Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jen Psaki, May 20, 2021
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:07 P.M. EDT
MS. PSAKI: Hi, everyone. I think I got a little ahead of the two minutes, but seems okay. Seems okay.
Okay, one item for all of you at the top. The unemployment data released this morning show us reaching the lowest level of new claims since the beginning of the pandemic, and the moving average has been cut by more than a third since President Biden took office just four months ago.
We know the policies the President has enacted are making a difference. Today’s four-week average of 505,000 new claims is down from 752,000 the week the American Rescue Plan was signed and badly needed economic relief started getting out of the door to families and communities around the country.
Who doesn’t love a chart? So here’s a little chart of the weekly unemployment claims, just to show you all the trend.
These numbers can be volatile, so we caution against reading too much into any single report — and, obviously, we’re looking at trendlines over time — but the trend is clear. In addition to declining unemployment insurance claims over the President’s first three months in office, the economy has created an average of 500,000 new jobs a month — eight times more than the average of the three months prior.
And this is a direct result of President Biden’s vision to build our economy from the bottom up and the middle out.
With that, Darlene, why don’t we kick it off.
Q Thanks, Jen. So, on the Middle East: Yesterday, the White House said the President had spoken to the Prime Minister, called for a significant de-escalation. The Prime Minister, in turn, said he was going to push forward with the operation in Gaza.
So, the question is: You know, where does that leave the President and the administration today? And also, what does what happened yesterday say about his level of influence with the Prime Minister?
MS. PSAKI: Well, first let me say, Darlene, that our objective, as we’ve talked about a bit in here, is to take every step we can — through diplomatic channels, through quiet and intensive diplomacy — to bring an end to this conflict.
Just to bring us back to a little historical reference here — which I lived through, many of you did as well — back in 2014, the conflict on the ground went on for 51 days — 51 days. We’re at about 10 days now. Now, every day that passes and lives are lost — Palestinian lives, Israeli lives — is a tragedy.
But our approach here and our strategic approach here is to continue to communicate directly, stay closely interwo- — interlocked with the Israelis, with partners on the ground to do everything we can to bring an end to the conflict.
We have seen reports of a move toward a potential ceasefire. That’s clearly encouraging. Obviously, we can’t get ahead of any agreements that may be brokered.
But I would say that — to go back to answer your original question there, Darlene — we’ve had — we’ve now held more than 80 engagements with senior leaders in Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and across the region, either in person or by phone.
And again, that our view and our approach has been to use our — the role of the United States and the relationships with countries on the ground to conduct our efforts quietly and through diplomatic channels.
Q Do you have anything on a call between the President today and Al Sisi and Egypt?
MS. PSAKI: I expect we’ll have a readout shortly. I can confirm they had a call.
And just to remind you, part of that engagement is a reflection of what we’ve been talking about a bit in this briefing room — was the important role that a number of countries in the region can play, including the Egyptians, in bringing an end to the conflict. And they have an important role to play in influencing Hamas. Hence, the President had a conversation with him this morning. I expect we’ll have a readout shortly.
Q And just one, quickly, if I can switch to infrastructure.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
Q Senator Capito has raised the possibility of using unspent COVID-19 money to pay for infrastructure. Is that something the White House would be open — an approach the White House would be open to?
MS. PSAKI: Well, again, I know there’ll be a range of ideas and proposals that will come forward from Senator Capito, from other Republicans, and other Democrats as well. The President’s bottom line — as you’ve heard me say a few times before — is that he does not want to raise taxes on people making less than $400,000 a year.
We certainly, in that scenario, would need to assess whether these funds are needed and not take them away from fighting the pandemic that we continue to battle every day.
Q Thank you, Jen. A couple of topics quickly. First, House Republicans are claiming that they have “significant circumstantial evidence” that COVID-19 originated in a lab. Has the White House seen any circumstantial evidence that it did not originate in a lab?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think, first, I would caution you against disproving a negative there — which is never the responsible approach, in our view, when it come — when it comes to getting to the bottom of the root causes of a pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands of people in the United States.
I will say that our view continues to be that there needs to be an independent, transparent investigation — and that needs to happen with the cooperation and data provided from the Chinese government.
We don’t have enough information at this point to make an assessment.
Q And part of the reason some of these lawmakers say that is, is because China is not cooperating right now. At what point would President Biden call President Xi and say, “We’ve got 587,883 dead Americans. We’re just trying to figure out if this happened — if COVID originated in one of your labs. Let us in”?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would say that we have made that call publicly many times. We have conveyed that privately. And we have certainly communicated that they were not transparent from the beginning; that’s not acceptable.
There’s an opportunity now, in the next stage of this effort, for them to be transparent, to participate in an international investigation that can bring a conclusion to the origins and provide information that we — Republicans, Democrats, everyone in this country — would love to have access to.
Q On Nord Stream, I know that there’s a lot of talk about Nord Stream and Keystone, and I’m just trying to help our — help people understand it.
MS. PSAKI: Is there?
Q Well, yes. President Biden blocked the Keystone XL pipeline here because he said it would undermine the U.S. climate leadership and undercut our ability to urge other countries to the ambitious climate action. So how is he urging other countries to take ambitious climate action if he’s letting other countries build Nord Stream 2?”
MS. PSAKI: First, we’re hardly letting any country or other countries build Nord Stream 2. When the President took office, 95 percent of this pipeline was built.
We’ve continued to convey that we believe it’s a bad — a bad idea, a bad plan — and we have also put in place and taken actions over the last several days to make that clear — in large part because our view is that it’s a Russian geopolitical project that threatens European energy security and that of Ukraine and in the East — and Eastern Flank NATO Allies and partners. Hence, there’s a geopolitical concern about this pipeline, and we’ve taken steps over the last several days to make that clear.
Q So, a lot of concerns — and it seemed like there was the ability by the U.S. government to sanction some officials to stop the project at like 95 percent, but you’re not doing that. And I’m just wondering why?
MS. PSAKI: In what way were we — we’re going to be able to stop a project in another country that’s had — been built 95 percent?
Q Or make it more difficult. Make it more difficult with the sanctions on some of these officials involved.
MS. PSAKI: Well, we have imposed sanctions on four Russian entities, four Russian vessels that engaged in sanctionable activities. We’ve also imposed sanctions on nine vessels belonging to the Russian government. This is the largest number of entities listed under this act to date.
So we have certainly taken significant steps, and we’ve also made clear — in public and private channels — our opposition to this plan.
Q And then, quickly, on Israel. Progressives in the House and Senate are hoping to block $735 million dollars’ worth of weapons to Israel. Would the President ever go along with that?
MS. PSAKI: Well, let me first say that the State Department is — oversees arm sales, and any confirmation of those specific details or notifications that may have gone to Congress. So I would let them speak to that specific proposal you’re asking about.
I will say that we’ve had a long-abiding security and strategic relationship with Israel. That has been certainly the case for decades.
Q As a candidate though, President Biden boasted that he was the only one in the race who had ever brought world leaders together to solve a major problem. There’s a major problem in the Middle East right now, so why aren’t the leaders and the people there benefiting from all of his foreign policy experience?
MS. PSAKI: Do you not count the 80 engagements we’ve had with countries around the world, including the President’s call with the leader of Egypt, the four calls he’s had with the Israeli Prime Minister —
Q Well, I —
MS. PSAKI: — and the fact that there have been reports of a ceasefire — of a movement toward a ceasefire?
Q Well, I — I would say: Do you not count him telling Benjamin Netanyahu, who he says he’s known for a long time, to — they want to dees- — or that he expected a de-escalation by yesterday, and Netanyahu just ignoring him?
MS. PSAKI: Well, first of all, I would say that we are continuing to work toward that, and that we have — believe that they are in a position to start winding their operations down.
And certainly, that is what we’ve been conveying and that is what we expect to happen in short order.
Q So, last one: The President says that foreign policy is something he has done his entire life.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
Q Is it working?
MS. PSAKI: I would say that you ca- — if you look at the fact that the American co- — the global community believes that America is back, has a seat at the table; that we’re going to continue to lead in the efforts to get the climate crisis under control; to lead in the efforts in engagement around the world, certainly bringing about an end to this conflict, but also moving toward diplomacy in — as it relates to North Korea; and moving toward a place where the United States is — returns to the place of being a leader in global forum as we hope to be at NATO, I would say we’re certainly working on changing the tide of the last four years.
Q There are decidedly mixed signals coming out of both the Iranians and the Europeans on the chances of a nuclear deal being struck. Can you tell us who’s right?
MS. PSAKI: Oh, I don’t know if I can — I don’t know if I’m going to take — assess in that exact term, in that — in exact phrasing.
But I will tell you this: We remain engaged as a party in these discussions. Obviously, our discussions, as you know from following this, are through indirect talks through the Europeans. We continue to believe that our efforts, as it relates to bringing an end — or preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, need to happen through diplomatic channels. And those talks and engagements are continuing.
We always know — from having lived through these negotiations before — there will be bumpy roads, there will be different assessments, but we’re continuing to work toward progress.
Q Sure. On South Korea, the President is seeking to tap into the U.S. vaccine supply as part of his visit. How does the White House view such requests from advanced economies like South Korea? Is there a higher bar? Can you give us some color on that — on those requests —
MS. PSAKI: Do you mean — just for clarification — so you mean the President of South Korea is looking to tap into —
MS. PSAKI: — our vaccine supply.
Q One hundred percent.
MS. PSAKI: You know, I certainly — we certainly expect that the leaders will discuss ways the United States can support the South Koreans’ fi- — South — support South Korea in its fight against COVID-19, as well as how we can work together to combat the pandemic around the world.
And certainly, they will raise a range of issues. I know they’ve noted that this is one that they intend to raise, which is, hence, why you’re asking me about it.
I will say that, as it relates to the vaccine supply that we’ve announced, we are going to be sharing with the world, we will look at that, and we will make decisions — which are still ongoing — with a couple of criteria in mind: how to do it equitably, how to ensure we’re reaching parts of the world that need help the most, how to do it in a way that’s fair and has a regional balance.
So I don’t expect that assessment to be made in advance of tomorrow. But certainly, we welcome the opportunity to discuss with them how we can work together to address the global pandemic.
Q Sure. One more question on South Korea. John Kerry and others have called on South Korea to double its 2030 targets for carbon-cutting emissions, saying they won’t go far enough to meet the 2050 goals. Should we expect any movement on that? Should we expect South Korea to come a little bit higher on those 23 — 2030 goals as part of these talks?
MS. PSAKI: Well, we are working with South Korea in areas of mutual interest. And certainly, climate ambition, addressing the climate crisis that’s facing the global community is part of that. Sectoral decarbonization and clean energy deployment, we expect will be a part of the discussion. And we are looking forward to enhancing technical exchanges on economy-wide decarbonization aligned with the global goal to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions.
So I certainly expect that addressing the climate crisis — what we can do mutually, what steps they can take, perhaps what steps we can take — will be a part of the discussions. But, in terms of what the outcome of it will be tomorrow, I’m not in a position to get ahead of that.
Q Thank you, Jen. Understanding that there have been more than 60 phone calls between this —
MS. PSAKI: Eighty.
Q — administra- — 80 — between the administration and regional leaders, why is the President and Vice President now reaching out to their regional counterparts beyond Prime Minister Netanyahu and Abbas? Why not make those some of the first phone calls?
MS. PSAKI: Well, the President spoke with Prime Minister Abbas just — he spoke with him last week already. These conversations —
Q But I mean in addition to them.
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would —
Q In addition to Netanyahu and Abbas.
MS. PSAKI: — say, Kristen, that these conversations have been happening at a very high level: the Secretary of State, other high-level members of the administration, our National Security Advisor. We’ve read out many of these calls — not every single one, but we’ve read out many of them as well. And we have felt that those conversations are constructive, that they have been u- — helpful partners in working to bring an end to get to the point we’re at now, where we are working to unwind. We’re encouraging the unwinding and the end of the conflict on the ground.
And there are moments when it’s the right moment for the President to have a call directly with a global leader himself. This is one of those moments.
Q But the President — could the President have tried to move forward with this ceasefire earlier if he had started reaching out to Al Sisi and his other partners in the region several days ago?
MS. PSAKI: We have been very closely aligned, in touch, and working in lockstep with our partners in the region. That has not required —
Q But not the President necessarily.
MS. PSAKI: But, Kristen, the way diplomacy works: That does not always require a call from a global leader. We have been working in lockstep with them, at still a very high level, to bring an end to the violence, bring an end to the conflict on the ground. And they share a desire to do exactly that. And there’s no question that their relationship, ability to engage with Hamas ensures that they can play a very powerful and impactful role in this regard.
Q And —
MS. PSAKI: But the reason — and let me just say one more — one more point — the reason that we’re at this point, in terms of the evolving conversations and statements and readouts that we have put out, is because the situation on the ground has also evolved. And that — those readouts reflect that.
Q And I just want to be very clear about where things stand. Is it the administration’s understanding that both sides have now agreed to a ceasefire at this point?
MS. PSAKI: We have seen reports of a potential ceasefire, which we certainly see as encouraging. But we are not in a position to get ahead of any agreements that may be brokered.
Q So you’re not in a position to confirm there is, in —
MS. PSAKI: No.
Q — fact, a ceasefire?
MS. PSAKI: No. But we have certainly seen those reports. That — those are encouraging. That’s certainly what we’re encouraging and we — what we are working toward.
Q And I just want to ask you about the commission to investigate what happened on —
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q — January 6th. Obviously, the bill passed through the House. It is facing very steep odds in the Senate. And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said that, if necessary, she would be open to moving forward with a commission that would only have the support of Democrats. Would the White House support that and have any concerns that the optics of that would ultimately undercut any findings?
MS. PSAKI: Well, we’re not at that point yet, and we’ve certainly seen the Speaker’s comments.
What I will say, since you gave me the opportunity, is that the attack on the Capitol on January 6th was an unprecedented assault on our democracy. It demands a full, independent investigation into what happened. This is not a political issue, in the President’s view; this is a question of how we secure our democracy and the rule of law.
So, it’s incredibly disappointing to see how many Repub- — how many representatives have opted to turn this into a political issue instead of doing what’s right for our country and our Constitution. And they still have the opportunity to do the right thing.
Q Just to follow up: Would you be open to the possibility of a commission that is only —
MS. PSAKI: There hasn’t been a vote in the Senate yet. Obviously, our hope is that Senate Republicans do the right thing: put polic- — partisan politics aside; vote in a way that supports the preservation of our democracy, of our Constitution. They have the opportunity to do that. If they don’t, happy to — we’ll have a conversation about it.
Q And just, finally, there’s a lot of skepticism on Capitol Hill that there will in fact be a bill — that they’ll pass the George Floyd bill by the anniversary of George Floyd’s death next week. Has the White House accepted that — that it is all but an impossibility, at this point, that it’ll pass? And what will the President do on the anniversary?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I don’t have anything to preview yet in terms of the President’s schedule next week. We will certainly mark the anniversary, as it was a moment that impacted millions of Americans — and, certainly, the President — on a personal level.
I will say, Kristen, that, obviously, we are in close touch, and we certainly defer to the expectations of the key negotiators here. And I would note that Senator Booker has indicated that there’s good energy to the talks. Senator Scott has said that “The key for us is to [making] — is to keep making progress.” And we certainly support those efforts.
The President talked about the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act in his joint session speech, put a marker down because he feels it’s important to be bold, to be ambitious. And that’s exactly what he feels we’re hopefully working toward.
Sure, go ahead.
Q So, yesterday, President Biden told the Prime Minister that he wanted to see significant de-escalation yesterday —
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
Q — and on a path to a ceasefire yesterday. So did he see that significant de-escalation? And does he believe they are on the path to the ceasefire?
MS. PSAKI: Well, Kaitlan, I would say we’re not going to give a day-by-day grade here of the efforts. But I will say that our objective is to continue to push and encourage all parties on the ground — Israel, of course — the President has spoken to Prime Minister Netanyahu, as you know, four times; more than any other world leader — and to start winding their operations down.
We have seen reports of a potential ceasefire; that is certainly encouraging. And we believe that they are at the point where they certainly should be positioned to bring an end to this conflict.
But, again — as I started off conveying — you know, we’re also in a place where we want to bring this to an end as quickly as possible. That is clearly our objective, but we are only on about denta [sic] — day 10 or 11 here. When we look back at 2014, that was about 51 days. And we’re going to continue to press behind the scenes — press through intensive, quiet diplomacy to bring an end to the conflict.
Q I was just wondering because he did set the deadline of significant de-escalation yesterday. So I’m just wondering if they met that mark to his liking.
MS. PSAKI: Again, I’m not going to give a public evaluation from the President of day-by-day actions. What I can tell you is that we are continuing to work behind the scenes, through these 80 engagements with senior officials, to advocate for, to convey that they should be in a position now to start winding their operations down. And that is what we are hopeful to see.
Q Okay. And what are the national security reasons for waiving the sanctions on the company and the CEO behind Nord Stream 2?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I know we made this announcement from the State Department just yesterday, and they certainly spoke to this from their end.
We also put in place a number of sanctions, as you know, on Russian officials and Russians who were engaged in this — in the building of Nord Stream 2 — to send a clear message that we think that this is a bad deal, that it is a geopolitical plan that we feel puts our Eastern Flank NATO Allies and partners and Ukraine at risk. So that is why we put those in place. We —
Q But what’s the reason for waiving the sanctions?
MS. PSAKI: We certainly have an important, vital relationship with leaders in Germany. And we make a range of decisions through a range of global — global factors.
Q Okay. And my last question: About 15 days ago, I think, Michael Fanone — who is a D.C. Metropolitan Police Officer who was there on January the 6th — was beaten, tased; they stole his badge; you know, suffered a lot of trauma — he says that he still is living through it — he says he sent you a letter about 15 days ago talking about the emotional anxiety that he still struggles with on a daily basis. And saying it’s “time to fully recognize” the actions of the officers on that day. So I was just wondering if the White House has a response to him.
MS. PSAKI: I have — I’m happy to check on the status of the letter. Obviously, the President’s view is that there are number of officers who lost their lives, paid a tremendous sacrifice for — on a day that will be a stain on our democracy for many years to come. And certainly, many who survived — this will be a long-lasting trauma.
I’d have to check on the letter and the status of that.
Q Okay, thank you.
Q Thanks, Jen. You’ve said a couple of times that you believe that the Israelis are in a position to start winding their operations down, and that’s what the administration expects to happen in short order. Have the Israelis conveyed that they are going to wind down operations? And can you define “short order”? What type of timeline are you looking for?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I will let them convey what they feel they have accomplished. Our view is: We believe the Israelis have achieved significant military objectives that they laid out to achieve, in relation to protecting their people and to responding to the thousands of rocket attacks from Hamas. And so, that’s why, in part, that we feel they are in a position to start winding their operation down.
We continue to believe that they have a right to defend themselves. But this is where we see — again, our evolution of what the readouts that we’re sending, of what we’re conveying, what the President is conveying directly to the Prime Minister is also a reflection of what we’re seeing on the ground, and what our officials who are working in close — in lockstep with both Israeli officials, Palestinians, others — are also seeing on the ground. So it’s a reflection of all of that.
But, in terms of their assessment of that, I will certainly leave that to them. And, obviously, our objective is to work toward a ceasefire.
Q So there has not been a message from the Israelis to the administration that they are going to wind down?
MS. PSAKI: I’m not going to read out their messages from them; they can do that. I can read out what we are conveying to them.
Q And why is the President not publicly calling for an “immediate ceasefire” rather than a “path to a ceasefire”? You know, the “de-escalation,” not “Right now, stop this.” What is the thinking behind that?
MS. PSAKI: I think the President has been clear: He wants to see a wind down of this — of the violence — an end to the violence and a winding of their operations down as quickly as possible, and lead to a ceasefire as quickly as possible. So I don’t think he’s attempting to mince words there on what he hopes the outcome to be.
Q And then are there any consequences if Israel does not show progress toward that de-escalation — toward the path to a ceasefire?
MS. PSAKI: Our focus is on getting to a path to a ceasefire and bringing an end to the violence, to the suffering of the Israeli people, the Palestinian people, many people in the region. So I’m not going to get ahead of that to predict consequences.
Go ahead. Oh, go ahead, Jenny. Sorry. Go ahead.
Q On infrastructure, Senator Capito said that she expects a counteroffer from the White House tomorrow. Can you confirm this is the deadline? Is there a deadline for tomorrow to make a counteroffer?
MS. PSAKI: We do expect — we had constructive conversations at a staff level on Tuesday on the Hill with Senator Capito, other ranking members — with Steve Ricchetti and Louisa Terrell, Secretary Buttigieg, Secretary Raimondo. And we expect those conversations to continue tomorrow.
Q Okay. And then on another piece of legislation on the Hill that I know is a priority of yours: the Endless Frontier Act. Obviously, you guys care a lot about —
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q — semiconductors. It seems like the negotiations have hit a couple hiccups, which, you know, is kind of normal. But at what point is the White House getting involved in smoothing this over? Because I know, you know, this was supposed to go on a faster track than your infrastructure proposal. Are you guys involved at all through your Leg. Affairs team? Or do you leave this all to Senator Schumer and —
MS. PSAKI: We’re absolutely involved. We’re strong supporters of the Endless Frontiers Act, as was evidenced by the statement of administration policy we put out earlier this week. And we are hopeful and looking forward to signing it into law.
Q And are you behind the scenes pushing to resolve the hiccups that are currently holding up the bill?
MS. PSAKI: Our legislative team is closely involved with members and with their staff on moving it forward.
Q And then one last one, also on infrastructure: if you can lay out what the White House and the President himself is doing to urge congressional Democrats to support his proposed tax increase — increases.
MS. PSAKI: What — to pre- — I’m sorry, say that one more time.
Q What the President — what the President and your Leg. Affairs team is — how that outreach — what type of outreach you’re doing with Hill Democrats on the proposed tax increases.
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would say the vast majority of Hill Democrats support raising taxes on the highest income and also on corporations, as do the vast majority of Americans. So I would flip that question around.
And really, the question we’re posing out there is: If you don’t want to pay for these proposals, these historic investments in infrastructure, these investments in ensuring that we are making our workforce more competitive and rebuilding roads, rails, and bridges around the country, investing in broadband — if you don’t want to do it by raising taxes on the top 1 percent — going back to the tax rates of President George W. Bush — raising them on corporations, many of whom never — didn’t pay any taxes in the last few years, what’s your alternative?
That’s really the question we’re asking. Most people in the country and in the — in the Democratic Caucus support raising taxes on the highest income and on corporations.
Q Thanks, Jen. On infrastructure, given that there were staff-level talks earlier in the week: Can you say whether — just give us an idea if the ball has been moved forward — has there been any, you know, movement on maybe the payfors?
You just, you know, talked about the importance of the President’s proposal and asking Republicans to submit their own. Did they do that? Is there — I mean, was — how constructive was this and how much did the ball move from where it had been prior to Tuesday?
MS. PSAKI: I wish there was a daily ball-moving monitor. You guys would probably love that too. Doesn’t always work that way, as you know, with these negotiations and discussions with members and their staff.
Our team felt they were constructive conversations. There obviously needed — needs to be follow-up, as we fully expected, because negotiations and compromise require many, many conversations, sometimes back-and-forth proposals.
We expect those to continue tomorrow — those discussions — and we’re looking forward to that. But I’m not going to be evaluating, kind of, the — the percentage of progress after each meeting.
Q Do you expect the talks with Republicans to continue beyond tomorrow? There are some Democrats on the Hill —
MS. PSAKI: We’ll see.
Q — talking about — talking about that it’s time to just move on.
MS. PSAKI: Look, the President’s view and the view of senior members of this administration is that he was elected — the American people expect him to work with members of both parties — to attempt to work with members of both parties to get business done on their behalf. And he’s doing exactly that.
So we’re looking forward to constructive conversations tomorrow. We’ll have to evaluate how those go and what the next step is. But I’m not going to get ahead of the conversations tomorrow.
Q Can I just ask you one on the 1/6 commission and the — you know, that hangs in the —
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q — in the balance in the Senate? You said just a few minutes ago that this is a matter of preserving our democracy. If it’s that important, is this an issue where the President is going to be lobbying members — picking up the phone, calling Republicans, and perhaps speaking to the country, you know, using the bully pulpit to push lawmakers on this? Or is he going to sort of save — save those calls for — for other issues?
MS. PSAKI: Well, he’s made clear what his view is on the mark on our democracy that was January 6th. And he’s conveyed that clearly, publicly, on numerous occasions. I don’t think there’s any secret about where he stands on the commission.
We also put out a statement on the administration policy on this as well just a couple of days ago. And certainly, as he’s having discussions with members, if appropriate, he raises a number of issues. But I think it was important for us to convey where we stand, in our view — that this is an issue, a commission that shouldn’t be viewed through a partisan lens. And I don’t — we don’t think the American people view it that way either.
Q Jen, thanks. The Texas governor yesterday signed a abortion law that bans the procedure at six weeks.
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q What specifically is the White House looking to do? Like what specific steps will the White House take to try and protect abortion access?
MS. PSAKI: Well, first, as you noted — but for others who haven’t followed this as closely — this is the most restrictive measure yet in the nation and the most restrictive recent assault on women’s fundamental rights under Roe v. Wade. And critical rights continue to come under withering and extreme attack around the country.
The President and Vice President are devoted to ensuring that every American has access to healthcare. Now more than ever, he continues to support the robust agenda he put forward during the campaign to protect women’s fundamental rights, including by codifying Roe v. Wade.
Obviously, there are some actions that will be through legal processes and through the courts. Those are decisions for the Department of Justice and others to make, but certainly the President supports and believes we should codify Roe v. Wade. And that is his view, regardless of these backward-looking steps that are being taken as states — by states in the country.
Q And, Jen, both Pfizer and Moderna CEOs are saying COVID boosters, you know, could be needed as early as September. How is the administration preparing for that in terms of contracts with companies? What would that mean for efforts to send shots overseas?
MS. PSAKI: Sure. Well, first, we would wait for the FDA to certainly make that official recommendation to the American public. I will say that when we purchased such a large quantity of supply and doses, we were also factoring in a range of contingencies, and that includes that potential.
We don’t know if that will be what the FDA concludes, but we planned for that. And in addition to the supply that we’ve already ordered, we’re going to be focused on continuing to work with manufacturers to increase supply global- — globally, of course, through our own manufacturing facilities. And we’ll continue to build from the supply we’ve already ordered.
Q And one more really quickly: Last week, 25 members of Congress sent the President a letter asking him to appoint a special envoy in Northern Ireland. Wondering if he has any plans to do that and, if so, what the timing will be?
MS. PSAKI: We did see that letter. Certainly, that decision and pol- — recommendation are probably made by the State Department, in terms of what is needed on the ground. So I don’t have any personnel announcements to convey or a timeline for that.
Q Thanks. Will President Biden press President Moon to join the Indo-Pacific Quad? And if South Korea is not a part of the Quad, does that kind of leave a big hole in your hopes of containing China?
MS. PSAKI: Well, the Quad has four members, so — not to be too mathematical about it, but I would say that — that already exist — I would say that South Korea is an incredibly important partner to the United States. Hence, the President is having one of his first bilats in person with the President of South Korea, and I think that sends a clear message.
Now, in terms of working with South Korea to address regional security issues or strategic issues in the region, certainly, there will be an opportunity to talk about that. We expect that North Korea will be a central topic of the discussion, of course, tomorrow.
But they also will discuss climate. They will also discuss economic partnership. They will also discuss China. And those will all be a part of this bilateral conversation and meeting tomorrow.
Q But in terms of like a full-fledged membership — I know you’d have to rename it — is that going to come up? Is that — is the President going to push for that?
MS. PSAKI: Look, I think that South Koreans may bring up a range of issues, of course, but I’m just framing for you what we expect the focus of the discussions to be about. And I would also convey that there are a range of forums and formats through the international, you know, community, where the U.S. works with a range of countries where we work with — we may work with, of course, Japan and South Korea on a range of issues that — there’s been a history of that through trilateral cooperation, as you know.
There are a range of international organizations that we are part of and South Korea is also a part of. So I don’t have anything to predict or anticipate in terms of a change in membership of the Quad, but I would just note that the fact that they are here tomorrow, that it’s a full bilateral program, makes clear the importance of that strategic relationship.
Q And has President Biden ruled out the possibility of a face-to-face meeting with Kim Jong Un of the North? I mean, is that even a possibility?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t expect that to be top on his agenda.
Q And just one quick one on taxes. Do you have any fears that the new IRS enforcement plan might create some political blowback, some wariness in the public — just the idea “Oh, the taxman’s coming, I might face an audit.” What should people know about that?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think, one, it’s one of the reasons that we want to be absolutely clear that what additional enforcement from the IRS would be focused on are people who are not paying their fair share; that is not hardworking middle-class Americans who are, you know, working hard, paying taxes, putting food on the table.
There are a range of other entities that are less likely to pay their fair share of taxes. So we will be, you know — continue to be absolutely clear about that: Lower-middle-class Americans are, for the most part, across the board, compliant with their tax obligations.
But there are cases where corporations are not paying their fair share, and they’re able to play by their own rules — paying half or less than what they owe. And, you know, that’s really what the focus is.
Go ahead, in the back.
Q Thank you, Jen. On taxes, again: The President has called on the wealthy to pay their fair share. I’m wondering if the President would like to see reforms to the way the S corporations are treated, given that the Obama administration said that those corporate structures could sometimes be used as loopholes, and yet President Biden, between 2017 and 2020, used an S corporation, according to his tax returns and reporting in Bloomberg, to avoid paying nearly $500,000 in self-employment taxes.
MS. PSAKI: Well, I will say first that he received no income from CelticCapri in 2020, which is the S corp. And it’s dormant, and it will not be engaging in any bus- — business, other than to receive potential royalties, which would relate to books he has already written.
And, of course, as you know, you only know about this because the President released his tax returns, which has long been history — historic precedent, even if it wasn’t over the last several years.
In terms of additional tax reform proposals, I don’t have any to announce for you today. I would note that the President paid a higher rate than most high-income individuals and most corporations around the country.
Q Alright. And then another one with regards to the — the question of what’s happening currently in the Middle East. I know that you touched on, you know, the Iran nuclear deal. But, you know, there was reporting earlier that the leader of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard said that the rocket attacks from Palestine hitting Israel was a sign of, quote, “a new Palestine.”
I’m wondering if that type of rhetoric coming out of Iran has any effect on the President’s eagerness to rejoin the treaty — the Iran nuclear agreement — and, sort of, if there is any interplay between those two spheres.
MS. PSAKI: I think it’s important to be very clear: Iran is — they’re bad actors, and they’re bad actors in the region. And we’re — that is very clear. That is our position.
However, we believe — the President believes that it is in the best interests of the United States and in the best interest of countries in the region to have more visibility into Iran’s nuclear capabilities and to prevent them from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
Q Can I ask you one more on the Colonial Pipeline?
MS. PSAKI: Yes.
Q Has the President been briefed on any intelligence suggesting that the DarkSide hacking group, which claimed responsibility, operates under the indirect supervision of any Russian intelligence services? Is there any relationship that we have seen?
MS. PSAKI: I think the President was clear last week in what the intelligence assessment is about the Russian government’s involvement or knowledge of the hacking.
At the same time, they are a criminal entity that is on Russian soil, and therefore they have a responsibility.
Q Thank you, Jen.
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q Hi. I just wanted to go back to Israel really quick. So, yesterday, Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez accused Israel of using American weapons to target media outlets, schools, hospitals, other sites. The other day, Congresswoman Omar called the Israeli Prime Minister an ethnonationalist. I know you’ve talked about the White House’s message to Democrats, but does the President specifically denounce these comments?
MS. PSAKI: I think we have a responsibility here to speak about this as it — as it — as the issue that it is, which is a conflict that is killing people in a region and — and our efforts to bring that to an end.
The President doesn’t see this through the prism of domestic politics. He sees this through the prism of what role the United States can play as a leader in the global community, to — to engage in quiet, intensive diplomacy to bring an end to the suffering and the tragedy on the ground.
Q And just to follow up on that: So, of course, this isn’t just a domestic issue, but there is infighting between Democrats, and one of President Biden’s big messages is unity. So, what is being done to unify his own party on this issue? And how is this infighting not hurting that message of unity?
MS. PSAKI: Well, here’s where there is agreement: We all want to see an end to the conflict on the ground. We all want to see an end to the suffering for Palestinian people, for the Israeli people. There’s a disagreement on tactics, there’s a disagreement on some aspects of how we engage, but we all agree that we want to end the suffering, and that is certainly a unifying message.
Go ahead, in the back.
Q Thanks, Jen. I want to pick up on a couple of things that my colleagues have asked on infrastructure and taxes.
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q First, though, on infrastructure: Has any progress been made? I know you say that the conversations have been constructive, the talks are going to keep on going, but has any progress been made through the lens of the White House?
MS. PSAKI: Well, here’s what’s progress: We have Democrats and Republicans, the ranking members of a range of important committees in the Senate having discussions with members of our senior White House team — a Democratic administration — about the agree- — an agreement that we need to invest in our nation’s infrastructure.
Are we on the same page on every component of how it should be paid for or on the numbers? No. Do we know it will have a successful outcome? No. We don’t know that yet because this is democracy in action. This is compromise. This is negotiations. And it looks foreign because we haven’t seen this in some time, but it’s ongoing.
So we’re not going to give a day-by-day grade. It’s not particularly constructive to do that.
Q What’s the bigger challenge at this point: the topline figure or the payfor?
MS. PSAKI: The topline figure or the payfor?
Q Yeah. What’s a bigger — what’s a bigger lift at this point, from your —
MS. PSAKI: Look, I think — I’m not going to rank order them, but I will say that it’s not been a secret that — that the largest area of disagreement is payfors. And obviously, if you have a higher topline number, you need more payfors. It doesn’t require a mathematician for that.
Q And then, on taxes, the — with the guidelines of the Treasury Department put out today as it relates to the IRS.
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q What is the argument that you would make that the inflows and outflows of someone’s account should be monitored by the IRS? And since the — since the Treasury Department says this — those who make under $400,000 aren’t going to be audited any more than they have been in the past, essentially, are you creating a two-tier audit system: those who make more than $400,000 and those who make less?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would say that lower- and middle-income Americans who are working hard, making — getting their paychecks, are not typically the issue at hand here. And what the tax compliance report conveyed today is that — or confirmed today, I should say — is that it’s past time to reform our broken tax system. That teachers, firefighters, nurser- — nurses and other hardworking Americans — they report their income, they pay required taxes. Wealthiest Americans and corporations — because they often operate under different tax systems — it already is a system that is living in two Americas — they are able to pay lower tax rates.
That’s not fair. That’s basically what the President is conveying.
Q I guess, what would you say to the person who does well, pays their taxes, and just doesn’t want the government seeing the outflows and inflows they pay by the book, and they say, “Hey I don’t — I don’t think this is right”?
MS. PSAKI: Well, again, I think what our focus is on here is ensuring that any American pays the taxes that they are owed. And if they’re paying the taxes that they are owed, then they have little to worry about.
But there’s no question that, given that for the last 10 years the IRS has been repeatedly underfunded — it currently has 20,000 fewer staff, including fewer enforcement staff than it did a decade ago — that proposals like the President’s proposal to increase — a 10 percent increase in funding for the IRS that would largely be used to strengthen enforcement on wealthy and corporate tax filers and help ensure those at the top pay their fair share is certainly something that I think the vast majority of Americans would feel is fair and effective.
Q Thank you, Jen. I’m going to bring it back to the Middle East. Two questions.
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q The U.N. Chief just said, and I’m quoting here, “If there is Hell on Earth, it is the life of [Palestinian] children in Gaza.” So far, 65 children have been killed, 40 women — in total, 230 civilians. Fifty thousand people have been displaced.
Since this administration put human rights protection as a forefront of your foreign policy, why can’t you do more to protect the life of Palestinian children and exert more pressure on one of your closest allies, which is Israel, to avoid killing children?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would say that what our effort has been focused on, Nadia, is conveying, behind the scenes, that certainly while Israel has a right to defend itself, that it is time now to bring an end to this conflict, that there has been too much suffering, too much tragedy. Every life lost, every one of these children who has lost their life, every family that has had to mourn the life of a loved one is — is certainly too many.
We have certainly had a shift in our approach, as it relates to our engagement with the Palestinians from the last administration, including the fact that the — the consulate was closed. They had ended assistance to UNRWA during the last administration, and they did not have that open line of communication, engagement. They’d also ended humanitarian assistance and security assistance to the Palestinians, which we have resumed.
So we have certainly taken a different approach. And we believe our — our role here can be playing a role behind the scenes, conveying that it’s time to bring an end to the conflict.
Q And, on Iran, talks from Vienna is indicating that, by next round, Iran might come into compliance and the U.S. might lift the sanction. Do you consider that June 18th, which is the day of the Iranian election and is the end of Iran commitment to the IAEA, as the deadline for the White House to try to achieve something?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I’m not going to set new deadlines today; I’m sure that won’t surprise you. There are certainly political factors that are factors for — for countries like Iran, that are key parties in these discussions and negotiations.
Our, of course, goal is to mutually return to compliance with the JCPOA, and we would be prepared to lift the sanctions necessary for our JCPOA compliance only if Iran were prepared to return its nuclear program to its JCPOA status. We will see where we get, but that is our bottom line.
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