Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jen Psaki, July 23, 2021
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:14 P.M. EDT
MS. PSAKI: Hi everyone. Happy Friday. Okay, a couple of notes for you at the top.
Today, the Biden-Harris administration took additional steps to provide stability and relief to homeowners who are still feeling the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
HUD, USDA, and the VA announced details to help people with government-backed mortgages stay in their homes through monthly payment reductions and potential loan modifications.
Homeowners could see reductions in their monthly payments of roughly 20 to 25 percent, allowing them to remain in their homes and build long-term equity.
We’re working hard to get the word out to Americans who may benefit from these new programs. And thanks to the work of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and today’s actions, most servicers of mortgages are required to provide borrowers information about these options.
Homeowners can visit ConsumerFinance.gov/Housing for up-to-date information and more details.
Also would note, on our delegation in Haiti, the presidential delegation is safe and accounted for in light of the reported shootings outside of the funeral. They’re on their way back to the United States.
We are deeply concerned about unrest in Haiti. In this critical moment, Haiti’s leaders must come together to chart a united path that reflects the will of the Haitian people.
We remain committed to supporting the people of Haiti in this challenging time.
Also, a vaccine-sharing update for you: We shipped a record number of doses to a record number of countries this week. Twenty-two million doses went out to 23 countries, including Guatemala, Senegal, Zambia, Niger, Gambia, El Salvador, Honduras, the Central African Republic, Cameroon, Lesotho, Panama, Vietnam, Georgia, Pakistan, Tanzania, Mozambique, Benin, Morocco, Tajikistan, Colombia, Madagascar, Liberia, and Eswatini.
Our teams across the government are working to get more and more doses out every day, but this was a record week for our efforts to provide supply to the global community.
Finally, week ahead: On Monday, the President will host an event in the Rose Garden to celebrate the 31st anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which the President proudly cosponsored as a senator. While we have much work to do to realize the full aspiration of the ADA, our country has made progress toward its goals of equality of opportunity, full participation, self-sufficiency, and respect for the 61 million Americans with disabilities.
Also Monday, the President will welcome Prime Min- — the Prime Minister of Iraq to the White House. The Prime Minister’s visit will highlight the strategic partnership between the United States and Iraq, and advance bilateral cooperation under a Strategic — the Strategic Framework Agreement.
The visit will also focus on key areas of shared interest, including through education, health, cultural, economic, energy, and climate initiatives. President Biden looks forward to strengthening bilateral cooperation with Iraq on political, economic, and security issues, including joint efforts to ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS.
On Wednesday, the President will travel to Pennsylvania and Lehigh Valley — in the Lehigh Valley area, where he will emphasize the importance of American manufacturing, buying products made in America, and supporting good-paying jobs for American workers.
We’ll have more details for you over the weekend as things get finalized.
Josh, why don’t you kick us off.
Q Thanks, Jen. Two subject areas. First, an AP-NORC survey found that 45 percent of the unvaccinated say they would definitely not get vaccinated. Another 35 percent say they probably won’t get vaccinated. Why does this opposition still exist after all the public outreach? And should more governments and employers mandate vaccinations?
MS. PSAKI: Well, Josh, I think — let’s take a step back first. In December, before the President took office, the percentage of Americans willing to get a shot was in the 30s. Today, over 68 percent of adult Americans have taken a shot.
So, what that shows you is that, in a relatively short period of time, we’ve been able to influence a whole lot of people to change their minds, taken ac- — take action, get a shot, save their lives and the lives of people around them.
I’d also note that we’ve seen some encouraging data over the last couple of weeks. The five states with the highest case rates — Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Missouri, and Nevada — had a higher rate of people getting newly vaccinated compared to the national average. That is a good sign. This is the second week in a row — I noted this last week.
And finally, in the past 10 days, more than 5.2 million Americans have gotten a shot.
Now, there will be institutions, there will be private-sector companies, and others who make decisions about how to keep their communities safe. That’s certainly appropriate, but I would just note that we’re going to continue our efforts to go community by community, case by case to convey the accurate information about the efficacy of vaccines.
Q Gotcha. Secondly, the Taliban has said that, as a condition for peace in Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani has to be removed as President and a new negotiated government formed. Does the administration believe that that’s in the best interest of the Afghan people and U.S. national security?
MS. PSAKI: Well, first, the President and the administration supports the leadership of the Afghan people, including Ashraf Ghani. The President was scheduled to speak with him today, I believe, and I don’t believe there’s a readout that’s come out about that call quite yet. It may while we’re speaking here.
I would note that there are ongoing political negotiations and discussions that we certainly support between Afghan leaders, members of the Afghan government, and the Taliban. And we believe a political solution is the only outcome to lasting peace in Afghanistan, but we will continue to provide support to the government in the form of humanitarian support, security support, training. And we’ll also continue to encourage them to take a leading role in defending and protecting their own people.
Q Thanks, Jen. Alabama’s Republican governor says it is “time to start blaming the unvaccinated folks” who “are letting us down.” What do you think about that take? Should the administration be taking a sharper tone against unvaccinated people for putting vaccinated people at risk?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I don’t think our role is to place blame, but what we can do is provide accurate information to people who are not yet vaccinated about the risks they are incurring not only among — on themselves, but also the people around them.
And while, if you are a young person, you may think you’re Superman or Superwoman and immune from the — from getting the virus, that is not true. That is not accurate. You can get very sick. You can die from the virus. You can also make your grandparents sick and your parents sick. That is factual information.
We’re not — but we’re not here to place blame or threats; we’re here to provide accurate information.
Q She says that she doesn’t know what else she can do at this point, that she’s hit a brick wall with trying to convince people to get vaccinated. Is that a sign that perhaps the federal government should step in and issue mandates? And if not, are you putting the needs of unvaccinated people ahead of the needs of vaccinated people?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think the question here — one, that’s not the role of the federal government; that is the role that institutions, private-sector entities, and others may take. That certainly is appropriate. Also, local communities are going to take steps they need to take in order to protect people in their communities.
I will say: We understand her frustration, and we understand the frustration of leaders out there and public voices who are trying to say the right thing, advocate for the efficacy of the virus, save people in their communities.
What our role is and what we are going to continue to do is make the vaccine available. We’re going to continue to work in partnership to fight misinformation. And we’re going to continue to advocate and work in partnership with local officials and — and trusted voices to get the word out.
Q And is there something to be learned from our neighbors to the north — Canada? They got a much slower start. They didn’t have nearly as many vaccines as we did early on. And yet, now they’ve shot past us, and 70 percent of their population is at least partially vaccinated. What’s the difference between the two countries? What can we learn from their experience?
MS. PSAKI: Well, first, I would say 162 million Americans are now vaccinated. That certainly is a positive step. We’re the first to say and we have long said that that’s not enough. We need to ensure more people and more communities are vaccinated. And it is now — we reached a point where there are some communities, even states, where there are 70 percent, 80 percent, or higher vaccination rates.
Other communities where there’s 40 percent, 50 percent, or otherwise, that’s not just a health issue — it’s a huge health issue — it’s an economic issue. We’ve seen how that can impact local communities, as it may lead to shutdowns of different businesses. That can have — it’s an economic issue as well.
So, of course, we work in close partnership with our neighbors, but we have 162 million Americans vaccinated. We’re the world’s largest provider of vaccines to the global community. That’s progress, in our view, even as we’ve said from the beginning there’s more work to be done.
Q Thank you. About the economics of COVID that you just mentioned: Now that daily doses administered of the vaccine are down below 300,000 for the first time since December, we’ve heard talk about maybe updating the mask guidance. Do you know if there’s been any talk here about updating guidance to start shutting businesses down in places that have very low vaccination rates?
MS. PSAKI: No. There has not been, no.
Q Okay. And then on crime, generally —
MS. PSAKI: Can I note, though, two things —
MS. PSAKI: — just for your public information purposes? One is that, while we have seen — while we don’t look at one week of data as an indication of — as you know, we talk about weekly averages — we did see larger numbers of unemployment claims in areas where there are lower vaccination rates. We — it’s not enough data to draw a conclusion; I’m just noting it for all of you.
I would also note that, on the American Rescue Plan, the way we designed that is for the impact and the assistance that we’re providing to communities across the country to be long-lasting — not to stop all in July or all in September. It extends far beyond. It was — that is a lesson learned from the past. And so, there are different components of that package that’s providing assistance to businesses, to organizations, to communities that is going to be lasting for months to come.
MS. PSAKI: Proceed.
Q And then, on crime: The intersection in D.C. that was shot up last night, only about a mile and a half from here, President Biden had lunch in that neighborhood this summer. What is your message to innocent people who live in cities like this one who might start to get worried about getting caught in the crossfire?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I — the message is that the cornerstone of the President’s comprehensive plan to reduce gun violence is providing communities with the tools and resources they need to reduce gun crime, including in Washington, D.C.
And there are a couple of steps specific to Washington D.C. I mean, a lot of us live there or live in the neighboring communities, or know people who are on 14th street or in the neighboring areas. And for people who are not — who are watching or hearing this who are not from those neighborhoods, there’s a lot of restaurants there, a lot of foot traffic. This is a pretty popular part of — of the city many of us live in.
It’s one of — D.C. is one of the five areas nationwide where DOJ launched gun trafficking strike forces just yesterday, which are going to for- — focus law enforcement resources across jurisdictions to keep guns out of the hands of criminals.
D.C. is also a part of our 16 City Community Violence Intervention Collaborative, which is helping cities implement evidence-based strategies and which have been shown to reduce violence by as much as 60 percent.
And Washington D.C. is also taking advantage of the historic funding that they’ve gotten through the Rescue Plan to bolster public safety. So, Mayor Bowser’s budget proposal would invest $59 million from the Rescue Plan to reduce violent crime. It would add 100 new slots to the cadet program and add $14 million for youth safety initiatives.
So we’re certainly seeing this and feeling this, even in our community here, and it is one of the cities that DOJ is focused on.
Q And you just mentioned the White House is working with D.C. as part of this collaborative. But just in the last week and a half or so since the mayor of D.C. was here, a six-year-old girl was shot and killed, a Nationals game had to be evacuated, and then there’s this incident last night where diners are diving for cover. So, at what point would the President maybe reconsider his strategy?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would say we’re just implementing our strategy, which is a multi-pronged effort to work in partnership with local leaders — including Mayor Bowser, who has been a great partner to us in this effort — to address gun violence that’s rising in cities across the country, including Washington. And the events of the last week are just examples of that.
Q Thanks, Jen. Secretary Yellen just said, before you came to the podium, that the Treasury Department will need to take extraordinary measures if the debt limit isn’t raised by August. And she indicated those could run out shortly after lawmakers return, possibly as soon as October. So, does the White House — are you guys setting a deadline? Before recess, do you want to see that debt limit raised? And what is the White House doing to urge lawmakers to address the debt limit?
MS. PSAKI: This is like the Olympics for Bloomberg, these days. (Laughter.) So, I would say —
Q And Reuters.
MS. PSAKI: And Reuters, sorry. And other financial outlets in the room.
Let me give you just a little bit of context, for those of you who have not seen the letter that just went from Secretary Yellen to the Hill.
So, this is a letter that’s standard practice for Treasury Secretaries when a debt limit is going to be reimposed, which there’s a timeline coming up at the end of this month. That is diff- — I’m not saying you’re suggesting this — that is different from defaulting, which has never happened in the history of the United States and would clearly be a catastrophic event. But it is a timeline for the debt limit to be — to be raised or extended.
So, during the previous two administrations, the Treasury Secretary sent nearly 50 letters to the Hill on the debt limit, some of which were very similar in wording and asks and updates to this letter. And raising or suspending the debt limit does not authorize new spending commitments; it simply enables the government to pay for obligations that Congresses and Presidents of both parties have already approved.
And Congress — finally the last piece of history — has raised or suspended the debt limit approximately 80 times, which has happened under both Republican and Democratic Presidents — I will say, just for historical fact, more often under Republican Presidents.
But it has happened under both, and it has been supported in a bipartisan way. So, we expect Congress to act promptly to raise or suspend the debt limit and protect the full faith and credit of the United States.
Now, it is not — I gave you all the context because it is not out of the ordinary, even though they’re called “extraordinary measures,” for Treasury Secretaries to present to Capitol Hill steps that they are going to take, even as this is being litigated on Capitol Hill. That was the — this is what — that was what this update was to provide.
In that letter, she also noted that the period of time that extraordinary measures may last is subject to considerable uncertainty due to a variety of factors, which are exacerbated this year by uncertainty related to the pandemic and calculations about inflows and outflows.
So, the October timeline that she — was referenced in there — or the October 1st date, I should say, was referenced — was because there’s a very large reduction in the cash balance on October 1st — or we’re projecting that — due to outflows on that day to meet our obligations to the Department of Defense.
So, she was giving a sense of what the timeline looks like, while not — while also conveying that we can’t give a sense, at this point, on the length of time for extraordinary measures. We certainly expect Congress to act in a bipartisan manner, as they did three times under the prior administration, to raise the debt limit.
Q But given that uncertainty, is the White House communicating to congressional leaders that you’d like to see this debt limit extended before the recess for August?
MS. PSAKI: I’m not here to set a new deadline. I’m conveying to you the history and conveying to you that we think it’s clear Congress should act in a bipartisan manner to raise the debt limit as they have in the past.
Q And then just one more on the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework. Is the White House getting involved in this dispute between Democrats and Republicans over transit funding? And are you recommending any solutions as to how that should be resolved? Are you backing Democrats who say it should remain with the 80/20 highway transit split?
MS. PSAKI: Oh, transit funding is obviously extremely important to the President — the “Amtrak President,” as we may call him. And — but we believe that — that members can get this work done and can work through these issues quite quickly.
And as you know, the issue is about the balance of funding and how it would be allocated between different forms of infrastructure. But we’re encouraged by their progress, they’re having conversations, and we believe they can work through any disagreement.
I’m just going to go to the back because I’m — I’m not always good at that.
Mike Memoli, do you have a question today?
Q Yes, Jen. Thank you.
MS. PSAKI: Okay.
Q We’ve talked a lot with — (laughter) —
MS. PSAKI: You didn’t raise your hand, but usually have a question.
Q I often do. We’ve talked about —
MS. PSAKI: I’ll go to the back, back too. (Laughter.)
Q Now everyone is into it. We’ve talked a lot about this, this week — the protocols that are in place at the White House —
MS. PSAKI: Yep.
Q — to ensure the President’s safety in — with COVID-19. But we’ve seen over the last few weeks the President has been traveling the country quite a bit. He’s been engaging in more uncontrolled environments. He went to an ice cream stop. He was on a rope line for almost an hour in Philly last week. He’s doing a campaign event today. And we —
MS. PSAKI: Best hour he’s spent probably in probably a while.
Q Given — I remember well how COVID changed the way he would campaign —
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q — last year, what — to what extent is the rise in cases that we’re seeing in this country leading any discussions behind the scenes about whether the President would continue to engage in this kind of activity in public settings where you can’t control for people’s vaccinations?
MS. PSAKI: Sure. Well, first, we’re always going to abide by public health guidelines. And right now, the public health guidelines continue to be that if you’re vaccinated — and we expect them to continue to be — if you’re vaccinated, you’re very much protected from severe illness from the virus.
And the President will continue to be a model in following those guidelines and also engaging with the public in a manner that, one, is his role as President of the United States and is certainly aligned with and appropriate according to those guidelines.
As you all know, he has an event later this evening with Governor — future governor, maybe — former Governor Terry McAuliffe in Virginia, where he will be certainly engaging with people and — with people of Virginia who are making decisions about their future leadership. But I expect he’ll be engaging as he did at events last week.
So, nothing has changed about our approach or protocols over the past week or how you’ve seen him engage at the ice cream shop or at larger crowd events we’ve had.
Q And then a question about infrastructure. With some key votes coming up, obviously, next week, again, we’ve seen the President not necessarily engaging in the kind of meetings at the White House with lawmakers on this specific set of proposals in the way we have earlier on in the process. He’s been meeting more with outside stakeholders. It seems like there’s an outside-in pressure campaign. But can you give us an update on what his specific conversations might be with lawmakers involved in this process? We haven’t really heard much about that.
MS. PSAKI: He has had a range of conversations with lawmakers over the phone. And he’s always conveyed to his team that if it would be helpful to bring members down here, as he has continued to do, he’s always happy to do that. The door to the Oval Office is always open. And he is available and will be through the course of the weekend, but also through the coming pivotal weeks as we work to get the infrastructure package across the finish line in the Senate and also the reconciliation bill moving forward.
Okay, we’re going to go all the way to the very back. Todd Gillman, I see you somewhere there.
Q Thank you, Jen. So, the Texas Democrats who broke quorum from the legislature have — they’re about halfway through their one-month quorum break. They’ve been trying really hard to get into a meeting, even if it’s a Zoom meeting, with the President. Is he going to meet with them? Is he specifically not meeting with them because of fears that they are spreading COVID?
MS. PSAKI: No, he — the Vice President, who is leading our voting rights effort and our voting rights movement we’re building across the country, met with these lawmakers last week, as you all know. And the President is very proud of their activism, their vocal support and advocacy for voting rights, but I don’t have any meetings scheduled for him.
Q And in a kind of similar vein regarding COVID: Will the First Lady be quarantined away from the President when she gets back from Japan?
MS. PSAKI: The First Lady will ca- — follow all public health guidelines. I don’t believe that’s part of the protocols.
All right, let’s go — let’s see — to the middle here. I’m just jumping around today because, you know, trying better.
Q Thanks, Jen. Does the White House have a reaction to Mississippi’s decision ask the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade?
MS. PSAKI: Well, certainly, we are prominent sup- — or we are supporters — the President is a supporter of preserving Roe v. Wade. That is our position. In terms of a legisla- — or a legal reaction, I would point you to the Department of Justice.
Let’s go to you, Patsy. Go ahead.
Q Thank you, Jen. I have a question on China. China just announced sanctions —
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q — against six individuals and an entity in the U.S. in retaliation of sanctions imposed by the Biden administration on Chinese officials over Hong Kong. Do you think that this announcement will complicate or impact any plans for Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman’s visit to Tianjin? And is the administration concerned on the escalating sanctions — a potential escalating sanctions war?
MS. PSAKI: Well, first, I’m not aware of any changes to her planned trip. And certainly, we discussed not only areas where we agree, but areas where we disagree when we have engagements and diplomatic meetings.
In terms of the sanctions, we are aware, of course, of the reports that the PRC has imposed sanctions on several individuals and NGOs, including at least one official from the previous administration. We’re undeterred by these actions and we remain fully committed to implementing all relevant U.S. sanctions authorities.
These actions are the latest examples of how Beijing punishes private citizens, companies, and civil society organizations as a way to send political signals and further illustrate the PRC’s deteriorating — deteriorating investment climate and rising political risk.
These actions would follow the baseless sanctioning in March of two commissioners from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. The PRC’s January sanctions on 21 — 28 U.S. officials and their July 2020 sanctions on U.S. officials and organizations promoting democracy and human rights around the world.
Americans of both parties oppose these outrageous moves to target those who defend universal human rights and fundamental freedoms. And Beijing’s attempt to intimidate and bully internationally respected NGOs only demonstrate its further isolation from the world.
Q I do have another question on vaccine sharing.
MS. PSAKI: Let’s keep going — I’m just going to keep going around because — go ahead. Go ahead, in the back. I’m just going to keep going around so I get to more people.
Q Thanks, Jen. On vaccines.
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q You’ve been asked about the travel restrictions for international travel before —
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q — but I’m going to try something different.
MS. PSAKI: Okay.
Q Would the President drop those restrictions if airlines adopted vaccine passports or vaccine mandates? I know you’ve, you know, sort of encouraged businesses to take steps to get everyone vaccinated that they possibly can.
MS. PSAKI: I would say, first, that there are ongoing working groups that are having discussions about how to, hopefully, move forward to a point where there is international travel and is returning something we would all like to see — not just for tourism, but for families to be reunited.
There are a range of topics in those discussions that are ongoing. The President receives regular briefings on them, but we rely on public health and medical advice on when we’re going to determine changes to be made.
Q Has the President continued engaging with Chancellor Merkel on the subject? I know they talked about that at the bilateral press conference the other week.
MS. PSAKI: That was raised. He has not had another follow-up conversation with her since that point in time.
Why don’t I go to the young man next to you.
Q Thanks, Jen. You know, a lot of parents are concerned about the upcoming school year. What’s the White House doing to sort of make sure that we’re not — we’re not doing remote learning again nationwide?
MS. PSAKI: Well, our plan and our objective and our desire and commitment is to push for and ensure 100 percent of schools are open across the country. That’s also, of course, up to school districts to implement.
But from the federal government, the role we have played is by work — advocating for funding in the American Rescue Plan that can help provide funding for mitigation measures for schools so that they can invest in social distancing opportunities or repairing vents that need to improve ventilation.
We’re also — we’ve also put out public health guidance from the CDC that includes specific mitigation measures that schools can take.
And our Secretary of Education has been focused on this issue from the first day he was sworn into office — working across school districts to share best practices and ensure we can work towards returning kids to in-school learning.
Q The Delta doesn’t change that, right?
MS. PSAKI: Delta has not changed our public health guidelines, no.
Okay, let’s go back to the front, go ahead.
Q Just a quick follow-up on infrastructure. On the transit spending — we know that’s important to the President —
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q — is that a red line for him? If that is dropped from this package, would he still support it?
MS. PSAKI: I’m not setting red lines here, but we are confident that they can work through the funding issues and that — the breakdown of funding issues between Democrats and Republicans over the coming days.
Q And then one other question just on Alabama, and then I have one on Hunter Biden.
On Alabama, the big concern here — and the reason why these comments from the governor are so alarming is because of the low vaccination rates. Right? So, is there some concern from the White House? And does the administration fear that some elected leaders may just get so frustrated and accept this fact that there are just some people in this country that just may not want to get vaccinated?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I don’t — I didn’t hear those comments as accepting the fact. I heard those comments as being frustrated that — you know, it’s an effort to protect the citizens in your state and trying to figure out what steps you can take to encourage people to get vaccinated and save their lives and the lives of their loved ones.
We always knew it would be harder as more people got vaccinated. That’s the stage we’re in now. But we also believe that there is still opportunity through a range of approaches and tactics and partnerships with governors and leaders and civic leaders to get more people vaccinated. There a range of factors — you all — many of you have reported on — that are leading individuals in these five states with lower vaccination rates to get vaccinated.
Some are — is the Delta variant; and reporting, frankly; and fears of the transmissibility of the Delta variant. Some is, unfortunately, individuals are experiencing people in their communities, family members who are getting sick and getting hospitalized because of the transmissibility of the Delta variant.
I don’t think we have com- — complex data quite yet to determine what is leading to the increase in vaccination rates in some of these states, but we think that’s an encouraging sign. We know it’s frustrating. We get it. But we have to stay at it to save people’s lives.
Q And last, on Hunter Biden: You confirmed yesterday that he will be meeting with prospective buyers, but you also said that he’s not going to have any conversation related —
MS. PSAKI: Not that he’s meeting with prospective buyers — that he is attending gallery events that had been prior me- — prior planned and announced.
Q There could be prospective buyers there.
MS. PSAKI: He’s not — those discussions will be happening with the gallerist. But that is different than meeting with prospective buyers.
Q If there are prospective buyers there, you said, yesterday, that he is not going to have any conversations related to the selling of art. How can the administration guarantee that?
MS. PSAKI: The selling of his art will all happen through galler- — the gallerist, and the names and individuals will be kept confidential. We will not be aware of, neither will he be aware of.
Q Is there anything stopping anyone from directly telling, though, Hunter Biden that they’re going to purchase his art? And if they do, the American people won’t know who they are.
MS. PSAKI: He will not know, we will not know who purchases his art.
Go ahead, Jeff.
Q The President said yesterday that the 25-person COVID group is quote, “investigating every aspect of any change.” What specifically are they doing or is he looking for them to do in regards to the Delta variant? What information is he looking for them to bring back to him?
MS. PSAKI: You mean the CDC — or discussions with our public health experts?
I think what he was conveying, Jeff, is that he gets regular weekly, if not more frequent, updates from his COVID team about what is happening with the virus, the rise of certain variants, including the Delta variant, and certainly steps that they suggest we take as a result. That’s an ongoing process. That’s not new.
So, I think he’s, of course, looking for their updates and guidance on what the spread is, where we’re seeing the spread, what impacts we’re having, and any mitigation measures they recommend we take from a public health and data-driven perspective.
Q On testing specifically, does the President believe that more testing should be done? It’s fallen some 75 percent or so since November. What specifically do you think should be done or does he think should be done on testing?
MS. PSAKI: He relies on the guidance of his health and medical experts. If they are advising that that is a factor, then certainly his role would be to advocate for expanding it if — in his role as President, but that they obviously provide recommendations publicly as well.
Q And final thing here: You said it’s not your role to place blame, but a President has a remarkable ability to use the bully pulpit, pick up the telephone. It happens all the time with — with corporations and things. What is he doing specifically with celebrities, perhaps, or with business leaders — like we saw the NFL this week — to use his power of the office to try and get some companies or groups to do mandates or make changes? Is he doing anything himself — reaching out like this?
MS. PSAKI: You mean, aside from getting —
Q Aside from public speeches.
MS. PSAKI: — aside from getting enough vaccine to —
MS. PSAKI: — make sure every American is vaccinated; and donating more to the world than any other country; and ensuring we’re expanding accessibility to pharmacies, to community groups; and giving $3 billion to empower local voices to get into local communities to get people vaccinated? I’d say that’s a fair amount that he’s done.
Q But you said, several times, that it’s not the role of the government to, essentially, you know, talk to private corporations. But a President talks to corporations and leaders all the time, certainly during the Rescue Plan, when he was Vice President. It happened all the time — talking to private corporations.
If a corner is to be turned here on the hesitancy, is there anything that he believes that he personally can do among some different leaders — not giving a public speech, but that he can do?
MS. PSAKI: Well, first, I think, I referenced the $3 billion because the most powerful and impactful role we’ve seen across the country, from community to community, is engaging, educating, and empowering those trusted local voices.
We know the President, the Vice President, Olivia Rodrigo, who we’re very grateful to, and others have been out there advocating for the efficacy of the vaccine, and we’re hopeful that’s effective. And it can be. And he’ll continue to do that, and we’ll continue to look to partner with more voices and more creative, you know, well-known individuals to elevate the issue of vaccine — of the effectiveness of the vaccine.
But we’ve seen that’s — that, actually, local voices — people you may not know, who may not have a Twitter following — are actually the most powerful people in this fight, and we’ll continue to empower and fund those efforts.
Go ahead. Oh, Jeff, go ahead. And then, I’ll go to Karen.
Q Thank you, Jen. Pfizer says the U.S. government is purchasing another 200 million doses of its vaccine —
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
Q — for children and for potential booster shots. Can you confirm the purchase? And can you say whether the thinking about the need for booster shots is crystallized within the administration?
MS. PSAKI: First, HHS has all the specifics, but, yes, we have made that purchase. Here’s the bottom line: We’ve always prepared for every scenario. The federal government is exercising an option in its contract with Pfizer to purchase these 200 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine to be delivered between the fall of 2021 and the spring of 2022 to prepare for future vaccination needs, including — as you referenced, Jeff — vaccines for children under 12 and possible booster shots, if studies show they are necessary.
I will note, I have said from the podium many times that we were like Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, and we were going to prepare for every contingency. That’s the job of the federal government — right? — to ensure we have maximum flexibility.
We don’t know if we’ll need a booster shot. That’s going to be up to the research that’s ongoing with the FDA. That’s not a recommendation that’s currently made.
We also don’t know — we also can’t predict what the outcome will be of research on kids under 12. We’re certainly hopeful. And we don’t know which vaccine will be most effective, but we want to have maximum flexibility, so this is an effort to provide us with that.
Q All right. And just one on infrastructure. We understand that Senate negotiators are looking at repurposing COVID relief funds for hospitals and nursing homes to pay for the — parts of the bill. Is that something the White House would support?
MS. PSAKI: Well, there’s a range of final nitty-gritty discussions between both sides, but I’m not going to give feedback on each of the discussions from here.
Okay, Asma, go ahead.
Q Karen’s turn.
Q Karen, go.
MS. PSAKI: Oh, Karen, sorry. Go ahead, Karen.
Q Thank you.
MS. PSAKI: Apologies.
Q Sort of keying off of what Jeff Zeleny was asking —
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q — the NFL is telling teams that they could potentially forfeit games for a COVID outbreak among unvaccinated players, and the players could lose their pay for any missed games. Does the administration support a policy where players — or more broadly, employees — could lose pay if they are unvaccinated and cause a COVID outbreak at their place of work?
MS. PSAKI: Well, first, I’m not going to make a sweeping private-sector conclusion here. What I will say is the NFL policy is making clear how they’re going to proceed with their season. That’s their role to do. Right?
We certainly believe the biggest takeaway is that getting vaccinated is our ticket back to normal, and that vaccines are effective and allow all of us a high degree of protection, importantly, avoid hospitalization or death. So, this provides — this is guidance they determined — the NFL — about how they’re going to proceed with their season. That is their role to do.
Q And there’s a new model out from an organization that consults with the CDC, and it’s predicting that the current surge in cases right now could continue until a peak in mid-October. The daily deaths potentially more than tripling where they are right now. What can the President do right now to prepare Americans for that possibility? He talked so much about the long winter last year. What about a potentially long fall?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think the President’s role right now is to continue to encourage people to get vaccinated because it is incredibly effective in prodect [sic] — protecting them from serious illness, from death, from hospitalization from the virus. That’s the most powerful role he can play at this point in time.
George, go ahead.
Q Hi, Jen. This morning, the Cleveland Indians announced they’re changing their name to “Guardians,” and that’s already become an issue in the Ohio Senate race. And the former President, just minutes ago, attacked it. Any reaction by the President or the White House?
MS. PSAKI: We certainly support their change of name. We may be on the other side of the President — former President — on that front, I would guess. I haven’t seen his tweet, or however he’s communicating these days.
Q Thanks, Jen. Two questions on the vaccine. First, you had mentioned yesterday that every individual at this White House has been, quote, “offered” a vaccine. So, can you clarify, is the administration not mandating vaccines for White House staff?
MS. PSAKI: No, we have not mandated.
Q Okay. And do you have a count or can you offer any confirmation to us on the percentage of employees who are vaccinated?
MS. PSAKI: I’m not going to provide that. I will see if there is more information to provide.
Q Can you offer any guidance then on how you’re confirming vaccination status of employees?
MS. PSAKI: Well, they’re vaccinated here in the White House Medical Unit, for the most part.
Go ahead. Oh, Kelly, I’m sorry. I’ll come to you next.
Q Two questions: One, this administration has long claimed that you’re trying to be the most transparent in history. If that’s the case, why won’t you just release the number of breakthrough cases that you’ve had of vaccinated staffers?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think, first, we’re in a very different place than we were six to seven months ago as it relates to the virus. And as many medical experts have said — inside and outside of the government — those who are vaccinated are protected from serious illness, most are asymptomatic — if they are individuals who are vaccinated who get the virus. And, you know, we are in a different place in terms of the impact of individuals who may have, as you said, breakthrough cases.
Q But why not just provide the number? Are you trying to hide something?
MS. PSAKI: No, but what is the — why do you need to have that information?
Q It’s a case of transparency, in the interest of the public, knowing — having a better understanding of how breakthrough cases work here in the White House.
MS. PSAKI: Well, first, there are — the CDC tracks — and let me give you this information, too: The CDC tracks, across the country, of course, hospitalizations and deaths, as we have seen. They also do a great deal of tracking in cohorts and ensure that — so, let me give you a little more information on this, which I think — I don’t know if it — hopefully, it’s of interest.
So, the way that — because people have asked this before — so, the way the CDC is actively tracking breakthrough cases — there are tens of thousands of people across the country, in course, who are in what we are — what they call “cohort studies,” which the CDC is actively monitoring.
For example, the CDC has a long-term care facility study where it is getting data from more than 14,000 long-term care facilities. CDC has a healthcare worker study where they monitor vaccinated healthcare workers who got tested — who get tested with PCR tests every single week. And CDC also collects what they call “passive surveillance,” which is where hospitals provide CDC with data when they identify someone who is hospitalized but has been vaccinated.
So there’s a range of means our public health officials are tracking, across the country, across D.C., across any individuals here about who is vaccinated, who is getting the virus, getting hospitalized — hopefully not; it remains a small percentage.
Q And following up on the questions about Hunter Biden and his art shows. Are there any specific procedures you can tell us that are being put in place to ensure that these conversations remain, as you say, not about the sales. Will he get ethics training? Will he have to report afterwards about the conversations? Anything specific you can tell us about how you are monitoring this?
MS. PSAKI: Well, again, I think it is certainly a commitment that has been made by all parties involved. He is not involved in the sale or discussions about the sale of his art. And he will not be informed of the sale — of the sale of his art and who is purchasing that art. That is a commitment that’s been made, and we expect that all parties would abide by it.
Go ahead, Kelly.
Q I wanted to ask about the CDC tracking —
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q — because — and you gave us some information just now, but —
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q — as of May 1st, they stopped tracking breakthrough cases that did not result in hospitalization or death, with the exception of those kinds of tests that you just described. Should there be a more broader net on breakthrough cases? Would the President support that to get a better picture of breakthrough?
And those White House employees, staff — EOP, on the campus in any capacity — who are not vaccinated, are they working here or are they working from home?
MS. PSAKI: Well, any individual who has chosen not to be vaccinated, same as in the press corps, the public health guidance is to wear a mask. That is the public health guidance that’s provided to employees as well.
In terms of the — it is much more expensive than hospitalizations that — that was what I was trying to convey. What the CDC does is they have these — they tra- — actively track breakthrough cases through these cohorts of individuals who are vulnerable populations, who are hi- — have high risks of exposure. And they, of course, incl- — as I noted — long-term care facilities, healthcare workers, and others who would be in those cohorts and categories.
I would also note that because the vast majority of individuals who are vaccinated who get — test positive for COVID may be asymptomatic or have moderate or minimal cases, those are cases we may not know — we may not know about, right?
Q But they’re — the CDC says, as of May 1st, they stopped tracking breakthrough cases that don’t result in hospitalizations.
MS. PSAKI: They do track through these cohorts, which is a large swath of people who would be vulnerable or on the frontlines of exposure.
Q My periodic question: It’s now past —
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q — six months. When can we expect to know about a physical exam for the President? And what are the plans for that?
MS. PSAKI: There is — absolutely he will have a physical exam. Absolutely you will know about the physical exam. I don’t have a date for you at this point in time. And I expect you will continue to ask, as you should.
Q Yeah, Jen, thank you. This is sort of a rhetorical question —
MS. PSAKI: Oh.
Q — following up on vaccinations.
MS. PSAKI: Okay.
Q It is a shame that people have to get very sick and some people have to die in order to increase the vaccination rate in many parts of this country.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
Q But isn’t that, I guess, a logical order of how this would play out? Or is there a political component to it, do you think?
MS. PSAKI: I’m not sure I’m following your question. Try again. Or tell me more about what you’re looking for.
Q Well, wouldn’t it be standard practice that people, if more people are getting sick in a certain area, that the people in that area who are unvaccinated would say, “Gee, I really need to go get vaccinated.” Isn’t that a logical order for this? Or is there a political component, do you think, that has kept people away from being vaccinated?
MS. PSAKI: Look, I think there are a range of reasons we’ve seen across the country why individuals have not yet been vaccinated. Some of it is misinformation — a large amount, in our view. Some of it is fear. Some of it is, they may feel, time. Some of it is they’re young, and they feel they’re Superman or Superwoman, and they’re not going to get sick.
That shouldn’t be; we don’t want that to be the order of events. It shouldn’t be that someone should have to know a neighbor who gets sick and hospitalized to motivate them to go to a hospital — I mean to go to get vaccinated. We don’t want that to be the case.
We have seen anecdotally and through some of your — all of your reporting that that has been the case in some communities. But certainly, our objective is to communicate to people this is not a political issue, it is not a partisan issue; this is about protecting lives. The virus does not discriminate between political party affiliation.
Q The White House noted yesterday that 40 percent of cases are coming from three states with low vaccination rates: Florida, Texas, and Missouri.
All three of those states have governors who, in recent weeks, have criticized the White House’s strategy. One of them is even fundraising off of it, as you are probably aware.
What’s being done to engage those governors, come up with a common message, common strategy to try and be one team with those governors in terms of fighting this virus?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would say, first, our public health experts work with governors from across the country and work with local health officials from across the country in all of these states, especially the ones at this point in time where there are lower vaccination rates and we’re seeing the Delta variant spread.
And this is one of the reasons we rely so much on — hold on, I’m going to sneeze. Okay, hold on. Okay, maybe it will come back. (Laughter.) This is wh- — sorry, (inaudible) —
This is why we rely on local messengers and why we rely on trusted voices. Because whether it’s the President of the United States or the governor, sometimes those aren’t the people you trust. Sometimes that is too political or partisan for people. We understand that.
That’s why we rely on and we’re funding and empowering local, trusted voices who aren’t seen through a political prism.
Q And then on the West Coast right now, we’re seeing wildfires in Oregon and Northern California.
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q What steps is the administration taking to combat the current fires and also prevent additional fires this summer?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I appreciate you asking about this because I know this has gotten a lot of attention across the country, and we just haven’t talked about it a lot. There’s so much going on.
One, the President receives regular reports on the wildfire situation; he’s quite focused on it. As I think you’re probably aware but others may not be, the National Wild- — Wildland Fire Preparedness Level is at a five, which is the highest level due to significant fire activity.
And as of today, 2.5 million acres have burned across the United States. In the past two weeks alone the number of large, uncontained fires across the United States has increased by nearly 90 percent.
So, right now, what we’re doing: One, the President is very focused on this and wants regular updates. He’s regularly met with Western governors, and I expect we’ll do that again soon.
The FEMA Administrator is visiting Idaho, Oregon, and California this week to meet with state, federal, and Tribal partners and emergency groups about worsen — the worsening wildfire situation, to coordinate response efforts and discuss how the regions are addressing climate change and ongoing resilience work.
We are also closely coordinating with officials on the frontlines to provide federal assistance as needed, including by recently approving Fire Management Assistance Grants for fire departments in Oregon, California, and Washington, which are where there’s the collective threat to homes and major communities.
And we’re also continuing to monitor the — monitor these fires from here. Again, the President receives regular updates and he’s quite focused on this.
Q On Cuba —
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q — Congresswoman Salazar says that the administration could turn the Internet back on for Cubans within minutes. I guess there’s this technology to allow high-tech balloons to float over Cuba to act as towers. What’s being done? Or can you provide an update on restoring Internet services to Cuba?
MS. PSAKI: I wish it was that easy. We are exploring a range of options. We are quite focused and interested in restoring Internet access to the people of Cuba, which we actually — which we absolutely believe, and agree, I would say, would provide information, would allow individuals to communicate. And we feel if we can get it done, that would be a great step forward and beneficial to the people of Cuba.
Q Thank you, ma’am. You mentioned at the top that Republicans had also increased the debt ceiling and certainly, you know, spending has been bipartisan for many years. I’m wondering what the President’s long-term view of the country’s balance sheets are, given that under current long-term CBO estimates, debt is never again expected to dip below 100 percent of gross domestic product, and then, within 30 years, it is projected to hit 202 percent of gross domestic product.
MS. PSAKI: Well, first, I would say the President has proposed a way to pay for his proposals, which is something that is a fiscally responsible step some of his predecessors — the most recent one — did not do when he worked and advocated to support the passing of $2 trillion in tax cuts that did not bear out the financial benefit he promised and also certainly added to the deficit.
The President takes these issues seriously. He is focused on being a President who cares about the future of our — the next generations. And I think his actions have borne that out.
Q And then a quick follow-up: There was a lot of discussion about masking the other day. This administration has always followed CDC guidance.
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q If the CDC was to say, “We need to return to masking,” would this administration follow suit?
MS. PSAKI: We’re always going to follow the guidance of our health and medical experts.
Q Thanks, Jen. On the vaccine immunity: Given that Pfizer’s now seeing waning immunity and separate from who is vaccinated and who is not, is the White House looking at models and projections that say, in the next year, as everyone who has been vaccinated could start to lose that immunity, what does that look like for hospitalizations and deaths, et cetera?
MS. PSAKI: Well, first, I would certainly point to our health and medical experts to answer questions about future projections about the impact of waning immunity. I will say that as they look at this data and assess from our — from the CDC and other public health entities in the government, they certainly talked to private-sector companies like Pfizer, but that’s only one source of data and engagement. They look at a range of data across the board as they make projections. So we really rely on their broad data and projections as we assess what the future looks like.
Q Just a follow-up on Afghanistan as well: You mentioned continuing U.S. support. Does that include continuing military support? I mean, we’ve seen a number of airstrikes that the U.S. has launched on Taliban targets over the last 30 days. Could that continue past the end of the military mission at the end of August?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have anything on that for you. I’d certainly point to the Department of Defense. But what I’m — what I was communicating about was, you know, over the coming weeks, we maintain our authorities, as you know, and we provide — we’ve provided a range of training and security assistance equipment to the Afghans and the leaders of Afghanistan as we transition to bringing our men and women home.
Q Thanks, Jen.
MS. PSAKI: Thanks so much, everyone. Have a great weekend.
2:04 P.M. EDT