President Biden will also deliver remarks and order all flags on federal property to be lowered at half-staff for the next five days. 

Tonight’s events, including the President’s remarks, will highlight the magnitude of loss that this milestone marks for the American people and so many families across the country.  He will also speak to the power of the American people to turn the tide on this pandemic by working together, following public health guidelines, and getting in line to be vaccinated as soon as they are eligible.

As you all know, there are a number of confirmation hearings coming up this week.  Almost half a million Americans — and as we look at these, we’re looking at it through the prism of the fact that almost half a million Americans, as I just noted, have lost their lives to this cruel pandemic.  Tens of millions have lost their jobs, families can’t put enough food on the table, and millions of children need their schools reopened.

And central to the all-hands-on-deck response we’re executing from the Biden-Harris administration is having qualified, experienced, and groundbreaking nominees installed as quickly as possible. 

And we want to thank, of course, the Senate for the steps they are taking — they have taken, I should say, over the last few weeks to support and confirm, often with large bipartisan votes, many of our nominees.  But underlining our pressing needs to have our team in place, we have, of course, Merrick Garland, who is currently doing his hearing right now.  He’s been endorsed by multiple former Republican attorneys general as someone faithful to the law and not politics, and who multiple Republican senators agree is apolitical — come — would come to the job with decades of experience.

Xavier Becerra — Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who helped play a role in getting the Affordable Care Act through and has — brings decades of healthcare policy experience to the table.  As Attorney General of California, he fought alongside his Republican counterparts to expand access to COVID treatments.

Neera Tanden, a brilliant policy expert with experience at the highest levels of government — also running a big think tank in Washington, D.C. — who understands firsthand the power of policy and helping families gain a foothold in the middle class.  There was a wide spectrum of support, ranging from the Chamber of Commerce to labor unions.

Miguel Cardona, a public school teacher — former public school teacher, who will champion and help expedite the reopening of our schools.  That will be his first priority.  We’re eager to see him in place.

And Congresswoman Marcia Fudge, who served as mayor and will be — has formerly served as a mayor and will be invaluable as both parties work to protect families from losing their homes during the COVID outbreak. 

As you know, many of you saw the President just made an announcement this morning about important changes to the PPP program to ensure small businesses, especially minority-owned and mom-and-pop businesses, get the help they need to keep their doors open and keep workers on payroll.  Ninety-eight percent of companies have fewer than 20 employees, and a big part of this announcement will apply to those companies.

Small businesses employ nearly half of America’s workers and account for 44 percent of our nation’s GDP.  More than 400,000 small businesses have permanently shuttered due to the pandemic.  Millions more have lost substantial value, so — revenue.  So, clearly, an area where there is a need for great focus.

His announcement includes instituting a two-week window, starting Wednesday, during which only businesses with fewer than 20 employees — so ninety- — ninety-eight percent of them — can apply for relief through the program.  So they — but that we prioritize support to businesses who were previously left behind.  The changes also include expanding eligibility so that sole proprietors, independent contractors, and self-employed Americans, as well as immigrants who are lawful permanent residents can receive more support.

And finally, the changes announced today will roll back restrictions that disproportionately impacted entrepreneurs of color from receiving relief, including Americans who are behind on student loan payments and business owners who were formerly incarcerated for non-fraud convictions.

I also just had an update on the winter storm.  On Friday, the President approved a major disaster declaration, as many of you know, for the state of Texas, including public and hazard mitigation assistance for all 254 Texas counties.  In that declaration, 77 Texas counties were approved for individual assistance, which allows for uninsured property owners to seek federal assistance if they’re home is damaged by burst pipes caused from freezing weather.

More counties will likely — we expect more counties to be added as more work is done to evaluate need, and that’s a reflection of FEMA’s initial evaluation. 

In the meantime, the President has asked FEMA to do everything it can to rapidly distribute aid to the state of Texas.  So far, more than 1 million meals have been shipped to Texas; more than 4 million liters of water have been shipped to Texas.  The Department of Defense’s fixed-wing aircraft continue to deliver water in bulk to multiple locations in Texas.  They have completed nine missions so far, with an additional 10 missions planned for today.  Sixty-nine emergency generators and more than 120,000 blankets have been delivered to Texas.

And over the weekend, Homeland Security Advisor Liz Sherwood-Randall and National Economic Council Director Brian Deese called Governor Abbott to update him on the broad federal effort.  The President has requested to support citizens of the state in coping with the impacts of the storm and, of course, the recovery from here. 

Last but not least — where’s Debra Saunders?  She’s in the back.  Oh, there she is.  Okay. 

So I’m going to — I want to take a moment to recognize a milestone in the briefing room.  Today is her last day in the print pool and potentially her last day in the briefing room, although you’re, of course, welcome back.  And even though she’s leaving the White House Press Corps and fulltime reporting, I know she’s going to be writing some columns, and I have a feeling we will be hearing from her quite frequently.

So, congratulations on covering the White House for four years.  As many of you know, that — that is not for the faint of heart. 

So let’s start with your questions.

Q    Thank you.  I’m your first burnout, but I won’t be your last.

MS. PSAKI:  (Laughs.)  Yeah, that’s right.  That’s fair.

Q    So I want to start with a housekeeping question.

MS. PSAKI:  Oh, okay.  Well, we’ll just go to you.  We’ll go to you, Debra.  Go ahead.

Q    Thank you so much.  This morning, I saw there was no Marine out front, in the front door, during the 9:45 briefing.  And I asked Lower Press.  Lower Press says, “We don’t have to have a Marine out front when the President is in the Oval Office.”  And I’ve been getting emails and questions ever since I filed that pool report: Is — if there is no Marine out front, does that mean that the President is not in the Oval Office?

MS. PSAKI:  The President was in the Oval Office this morning, working, receiving the PDB and all the things that you’re aware of from the schedule.  There hasn’t been a change of policy.

Q    So, if there’s no Marine there, that doesn’t mean anything?

MS. PSAKI:  Again — I mean, I can certainly talk to them about the specific circumstances of this morning, but I can report to you that the President was in the Oval Office and the policy that’s long been in place continues to be in place.

Q    People were fascinated by this.

I have two quick Nevada questions. 

MS. PSAKI:  Okay.

Q    One, does the President have a position: There’s a bill in Nevada to get rid of the caucus and make it a primary, and there’s the hope that Nevada is going to be first — Nevada is going to be first.  So could you please tell me, does the President have a position on that?

MS. PSAKI:  There’s plenty of time for politics.  The President has been in office for a month.  I’d refer you to the DNC and others who will make — lead that process moving forward.

Q    Do you have a position on renaming McCarran after Harry Reid?

MS. PSAKI:  The President is a big fan, close friend of Harry Reid.  Worked with him closely on a number of important issues, including getting the Affordable Care Act through.  As I understand it, it’s passed the local legislature, I believe, and it’s now through — or the local — where it needs to pass locally, I should say, and it’s now being considered by the FAA, so I would refer you to them. 

Q    And one last question about the way Washington looks right now.  There are fences everywhere.  We have National Guard.  What’s the President’s view, what’s the administration’s view about how long it’s going to keep going on like this?  And why is it going to continue, it looks like, into March?

MS. PSAKI:  Which piece are you referring to?

     Q    I’m talking about the National Guard.  I’m talking about all the fences that are around here.  There are fences around Capitol Hill.  I understand things happened on January 6th.  How much longer do you think you’re going to have all the security here?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, I would look at those a little bit separately because, of course, members of Congress, leadership on the Hill — Democrats and Republicans — will make decisions about the security needed, and we support — at the Capitol.  And we certainly support them in that decision-making process.

As it relates to the fencing around the White House, you know, we work, of course, closely with the Secret Service, the National Park Service.  And the President and the Vice President are certainly eager to have that brought down at an appropriate time, and hopefully that’s soon.

All right, Josh, we’ll go to you.

Q    Thanks, Jen.  Two questions.  You touched on the issue of nominations and confirmations.  Given the statements of Senator Manchin, Senator Collins, Senator Romney, what do you see as Neera Tanden’s path to become Director of OMB?  And also, what does it mean for the Biden agenda if this process keeps on being delayed and drawn out?

MS. PSAKI:  The process of confirmations?

Q    Yeah.

MS. PSAKI:  Well, let me start with that.  I would say that we experienced some intransigence during the — during the transition, some delays and processes that had previously worked at a more rapid pace. 

Our view is that we’ve hopefully moved past that.  We’ve seen a number of our nominees move forward over the past couple of weeks, pretty quickly, with large bipartisan votes, and we certainly welcome that. 

But we are eager to have our team in place.  This week has a number of important hearings.  There are a number of important votes this week.  We would love to end the week with a Secretary of Education in place, as an example, and certainly others as we — as we look to have the full team and, hopefully, a full Cabinet meeting at some point in the near future.

As it relates to Neera Tanden, let me just say that the President nominated her because he believes she’d be a stellar OMB Director.  She’s tested.  She is a leading policy expert.  She has led a think tank in this — in Washington that has done a great deal of work on policy issues but has done a great deal of bipartisan work as well.  She has won widespread support and endorsements ranging from labor unions to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.  And she’s rolled up her sleeves and done the work.  She’s met with more than 35 senators — Democrats and Republicans — herself. 

This is a process: confirmations — getting individuals confirmed is.  She has two committee votes this week, and we’re working toward that.  And we’ll continue to work in supporting her nomination.

Q    So you still see a path to 50 votes or more?

MS. PSAKI:  We do. 

Q    And then, secondly, on Iran: We’ve seen some issues with regard to Iran restricting access to nuclear inspectors.  And I was curious for how this works with Secretary of State Blinken saying he expects “strict compliance” by Iran in order to reenter the deal with the United States. 

MS. PSAKI:  Well, first, I think you’re referring to the reports from the IAEA over the weekend and, kind of, discussions they had about Iran’s compliance and access that they would have or were looking to have to Iran’s facilities on the ground.  And certainly I would send you to them on that.

But I would say that what Secretary Blinken’s announcement and what our announcement that came out last week is a reflection of is an openness to have a conversation, an openness to diplomacy.  And that invitation was issued by the Europeans to invite us to invite the Iranians to the table to have a conversation. 

We have indicated — sent no indication that we are willing to take additional steps in advance of that.  What we’re willing to do is sit at a table and have a diplomatic conversation, because we are looking to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, and we believe diplomacy is the best way to do that.

Let’s go to Jeff.

Q    Thanks, Jen.  Just a — one follow-up on Iran.  Iran’s Ayatollah said today that Iran may enrich uranium up to 60 percent purity if needed.  What is the White House’s reaction to that?  And how does that impact the statement that you made last week about openness to talks? 

MS. PSAKI:  Well, again, Jeff, you know, Iran is a long way from compliance, and that hasn’t changed.  I said that last week, and many — and I believe my colleague, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, conveyed that just yesterday.  That has not changed. 

I’ll — what we are open to is a diplomatic conversation.  And our view is that diplomacy is the beth [sic] path — the best path forward to preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.  That does not meet — they have clearly not taken the steps needed to comply, and we have not taken any steps or — and made any indication that we are going to meet the demands that they are putting forward either.

Q    Does this kind of rhetoric concern you, though, in terms of the possibility for diplomacy?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, I think we’re at the stage where we’re waiting.  The Europeans are waiting to hear Iran’s reply to their invitation to have a conversation.  So that’s the stage we’re sitting at at this point in time. 

Q    Also, in the realm of diplomacy: China’s Foreign Minister made some remarks today about wanting to re- — sort of rejig the relationship with the United States, and he called for tariffs to be removed.  I know that this policy is under review, along with lots of policies, but can you give any reaction to what he has said and any update on President Biden’s feelings about tariffs and broader China policy?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, you know, I think as we said around the time when the President had a conversation with President Xi, we believe the relationship with China is one of strong competition.  We want to come to that relationship from a position of strength.  That means working in close coordination with our partners and allies around the world: Europeans, other partners in the region, also with Democrats and Republicans in Congress.  And it also means we want to do work at home, and focus on doing work at home, to make sure we are coming to that from a position of strength. 

As you noted, there is, of course, a review of our tariffs and the tariffs that were put in place.  I don’t have any update on that at this point in time.

Q    Just one last tiny one — a follow-up on what Josh asked you about Neera Tanden.  You said that the White House still sees a pathway.  Without Senator Manchin, what is it?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, again, I think you know she needs the majority of votes in order to get through and be confirmed as the OMB Director, and that’s what we’re working toward.

Go ahead, Ed.

Q    In that vein, beyond Neera Tanden, is the White House certain that all other Cabinet nominees have the support of all members of the Democratic caucus?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, I don’t have a whip count for you here, but we are certainly — we take nothing for granted.  And part of our effort is not just reaching out to Republicans — which we certainly are doing, and all of our nominees do as well — but also ensuring that Democrats who have questions, who have any concerns, have their questions answered too.  And we take nothing for granted in pushing forward with our nominees.

Q    Okay.  In opposing Neera Tanden, Republicans and at least one Democrat have said they expected more from the President’s nominees in the vein of uniting a divided country.  What’s your response to that specific criticism that they have leveled that she spent years stoking that divide on the air and online?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, here’s what I can convey about her work.  As somebody who ran CAP, the Center for American Progress, she worked with partners across the ideological spectrum to develop consensus solutions to addressing the federal tax code, to improving access to high-quality educational opportunities.  They partnered with AEI in that effort.  She worked with — led the effort to work with FreedomWorks and others on the R Street Institute on making progress on criminal justice reform.  And again, she met with 35 members of the Senate, including Republicans. 

So she is willing and eager to meet with people who agree with her, of course, but also people who disagree with her.  And what she brings to the table is not only decades of policy experience but — and expertise and leadership — again, of a major think tank in this city — but also somebody who has lived experience.  You know, she grew up as the daughter of a single mother, somebody who benefited from many of the programs that she would be tasked with determining the recommendations on funding for. 

So she has a record of working with members of both parties — or views from both parties.  And I — we have no doubt she would do that as budget director.

Q    On the COVID bill, the President talked a little while ago about it and noted that there are some concerned about the size of the price tag and asked, you know, “What would you cut?”  Would the White House be okay if it went north of $1.9 trillion for whatever reason? 

MS. PSAKI:  Well, I think the President proposed the $1.9 trillion size because he felt that was the — those were the components that were needed to meet the moment we’re facing.  And certainly, you know, he looks to Congress to negotiate through what can be added or subtracted from that package.  But he has the — had the key priority components in it because that’s what he felt would meet the moment.  That’s what health and economic experts were telling him.  But I don’t have anything more for you beyond the — beyond what he proposed.

Q    And real quick on Iran, specifically the hostages that they’re holding.  Jake Sullivan said yesterday, “We’ve begun to communicate with the Iranians on this issue.”  They later clarified it’s not with Washington directly.  So can you just clarify, is this being done through the Swiss or through other European officials instead?    

MS. PSAKI:  We have a range of means of communicating with the Iranians.  And we’ve certainly raised American citizens, who are being held in Iran, through those channels.  But I don’t have anything more specific for you.

Q    And so there’s nothing direct going on, as far as you know, between the United States and Iran?

MS. PSAKI:  Again, we have a range of channels that we navigate or communicate through, direct and indirect, but I don’t have anything more specific to lay out for you.

Go ahead.

Q    Thanks, Jen.  I just want to go pick on what Ed was saying here — 

MS. PSAKI:  Sure.

Q    — because the President just said that — he, sort of, seemed to put the ball in Republicans’ court.  He said critics are saying that this plan is too big.  “What would you have me cut?  What would you have me leave out?”  What — is he willing to cut?  Is he willing to leave out?  And what specifically if the ball — if they’re going to come to the table and make some offers, what’s the negotiating topic there?

MS. PSAKI:  We’ll see what they offer.  You know, what has been offered to date was a proposal of about $600 billion, which falls far, far short of what is needed at this point in time with dual crises that the country is facing. 

He was making the point — and he did something similar in his remarks on Friday — that, you know, this is a difficult time the country is facing.  That’s why 400 mayors have come out and said they support this package.  That’s why Democratic and Republican governors have come out and said that — business leaders, others.  That’s why the majority of the American people support it.

So, the point he’s making — he wasn’t offering a negotiation; he was making the point that the key components of this bill are addressing the crisis we’re facing.  So would you cut funding for schools?  Would only half of the schools that need funding get funding?  Would only half of the people who are uninsur- — or, sorry, need — you know, deserve to — direct — direct checks — should only half of them get them?

You know, the point he’s making is that the size of the package is a reflection of the size of the crisis. 

Q    And you mentioned at the top of your remarks the grim milestone that the country is facing today with these 500,000 deaths.  As the country is in this moment of reflection, 100,000 of those Americans have died within the last month.  What reflections is this White House having on the last month, as we ask as a country, “Could more have been done?”  As Dr. Fauci said today, it didn’t have to be this bad.  Could more have been done in the last month also?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, I think we, one, inherited a circumstance where there was not a — there were not enough vaccines ordered, there were not enough vaccinators available to vaccinate Americans, and there were not enough places to — for people to go to get those vaccines shot into their arms. 

And, you know, you can always look back and say, “We wish we would’ve done this better.  We wish the storm wouldn’t have come.”  But our focus is on building out of the hole that we inherited and ensuring that we are taking every step necessary, every step possible to reach people in their communities, to tap into the manufacturing sector through the DPA, to communicate effectively about eligibility.  And that’s what our focus is in on — at this point in time: the path forward.

Go ahead, Kaitlan.

Q    A few questions for you.  One on the COVID relief bill.  Senator Bernie Sanders said he does believe that the parliamentarian is going to rule that $15 minimum wage can be in there.  But given two Democrats have said they do not want it in there and they don’t want it to move forward if it’s in there, if they rule that it can be in there, does President Biden still want to include it? 

MS. PSAKI:  Well, the President would not have included an increase in the minimum wage if he did not want to see it in the final package. 

And certainly we are in close touch with Senator Sanders and his team, and we hope that he’s right and that it is included in the package.  But we’ll see what the parliamentarian says.

That process, as you noted, Kaitlan, is underway now — the “Byrd bath,” as they call it — my favorite term of the week.  And we’ll see what comes out on the other end.  And then what it looks like for members of Congress and — who have expressed support or opposition to it — they’ll have to make a decision at that point in time.  But the stage we’re at right now is it needs to go through the parliamentary process.

Q    Okay.  And on Neera Tanden, you talked about how you believe — the White House believes she is qualified for this job.  You talk about her past experience. 

But the specific criticisms that we’re getting from these people who are saying they are not going to vote for her is that — Mitt Romney said he is critical of extreme rhetoric.  Susan Collins says she’s “demonstrated exactly the kind of animosity President Biden pledged to transcend.”  Manchin said he’s worried that her statements will have a “toxic and detrimental impact” on the working relationship that they’re expected to have with a budget director.  So, does the White House believe that her past statements are inflammatory?

Q    Well, Kaitlan, we would — the President would not have nominated her if he did not think she would be an excellent OMB director.  And he nominated her because she is qualified; because she is somebody who has a proven experience and record, as I outlined earlier, of working with different groups and organizations with different political beliefs; and because he believes that her own experience will contribute to taking a fresh perspective and a fresh approach to this position. 

So we simply just disagree with whether she’s the right person for the job with these senators.

Q    So President Biden did not have any concerns about her past statements?

MS. PSAKI:  I think I’ll leave it at what I’ve said so far. 

Go ahead.

Q    I have one more.  Just more housekeeping.

MS. PSAKI:  Yeah, go ahead.

Q    By this time in their presidencies, both President Trump and President Obama had held solo press conferences.

MS. PSAKI:  Mm-hmm. 

Q    So are there plans for President Biden to hold a solo press conference anytime soon?

MS. PSAKI:  He will hold a solo press conference, but I don’t have a date for you at this point in time.

Q    This week?

MS. PSAKI:  Not this week.  No.  (Laughs.)

Go ahead.

Q    Will he get to pick the inquisitors himself?

MS. PSAKI:  What did you say?

Q    Will he get to pick the inquisitors himself?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, typically, any President has a list of people that they’re going to call upon.  But usually it’s a large number of people who are in the press room, and we certainly hope we’re able to do that in a COVID-safe way.

Good ahead.

Q    Thanks, Jen.  A couple if I could, one just following up on Neera Tanden.  Has the White House reached out to any Republicans who have not yet said how they’re going to vote?

MS. PSAKI:  We have been working the phones, in touch with Democrats and Republicans and their offices through the course of the weekend.

Q    And then also, on the COVID bill: A CBO analysis suggested that only a small portion of the 130 billion for schools would actually be spent in the current fiscal year. 

MS. PSAKI:  Mm-hmm.

Q    What exactly is the White House doing to ensure that money would actually mean that schools could potentially open in March and April, before the academic year ends?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, a big part of the challenge here for a number of schools is that they need — in order to operate responsibly and given the threat of budget cuts, they need to obligate funds according to spending plans, rather than exhausting all balances as soon as they’re received.

So the challenge here is: How do they plan ahead?  Right?  They can hire — if they need to hire additional teachers now for smaller class sizes, or if they need to hire bus drivers, or if they need to hire — they need to do improvements to their facilities, they want to be able to know, understandably, just like any business or company, that they will be able to employ teachers next year and the year ahead.

So that’s why this funding is so essential, is because they need to be able to plan ahead so that they can make the improvements now, do the hiring now.

Go ahead.

Q    Thanks, Jen.  Just quickly, on Iran, has there been any progress in learning whether Iran is going to come to the table and sit down?  I mean, any word — privately, backchannels?  Any progress on that note?

MS. PSAKI:   Where it really stands right now is the Europeans issued the invitation and they’re waiting for a response from the Iranians.  So I don’t have anything more to read out beyond that. 

Q    Just to build on what Kaitlan was saying, I mean, the President — he said that there was going to be a new tone in Washington.  Obviously, Manchin, Collins do not feel that this is a new tone.  So how does the President, kind of, square that: saying that he does want a new tone — “We’re going to have a new language — new, you know, respect for everyone” — and this, you know, fire-on-the-spot kind of policy he has said? 

MS. PSAKI:  Have you asked Senator Manchin and Senator Collins about whether they think President Biden has a new tone?

Q    Well, I mean, I think Senator Manchin and Senator Collins have said that they have concerns about her tweets and her language.

MS. PSAKI:  And we disagree on whether she is the right choice for OMB — to lead the OMB.  But that is a bit of an overstatement to suggest that anyone — and you should ask them — unless you’ve had interviews with them, then please speak up and convey that to us.  But they both have had regular conversations with President Biden. 

Q    Well, I guess —

MS. PSAKI:  We look forward — let me finish.  We look forward to working with them on a range of priorities and issues, whether it’s the American Rescue Plan; whether it is immigration — addressing the outdated immigration system; whether it is a foreign policy issues.  And he’ll continue to engage and have discussions with a range of senators, including people where he has disagreements.

Q    And I think that’s fair, but I think the question is: Does the Pres- — is the President okay with the language and rhetoric that Neera Tanden has used in direction of other members of Congress, including some Democrats, and especially Republicans? 

MS. PSAKI:  I think the fact that the President nominated her to lead the budget — to be running OMB reflects his view that she’s the right person to be in his Cabinet; to lead the — be overseeing the budget; and that her qualifications, her history of working across the aisle with people from different groups who have different points of view is a reflection of how she would do that role.

Q    Can I ask you about — some members of Malcolm X’s family have made public that — a letter that they said was written by a deceased police officer that stated that a New York Police Department and FBI may have been behind the 1965 killing of the activist.  I just wanted to know: Does the administration think that this is something that should be looked into? 

MS. PSAKI:  I have not seen that letter.  If you’re — if you want to provide it to us, I’m happy to have the right person look into it after the briefing. 

Q    And can I ask one more question about Saudi Arabia?

MS. PSAKI:  Sure, go ahead.  Sure. 

Q    Thank you so much.  You know, President Biden — and you noted that he is — does not plan to speak with the Crown Prince.  But I wanted to ask: What does that actually mean?  I mean, the President has obviously called for accountability for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.  But how is the relationship actually going to change?  I mean, is this just symbolism?  Do — are we going to have some concrete changes that demonstrate this accountability? 

MS. PSAKI:  Well, what I conveyed last week, when we talked about this a little bit, is that we are certainly recalibrating our relationship with Saudi Arabia.  And part of what I mentioned was that we will have officials communicate from counterpart to counterpart, and that means — as you may know, last week, the Secretary of Defense had a conversation with MBS and that is the right counterpart-to-counterpart.  We expect the President will have a conversation with the King at an appropriate time. 

But there are other components, as you know, of our relationship, including the fact that the President, unlike the last administration, is not going to hold back in speaking out when he has objections, concerns about issues related to human rights, freedom of speech, any other concerns he may have about the way things are being run.

At the same time, there’s an important role we can play in relationship — as it relates to the threats that come into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia from actors in the region.  And that is a relationship that we will continue to work with them on.

Go ahead.

Q    Tonight, the President is participating in the memorial for COVID victims.  Is there any discussion about a more permanent memorial, something that would, kind of, honor their memory, you know, long term? 

MS. PSAKI:  It’s a great question.  I don’t have anything to report out for you, but I’m happy to check with our team and see if that’s under consideration.  As you noted, I mean, tonight, obviously, he is — he and his — and the Vice President, they will be commemorating the lives lost, the many hundreds of thousands of families who have been impacted by the lives that have been lost from the pandemic — something he also did just a month ago around the inauguration.

And so, clearly — and these remarks, I would convey, are not — it’s not — he will not be providing an update on progress.  This is to really have a human moment and a moment to remember the people who we’ve lost over the last year.  But I’m happy to talk to our team if there’s anything like that under consideration. 

Q    One other question too.  Previously, you mentioned that there are concerns about how difficult it is to get a vaccine shot.  You know, it’s hard to sign up for these things and that the government was looking into making this easier.  You know, the White House — the federal government is looking into this.  What progress has been made on that?  What is under consideration for how the federal government could step in, in this situation?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, we’ve taken a number of steps, including working to open several community health centers that are in people’s local communities.  And people — the health and medical experts who are working at these health centers often know the people in their communities, and they’re trusted by the people in their communities. 

We also have been working with pharmacies and have several dozen pharmacy partners across the country.  More than 90 percent of the people in the count- — people living in this country, I should say, live within five miles of a pharmacy.  That is — helps — it helps many.  It doesn’t help everybody, but that’s another place we’ve also worked to help launch some mass vaccination sites to ensure that people can go with their families and get vaccinated in these locations.

So, you know, we are on track.  We have — we have vaccinated.  We have — we have significantly expedited the rate of vaccination over the past couple of weeks.  We’re at about — in the last week or so, we’re at about 1.7 million a day — or last two weeks or so, 1.7 million a day.  Prior to the President taking office, it was more around 800- to 900,000. 

But there’s work that needs to continue, and that includes ensuring we have the vaccinations, ensuring we have the vaccinators needed to do those vaccinations, and the sites, as I touched on, across the country who can facilitate that.

Q    I think the specific concern is the interface — the websites, the phone calls — how hard it is to actually book the appointment, not the actual place to go to.  You know, (inaudible).

MS. PSAKI:  Well, the place to go to is a huge factor in that because a community —

Q    (Inaudible) appointments at that place.

MS. PSAKI:  Well, but this is something we’ve done a lot of work and research on.  A community health center that’s located in the middle of a community where people know to go to for basic healthcare, for, you know, child — for questions about their kids, for pediatric appointments, that’s a place that’s trusted in their community.  So it’s important that those are places that are open now in a range of communities across the country.

Pharmacies, which are actually the places where you can do exactly what you just said and log on online and make an appointment to get a vaccine — we’ve just doubled the number of vaccines that are going to those pharmacies.  We made an announcement last week.

So there are a number of steps that we’re taking to ensure that more vaccines are getting out the door and they’re getting into communities.

Go ahead, in the back.

Q    Thank you, Jen.  I have two brief foreign policy questions.

MS. PSAKI:  Okay.

Q    The President has an excellent relationship with Pope Francis, who also has had considerable outreach with Iran.  He greeted President Rouhani.  He’s been in touch with the ayatollahs.  Could he be a possible back channel, or is he already a possible back channel on Iran?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, you’re correct, he does.  And there’s certainly a picture on his desk — or in his — in the Oval Office that is a reflection of that. 

But the proper channels, at this point, are: We’re going to work in partnership and through the P5+1 partners and allies we worked through for the first round of the — putting the JCPOA together.  We’re waiting, at this point, to hear back.  The Europeans are waiting to hear back from the Iranians on whether they are open to that diplomatic conversation.  So, really, the discussions are at that stage at this point.

Q    So the Pope is not going to be involved in any way on that?

MS. PSAKI:  I certainly would never claim to speak for Pope Pran- — for Pope Francis or any Pope.  And you can certainly reach out to the Vatican if they have intention of getting engaged in some capacity.

Q    Right.  The other question I have is that, as Vice President, the President met and talked to the President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame.  Does he have any views on the current trial that’s going on in Rwanda of Paul Rusesabagina, the central figure in the “Hotel Rwanda” movie, who many say was kidnapped illegally but who the government defends and says should be on trial?

MS. PSAKI:  It’s a great question.  I have not spoken with our national security team about that particular trial.  I’m happy to talk to them, and we can follow up with you after the briefing.

Q    Would you do that, please? 

MS. PSAKI:  Happy to. 

Q    Thank you.

MS. PSAKI:  Absolutely.

Go ahead.

Q    One more on Neera Tanden, and then I promise —

MS. PSAKI:  Sure.

Q    — I’ll move on to a different topic.  You said she’s only met with 35 senators.  Is that correct?  Is there —

MS. PSAKI:  Over — at least 35.  Had over 35 meetings.  Mm-hmm.

Q    Is there a reason she’s not met with more?  Has any GOP senator refused to meet with her?

MS. PSAKI:  I don’t think we’re going to speak to, as we wouldn’t in any case, who’s she met to, or give you — met with or give you a list to protect the privacy of senators.  But 35 meetings with Republican and Democratic senators is actually quite a significant number of meetings in the process.  But —

Q    But if you — okay.  Point taken.  But if you look at how controversial her nomination is in the context of your broader legislative agenda and the other legislative items that will face an uphill battle in Congress, do you risk — do you risk political capital by forging ahead with this, or do you see it completely unrelated?

MS. PSAKI:  Look, I think the President nominated Neera Tanden because she — he felt she was the right person to lead the budget office because she has decades of experience, because she would bring fresh perspective to the job, because she has a record of working with people from a range of organizations, of different viewpoints.

But, you know, and we’re going — we remain committed to moving that process forward to a confirmation.  But there are a range — even areas where we disagree.  We may have disagreement, of course, with Senator Manchin or Senator Collins about whether she’s the right person to lead, but we are still going to work with them on a range of other issues that are of mutual interest and of interest to the American people, and that includes the Rescue Plan; that includes, you know, many components of the President’s agenda, moving forward.

Q    (Inaudible.)

MS. PSAKI:  Oh —

Q    Sorry, one more. 

MS. PSAKI:  Go ahead.  Go ahead.

Q    One other one on the semiconductor shortage, which I asked about, I think, two weeks ago, or a week ago now.  Brian Deese and Jake Sullivan, I think, are working on this, and you confirmed that there was outreach to the Taiwanese and other countries. 

MS. PSAKI:  Mm-hmm.

Q    Do you have any update on responses that you got from these countries on how to fix it?  And I know you guys have also acknowledged that there is no short-term fix but something in the medium term, since it is really impacting a lot of businesses.

MS. PSAKI:  Absolutely.  And there’s been outreach to the manufacturing sector, and companies as well, to discuss the impact of the shortage.  You mentioned the letter that was reported that Brian Deese, our NEC Director, sent to Taiwan.  There has been a lot of outreach to international partners as well, as we work through this issue.  But I expect we’ll have more in the coming days to share with you on the next steps here.

Go ahead.

Q    Hey, Jen.  Thanks.  Two questions.  The first is on Texas.  Some folks have come on to astronomical electric bills, and there are, you know, stories about those being the result of deregulation, and other issues being the result of light regulation.  I wonder if the President plans to weigh in on talk to that or talk to that.  Does he still plan to go to Texas, or does he plan to go to Texas this week?

MS. PSAKI:  Sure.  Well, the President is eager to go to Texas.  I traveled with him on Mich- — on Michigan — to Michigan, I should say, on Friday, and he was closely tracking, of course, the work that FEMA was underway.  He spoke with his Acting Administrator on the way back from that trip.  He has been getting updates from his national security team over the course of the weekend, and he wants to go and show his support. 

He also is fully aware of the footprint of a President of the United States and everything that comes with that — traveling to a disaster area.  But we are hopeful that that trip can happen as early as this week.

Q    Sure.  One more question on the — hopefully, getting a preview of the timbre of tonight’s speech.  I wonder if there is a worry from the White House that, given positive views on the coronavirus front, that people will let their guards, as has happened in the past, and numbers will go up or spike again.  Does the President plan to address any of that tonight, or is it just reflecting on the grim milestone?

MS. PSAKI:  You know, the President felt it was important, on a personal level and human level, to mark the lives lost over the past year — nearly a year of this pandemic.  And that’s the purpose of tonight — both the remarks he’ll be delivering, but also the moment of silence that we will all be participating in from wherever you are located.

But, you know, he is also quite mindful — so tonight is not the night to give advice to the public or give an update on progress being made.  But he has — at every opportunity he has been given, from last Friday to most times he’s speaking publicly, convey that his focus and his commitment is on getting the American Rescue Plan passed, ensuring we have enough vaccines to vaccinate 300 million Americans.  But the American people have a role to play here as well, which is: wearing masks, social distancing.  Everybody wants to get back to normal.  But the President, the federal government can’t do that alone.  It is going to take everybody participating in that process to get closer to normalcy in the country.

Go ahead, in the back.

Q    Thank you, Jen.  I have one question and one from Canadian journalist.  This is follow-up on Nord Stream 2.  Several Republican members of Congress criticized the administration for a failure to name new targets for sanctions related to Nord Stream 2 in a report required by Congress.  And Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen is also asking for explanation.  And just today, foreign ministers of Poland and Ukraine urged President Trump — President Biden to stop the project.  Your response?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, President Biden’s view remains that Nord Stream 2 is a bad deal.  It’s a bad deal because it divides Europe, it exposes Ukraine and Central Europe to Russian manipulation, and because it goes against Europe’s own stated energy and security goals, which I think is a shared concern that many of the individuals you mentioned have expressed. 

We’re continuing to monitor activity to complete or to certify the pipeline, and if such activity takes place, we’ll make a determination on the applicability of sanctions.  And sanctions are only one of many important tools to ensure energy security.  So we’re also going to work with our allies and partners to reinforce European energy security and to safeguard against the sort of predatory behavior we have warned against.

Q    This is a question from James McCarten from the Canadian press, ahead of President Biden’s meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.  So he’s asking: What commitments is the President prepared to make to Prime Minister regarding the continued detention of two Canadians in China?  And is the President Biden willing to make exceptions from his Buy American provisions for Canadian contractors and suppliers?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, on the second one, you know, he signed an executive order; we’re of course evaluating procurement components of that, but no changes anticipated.

Of course, the Prime Minister will bring up whatever he would like to bring up, as is true of any bilateral meeting.  We expect the President, during the meeting, to highlight the strong and deep partnership between the United States and Canada as neighbors, friends, and NATO allies; that they will discuss issues of mutual interest, from COVID-19 to climate change and the economic ties that bind our countries, as well as the deep people-to-people bonds we share.

After the conclusion of the meeting, I’m sure we’ll have a readout of what was discussed and communicated during his first bilateral meeting.

Q    Thank you.

MS. PSAKI:  Go ahead.

Q    Thanks, Jen.  Even while acknowledging the grim milestone that we’re hitting today of 500,000 deaths in the country, it’s worth mentioning that, around the country, cases, hospitalizations, and deaths currently are plummeting.  And as the pace of vaccination increases, I’m wondering: Does the administration think that we’re either at or close to a sort of turning point as it comes to the pandemic?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, I certainly understand the question.  And it’s one that I’m sure all of your friends and neighbors are asking you as well.  But I know there’ll be a briefing later this afternoon with our health experts, as we do Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

You know, I would say though that 500,000 — a milestone of 500,000 deaths is certainly not something we’re celebrating.  And it’s hardly something — it’s something to commemorate and to take a moment to remember all of the families that have been impacted across the country.

We feel there has been some progress made.  We’re leading the world in the number of vaccine — vaccinations administered, and second only to Israel in the share of population fully vaccinated.  We’re of course implementing new masking requirements to make sure people stay safe. 

But as someone alluded to in an earlier question, we need to remain vigilant, both from the federal government, the American people need to.  You know, and it’s still going to be months and months of sacrifice, of work, of suffering, unfortunately, in order to get through the pandemic.

Q    Thanks, Jen.

MS. PSAKI:  Thanks everyone.

1:34 P.M. EST

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