Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jen Psaki and Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, March 17, 2021
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
3:02 P.M. EDT
MS. PSAKI: All right. Well, we — today, we are fortunate to have joining us Secretary of Education Dr. Miguel Cardona, who was confirmed just two weeks ago.
A fellow Nutmegger — that means from Connecticut, for any of you who don’t know — he previously served as the Commissioner of Education in Connecticut. In this position, he faced the unprecedented challenge of responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and led the safe school reopening efforts in Connecticut. To do so, Secretary Cardona and his department provided school districts with the balance of guidance, local autonomy, and oversight needed to ensure equitable and meaningful educational opportunities for students while also prioritizing public health mitigation measures.
Since he’s our first — it’s his first time here — first of many, hopefully — he has two decades of experience as a public school educator. He began his career as a — as an elementary school teacher. He then served as a school principal.
So, with that, I will turn it over to the Secretary. He has a short timeline, so he’ll be able to take just a couple questions today.
As always, I’ll be the bad cop, but we’ll turn it over to you.
SECRETARY CARDONA: (Laughs.) Thank you.
MS. PSAKI: Thank you.
SECRETARY CARDONA: Thank you. Good afternoon. As Jen mentioned, I’m Miguel Cardona.
We’re at a critically important time in our nation’s history in education, and I’m honored to serve as Secretary of Education. My goal — my priority right now is to safely reopen as many schools as possible, as quickly as possible. And to do that — to do that, today — earlier today, I notified all 50 states, D.C., and Puerto Rico of the amount of funds they’ll be receiving from the American Rescue Plan, totaling nearly $122 billion to help them reopen safely and quickly.
I’m also pleased to share that HHS is allocating an additional $10 billion for states to do screening and surveillance testing of — in schools to make sure we can not only open our schools, but keep them open.
And then, thirdly, I’m really, really excited to announce that next week we will be having our National Reopening Summit for schools, where we’re going to hear best practices from across the country on how to do this safely and how to do it quickly, because we know there are great examples out there. We know students learn best from students, teachers learn best from teachers, and states will learn best from states on how to safely reopen schools quickly.
I’m really excited that Dr. Jill Biden will be offering opening remarks and Dr. Rochelle Walensky will also be in attendance. So I’m excited about that.
You know, as a parent and as an educator, I know the value of in-person learning. And for those of you that are parents here, you know there’s no substitute for in-person learning. So I’m excited to get the — get to work making sure we can safely reopen our schools as quickly as possible.
I’ll take any questions you have. Thank you.
MS. PSAKI: Okay. Darlene.
Q Thank you, Mr. Secretary. Thank you for being here. You talked about the money that you informed states that they’re getting. How will you ensure that the money is actually spent for the things that schools need to reopen?
SECRETARY CARDONA: It’s a good question. Thank you. It’s critically important that we use the funds to support our students, especially those students who have had gaps exacerbated as a result of this pandemic. We know achievement and opportunity gaps have widened, so it’s critically important that that process is — is not only communicated with the — with the Education Department, but publicly as well.
We will be receiving reports from the states on how they’re going to be using their money, and we also expect those reports to be public.
MS. PSAKI: Go ahead.
Q Mr. Secretary, thank you for being here. Now that teachers are eligible in most every state, what do you say to those teachers and school officials who refuse to get vaccinated?
SECRETARY CARDONA: Well, you know, vaccination is one of those strategies that we know, in addition to the mitigation strategies, allow for schools to safely reopen. So it’s critically important that we vaccinate as many as possible and we promote the benefits of the vaccination to make sure we have safe school communities.
So the message really is: If you’re able to get a shot, get a shot. And, you know, that’s a strategy to help keep our schools open.
Q Nothing about making it mandatory? If teachers want to come back unvaccinated, that’s fine by you?
SECRETARY CARDONA: At this point, vaccination is available for educators. I’m proud that the President prioritized educators to be vaccinated because we know that when that’s not the case, it’s more likely that schools will close due to quarantining.
Q Can I ask you about the money quickly? We know that you said $122 billion will be given to the states from the American Rescue Plan. Right now, the CBO anticipated that the bulk of the spending of funds provided through that plan won’t be provided until after 2021. There was, I think, $67 billion that existed from the past relief plans that have been passed that, according to CBO, the bulk of which had not been spent. So why had — and, first, is that accurate? And why hasn’t more of that money been spent right now, even before the American Rescue Plan money was sent out to get those schools to safely reopen?
SECRETARY CARDONA: We know that the bulk of the money is also being used on human resources, and that’s paid out as people perform the service or are hired and their contracts are paid out, and services also are paid when they’re given. And we’re in March and we still have some of the school year left.
We’re looking to release funds this month. And we know that schools are needing that to not only prepare for reopening now, but also to plan ahead. We know that when our students come back, they’re going to need more social, emotional support. We know that our schools have to be designed to meet the needs of the students after they return after a pandemic.
So, this is a long-term process, also, that they can plan for next year and the following year as well with this American Rescue Plan.
Q You also today announced $12 billion to help ramp up testing in schools. How soon before we’re actually going to see some of this surveillance?
SECRETARY CARDONA: That’s $10 billion from the Health and Human Services Department. So we’re looking to get that soon. We know that that’s a tool to help keep schools open — not only reopen, but keep them open in the near future. The goal really is: This spring we want our students back in school as quickly, as safely as possible. And that’s going to assist in that process.
Q And we’re more than halfway, obviously, through March. Do you have any kind of update on the administration’s effort to try and get every teacher at least one shot by the end of the month — where that stands?
SECRETARY CARDONA: You know, I’m really pleased that, at the state level, they recognize — many states recognize the importance of vaccinating educators — not only teachers, but para-educators, custodians, bus drivers. They’re critically important parts of that school community.
So we know that that’s a priority in different states. And I think it’s — as I said earlier, it’s part of the strategy to make sure that our schools are safely reopened, in addition to those mitigation strategies that we know, when working, we can also use to safely reopen our schools.
MS. PSAKI: Kristin, you’re going to have to be last one. We’ll bring him back.
Q Well, thank you. And thank you, Mr. Secretary.
SECRETARY CARDONA: Thank you. Yeah.
Q Today, the head of the CDC said that they are looking to update guidance reducing the social distancing recommendations from six feet to three feet. This was one of the stickiest sticking points for so many schools as they tried to reopen. Are you at all frustrated by this potential course correction?
SECRETARY CARDONA: Not at all. Listen, we’re in the middle of a pandemic, and I — I know the success we’ve had in Connecticut, when I was commissioner of education, was because we worked very closely with our health department. And we — we recognize this is the health pandemic, and we’re always going to take guidance from our health experts — our sister agencies that are health experts.
So I recognize it’s — it may change. And if it does, we’re going to be able to adapt and work with them. We were successful because we work closely with them. And we recognize that, you know, that partnership is what’s going to lead to our schools being open as quickly as possible.
Q And if you do reduce it to three feet, would it make it much easier for schools to reopen in your opinion?
SECRETARY CARDONA: If it does go to three feet, it’ll provide more opportunities, potentially, for students to enter schools, which is the goal.
Q Is there any chance that you could say something about the shootings in Atlanta? So, the President has spoken out strongly about the need to halt violence against Asian Americans. You know, as the Education Secretary, do you see some role for the federal government to play in terms of spreading, you know, a message of tolerance or, you know, to work against discrimination?
SECRETARY CARDONA: My condolences to the family and the communities that suffered that violence. In education, we have a lot of work to do. We have to reopen our schools, and we also have to make sure that we’re preparing our students for a tomorrow that we want for our students.
So, thank you.
MS. PSAKI: Thank you, Mr. Secretary.
SECRETARY CARDONA: Thank you.
MS. PSAKI: Thank you. Okay, thank you. Thank you so much.
All right, a couple of other things at the top. I wanted to make sure that you all saw the announcement this afternoon from the Treasury Department that, as of today, they’ve dispersed approximately 90 million economic impact payments — which are, of course, the checks, but most of which are going through direct deposit — totaling more than $242 billion following last week’s signing of the Rescue Plan. This is a key down payment toward the President’s announcement on Monday that 100 million payments would be sent in 10 days. So we’ll have — we’ll continue to update you as we progress.
Then, the Violence Against Women’s — Women Act, as you all know, is being considered in Congress today. He — it is one of the Presid- — the original passing, I should say, is one of the President’s proudest accomplishments. The President applauds the House of Representatives, which will vote today to pass the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2021 with bipartisan — expected bipartisan support and with important improvements to increase safety and service — services for all survivors. Reauthorizing VAWA is a priority for the President, and he urges the Senate to also come together in a bipen- — bipartisan manner to ensure swift passage of VAWA so that he can sign it into law soon.
With that, Darlene, go ahead.
Q Thank you, Jen. First question: Is there any reaction from the White House to Russia recalling its ambassador to the U.S.? They didn’t give a specific reason for that move, but it comes after a number of Russia-related developments.
MS. PSAKI: Well, we’ve certainly seen those reports. I would say that, you know, the — our administration is going to take a different approach in our relationship to Russia than the prior administration. Obviously, the President spoke to this during an interview that he conducted just last night. And we are going to be straightforward and we are going to be direct in areas where we have concerns.
As you know, there is an ongoing review. And the President has — while we have announced key conclusions from an intelligence community assessment on the poisoning of Aleksey Navalny, we have — there’s an ongoing review of other areas where we have ongoing concerns.
At the same time, we have areas where we believe we can work together. Obviously, the signing of New START is an example of that, addressing nuclear proliferation is an example of that. And we hope that there is opportunity there, but our relationship will look different. We will be direct. We will speak out on areas where we have concerns. And it will certainly be — and as the President said last night, certainly the Russians will be held accountable for the actions that they have taken. We’ll have more on that soon.
Q Since you mentioned the interview last night, the President was asked whether the Vice President is the last person in the room with him before decisions, and he responded that, “Most of the time, yes. As a practical matter, yeah, she is.” What —
MS. PSAKI: Then he went on to say — for the full context of the interview — that she’s traveling around the country, in reference to the fact that she, yesterday, was in Denver, Colorado; the day before was in Las Vegas, Nevada; that she has been out there working her heart out, communicating with the American people. So, obviously, when she’s on the road, she’s not the person always last in the room, by practicality. But otherwise, she — she certainly is.
MS. PSAKI: Go ahead.
Q A question about the situation on the border. It’s now been three weeks since, I think, in this room, you were first asked about getting us some press access. Why have we still not seen any images inside these facilities?
MS. PSAKI: We remain committed to doing that, and I think these facilities are overseen — HHS, of course, overseens [sic] — oversees the shelters; DHS oversees the Border Patrol facilities. And we want to work with them to ensure we can do it, respecting the privacy and, obviously, the health protocols required by COVID.
Q But even given COVID protocols and, obviously, privacy concerns, you know, even you all haven’t released any images that you, obviously, could redact, if you wanted to.
MS. PSAKI: Again, we remain committed to sharing with all of you data on the number of kids crossing the border, the steps we’re taking, the work we’re doing to open up facilities, our own bar we’re setting for ourselves in improving the — and expediting the timeline, and the — the treatment of these children. And we remain committed to transparency. I don’t have an update for you on the timeline for access, but it’s certainly something we support.
Q And just one other question on this. You know, we’re hearing from Border agents that they’re frustrated that they can’t show us what’s actually happening along the border; they can’t do ride-alongs; they can’t answer questions about what’s happening inside. It certainly seems like there’s an element of secrecy here. Why?
MS. PSAKI: I certainly wouldn’t characterize it that way. I know there’s Border Patrol agents quoted in a lot of your stories, and you speak to frequently. And that’s something we support. It’s — obviously, there’s a long tradition of coordinating with Department of Homeland Security. But if we are — if our — if our policy is — is keeping people quiet, we are not successful. And it is not our policy to prevent people from talking.
Q And just on one other topic. I wondered if you can explain a little bit the IRS’s decision to delay the tax filing deadline by a month. What’s the hope of the impact of this?
MS. PSAKI: Sure. I know we’ve seen some of those reports. I don’t believe it’s been confirmed or finalized quite yet, so I will let the IRS make their final decisions. And then, if that is what moves forward, we’re happy to speak to it.
Q Thank you, Jen. I just, kind of, want to pick up on Mary’s questioning over there.
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q Is the White House or DHS instructing Border agents to refuse ride-along requests from reporters? Because that’s what a lot of our folks on the ground are hearing.
MS. PSAKI: Again, I think we’ve seen, watching a number of the reports you all do, a number of Border Patrol officials who are quoted in them, who appear in them. And certainly from the White House, we support that. It’s coordinated through the Department of Homeland Security, and I’d point you to them for any additional questions about the logistics of press access.
Q But, I mean, our reporters used to be able to get ride-alongs during the Trump administration —
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
Q — and you all came in and promised to be the most truthful and transparent administration. And you all, you know, oversee the Department of Homeland Security. So if you all wanted to grant access to the press, couldn’t you just tell DHS to do it?
MS. PSAKI: Again, we fully support transparency, and I would encourage you to talk to the Department of Homeland Security about any requests you have for press access or what you’re looking to accomplish at the border.
Q Okay. One more question.
MS. PSAKI: Oh, go ahead.
Q And, you know, one of the biggest criticisms of the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” policy was that it overwhelmed all these border towns in Mexico and created pretty dangerous living conditions for these migrants. And so now you have the exact same thing happening. Even though you all have reversed — rescinded that policy, these border towns are overwhelmed, and the President is saying, “Do not come.” So, how is the situation on the ground, in Mexico, any different?
MS. PSAKI: Well, the situation on the ground is certainly challenging, in part because we inherited a dismantled system that wasn’t prepared for processing asylum requests, that had left in place the “Remain in Mexico” program where people were in a camp that was — did not have the conditions that we felt —
Q But there are new camps popping up.
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think what I’m conveying to you is that we are less than 60 days — about 60 days in. We are working to repair what has been an unprepared and dismantled system. It’s going to take some time. Our policy is that we’re obviously going to continue to make sure we’re working through our laws and the border is not open.
But we also, as you know, have changed our policy to approach it in a more humane way and keep kids safe, and that requires putting in place more effective and efficient processing at the border. It’s going to take some time. We’re working through it. Every day, we have new steps and new improvements we’re taking to make the system more efficient and effective.
Q So is there a limit or a cap to the number of unaccompanied minors that are going to be allowed into the U.S.?
MS. PSAKI: A limit or a cap?
Q Or cap.
MS. PSAKI: So should we send some kids, who are 10, back at a certain point? Is that what you’re asking me?
Q I’m not setting the policy here; I’m just asking you what the Biden administration’s policy is. Is there a limit to the number of children that will be allowed in? I mean, the numbers we’re hearing now: 565 on average, every day. I’m just curious what the — what the endgame is here. How many, ultimately, would be allowed in?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think we’re — where we are is we’re focused on some of the very specific numbers. So, when we came into office, there existed about 13,000 permanent beds in HHS ORR permanent and influx shelter system facilities during the last administration. Thousands of these beds — approximately half — were taken offline due to COVID. Staffing was also reduced to put it on par with the new reduced capacity. This was sufficient for the prior administration — so this is how we got here — because they were expelling children, in addition to families and single adults.
We decided, as you all know, that we will be more humane about how we approach this. There wasn’t operational capacity built. The prior administration also did not consider that there were other mitigation efforts like masking, improved ventilation, cohorting, and other measures that would contain the spread of COVID. There’s now revised CDC guidance, which means there’s greater capacity in these facilities where we can expedite children — expedite getting children into them. There are — we are taking steps to ensure that when kids come to the border, we look and see if they have a phone number in their pocket so we can call the family member and get them to those family members as quickly as possible.
These are the steps that we’re taking at this point in time. Our policy continues to be: We’re not going to send a 10-year-old back across the border. That was the policy of the last administration. That’s not our policy here.
Q Is the — if, unintentionally, in your commitment to keep these young — these children under 17, or 17 and under, say — if, unintentionally, is the U.S. government incentivizing parents to send their children across the border alone because that is their best chance to enter and stay in the United States?
MS. PSAKI: Well, certainly you’ve heard the President say in this interview that he conducted that he is encouraging people not to come. Now is not the time to come. This is not a safe journey for people to take, of any age.
And he believes, as he talked about last night, that no parent is looking and just trying to make a bet on whether their kid can, kind of, make it. This is a very difficult and treacherous journey. Most of these kids are fleeing very challenging circumstances.
And his view is that there’s a number of steps we need to take and steps that he hopes he can work with Democrats and Republicans on. So that’s his goal.
Q How is that message communicated to the — we heard him, obviously, in the interview. How is that message being communicated by the U.S. government to those thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, who are already in the midst of this dangerous journey that they’re making the border right now, and they are not receiving that message?
MS. PSAKI: The thousands of children? Or the thousands of families —
Q Children’s families, adults — all of them. All the in between that our teams from Telemundo and other reporters on the ground are meeting.
MS. PSAKI: Well, we convey with every official that speaks. Ali Mayorkas — Secretary Ali Mayorkas did an interview just yesterday. We’ve heard — you’ve heard Roberta Jacobson speak to this, and a range of officials beyond them, who are speaking directly with countries, working in partnership with them, speaking directly through channels that are in the region that: Now is not the time to come. The border is not open. This is a treacherous journey. The vast majority of people will be certainly sent back on their journey.
And that’s the message we’re sending.
Q I guess, it seems — maybe it’s a mixed message that’s received right now, but initially, Alejandro Mayorkas said, “Don’t come now,” right?
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
Q And then we heard from the President saying, “Don’t come,” that the U.S. is in the process of setting up this system so that, in your own home country, you can apply for asylum.
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q So, how do you — it appears to be a mixed message or it’s received as a mixed message, which is, “Don’t come now; come later.” And others, “Don’t come at all.”
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think this is, no doubt, a complicated circumstance. And what we are trying to do is address this in an effective and humane manner, and that requires putting in place additional policies and measures. You referenced one of them, which is reinstituting the CAM program, which would allow kids to apply from their home country. That is certainly a positive — an option.
Q How long would it take until that’s available to them?
MS. PSAKI: We are hoping that can be — happen soon. I don’t have an exact timeline for you, but we — we would like to put that back in place. It was a program that was already in place and was ended in 2017. So that’s an example. We want to build on — beyond that so we can have programs where it ensures that kids are not taking this difficult journey; that they have other choices and other options.
But I was also — and this will take some more time — but we’re going to keep seeing these cycles, which we’ve seen. This is not the first cycle — 2014, 2018. These numbers have been increasing since April of 2020 of last year.
Unless we work together, Democrats and Republicans, to address the root causes — there have been policies and bills — the President worked with then — with now-Senator — with Senator Lindsey Graham, as an example, on a bill to try to give more funding to address the root causes in these countries. If we don’t take those steps now, we’re going to keep being on these cycles every year, year after year.
Q Can I ask one last question from the interview last night?
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q They talked about the topic of Governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo. I guess my question is: Why did President Biden feel the need to weigh in, to say that if the claims of these women were confirmed, that the governor would likely be prosecuted?
MS. PSAKI: Well, the President respects the role of law enforcement and the justice system, as we often state from here and as he has often stated. He was asked a specific question about what should happen in the — if the investigation confirms the claims of the women, and he answered that question.
Q So, in the past, from this podium, previous Democratic administrations have said, “We’re not going to weigh in, not going to put our finger on anything that has to do with the Justice Department or their decision making.”
MS. PSAKI: He was not saying this is going to happen. Obviously, the process is going to ha- — is going to play out. There’s an ongoing investigation. That should be swift; it should be thorough. And obviously it will determine what the outcome is here, and he certainly respects that.
Q Okay. Thank you, Jen.
MS. PSAKI: Go ahead.
Q I just want — a couple of questions. So on the Atlanta shootings, do you see some need for the White House and the administration to create perhaps a point person to address anti-Asian violence? Even though these — the shooting hasn’t necessarily been linked, it is a concern that the President has raised. Do you — is there some move afoot like that?
MS. PSAKI: Well, first, I would say that it’s important to note that, you know, the President, as I — we put out a few bri- — a few updates today, but just to reiterate: He was briefed overnight. He obviously talked to the Attorney General and the FBI Director this morning, and we’re continuing to monitor the situation.
As you touched on, local and federal law enforcement are still determining a motive. They had their own press conference this morning. That doesn’t chall- — change the fact that this news was horrific.
And broadly speaking, there has been an increase, as you have noted and we have all seen, in attacks on — in crimes, and hate crimes as well in other circumstances, against Asian Americans. And that’s why he raised this in his address when he delivered — in his primetime address on Thursday night.
He did sign an executive order. And actually, there are ongoing processes, including from the Department of Justice where they’re doing listening sessions now. HHS will start those soon.
He signed that executive order within the early part of his administration, and he’s also asked Susan Rice and Cedric Richmond to do listening sessions as well so that we can hear from the community and determine how that should impact policies moving forward.
Broadly speaking, as you know, there’s also an ongoing review of domestic violent extremism that is wide ranging. That is a 100-day review that will take a look at a range of issues, and that will also be a longer-term, strategic, comprehensive look at how that impacts our society. And this will certainly be a part of that.
Q I just wanted to follow up on North Korea —
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q — especially the talks that are happening with the Chinese this week. What are you looking for from China on the — in terms of a response to North Korea? The U.S. military expects North Korea to start testing — resume testing of ICBMs. What would that mean for your review of those policies?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t think we’re going to get ahead of their testing — if they are testing — if they’ve decided to test.
I will say that part of our strategy, as it relates to the denuclearization of North Korea, is, of course, to lead with diplomacy and engagement with partners in the region, even some where we have, at times, adversarial relationships is a key part of that strategy.
And so, the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense were also just recently in South Korea meeting with — also with the Japanese. They are key partners as we discuss security in the region, and certainly the threats from North Korea are part of that. And obviously, that will be part of the discussion with the Chinese.
But our — the strategy is to coordinate and discuss with partners in the region so that we can determine what the path forward looks like.
Q And then, finally, on Mexico, since we’re talking about the border: But Mexico and Canada are also looking for doses of vaccines. There is some reporting out saying that those would be at the top of the list. Can you confirm those reports?
Can you say — you know, there’s a growing demand. They keep asking this question. You know, it’s like there’s so much demand out there. And the level of vaccination is so disparate in the advanced economies and in developing countries, but also in neighboring countries, like Canada and Mexico.
Can you just say what your strategy is to get vaccines out to the rest of the world so that there aren’t, you know, increases in variants and all the other negative, you know, consequences of not getting the pandemic under control?
MS. PSAKI: Sure. Well, Andrea, our first strategy is, of course, to ensure the American people are vaccinated. And 1,400 people a day are still dying in the United States of America. And so we are still in the midst of fighting a war against the pandemic right here.
Now, we have vaccinated more people in this country because of access, because of supply, because of operational capacity than virtually any other country in the world. And we also want to be — the President wants to be, we all want to be contributing members of the global community in getting the pandemic under control.
Any decision we make about requests — and we are — we have them from around the world, as you well know and are tracking — we’ll ensure that we’re able to still quickly vaccinate the American people as that remains our top priority.
We have received requests from both Mexico and Canada, and are considering those requests carefully, but I don’t have any update for you on whether they will be granted and a timeline for that.
Q Thanks, Jen. Following up on Darlene’s question about the Russians, who are clearly very upset —
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q — what did the President actually mean when he answered “yes,” or something like that, to “Is President Putin a killer?”? Was he talking literally, or was he talking metaphorically?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have anything more for you to provide analysis on that. But I can say —
Q (Inaudible) the Russians are extremely upset about it.
MS. PSAKI: He also repeated a story that he told in his own book about a conversation he had with President Putin. And as was the case — as was evident in the readout we provided of the call the President had with President Putin, he does not hold back on his concerns about what we see as malign and problematic actions, whether it is engagement in the 2020 intervention — in the 2020 Election interference; a report, obviously, released just yesterday — their involvement in the poisoning of Aleksey Navalny; ongoing reviews that are related to bounties on troops; and, of course, the SolarWinds hack.
So we are — he’s not going to hold back in his direct communications, nor is he going to hold back publicly. And we have still found ways to work together on areas where we have mutual interests, including the extension of New START by five years. So that’s diplomacy in action there.
Q What — sorry, one more —
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q — if you don’t mind, yeah — from — moving from Russia to China. So while Secretaries Blinken and Austin are out in Asia, isn’t — there’s an elephant in the room, which would be the growing talk about China having designs on Taiwan. Is the — is the U.S publicly committed to defending Taiwan, come what may?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t think I have anything new on our policy as it relates to Taiwan for you today.
Obviously, there are a range of topics, including Taiwan, that will be discussed in these conversations in Anchorage that are happening over the next two days, if I’m getting the timeframe correct. And I’m sure the Secretary of State and that our National Security Advisor will come out and engage with the press when that — when those meetings conclude.
Q Thanks, Jen. Back to that DNI report: There’s an assessment in there that Moscow will continue to try to influence U.S. elections. And it said the reason is that the Kremlin has concluded that it’s a manageable risk. And so I’m wondering — I know — I anticipate that you’re cooking up some sanctions down the road — and we’ve got a review and whatnot — and we’ve heard some sharp language from the President. But it seems like Moscow has concluded that they can handle that. And so what — how will you keep them from interfering in the third consecutive presidential election?
MS. PSAKI: Well, first, our — the President’s relationship and this administration’s relationship with the Russians will be very different from what we’ve seen over the last four years. And we’ve already seen evidence of that from his first phone call with President Putin.
President Biden has been clear that the United States will also respond to a number of destabilizing Russian actions. And as you know, and as we’ve already talked about, we have requested new or declassified intelligence community assessments in four such areas and plan to respond to each of them in the coming weeks. Those are ongoing.
You know, I would say that the Russians have intervened — or attempted to intervene, in elections for many years — I mean, long before 2016. And we, you know, certainly are very “eyes wide open” about that and fully aware of that. But we are — they’re going to pay a price, as the President conveyed last night. We are not going to look the other way, as we saw a bit over the last four years, and we will continue to press them on their actions.
Q And there’s some language in that report — it said proxies for President Putin have undergone a disinformation cam- — or underwent a disinformation campaign, in particular, alleging — or pushing out disinformation of corrupt- — of corruption of President Biden. And also, the report specifically mentions his son. So what is his reaction to Putin and his proxies going after him personally?
MS. PSAKI: That was not our first awareness of that. I think we all saw that play out in public. So the President felt it was important to release the unclassified version of this report, which, as you know, was — the assessment was done under the last administration. It’s — it is evidence of the hard work of the men and women in the civil service who keep government functioning.
But it’s important for people in this country, members of Congress, other countries to understand what their actions are. And if we want our adversaries — our adversaries, like Russia, are attempting to divide us. And one of our strategies is to transparently expose their tactics so that the world is aware of them. So that’s why we released this report.
Q On the President’s interview, he said, on taxes, that “Anybody making more than $400,000 will see a small to a significant tax increase.” To clarify, did he mean individuals or households? Because it wasn’t very clear. And Secretary Yellen, I think, has referred to “households” before.
MS. PSAKI: Families.
Q Families, okay.
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q Not individuals. Perfect. And then —
MS. PSAKI: Good. Oh —
Q — and then one other thing on —
MS. PSAKI: Go ahead.
Q — schools that I didn’t get to ask the Secretary. But I know the White House is committed to trying to open schools five days a week. How many hours a day would that include? Is it — are you pushing for full school days, five days a week?
MS. PSAKI: Yep.
Go ahead. Oh, go ahead. Go ahead.
Q Thank you.
MS. PSAKI: I’m very drawn to the green. I’m sorry. Go ahead. And the red — the red and the green, you know? Go ahead. (Laughter.)
Q The President said, in the Oval Office, he didn’t — going back to Atlanta, and then I want to ask you another question on the border. But the President said, in the Oval Office, he didn’t want to make a “connection” on the motivation of the shooter in Atlanta. But to broaden it out, why does the President think attacks on Asian Americans are increasing in this country? Why does he think that’s happening?
MS. PSAKI: Well, he — he wanted to be very clear because there’s an ongoing FBI investigation, right? And he didn’t want to attribute motive. There are law enforcement authorities who do that. And it’s important to note when — when the — when the investigation has concluded it or not. So that was a bar he was attempt- — working to respect there.
You know, I think there’s no question that some of the damaging rhetoric that we saw during the prior administration, blaming — you know, calling COVID, you know, the “Wuhan virus” or other things led to, you know, perceptions of the Asian American community that are inaccurate, unfair, have raised, you know, threatening — has elevated threats against Asian Americans. And we’re seeing that around the country.
That’s why, even before the events of — the horrific events of last night, he felt it was important to raise this issue — elevate it during his first primetime address, why he signed the executive order earlier in his presidency. And he will continue to look for ways to elevate and talk about this issue moving forward.
Q The President said yesterday he does not have plans to visit the border. Why not?
MS. PSAKI: Because his focus is on action and taking actions and moving forward policies to ensure we are expediting the processing at the border, that we are opening more facilities, that we are putting in place policies that will move kids more quickly through the Border Patrol facilities, more quickly into safe and secure homes. And that’s where his focus is.
Q So if he doesn’t want to get a firsthand look down there himself and talk to officials there, how is he getting updates?
MS. PSAKI: He talks to plenty of officials —
Q Right, (inaudible).
MS. PSAKI: — and he also has received a briefing with photos, with — and directly from his team who went and visited the border and went to a range of facilities.
Q And how frequently is he getting updates on some of the numbers of people who are being taken in? And how frequently is he talking to officials that are down there who are getting that firsthand look?
MS. PSAKI: Well, he’s getting updates. I mean, sometimes it’s a part of his PDB. He gets updates regularly — I mean, several times a week. It’s an issue that is front and center for him. And, certainly, he’s asking questions in a range of meetings with senior officials about progress that’s made, about systems that he thinks should be unstuck, about looking for more creative ideas to help ensure these kids are treated — they are put into safe — they’re treated — put into safe places and that the work is expedited at the border.
Q Jen, there is a report out that the President personally opposes the reopening of the Homestead detention center in Florida. Does he have a personal view on it or is he just deferring to HHS?
MS. PSAKI: HHS is in charge of looking at facilities and what is — what — which ones are going to be the most appropriate and effective ones to reopen. And he certainly defers to them on decisions that are made on that front.
Q I ask because this has been a controversial — and I don’t need to tell you this —
MS. PSAKI: Yes.
Q — facility in the past. So he doesn’t have a particular position on it? It’s still on the table that it could reopen?
MS. PSAKI: There hasn’t been a decision. HHS would be the ones making a decision. I don’t have anything more about the President’s personal point of view about specific facilities.
Q Just on the President’s remarks on taxes last night. Two things: One, when might we expect a major push on this? And two, what does “small to significant” mean?
MS. PSAKI: It depends on how much money you make. Are you a billionaire? Then you may pay more in taxes than someone making — you know, a family making $425 [thousand]. You know, there’s going to be a range in any tax proposal. He talked about this on the campaign trail, and his — he talked about it during this interview last night, in part because it’s on his mind about how to ensure people are paying their fair share and that we are looking for revenue funds to continue to build back better.
But I don’t have a timeline for you on when you’ll hear more. It’s just something that he has long had a commitment to. And I expect, in the coming months or sooner than that, you’ll hear more about his next stages of his agenda. But this is certainly part of what’s on his mind and what he would like to work with Congress on.
Q Jen, in the ABC interview, the President said that “Democracy is having a hard time functioning.”
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
Q Can you clarify: Was he just talking there about the Senate and the filibuster, or is it a broader concern?
MS. PSAKI: He was asked in that frame and asked in the frame of how to get work done and how to move forward the agenda for the American people. And the President is an optimist. He is a person who believes that there is a lot of opportunity for Democrats and Republicans to work together; that there is a history of support for some of his major priorities, whether it’s infrastructure, or, you know, solving cancer — doing — taking — taking steps to help cure cancer, to increasing America’s competitiveness. There’s another bill that’s being considered on that front. That there’s a lot of areas where Demo- — even immigration. There’s a long history of Democrats and Republicans working together on that policy.
So, he’s a believer that there is an opportunity to work together, but what he’s seen is democracy having hard time functioning. And, in part, that is — why were there no Republicans who supported a piece of legislation that the — almost 80 percent of the American people supported? That doesn’t seem like it’s democracy functioning there. And so he was answering a question that was about the filibuster, but, broadly speaking, about what he’s seeing.
Q And one other thing — because we’re required to have an Irish question today.
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q In talking to the Taoiseach, did he make any commitment, as far as once presidential travel resumes, to a trip there?
MS. PSAKI: I know in his heart he would really like to go. And I’m going to go on that trip. So, I’m not aware of any specific timeline for travel or anything along those lines that was made. I’m happy to check for you. He has raised several times that, next year, St. Patrick’s Day will look much different than this year, as I know he did during the meetings. So, you know, everybody get some sleep and rest before — before a year from now. We’ve got plenty of time.
Go ahead, Geoff.
Q Jen, you said he’s briefed with photos. Has he asked for or been shown these photos of inside the facilities where some of the children are being held for three days?
MS. PSAKI: Yes, that was part of the briefing he received when his team came back.
Q And did — he approves of what he saw? He didn’t look too uncomfortable? I know the media have been trying to get in there to get their own pictures. It looks okay to him?
MS. PSAKI: I certainly did not say that. This is — the Border Patrol facilities are not facilities made for children. He is committed to expediting the processing at the border. One of the reasons he wanted a briefing from people who have been in there is so he can see himself what it looks like. And he has redoubled — he was already committed before this — his efforts to ensure there’s a — we limit it to three days,\ and that we move kids as quickly as possible into these shelter facilities where they can have access to health, to medical experts, to educational experts, to legal advice.
And even beyond that, you know, one of the practical steps that he’s really pushed the team on is: How many of these kids, when they come across the border, have a phone number in their pocket? And can we embed HHS and ORR in the system, in the process, so that they can call that number and see if that can be a vetted family member to get these kids connected to quickly?
So, he wanted all the specific details. He got that briefing, which I talked about a bit in here, about a week and a half or two weeks ago; I can’t remember the timeline. And since then, we’ve put in place a number of steps to expedite the process, to look for additional facilities, and to look for ways to improve the very challenging situation at the border.
Let me just go to — make sure I get to everyone. Linda, go ahead.
Q Sure. Hi, thanks, Jen. One from me, and then one from — I’m the pool reporter so I have one from another outlet. So, my question, actually — it was for Secretary Cardona, but I’ll ask you.
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q Is the Biden administration concerned about the number of families choosing alternatives to public education because of the pandemic? And does the administration have a plan to encourage them to return to public school?
MS. PSAKI: It’s a great question. I wish you’d asked him that question. I’m happy to talk to him about it. I know he had a very limited amount of time today. I was just excited to get him here.
Look, you know, I know that this past year has not looked, for school — as a mother myself, my daughter did not start kindergarten this year, and I know a lot of people — we know a lot of people had to make different choices. And — but I can talk to him more about what the plans are to encourage people to get back into the public school system. And obviously, that’s an important and vital part of communities across the country.
Did you have a second question you wanted to —
Q Yeah. The other question, from another outlet: So, after today’s meeting with Irish Taioseach, are there other international meetings on the President’s agenda in coming weeks?
MS. PSAKI: There’s — there certainly will be. I don’t have any to preview for you today. But engaging — he’s had a number already of remote engagements with his counterparts around the world. Foreign policy is his — one of his first loves. And so, I certainly can convey to you that he will have more of those in the weeks ahead. And as they’re scheduled and finalized, we’ll share those details with you.
Go ahead, in the back.
Q Yeah, on the COVID-19 vaccines, what does the President say to Americans who have ethical concerns about taking some of those vaccines — that it might violate their conscience?
MS. PSAKI: Give me a little more information. Why would it violate their conscience?
Q The Johnson & Johnson one —
MS. PSAKI: Well —
Q — that one has ties to — a connection to abortion-derived cell lines. So some people are worried that would violate their conscience. Taking that, what — so the President would say what to that?
MS. PSAKI: He would say: I know the Pope has spoken to the safety and efficacy of all three vaccines, and the American people — these vaccines have been validated by health and medical experts. They’re trying to save people’s lives, keep people safe, and return our country to normal.
Q On schools, billions are going out to try to get them to reopen now. If, come fall, the schools are still unopen, would the administration find that unacceptable?
MS. PSAKI: We certainly expect schools to be open in the fall.
Q And then —
MS. PSAKI: Go — okay.
Q — on airports —
MS. PSAKI: Yep.
Q Milli- — TSA reporting big numbers going through airports. Is the administration worried that the COVID-19 Response Team’s message is just not getting through to people? They’re telling people, “Don’t travel. Don’t travel. Don’t travel.” And people are plowing through the airports.
MS. PSAKI: Well, we certainly have to reiterate — and our health and medical team are doing the same — it’s not a political message; it’s a message from our doctors that’s just conveying the fact that the guidelines have not changed in terms of limiting commercial travel. If people are not vaccinated, especi- — you know, that there’s — there are great risks to travel. We’ve seen that play out. They’ve spoken to this frequently — our health and medical experts — so we’ll just have to keep reiterating that message.
We understand it’s hard. People want to see their family members. People want to go see their friends. But we are fighting through this pandemic. People are still dying across the country. And we will — we’ll keep reminding people of that.
Go ahead, in the back.
Q The press conference next week with the President, any idea how it’s going to be assembled? Will it be in here, somewhere else?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t think it will be in here because we would — it would be very limited numbers in here. We are working to figure out where we can do it in the White House to ensure we have a greater number of people who can attend, and we will do that in a very transparent manner. So we’re looking — we’re site-looking at this point in time, and we’ll have more updates for you soon.
Go ahead, in the back.
Q So first question from a colleague: Is President Biden going to call the President of Ukraine, Zelensky, in the near future? Do you have any update or any other potential engagements in the near future?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have any previews for you on foreign leader calls at this point. Typically, we preview those maybe the day before, typically. But I’m sure he will have some in the near future, but I don’t have any specific ones to preview for you today.
Q And on the vaccine, the President said yesterday that the U.S. is in talks with several countries about sharing vaccine. In the past, you criticized Russia and China for so-called “vaccine diplomacy,” and you suggested that it should be done through international projects or institutions. So do you exclude sharing vaccine on a bilateral basis?
MS. PSAKI: I think our criticism was in response to questions about whether we were concerned about how vaccines were being used in some ways by Russia and China — in ways that they’ve used aid and international assistance, where there are no strings attached. And sometimes, it allows countries to hold themselves to lower standards on human rights, on freedom of press, freedom of speech. And we’ve seen that play out, as we know, in recent years.
So that certainly would be something that is of concern to us. We have not yet provided vaccine doses to any country. We are — we, of course, have a range of requests and a number of requests, and we will consider those carefully. But since we have not done that yet, I don’t really have anything more to update you on.
Q Back on the border.
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q You talked about the team that went to the border.
MS. PSAKI: Yes.
Q They’ve briefed the President. They’ve shown him photographs.
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q I think there was a request, at some point, to have members of that team come back — come to the briefing room and do a briefing. So where does that stand? And since there are photos from that team, why not release those since, with the previous lines of questioning, you have said, “Go to the Border Patrol or go to DHS for the access questions”?
MS. PSAKI: I’m happy to invite them to the briefing room and talk to them about the photos.
Q And will that team return to the border or some other configuration of staff members? Will they be making periodic trips down there to assess conditions, or was this one and done?
MS. PSAKI: I expect we’ll have additional trips to the border, but I don’t have one to preview for you today.
Thank you, everyone.
Q Thank you, Jen, and Happy St. Patrick’s Day.
MS. PSAKI: Happy St. Patrick’s Day.
Q Jen, you said 425,000.
MS. PSAKI: Oh, I was —
Q Did you mean 400?
MS. PSAKI: I was saying that if you’re a billionaire, you’re going to pay more in taxes than somebody making $425 [thousand] — over 400 — over 400. I was just — as an example.
Q Oh, I see. Oh, okay. Okay.
MS. PSAKI: Yeah. Sorry, I wasn’t trying to change the threshold on you.
Q Yeah, we were just like, “Oh, no. New threshold.”
MS. PSAKI: No. No. I should have used something more, you know — 572 or something.
Q Thank you.
3:51 P.M. EDT