Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jen Psaki, Deputy Director of the National Economic Council Sameera Fazili, and Senior Director for International Economics and Competitiveness Peter Harrell, February 24, 2021
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:37 P.M. EST
MS. PSAKI: Hi, everyone. Good afternoon. Well, we are very excited that later today the President will sign an executive order that takes a whole-of-government approach to securing critical U.S. supply chains, ensuring we can withstand crises and create good-paying jobs in the process.
The COVID-19 pandemic has underlined the need for resilient supply chains and robust domestic manufacturing so all Americans have access to essential goods and services in times of crisis.
The EO will direct immediate 100-day reviews of supply chains for critical products that go into everything from phones to pharmaceuticals. It will also direct reviews of industrial-based sectors, including defense, public health and biological preparedness, information and communications technology, transportation, energy, and food production. This is an issue with strong bipartisan support.
And later this afternoon, the President will meet with a bipartisan group of House and Senate members to discuss supply chain resilience and the need to work together in strengthening it. We’ll provide you all a list of that later this afternoon as it’s finalized.
Joining us today to talk through the details of the executive order are Deputy Director of the National Economic Council Sameera Fazili — I may have butchered your last name, as mine is butchered sometimes; I’ll keep working on it — and Senior Director of International Economics and Competitiveness at the NSC Peter Harrell. Thank you for joining us.
And they will take — we’ll see if we have time to take a couple questions. They have good reason — they have to go see the President shortly.
MR. HARRELL: Thank you very much, Jen, and thanks to all of you. It’s a privilege for me to be here. As Jen said, this afternoon, the President will sign an executive order that takes a critical step in ensuring that America’s supply chains can withstand any crisis, as well as supporting jobs across the country.
Last year, in the early months of the pandemic, frontline healthcare workers couldn’t find the masks, gloves, and PPE that they needed to keep themselves safe as they treated COVID-19 patients.
Today, automakers across the country are having to take workers off factory lines because they can’t get access to enough computer chips to maintain full production.
Last July, President Biden committed that, as President, he would direct his administration to take a comprehensive approach to securing America’s supply chains. He said then, and he will reiterate later today, that America should never face shortages of critical products in times of crisis. Our supply chain should not be vulnerable to manipulation by competitor nations.
The EO that the President will sign later today formally launches the initiative President Biden committed to last year to build strong and resilient supply chains.
This is the first whole-of-government approach to promoting the resilience of America’s supply chains, from pharmaceuticals to foods. We’re going to get out of the business of reacting to supply chain crises as they arise and get into the business of preventing future supply chain problems.
As Jen said, the EO the President will sign will direct immediate 100-day reviews of supply chains for four critical products: computer chips for everything from cars to phones; large-capacity batteries, such as those used in electric cards [sic] — cars, so that America leads in making next-generation electric vehicles; pharmaceuticals and active pharmaceutical ingredients — the key ingredients to American medicines; and critical minerals and strategic materials, such as rare earth minerals that are essential to American industry and to America’s defense base.
The EO will also direct six sector-specific reviews — to be completed within one year of today — to be focused on defense, public health and biological preparedness, information and communications technology, transportation, energy, and food production. These sectoral reviews will be modeled after the process that the Defense Department uses to regularly evaluate and strengthen America’s defense industrial base.
Make no mistake: We are not simply planning to order up reports. We are going to be taking actions to close gaps as we identify them, just as we have been working with industry in recent weeks to ensure that U.S. automobile manufacturers have the parts they need to keep making cars here in America.
But we expect that by taking this type of comprehensive approach to supply chain resilience, we’ll be able to strengthen our supply chains for the long term.
And with that, I’m happy to turn this over to my friend and colleague, Sameera.
MS. FAZILI: Thank you, Peter. Creating more resilient supply chains is an opportunity for our country to come together to create well-paying jobs for workers across our country. That is why today’s action reinforces the President’s overarching commitment to help our country build back better.
We know that even before the COVID crisis, the economy was not working for most Americans. Worker pay was too low. Many families could not make ends meet. Many of the jobs that served as the heart of the middle class had been lost due to changes in both technology and the structure of the global economy.
Disruption is inevitable. But over the past few years, we have moved from crisis to crisis when some essential product was suddenly in short supply. What we need is the capacity to respond quickly when hit by a challenge. This executive order moves the whole government towards being more prepared.
These sector-specific reviews that the President orders today, we’re going to be asking agencies to do the following: They’re going to review risks in supply chains and in our domestic industrial base. They’re going to think broadly about risk. There’s climate risk and geopolitical risk, but there’s also risk in not having enough workers ready to meet the needs of that sector, or enough factories or the right equipment to make a good — or retool a shift — to shift to a new spike in demand for an essential good.
They’re going to be recommending actions to improve resiliency. In some instances, that action might be the data that government can publish so the public sector can plan and mobilize and take action. But in other instances, we have levers, like procurement authority, that we can use to support stockpiling or support some level of domestic production.
We are also going to be looking for opportunities to work with Congress to give us more tools so that we can improve our preparedness. And today’s conversation with members of Congress is going to be part of an ongoing conversation we’ve been having with them on this.
Finally, a big part of this executive order is consultation with stakeholders and experts. We are going to be reaching out to talk to the American people. Government action alone will not solve complex supply chain challenges. This is going to be broad engagement, broad conversations that will include business, labor, local communities, academia. This work is going to require a new commitment to public-private partnerships, and we need all voices at that table to help us design those partnerships.
This is a real opportunity to invest in the future of America and build on our nation’s strengths. There are opportunities for small-business development to help diversify supplier networks and alleviate the risk of “too big to fail” companies in the supply chains for critical goods.
There are opportunities to improve worker readiness and training so they have the skills needed to ramp up research, production, or distribution of a critical good.
And there are opportunities to bring more jobs to communities around the country, including communities of color, to leverage the ingenuity and grit of the American people.
This is going to leverage U.S. scientific leadership. It’s going to further advance our research and development prowess. It will do so while also recognizing that our ability to maintain our innovative edge in research requires us to invest in both research and manufacturing in communities across America. Because when you pair thinkers and doers, that’s how you create the technologies and products that help us tackle tomorrow’s challenges.
I want to reiterate what my colleagues have said: This work is not going to be about America going it alone. The answer to these weaknesses is not always to be to ramp up domestic production. We know these vulnerabilities affect not just American households; it’s a global problem in some of these supply chains.
We are committed to working with partners and allies to reduce these vulnerabilities that are affecting all of us.
The work ahead builds upon America’s historic legacy of making strategic investments in our future that lay the foundation for broad-based economic growth.
Smart investments in research, manufacturing, domestic capacity, and our workforce has, in the past, unleashed decades of economic expansion, and an expansion that raised wages and living standards for American families across the country.
We can and should build upon that legacy, and that is how we will approach the supply chain work. This problem was decades in the making. We can solve it by making smart investments that are long term in nature, that will reach families and workers in all of America.
MS. PSAKI: Okay. Let’s see if we can take questions. Go ahead.
Q Thanks, Jen. Presidents, for decades, have been promising to create factory jobs. We’ve got about 12.2 million factory jobs; that’s down from 17 million in 2000. How many jobs do you think this initiative can create? And what are your metrics of success?
MS. FAZILI: Yeah. I’m happy to take that. I think we think it’s important to have a broad lens and broad view on how you measure the jobs and the job creation in the manufacturing space, because manufacturing is not — doesn’t just support and create jobs in the manufacturing sector. There are broad spillover effects that it has.
There are going to be R&D jobs here, research jobs here. There’s going to be jobs in the, kind of, supplier networks, in the services industry. So I think it’s — we have to start tracking and understanding that manufacturing’s contributions to our economy can’t just be narrowly counted in that way. That’s what I would suggest.
MS. PSAKI: Jennifer.
Q When you talk about incentivizing and funding, on the budget that you’re — your upcoming budget, do you think that you will propose some sort of federal funding to help increase the supply of semiconductors?
MS. FAZILI: You know, we are still in the process of formulating the budget, so at this time, I’m not able to talk in specifics about the budget proposal. But what I would say is we are looking forward to talking with members of Congress about what more we can do in partnership with them to give us the funds we need.
MR. HARRELL: Can I add on that? I’d just like to step back for — you know, for a moment. Obviously, we’re talking about multiple different supply chains here. And I think that the solutions we will be proposing and implementing will vary a little bit by supply chain.
You know, the supply chain for semiconductors obviously looks quite different from the supply chain for rare earths. So I think what you’re going to see is us come forward with a comprehensive suite of recommendations that will be tailored for each of the different critical goods that we are looking at.
In general, across the board, we’re expecting we’ll be using a mix of incentives to encourage production here. We’re looking at ways to ensure there’s surge capacity available for things that might need to be ramped up quickly — stockpiling; working with our allies and partners to make sure that we have, you know, cross-border open flows with our allies and partners, where we might collectively need take some action.
So I think we’re really going to be looking at a range of different tools here, not just any particular single tool.
Q The Defense Production Act, is there — would you think that the White House would consider using the Defense Production Act for — specifically for the semiconductors?
MR. HARRELL: You know, I don’t think we’re here to talk about how we would use the DPA on any particular supply chain at this point. But clearly, as we look at making resilient supply chains across the board, all tools are on the table for this administration.
Q And then, on Taiwan, can you say how has Taiwan reacted to some of your requests for assistance on this? Have they been receptive to your pleas for help on boosting the supplies of the chips?
MR. HARRELL: I don’t want to get into the nuances of specific diplomatic conversations we have had. Clearly, Taiwan is an important partner of the United States, and we’ve had constructive conversations with them.
MS. PSAKI: I’m sorry, we have to let them go. But I know there’s a lot of interest in this. And what — we can do follow-up questions afterwards as well.
But thank you both so much for joining us at the briefing, and you’re welcome back anytime.
MS. FAZILI: Thank you.
MR. HARRELL: Thank you.
MS. PSAKI: Okay, I just have a couple of additional items at the top.
As you heard in our COVID public health briefing just a few minutes ago, starting next month, we will begin to deliver millions of masks to food banks and community health centers around the country. These are two nationwide networks that disproportionately serve hard-hit populations.
Today, many low-income Americans still lack access to this basic protection. That’s why we’re think — taking this thoughtful and targeted action to keep Americans safe. We will deliver more than 25 million masks across the country. These masks will be available at homes — oh, I’m sorry — at more than 1,300 community health centers and around 60,000 food pantries. Any American who needs a mask will be able to walk into these health centers or food pantries and pick up a high-quality American-made mask that is consistent with CDC guidance.
This program is made possible through existing funding at HHS. And with this action, we are hoping to level the playing field, giving vulnerable populations quality, well-fitting masks.
A couple other things. I know, lots going on today.
I wanted to make sure you saw a letter released this morning by over 160 CEOs representing some of America’s biggest and most representative company — respected companies calling on Congress to act on the President’s Rescue Plan.
There is growing consensus across the country for this package, and that’s reflected in polling showing a bipartisan majority of Americans back it. As the more than 160 business leaders put in this — their letter to congressional leaders, previous federal relief measures have been essential, but more must be done to put the country on a trajectory for a strong and durable recovery.
Also, a winter storm update: Temperatures are back within normal ranges for this time of year across the states that have been impacted by the storm — that’s, of course, good news — but water system outages and boil water advisories, although improving, remain an ongoing issue across the region, requiring additional federal support.
Delayed shipments of COVID-19 vaccine doses are anticipated to be filled in the coming days, as we noted last week, and vaccination sites have reopened and are doubling up appointments to accommodate those canceled last week. All major airports are open. All rail carriers have returned to normal operations. Interstate and state highways are open. Transit agencies are returning to normal operations. And ports are operating under normal circumstances.
Federal assistance continues. We noted the additional 31 counties yesterday, and of course, we’ll continue to consider additional requests moving forward.
Finally, to remain transparent with you and the American people, we wanted to share that the President tested negative for COVID-19 on Monday. We will venture to provide this update the following day in the future. But this is part of our regular COVID safety protocols that I mentioned a couple of weeks ago. The entire White House complex, as you know, continues to adhere to strict mask wearing, social distancing, and other mitigation strategies.
Okay, sorry. A few things at the top. Go ahead.
Q Thanks, Jen. On the masks, any sense of why the White House is using cloth masks instead of N95s, which are also made in America, if we have supplies? And do you have a list of manufacturers of the masks?
MS. PSAKI: Sure. Well, I would say that these masks are all — adhere to CDC guidelines, and certainly they meet those requirements set by our federal standard.
Tell me your second question again.
Q A list of the manufacturers of the masks.
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have a list of those. I can see if there’s more details we can provide.
Q Okay. And then, separately, Vladimir Putin said today that Russia is going to redouble its efforts on opposing foreign powers, who he says are basically trying to undermine Russia. Does the White House believe that tensions with Russia are increasing?
MS. PSAKI: Well, we believe that, certainly, over the last several years, there have been more concerning steps that have been taken by Vladimir Putin and by members of the Kremlin, as the President has expressed and expressed during the campaign.
And that is why he asked his national security team to launch a process of looking into not only hacking — reports of hacking around the 2020 Election, but also the bounties on our troops that was of concern; of course, the SolarWinds hack; and to take a close look at that so we have our own assessment.
As you know, the President also spoke with President Putin just maybe two weeks ago, and did not hold back in expressing his concerns about the actions of his government. But we are letting that process see itself through. As I noted yesterday, it will be weeks, not months, before it’s concluded and we have more details about a response.
Q Thank you. So, I just wanted to see if you could confirm that the President is speaking with King Salman of Saudi Arabia today, and if he’ll do that in advance of the report on Khashoggi.
MS. PSAKI: Well, as we’ve noted in the past, we remain committed to releasing — through the DNI, of course — an unclassified report that we expect to happen soon. I don’t have an updated timeline for you on that. I know there were also reports on a proposed call. We also expect that to happen soon. We’re still in the process of scheduling when will happen.
Q And what are they going to be talking about in that call?
MS. PSAKI: Well, when we have the call and the President has the call, I’m sure we’ll do a readout of it. Of course, we’ve had engagements at many levels with the Saudis to date, but we’ll do a readout once we conclude the call.
Q And do you have a status update on Neera Tanden, with all of the delays on Capitol Hill, as far as her confirmation?
MS. PSAKI: Tell me more about what you mean by that.
Q An update as far as whether you’re going to withdraw that name. It doesn’t seem like the votes are there for her at this point.
MS. PSAKI: Well, let me first state that, as the President repeated yesterday, we’re fighting for the nomination, and she and our team remain in close contact and — close touch with senators and key constituency groups. She is an expert whose qualifications are critical during this time of an unprecedented crisis. And she has rolled up her sleeves. She’s very engaged and doing outreach to senators, to members on the Hill — answering any questions they have and offering to do that. And we’re doing the same.
I know there was an announcement about a delay of a confirmation vote today. And they put out a statement to make clear that, of course, they’re going to do due diligence, as are we, to continue that outreach and continue to fight for her nomination.
Q Follow, Jen?
MS. PSAKI: Go ahead.
Q Jen, thank you. How big of a setback does the White House view the fact that the Senate committees have delayed the vote on her confirmation to be?
MS. PSAKI: Well, again, they put out the statement from the leadership of the committee conveying clearly that they wanted to continue to do work to build support for her nomination.
Q But does the White House see this as a setback to Neera Tanden’s confirmation?
MS. PSAKI: I wouldn’t put it in those terms. I think we are committed to continuing to fight for all of our nominees, continuing to do the outreach needed, to answer questions, to address concerns anyone has, to reiterate the qualifications of all the nominees that the President has put forward, and to do due diligence in fighting for the team he’s nominated.
Q Even if she is confirmed, does it undercut the President’s budget agenda to have this confirmation delayed?
MS. PSAKI: Well, as I noted a couple of times here, but it’s worth repeating: Neera Tanden has a record of working with people who disagree with her, working with people who — who have different viewpoints and different objectives and priorities. And that’s something she would certainly take into the job if she’s confirmed.
Q And just one more, Jen. Richard Shelby has said he would support the confirmation of Shalanda Young. What is your reaction to that? Is she a potential replacement should Neera Tanden not follow through?
MS. PSAKI: Well, there’s one nominee to lead the budget department; her name is Neera Tanden, and that’s who we’re continuing to fight for.
Q Are there discussions about Shalanda Young?
MS. PSAKI: We are — we are focused on fighting for the person the President has nominated.
Go ahead, Kaitlan.
Q On Neera Tanden, one more follow-up on that. Has she offered to withdraw her nomination yet?
MS. PSAKI: We are working in close touch with Neera, and — with Neera Tanden and with members of Congress on continuing to do the outreach and engagement to fight for her confirmation. That’s where our focus is.
Q But no “yes or no,” whether she’s offered to withdraw?
MS. PSAKI: That’s not the stage we’re in, Kaitlan. We’re — the stage we’re in is working to continue to fight for her nomination. And as you know, it’s a numbers game. Right? It’s a matter of getting one Republican to support her nomination. We’re continuing to do that outreach, answer questions they have, and continue to reiterate her qualifications.
Q And on the call with King Salman that’s expected to happen — you said you’re still working on scheduling it — does President Biden want the Saudi Crown Prince to be on that call?
MS. PSAKI: The President’s intention, as is the intention of this government, is to — to recalibrate our engagement with Saudi Arabia and to have counterparts communicate with counterparts. And Prince- — he communicated — Prince Salman communicated with the Secretary of Defense; that’s the appropriate line of communication. And the President will speak with the King at the appropriate time. It will be soon. And as soon as we have an update on that being finalized and, of course, when it happens, we’ll provide you all with a readout.
Q I know that, again, they’ll be speaking, but will he — is he okay if he’s on the call?
MS. PSAKI: I would anticipate the call being directly with the King — a one-on-one call. Or a call, of course, you know, as — you know, those would be the primary participants.
Q Okay. And my last question is on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine as it’s moving toward authorization. It looks like Jeff Zients, the coordinator, said today they believe they’re going to have between 3 and 4 million to ship, pending authorization. That was initially supposed to be much higher, according to the contract that they — that Johnson & Johnson signed with the federal government: closer to 10 million, I believe, in February. So is President Biden disappointed that Johnson & Johnson is not going to have closer to 10 million vaccines ready to go if and when they get authorization?
MS. PSAKI: Well, Kaitlan, we were — we were surprised to learn that Johnson & Johnson was behind on their manufacturing. As you noted, it was kind of reported earlier to be about 10 million, and now it’s more like 3 to 4 million doses that they would be ready to ship next week, if they are moved through the FDA process, which has not yet concluded — just to note. And we are going to continue to work with them on ensuring that that can be expedited, so if they’re — if the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is approved.
Q I want to follow up on what you just said about recalibration with the Saudis. Is that the extent of the recalibration, just having the President deal directly with King Salman? You say that MBS has been engaging with his counterpart at the Defense Department.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
Q If the U.S. government believes that Mohammed bin Salman was behind or in some way related to the death of Jamal Khashoggi, how can this administration continue to deal with him? And in what way do you intend to?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think we’ll wait for the unclassified report to be released, which will be released through the DNI. And while I don’t have an update on that, I expect that will be soon — to speak further.
And, of course, as I — when I talked about recalibration, I was referring to, of course, the counterpart to counterpart, because that was, kind of, how the question was posed. But, you know, we always look — the President is taking a fresh approach to how he engages with foreign leaders around the world, and different from the prior administration. And that means he will not hold back, and he will speak out when there are concerns he has about human rights abuses, about the lack of freedom of speech or the lack of freedom of media and expression, or any concerns he has.
At the same time, we have a long relationship with Saudi Arabia. They are being attacked in the region. And that is certainly an area where we continue to work with them on.
But I suspect we’ll have more to say when we get — post the release of that report.
Q On an unrelated question, what is this President’s view toward the loyalty that teachers union should have towards students? Teachers — this President is a strong supporter of unions — public sector unions. Is a teachers union’s obligation to the workers and their concerns about safety, or is the teachers union obligation also to students?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I can’t speak to the obligations or the — I’m not a spokesperson for the teachers union; I’m a spokesperson for the President of the United States. So I can convey to you that his commitment is to the students and to the teachers and to the parents who want to have their kids back in school, and he wants to do that safely. And that’s what his focus is on, and that’s the role he can play from the federal government.
Go ahead, David.
Q Jen, just back on the Saudi issue. I understand that until you’ve had the conversation, you’re not going to talk much about the policy implications. The President did have some things to say during the campaign. He said, “We were, in fact, going to make them pay a price and make them, in fact, the pariah that they are.” And later he said, “There was [is] little social redeeming value in the present government in Saudi Arabia.” Any reason to believe his view — his overall view of the Saudis — Saudi government as a “pariah” and “little redeeming social value” has changed?
MS. PSAKI: The President, as you well know, David — because you’ve probably been covering him for a good chunk of this time — has had a long time he spent in the world of foreign policy, and he is certainly familiar with the leadership in Saudi Arabia, as he is in the Middle East and many parts of the world. And I would certainly not say his concerns or his views have changed. He is, of course, now President of the United States, and in that role he is not going to hold back, as I noted, in speaking out when there are concerns.
Of course, he has the right to take action of any kind, as the President of the United States, but there are also areas where we will work with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on, including ensuring that they have the protections they need to face the threats that are facing them.
Q Well, a little more on this, and following on how you, sort of, think about this. We have a pretty good idea of what’s in the declassified report — or when it comes out — because many elements of it leaked two years ago when it was first — first came out. If you come to the conclusion that there were any senior Saudi officials who were involved in the Khashoggi murder, would those officials be welcome to the United States? Could they conceivably be subject to criminal prosecution as accessories to a murder and thus not want to enter the United States?
MS. PSAKI: I certainly understand the line of questioning, and I know there’s an eagerness for the full report to be released. I’m not going to get ahead of the policy process or the release of that report. And you’ll have to come back — others will have to come back on the day after it’s discuss- — released, or the days after, and we can discuss it further.
Go ahead. Oh, sorry. We’ll come back to you next. I didn’t see your hand.
Q Thank you. A New York-related question, if I may.
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q I know you’ve been asked about whether the President has confidence in Governor Andrew Cuomo, given all the controversy surrounding the nursing home issues in New York during the pandemic. But more broadly, I’d like to ask if there are any lessons to be learned here, if the administration believes that — or has, you know, it kicked off any discussions in terms of what role of the federal government should play in providing guidance during an outbreak of future infectious disease to nursing homes and whether there should be some sort of standardized data collection so that you don’t run into these issues with states providing different data at different times.
MS. PSAKI: Sure. Well, it’s a — it’s a — I think there are a lot of lessons learned from what we’ve gone through as a country over the last year. And as you know, New York is one of the hardest-hit states in the country and earliest states hit hard in the country. It was, kind of, on the frontlines of that and the challenges that came up.
You know, I will say that our focus at this point in time is on working with governors from across the country — from red states and blue states — and working with them to ensure we can take the steps now to increase vaccines that are being distributed to states, as yesterday we announced another increase in that to — an over 70 percent increase since the President took office — to increasing communication, to increasing the number of vaccination sites that are on the ground.
There’s going to be plenty of time to look back. There will be many lessons learned, but right now we are still in the midst of the crisis, and we need to keep our resources and our focus on saving more lives.
Q Thanks, Jen. Did the White House — any White House officials reach out to some of those CEOs who signed the letter? Was there any communications ahead of that letter?
MS. PSAKI: Well, the letter was put together by a group from the outside — or a couple of groups, I should say, from the outside business. Ford, I think, was one of them, and there were a couple of other organizations. We, of course, engage with business groups and business leaders all the time, but it was not put together — it was put together by these outside groups.
Q And did the White House specifically talk to any of them — any of the CEOs before they signed the letter to encourage them to sign the letter? I know it was put out by other groups, but just wondering.
MS. PSAKI: We didn’t play an organizational role here. As I understand it, it was done by these outside groups. But we, of course, engage with business leaders all the time, so, you know, I don’t know that I have more specifics to lay out.
Q And on Neera Tanden, has the White House specifically talked to Bernie — Senator Bernie Sanders or Senator Kyrsten Sinema about the viability? Have they talked to them today about what’s going to happen going forward?
MS. PSAKI: About the viability of her nomination?
Q About the nomination, correct.
MS. PSAKI: We have been engaged — I noted yesterday, and I don’t have a new number update, that Neera Tanden herself had engaged directly with 44 senators. We’ve also engaged with many more far beyond that — Democrats and Republicans. Some of them have been over the last three days, some of them were before that, some of them have been repeats. But we don’t — we’re not going to read out the individual conversations from here. Obviously, any senator can speak to our engagement from their platform if they choose to.
Q Thank you, Jen. We spoke yesterday about immigration and this facility — HHS facility in Carrizo Springs, Texas, for migrant children. And you said it is not “kids in cages.” We’ve seen some photos now of containers. Is there a better description? Is it “kids in containers,” instead of “kids in cages”? What is the White House’s description of this facility?
MS. PSAKI: Well, let me — let me give a broader description of what’s happening here. We have a number of unaccompanied minors — children — who are coming into the country without their families. What we are not doing — what the last administration did was separate those kids, rip them from the arms of their parents at the border. We are not doing that. That is immoral, and that is not the approach of this administration.
These kids — we have a couple of options. We can send them back home and do a dangerous journey back. We are not doing that either; that is also putting them at risk. We can quickly transfer them from CBP to these HHS-run facilities. That’s one option. Or we can put them with families and sponsors without any vetting. There were some problems that that process ran into as well.
We’ve chosen the middle option. And these HHS facilities — this is one of them you’re referring to — we had to expand and open additional facilities because there was not enough space in the existing facilities, and — if we were to abide by COVID protocols.
That’s the process and the step this facility in Texas, which has been reopened, has been revamped, has been — there are teachers, there is medical facilities. And our objective is to move them — move these kids quickly from there to vetted, sponsored families and to places where they can safely be. This is a difficult situation. It’s a difficult choice. That’s the choice we’ve made.
Q So just one step back from that. We’ve been talking to people down at the border who say that, right now, DHS and the Border Patrol are using the same kind of facilities now that they did during the Trump administration, and there’s a facility right now — it’s in Donna, Texas, instead of McAllen, Texas, but it’s tents and chain-link fence around it. And so —
MS. PSAKI: A CBP facility before they’re transferred to the HHS facilities? Is that what you’re referring to?
Q Yes. And the issue would be that, just in the last couple days, they had hundreds of kids that they were holding for over 72 hours, which is the legal limit to keep somebody in a temporary facility. So I’m just curious: Why is this happening?
MS. PSAKI: Well, let’s be clear though, because I know you want to be clear with the public —
MS. PSAKI: — about the differences. The CBP facilities — which you’re right: The objective is to move kids, unaccompanied minors, as quickly as possible, under 72 hours, to these HHS-sponsored facilities, which is the one where we’ve been referring to in Texas. They are two different things.
There has been some — there were some delays last week because of weather and because some of these facilities to safely move these kids to did not have power and were not in a place where they could — they had the capacity to take in these kids and do it safely. That is not our objective; that is not our goal.
So some, unfortunately, did stay four days, five days, or longer. But the objective is to move them as quickly as possible to the HHS-sponsored facilities.
Q Has the White House seen the comment from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who, speaking about that HHS facility in Carrizo Springs, said, “This is not okay, never has been okay, never will be okay – no matter the administration or party”?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think the difficulty is — I haven’t seen the full context of the quote or interview —
Q No, it was a tweet.
MS. PSAKI: — of the tweet that was — that she shared. But I would say the difficulty is what I outlined earlier: We have kids coming across the border. It is heartbreaking. I think we all, as human beings, are heartbroken — as parents, as mothers, as fathers too.
We only have a couple of choices. What we are not doing is dividing these kids and separating them from their parents at the border, which is what the last administration did and why President Biden — or then-candidate Biden and then-candidate Harris were outspoken at the time about these kids being pulled from their parents.
What we are doing is working as quickly as possible to process these kids into these HHS facilities, which have been revamped, which have medical and educational services available, so that we can then transfer them to families. That’s what our approach is.
Q And so if there is this big difference, would the administration support — if they could be done safely because of COVID and with privacy concerns for the children in mind — would the administration support letting reporters in and press in to see what the difference is?
MS. PSAKI: I think you’d have to talk to the Department of Homeland Security about that. They are obviously safety protocols about that, privacy concerns, but I certainly encourage you to reach out about that.
Go ahead, in the back.
Q Thank you. Totally different Texas questions.
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q About the President’s visit on Friday. So the President’s infrastructure plan includes a promise to, quote, “modernize [the] nation’s electric grid, making it smarter and more resilient.” Can that be done without federal oversight of the Texas grid, which we all got a reminder is not under federal oversight?
MS. PSAKI: You’re right. And some parts of Texas are on the — are on the federal grid. As you well know, as somebody who knows a lot about Texas.
Look, I think there’s going to be a lot of time in the future to have a discussion and debate about what weather- — weatherization, what preparations should have been taken in advance. We’re not going to have that debate today. We’re not going to have that debate on Friday. The President is going to Texas because he wants to show this support, because he wants to survey the damage on the ground, see how people are impacted, see how we can tap into additional resources in the federal government.
As you know, and as I noted at the top, Texas is still in a state of emergency. There are millions of people who are impacted. We can have a policy debate later. Right now we’re going to help the people who are still suffering and going through a really challenging time.
Q Does the President consider what happened in Texas last week — and as you know, we still have the aftereffects — does he consider that to be a natural disaster or a manmade disaster? And how does that affect the policy response?
MS. PSAKI: Well, again, there’ll be a policy discussion. And I’m sure, as we look ahead to delivering on the President’s Build Back Better agenda — as you know, he’s been a longtime fan of infrastructure. He loves infrastructure. So one of the things that I’m sure we’ll be talking about in the months ahead, but — and protecting our nation’s critical infrastructure, which we all know is outdated.
But we’re not going to put new labels on it today. We’re just going to focus on how we make sure people have drinking water; how people have — you know, not in the cold; how families have a place to live. And we will have plenty of time to have a policy debate.
Q Two quick follow-ups on this. Any significance to picking Houston as the place to go — significance with the fact that it’s Ted Cruz’s hometown, for instance?
MS. PSAKI: (Laughs.)
Q Any other significance?
MS. PSAKI: That is not a significance. I would say that we — while the President is there, he wanted to also visit a vaccine — a place where vaccines are being distributed. So that was another component of the trip.
In addition, we worked in very close coordination, as I’ve noted — as we were trying to figure out the timing of the trip — with experts on the ground, with our Acting FEMA Administrator on where it would be most appropriate to visit.
Q And you may have, sort of, already addressed this, but I just want to be clear: Can we expect any sort of announcement while the President is in Texas or going to Texas — investigations, new aid, deliverables, anything?
MS. PSAKI: We’ve been, kind of, reviewing every day new assistance that can be distributed, which I’ve been trying to read out at the top of the briefing, in coordination with our Acting FEMA Administrator and Liz Sherwood-Randall. So I don’t know, it may be that there may be more, because we’re just trying to get as much out the door as possible. But I wouldn’t expect — I wouldn’t — there’s nothing that we’re holding, I should say, for Friday, if that makes sense.
Q Hi, Jen. One for me, and then, I’m the pooler today, so one for my colleagues.
MS. PSAKI: Okay.
Q What’s the White House view on this variant that’s emerged from California and how it might factor into your modeling on a timetable for a return to normalcy and your vaccination campaign?
MS. PSAKI: Sure. Well, one of the reasons we’ve been quite careful, or I have tried to be, about predicting a return to normalcy is because there are unpredictable components of the things that come up with the virus — right? — as we’ve seen with other variants, and certainly the California variant is an example of that.
The reporting on this is quite new, as you know, and our health and medical experts will, of course, take a close look at it and make some evaluations about what they foresee the impact as being. So I would certainly defer to them on that perspective and send you to them to ask any health questions.
Q And has the President been briefed specifically on the
California variant? And is he concerned, alarmed?
MS. PSAKI: The President is briefed regularly on COVID. He asks questions about COVID and updates. And I would not be surprised if he had not asked this morning. I was not in any policy meetings with him this morning, so I don’t have any update on his briefings.
Q So, from my colleagues outside the room, I actually received several different questions on —
MS. PSAKI: Sure, go ahead.
Q — on some of the Saudi– the call with the Saudi King Salman, as well as the Khashoggi report. And I know you’ve addressed this, but is it important for the President to speak with the King in the context of the release of the report?
MS. PSAKI: I’m not going to preview his call with the King. Obviously, they’ll cover a range of topics, and when we have concluded that call, I’m sure we’ll provide a readout to all of you.
Q Yeah, just a quick follow on the Tanden nomination.
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q We were told that Senator Sanders wasn’t consulted at
all before you guys announced her nomination. And I just wanted to ask, why didn’t Sanders get a heads up on it?
MS. PSAKI: We consult, I mean, the process — and having worked on the confirmations team, I can give you a little insight onto this — the process, during the transition, of nominees being selected. You know, there often was consultation with a limited number of members. It usually — typically wasn’t very broad in advance of a selection. Obviously, the President selects people he’s going to nominate for positions and then, oftentimes, the immediate follow-up to an announcement is immediate outreach from the nominees to a range of senators and a range of officials in Congress. So that’s a normal part of the process.
Q He said (inaudible), though. So was there any reason why he wasn’t given a heads up?
MS. PSAKI: Again, I don’t think I can speak to, you know, her announcement or who was or wasn’t consulted in the days ahead, from several months ago. But Senator Sanders is someone who we consult with regularly at many levels, including at the President’s level, and expect we’ll work with him on confirmations, but also a range of the President’s objectives.
Q And then, just a quick follow on immigration. Some House and Senate Democrats have raised the possibility of putting a pathway for undocumented essential workers into a second reconciliation package. Pelosi even said it would be wonderful if it could fit. Does the President support that option?
MS. PSAKI: I’m sure he’ll have discussions and consultations with Speaker Pelosi, as he does frequently, and others about how they want to move the path forward on immigration. And he proposed the comprehensive bill with several components because he thinks they all are pivotal. But, you know, we’ll have — we haven’t had any extensive conversations on that yet, so I don’t have anything to read out for you.
Q On a second reconciliation or —
MS. PSAKI: Say it again.
Q On a second reconciliation, you haven’t had (inaudible).
MS. PSAKI: No. We’ll see — we’ll let Congress play out the process of what they want to propose or how they want to work through the components of the immigration package. He’s proposed it in a — as a full, multi-step, comprehensive package because he feels that smart security, a pathway to citizenship, and addressing the root causes are all pivotal. But we expect this to be an ongoing conversation about different components of what members support.
Q And then, if I could, just one more. I mean, as you know, the UI benefits expire March 14. Is there a backup plan if the COVID package doesn’t pass Congress by that time?
MS. PSAKI: Well, let me first say that, you know, the President is focused on moving this forward as quickly as possible because, as you noted, there is a timeline — in the middle of March — when millions of people would lose their benefits. And it’s not everybody on that day, and it’s — there’s a progression of it. But that is of great concern, and that is one of the reasons why there is significant urgency in moving this forward as quickly as possible.
And as you also know, covering Congress, you know, a backup plan — most scenarios would involve Congress. This is the best pathway to preventing millions of people from losing their benefits, and that’s why we are hopeful that it will move quickly through the House, as we anticipate it will, and then quickly through the Senate, and we’ll be able to get the Rescue Plan signed into law so that that is not an issue.
Q Thanks, Jen.
MS. PSAKI: Go ahead, in the back.
Q Thank you, Jen. I have two questions on Iran and Yemen. On Iran, the President opted for diplomacy, but there’s worries in the region, and Europe as well, that the ballistic missile development and Iran’s interference in the region might not be addressed or linked to the nuclear file. Can you assure us that actually this is the case?
And second, do you believe that Iran is testing your resolve in Iraq by attacking the Green Zone and Erbil Airport recently?
MS. PSAKI: Well, first, on the first question, can you just say the last part of it again? You were saying — I’m sorry, masks make it difficult.
Q I know. Whether you guys are going to link the ballistic missiles development and Iran’s interference in — for Arab countries to the nuclear file, or are you guys — just leave it separately? Because there are worries that, actually, you’re very eager to secure a deal and you’re going to leave this behind, like it happened in 2015.
MS. PSAKI: Well, first, the President’s — Iran is a long way from compliance, as you well know from covering this issue quite closely.
And the President has been clear that if Iran comes back into full compliance with its obligations, we will do the same and, of course, then use that as the platform to build a longer and stronger agreement, including addressing ballistic missiles and many of the concerns that, as you noted, countries in the region, our European partners have about the actions of Iran.
But we are not at that point. The point we are at is that the United States has expressed an openness to an invitation to have a diplomatic conversation. That’s the stage we are at. As you know, we have not taken any steps to roll back on sanctions — or to provide, I should say, sanctions relief as has been requested. And we are in a place where we’re waiting to see if Iran will — you know, what their response will be to the Europeans’ invitation.
Q So are why you not responding to the attacks in Iraq and elsewhere?
MS. PSAKI: The attacks in Iran?
MS. PSAKI: Well — the attacks in Iraq, I should say. Well, first, we have not made a final attribution of — but I — of the attacks. We will — I will say, as you know, the President spoke with the Prime Minister last night. They — this was an extensive part of the conversation. We do hold Iran accountable for the actions of their proxies. And, of course, we reserve the right to respond in a manner and at a time of our choosing, but we will respond in a way that’s calculated, on our timetable, and using a mix of tools seen and unseen. What we will not do — and what we’ve seen in the past — is lash out and risk an escalation that plays into the hands of Iran by further destabilizing Iraq. And that is our priority.
Q And if I may, on Yemen: Since you unlisted the Houthis as a terrorist organization, do you believe that the humanitarian situation has improved, considering that now they are trying to take Marib, which is a big city? And some say that they may be emboldened by lifting them from the terror list.
MS. PSAKI: Yes. And, as you know, our issue has never been with the people of Yemen. Right? And certainly the humanitarian situation has been a longtime concern. I don’t have an assessment of the humanitarian situation on the ground. I — the State Department is likely going to have the best assessment of that, but I can also talk to them, or you can, of course, reach out them directly to get an assessment.
Go ahead, in the back.
Q Hi. Thanks, Jen. I have two quick questions, if you don’t mind. The first, on voting rights: We’re seeing several states consider bills to restrict voting rights — or restrict voting. Is the administration willing to work with Congress to pass legislation to expand access to voting?
MS. PSAKI: Certainly, expanding access to voting, making it easier for people to vote is a priority of the President’s, a priority of the Vice President’s, and we’re happy to have that conversation.
Q In what ways would — would you be willing to do so? Democrats have sent a letter to the President asking for policing of voting-related crimes. Is that something that the administration is willing to look into? And what are other specific steps that they — the administration is willing to do to help combat some of these pieces of legislation that we’re seeing in other states?
MS. PSAKI: I have not taken a full look at all the different pieces of legislation. I’m happy to talk to Ambassador Rice, who is running point on this. And I expect we’ll have more to say on voting rights soon. But let me do that, and we can see if we can get you more specifics after the briefing.
Q And then shifting gears, I know that you have talked about supporting a study of reparations. But another note, we’ve talked about the impact that COVID has had on the black community —
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
Q — whether it’s in deaths, in the job losses.
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q Is the administration considering some type of targeted relief for black communities or communities that have been hit hard? That may not be reparations, but it may be job training or something to help communities build back from this pandemic, specifically communities that have been hit hard, such as black communities.
MS. PSAKI: Sure. Well, let me first say that the American Rescue Plan is the package — that we hope we will have signed into law soon — that is going to provide relief that is targeted at the communities and the people and the families who have been hardest hit — from direct checks and payments; to more money for vaccinations to get them out to communities that have been hardest hit; to the reopening of schools that is certainly impacting many, many communities, including black communities.
Beyond that, obviously, the President will consider a range of options — things that he talked about on the campaign trail — to build the economy back better. That’s not anything we have to preview or that’s been finalized at this point in time. But our objective, right now, is to get the American Rescue Plan passed and to get that direct relief out to a range of communities.
Q And I understand $1,400 checks are one thing, but, I guess, down the road, helping communities — people that have lost their jobs — training them for these jobs of the future, is that something —
MS. PSAKI: Again, job retraining, helping the manufacturing sector, doing better with caregiving, impr- — improving our nation’s infrastructure — these are all components of the President’s agenda that he talked about on the campaign trail and is certainly a blueprint for what he would like to do as President.
But, right now, we’re just focused on the Rescue Plan — getting it passed, getting it through, getting that direct relief out — and then I expect we’ll have more to say, he will have more to say after that is concluded.
Go ahead, Kristen.
Q Jen, if I could ask you one on the minimum wage.
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q One of the points of debate, as it relates to the President’s COVID relief package: Would the President support anything below $15 — for example, the proposal for an $11 minimum wage?
MS. PSAKI: The President put $15 minimum wage — an increase — in his package because that’s what he believes the increase should be. As you know, it is working its way through a parliamentary process at this point in time. Hopefully, we’ll have more news on that in the coming days. And — but his support is for the $15 increase.
Q Senator Sanders has said there’s no room for compromise. Does the President think there is room for compromise on that $15 wage?
MS. PSAKI: Well, the compromise will be between members of the Senate who may have disagreement on where the minimum wage should sit and what the process should be. But the first step is the Byrd Rule — the “Byrd bath.” I just like to say that every day. And then members will — and we’re certainly hopeful that that will conclude with the minimum wage being included in there, but that is up to the parliamentarian for that process to conclude. And then senators will have to debate what a final package looks like.
Go ahead, Steve.
Q Just a quick one. There has been some survey data that suggests there’s a hesitancy within the armed services for taking the vaccine. The Commander-in-Chief, in theory, could require that members of the military take the vaccine. Is that something he has considered doing and is wanting or willing to do?
MS. PSAKI: That’s a really interesting question. Everyone’s questions are interesting, but that’s a very interesting question. I have not spoken with him about that or to Secretary Austin about that, who — any decision like that would be in consultation and at his recommendation. I’m happy to follow up with it — on it, or I would suggest you talk to my old friend John Kirby about where they stand on that question.
Go ahead, David.
Q Just following up on Kristen’s on the minimum wage there. It sounds, from your description, of the negotiation underway now between House and Senate on that — on the wording — that the President will basically sign whatever comes out of conference here. That would be the implication of your — your statement: that he doesn’t really have a choice on the minimum wage at this point. Is that what you meant to say?
MS. PSAKI: That — that is not my implication. I hope that’s not what other people took from what I said. But what I was conveying is that there’s a process that this has to undergo, and it needs to move through the parliam- — Senate parliamentarian process. We don’t even know where they’re going to conclude and whether the minimum wage is in the package or not in the package.
And certainly — and I’ll leave the analysis to all of you — there would be many who would support it not being in the package and there would be many who would oppose it not being in the package. We understand that. We know how a bill becomes a law. What I’m conveying is we’re not going to get ahead of that process, and that —
Q You’re not saying the President won’t sign it if it doesn’t have a minimum wage provision?
MS. PSAKI: I think we’re — we are not even at the stage — the President proposed an increase in the minimum wage in his package; that’s what he wants to be in the final package. He also was in the Senate for 36 years and has great respect for the parliamentary process. We’re going to see that through. Once that’s concluded, we can all talk further about the next steps.
Q There’s a report that South Korea is working with the Iran to possibly unfreeze $7 billion in Iranian money, but they would need a waiver from the U.S. State Department. Is that something that the administration would consider?
MS. PSAKI: I have not seen those reports. I’m happy to follow up with our team at the State Department, but it would probably be more direct if you follow up with them directly.
Q Okay. And one more vaccines. What does the White House think when they see a governor, like the Democratic Governor of Connecticut, Ned Lamont, who says he thinks if he goes his own way — not with the national recommendations — to distribute vaccines just based on age, then he can get them out faster and more equitably than if he follows the recommendations from the federal level.
MS. PSAKI: Well, we make recommendations at the federal level for a reason, because there are groups that we feel should be prioritized, whether they’re frontline workers, healthcare workers, individuals over a certain age — as you noted. And our objective, of course, is to get to the stage where there’s recommendations for people who are much younger, who don’t have pre- — you know, health conditions that would mean they would qualify.
So that’s what — that’s the reason we laid them out as we do. Obviously, governors make different choices about the prioritization and the prioritization order. But we stand by the guidelines we’ve recommended at a national level.
Q Thanks, Jen.
MS. PSAKI: Thanks, everyone.
Q Thank you.
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