Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jen Psaki, August 27, 2021
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:53 P.M. EDT
MS. PSAKI: Hi. I have a couple of items for all of you at the top.
On COVID-19 response, we just got today’s vaccine report, which Jeff Zients, our COVID Coordinator, touched on during his briefing this morning. But for the rest of you who weren’t a part of that, the report is nearly 1.1 million shots in arms. 1.1 million is the highest single-day total shots since July 3rd, which is a good sign. So far in August, we have gotten 12.5 million first shots into arms — that’s already 2 million more first shots than in all of July — with several days still left to go to add to that total.
Importantly, we’ve now hit a major milestone in our effort to vaccinate adolescents at a particularly important time as people go back to school. Fifty percent of 12- to 17-year-olds now have at least their first shot. Obviously, more work to do, but a positive step forward.
Also wanted to note that, today, the Department of Health and Human Services Secretary, Xavier Becerra, announced $85 million in funding to improve mental health services for our nation’s children and youth, which is, of course, a priority for the Biden-Harris administration as a part of our push to get kids back to school safely and address the impact of the pandemic on them.
Specifically, he announced the Health Resources and Services Administration is making 24 awards, totaling $10.7 million in funds from the President’s American Rescue Plan, to expand pediatric mental healthcare access by integrating telehealth services. For example, actions like technical assistance for pediatric care providers to diagnose, treat, and refer children and youth with mental health conditions and substance use disorders.
And this will also — the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration is also granting 29 awards, totaling $74.1 million, to enhance mental health service — mental health services for school-aged youth. So, as an example of that, Project AWARE — which stands for Advancing Wellness and Resilience in Education — will use its funding to help raise awareness of mental health issues for young people and train school personnel.
Also wanted to note that today we’re announcing that President Biden has directed the Department of Homeland Security to serve as the lead federal agency coordinating across the federal government to relocate evacuated Afghans to the United States. Already, DHS has been working closely with agencies across government — including our military, diplomats, intelligence community, and law enforcement professionals, and many others — to ensure that all Afghans are screened and vetted prior to being allowed into the United States.
Additionally, all evacuees will continue to undergo extensive COVID-19 and public health precautions, including immediate COVID-19 testing and offered vaccines upon arrival.
DHS will also coordinate with numerous other federal agencies to ensure that relocated Afghans have access to medical care and sufficient support to enable their successful resettlement in the United States.
The President is grateful for the critical role the dedicated workforces across the federal government, including our military servicemen and women, diplomats, our intelligence and law enforcement professionals, and many others are in implementing this effort.
Finally, this afternoon, the President and FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell will host a call with the governors of Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi to discuss ongoing preparations for Tropical Storm Ida, which is expected to make landfall on the Gulf Coast as a major hurricane on Sunday.
As some of you may know, Sunday is the 16th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which caused widespread devastation, claimed more than 1,800 lives, and displaced so many families.
The FEMA Administrator was in Louisiana yesterday. She met with the govern- — with Governor Bel Edwards and the state emergency management director to discuss how they’re mobilizing to prepare for what could be a very dangerous storm hitting a region that has been heavily impacted by the Delta variant. And the President will be closely tracking this and receive updates through the course of the weekend.
Aamer, with that, we’ll kick — why don’t you kick it off.
Q Thank you. You put out a statement not too long — before we came out here — that had some pretty sober language in it about the latest briefing the President has gotten from his national security advisors, namely that an attack is likely. I know you’re limited, but is there any more specificity you can offer on what that threat is?
And secondly, what does it mean for the evacuation? Does the intel, in any way, also — and changes that need to be made — limit or restrict the ability to continue or get as much done with the mission through August 31st?
MS. PSAKI: Sure. Well, I think many of you may have seen the statement I put out this morning, but just to highlight the reference I believe Aamer was making:
What I — what I conveyed in the statement was that the national security team the President met with this morning advised the President and Vice President that another terror attack in Kabul is likely. And they are taking maximum force protection measures at the Kabul airport and in surrounding areas with our forces as a result.
I will note that the Department of Defense also just gave a briefing this morning, and I will echo some of the descriptions that they offered.
The threat is ongoing, and it is active. It is — our troops are still in danger. That continues to be the case every day that they are there. Most — this is the most dangerous part of the mission. This is the retrograde period of the mission. And what that means is that this is the period of time when the military commanders on the ground and forces begin to move not just troops home, but also equipment home. And that is often a very dangerous part of any mission, but in this case, they’re also doing that while there is an ongoing and acute threat from ISIS-K. So that is what they are facing.
I would note, since you gave me the opportunity, that the military made clear to the President that they are committed to continuing this mission, to getting — to saving lives, to evacuating more people from the country over the coming days, and completing their mission by the 31st.
What it will also mean, as they move to this retrograde phase, is that there will be a reduction of numbers over the next couple of days. And we’ve been putting those numbers out to all of you twice a day so that you can see how that — how we are evacuating people out of the country. Those numbers will go down in the next couple of days, and you should anticipate that. That is a result of the retrograde process that needs to take place, but also, I will note that, of course, force protection is front and center and is vital to the mission.
Q One more. President Biden told reporters in the Oval Office during his meeting with the Prime Minister that he talked to Dr. Fauci today about the prospect of giving booster shots after five months instead of eight. Can you explain why he’s looking at that and what information he has now that justifies the possibility of going that direction?
MS. PSAKI: Well, let me be very clear: The President would rely on any guidance by the CDC and the FDA and his health and medical experts. That guidance continues to be eight months. That has not changed. So I want to be very clear on that.
If they were to change their guidance, based on data, for any particular group, he would, of course, abide by that. But for people watching at home, for you all who are reporting out this, nothing has changed about the eight-month timeline as it relates to the boosters.
Q But why did they go — why is this conversation even happening? What sort of triggered going from eight to five?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would say I can’t — I obviously wasn’t in — sitting in the meeting having the discussion with them on this. But Israel has taken the step of doing six-month boosters, and it’s — the President referenced advice he’d been given from the Prime Minister. Obviously, we make our own assessments based on our health and medical experts here in the United States, and nothing has changed on that front.
So I think it was more likely a reference to that. And obviously, we have ongoing discussions with our health and medical experts about what they look at.
Go ahead, Trevor.
Q Two on Afghanistan. First, I just wanted to get an update on the President’s plans, if he has any, to meet the troops when their remains are returned to the United States.
MS. PSAKI: Well, there hasn’t been an announcement, as you know, by the U.S. military about the timing of that, but I can reiterate what I conveyed yesterday, which is: The President will look for any opportunity to honor the servicemen and women who lost their lives yesterday. But I don’t have anything to announce at this point in time.
Q Okay. And then just one other thing. There’s been some reporting around the Taliban requesting a diplomatic — an ongoing diplomatic presence in Kabul from the United States. Could you talk a little bit about what the thinking is here at the White House about whether that’s appropriate and how or if that would happen after the end of August?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would say, first, that we are looking at ways — and I will refer to our Secretary of State and the State Department here — to continue to engage.
I’ll note something I said — I know this wasn’t exactly your question, but just to get it in here — that the President did direct the Secretary of State to continue diplomatic efforts with international partners to secure means for third-country nationals and Afghans with visas to leave the country, even after the U.S. military presence ends.
A part of that would certainly be having a coordinated approach and engagement with the Taliban, because in order to continue to evacuate any American citizen who was not yet prepared to leave, who wants to leave, third-country nationals and Afghans with visas — we will need to coordinate with the Taliban. That does not mean or translate into a presence on the ground. As we’ve noted, we are pulling our presence out by the 31st, and that has not changed.
Q Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Menendez put out a statement that said, in part, “We can’t trust the Taliban with American security,” in terms of — in the wake of the attack yesterday. I don’t want to get into a semantic debate about the word “trust,” but I guess my question is: Is the coordination with the Taliban the best of bad options right now? Or was it the view, from the military and the White House, that it was the only option, given the dynamics on the ground?
MS. PSAKI: Maybe both. And I will say, I know — I won’t get into a semantic debate, but I think it’s worth repeating as often as I can that we don’t trust the Taliban. This is not about trust.
But there is a reality on the ground, and the reality is the Afghan — the Taliban control large swaths of Afghanistan, including the area surrounding the perimeter of the airport. So, by necessity, that is our option — to coordinate with to get American citizens out; to get our Afghan partners out; to get individuals, who are eligible for the range of programs the United States has, out. And we have now evacuated more than 105,000 people as a result of those coordinated — in large part as a result of those coordinated efforts of getting people out.
But I will say that, as the Department of Defense noted earlier today, clearly something went wrong here in the process — that we saw the ISIS-K attack occur yesterday. We don’t have additional information to suggest that it was, you know, intentional, or anything along those lines, which was a question that was asked yesterday. But clearly, there was a break in the security process here. There’s no question about that.
Q And then, just one more kind of following up on what Aamer asked. It is rare that you have U.S. officials be this definitive about the security threats that are being faced anywhere in the world, but this has always been something the President has pointed to as to why he wanted to stick to the August 31st deadline.
Is there a tangible difference in what you guys are seeing or have seen over the course of the last several days that makes this moment different than what the President was citing a week ago or 10 days ago?
M. PSAKI: Well, like, I can’t always — and I know you’re not asking me to — but I can’t clearly get into specific details from here. But what I think the — the reason we put this out publicly in the way we did is because yesterday there was an attack by terrorists that killed 13 members of the U.S. military. And it’s important for us, as the fed- — as the government, to be clear about what threat our U.S. forces are facing on the ground as they continue to implement the mission.
And that threat is acute, it is ongoing. Our troops are still in danger. And they are taking the steps they are taking to save lives and evacuate people because of their commitment to the mission. And we felt it was important for people to understand that.
Q Thanks, Jen. I also wanted to ask you about the statement you put out. You said that in light of yesterday’s attack, the troops there are taking maximum force protection measures at Kabul airport. What resources are available to them that they didn’t have yesterday? They have the same number of troops and the same amount of equipment.
MS. PSAKI: Any resources that they need and they request from the President, they will be granted. But I’m not going to get into additional details.
Q Okay. And then I’m also wondering if the President has any plans to speak to the families of the fallen service members.
MS. PSAKI: Yeah, so how this process works is the next-of- kin notifications would, of course, happen by the Department of Defense, typically in person, to next of kin. I believe they gave an update on that this morning and conveyed that that process is ongoing. The President wouldn’t then make a call or reach out until that process is completed. And it would be up to the next of kin and the families to determine if they are prepared to receive a call from the President of the United States.
And I think it’s important to note that this may be the worst day of their lives. And they may or may not feel they’re ready to talk to the United States or they want to talk to the President of the United States. And that’s their choice.
But I expect, once any calls are completed, we’ll provide you all an update.
Q Great. And then, finally, I want to know if the White House has any reaction to the swath of Republican lawmakers who are now calling on the President to resign over this.
MS. PSAKI: Well, Nancy, I have to say that seeing some of this occur, or be called for, or be put out on Twitter — you know, the backdrop here is the U.S. men and women of the military deployed on the ground are bravely continuing to implement a mission to save lives on the ground — American citizens, Afghan partners, many people that some of these same individuals are calling for us to evacuate.
Yesterday, they lost 13 of their own, and the President made absolutely clear that we are going to hunt down, go after, and kill the terrorists who are responsible. Everyone should be supportive of that.
Q So you’re saying now is not the time for politics?
MS. PSAKI: Correct.
Q Thank you, Jen. When the President says, “We will hunt you down and make you pay,” what does that look like? Is he going to order a mission to kill the people responsible? Or would he be satisfied if they are captured and brought to trial?
MS. PSAKI: I think he made clear yesterday that he does not want them to live on the Earth anymore.
Q Okay. And as the U.S. is coordinating with the
Taliban about security for the next couple days, some of the people running security for the Taliban in Kabul are terrorists with millions of dollars’ worth of bounties on their heads. Are we going to try to bring those known terrorists to justice before we leave the country?
MS. PSAKI: Peter, I think our focus right now is on doing everything we can to get the remaining American citizens, who want to depart, out of the country; to get our African partners out of the country.
As I just said in response to Phil’s question, this is not a preferred relationship or a situation that we would have designed if we had started from scratch. I think that’s very clear. But right now, we need to continue to coordinate. That’s our focus for the next couple of days.
Q And the last one: You said that you think we’re going to have a great deal of leverage over the Taliban after we leave. Do you think we’re going to have more leverage with no troops on the ground in Afghanistan than we do with thousands of troops on the ground in Afghanistan?
MS. PSAKI: Well, to be clear, one of the steps that the President directed his Secretary of State to take, which was in my statement this morning, was to engage with our international partners to determine what the path forward looks like.
And there are key components here. The Taliban are going to want a functioning airport; so do we. There’s an enormous amount of economic leverage that the global community has. That’s something we need to work with our international partners on. As we have more to update you on, we will update you on it.
Q In terms of the President’s commitment to make those who are responsible for yesterday’s attack pay, is the President committed that even after American troops leave Afghanistan, he would be willing to send in American troops, even in some covert form, to complete that mission to kill those who are responsible?
MS. PSAKI: I’m not going to get into details from here on what going — hunting down and going after the terrorists, who killed 13 servicemembers, will entail or detail, and I don’t think the Department of Defense will either. But that will — he — that commitment will remain until it’s done.
Q Suffice to say it means the potential exists for troops to go back into Afghanistan, even after the 31st?
MS. PSAKI: Again, I’m not going to get into the detail of what that would require. But his commitment remains until it’s done.
Q Understood. In terms of the commitment, just so it’s clear for Americans right now, just four-plus days away from the August 31st deadline: Is the White House’s commitment still, at this point, that all Americans who want to leave Afghanistan will be able to leave before that date?
MS. PSAKI: That is what we are focused on, committed to, and working toward.
Q Back on the diplomatic efforts — it’s Friday; the deadline is Tuesday. What more can you tell us about these talks that the President has directed the Secretary of State to undertake? How close is an agreement? Will we have a diplomatic presence in Afghanistan on September 1st?
MS. PSAKI: That’s not what we’re predicting, nor are we predicting we’re going to have a dip- — we’re not predicting a diplomatic presence on the ground in Afghanistan. We are — what we’re talking about is coordinating with our international partners in order to determine what the path forward looks like so we can continue to evacuate third-country nationals, Afghans with visas, and any American citizens who have not yet departed because they’re not prepared to depart after that period of time.
And that will require coordination with our international partners. It will also require continued engagement in some capacity with the Taliban.
Q So, just to be clear, are you suggesting there will
not be an American diplomatic presence in Afghanistan?
MS. PSAKI: I think we’ve been clear we’re pulling our personnel out by the 31st. I don’t think we’ve made any other assessment. I’ll let the State Department speak to any other plans beyond that.
Q If I could ask you one more question. I think you indicated yesterday that you believe the President has all the legal authority he needs to attack —
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q — ISIS-K. Is it the White House’s view that the
President can lean on the AUMF that was passed right after 9/11 to do so?
MS. PSAKI: I can just assure you the President and the military feel they have all the authorities they need to attack ISIS-K.
Q To follow up on Steve’s question: The G20 — some members of the G20 are pushing for a special meeting on Afghanistan — Italy, India. Is there a discussion yet of having a date for a special G20 meeting on Afghanistan?
MS. PSAKI: It’s a great question. It would really happen and be coordinated through the State Department, Jennifer. So, I would refer you to them. I expect they’ll have more details on their planned engagements with international partners in the coming days.
Q And then, the President in the Oval Office talked about how if diplomacy fails with Iran, he would be willing to look at other options. Can you share a little bit more about what other options might mean?
MS. PSAKI: Well, any president always maintains a range of options. But I would tell you that our objective and our first priority and focus is on a diplomatic path forward, and that’s what — where we’re putting our energies at this point in time.
Q I know that there have been a lot of questions about this, but I just really want to try to get some clarity around: After August 31st, for people who will still be on the ground in Afghanistan and want to get out, is — does the U.S. right now have a vision of a process that they will use to get people out after August 31st? Like — and what is the commitment after August 31st? Is it absolute: If you want to get out of Afghanistan and you are, you know — that you — and you helped the U.S. military, you’re an Afghan, you’ll be able to get out; if you’re a green card holder or someone else who wants to get out, will you — is the U.S. guaranteeing that you will be able to get out?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t think we can guarantee, but what we can do is work toward — and this is what the President directed the Secretary of State to continue diplomatic efforts with international partners to secure means for third-country nationals; Afghans with visas who may be eligible for our programs; of course, any American citizen, who remains in country, to leave the country even after the U.S. military presence ends. There’s a means of mechanisms for that. Those conversations are ongoing. That’s our objective.
Our commitment does not change on October — on August 31st. Obviously, we need to figure out the operational mechanisms, which is the conversation that’s underway.
Q I have a question about green card holders in Afghanistan — U.S. green card holders. Are they being prioritized right now, or is it only U.S. citizens? Are green card holders not being prioritized at this point?
MS. PSAKI: Again, I think you can note from the numbers, even if you look at the last 24 hours — and we got more than 10,000 — I think it was actually a little bit higher than that — people out. Just over 300 of them were American citizens — passport holders, I should say. Obviously, the rest of the people were Afghans, were green card holders, were others. So they are still getting out of the country.
Yes, go ahead.
Q The administration — the Biden administration is filled with people who’ve had a long experience with Afghanistan, many of them dating back years, if not decades.
MS. PSAKI: Including the President.
Q Including the President. Most of that time, the Taliban was the sworn enemy. I mean, it was the enemy against whom we fought.
Is there a recognition inside the administration of the irony — the sort of grim irony of having — being in a position to rely upon and coordinate with and have negotiations with the adversary that they fought — that many of them fought for two decades?
MS. PSAKI: I think irony is far too light of a term. I mean, our — the reality is, here — as kind of to Phil’s earlier question — this is the circumstance we’re faced with. The Taliban controls large swaths of the country. That is not what anyone anticipated at this point in time.
In order to get American citizens out, in order to get our Afghan partners out, in order to get green card holders out, we need to coordinate with the Taliban. We’ve been able to evacuate more than 105,000 people as a result.
This is not the only place in the world where we work — we have to work with adversaries or people who have been enemies, at times, in order to further U.S. national security objectives. That’s a part of what you have to be flexible to do when you’re running the United States or when national security teams are looking to achieve our objectives around the world.
Q I guess what I was asking was a little bit more of the emotional side of it. I mean, do you sense from inside the administration, and the meetings that you’re in, a kind of resignation or frustration, or whatever you want to call it, with the sort of situation that they find themselves in?
MS. PSAKI: I —
Q In that regard. And particularly —
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm. No, I — okay. I understand your question.
I would say, having sat in a lot of these meetings, there’s just not a lot of time for self-reflection right now. The focus is really on the task at hand. And as — even as we’re talking about these threats that are acute and ongoing and increasing, we’re focused on that and what the information is that’s incoming, what steps we can take to get more people out over the coming days or the remaining days.
So, I wouldn’t say there’s a lot of focus on self-reflection at this point in time.
Q Yeah. Thanks, Jen. What is the White House’s reaction to the Supreme Court yesterday overturning the CDC’s targeted evictions moratorium? Does it now — does the White House now want Congress to act to issue a new moratorium?
And what is the White House doing to address what could now become a real evictions crisis for many renters out there?
MS. PSAKI: Sure. Well, first, President Biden would, of course, support congressional action to authorize an eviction moratorium. And the Supreme Court has now clearly outlined that as the sole way a moratorium could remain in effect.
Now, at the same time, I think it’s important to remember what our objective is here. Our objective is to keep as many people around the country in their homes as possible. Federal legislation is one way to do that.
Obviously, the eviction moratorium we have had in place and we’ve been issuing month-to-month is one way to do that. But the ERA funding that came through the American Rescue Plan and is going out to states is another way to do that. And we have asked and we have put out — today, the Department of Treasury and the Secretary of HUD sent a letter calling on all governors, mayors, county officials to put in place their own moratorium. There are seven states across the country who have done that.
It’s — it has the same impact — right? — because it is preventing people from being kicked out of their homes, and the states have the funding, thanks to the American Rescue Plan, to get that done.
Now, the other piece that’s our responsibility that we continue to focus on is working to eliminate any red tape that exists. We made some announcements earlier this week that allows renters to attest to their economic circumstances to make it easier. That is — we have seen an impact in some states, but we’re going to continue to look for ways to ease the burden and make it easier to get access to this funding.
Q You said that Biden would support another moratorium, but does he — is he going to actively urge Congress to take up a vote and pass one — to issue one?
MS. PSAKI: He has conveyed that. But I think it’s really important, just to go back — not to beat a dead horse here, but to not miss the forest through the trees here — which is what we’re trying to do here is prevent people from being evicted from their homes.
If there were enough votes to pass an eviction moratorium in Congress, it would have happened. It hasn’t happened, right? So, what we’re looking at now is how to achieve the objective that we all share, which is to — not everyone, I should say, but a lot of the people who are calling for an extension on this — which is to keep people in their homes. There is means to do that in these states. Seven states have taken the steps. More states can take the steps. They have the funding they need.
Q Thanks, Jen. We’ve heard reports that refugees from Afghanistan have been landing at Dulles Airport, and they’ve had to sit on airplanes for hours at a time, sometimes with no or limited access to food. Is this something the White House is aware of? And are you making any efforts — I know you said DHS is, sort of, taking the lead on relocating Afghans, but what does the White House think about these conditions right now, and what are you all doing about it?
MS. PSAKI: Well, certainly, we are always working to improve the conditions for people who are coming to the country. But I think the important context here is why that is. And that is because our security vetting process is so thorough that even as people are vetted before they come — they go through a background check before they come — we implement multiple layers of checks, including a confirmation, in some cases, on landing. And that is to check the manifests.
And in a limited number of cases, we have been — we have vetting processes that may be unresolved. Very limited, but that may lead to, at times, a delay in individuals being held on plane — on the plane so that we can have that process seen through.
Now, of course, ensuring that people are treated humanely as they are coming to the United States, they have access to food and to water, is something we are committed to. And we will continue to improve any of these conditions.
But I think the reason why these planes are waiting is also an important part of the context here as well.
Q And just to follow up on thing — I know earlier you addressed some of the Republican criticism of the President, but what is your message — what is the White House’s message to Democrats who have expressed substantive concerns about the withdrawal from Afghanistan? Do you have any message to them or response to some of their criticism?
MS. PSAKI: Is there a specific piece?
Q I mean, Congresswoman Susan Wild, for example, has said that, you know, “It’s clear to me that we could not continue to put American servicemembers in danger for an unwinnable war, but I also believe that the evacuation process appears to have been egregiously mishandled.” So, what’s your response to something like that?
MS. PSAKI: Look, I don’t have any direct response to any member of Congress. But I — what I will say is that it is easy to throw stones or be a critic from the outside. It is harder to be in the arena and make difficult decisions.
And the decisions that a Commander-in-Chief has to make include among difficult options. Right? These were the options: You send tens of thousands of more troops in Afghanistan to potentially lose their lives. That’s an option. Some have called — some support that. That’s their prerogative.
You pull out and you don’t put anyone at risk, you don’t put troops at risk, and you don’t evacuate more than 105,000 people. That’s another option.
The option that he has chosen, in coordination and based on the recommendations with his military commanders and advisors on the ground, is to implement an evacuation that has saved the lives, potentially, of more than 105,000 people — certainly at risk of the men and women who are serving in the military as we saw by the events of yesterday. That’s the choice he’s made.
Q But, Jen — but, Jen, apologizes for my — to my colleagues. But, like, you guys have said — repeatedly presented this idea that there’s only two choices. What evidence do you have that there weren’t other choices that could have been made? I mean —
MS. PSAKI: What was the other — what’s the other choice —
Q Well, for — for —
MS. PSAKI: — that anyone is offering?
Q For example, the President could have said to the Ghani government in May, “Look, we’re going to start a mass evacuation of all of the U.S. personnel. We’re going to put out an announcement that says, you know, ‘We advise all of our Afghan allies who worked with us to start evacuating as well.’” It would have been a show of no confidence in the Ghani government. There might have been other repercussions. I’m not suggesting that’s the right way to have gone — I don’t know — but it is another option. And I’m sure there’s 10 other options that I haven’t thought of that —
So why do you present it as these being the only two options?
MS. PSAKI: There are, of course, other options but there are consequences to every option. That is my point.
So, let’s take your example. If we had evacuated and moved in C-17s, 6,000 troops — I think that’s what you’re suggesting — and implemented this evacuation in May, you know what would have happened, in all likelihood? The threat on U.S. forces would have increased at that point in time. ISIS-K —
Q But you would have been operating in a capital that wasn’t overrun by the Taliban at that point.
MS. PSAKI: How do you know that?
Q Well, the Talban wasn’t — wasn’t near Kabul at that point. I mean —
MS. PSAKI: Look, Mike, I think it’s easy to play backseat “let’s look at what could have happened three months, four months ago.” I think we’ve been clear on a couple of things.
I will just say: No one anticipated, I think including on the outside, that the Afghan government would have fallen at the pace they fell. And the President and national — and members of our national security team have spoken to that as well. We didn’t anticipate the Afghan National Security Forces would have folded as they did. We didn’t anticipate that. And as a result of that all happening, we saw a chaotic situation just two weeks ago.
So, you can always — my point in response to the question is that there are consequences to any of these difficult choices and decisions; that’s the — that’s the — that is what faces you as Commander-in-Chief. And that was the larger point I was trying to make.
Q Thank you, Jen. Can you tell us — can you tell us anything about the (inaudible) — the servicemembers who were killed yesterday, like gender, age? Is there anything you can give us without compromising their (inaudible)?
MS. PSAKI: We — I wouldn’t be a position to share details about individuals. That would come from the Department of Defense. And as I noted, the next-of-kin notifications are still happening.
Q So, on Wednesday —
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q — the WHO Director General said the scientific evidence on recommending booster shots remains “inconclusive” and that the WHO is still trying to see it to look at safety. As we know that President Biden and the First Lady will soon take their first shot in — their booster shot in a few weeks. Are you concerned that the President will take maybe a booster shot that is not scientifically — that has no scientific (inaudible)?
MS. PSAKI: No, it was approved by our FDA and recommended here in the United States, and that’s the gold standard of this type of data review.
Q In the last 24 hours, we understand that approximately 12,000 people have been evacuated out of Afghanistan.
MS. PSAKI: Yes.
Q We know that for security reasons you can’t get specific on what security plans are in place, but generally speaking, can you say if any of the protocols or plans on the ground have changed to enable these evacuations safely, despite the threats that are — that are currently there?
MS. PSAKI: Sure. I understand your question, and certainly they adjust and make adjustments on the ground — the commanders on the ground do — in order to keep their troops safe, in order to successfully evacuate more people from the country. And I — as you noted, we’re obviously not going to get into those details from here.
It’s also important to note and just reiterate, as I said earlier, that you will see a reduction in numbers over the next couple of days, and that is because they are beginning the retrograde process over the course of the next couple of days. They will also be mindful of troop posture, in keeping the men and women of our military safe, to the degree they can.
Q Over the last few days, we have seen images of servicemembers kind of creating this human chain and this human barrier, holding people back in Kabul. Do you know if that’s still happening? That seems like it’s putting them in a very vulnerable spot.
MS. PSAKI: The servicemen- — sorry, just so I understand.
Q Servicemembers in Kabul. Just — just images of them kind of blocking groups from getting to a certain area. Is — do you know if that’s still happening or is that one of the changes that’s been implemented?
MS. PSAKI: I can’t — I would — I would point to the Department of Defense for any operational changes they can speak to. And I would predict they’re not going to speak to many in detail.
What I will note and refer to is something General McKenzie said yesterday which really stuck with me, in terms of illustrating what’s happening here. In order to do the security screenings necessary, people have to get quite close. The members of the military have to get quite close to individuals they’re screening. They’ve screened, as we know, tens of thousands of people. So, some images may reflect that.
I think what you’re talking about is something different from that, but I would certainly point you to them for any specifics they can provide.
Q One more on COVID.
MS. PSAKI: Oh, go ahead. Go ahead.
Q On the fake vaccine cards that are making the rounds: The Health and Human Services Office of IG told us this morning that they are receiving, quote, “increasing reports of individuals creating, purchasing, and using fake COVID cards — COVID vaccine cards. How concerned is the White House that this could threaten the nation’s progress against the virus?
MS. PSAKI: I would not state that as our level of concern. Of course, we are concerned about fake vaccine cards. I don’t have an assessment of how widespread it is. I’d have to check with the team and get an assessment of that.
Q Thank you, Jen. Thank you. I had two questions about the President’s commitment to “give it to us straight,” as he often says. The Democratic congressman, Seth Moulton, told journalist Hunter Walker — a former White House colleague — quote, “Even if you completely agree with the Biden administration’s decision to withdraw, the way they have handled this has been a total [F-U-C-K-I-N-G] disaster.” President Biden firmly committed, last night, to evacuate any remaining Americans, but you seemed to say just now, “I don’t think we can guarantee that.” So, which is it?
MS. PSAKI: I think the question was actually about individuals who are still there because they don’t — they’re not prepared to leave, or other Afghans or others who may want to depart, just for clarity. I know you care about context.
Q So there is a commitment to evacuate all Americans? And if so, does that mean there’s some sort of deal with the Taliban?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t even understand what your question is.
Q The question is that there were — the airport evacuation, obviously, was disorganized; it was criticized even by a Democratic congressman. Is there actually a plan behind President Biden’s commitment to evacuate any remaining Americans?
MS. PSAKI: I think the fact that we’ve evacuated more than 105,000 people, including — and I can give you all the latest numbers, which I know the State Department is giving or is about to give.
So, of those evacuated since August 14th, we’ve evacuated at least 5,100 U.S. citizens, likely more. We’ve received confirmation within the last day — more than 300 additional Americans were evacuated. Based on our outreach, there are approximately 500 American citizens we are currently working with who want to leave, and we are communicating directly and in direct contact with them. That speaks to our commitment, I think.
Q And my second question —
MS. PSAKI: Go ahead.
Q And my second question on the topic is: Yesterday, the conservative transparency group, Judicial Watch, released Secret Service records on dog bites involving the First Dog, Major. One e-mail said that Secret Service agents were bitten every single day for eight days, from March 1st to March 8th, and that a White House visitor was as well. At a March 9th briefing, you only described one biting incident to us and described the dogs as being (inaudible) — whisked back to Delaware on a pre-planned trip to visit family friends.
Obviously, that is not the world’s most important story but it is significant because we expect honest information, even for minor stories. So, can you explain to us why there was some kind of misleading account presented to us? And if we can’t get honest information about minor stories, why should we have faith in the administration’s account for larger issues like Afghanistan?
MS. PSAKI: I know you do keep the dog in the news in the briefing room. So thank you for that.
As we’ve stated previously, Major has had some challenges adjusting to life in the White House. He has been receiving additional training, as well as spending some time in Delaware, where the environment is more familiar to him and he is more comfortable.
I don’t have any additional specifics but I think that speaks to where Major is located, to be fully transparent in your ongoing interest in the dog.
Q Unfortunately, these evacuations are happening during a pandemic. Can you tell us a bit about — are these — I believe there is a quarantine, but are —
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q — these people being vaccinated? Because I know that the percentage in Afghanistan’s population is less than 5 percent that are vaccinated.
MS. PSAKI: Sure. Let me give you a kind of an update on this, because we — I know there was a story out earlier today, and I can give you a bit — a bit more detail on it.
So, let me just find all the details.
Well, I can — I can tell you, basically, that individuals who come into the United States are offered a vaccine. For those who are coming in on the condition — on parole, as parolees, it is required. It is a condition of their parole to the United States.
But we have made this available at Dulles, and we are continuing to look for ways to expand access to the vaccine to other places where individuals are landing to provide it as quickly as possible on landing.
In terms of what steps we’re taking, everyone is tested upon arrival, and steps are taken if individuals test positive to quarantine them. Obviously, American citizens are asked to quarantine, and like any other American citizens, that would be something they would do on their own.
Q The President pledged to hunt down people responsible for this attack. How do you prevent that from becoming an open-ended mission, much like the previous, you know, targeting of terrorist groups in Afghanistan?
MS. PSAKI: Well, again, I think the military and the national security team that serves the President has enormous capabilities and capacities and is pursuing a range of missions at the same time. Obviously, the one they are undertaking in Afghanistan is one that is front and center in the news right now.
But I will tell you that we are consistently looking and tracking down and hunting terrorists around the world where they are. This is going to be a part of that effort that will, unfortunately, be ongoing.
And one of the reasons, I would remind you all, that the President made the decision to bring our men and women home is because the terrorist threat has metastasized. There are other parts of the world — and this kind of goes to an earlier question — where we don’t have a military presence on the ground, but we are — or a presence — a diplomatic presence on the ground, but we are still tracking counterterrorism threats. Libya, Yemen are two examples of that. So this — that will continue.
Q And does the administration assess that ISIS-K wants to or has the capability to attack Americans domestically in the United States or just in Afghanistan (inaudible)?
MS. PSAKI: No, that’s not an assessment we’ve made at this time.
Q Yes, Jen. To ensure —
MS. PSAKI: Is today your last day?
Q Yes, it is.
MS. PSAKI: Well, thank you for your services in the media.
Q Thank you. (Applause.) We decided there were too many Steves in the briefing room. (Laughter.)
MS. PSAKI: There are a lot of Steves. I will look into that.
Q But anyway, to ensure Iran never develops a nuclear weapon, President Biden told the Israeli Prime Minister today, quote, “We’re putting diplomacy first and seeing where that takes us. But if diplomacy fails, we’re ready to turn to other options.” Can you detail for us what are those other options?
MS. PSAKI: Well, as I said a little earlier — I mean, any President has a range of options at their disposal; I’m not going to outline those from here. But our first preference and our priority and our focus is on the diplomatic path and pursuing the diplomatic path forward.
So, that is where our energies lie at this point in time.
Go ahead, Karen.
Q Thanks, Jen. Does the President want to see Congress come back from recess to deal with the eviction issue?
MS. PSAKI: That would be up to the Speaker and leaders in Congress to determine. But again — and certainly he would support and would be happy to sign — would love to sign legislation into law. But there are ways to achieve the same objective, and that’s what we’re really pressing on and we have the power to implement from the federal government.
Q And it’s Friday; you usually give us a week ahead.
MS. PSAKI: Oh.
Q Do you have details for what the President is doing next week?
MS. PSAKI: I think maybe I skipped that. Thank you, Karen. Hold on. I didn’t even mean to do that. One second.
Oh, yes. Apologies. Thank you for the prompt.
Every day — and some of these details will be finalized over the coming days. As you can expect, it’s a bit fluid. But every day this weekend and next week, the President will continue to meet with his national security team to discuss intelligence, security, and diplomatic updates on the evolving situation in Afghanistan. And as I noted at the top, he will also be receiving regular updates on the hurricane. We’ll provide those updates to you as they happen.
Next week, the President will also welcome President Zelenskyy of Ukraine to the White House. The visit will affirm the United States’ unwavering support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russia’s ongoing aggression in Donbas and Crimea; our close cooperation on energy security; and our backing for President Zelenskyy’s efforts to tackle corruption and implement a reform agenda based on our shared democratic values.
And on Friday, he will deliver remarks on the July jobs report and the progress made by his administration to build the economy back better. As we have more details over the weekend, we will provide them to all of you.
Q Who’s over your shoulder?
Q Thank you, Jen.
MS. PSAKI: Oh, it’s our Friday guest. (Laughter.) We’ll get to him in a second. We — it’s been a while.
Q Thank you, Jen. Two quick follow-ups here. I wanted to return to the binary of continuing a forever war that both Republican and Democrat administrations oppose — that the polling show the majority of the country oppose — and then the withdrawal and the idea that, you know, no matter what, that that was going to be messy.
Given the events of the past two weeks, does the President feel that U.S. military personnel were put in the best position to carry out their mission on the ground?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would say, first, that anything the U.S. military has asked for, as they’re working to implement this mission, they have been granted, and I think they would confirm that as well.
And the President asks them that at the end of every meeting. I would also note something that was said yesterday at the Department of Defense briefing, which is that they know they — and this is why the men and women of the military are so amazing and incredible — they know they are putting themselves in harm’s way when they’re working to implement missions like these. And they work to implement plans and put together plans that have force posture protection front and center, but when we’re dealing with an ad- — a real threat from ISIS-K, you know, of course events like yesterday unfortunately happen.
Q And then, yesterday the President said that he made the assessment, after talking to his military advisors, that Bagram Air Force Base was not a — much of a value add. I’m curious, because General Milley, earlier in August, said, quote, “If we were to keep both Bagram and the embassy going, that would be a significant number of military forces that would have exceeded what we had or stayed the same or exceeded what we had.”
With that decision about leaving that air base, was that because it wasn’t a value add, or because it would have required, you know, sending more troops over there?
MS. PSAKI: Well, Bagram is a — was an enormous base that required an enormous presence. It also made it — and also, it has a significant diff- — distance, I should say, from Kabul. “Significant,” I guess, is all relative. But it’s farther — it’s far away from Kabul, so it would’ve required quite a presence to protect, and it wasn’t located in a place that would’ve been as effective in evacuating people who are located in Kabul.
Q A really quick one —
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q The President said yesterday, quote, “We have greater threats coming out of other countries a heck of a lot closer to the United States.” Is there any — anything that you can tell us a little bit, like what countries he was referring to in particular, as opposed to Afghanistan? It’s a bit of an alarming statement.
MS. PSAKI: I don’t — I think he was intending to convey what he’s conveyed many times about the metastasizing threat from a range of terrorist organizations that have greater capacities around the world, and how we need to keep our eye focused on those as being one of the root reasons why he brought our men and women home.
Q Does the administration have any guarantee from the Taliban not to harm Americans who are left behind, or choose to stay behind, in Afghanistan after August 31st?
MS. PSAKI: Well, that is certainly our expectation, yes, and what we’re working through.
Q Jen, I’d like to follow up on Philip’s question. But very quickly, a source, while we’ve been sitting here, said to me that the Taliban is preparing to take over the airport by as early as Saturday, and there may already be some infiltration into parts controlled by the military at HKIA. I’m wondering, has the President moved up the August 31st withdrawal, even unofficially?
MS. PSAKI: No. And the Department of Defense gave an operational update about two hours ago on the retrograde process. I have not, obviously, seen that reporting, and I’m happy to talk to them about it after. But nothing had changed.
Q So, just a quick question on — a follow-up to Philip’s question. You know, you said it’s easy to be a critic from the outside, as we’ve heard from lawmakers, but some members of the Marine Corps have taken to social media and they’re criticizing not the President, but top generals for failing to be accountable for a strategy that they say cost lives.
For example, we’ve just been talking about Bagram. The closing of that no longer had the high-trauma capabilities to deal with some of these horrible and horrific injuries —
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
Q — and that the airport was ill-equipped. Any sort of serious injuries, you’d have to be Medevac’d to Germany. Was this a miscalculation on the part of the generals?
And with regard to the President, he said he was listening to his generals.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
Q Two questions really quickly on that.
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q Does he believe he was given bad advice? And will he ask for any resignations of his generals, given the high cost of American and Afghan lives?
MS. PSAKI: “No” to both of those questions. I think that what the President looks at the events of yesterday as is a tragedy and one that was felt viscerally by the leaders of the military as well. And losing members of your — men and women working for you from the service branches is devastating. It’s devastating for the President. It’s devastating for the leaders of the military, as many times as it has happened.
And it is a reflection on all of them and the people on the ground that they are continuing to implement this mission, even under difficult and risky circumstances.
Q Just as a follow-up to the previous question: Republican lawmakers have really targeted Secretary of State Blinken. They went so far as to introduce impeachment articles today. Does the President still have confidence in the Secretary of State? And what is the White House’s response to the articles of impeachment?
MS. PSAKI: Yes, he does. And I have no response on a day where we’re still honoring the lives of men and women in the military who were lost yesterday.
Q Thanks, Jen. I’ve got two questions. One on Afghanistan and one on the bilateral.
On Afghanistan, do you have any updates as the — as to the — those people, those Americans that you were saying you were trying — still trying to contact and figure out where they are?
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q Has there been any progress on that front?
MS. PSAKI: So I gave a little bit of an update earlier, but we’ve received — that just over the last day, we evacuated more than 300 additional Americans. Those were a number of people who we’re working to engage with and be in contact with.
There are approximately 500 American citizens we are currently working with who want to leave, and we’re communicating directly with, to facilitate their evacuation.
That’s the update from the State Department. They may have more details given they have been overseeing the constant contact, which we went and did another round of contacts via email, text, WhatsApp, phone, over the course of yesterday.
Q And, on the bilateral, the President said that he was still, right now, focused on diplomacy regarding the Iran nuclear deal. How long is he willing to fight for that diplomatic path? What — when is he going to feel like it’s done and he’s moving to other options?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I’m just not going to give an end date on that given it is, by far and away, our best option and the preferable option.
And we’re in this situation because the prior administration pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal and prevented us from having the visibility we need into Iran’s capabilities. And that is why we’re going to continue to pursue it.
But I don’t have an end date or an end timeline.
Q Thanks, Jen. Justice Breyer gave an interesting interview to the New York Times today. I know it’s — there’s a lot of sensitivities about looking like you’re pushing out a justice, but I’m wondering if the White House has made any preparations for a potential Supreme Court justice opening.
MS. PSAKI: Again, it’s going to be up to any sitting Supreme Court justice to make a determination about their timeline and how long they’ll stay.
Q And has the President reached out to any governors about the lack of rental assistance aid that has actually gone out in states? I know, you know, the federal government can only control so much —
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q — but I’m wondering if the President has reached out to governors specifically to urge them to get that aid out.
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would say that we have had a number of members of his Cabinet and senior officials who have been engaged directly with governors about how to get the aid out. And a number of the steps we’ve taken to cut the red tape, and make it easier from the federal government, has been a part — you know, a result in part of these discussions on what can make it easier to get the money out.
Yeah. Go ahead. Oh. Oh, sorry. Go ahead. Yep.
Q Thank you very much, Jen. About the relationship with the Taliban —
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
Q — but looking forward. The U.S. obviously has got some ongoing asks of the Taliban, like some cooperation on helping to get future people out —
MS. PSAKI: Yep.
Q — and, presumably, looking for these Islamic State thugs. What are the Taliban asking in return? Are they asking for recognition? Are they asking for an embassy to be put back there? What’s their, kind of, big ask?
MS. PSAKI: I think I should be really clear here: There’s no rush to recognition of any sort by the United States or any international partners we have talked to. I am, as I’ve said in the past, blissfully not a spokesperson for the Taliban. So, I would ask you to ask them that question as to what they want.
Go ahead, in the back.
Q Thank you, Jen. You talked earlier about COVID screenings for evacuees as they are coming in.
MS. PSAKI: Yep.
Q Do you have any information or indication of what the positivity rate is? And can you say how many times are these evacuees being tested? You said that they are being tested in Kabul. Are they being tested again once they arrive in the U.S.?
MS. PSAKI: They are tested when they arrive here.
Q Can you say what the positivity rate is?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have that information. I will see if the Department of Homeland Security has it.
Q And just one more on vaccines that were donated to Afghanistan —
MS. PSAKI: And I would just — but I would just reiterate: Individuals who test positive are quarantined and separated. So, that is how that is handled.
Q Understood. And can I ask about — the U.S. has donated over 3 million COVID vaccines to Afghanistan. The U.N. put out a report this week saying that the number of vaccinations in Afghanistan has significantly dropped since the Taliban took over.
Does the White House or does the U.S. government have any indication of what’s happened to those vaccines? Are they in the hands of the Taliban, and are they still being distributed? Or is there a concern that the Taliban might try to sell those doses?
MS. PSAKI: Well, we have not worked with the Taliban as a — as the government. Right? And a lot of these assistance is often distributed through humanitarian organizations or others who work through COVAX. I would have to check and see what the implementation and mechanisms are, but we are quite careful and very focused on vaccines not — getting into the right hands.
And for individual — for countries we work with — and remember, this was an issue with Cuba, right? — we need to have mechanisms to ensure that they are getting out to the populations who need to get access to the vaccines.
Q Thank you, Jen. I would like to ask you if there is link between Taliban and ISIS, because the Taliban released from the president — from the jail — based off U.S. and Taliban agreement. Now Afghan people are more worried that the Taliban and ISIS-K — they are friend — is going to be okay. And, still, they are friend with the al Qaeda too, which is they didn’t keep their commitment. If not, do you think that it’s going to be, you know, started again another civil war in Afghanistan? I don’t understand: Taliban and ISIS, they are friend or they are enemy?
MS. PSAKI: I think there’s clear historic evidence that they have been enemies in the past. I don’t have any assessment, beyond what we’ve said over the last few days, about the fact that we have no information to suggest that the Taliban had knowledge of or engagement in the ISIS-K attack. Beyond that, what we have available or what I can speak to is historic precedent.
Q Thanks, Jen. Did you want to take —
MS. PSAKI: Oh, yes, let me go — hello. So, we have — I — we haven’t done this in a while. But — so, this is — let’s see — Blake Paterson. Thanks for joining us, Blake, who is from The Advocate in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. How can we help you, Blake — or what question do you have, I guess I should say?
Q Thanks for having me. You know, Hurricane Ida is on Louisiana’s doorstep. But today marks the one-year anniversary since an even stronger storm — Hurricane Laura — devastated Lake Charles in Southwest Louisiana.
President Biden promised, back in May, that help was on the way, but the region still hasn’t received a penny in supplemental disaster relief. You know, what can you say to the people of Louisiana for how much longer they need to wait for President Biden and Congress to act? And with this latest storm coming, you know, why should Louisianans trust that the Biden administration will be there to back them up if it’s just as devastating?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I can tell you that the President is incredibly focused on Hurricane Ida and the fact that it is approaching your community and your state later this weekend.
I think we’re going to announce this shortly, but I’ll tell you: We are sending a surge response team — 50 FEMA paramedics who will be providing medical care statewide; 47 FEMA ambulances, operated by 94 FEMA emergency medical service providers, will be supporting patient movements statewide to assist the state in decompressing hospital load should that be needed.
We have over 250 personnel across the state and 20 VA hospital beds. We have been working to provide direct assistance and even get ahead of the storm. We’re pre-positioning personnel and resources that I noted, including food, water, and generators, to respond to what could be a dangerous hurricane hitting the region over the course of the next day.
I also noted that, yesterday, as you know, the FEMA administration was down in the region, and the President will speak with the governor later this afternoon. And in terms of the supplemental — supplementary funding from the hurricane from last year, I’ll have to check on the status of that and what the holdups are.
Thank you for joining us and for your patience. Appreciate it.
Okay. Thanks, everyone. We’ll see you all on Monday.
Q Jen, if you couldn’t anticipate the fall of Kabul, how could we be sure that we’ll be able to get the bombers at the — that bombed the airport?
MS. PSAKI: I think you should have faith on the capabilities of our military and our national security team.
Thank you, everyone.
2:50 P.M. EDT