Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jen Psaki, May 13, 2021
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:50 P.M. EDT
MS. PSAKI: Hi, everyone. Okay. I know we’re waiting for a gather time, too. So not to scare you — if there is a note passed, nothing bad is happening. We’ll just keep you all abreast of when it’s time to do that.
So just a couple of items for you all at the top. Obviously, the President just spoke to the Colonial Pipeline and progress that’s been made. And he was sending the clear message: There’s an end in sight for the supply disruptions that have — affects strates — states across the Southeast.
As you all know, Colonial reported that product delivery had commenced in a majority of the markets they serve and that they expect the pipeline to have full operational restoration in every market by noon today. Obviously, there is still going to be some time until things go back to normal.
But, in the last 48 hours alone, we announced a targeted Jones Act waiver to ease shipping of full — fuel; on top of waivers for EPA for a dozen states, expanding gasoline supply; steps taken by DOT to make it easier to ship fuel over land; and a number of other actions across the federal government.
President Biden and his team also — we also wanted to thank the governors and state and local leaders throughout the affected region who have moved very quickly in a coordinated way over the last several days.
I just wanted to speak to the unemployment insurance numbers that came out this morning: Those claims fell to yet another pre-pandemic low. And while we’ll continue to note that these weekly numbers can be volatile, the larger trend in initial unemployment number — claims shows clear economic progress for America since President Biden took office.
Since his Inauguration, the four-week average of initial unemployment claims has fallen by over one third. And the chart — I always love a good chart — behind me shows that there has been a clear and sustained decrease over that timeframe. And over the last three months, employment growth has averaged 500,000 jobs per month — eight times the number of new jobs created per month, on average, in the three months before he took office.
One other note, as we continue to keep you updated on the implementation of the American Rescue Plan: Today, the Department of Veterans Affairs is highlighting the launch of the Veteran Rapid Retraining Assistance Program. The American Rescue Plan will provide $386 million to cover up to 12 months of tuition and fees and monthly housing allowance benefits for qualified veterans who need critical retraining to enter high-demand occupations.
In addition, the American Rescue Plan will provide the Department of Veterans Affairs with $262 million to reduce the backlog of compensation and pension claims by increasing processing power and expanding scanning of federal records.
Finally, the Senate Judiciary Committee, today, is voting — or has voted, I guess; lots going on this morning — on the nomination of Kristen Clarke, the eminently qualified career civil rights attorney to be Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights. She’s one of the nation’s most distinguished civil rights attorneys. She began her career in office to — in the office to which the President has now nominated her to lead — coming full circle.
Along the way, she personally prosecuted crimes based on hatred and bigotry, human trafficking, domestic violence, and sexual assault. She has served at two of the nation’s oldest civil rights organizations, working on virtually every area of civil rights: voting rights, equal education and employment, fair housing and lending, environmental justice, disability rights, LGBTQ rights, and I could go on.
If confirmed, she would be the first woman confirmed to lead the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division.
With that, Jonathan, go ahead.
Q Thank you, Jen. A quick one to start. The President, in recent days, has been saying with increasing certitude about his meeting with President Putin of Russia. Are you able to confirm that trip, even if you don’t have a date or location yet? But is that part of his first trip to Europe?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have any additional details to confirm at this point in time. As we have confirmed from here, the follow-up to the President’s meeting — or the President’s invitation to President Putin was to have conversations at a staff level through his national security team. Those conversations are ongoing.
Q Okay. The President has said that he has — you just reiterated that he hoped that the violence in Israel would soon stop, but it has not done so. In fact, it seems to be escalating and getting worse. Does he see the U.S. having a role in brokering some sort of calm there?
MS. PSAKI: Well, the role we are playing, at this point in time, Jonathan — as we’ve tried to keep you abreast of — is to communicate not only with the Israelis and the Palestinians the goal and the objective of reducing violence and achieving a stability, but also with key partners in the region — the Qataris, the Egyptians, the Tunisians, others — who can play an important role and have conversations with Hamas from that end.
So I would say that our objective, at this point in time, is to — we have, over the last several days, had dozens of calls at very high levels with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, as you know — from the President’s call with Prime Minister Netanyahu; the Secretary of State also spoke with President Abbas just yesterday.
And our role is to — going to continue to work not just with the Israelis and the Palestinians — have the discussions, move toward de-escalation — but also with other key partners in the regions, as we all work toward that peace.
Q And one more on a very different topic.
MS. PSAKI: Of course.
Q The governor of Ohio has announced that they will be doing weekly drawings of $1 million for residents who’ve received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. What does the White House think of that idea?
MS. PSAKI: Well, in this phase of the vaccinations at the state and local level, leaders are going to take new, creative approaches to getting more shots in arms. Treasury has — the Department of Treasury has comprehensive guidelines, but does not typically opine on each individual program or creative approach by different states. And, typically, we leave that up to states and local leaders to determine, as long as it falls within those specific guidelines for the programs.
Q And are you moving to — should we all be potentially moving to Ohio to — (laughter).
MS. PSAKI: I — I leave that up to you. I have a special love for Ohio in my house because my husband is from Cincinnati, so I have recommendations if you ever move there.
Q Just a follow-up on the Middle East. Did the President warn Prime Minister Netanyahu yesterday about the rising death toll of civilians there?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I know we put out an expansive readout of the call that the President had with the Prime Minister. And in that call, of course, he reiterated the right of Israel of self- — to defend themselves. You know, in our view, rocket attacks from — attacks from Hamas into civilian neighborhoods is not self-defense. So he certainly reiterated that, but also reiterated the need to move to deescalate the situation on the ground.
His view and the view of our entire administration is that the loss of any life — a civilian life, any life — is a tragedy. And that’s one of the reasons that we are so engaged behind the scenes in this effort.
Q And you sent an envoy to the region. Is it possible that you would use this violence as a vehicle to launch a new peace process?
MS. PSAKI: Well, Steve, I will say that, we have been having strategic negotiat- — discussions — dialogue, I should say, with the Israelis since the very beginning, since almost the first week of the administration.
Now, the focus of those discussions, or at least a lot of the questioning, has been understandably about how we’ve used that or how we’ve raised the Iran negotiations. And that’s of — obviously, keeping them abreast of that has been a part of those discussions, but we’ve also talked about the fact that the position of the administration continues to be that the only path towards a long-lasting peaceful outcome is a two-state solution.
Q And lastly, does the fact that Colonial Pipeline paid a ransom make you concerned that this could happen over and over again — these types of hacks?
MS. PSAKI: Well, first, Steve, let me say that I’d refer you to the company for any confirmation of — or comment on that particular question. It continues to be the position of the federal government, the FBI, that it is not in the interests of — of the private sector for companies to pay ransom because it incentivizes these actions, leading to your — leading to your point.
I will say that one of the lessons that other companies should take away from this hack is that it’s important to harden your cybersecurity, to take the necessary steps to ensure that you’re protected.
There are steps we can take from the federal government. Obviously, the President signed an executive order last night. We believe that it’s important to increase cooperation, sharing of best practices between the public and private sector in a way that hasn’t been done in past administrations. But, ultimately, it’s up to these companies to take the steps to protect themselves.
Q On the Middle East: Some progressive lawmakers have criticized the President’s response to the violence. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez says the President’s comments “reinforces the false idea that Palestinians instigated this cycle of violence.” Representative Ilhan Omar has said the U.S isn’t doing enough to condemn the killing of Palestinian children. What’s your response?
MS. PSAKI: Well, first, let me take the second part of that. Let me be very clear: It is a tragedy for the loss of any life — a civilian, a child — and we’ve certainly seen that as this violence has escalated.
Our objective and our approach is to work with leaders in the region — whether they’re the Israelis or the Palestinians — or leaders from other countries who can play an integral role in influencing Hamas to deescalate and move toward a more stable peace. That’s the role and that’s the focus of the United States government, but that should not diminish the fact that any loss of life is a tragedy. And that’s what we would convey.
Q And on a very different topic: Yesterday, we saw the President meeting in the Oval Office with the “Big Four” — four vaccinated individuals —
MS. PSAKI: “The Big Four.”
Q The Big Four. Yeah, we — they were all still wearing masks. You know, the CDC guidance says that vaccinated Americans can gather in small groups inside without masks. So why aren’t we seeing the President model more of that behavior?
MS. PSAKI: Well, they were wearing masks; I can confirm that. You all saw that in photos. I know this has ruffled the feathers of the RNC. And I’m — always feel bad about ruffling their feathers.
But I will say that the focus of the meeting was on seeing if there’s a way to work forward — to move together to work toward shared objectives of investing in infrastructure, creating jobs for the American people. And I think that’s what most people’s focus is on.
Q But the argument has been that if you can take your mask off, that may incentivize others to get vaccinated — right? — to be able to participate in some of the benefits of being vaccinated. But, yet, we aren’t really seeing the President, sort of, take — lead by example on that (inaudible).
MS. PSAKI: The President doesn’t wear his mask when he’s outside; that guidance is clear. There were a number of people in the Oval Office yesterday. Obviously, there were — there was a whole press pool.
But, again, I think, if the big takeaway from the meeting yesterday — I think what most people look at it and take away is that the President sat there with Democrats and Republicans; they all came out of the meeting saying it was constructive, looking to see what the path forward could be about how we can create jobs and rebuild roads, rails, and bridges. And that was what the objective of the meeting was.
Q Just to confirm, Ohio is a great state. (Laughter.)
First, the President has mentioned this a couple times, you just mentioned it: Is the expectation, in terms of the regional players in the Middle East, that you guys want to kind of follow a model of 2014, perhaps, when Egypt played a pretty crucial role in brokering peace there? Is that what you’re going for here in your contacts with those countries and key players in that region?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think what we’re — our object- — our objective is — in the short term, Phil — is that Egypt, Tunisia, other important countries in the region certainly can play a role in conveying to Hamas and leaders of Hamas the reasons for deescalate to — for de-escalation and how that could be beneficial.
And that’s a role they have played historically at moments in time. Obviously, every conflict is different, unfortunately, but, certainly, many of these countries and their leaders have played this role in the past, and we certainly look — we’ll look to them and continue to look to them to play a role moving forward.
Q And then just two quick ones on the economy. Senator Mitch McConnell said that, based on the meeting yesterday, the President understands that the 2017 tax law is no longer a part of the conversation about financing any infrastructure — bipartisan infrastructure deal. Is that an accurate assessment of the state of play?
MS. PSAKI: Well, what the President understands is there’s agreement, as is evidenced by Senator McConnell’s comments, that we need to invest in infrastructure; we need to create jobs; that bridges are not Democratic or Republicans. They don’t have party affiliation, it turns out. How to pay for it has long been the area where there — where we need to find more common ground.
The President has proposed a way to pay for it. We have not seen proposals that wouldn’t raise taxes on people making less than $400,000 a year. So if they feel that the 2017 — changing the 2017 tax — tax laws — bringing it back to the rates that were the rates when George W. Bush was President; raising taxes on just 1 percent of Americans — is not the way to do it, then we welcome what their alternatives are.
Q And just kind of a broader economic question: The UI numbers — kind of underscoring it’s kind of been a bumpy last couple of weeks, which I think everybody kind of expects coming out of a once-in-a-century pandemic.
Can you characterize how important is the economic recovery continuing at a decent pace to your broader legislative goals? Like, does that — does that underpin your ability to do the scale of the things that President Biden has put on the table?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would unpack that a little differently. We know that continuing to increase the pace of vaccinations, getting more people vaccinated, is going to have a direct impact on people going back to work for a range of reasons, including people feeling safe to do so, including childcare facilities opening up so that people can send their kids there. And we know that that has had a big impact, of course, over time. These are twin crises that are related.
But the proposals the President has made for the American Jobs Plan, for the — for the American Families Plan — there are certainly some impacts that will be very beneficial over the short term: additional assistance for childcare, of course, beginning to put more and more people back to work. We know there’s more we need to do. More than 8 million people are still out of work.
But this is all — these are also proposals and ideas that have a long-term impact, that will increase our com- –competitiveness over the long term that will help ensure we can compete with China.
So, you know, there’s an argument to be made that we need to get through the — continue to get through the crisis we’re in, but we also need to think about what’s next and how we’re building the workforce of the future, and that will continue to be his argument.
Q And just to put a quick, finer point on it — broader point being: Because of the long-term effect of the proposals that were put on the table, what happens with economic numbers in the near term has no effect whatsoever on the President’s decision to pursue those going forward?
MS. PSAKI: Well, first I would say we look at averages — right? — over the course of time. So we’ve created about 500,000 jobs, on average, over the last few months. And we know these numbers and these data can go up and down.
We also know — and this is why I referenced the pandemic — because we know that there has been a massive increase over — even just the last month in the number of people who have been vaccinated as — as a — in comparison with what the numbers were in the week that they were measured for this month’s jobs numbers. That was a bit of a roundabout, but I was trying to get to a point there.
So we know that. There’s no question also and economic — economists have said that these proposals — the American Jobs Plan — would help put more people back to work. There’s more we need to do, but it’s both. Right? So it doesn’t impact the fact that we still need to do more over the long-term for competitiveness, but certainly, as we still see more than 8 million people out of work, it re- — it’s a reminder of the need to do more now and that the economy needs more now, and that we need to do more now across communities to create jobs.
Q Thanks. Just a few questions on Colonial —
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q — and the Jones waiver, if you’re willing. Can you identify the name of the tanker yet?
MS. PSAKI: I cannot. I would point you to the Department of Homeland Security.
Q Okay. And then can you share anything on the duration of how long the waiver will be in effect?
MS. PSAKI: I think what the President — what we’ve conveyed is: as — as long as it — as it is needed to address the supply. So I don’t — I don’t have an additional number of days or weeks for you.
Q Okay. And then on retaliation — and the President addressed this a little bit — but would it be proportional since now the government believes that these hackers do live in Russia — is there any discussion about Nord Stream 2 or taking away something that Russia — Russia wants? Has there been any discussion of stopping the completion of Nord Stream 2 as retaliation for this?
MS. PSAKI: Well, we continue to think that Nord Stream 2 is a bad project, as you know. But we — there’s still an ongoing investigation. Obviously, the President was speaking to what we know now. But in terms of the conclusion of that, we would point you to the FBI and — in terms of what steps could be taken, that would likely be recommended by Cyber Command, and we’re just not quite there yet.
Q Is that on the table? Is there any discussion about Nord Stream 2 or (inaudible)?
MS. PSAKI: We’re just not quite — quite there yet.
Q Thanks, Jen. Back to infrastructure. Given this red line that Republicans have when it comes to corporate tax increases, would the White House be willing to accept not paying for part or all of this plan if that’s the only way to get a bipartisan deal?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t think we’re quite there yet. You know, the President proposed a plan to pay for it because he thinks that’s what we should do. We’re going to have a discussion — he’ll have a discussion with Senator Capito, five ranking members of important committees that will play a role here about how to move things forward.
We’ll see what they come forward with. Obviously, we say — take Leader McConnell at his word, but there are a lot of players, a lot of members on both sides will — who have a range of views about this, in terms of what options should be to pay for it, whether it should be paid for.
The President’s red line — or — I hate that term — so his line in the sand is inaction. He’s open to a range of proposals, but, you know, we’re not going to make that decision unilaterally.
Q But Democrats have been open to not paying for infrastructure in the past.
MS. PSAKI: Yep, they have been. But there are a number of players that will be important as we move forward these propo- — these proposals, these negotiations. And we’re still at an early stage of those — this process.
Q You’ve said many times that the President wants to see progress on this issue by Memorial Day.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
Q Is that code for “If these bipartisan negotiations don’t bear fruit within the next few weeks, Democrats are going to go it alone”?
MS. PSAKI: I wouldn’t say it’s that clear of a line in the sand, just to continue our analogies here. But we will have an assessment, after a couple of weeks, about how things look and whether it looks like there’s a path forward. It doesn’t mean it’s a moment of halting or not halting.
As you know, there will be discussions up until the moment a bill passes with Democrats and Republicans regardless. But it will be a moment to assess where things stand and what the right steps are moving forward, given that’s a time, as you all know, many will go home for congressional recess.
Q And then, finally, on Israel: Why hasn’t the administration prioritized naming an ambassador to Israel? And will that name be in the next batch of ambassadors that are named by this White House?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would expect we’d have more in the coming weeks on an ambassador — nominating an ambassador to Israel. But I will say, having lived and served at the State Department for a couple of years, we have a very talented, trusted career diplomat who is there on the ground; who is fully engaged with the White House, is fully engaged with — with leaders in the region, and — as is his entire diplomatic team.
So I think it’s important for people to understand it’s not as if work halts just because you haven’t have a nominated and confirmed ambassador. That’s important. But the system of governing — career staff, Foreign Service officers — are in place so that there can be the continuity through administrations.
Q Thanks, Jen. On Colonial, I know the President said that he didn’t want to comment on whether he was briefed on the payment, but, just to put it a little bit more broadly, was the administration aware at all whether a payment or not was made?
MS. PSAKI: I’m just not going to have any more on that.
Q Okay. And then my colleagues are reporting that legislation to overhaul the military justice system is getting traction in Congress. This is the bill led by Senators Gillibrand and Ernst. This is broader than what the Pentagon is looking at doing through the commission. Is this something that the President would support? And has he had any conversations with members of the Senate yet?
MS. PSAKI: Well, let me first say that, like the President recently said, we have to have an all-hands-on-deck effort to end the scourge of sexual assault in the military, underlining that sexual assault is repugnant at any time, and that we have to uproot this horrible, longstanding problem.
As he promised during the campaign, he ordered the creation of an independent review commission on sexual assault in the military to take bold action to address sexual assault and harassment in the force. That work is underway. It’s a 90-day process. I think they’re around halfway through that 90-day period of time.
So obviously, these reports about support in the Senate are positive; it’s a welcome development. We will see how that process moves forward. Nothing has passed either body of Congress at this point in time. And even as it’s working through, the work of this commission will continue.
Q All right. And, sorry, just to follow up on Nancy’s question real quick: Is the President committed to paying for the package fully or is that TBD right now?
MS. PSAKI: The President has proposed a ma- — a ways of paying for the — his proposals because he thinks that’s the responsible thing to do.
But again, there’s going to be a range of discussions with members of both parties. As Nancy said, some Democrats think we don’t need to pay for it. Some Republicans feel very strongly about that. Some in the middle feel strongly too or feel which way. That’s part of the discussion.
So we’re still having those discussions. We’re in the sausage-making. And he’s proposed ways to pay for it because he felt that was the responsible thing to do when he put out his ideas to the public.
Go ahead, David.
Q A few questions on Colonial, Jen. The President, at one point in the statement today, said that he was going to take steps to “disrupt” this network. And then he was asked later on: Does that mean return cyberattacks? Would he rule that out? He seemed to say no. Did — is —
MS. PSAKI: As in he wouldn’t rule it out.
Q He would not rule it out.
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q That was — that was clear. So, is his idea here something similar to what Cyber Command did last year with another ransomware group, where they actually stopped them from getting on their servers in an effort to try to keep them from disrupting the 2020 election? Is that the model that the President has in mind?
MS. PSAKI: I think we’re not quite there yet, David. Obviously, this just happened just a couple of days ago. You know, he was providing an update to the public and being transparent with all of you about what we know as it relates to the investigation.
That investigation is still ongoing at the FBI, and obviously Cyber Command would make recommendations about next steps — as we often like to say: some seen, some unseen. But I can’t get ahead of where we are in any internal process.
Q So when the President said that this happened from Russian territory, was he suggesting that if it happens from your territory, as we often say in terrorism issues — this came up often when you were at the State Department — that the country from which an attack is launched is as responsible for it as the attackers themselves?
MS. PSAKI: I would say he’s making that clear because, certainly, the host — the country where individuals are located, even as a criminal network, even as he’s confirmed that we don’t have information from our review process that suggests the government was involved, there’s still some responsibility.
Q And my final question to you goes to your reluctance to discuss the ransomware issue.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
Q I’m trying to figure out if, on the one hand, the government has a policy that — of recommendation, why isn’t it in your interest to call out companies that might actually violate what both the FBI and the Treasury Department have recommended strongly? In fact, Treasury Department went beyond that last year; they said that there could be sanctions against people who pay ransomware. So I’m trying to understand what the theory is in not calling them out if you know the answer to the question.
MS. PSAKI: Well, David, I would say that it’s the recommendation of the FBI to not pay ransom in these cases, as you well know — for good reason, because it can incentivize similar attacks, additional attacks, to Steve’s other question.
But, again, our policy remains — that’s our recommendation, but — that private-sector entities or companies are going to make their own decisions. So, what I’m here to do is just convey the policies of the United States government, and it doesn’t feel particularly constructive to call out companies in that manner at this point in time.
Q Thanks, Jen. What does the President think about Republican governors, such as Mike Parson in Missouri, reducing unemployment benefits in order to force workers back to work?
MS. PSAKI: Well, what we’ve seen — we know there’s been a lot of talking points and chatter out there suggesting that reducing or — benefits $300 a week — in most cases, benefits to people across the country would incentivize them to go back to work.
And frankly, we find that to be a bit off — off track, because what we’ve seen in the data is that the actual issues at play here are the pandemic and people needing to address things like childcare, being fearful about going back to work before they were not vaccinated.
So states, governors are going to make their own decisions. But it’s important to convey, I think, that when you look at the data, when you look at the facts, that’s not — we have not seen that as a widespread driving factor in people not going back to work.
Q One more question: How will the President deal with the nearly 100 billion in back-rents that would need to be paid in order to avoid evictions once the moratorium expires?
MS. PSAKI: I know that moratorium is something that has — which is, hence, I’m sure what you’re asking about it — has helped many, many people across the country get through this very difficult period of time.
I think we have a little bit more time before it expires, if I’m remembering correctly. And, certainly, there will be considerations made. But it’s an — it’s a process that’s done through different agencies and Secretaries and making a recommendation on the extension, so I can’t get ahead of that.
If we don’t make the decision to — to extend it, obviously we’ll have to figure out how to continue to help renters. But at this point in time, it’s still ongoing.
Q Jen, quick question on some breaking news.
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q Do you know if the CDC is changing its guidance today about mask-wearing indoors?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have anything I can preview for you on CDC guidance. That would be up to them.
Go ahead, in the back.
Q Thank you. The head of a major teachers union is saying that all schools should return to full capacity in the fall. What’s the position on that?
MS. PSAKI: We agree.
Q You do. Okay. Just checking.
On the Putin summit, which may or may not happen, I guess: A number of Americans are being held in Russia. We’ve talked about them before — Trevor Reed and Paul Whelan, for instance. Has Russia asked for any concessions in return for their release?
MS. PSAKI: In return for their release — from us in return for their release?
MS. PSAKI: Obviously, the detainment of individuals by the Russian government is something that we raise at the highest level, and certainly it’s raised through many diplomatic channels.
In terms of what those negotiations and discussions look like, I’m just not going to be able to give you more information on it.
Q And real quick: The markets have been very volatile this week. It’s giving a lot of heartburn to people who are saving for retirement and are investors. How concerned is the President about that volatility and about inflation?
MS. PSAKI: Well, on the markets, I’ve been doing this long enough not to weigh in and speak to that. Certainly, we have a number of people in the federal government, including our Treasury Secretary who can speak to that more effectively than I can. I will say, on inflation: What we — we take that very seriously.
Our — the expectation from economists, both inside and outside of the government, is that the impacts of our proposed investments are transitory, are temporary, and that the benefits far outweigh the risks. So that — we look at it through, certainly, through that prism.
Obviously, we’ve seen, over the last couple of days — to your point — some reaction to the CPI numbers that came out just yesterday. And, you know, our view on that is it reflects the reality of an economy that’s rapidly turning back on because of a successful economic strategy.
And if you dig into the data, there are a couple of factors at play that I think people are taking a look at now that we’ve dug into the data more, including the fact that, you know, for example, airfare is increased by 10 percent but are still almost 20 percent below pre-pandemic levels. The — one of the biggest impacts we saw on the data yesterday was on used car sales, and that is a direct impact of the semiconductor chip shortage.
So, point is: There’s a number of factors here that can be explained and we’re working to address. And I think as we continue to communicate that, hopefully that will give some comfort to the American people and, of course, industries.
Q A couple questions. Can you confirm that the White House is seeking changes to legislation that would grant statehood to the District of Columbia, and change it so it would grant the electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote to deal with potential constitutional concerns?
MS. PSAKI: Well, we have issued a statement of administrative pol- — administration policy, as you know, strongly backing the bill. And our view is that admitting D.C. as a state is well within Congress’s power, and that the arguments to the contrary are faulty.
But we also think there are ways to allay the concerns that have been raised, and that’s why we’re working with Congress to make the bill as strong as possible, as would be the case in any — nearly any negotiation or about any piece of legislation.
Q Thank you. Can you confirm that those are the changes that you are seeking?
MS. PSAKI: I — I’m not going to get into more details of it, other than we certainly would support D.C. statehood and strongly back the bill.
Q And on infrastructure, can you — you’ve talked a lot about progress by Memorial Day. Can you define what progress specifically is? Is it — is it a deal in principle with Senate Republicans? Is it passing (inaudible) transportation bills out of committees? Or is it — what is it? What — what is progress to you?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think, as I was saying in response to Nancy’s similar question earlier, it’s just a marking point for us to make an assessment of what we think the path forward looks like. And, as you well know from covering Congress, everybody will go home on Memorial Day recess. It will be quieter over near the Capitol. Obviously, there’ll be a lot of activity, as you all have seen this week, and that will continue, both at a staff-level, a member-level, engagements with the President, other high-level members of the administration, and we’ll have a feeling on what the path looks forward — looks like moving forward.
I don’t want to define that at this point, because that’s not really to our advantage. There’s a couple of weeks before Memorial Day, and we’ll just be able to take stock of where we should proceed.
As — and as I’ve said before, obviously the President wants to work in a bipartisan manner. He thinks there’s opportunity to do that. He was encouraged by the openness to that in the meeting yesterday. And obviously he’s going to sit down, or is sitting down shortly — you’ll know — with — with leaders here.
But — but his only — his only line in the sand is inaction.
Q And a quick foreign policy one.
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q In the readout with Prime Minister Netanyahu, there was no mention on Iran. Did the President discuss the ongoing nuclear talks with the Prime Minister?
MS. PSAKI: We regularly brief our Israeli counterparts on our ongoing negotiations and discussions with Iran. Rob Malley is currently taking part of those now. As an important partner in the region, we do regularly brief them.
I don’t have any update or anything in addition to add to the readout, but it was primarily focused, as I think — as I think was clear, on the escalation of violence happening on the ground at this point in time.
Q Yes. Senator Tom Cotton says the nation’s wealthiest colleges are indoctrinating young people with what he calls “un-American ideas.” He’s proposing a new tax targeting the largest private endowments. He says it would raise $2 million a year.
I wonder: Does the President believe that our largest — our wealthiest schools are indoctrinating our youth with un-American ideas? And would he support such a tax? Is it a good idea?
MS. PSAKI: Now you’ve intrigued me. What are the un-American ideas that are indoctrinating our youth?
Q The legislation doesn’t lay out the precise —
MS. PSAKI: Oh, he’s not specific about the indoctrination by leaders from universities?
Q Well, he’s been critical, for example, of the 1619 Project. He’s been critical and spoken about critical race theory. He’s — he’s claimed that there’s a liberal bias on campus that targets conservatives — I think would be a way to put it.
MS. PSAKI: What’s he going to do with the money?
Q He wants to use it for programs for — my mind — I’m having a hard time coming up with the word — when you have job training, those sorts of things.
MS. PSAKI: Well, without much detail of where he thinks our youth are being indoctrinated, it sounds very mysterious and dangerous, but — although I don’t think that — I don’t think we would think — we believe that educating the youth and next — the leaders of the — future leaders of the country on systemic racism is indoctrination. That’s actually responsible.
But, I would say, if he’s trying to raise money for something, then our view is there’s lots of ways to do that. We know that a number of corporations hugely benefited financially during the pandemic. They could pay more taxes. We think the highest 1 percent of Americans can pay more taxes. And if he wants to have a conversation about worker training, we’d love to have him over and have that conversation.
Q And then, if I could follow up: We have a bridge over the Mississippi River, at Memphis, linking Arkansas and Tennessee. It’s had to be shut down because there’s a crack in it. Is this a fluke or should Americans be concerned about the structural integrity of their bridges? And what, if anything, is the administration doing to address this problem?
MS. PSAKI: Well, first, I would say that’s an excellent example of why we need the American Jobs Plan. And, as you know — probably traveled across that bridge a few times yourself, I would guess — there are bridges around the country that are decades overdue in being repaired, in being fixed, in ensuring that people traveling — they’re going to work, they’re taking their kids to school — are up to the standard that we should have in this country in one of the most competitive and industrious countries in the world.
So that’s a good example of why the President has proposed repairing bridges around the country, repairing roads and railways. And the good news is that will create millions of jobs, so there’s a “win, win” for communities around the country.
Go ahead, in the back.
Q There’s reports that former Chicago mayor and former Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel will be appointed to be U.S. ambassador to Japan soon. I don’t think you can provide, but I know the announcement on the ambassadors will be coming soon. But my question is: What do you expect from the ambassador to Japan? Do you expect (inaudible) key person to deal with China and North Korea?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I do expect — I know there’s a lot of interest in this. I do expect we’ll have more in the coming weeks on nominating ambassadors to serve in — obviously, once confirmed — important posts around the world, and Japan is certainly one of those: important partner in the region, important partner in addressing stability and security in the region. And certainly, we would see that person as someone who would play an integral role.
However, I would say there are a range of — a range of positions from the State Department, from our national security team that may play an additional role or significant roles, as it relates to negotiations moving forward. So I don’t have anything to preview on that front.
Go ahead, in the back.
Q We’ve heard repeatedly, with respect to the statements about violence in Israel, that Israel has a legitimate right to self-defense, but we’re not hearing about the Palestinians’ right to self-defense. Why is that? And does the President believe that Palestinians have a right to self-defense?
MS. PSAKI: Well, let me first say, I think it’s important to note, as I think you’d agree, that these rockets are coming and these attacks are coming from Hamas. And many Palestinian people are put in — being put in danger because of the violence that is happening back and forth.
And the President, in his ra- — statement yesterday, also made clear that we — you know, he underscored the importance of working to advance peace throughout the region, including between Israelis and Palestinians. Any loss of life, any threat to life — which we’ve certainly seen — is a tragedy. That’s what we’re working to deescalate and try to reduce in the region.
Q But — but why not have in the statement that Palestinians also have a right to self-defense? That’s what I’m trying to —
MS. PSAKI: Are the — are the attacks not coming from Hamas? Do you consider Hamas the Palestinian leadership?
Q Let me rephrase the question then: You’ve repeatedly, in the statement, condemned the rocket attacks.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
Q Does the White House, does the Biden administration also condemn the evictions of Palestinians from their homes in (inaudible)?
MS. PSAKI: We have spoken to that in our readouts. And, certainly, our National Security Advisor has raised, and we have raised at many levels, the importance of addressing the building in these — in these communities, and the fact that, you know, in order to move forward and move towards de-escalation, that’s an important issue to address.
So that has been —
Q But what about —
MS. PSAKI: That has come up. I think we’ve got to —
Q Okay, one last question very, very quick.
MS. PSAKI: — move on and let you wrap.
Q Why has — when the Pres- — Secretary Blinken called both Mahmoud Abbas —
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q — and also Benjamin Netanyahu. Why didn’t the President do the same? By only speaking to the Israeli Prime Minister, are you concerned that this shows sort of a one-sided viewpoint from this administration?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would say that the Secretary of State is an incredibly high-ranking member of the administration — fourth in line for the presidency, if I’m getting that correct. He is very close to President Biden. And, certainly, that sends a clear message about the importance of communicating with all parties in the region. And we have also had dozens of calls with a range of leaders in the region, as I’ve conveyed.
Q You’ve been — you’ve been talking to the Egyptians. Have you sent any sort of message to Hamas through the Egyptians?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think, Steve, the reason we’re, of course, talking in part to the Egyptians and others in the region is that they have significant influence over Hamas.
And, unfortunately, as we saw earlier this week, assurances from Hamas that they were prepared to stand down proved false, as they later launched a rocket barrage. But they are important, you know, communicators with Hamas. They can play an important role here. And that’s why we’re communicating with them, as well as the Israelis and the Palestinians.
Q Thank you, Jen.
MS. PSAKI: Thank you, everyone.
1:29 P.M. EDT