12:49 P.M. EST
MS. PSAKI: Well, we have another very special guest today. Today we are joined by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, my former boss, Denis McDonough, who is working tirelessly to build and restore trust in the VA.
As you all know, Secretary McDonough served as White House Chief of Staff in the Obama-Biden administration for four years. He also served in several roles on the National Security Council, including as Principal Deputy National Security Advisor. Throughout his service at the White House, Secretary McDonough helped lead the Obama-Biden administration’s work on behalf of military families and veterans.
He has a busy schedule, as all of our Cabinet members do, but he has kindly agreed to also take a couple of questions after he speaks. And I will, as always, be the bad cop.
Come on up.
SECRETARY MCDONOUGH: Jen, thanks so much. It’s a — it’s a total joy to be working with you, as it always is. And good afternoon to everybody here. It’s nice to see some old friendly faces.
I want to obviously thank Jen for inviting me today to speak about the importance of the American Rescue Plan, particularly as it relates to its support to the VA to provide quality care to our veterans, especially during the very challenging pandemic.
Like other hardworking Americans, veterans have been severely impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. Countless veterans have lost jobs, closed businesses, homeschooled their own children, and faced uncertain prospects while our nation grappled with the pandemic.
And like the rest of the country, many veterans were directly affected by the deadly virus, with more than 230,000 veterans in our care infected by it, and, sadly, 10,605 dying from the disease.
At the VA, we’ve risen to the challenge of combating this deadly pandemic. Our integrated healthcare system, the largest in the nation, has been running nonstop since the start of a pandemic to provide much-needed care to infected veterans and vaccines to those most at risk.
To date, more than 1.4 million veterans have been vaccinated with more than half of them having gotten both vaccines. And we’re making sure that equity is at the forefront of where and how we distribute vaccines.
At the same time, we continue to deliver routine care while mitigating the spread of infection. The VA is leading the country in standardizing the use of telehealth for routine doctor visits. We’re partnering with community and service organizations so that vets do not forego checkups because of broadband limitations.
Last year, for example, in March, VA averaged approximately 2,500 telehealth visits a day. Last month, February, we averaged nearly 45,000 such visits a day. As you can see, this is a major increase, and we need the funding in the ARP to sustain this up-tempo for our veterans so we can continue to push through the pandemic.
Lastly, before getting into a little bit more detail on the health situation, the Veterans Benefits Administration continues to help veterans cope with economic impact of the pandemic, from helping veterans avoid eviction and foreclosure, to making sure that veterans can continue to rely on their GI Bill to pay for tuition.
We make sure that VA can continue to adapt to these challenging times, and the President’s American Rescue Plan will do just that. It will provide $17 billion in additional funding to VA, to include at least $13.5 billion to improve our ability to provide medical service to veterans affected by COVID; $272 million to cut through the backlog of disability claims and help us manage the compensation exams that have worse- — access to which have worsened as a result of the pandemic; and $386 million to develop a rapid retraining program for veterans unemployed as a result of a pandemic.
Now, let me just give you one other figure for you to consider. Since the start of the pandemic, 19 million appointments have been changed, cancelled, or deferred as a result of the pandemic — 19 million. What we believe is — obviously we’ve been able to cut to compensate for those through the telehealth platforms, but not for all of them. And as a result of deferred care — which we’re actually seeing across the healthcare system, not just in VA — we’re going to see increased cost. And the ARP is critical to our ability to make sure that we can keep up with those demands of the increased cost.
So our department remains fully committed, obviously, to fulfilling the sacred obligation that President Biden has made clear we have to those who serve in uniform. The Rescue Plan helps us deliver on that promise, especially in this unanticipated and significant time of crisis.
We urge the Senate to pass the much-needed plan as soon as possible. And I thank you again, Jen, for the opportunity to be here with you.
MS. PSAKI: Absolutely. All right, go ahead, Jeff.
Q Mr. Secretary, can you explain how veterans should go about looking to where to sign up for vaccinations? Should they be going to the VA, or should they be going to their states and localities? It’s certainly been one of the trickiest parts of the vaccination process to figure out information on that.
SECRETARY MCDONOUGH: Yeah, so I want to — I want to start by telling, I think, what is a very positive story. Oftentimes you don’t — at least we’ve not in the past been focused on good-news stories about our scheduling process. Our scheduling process is actually working pretty well.
And what — so the first answer, Jeff, is: Those veterans in our care currently in the 75 and older and 65 and older who are our particular focus at the moment should be hearing from our schedulers, and our schedulers are in contact with them. And if you just take an example of the VA here in D.C., they’re moving through something — on some days — something like 80 veterans vaccinated an hour.
Now, that’s obviously because of the vaccinators, it’s because of the pharmacists, it’s because of the nurses, but it’s also because of the schedulers. And they’re doing an amazing bit of work.
So the first thing is, they should be hearing from our schedulers. The second thing is, we have a bunch of information on our website at VA.gov, including how to get access to opportunities. And then we’re working also with VSO partners and directly with veterans through even my office, whom we’re hearing from, to make sure that they have the most recent information.
Are there examples of frustrations? Absolutely. But we’re staying, obviously, on top of this, Jeff, trying to be as transparent as possible, and in the first instance, reaching veterans directly to schedule them.
Q Are there examples of overlap, too, where veterans are maybe going to the VA but also hearing from their local — or going to their state or local facilities as well?
SECRETARY MCDONOUGH: Definitely. And many of our veterans are obviously — this is the beauty of the integrated system, which is we provide care across a range of services. And so we’re — many of our, you know, the 6 — the over 6 million vets who are with us, rely on us for care across the board, are very sophisticated consumers of care. But then we have up to 9 million who are enrolled in the VA system, and they have choices, and we’re seeing them make choices.
But again, we are trying to be as affirmative and on the front foot as we can be so that we’re providing that kind of information.
Q I guess, what I’m getting at — and sorry to ask one more — is: Isn’t there some inefficiency there that would be a problem? Like, if veterans just knew “we can get our shots from the VA,” that will clear space at these other facilities for other people, and it would ideally give them priority at the VA.
SECRETARY MCDONOUGH: Yeah. And I guess my answer isn’t that there’s not overlap and that there’s not competition; there obviously is. But I think what we are seeing, Jeff, is that we are very efficiently moving veterans who qualify through the system, and we’re hearing very positive feedback on that.
There inevitably is going to be some overlap, and that’s what we’re trying to get ahead of with forward contacting and also providing information as clearly as we can about dates and times for vaccinations, how those clinics are going to function, but also not have it just be a jump ball — actually have it be scheduled so we can get — efficiently get that through the system.
MS. PSAKI: (Inaudible.)
Q Thank you. Thank you, Mr. Secretary. Can you talk about what the biggest challenges are in getting as many veterans vaccinated as possible?
And secondly, is a part of that hesitancy at all? Because I know Pentagon officials have said about a third of troops have not opted to get the vaccine.
SECRETARY MCDONOUGH: Yeah.
Q So what are the challenges? And does that include hesitancy?
SECRETARY MCDONOUGH: Well, the biggest challenge is supply, and that’s why we really need the American Rescue Plan. You’ve heard the President say this, you’ve heard Jeff Zients say this, you’ve heard Jen say this.
We have more demand right now than there is supply. And that’s notwithstanding the fact that the COVID Coordinator, the President have really — really cranked up supply, week on week, including with this — these several innovative actions, even over the last several days, with Johnson & Johnson and enhancing the manufacturing capacity.
So the big challenge for us is supply. From what I hear from our docs is: From the moment we get it, our allotments are in arms within two to three days. Okay? So I think that’s a pretty remarkable throughput.
Now, on hesitancy: You know, our lead doc on this testified last week to Congress that, in fact, we’re surprised that hesitancy is less than we feared. Now, that doesn’t mean that we’re not going to confront it. But right now, we’re seeing significant demand — that demand outstripping supply, and that demand consistent across categories. In fact, our performance among black vets, Latino vets, and white vets is pretty consistent, if not outperforming, in black and Latino vets’, white vets’ uptake.
Nevertheless, this is going to be a problem going forward, so we’re working very closely with our VSOs, very closely with Congress, and then very closely to tell the story of the more than 1.4 million vets who have gotten vaccinated to date. We’ve — we’re talking about what that experience has been, which is overwhelmingly positive.
But we need the funding from ARP to get this done.
Q A quick follow on the supply. Is there a set amount that you’re getting every week from the administration? And have you asked Jeff Zients to increase that?
SECRETARY MCDONOUGH: We — there is a process — a well-established process that’s run through the interagency. So we get our allotment every week out of that process. We then channel it out to what we call our “VISNs,” which are our regional setups across the country based on their population of the target populations. So we have a very straightforward, transparent process by which we get our allotment and dish it out.
Now, the — I think the question over time is: We’re trying to demonstrate at VA that we’re very efficient at moving it through in the hopes that, as there’s extra, that it comes our way. So, for example, about three weeks ago, there was 200,000 doses that was additive to our allotment. And we — as with everything else we’re getting, we moved that quickly through the system into vets’ arms on a very clear, efficient process.
MS. PSAKI: Mary.
Q On another topic: As the Capitol is on alert today, I wanted to ask you about the veterans who played a role in the January 6th attack. We’ve seen 30-plus veterans be arrested for participating. We see these militia groups that are actively trying to recruit veterans. What, if anything, can the VA do, are you considering doing to try and combat some of this?
SECRETARY MCDONOUGH: Yeah, so I also — just to fill out the story, I also saw veterans on that day, including members of Congress, who were veterans doing remarkable things, including members of the DCPD and the Capitol PD — veterans doing remarkable things. And so I think it’s a full picture there that underscores that, basically, veterans continue to play a critical role in the country even after they retire from active duty. And we’re very proud of that.
As to the questions you raised: We’ll take a look at that. We don’t have anything specific to announce now.
But again, I want to make sure that we have a full picture of things like remarkable members in the House — Mr. Gallego is one who comes to mind; you know, Senator Cotton in the Senate. These people taking concrete action in support of democracy on the ground that day. They’re vets too.
MS. PSAKI: Phil.
Q Thank you, Mr. Secretary. Two, if you don’t mind. The first one is COVID-related. You talked about missed appointments and, kind of, the — what COVID has taken away. When it comes to suicide, what is the VA doing right now tangibly to reach out to veterans proactively, not just messaging campaigns — though I know those are important — but to proactively reach out to veterans to ensure that needs in that general area are being met?
SECRETARY MCDONOUGH: Yeah, it’s a major — it’s a major priority for obvious reasons, and it’s heartbreaking every — any individual suicide is absolutely heartbreaking, and we’re very focused on reducing these.
The most important set of lessons I think we have to draw from is the availability of telehealth platform. Demand for mental health services is up. I think that’s a good sign because it speaks to the fact that stigma is being reduced. However, there’s still too much. And that is part of — that’s the first half of the answer to your question, which is, we’re not just passive, waiting for vets to come to us.
We’re also then working with our providers and with local communities to ensure that we have a good sense of at-risk vets and that we’re establishing contact and ways to be in contact with them affirmatively.
Lastly, Congress has given us additional authorities on this, and we’re going to use them. The Hannon Act was just enacted — in fact, I was just speaking with Senator Boozman from Arkansas about this earlier this week; he and Senator Tester spent a lot of time on this question — giving us new authority to make grants in local communities, using local providers who know their communities best to ensure that we’re providing assistance to those vets — at-risk vets, and making sure that we’re doing things like reducing the stigma.
So that’s what we’re — that’s what we’re doing, Phil.
Q And then just real quick, from a policy question. I know this came up during your confirmation hearing, but do you have a plan right now to either reverse or significantly revise the community access standards through the VA MISSION Act?
SECRETARY MCDONOUGH: I don’t have a specific plan on that. I’m very — in active discussion with people like Senator Moran, Senator Tester, Senator Sanders about what we’re seeing. We’re also beginning to get data about last fiscal year, what happened in the community. This is — the data we’re getting now is pre-COVID — so, basically, first quarter and a half of FY20. And what we’re seeing there is a pretty significant uptake in the community.
And so we got to, A, be a good partner with that, ensure that we’re paying those bills on time to local providers. We’re keeping vibrant networks so our people have places that they can find care. But we also have to be really careful that we’re also maintaining investment in the integrated system of the VA itself. We have to recapitalize that and make sure that these institutions — many of them over 50 years old — are brought up to speed.
The ARP will be important to that, too. Things like new HVAC, new air control systems, zero-pressure rooms, so we’re not moving that virus through the hospital. Those are all things that are going to be enabled by the ARP, and that’s why we really need the Senate to get this done.
MS. PSAKI: All right, let’s do the last question. Then we’ll have to have him come back. Go ahead.
Q Thank you, Mr. Secretary. At the top of your remarks, you mentioned the importance of keeping veterans in their homes. The moratorium on forbearance and foreclosures, of course, was extended through June.
SECRETARY MCDONOUGH: Yes.
Q Do you think it should be extended further?
SECRETARY MCDONOUGH: Well, we’ll take a look at that. And we’re taking a look at a lot of those — those things. Incidentally and importantly, in the ARP is additional funding for homelessness programming. We know that this continues to — to bedevil us as a country. It’s an outrage any night that any vet is homeless.
We’re, you know, over the last 10 years, down 50 percent on those numbers, but they’re creeping back up as a result of the pandemic. And 50 percent, while progress, is nowhere near where we need to be. So we need that funding in the ARP.
MS. PSAKI: Thank you so much, Secretary McDonough.
SECRETARY MCDONOUGH: Thank you.
MS. PSAKI: You’ll have to come back.
SECRETARY MCDONOUGH: Yes, thank you very much. It’s great to see everybody.
Q Thank you.
MS. PSAKI: All right. A couple of other things at the top.
As you all saw and many of you reported on this morning, the numbers from the Labor Department out show the 50th week in a row with new unemployment claims exceed- — where new unemployment claims exceeded their pre-pandemic high. Hundreds of thousands of Americans are continuing to struggle in this economy.
We can’t get numb to what this represents. These are moms and dads, friends and neighbors who will now have to worry about how they’ll support their families, put food on the table, and make ends meet in the midst of a pandemic.
This also underscores the need for Congress to move quickly to pass the American Rescue Plan to get $1,400 checks to the American people.
You may have also seen today — if you’re covering economic issues, I should say — that the Treasury Department announced a new program called “Emergency Capital Investment Program” — called “The Emergency Capital Investment Program.” Through this program, Treasury will make a $9 billion investment in community financial institutions that have a track record in investing in financially underserved communities, which have been particularly hurt by the pandemic.
This support will bolster these institutions so they can continue to play important roles in fostering financial inclusion for communities that have been shut out for far too long.
This component — this program is one component of Treasury’s efforts to combat economic inequality. This one announced today is one of three Treasury programs totaling about $12 billion.
As you also know, in an hour or so, the President, the Vice President, and the Secretary of Transportation will meet with bipartisan members of The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. This meeting is meant to build on the conversation the President had with a bipartisan group of senators on February 11th.
Investing in our nation’s infrastructure is a top priority for the President, something he’s talked about as a part of his Build Back Better agenda. Also, back to when he was Vice President, serving in the last admin- — or the last Democratic administration.
He believes we have to rebuild our crumbling roads and bridges, improve our communities, and create good union jobs for Americans.
Chris also tells me he’ll get Secretary Buttigieg here to talk to all of you. So, we’re relying on him for that. (Laughter.)
One last piece. I can’t remember who it was, but somebody in here asked about Mississippi and the water situation on the ground in Mississippi. So as I had mentioned I would, we followed up with our FEMA team. We’re, of course, continuing to closely monitor the situation in Jackson, Mississippi. We’re not currently tracking any requests for federal assistance through FEMA from the governor, which is how, of course, that process works as it relates to Jackson.
The Mississippi State National Guard has numerous water distribution sites in place. And the federal government, including the EPA, remains in close touch with the governor and mayor to offer support.
Alex, why don’t you kick us off?
Q Sure. Thanks, Jen. Two questions. Let’s start with international. What is the U.S. doing to help free AP journalist Thein Zaw and other journalists detained in Myanmar, including the ongoing crackdown against protestors there? Has there been any outreach to authorities there? And what’s been the response?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I will say, first, that the detainment of journalists, the targeting of journalists and dissidents is certainly something that is of great concern to the President, to the Secretary of State, and to every member of our administration. And certainly this issue has been raised with — the issue broadly is raised in virtually every diplomatic conversation that members of our team have.
As you’re very familiar with, the situation on the ground in Burma is troubling. We’ve obviously been working closely with our partners in the region. We’ve taken sanction steps, as you know, to make it — send a clear message that it’s unacceptable.
I don’t have any diplomatic conversations to update you on. Those would likely happen through the State Department, so I would certainly suggest you reach out to them directly.
Q And then, domestically, we’ve seen a couple of high-profile IG reports out this week about former Trump officials. Does the President believe that inspector generals should continue to investigate and potentially pursue punitive measures against these Trump officials that are no longer in office? Or does he think it’s time to turn the page?
MS. PSAKI: Well, as you know, the Department of Transportation Office of Inspector General initiated the investigation into the former Secretary during the Trump administration and completed the investigation under the leadership of a Trump-appointed inspector general. The inspector generals across agencies are independent for a reason, and we certainly respect their role in moving forward or seeing those investigations through as they see fit.
Go ahead, Mary.
Q The governor of Mississippi has responded to the President’s comments yesterday, and he seems to have taken offense at some of the President’s language. He says, “Mississippians don’t need handlers.” “I just think we should trust Americans, [and] not insult them.” He’s making an argument that this is really about personal liberty here. Does the President have any second thoughts about the language that he used yesterday? And how does comparing someone to a “Neanderthal” help convince them to change course and get on board with your public health message?
MS. PSAKI: The behavior of a Neanderthal, just to be very clear. The behavior of.
Look, I think the President — what we — what everybody saw yesterday was a reflection of his frustration and exasperation, which I think many American people have, that for almost a year now, people across the country have sacrificed and, many times, they haven’t had the information they need from the federal government. They haven’t had access to a greater understanding of what the public health guidelines should look like. And those include many, many people in Mississippi, in Texas, in Ohio, Florida, and every state across the country.
And, you know, he believes that with more than half a million Americans’ lives lost, with families that continue to suffer, that it’s imperative that people listen across the country, whether they live in a red state or blue state, to the guidance of public health experts.
At the same time — you’ve watched the President closely for some time, Mary, as you all have — he’s going to engage with and talk with people who disagree with him on a range of issues, including this one. But he believes that if we’re going to get this pandemic under control, we need to follow public health guidelines.
He simply has — was asked — asked the American people to abide by wearing masks for 100 days. We’re at about day 40. Are we at day 40? Around there. Sixty more days. That’s what he’s asking, and he’s certainly hopeful that businesses and people across the country will continue to do that.
Q Has he reached out to Governors Reeves and Abbott to convince them to try and change course here?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t think his view on mask wearing is a secret. They’re certainly familiar with it. He’s talked about it many, many times. And I’m certain when he speaks with them next, he will convey that directly.
Q The President has said that he hopes — you know, he’s hopeful that by this time next year we may be getting some semblance of normalcy again. Is there a concern that, as we see states like Mississippi and Texas take these actions, if others follow suit, that that could shift the timeline; that a few states could set back the timeline here?
MS. PSAKI: Well, what the President has said publicly and certainly conveyed to all of us is: He can’t do this alone; the federal government cannot do this alone. This is going to require additional sacrifice from the American people. He doesn’t think that’s easy. None of us think that’s easy.
But he has ordered enough vaccines to ensure everybody in the country is vaccinated, and he will have — we will have those vaccines by the end of May, but it will require ongoing social distancing, ongoing mask wearing, as we’ve been talking about, and it will also require the American people getting the vaccine. He can’t force individuals to do that.
So he can just project the recommendations of public health officials. He can take steps, as he has over the last couple of days, to ensure that communities are prioritized, who are playing key roles in society. But he can’t do it on behalf of the public, and it’s going to require the public to play an important and vital role here too.
Q Just one question on vaccines. You know, the President has been pretty critical of the prior administration’s handling of this pandemic, saying you inherited a mess here. But when it comes to vaccinations, you’re following some of the same playbook here. So does the prior administration deserve some credit for laying the groundwork?
MS. PSAKI: Which ones are we following?
Q Well, for instance, former Trump HHS Assistant Secretary Admiral Brett Giroir has said that you’re following 99 percent of the playbook they created on vaccines. He has said that the prior administration deserves more credit here for at least getting the ball rolling on some of these.
MS. PSAKI: I don’t think anyone deserves credit when half a million people in the country have died of this pandemic. So, what our focus is on, and what the President’s focus is on when he came into office just over a month ago, was ensuring that we had enough vaccines. We have — we are going to have them now. We had enough vaccinators, and we had enough vaccine locations to get this pandemic under control.
There’s no question, and all data points to the fact, that there were not enough of any of those things when he took office. We are open-eyed about the challenge we continue to live under, and that’s why he has been focused every single day and doing everything possible to get the pandemic under control.
But those were — there were shortages in all those areas, which were preventing us from moving forward on getting the pandemic under control.
Q I have a couple on the COVID bill, but to start with: The previous administration put an end to regular reporting of specific troop levels in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. I understand this is the Pentagon’s bailiwick, but will the President commit to once again reporting specific troop levels in those three countries, under his administration?
MS. PSAKI: Well, certainly, we, of course, would work with the Pentagon and our national security team to ensure that transparency remains a priority — or is reprioritized, I should say, under this inves- — under this administration. I mean, I’d have to talk to our national security team and our team at the Pentagon about any restrictions they have. But that remains a vital priority for this President and something I know he’s projecting to his entire team.
Q And then, on the COVID bill: Last night, when the President was speaking to the House Democrats, he said, “I know we’re all making small compromises,” as he tried to work everybody to support the bill or thank them for supporting their version of the bill. What exactly has the President asked moderates to compromise on in this process up to this point?
MS. PSAKI: You’d have to ask them that question. You know, the President has been clear that he is unmovable on the size of the package — $1.9 trillion. And as you know from covering the Hill, that is not — that was a size that some expressed concern about.
He has been unmovable about his view that Americans who need help the most should get $1,400 checks. There were some who spoke openly about their concern about that. And he has been very clear that state and local governments need assistance now to keep cops on the beat; to keep teachers; you know, to keep firefighters employed; and to keep state and local governments functioning.
I’m sure there may be other issues that they have concerns about. I’ll let them speak to that. But he has been insistent that the scope of the challenge requires this size of a package. And in order to adjust — address these twin crises that we’re facing, it needs to have these key components included.
Q And then, last one. Again, from the President last night, to House Democrats, he made the point that “this will make everything more possible…to get done” — “get done” — I think I’m quoting properly there —
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
Q — passing this now. Is that the kind of theory of the case here: You get this done at this scale, and all of a sudden, some of the difficulties you may have in the U.S. Senate become less so because people see that you were able to produce? I just want to make sure that I understand, kind of, his thought process going forward.
MS. PSAKI: I’m not sure what the context of that comment was. Can you tell me more of the context of it?
Q Yeah, I don’t have the full thing in front of me. Sorry about that. I was just struck because he said — you know, I will paraphrase — I promise I’m being accurate when I paraphrase this: that the idea being that if they get this done, there’ll be more trust in government, and if there’s more trust in government, therefore people will be willing to get behind maybe the priorities that House Democrats have going forward — whether that’s on infrastructure, whether that’s on climate, any of those things. The list goes on.
And so I guess that’s my question, is: Does the administration look at the American Rescue Plan and say, “This is our springboard to doing even more broad-based, more “bold” — in the words of the administration — legislative proposals in the future?
MS. PSAKI: We don’t look at it through a — as political-legislative as a — of a lens as you just outlined. But I will say that the President came into office knowing that getting the pandemic under control, helping address and put people back to work — the millions and millions of Americans who are struggling to make ends meet, the one in seven American families that can’t put food on the table — that he knew that those would be his top two priorities — his top one, two, three, four: pandemic economic recovery, pandemic economic recovery. And that is what this package is meant to help address.
And what I’ve heard him say — and this sounds consistent with that, while I don’t know the full context of this — is that, of course, he wants to build on — build his agenda beyond — build his agenda beyond getting the pandemic under control, beyond addressing and stemming the tide of a fina- — of an economic crisis, because he believes that investing in infrastructure is imperative and long overdue. He believes that modernizing our immigration system is long overdue and is good for the American people, good for our economy. He believes there needs to be more done for caregiving. He believes we need to do more to protect our health — to ensure its people — more people have access to healthcare.
So, there’s no question that he views his — the early stage — early part of his presidency as focused on these twin crises, but he is hardly going to be done with his agenda and work once we have this package signed into law.
Go ahead, Mario.
Q Thanks, Jen. Does the President believe that the House Ways and Means Committee should have — be able to obtain Donald Trump’s tax returns?
MS. PSAKI: We certainly leave that up to them. The President spoke about this on the campaign trail, but his focus at this point is not looking backward at the “former guy,” as he has called him in the past.
Q But, yesterday, the Treasury and the administration at large asked for more time on how to respond to the subpoena. He won’t weigh in on that — the President?
MS. PSAKI: Well, we’ll leave it to the Treasury Department and the Department of Justice. And our focus is on getting relief to the American people, on getting the pandemic under control. That’s keeping us pretty busy, so we’ll leave that work to others in the federal government and in Congress.
Q And one more, if I can, on the economic base.
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q Gasoline prices are approaching $3 per gallon for the first time since 2014. Americans, as you well know, are cash-strapped. Is the President planning to intervene somehow? OPEC Plus came out this morning and said they were going to limit supply. Does the President plan to intervene somehow — maybe call the Saudi government, Russia — anything in the toolbox to rein in the gas prices?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have anything on that to preview for you. I will say, since you’ve given me, sort of, an opportunity and opening here, is that there’s been a lot of reporting on, kind of, what kind of relief would come out of the American Rescue Plan — something that can help address a range of issues the American people are having, whether it’s the cost of gas or it’s the inability or concern about getting food on the table.
So let me just take this opportunity to lay out some of the specific numbers our NEC team — I love number crunchers — crunched for all of you.
So under the Senate version of the bill, 158.5 million households are going to receive direct payments. That’s 98 percent of the households who received them in December. And in the previous round of relief, that 2 percent sliver all received checks smaller than $600; in some cases, as small as $100 — because, as you all know, it was scaled down after a certain income rate.
Under the Rescue Plan, almost all of these 180 — 158.5 million households are going to receive checks that are more than twice the size of the previous round, not to mention the 66 million kids who will benefit from the expanded child tax credit and 17 million adults who will ben- — who will benefit from the expanded earned income tax credit. Because, of course, there are many tax components, as you all know, in addition to the direct checks that are included in this package.
So, I just wanted to give a little number-crunching laydown.
Go ahead, Jeff.
Q Jen, going back to Texas and Mississippi, is the White House concerned and the COVID team concerned that the loosening or lifting of restrictions in those states will lead to these COVID variants to spread more?
MS. PSAKI: Well, one of the reasons that our health and medical experts have continued to call for the American people to wear masks, to social distance, to get whatever vaccine they have access to is because many of them have — of these vaccines have shown to be effective in addressing the variants and because we’ve seen a spread of variants, reportedly, in some of these states.
So I would say, Jeff, that, you know, our concern here is on the health, welfare, wellbeing, and survival, frankly, of people across the country. And in states where the guidelines are not — or where the recommendations from leadership is not following health and medical guidelines, we have concerns about the impact on the population.
Q You know, in Europe, there are — there are travel restrictions between European states. The United States is large and has 50 states. Is there any discussion of restrictions for traveling between states when different states have such different ideas about how to fight COVID? And would you encourage or discourage other Americans from traveling to Texas or Mississippi right now?
MS. PSAKI: I’m not aware of any discussions, and I certainly wouldn’t do that from here. But I would just say, Jeff, that, you know, we are — we are going to continue to use every bully pul- — every method of the bully pulpit at our disposal to convey directly to people living across the country, including in many of these states, that mask wearing, social distancing, getting access to the vaccine is the path to go back to normal. And that is how we are going to get it done and how the American people can return to — believe me, I’d love to take my kids to birthday parties and to parks and to go to a restaurant. I haven’t been to one in a year. You know, we all want that. This is the pathway to do that, and that’s what we’ll continue to convey.
Q Just one more quick one on another topic. I’m sorry.
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q The Capitol is on high alert today because of the potential of an attack related to a conspiracy theory about this date. Is the White House taking any additional security measures? And can you share any intel or readout about what we know about the threat?
MS. PSAKI: Well, let me first say, Jeff, that, on the specifics of today’s threats, the FBI and DHS have warned that the threat from domestic violent extremism, particularly racially motivated and anti-government extremists, did not begin or end on January 6th. And we have been vigilant, day in and day out. Our national security and homeland security team has been since then, in part because we are witnessing a years-long trend of false narratives fueling violence. And the current heightened security environment in the National Capital Region, writ large, is an illustration of that.
I’m not going to outline any security steps from here at any point in time, but I can say that our team is, of course, remain — or our team — the President personally remains deeply engaged in tracking these threats, in receiving regular updates, as he does from his team, about threats, of course, but about incidents happening across the country. It’s something he is personally engaged in. It’s reflected in the comprehensive review he ordered in his first week of the job.
He’s also a diligent and cons- — an eager consumer of intelligence. And as you’d expect, appropriate elements of the intelligence community and law enforcement are providing a steady pace of information and analysis on a regular basis on domestic violent extremism in the country.
Q Thank you, Jen. As more people are getting vaccinated every day, there’s still a lack of clarity about what they should and shouldn’t do. And we’ve reported that the CDC guidance for them was supposed to be released today, but that’s no longer happening. Do you have any guidance about why not and when Americans should expect to see recommendations?
MS. PSAKI: I would certainly point you to the CDC. I believe they said, in your story or maybe another story perhaps, that the CDC’s guidance will not be posted tomorrow — this is a quote from them — “because we have not finalized it here at CDC. Once it is final, we will publish and disseminate it.”
And certainly we know people are eager to hear more details about steps they can take once they’re vaccinated. And we certainly think that once people have a sense of that, hopefully — and we’ll see it when we see it — it will hopefully encourage people to get vaccinated, as well. But they’re on their own timeline, and we’ll wait to see when they’re ready to put out that guidelines.
Q So the White House has not seen them yet?
MS. PSAKI: I’m not aware of the White House reviewing the guidelines, no.
Q And then, on Texas, Governor Abbott said that “the Biden administration must stop importing COVID into the country” because he claims that COVID-positive migrants are being bused into Texas and then sent to other places in the country. Do you have a response to that? And can you elaborate on what the government is doing to test migrants, if anything?
MS. PSAKI: Sure. Well, we’re around fact — we’re about facts around here. That is not factual. So let me give you an overview of what happens.
When migrants are placed in alternatives to detention, their COVID-19 testing — our policy is for COVID-19 testing to be done at the state and local level and with the help of NGOs and local governments. And that, certainly, is something that our policy is, is to have that be done — concluded — before they are even moved to go stay with family members or others they may know while their cases are being adjudicated.
And, of course, our guidance to anyone — regardless of status — who is testing positive for COVID-19 or experiencing COVID-like symptoms is, you know, to social distance, to wear a mask, and seek medical attention as needed.
But, you know, in general, our approach and our policy is to work with local governments, work with NGOs to ensure — to have testing — to ensure these migrants are tested. And that can take place, in that steps for isolation, quarantining, and medical care can be taken should that be needed.
Q Is there a reason why the burden is on state and local jurisdictions to do the testing and not the federal government?
MS. PSAKI: Well, many of these NGOs are — have stepped in to help ensure that these steps can be taken. Many of these NGOs have also, if quarantining or isolf- — or isolation is needed, have even reserved hotel blocks in some cases. And you just certainly have to talk to some of them about the steps they take.
But obviously, their assistance is — allows — allows the federal government to, you know, work with local communities to get this done.
Q Thank you. Just one more question on migrants, specifically unaccompanied minors who continue to come to the border every day. We’ve reported that 96 percent of the HHS beds are already accounted for. Is the administration planning to open new influx facilities, specifically for these children — and maybe at military bases or installations, like we’ve seen in the past?
MS. PSAKI: While I’m not in a position to confirm the specific numbers, I can say that we are — there are, of course, a large number of unaccompanied minors who are coming across the border. And as you know — because we’ve talked about it in here — we believe that the humane approach is to treat these kids with humanity and ensure that they have a safe place to be.
Well, I don’t have anything to preview for you, in terms of considerations underway at this point in time. But obviously, we recognize that with the number that are coming in and the limited facilities we have and the — our desire to abide by COVID protocols that, you know, it’s a policy process that is imperative and a priority for the — this administration.
Q Thank you, Jen.
MS. PSAKI: Go ahead.
Q Senate Republicans have made pretty clear that they intend to block major Democratic legislation. Given what the President has said about that, has he given more thought to the filibuster and making changes to that? Is he having discussions on that front?
MS. PSAKI: Which piece of legislation are they intending to block?
Q H.R. 1, policing reform, there’s some union-related legislation that the House is looking at next week.
MS. PSAKI: Well, our view is that voting rights; that, you know, addressing needed reforms of unions; that moving forward on a number of long-overdue policy efforts by Congress is too important to prejudge what the outcome will be. And we’ve certainly seen the threats by some in Congress, but we’re going to continue to work to see if there’s a bipartisan path forward.
Q So he is not considering looking at the filibuster — pressing his Senate colleagues to do so?
MS. PSAKI: His policy has not changed — his — on that issue. He believes that there is a path forward to work with Democrats and Republicans to get business done for the American people, and he’ll continue to make that case.
Q And secondly, why hasn’t the President signed the paperwork to lift the — raise the refugee cap? The State Department has been booking flights but has since cancelled those.
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would refer you to the State Department. I know that they have to have systems in place in order to implement policies like that. But I — they have — will have more details on where things stand.
Q And just lastly, on H.R. 1: It includes some restrictions on so-called “dark money,” secret money. The President — his allies have just formed an outside group. Will he — will he instruct them to make those donors to that group public, as — rather than keeping them secret?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I’m not sure he’s in the position to instruct them; that’s not the relationship we have. But he certainly can — I would refer you to them on what their policy is going to be for making donors public.
Q But he can make his positon known though, right?
MS. PSAKI: And he has spoken to this issue in the past, but I don’t have anything to — I would point you to the outside group to — for any further comment on that.
Go ahead, Ashley.
Q Thanks, Jen. A few questions. There were a few late changes in the COVID relief bill that could help several states, including Alaska, by increasing funding for lower population states, as well as adding money for tourism and seafood processors. Did President Biden sign off on these changes personally? And was this aimed at all at getting Senator Murkowski to support the bill?
MS. PSAKI: I would say the majority of negotiations at this point are between senators themself and Congress, and those are where — that’s where the discussions are. Of course, the President is engaged with members, as you know, who are here sometimes in the Oval Office, who he talks to on the phone. But I’m not going to outline any more particulars for you, other than the majority of negotiation is between senators and Congress.
Q And on schools: We know the administration’s goals for the first 100 days. Can you talk a little bit about what the public should expect for the fall when the new school year will start — what the goal is and what the reasonable expectation should be?
MS. PSAKI: Well, we — we don’t have new goals to outline, but I would sell — tell you that now that we have a Secretary of Education in place, his number one priority is ensuring schools are open, that they’re open five days a week, that schools have the information they need to put in place the mitigation steps. Obviously, we need the money from the American Rescue Plan to get that done in certain communities, but our objective is for schools to certainly be open.
Q But is it fair — is it a reasonable expectation for parents and families to expect that kids will be back in a — what we think of as a more traditional classroom setting five days a week for the next grade in the fall?
MS. PSAKI: Well, that certainly is our hope and our objective. But the Secretary of Education is going to be leading this effort. He’s going to have a summit he’s announced. He’s going to be working closely to help school districts implement — work with them to implement these guidelines that have been put out by the CDC. And so, I expect he’ll have more to say on it.
Q And lastly, how quickly does President Biden plan to move — to name a replacement for Neera Tanden?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t expect to have an announcement this week. Beyond that, I don’t have anything to preview for you. I would say our focus right now is on getting the nearly half a dozen Cabinet nominees, including our nominee to be the Attorney General of the United States, through Congress because those are essential roles we need to have in place leading these departments.
As you know, he’s nominated an incredibly qual- — qualified and well-respected woman, Shalanda Young, to be the deputy at OMB, and we’re certainly hopeful Congress will move forward on that. And then she would be in a place to be the acting head in the — while we go through the process of nominating a replacement for Neera.
Q On the border, is the White House or the administration planning to ask FEMA to assist with the influx of children coming across the border? And if so, does that mean that you consider it an actual, genuine emergency?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would say that that’s probably a question for the Department of Homeland Security, who obviously oversees that, and the Department of Home- — Health and Human Services, who oversees the facilities and the shelters where these kids are. Certainly, one of our concerns is that there are — there is, you know, as we were talking about earlier, an influx of kids at a rate and a pace that is going to require us to, you know, make considerations about where we’re going to safely house them.
And that is something that is under discussion in the administration, but I don’t have any — I would just send you to them, who oversee — the Department of Homeland Security oversees the process.
Q And in the current stimulus proposal, the Child Tax Credit is expanded temporarily from $2,000 to $3,000. Would the President support making that expansion permanent or any of the other temporary expansions in the bill permanent?
MS. PSAKI: Well, he’s — the President is interested in exploring options for making the Child Tax Credit permanent as part of the Build Back Better agenda. He’s been heartened to see bipartisan support for ideas like this, including from Republicans like Senator Romney. But we’ll have more to say about all of that once we get the Rescue Plan passed.
Q And just one more.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
Q The President has traveled back to Wilmington a couple of times since taking office. The CDC does still urge people not to travel for personal reasons. Obviously, presidential travel is very different than commercial travel, but should the President be doing more to set an example about personal travel during a pandemic?
MS. PSAKI: Well, the President lives in Wilmington; it’s his home. That’s where he’s lived for many, many years. And as you know, as any President of the United States does, he takes a private airplane called “Air Force One” to travel there. That is, of course, a unique — unique from most Americans, but I think most Americans would also see that as a unique circumstance.
Q Thank you, Jen. So a group of 9/11 families sent a letter to President Biden this week, and they’re asking that the FB- — or that he declassify FBI documents that talk about the Saudi link to the September 11th terror attacks. Would this be something that President Biden would consider?
MS. PSAKI: I would send you to the Department of Justice.
Q And then another question: Four years ago this week, President Trump announced that he was going to donate the first quarter of his salary, basically, back to the government. I’m wondering — obviously, I realize they have a very different financial circumstances, but will —
MS. PSAKI: We don’t know; we haven’t seen his tax returns.
Q That is true. But we —
MS. PSAKI: I’m not sure.
Q But will the President consider donating a portion of his salary — or back to the government or to a charity of his choice?
MS. PSAKI: I’m happy to talk to him about that and get back to you directly —
Q Thank you.
MS. PSAKI: — or others who are interested.
Go ahead in the back.
Q Hi, Jen. Suzanne Lynch from the Irish Times. Just a bit of change of tack. Given we’re in March and fewer than — less than two weeks away from St Patrick’s Day, I was wondering whether the White House plans to mark St Patrick’s Day. We do know that the President, President Biden, is very proud of his Irish heritage. And I just wanted to know, do you have any update on plans for that?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have an update on specific plans, but the President has a special place in his heart for the Irish, as do I. And I expect certainly we’ll have more details to share in the coming — soon — given, as you said, it’s two weeks away. Of course, any — any recognition of St. Patrick’s Day would look different from past years, but we will certainly mark the day, and we’ll have more to say on it as we get closer.
Q And as a second question, on trade: This morning, the Biden administration suspended tariffs on UK exports as part of the Boeing Airbus ongoing dispute. But also on the trade — on this area today, there are continuing tensions around Brexit in Northern Ireland, and the UK has been accused of reneging on international law for the second time over a delay in imposing checks between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
Just those two aspects, in terms of a UK-U.S. trade deal, where do things stand now with the administration? Is a UK-U.S. deal — trade deal a priority for this administration? Or are they concerned — President Biden has said before that, and I quote, “Any trade deal between the U.S. and U.K. must be contingent upon respect for the [Good Friday] Agreement…” in order —
MS. PSAKI: So that remains — certainly remains the case. I will say, since you brought up and everybody may not be following the suspension of tariffs news this morning: In a joint statement the United States and United Kingdom announced a four-month suspension of tariffs related to the ongoing large civilian aircraft dispute, and the four-month tariff suspension was agreed to ease the burden on industry and take a bold joint step towards resolving the longest-running dispute — one of the longest-running disputes at the World Trade Organization.
And certainly the President’s — President Biden has been an unequivocal — unequivocal, I should say — in his support for the Good Friday Agreement. This agreement has been the bedrock of peace, stability, and prosperity for all the people of Northern Ireland.
We are — also welcome cooperation between our British and Irish partners on the Northern Irel- — Irish Protocol and the recent strong statements on these governments’ full commitment to the Good Friday Agreement.
Q One final one on the Boeing dispute. The fact that the UK has moved to suspend these tariffs on UK exports, is this a sign that the U.S. is prepared to reach some kind of negotiation settlement with the EU on the tariffs on this very long-running disagreement over Boeing and Airbus?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have anything to preview for you on that. This is just, of course, an announcement made this morning. It was meant to deescalate the issue and create space for a negotiated settlement to the Airbus and Boeing disputes. But in terms of additional steps, I don’t have anything to preview for you.
Q Thank you, Jen. You mentioned earlier — on masks, you referenced the President’s frustration and exasperation with people who are not following the science. It would appear that notwithstanding, there are still millions of Americans out there who are not following the science, certainly in places like Texas, Mississippi, South Carolina, and other places.
So I’m wondering: Why doesn’t the President consider ratcheting up his rhetoric beyond the undertow and personalizing his concern? Why doesn’t — for example, why doesn’t he think about saying, “Folks, here’s the deal: If you don’t wear your masks, people are going to die because of you”? That would certainly get people’s attention.
MS. PSAKI: We’ll note it. I will say, the President has been clear that if people wear masks for 100 days, 60,000 lives could be saved. And he has been clear — he did a whole PSA during the Super Bowl about it — about the benefit and impact of mask wearing.
He also, though, does not believe that people of any state or any American should be hurt by the guidance of their leadership. And so that’s why he’s spoken directly to the American people — we all have, or we all are trying to — about the impact of mask wearing, of social distancing, and of taking the vaccine when people can have access to it.
Go ahead, in the back.
Q To the EU and China, what does the President expect from the Europeans, in terms of confronting China — which he calls a “strategic competitor”? And how does the President see the EU-China investment deal, which they struck shortly before he took office?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I will say, first, that in the President’s engagements with leaders in the European Union, which were many of his first and early discussions, enga- — the relationship with China and working together in partnership and in lockstep was certainly central to all of those discussions.
And, you know, in terms of the specific trade agreements — or trade — or negotiations, I guess I should say — that was announced shortly before he took office, I believe we spoke to that at the time. I don’t think I have anything new to preview or convey to you at that — about that.
Q Thank you, Jen.
MS. PSAKI: Oh, sorry. We didn’t get to one person.
Sorry, Alex. Go ahead. Go ahead.
Q I appreciate it. Two questions. First of all, I wanted to ask about — something we’re hearing from a lot of Republican senators on some of the nominees at EPA and Energy is the idea that they oppose them not necessarily because of the nominees themselves, but because they believe they’ll be taking orders from White House Advisors Gina McCarthy, John Kerry. Just wondering if you could respond that and talk about how the White House envisions their role in relation to the actual Senate-confirmed heads of those agencies.
MS. PSAKI: It really depends on the agency. As you well know, some are independent; some are not independent. Obviously anyone who’s a nominee to lead a Cabinet agency that is not independent is there in part to deliver on the agenda and the policies of the President of the United States. And they certainly know that when they walk into the jobs. But he also welcomes debate and welcomes proposals and welcomes ideas on how to address the various crises we’re facing, including the climate crisis.
So it really depends on who you’re speaking to or what — who you’re speaking about. You know, I think the President feels confident that his nominees across the board are qualified, they’re experienced, they’re prepared to do the job, and he’s eager to have his team in place and hopeful that the Senate moves forward to confirm the remainder of his nominees.
Q And then if I could also — any White House reaction to Microsoft and this hack that they’re talking about? Is the President taking any steps, being kept up to date, being briefed on this?
MS. PSAKI: I’d have to talk to our cyber team about that and see if there have been any updates or briefings on our end.
Go ahead, Ashley.
Q Following up on Shalanda Young, you said that the hope is that she’ll be the acting director. She has a ton of support on Capitol Hill from the CDC, from House Democratic leadership. Why has the administration not just gone ahead and nominated her to be the official director?
MS. PSAKI: Well, the — one, the President thinks so highly of her he nominated her to be the deputy director of OMB, which is a very senior and significant job and role in the administration. All I was conveying is how the process works. If the dep- — when the deputy is confirmed — knock on wood — they will then become the acting director, hence there is a need and an imperative to move forward on that quickly.
I will reserve his space for him making his own decision about who is going to lead the budget department. We certainly know there’s lots of support on Capitol Hill, and again, he thinks so highly of her he nominated her to serve in a senior role.
Q So, if he thinks so highly of her, I guess why is the obvious next step not just to appoint her to that top position?
MS. PSAKI: Well, Ashley, there’s a range of individuals in the country who are qualified for the job, so we’ll leave him the space and time to make a decision about who he’d like to nominate as a replacement for Neera Tanden.
Okay, last one actually. I’m sorry we’ve gone over now. Go ahead.
Q Jen, just a quick follow-up. Did the President directly speak to Alabama Governor Kay Ivey, who has actually said that she’s going to extend her mask mandate?
MS. PSAKI: She did. And I meant to raise that. I’m not aware of a direct conversation between them today. Obviously, the President’s view and his support for the mask mandate and encouraging people to wear masks, given the advice of his health and medical experts, is well known. It’s something he’s raised on calls with governors, our health and COVID team has raised on calls with governors. But I’m not aware of a direct call between them today.
Q Okay. Are you — do you know if he’s talked to any of the Republicans who might be flirting with this idea of opening prematurely?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have any other calls to read out for you at this point in time.
Thanks so much everyone.
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