Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jen Psaki and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, August 23, 2021
2:27 P.M. EDT
MS. PSAKI: Hi, everyone. Okay. We are pleased to have a return guest, our National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, who will give some brief opening remarks and then take some of your questions. So, with that, I’ll turn it over to Jake.
MR. SULLIVAN: Thanks, Jen. Good afternoon, everyone. I’ll make some comments, and then, as Jen said, I’m happy to take your questions.
I want to start, once again, by saluting our troops and civilians at the Kabul Airport. Kabul fell just over a week ago. Within 48 hours, they had secured the airfield. They had safely and effectively drawn down our embassy compound and retrograded our embassy personnel.
They have now facilitated the evacuation of more than 37,000 people out of the country since August 14th: American citizens, third-country nationals, our Afghan allies, and Afghans at risk of persecution or worse.
In the last 24 hours alone, 28 U.S. military flights have evacuated approximately 10,400 people from Kabul. In addition, 61 coalition aircraft have evacuated approximately 5,900 additional people. That is more than 16,000 people in 24 hours. And the flights are continuing hour by hour as we speak.
We have established a network of transit centers in multiple countries in the Gulf and Europe, where we are getting U.S. citizens on flights home and we are running biometric and biographic background checks on Afghan evacuees before bringing them to the United States or having them relocated to a third country. All told, 26 countries on four continents are contributing to this effort — one of the largest airlifts in history; a massive military, diplomatic, security, humanitarian undertaking; a testament to the power and purpose of the United States and our allies.
I want to provide an update on American citizens. We’ve helped thousands of Americans leave Kabul already. We’ve contacted Americans still in Afghanistan by e-mail, by phone, by text to give them specific instructions. We have developed a method to safely and efficiently transfer groups of American citizens onto the airfield. For operational reasons, I’m not going to go into further detail on this.
Many people have asked, reasonably, why we cannot provide a precise number of American citizens still in-country. Let me explain. When Americans have come to Afghanistan over the years, we asked them to register with the embassy. Many have left without de-registering; others never register at all. That is their right, of course. And it’s our responsibility to find them, which we are now doing hour by hour.
In the days remaining, we believe we have the wherewithal to get out the American citizens who want to leave Kabul. This operation is complex. It is dangerous. It is fraught with challenges — operational, logistical, human. And it’s produced searing images of pain and desperation.
But no operation like this, no evacuation from a capital that has fallen in a civil war could unfold without those images. The question is: Are we on track to fulfill the objectives of this operation — to bring out our people, so many of those Afghans who helped us and so many of those Afghans at risk? And we believe we are.
As we conduct these operations, we are sustaining the highest level of vigilance for an attack against the airport by ISIS-K or another terrorist group. Our commanders on the ground have taken every step they can to prepare for such an attack. Our President has authorized every capability that those commanders have asked for to protect the airfield against such an attack.
We remain in close touch with allies and partners to coordinate the evacuation of their own citizens and their priority personnel, as well as to respond to the ongoing political and security situation in Afghanistan.
The President has spoken twice now with the British Prime Minister. He has spoken with the German Chancellor, the French President, the Spanish President, the Italian Prime Minister, the Emir of Qatar, and the Crown Prince of the UAE.
Tomorrow, he will participate in a G7 Leaders Meeting on Afghanistan to ensure the world’s leading democracies are aligned and united on the way forward.
We are working with partners to address the acute humanitarian needs of the Afghan people.
And we will remain persistently vigilant against the terrorism threat in Afghanistan and in multiple other theaters. We have proven in other places that we can suppress terrorism without a permanent military presence on the ground, and we will do the same in Afghanistan.
Finally, we are deeply moved by the outpouring of support from so many Americans — so many of them veterans — to help the Afghan evacuees, those Afghans at risk, our Afghan allies settle here in the United States. This is the best of the American spirit, and we look forward to working with them in the days, weeks, and months ahead.
And with that, I would be happy to take your questions.
Q Thanks, Jake. A Taliban spokesman has said that it would be a red line for the U.S. to keep troops in Afghanistan past its own August 31st deadline. Are you engaged in talks with the Taliban over extending that deadline? And how are those talks going?
MR. SULLIVAN: We are in talks with the Taliban on a daily basis through both political and security channels. I’m not going to get into the details of those discussions here, to protect those discussions — which are covering a wide range of issues.
We are also consulting closely with our allies and partners on the issue of the evacuation and its progress. In fact, the President just got off the phone with the British Prime Minister a short time ago.
We are taking this day by day. We believe we are making enormous progress.
And taking a step back, a week ago, I don’t think almost anyone in this briefing room would have thought we’d be standing here today with 37,000 people already evacuated from the country. We believe we’re making progress. We’re going to keep making progress.
And the President will ultimately make his decision about the precise shape and scope of the operation.
Q And has the President decided whether he is going to need more time, beyond August 31st, to get all U.S. personnel and Afghan people out of the country?
MR. SULLIVAN: As I said, the President believes we are making substantial progress. Dozens of flights, thousands — now tens of thousands of people evacuated from the country. We believe today will be an efficient and effective day and tomorrow and the next day as well.
And as I said, he is taking this day by day and will make his determinations as we go.
Q Just to follow up, do you — does the administration thinks that they need the Taliban agreement to extend beyond August 31st?
MR. SULLIVAN: As I said, we are engaging with the Taliban, consulting with the Taliban on every aspect of what’s happening in Kabul right now — on what’s happening at the airport; on how we need to ensure that there is facilitated passage to the airport for American citizens, SIVs, third-country nationals, and so forth. We’ll continue those conversations with them.
Ultimately, it will be the President’s decision how this proceeds, no one else’s.
Q Jake, you said you — we have the wherewithal to get Americans out, but you didn’t — forgive me if I didn’t get the quote right in your statement — but you didn’t say that we have the ability to get them out, and you didn’t set a timeframe by August 31st. Is that —
MR. SULLIVAN: So, as I’ve said before, as the President has said before, we believe that we have time between now and the 31st to get out any American who wants to get out.
Q Yes, I wanted to ask — you said that — you have said multiple times, and the President has said, that you could not leave Afghanistan without these chaotic scenes; no matter when you left, that would happen.
I guess my question is: Why didn’t the administration prepare the American public and say to the American public, “There are going to be very chaotic scenes you are going to see. It’s going to be rough. There’s going to be a rough couple of weeks” before this happened? Instead, you have the President saying, “Don’t worry, we’re not going to be, you know, evacuating ambassadors or diplomats from the roof of the embassy. Don’t worry about that.”
Why, if he knew that there would be chaos, did the administration not prepare the American public for the chaos?
MR. SULLIVAN: So, first, I’m glad you ask this question. And I wanted to take a step back and address the nature of an evacuation in a circumstance like this, and then I’ll come to your specific point on messaging.
Whether Kabul fell in August or September or December or next August, the fact is, whenever it fell, there were going to be American citizens in Kabul who needed to be evacuated. There were going to be third-country nationals in Kabul who were going to be evacuated — have to be evacuated. There were going to be Afghans still in the fight, who had supported the U.S. war effort over the last 20 years, who were going to have to be evacuated. So, an evacuation operation in a dangerous situation was going to have to happen at some point.
And when you run an operation like that, when you are trying to position assets to go in and secure an airfield in a city that has been taken by opposing forces with a government that’s collapsed, your contingency plan is going to hit head on with reality, and there are going to be complexities and challenges and difficulties, and you work through them. You make adjustments, and you ultimately get an operation going that is moving out thousands, if not tens of thousands of people daily. That is what we have accomplished over the course of the week. It has not been without its immense difficulties, and we are very mindful of those difficulties. We are clear-eyed about those difficulties. But that is how we have watched the last week unfold.
Why the President didn’t walk out and say, “Let me explain to you exactly what is going to unfold in Afghanistan” — all along, the President has been clear that the United States was not going to enter a third decade of American military deployment in the middle of another country’s civil war.
And in his speech in April and in his speech in July, and in comments he has made since then, he has been clear that that could mean difficult times in Afghanistan. We have been clear-eyed about this from the start.
But what we were not prepared to do, what the President was not prepared to do, was to say that, for that reason, we need to keep American men and women fighting and dying in this civil war.
MR. SULLIVAN: Yes.
Q Yes — Jake, whether it’s August 31st or shortly thereafter, it’s clear that all of the eligible Afghans who work for U.S. forces and the U.S. government are not going to be able to get out. For those watching, what do you say to them? What
advice do you give? Should they try to get to a third country on their own? Should they wait for some diplomatic solution?
MR. SULLIVAN: So, first, we’re in touch with the Afghans at risk, eligible for Special Immigrant Visas and other categories of support from the U.S. government. We are trying to get as many of them to the airport as quickly as possible to get them on flights home.
And as I said yesterday in comments on the Sunday shows, we will continue to get Afghans at risk out of the country even after U.S. military forces have left.
Q Thank you, sir. The President has criticized his predecessor, he’s criticized the Afghan army and the Afghan government for all of their failures. One group that he hasn’t seemed to criticize at length, though, is the Taliban. Why is that?
And then also, why does the President continue to say that the Taliban is facing an existential question about how they’ll be viewed on the world stage? I mean, they’re going door to door, going after the families of these translators. Don’t they already know who they are?
MR. SULLIVAN: So, first, the President has been very clear about his views of the Taliban. You’ve asked him repeatedly, “Do you trust these guys?” And he’s told you repeatedly, “No, I do not.” Of course, he does not. Of course, none of us do, because we’ve seen the horrific images from the last time they were in power, because we’ve seen the way that they’ve conducted this war, because we’ve seen the fact that they have been responsible for the deaths of American men and women through two decades of war — a war that the President was not prepared to continue for a third decade. So, we have no illusions about the Taliban.
And from our perspective, what we need to do right now is focus on our task at hand, and our task is to get thousands and thousands of people out of the country as safely and efficiently as possible. That is what we are doing and what we believe that we can achieve.
Q Thank you, Jake. So, Friday, the President said that we got rid of al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Sunday, the Secretary of State said there is al Qaeda in Afghanistan. So, are you presenting the President with the full picture, or is he just misapplying the intelligence when he makes these public statements?
MR. SULLIVAN: The President was referring to al Qaeda’s capability to attack the United States, which the intelligence community tells us today is not present in Afghanistan. Today, it is not present in Afghanistan.
What is present in Afghanistan right now, to our forces at the airport, is a serious threat from ISIS-K, which we’re trying to deal with. And, of course, there’s the possibility that al Qaeda could reconstitute an external plotting capability in Afghanistan.
That’s why you’ve heard from the President repeatedly about the need for an over-the-horizon capability that will allow the United States, working with partners, to continue to suppress the terrorism threat in Afghanistan from al Qaeda or ISIS-K or anyone else, just as we work to suppress the terrorism threat from al Qaeda and ISIS in Yemen, in Syria, in Somalia, in the Islamic Maghreb, in many other countries.
And let me just finish by saying the President has been clear that, from his perspective, American counterterrorism capabilities have evolved to the point where we can suppress that terrorism threat without keeping thousands or tens of thousands of troops on the ground in a country. We have proven that out in other countries, and that is exactly what we intend to do in Afghanistan, and the President has spoken about the terrorism issue in Afghanistan repeatedly, on multiple occasions.
Q Does the administration regret not moving quicker to evacuate more Afghan civilians who worked with the United States?
MR. SULLIVAN: So, again, I’m very glad you asked that question. So, this refers to the Special Immigrant Visa program. The Special Immigrant Visa program has been around for a significant number of years, and it was never designed, as conceived by Congress, for a mass evacuation circumstance.
Your individual applicant for a Special Immigrant Visa typically took, under the law — the way that it was applied by the various agencies in the U.S. government, through multiple administrations — 18 to 24 months per person to get through the various vetting and other requirements to get their visas. Sometimes longer, sometimes multiple years.
When we took office in January, the Trump administration had not processed a single Special Immigrant Visa since March of 2020, in nearly a year.
So what we did when we came in was move as rapidly as possible to process as many applications as possible, as fast as possible, trimming months and months and months off of that process, working with Congress to get them to actually change the law over the summer to relax the requirements so we could move people forward. Even then, we put in place an evacuation operation using charter aircraft, starting in July, to begin moving SIVs and their families out.
Now, as I said the last time I was at this podium, we did contemplate a big gray-tail move of Afghans and others in the July/early August timeframe. We made the determination not to do so because not just Afghan government officials, but supporters of the Afghan government in Afghanistan, including many of the people who want to come out now, said that doing so would trigger a complete crisis of confidence in the government.
As it turns out, not taking out the evac- — not doing that evacuation didn’t exactly save the Afghan government; we acknowledged that. But that was a considered judgment at the time.
Once we faced a circumstance in which we needed to move rapidly to secure the airfield to help get those folks out, that’s precisely what we did, and that is precisely what we are doing now.
Q Thanks, Jake. Does the President intend to fire, reassign, or ask for the resignation of any White House personnel or administration officials who have handled the situation in the Afghanistan?
MR. SULLIVAN: I have not heard him say so. It’s, of course, your job to ask those kinds of questions. It’s my job just to keep doing what we’re doing, which is every day try to get as many people out as possible.
Q Thank you, Jake. What if the U.S. can’t get Americans and Afghan allies out of the country by August 31st? What happens then if the Taliban says they are not willing to extend? Is the U.S. going to abide by their red lines?
MR. SULLIVAN: So I’m not going to take this on as a hypothetical question. What I’m going to say is what I said at the outset, which is we’re in touch with the Taliban daily. We’re in touch with our allies and partners. We’re reviewing our progress in this particular operation, which we feel has been substantial over the past few days. And the President will make his own determination.
MR. SULLIVAN: Yes.
Q Thanks, Jake. First, can you say, approximately — number or percentage wise — the number of evacuees that are American citizens thus far?
And then, secondly, I know you don’t want to get deep into operational details, but the President has been clear that the area around the airport — there’s been an expansion in the safe zone. Does that mean American troops are operating outside the perimeter of the airport now?
MR. SULLIVAN: American troops are not operating outside the perimeter of the airport. What has happened is, through these military channels of communication with the Taliban, they have extended the perimeter from the point of view of their checkpoints to allow Americans through, to allow third-country nationals through, to allow SIV holders through. That is what is happening now — not right at the gate, but rather a substantial distance away from the gate. And I’m not going to get into the precise details of those distances, but that is what he was referring to with respect to the extension of the perimeter.
On the question of relative ratios, the significant majority of those coming out are of Afghan evacuees because the total number of Americans in country was a relatively limited number of folks. So, in terms of percentages of the 37,000, the substantial bulk of them are Afghan evacuees, but there are also — have been a few thousand Americans who have already been evacuated, and we are working on the rest now.
Q So, “a few thousand.” Do you have anything more specific? Or are these people traveling with passports or other kind of documentation? And is that why you can’t answer that question more specifically? Are they not traveling with documents?
MR. SULLIVAN: So, again, the reason why we can’t give you a precise number is because not every American who comes into Afghanistan goes and puts themselves in a database at the U.S. embassy. That — they don’t have to; many of them choose not to.
So, it’s our responsibility to put out the call through every means we know how, try to work through to get in contact with them, and ultimately build as credible a list as we can of folks who are holding those passports, so that we can bring them to the airport and get out.
Q That, of course, was not my question. Not the number of Americans who are in Afghanistan waiting to get out. How many Americans have you, so far, taken out?
MR. SULLIVAN: Oh, I see. We can get you the precise number on that.
Q Jake, two things. One, just a clarification. You had said that you will get all Americans in Kabul, who want to get out, out. Did you mean Kabul or did you mean the entire country?
And, second, one of the things that you all bragged about over the weekend was the rapidity with which you guys negotiated over the last several days with third countries the ability to bring flights into — you know, to expand the number of places throughout Europe and the Middle East. Why wasn’t that done months ago?
I mean, you yourself have just said you knew exactly that this chaos was going to erupt at some point. Why would there be the need to negotiate on the fly with these countries if — couldn’t that have been done before?
MR. SULLIVAN: So, I’ll take your second question first. I have to tell you, I bristle at saying, “We bragged.” Okay? I haven’t bragged about anything. I’m trying to give you the straight dope from here, the good and the bad. And that means a lot to me.
Secondly, it is certainly the case that we’ve had to add countries and try to add capacity in places. We did spend months negotiating transit centers to set up as part of our contingency planning in both the Gulf and in Europe.
As it turns out, we have been able to produce a throughput that exceeded even our optimistic expectations in terms of the number of folks who could get out. So, the fact is we are actually overperforming in terms of the evacuation numbers and, therefore, we need a higher ceiling in terms of the number of beds and other facilities at transit centers.
So, we’re simply adding capacity. But you can’t go from a standing start. You can’t go from zero to “yes” in 24 hours. This is something that we have prepared, pre-positioned, engaged with allies and partners on over the course of time so that when we pick up the phone and call, they don’t say, “What are you talking about?” They know what we’re talking about. They know that the ask has gone from a 5,000 cap to a 10,000 cap. They adjust accordingly, and that reflects the work of painstaking diplomacy over the course of many months.
Q Jake, the first question about Afghanistan versus just Kabul?
MR. SULLIVAN: Oh, I see. Yes, we are trying to get Americans out wherever they may be in Afghanistan.
Q Question on SIVs: How many SIVs are being brought to the United States? Is there a goal for how many you intend to bring to the United States? What’s their long-term plan? And outside of adding a Priority 2 designation, what else is this administration doing to expedite the process of getting SIVs out of Afghanistan?
MR. SULLIVAN: We’re not putting a precise number on it; the program doesn’t put a precise number on it. There isn’t some cap on the number of SIVs or some target —
Q Do you have an estimate?
MR. SULLIVAN: So, we are working to get as many out as we possibly can. If you think about the fact that there has been 20 years of conflict in Afghanistan, the sheer number of Afghans who in one way or another have worked for the United States — I’m not going to put a precise number on it. I’m not going to put an estimate on it. I’m only going to put a principle on it. And the principle is: We are working to get out as many Afghan allies as we possibly can.
Q Prime Minister Johnson has said that he will ask President Biden to extend that August 31st deadline. Did he make that ask in the call? And what will President Biden tell Prime Minister Johnson if and when he does make that, either today or at the G7 meeting tomorrow?
MR. SULLIVAN: I’m not going to speak for Prime Minister Johnson or read out the precise details of the call. All I’m going to say is that the President continues to consult with the Prime Minister and our other Allies on how this evacuation should proceed from here. And he’ll ultimately make the determination.
Q You have no message to what he’ll say when Prime Minister Johnson does ask? Because that is the reporting I have, that the PM is going to ask the President to do this.
MR. SULLIVAN: So, I’m not going to preview what the President will say in the G7 meeting tomorrow. At the moment, he’s focused on private conversations with foreign leaders. He will have the opportunity to have that engagement in that private session with the G7 leaders tomorrow. And I’m not, from the podium, going to read out what are sensitive conversations among leaders between the United States and our allies.
Q Jake, I want get into the weeds a little bit more on how this administration is determining who is still left — what Americans are still left in and which ones are not. Because as you said, there’s some people who did not de-register with the embassy. How is the administration trying to determine who is there and who’s not?
MR. SULLIVAN: Sure. So, what we have done is we have put out, through multiple different means — telephone, e-mail, text, and publicly on radio, online, through every possible — both broadcast and targeted means possible — to Americans who may potentially be in Afghanistan: “Please respond. Please contact us. Please tell us your location. Please tell us if you’d like to leave. Please tell us how many there are with you.” So, we’ve gone through that process.
And then we’ve done a series of calls, through all of the folks who responded, to then have a refined conversation with each of them. We have tried to take that and then match it up against a plan to, as I said before, put Americans into groups to efficiently transfer them onto the airfield.
But, of course, when you’re trying to ultimately determine a precise fixed number, that is a dynamic and ongoing process. It’s ongoing today. It will be ongoing tomorrow.
Q So what is —
MR. SULLIVAN: And I’m just going to take one more question.
Q But what about the ones who don’t respond?
Q Thank you so much, Jake.
Q Jake, what about the ones who don’t respond? Are you matching it some kind of way to make sure they’re not incapacitated or captured or something like that? For those who didn’t respond, are you matching it up to make sure they’re not there?
MR. SULLIVAN: So, we have gone —
Q That list that you have.
MR. SULLIVAN: We have gone through our list of everyone who we believe is in-country and reached out and tried to communicate with them in every way we know how.
And as far as we’re concerned, there’s two universes. One universe is the people who did register. We’ve gotten in touch with all of those people or reached out to all of those people. The second list is folks who responded to the all-call, which doesn’t necessarily match that first list. That is a different group of people, some of whom never registered in the first place. And we’re negotiating — um, “negotiating” — we’re discussing with them the best way to get them to the emb- — to the airport if, in fact, they want to come to the airport.
Q Jake, thank you so much. Two questions. One, on the communication of the Taliban: Would President Biden consider himself as speaking with the leaders of Taliban?
And the second question: President Biden seems to be keeping the America First policy on Afghanistan. How can you say that America is back on the global stage after seeing the scenes in Afghanistan? And how do you think the world is looking at the United States right now?
MR. SULLIVAN: So, on the second question, you look at the scenes at the Kabul airport and what I see is the United States securing an airfield, at the risk of several thousand American troops, to facilitate not just the evacuation of Americans, but to facilitate the evacuation of third-country nationals from friends and foes alike, and to facilitate the evacuation of tens and thousands of people who, for humanitarian reasons, want to leave Afghanistan.
This is an enormous logistical, diplomatic, security, humanitarian undertaking. There is no other country in the world who could pull something like this off, bar none. So, that’s what I say to the second question.
With respect to whether or not the United — the — President Biden is likely to speak with the leadership of the Taliban, that is not in contemplation at this time.
Q Jake, can I ask a last one —
MR. SULLIVAN: Thanks, everybody.
Q (inaudible) made in your statement, please?
MS. PSAKI: Thanks, everyone.
Q Thanks for coming.
MS. PSAKI: Thank you, Jake.
Q I’m the Afghan journalist. Can I ask —
MS. PSAKI: Just — let me just do a — let me just do a topper on just another topic, and then we’ll take plenty of questions, okay?
Q Thank you. Okay, Jen.
MS. PSAKI: Today, a group — on another topic — a group of over 70 leading economists, led by former CEA Chair Austan Goolsbee, announced in an open letter their support for both pillars of the President’s economic agenda: the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal and the Build Back Better plan.
Their letter reinforces the case we’ve been making to the American people that this historic investment — these historic investments are vital for the strength of our economy and the financial wellbeing of middle-class families, writing, quote, “These once-in-a-generation opportunities will create millions of jobs, lower costs for American families, and lead to significant economic growth.” “Both the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal and Build Back Better agenda could likely ease inflationary pressures.”
Just one other note for all of you. Vice President Harris is currently, as you know, in Singapore. Her next stop will be Vietnam. This trip is an important — important for the Biden-Harris administration. It’s about strengthening and deepening our partnerships with Singapore, Vietnam, and Southeast Asia, because these partnerships matter to the people, prosperity, and security of the United States.
I’d also note that she — her meetings in Singapore today resulted in several substantive deliverables across a range of key issues and reaffirm the strong U.S. commitment to Southeast Asia and the U.S.-Singapore strategic partnership.
Following their bilateral meeting, they announced agreements on COVID-19 and preparing for the next pandemic, climate change, inclusive growth and innovation, and resilient supply chains. Obviously, her trip will continue.
Aamer, go ahead.
Q On BIF, what is your message to moderate House Democrats who want to vote on the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal before they’ll vote on the 3.5 million — trillion-dollar budget blueprint? And why not just do the bipartisan deal first?
MS. PSAKI: Well, fir- — I would first say that the President has every intention of signing each of these pieces of legislation into law. And what I want to be clear with you all about is he supports Speaker Pelosi’s proposed path forward to get this process done.
I’d also note — and you follow this all closely, but for those of you watching at home — this is a procedural vote –important one — but there are a number of different ways forward here. And this is a debate currently — and a healthy one, an important one — within the Democratic Caucus on what different parts of the President’s core agenda should be passed in what order.
In some ways, that’s a high-class problem to be debating. That’s what they’re discussing. And it’s not one that should be unexpected, given there are disagreements about a range of issues, even within the Democratic Caucus. That’s democracy.
But I would note that the President’s view is not just 36 years in the Senate, but this isn’t his first rodeo, not even his first rodeo this summer. He had one in June and July. And we’re going to work closely with Speaker Pelosi. He’s going to continue to talk to a range of members.
I would note for all of you that the President had multiple calls with Speaker Pelosi in recent days, and also had a call with her leadership team and 15 committee chairs, about how vital the Build Back Better agenda is — because it will lower prescription drug costs, reduce the cost of housing and education, strengthen care for veterans, take on climate change, help families afford childcare and care for older Americans.
So, we will continue to be fully engaged, but we understand this is a healthy debate. And we’re confident about the path forward.
Q Have you been able to reach out to some of those moderate lawmakers who have raised concerns?
MS. PSAKI: We have been, from the White House and senior team, in touch with a range of officials and members across all political backgrounds in our caucus. So, you can be confident in that.
Q And on today’s vaccine news, is there any expectation that this is going to move the ball and get people who have been resistant off the sideline? And how significant?
MS. PSAKI: Well, it’s a really good question, Aamer. I think we’re going to have to wait and see. I mean, there have been polls — several weeks ago were the last ones I have seen — that showed that of the percentage of people who are not yet vaccinated, about a third, approximately — depending on the poll — would feel more confident if there was final approval by the FDA. We’ll see.
You saw the President speak to this today. You will see him speak to this more. And you will see senior members of our team speak to this more, because we want to seize this moment and take advantage of, of course, this FDA independent approval to reach out to Americans who were waiting for that moment, to let them know.
But I don’t know that we have a prediction of how many. Hopefully, it will have an impact in those who have expressed concern.
Q Can you talk a little more about the G7 meeting tomorrow?
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q Are you expecting any specific agreements to come out of it?
MS. PSAKI: This is really a forum — as you know, Steve — to continue the discussion that these leaders had just a few months ago when the President was on his first trip. We certainly know, and many have talked about, their desire to raise questions about the timeline. That’s not a surprise. And the President is happy to have that discussion.
I’m not, of course, going to get ahead of our national security advisor or the President of the United States, but it’s an opportunity to discuss not only our commitment to getting American citizens out and our Afghan partners who have fought alongside us and many of our allies over the last 20 years, but also to work with them to continue to get their citizens out as well.
So, I expect the discussion will be around that, but I don’t — I don’t know that I’m going to predict big announcements out of it.
Q Do you think they will talk about imposing sanctions on the Taliban, anything like that?
MS. PSAKI: Look, I don’t think I have more to preview. I think there’s a range of topics that G7 members could certainly raise.
I know this President lightly touched on this yesterday, but right now our focus, day in and day out, is on the operations and evacuating and relocating as many people out of the country as we possibly can.
Q Back to what’s going on, on the Hill: As you know, this isn’t the President’s first rodeo. Has he considered offering something to the moderates? Is there something that he’s willing to put on the table that perhaps would assuage some of their concerns, knowing how legislation and horse trading works on Capitol Hill?
MS. PSAKI: He certainly is familiar with that, but he also is certainly familiar with the leadership of Speaker Pelosi and her ability to get things done.
And I would also note that he has been a part of this town and watched healthy disagreements about a range of issues within his own party for many decades. That’s a part of the process.
But our focus right now is on engaging with a range of members from a high-level staff level. We’re going to continue to do that. And the President will certainly engage if it is constructive in moving the ball forward. And we, again, are focused on getting this done for the American people.
Q And then, just one more — a follow-up. You said that — I just want to clarify.
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q You said that there’s potentially a number of ways forward on this, but the Speaker has the way forward. Do you guys back that way forward? And if you’re counting votes, that seems like the way forward. What are the other ways forward here? (Laughs.)
MS. PSAKI: Well, what — and I was clear — and I appreciate your question — that the President supports the Speaker’s proposed path forward.
What I was trying to get at, and perhaps not articulately enough, is that this is a procedural vote to move the bill forward. And the President is committed to signing each into law. And he’s confident in Speaker Pelosi’s approach and process and will stay closely aligned.
Q Thanks, Jen. We heard from the Pentagon that all evacuees arriving in the U.S. from Afghanistan are being COVID tested. Is the administration working on a plan to get them vaccinated?
MS. PSAKI: So, that is correct on the — on — they are being tested, and we are working through offering vaccines and what that process will look like. I hope to have more of an update on that for you in the next day or two.
Q And one more on COVID. Will the White House convince more businesses to require vaccines now that the Pfizer vaccine has been approved by the FDA?
MS. PSAKI: Will we require it or will we push them?
Q Well, will you push them to businesses and require certain — certain businesses to — or push them to businesses, is what I (inaudible).
MS. PSAKI: Sure. No, I just wanted to make sure I was understanding your question.
We have already started doing that over the last several weeks, and I think we’ve — you’ve seen the President speak to this. You’ve seen a number of senior officials be more forward-leaning, I should say, about the role the private sector can play in mandating vaccines or taking steps with their own workforces. That is always going to be decisions for them to make, but some may assess and some private sector companies have spoken out about how final approval of the vaccine may help them take that additional step.
So, we are here, and we are here to be a resource as they have questions. But, certainly, we’re hopeful this will help put in place additional measures around the country.
Q Thank you, Jen. There are Taliban fighters, right now, carrying American weapons. They’re wearing American fatigues, the full kit of gear. How is that advancing America’s national security interests?
MS. PSAKI: Well, Peter, I think my natio- — or my colleague, Jake Sullivan, spoke to a version of this last week. But let me tell you — let me reiterate some of what he said: When the President made this decision to bring our men and women home from Afghanistan who were serving, he knew — he made that decision not lightly. He made the decision with a clear assessment from his national security team about what the impacts could be.
We have taken steps, over the past few months, to retrograde materials, to bring materials home, to make them not available to the Taliban. We have taken those steps from our military.
But our — our choices at hand — the President’s choices at hand were either to equip the Afghan National Security Forces with the materials and the equipment and the weapons they needed to fight, or not. He made the decision to equip them with the weapons to fight. And we will continue to take steps to retrograde our materials and equipment.
Q But does the President have a sense that most of the criticism is not of leaving Afghanistan, it’s the way that he has ordered it to happen — by pulling the troops before getting these Americans who are now stranded? Does he have a sense of that?
MS. PSAKI: First of all, I think it’s irresponsible to say Americans are stranded. They are not. We are committed to bringing Americans, who want to come home, home. We are in touch with them via phone, via text, via e-mail, via any way that we can possibly reach Americans to get them home if they want to return home.
Q “There are no Americans stranded” is the White House’s official position on what’s happening in Afghanistan right now?
MS. PSAKI: I’m just calling you out for saying that we are stranding Americans in Afghanistan, when I — when we have been very clear that we are not leaving Americans who want to return home. We are going to bring them home. And I think that’s important for the American public to hear and understand.
Q Okay. And then following up on what somebody asked Jake: The President likes to say “America is back,” but his policies have Americans getting beat up by the Taliban and Afghans handing babies over barbed-wire fences. Is that what he meant when he said “America is back”?
MS. PSAKI: What the President meant is that we are going to continue to lead in the world, including being the leaders in evacuating not just our Afghan partners, not just American citizens, but now also our allies. And we have done that by evacuating approximately 42,000 people over the last month. That is Americans leading. That is our men and women in our military leading on the ground, securing the airport after the Afghans fleed [sic] and didn’t secure the airport, and ensuring that we are taking care of our partners as we promised to.
Q More broadly, the President was asked about the polling. I’m going to ask you about it now.
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q Would you acknowledge this has been a particularly challenging period for the President, and there have been questions about his decision making among some Americans reflected in some of the polls?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would say that, as the President said yesterday — but let me try to answer your question again — his focus right now is on taking the steps and making the decisions that he feels are in the interest of our national security and the American people. And that may mean that there are chaotic scenes. That may mean that there are people disapproving of his decisions. He understands that and accepts that.
But he also believes, if you look at the work of his team — and I know this question was asked earlier — that the test of competence and of leadership is not about how you operate on your best day; it’s about how you operate when the chips are down, when things are difficult, when you need to adapt and make decisions. And that’s what we’ve seen over the last week. That’s what we’ve seen the men and women in the military do. That’s what we’ve seen our national security team do.
A week ago — or just over a week ago, we didn’t have control over the airport. Now we’ve evacuated 35- — 37,000 people. That is American leadership, and that is certainly competence of his team.
But, certainly, we understand that people are seeing chaotic photos. But he continues to believe that this was a decision that only the Commander-in-Chief to make — is able to make and one had to make for our own long-term national security interests.
Q Knowing there’s about a week or so until the deadline, do you anticipate that the risk to American troops, American citizens, and Afghans will increase? Will there be —
MS. PSAKI: You mean on the ground, Kelly?
Q Yes. Will there be more desperation knowing that the number of flights out maybe dwindling? And if so, how do you adjust for that, in terms of your preparation?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would say that security on the ground is risky and volatile. And we are not naïve about that. We are very clear-eyed about that. And that certainly is a factor as the President is considering the August 31st question and the timeline.
It is also a factor of — the fact that we have expedited, over the last 24 to 48 hours, our flights and the number of people we’ve been able to evacuate. And his objective is continuing to focus each day, asking detailed questions about how many more people we can get out each day, because that is –that is a real issue. And that’s one of the reasons is — and Jake talked about this a little bit earlier — that we continue to adjust and take operational steps, as it relates to the perimeter of the airport and as it relates to how we’re engaging with American citizens and our Afghan partners about how and when they should come to the airport, as well.
Q Thanks, Jen. Jake mentioned that he’d be able to get us a breakdown of the number of people who are being evacuated who are Americans and the number who are Afghans, but that’s something that reporters have been asking for and not getting for several days. Do you have those numbers? And if not, when could we expect to see them?
MS. PSAKI: I certainly understand the question. I know that my colleague, John Kirby, said, “A few thousand Americans had been evacuated earlier today.” As Jake noted, the vast majority have been Afghans, given the size of the population that we are moving out. And I’m happy to also follow up after the briefing and see what information we can achieve.
Q One other thing that Jake Sullivan said in his opening remarks was that the President looks forward to working with veterans and that the SIV applicants are integrated into American society.
AMVETS and VoteVets and a number of other groups issued an open letter today urging a meeting with the President. In that letter, they said that if the Afghan allies are not safely evacuated, “it would…condemn veterans and survivors of the conflict…to a lifetime of moral injury.” One, does the President agree with that sentiment? And, two, will the President meet with these veterans?
MS. PSAKI: Well, let me first say that we’ve been in regular contact with a wide range of veterans’ groups on Afghanistan, and will continue to be. And we’re in touch with the organizers of this letter to arrange a meeting with senior White House officials to discuss this letter.
The VA is also working with VSOs and outside advocates on how to assist SIV applicants, which I know is of primary concern to a number of these groups, as it is to us. And the President, as you know, has the utmost respect for people who have served, as being a father himself of someone who had served. And he knows how determined veterans of our military conflict in Afghanistan are to make sure that the Afghan allies who risked their lives to help our troops are evacuated to safety.
I would also note that one of the things the President has noted to many of us over the past couple of days is that as he thought about making this decision, one of the moments — or several moments that has stuck with him is that — many of you who covered him as Vice President know this — but he spent every Christmas Day at Walter Reed, sitting with Gold Star families and sitting with men and women who had been injured in Afghanistan.
Those are veterans too. Those families are families of veterans. Some of those families lost people, and he was not going to send another generation to fight a war that the Afghans were not willing to fight themselves.
But I will tell you, we have been in touch; we will continue to be in touch. And I can assure you that the President will look for opportunities to discuss and engage with veterans’ groups soon.
Q If I can ask you a question about the FDA’s action today.
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q It brings to mind a question that you’ve been asked several times in this room, and that is: Why hasn’t the President nominated an FDA commissioner? Is there a specific holdup that you can point to right now that explains why there’s not a qualified doctor in the country that the President could nominate for this post?
MS. PSAKI: I can assure you — I wish I had a nominee for the FDA commissioner standing behind that door so that I could present them to all of you. And it is a very good question. And the President wants to nominate the right person to serve in this important post. And, yes, of course, there are a range of qualified and talented medical experts and doctors out there. We have not identified the right person yet, and hopefully we’ll be able to do that soon.
Q In keeping with the question of appointments — if you’ll forgive me for putting on the Bloomberg hat — has he made a decision on whether —
MS. PSAKI: Federal Reserve.
Q You got it. (Laughter.)
MS. PSAKI: I knew it.
Q You’re one step ahead of me.
MS. PSAKI: It’s like Bingo.
Q Yeah. Has he made a decision on whether to reappoint Jay Powell? My colleague, Saleha Mohsin, reported this weekend that — excuse me, that Secretary Yellen has privately expressed her support for reappointing Chairman Powell. If — has he made a decision? And when will he make a decision on that?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have anything new for you on this, nor do I have a timeline of when he might make a decision.
Q Do you have any comment on Secretary Yellen’s apparent preference for —
MS. PSAKI: I — I will — I will leave that to Secretary Yellen and the Treasury team.
Q Thank you, Jen. Thank you —
MS. PSAKI: Oh, go ahead.
Q Do you have any update — this week is supposed to be the end of the 90-day review —
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q — into the origins of the coronavirus. Do you have any update on when that report will be released? What can we expect to see publicly?
MS. PSAKI: Sure. It’s actually tomorrow, just to mark your calendars. I know Peter is especially excited about it. I would say that it will take — it typically takes a couple of days, if not longer, to put together an unclassified version to present publicly, and obviously, the President would be briefed first on any findings.
So, I don’t have an exact date for you, but I would expect it will be several days — a couple to several days after tomorrow.
Q Thanks, Jen. Two questions — just one on vaccines to clarify an earlier point.
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q We heard the President talk today about — he encouraged companies to step up their vaccine requirements, but will today’s announcement lead to any new — or any additional vaccine mandates from the administration beyond nursing home employees and the stuff that you guys have already announced?
MS. PSAKI: I expect there will be more, sure, as we’ve said all along. And I would note that my colleagues at the Department of Defense conveyed that they would move, in the coming days, to mandate the vaccine now that the approval has come from the FDA for Pfizer. So we certainly expect there will be more mandates for factions of federal employees.
Q And then, on Afghanistan, a broader question: Does the President see any substantive differences between the Taliban leadership that exists right now and the regime that existed two decades ago?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t think we’re in a position to make any assessment on that front at this point in time. I would just reiterate: This is not about trust. This is not about providing validity for anyone.
Our focus right now is on working to get American citizens, our Afghan partners, working with our allies, to get them out of the country. Part of that has been a discussion — an ongoing discussions with the Taliban about individuals moving safely to the airport. That’s what the focus of our engagement with them has been at this point.
Q Yeah, Jen, thanks. Just following up on the COVID-19 origins report, is that going to be released in full, or could there be redactions following the process? You were talking about unclassified documents. Just talk about that.
And what is the process in which the administration is going to release this? Are you going to — I mean, is it just going to come out in an e-mail, or is there some way you’re going to do this?
MS. PSAKI: I would expect that there would be an unclassified version, and sometimes that means declassification. I can’t assess that at this point in time because tomorrow is 90 days, not last week. And then, we certainly would make you all aware of what the outcome is. I don’t know what format that will take at this point in time yet. It’s a good question.
Go ahead, Karen.
Q Thanks, Jen. To follow up on the question that was just asked: When the President said today that he’s calling on companies to require the vaccine, he said, “Do what I did last month.” To just get more specific, will he expand that federal employee vaccine requirement and actually mandate it so there’s no more option of opting out and doing the testing every week and (inaudible)?
MS. PSAKI: For all federal employees?
Q For all federal employees.
MS. PSAKI: I think you’re looking more at agency to agency or different factions of the government at this point, but expect there will be more on that front.
Q And then to follow up: Is this — does the administration now see this as an opportunity to refresh the public messaging campaign that you guys have been doing on vaccinations, now that there’s the full FDA approval?
MS. PSAKI: Yeah, Karen — I mean, it’s a really good question. I think what we don’t know how to assess is, obviously there has been a percentage of people, in some of your polls as well, who have said, “I’m waiting for the vaccine to get final approval, and it’s not approved yet.” We’re sort of going to test that proposition and see, and we are hopeful that there are a number of those people who have said that who will now go out and get vaccinated.
And certainly, communicating directly with people who are not yet vaccinated is always a priority, but this is a moment to redouble our efforts to do exactly that.
Q So the President said today he’s going to talk more about safely reopening schools. Is there any changes to the administration’s guidance that we should be expecting coming forward? When do we expect to hear from him on that?
MS. PSAKI: I would say soon. I think we’re still working to finalize what that might look like. But the President is certainly, as a parent and a grandparent himself, well aware — and as somebody who employs a number of us who have children — well aware of the understandable questions that parents have; some have anxieties.
And he wants to be able to speak directly to what his preparations are, how we rely on the science, and all of the steps we’ve taken through our Department of Education to make sure schools have the resources they need to open and stay open if they apply them this school year. But I don’t have a scheduling preview for you at this point in time, but I expect you’ll hear from him soon.
Q So, in-person learning is still a priority? Like, still, the —
MS. PSAKI: Yes. Yeah.
Q — the President expects it to be open five days a week, (inaudible)?
MS. PSAKI: Correct. Nothing has changed in that regard. Now, I will — I will say this: A lot has changed over the last eight months in that we have provided tens of millions of dollars out to schools — out to states that has been distributed to many school districts who didn’t have the resources they needed to replace air conditioning systems or ventilation; to do social distancing, in some cases; to ensure they had testing requirements. That has changed.
The Secretary of Education has made this his — one of his top, if not his top, priority — sharing best practices, working directly with school districts.
As we have seen across the country, in some particular states, we cannot force these states to allow school districts to put in these precautions that will help keep students safe. If they don’t put in place the precautions, it’s more likely there will be cases, and then they will have to take steps regarding quarantining, et cetera.
But we have done — we have taken every step we can think of to engage, to empower, to equip school districts with the resources they have so that they can stay — they “need,” I should say — so they can stay open five days a week.
Q Jen, what’s your reaction to former President Trump this weekend at a rally in Alabama asking his supporters to get vaccinated and then getting booed?
MS. PSAKI: Well, one, we will take anyone who has a big platform out there, who wants to encourage people to get vaccinated, doing it. That’s a good thing. And we understand that some of the people who are not yet vaccinated are not people who may have Biden-Harris stickers on their cars, and that’s okay.
In terms of — I think it’s just a recognition, as we are very clear-eyed about, that there are still people who are skeptical out there in the country; that there are still people who, whether because of misinformation or a range of factors, are not yet getting vaccinated, even though it could save their lives. It means we still have more work to do, and we are committed to doing exactly that.
Q Hey, Jen, thank you. At the risk of this being a “yes” or “no” answer, is the President concerned about being put on the spot with these pledges to get Americans out of Afghanistan by the 31st — all those who want to get out of Afghanistan? Is he concerned about being put on the spot with this?
MS. PSAKI: By whom?
Q By just the general public opinion or whatever. With these pledges from him, from Jake, and others, doesn’t it put the President on the spot a little bit, do you think?
MS. PSAKI: The President believes it’s the responsibility of any president and the United States to convey to any American that if they want to come home, we’re going to find a way to bring you home. And that commitment does not end on the 31st. But he is absolutely focused every single day — and I’ve been in a lot of these meetings — on ensuring we are expediting our processing, we are thinking creatively, we are adjusting operations as needed to get more Americans to the airport and out of Kabul.
Q Jen —
MS. PSAKI: I’ll go to you next. Let me go to Andrew and then I’ll go to you next, okay?
Q Thank you.
Q Thanks, Jen. Jake mentioned that the U.S. would try to extract Americans who are outside of Kabul, in other parts of the country. Does that apply also to Afghan SIV applicants who are also in that same situation, perhaps in rural areas, and they can’t make their way to Kabul because the Taliban is controlling the roads?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have anything operational I can preview for you on that front. I can tell you that our commitment to our Afghan partners is — has not wavered. And we are going to do everything we can to contact them directly, which is exactly what we’re also doing to figure out the best way for them to safely get to the airport. But I don’t have anything more operationally to preview for you.
Q Just one quick follow-on. Last time you briefed, you were asked about the number of SIV-approved Afghans who chose to stay —
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q — in the country before the latest sort of chaos that we’ve seen. You said you might get back to us with an overall figure. Have you been able to dig that up?
MS. PSAKI: It’s really a number, and I understand and I — that — your question. It’s really a number the State Department has. And it is not —
Q The State Department hasn’t given that number out.
MS. PSAKI: Okay. It’s not a program that we administer from here. I’m happy to follow up on that, as well as Nancy’s question and Kelly’s question —
Q You said it publicly —
MS. PSAKI: — about the numbers.
Q — and the President said it publicly.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
Q Why can’t you come up with a number if you’re going to say it?
MS. PSAKI: Again, it’s a program that’s administered by the State Department, and the details of that are something that’s under their purview.
Q Thank you, Jen. (Inaudible) was a nice discussion; actually not nice, very tragic. I’m from Afghanistan; everybody know. I don’t have anything to say. Everybody know that. Thousand of people — 14,000 people around at the airport — outside the airport — no food, no shelter. I know every single time I get like 20, 30 phone call, contact — everybody is crying, especially women, men.
I know it’s difficult for the United States too — just as a woman, as a kind woman, that Afghan people really trust you. They love you so much, and they are expectation that the United State never leave them alone, but it happened.
Q Is there a question? Is there a question?
Q Just, what’s your message? Do you have any message, positive message? Because woman, and they’re a lot of emotionally bad situation. Just, I need your message to them.
MS. PSAKI: Well, first, let me say that watching these scenes is incredibly heartbreaking and tragic. And, you know, I’ve been to Afghanistan a number of times, and I’ve met a lot of these women you’re talking about. The President has been there a number of times, has met these incredibly brave and courageous women. And I will tell you that I’m sure that part of the conversation the President will have with his partners and will continue to have with the United Nations is how we can continue to provide assistance, continue to stand up for these women and their rights in Afghanistan.
So I don’t want them to feel they have been forgotten; they have not. And we will keep them in our hearts. And thank you for your question.
Q Thank you, Jen. Related to Kelly’s question about the polls and the political fallout: Is the President concerned about the Afghan crisis causing a loss of momentum on all the other things he’s been trying to do? It’s a pretty unique situation to have such an enormous domestic crisis, with the pandemic and a lot of people still not wanting to be vaccinated, and now the Afghan thing, which is naturally sucking up all the attention and effort and energy, and his landmark piece of legislation, which now hanging in the air.
Can you just describe — just give us a little bit of an overview of the bandwidth that you have, or he has, for — I’m sure he wasn’t expecting to be here — right? — back in the “summer of freedom.”
MS. PSAKI: Well, first, you’re not elected president expecting to do easy things; you’re expecting to do hard things. You don’t come and work at the White House because you’re expecting to have easy days. You come to work here because you’re expecting to do hard things and be a part of doing hard things. And certainly that’s what we’re facing right now.
But let me give you kind of another way to look at this: We have now vaccinated more people than ever, almost — if not ever — have been vaccinated ever in the United States in history. We are about — we are operationalizing perhaps the largest airlift — U.S. airlift in history. We are working toward getting two major pieces of legislation through Congress, through the House of Representatives. And then, hopefully — and then I — then the President will look forward to signing each into law. That will change millions of people’s lives across this country, fundamentally address the climate crisis, and invest in industries to make us more competitive for our future.
So, yes, I know we see polls — many of your organizations have seen polls. But we also came here to do hard things. And I would say those are a couple of things that we’re proud to be a part of.
Q The staff in some of these schools — and the kids even in some of these schools — without mask mandates are getting sick — some of them very sick. Secretary Cardona seemed to hint last week that the federal government could investigate districts that fail to provide a safe return to school. Does the President think there should be consequences? And is there any discussion of tools that the federal government could use?
MS. PSAKI: Well, thank you for your question. As a mother myself — as I know I’ve noted many times — but it would be incredibly scary to me, as my daughter is preparing to go to kindergarten next week, if there were not masks in elementary school. And I know a lot of parents in Florida, Texas, and other states around the country are confronting that, and some kids are getting sick.
We have talked a bit about steps we have taken to ensure that these superintendents and school districts and teachers are kept whole financially. If there are restrictions put in place, hopefully prompting them to take a number of the steps that schools and school districts have taken over the past couple of months, we will continue to encourage that.
In terms of consequences, I don’t think I have anything to preview for you on that front.
Thank you, everyone. I’m so sorry I got to run.
Q Thanks, Jen.
MS. PSAKI: We’ll see you tomorrow.
3:26 P.M. EDT