Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jen Psaki, October 14, 2021
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
3:42 P.M. EDT
MS. PSAKI: Hi, everyone. All right. Hello. Hello. Okay, just a couple of items for you at the top.
Today we learned that last week’s initial unemployment claims fell to another pre-pandemic low, down below 300,000 for the first time in almost 20 months. The four-week average similarly fell to a new low, down nearly 60 percent from when President Biden took office.
This is a testament to the progress we’ve made on the economy, thanks to President Biden’s success in getting Americans vaccinated and getting economic relief to the middle class.
The week before the President took office — just to give you a few fr- — points of reference — jobless claims were at nearly 900,000; now they’re down to 293,000. We’ve created nearly 5 million jobs in eight months. That’s 600,000 new jobs every month, on average — 10 times the rate we inherited. Growth is up. Wages are up. And our unemployment rate is down below 5 percent — 18 months faster than forecasters predicted earlier this year.
We know there is still more work to do, as we’ve been talking about in here over the last several days and weeks. America is facing the same challenges on supply chains that most other developed countries are facing as well. But thanks to the work of this administration, we’re leading the world in our recovery and we’re in a year of unprecedented growth.
Also, just one announcement about today that I think you saw already, but just in case: Today, during President Biden’s meeting with President Kenyatta of Kenya, he announced a historic, one-time donation of over 17 million doses of Johnson & Johnson vaccine to the African Union, on top of the 50 million doses we have already donated to the African Union. This donation complements the African Union’s own groundbreaking regional procurement of J&J — Johnson & Johnson — via the African Vaccine Acquisition Trust. All 17 million doses of J&J are available for delivery immediately and will be delivered to the African Union in the coming weeks.
One other — two other just scheduling notes and one little pr- — one scheduling, one preview for tomorrow: President Biden — I think you may have seen this, but just in case — is honor- — will be — is honored to be speaking this Saturday at the 40th Annual National Police Officers’ Memorial Service, which recognizes the 491 members of law enforcement who lost their lives in the line of duty in 2019 and 2020.
It’s particularly poignant that this memorial is being held at the U.S. Capitol where, nine months ago, we saw the incredible bravery of the members of the U.S. Capitol Police, the Metropolitan Police Department, and other law enforcement agencies who helped protect the Constitution and what the President — on what the President called the citad- — and what the President called “the citadel of our democracy” in one of the darkest days — on one of the darkest days in our modern history.
We also recognize the important role law enforcement has played on the frontlines of the pandemic and the fight against the spike in gun crime over the last year and a half. The President has delivered additional money, as you know, through the Rescue Plan, to support law enforcement agencies that have been hit hard during this period and has long been an advocate of additional resources to bolter [sic] effect- — bolster effective accountable community policing.
Also wanted to just note: As you know, tomorrow, the President is headed to Connecticut. He will visit a childcare center in Hartford, where he will deliver remarks highlighting the need for investments in childcare, in preschool that provide a lifetime of benefits for children, help parents work, and support equitable economic growth.
The United States currently ranked 35th out of 37 countries tracked by the OECD in public investment in child — children from birth to five as a percentage of GDP. And only about half of three- and four-year-olds in the United States are enrolled in early childhood education, compared to more than 90 percent of children in advanced countries like Germany, France, the United Kingdom, and even Latvia — I shouldn’t say “even Latvia” — Latvia as well.
The average annual cost of a childcare center for a toddler in Hartford is $16,000. And a typical four-person household in the state would need to spend more than 26 percent of their income for childcare for two young children each year.
The President’s Build Back Better Agenda would ensure parents earning up to 150 percent of the state’s median income pay no more than 7 percent of their income on childcare, and the lowest-income families will receive childcare for free.
After visiting the child center, he will join former Senator Chris Dodd — a longtime friend; members of the Connecticut congressional delegation; Governor Ned Lamont; the president of UConn; and students, faculty, and staff to mark the dedication of The Dodd Center for Human Rights at the University of Connecticut.
Sorry, a few things at the top. Go ahead, Josh.
Q No worries. Thanks, Jen. Two things. John Kerry told AP that it hurts his efforts to get global agreements on climate change without a deal at home. Would President Biden be a credible messenger on the international stage in two weeks without a clear path for his agenda here?
MS. PSAKI: Absolutely. And here’s why: What the President has clearly done is prioritize climate and investment in climate — pushing for climate legislation, taking executive actions on climate — in order to ma- — take real action here at home domestically — something that we need to do that we were on pause for the last four years over — and also to send a message to the world that this is a top priority for him. It’s something he takes very seriously.
The world watches closely, of course. They know that we’re working through our legislative agenda, that we’re trying to get these things across the finish line. And I think that indicates the President’s clear commitment and will enable him to have a strong seat at the table — regain the United States’ seat at the table.
Q And then, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said he plans for a vote next week to try and advance the voting rights bill. Given that that vote is coming up, what additional steps does the President plan to take on voting rights? And should the vote fail, what efforts is this administration willing to make?
MS. PSAKI: Well, Josh, the — ensuring that voting rights legislation becomes law remains a top priority to the President. We absolutely have to do it; we must do it. It’s not an option not to do it.
The President, of course, has talked with members of Congress about his commitment to this, and he’s asked the Vice President — actually agreed with the Vice President on her asking that she should run point and lead the effort to get voting rights — make voting rights a reality across the country. You’ve seen her take a number of actions on this front.
So I expect the President will continue to be engaged over the course of the coming days, and he will continue to advocate for the need to get this done to protect our democracy and protect people’s fundamental rights.
Q Jen, you’ve got about 10,000 John Deere workers on strike, a number of other strikes going on. How concerned are you about the impact this might have on the economy or the supply chain? And do you have any plans to intervene?
MS. PSAKI: Well, we, of course, are not going to speak to any individual ongoing — potential individual labor actions, as you know, as a standard.
But I will note that the President and the Vice President often say and — that this is the most pro-union administration in history, and they will continue to govern and lead with that in mind. And they both feel that strongly supporting unions, the ability of workers to organize if they so choose, collective bargaining and the right to strike, which is one part of collective bargaining, are fundamental rights.
It’s also the responsibility of management and the union to bargain with each other and resolve their differences. That’s a part of why unions are around and the role they play.
We also know that in healthy economies, employees [employers] must compete for workers, and we’re seeing that. And as unemployment drops, our economy is shifting to a labor market where workers have more bargaining power. Ultimately, that’s a good thing for workers to have more bargaining power and be able to choose more. That means workers can push for higher wages and more dignity and respect in the workplace.
So, this has long been a fundamental value for the President — something he’ll continue to support broadly across the country.
Q And secondly, how much longer are you willing to wait for the budget talks to reach some sort of conclusion? Are you — is there a sense of impatience here?
MS. PSAKI: I wouldn’t put it in those terms. But what I would say is that the President is eager to get things done for the American people and to deliver on what he’s promised. And so, as I said yesterday, the time for negotiations is not unending.
And we’re eager to move forward. We’re eager to deliver on what he promised to the American people, which will result in addressing some of the issues I touched on earlier: making childcare more affordable; making universal pre-K a reality; addressing the climate crisis; making sure people have — kids have clean drinking water, broadband is accessible. We’re repairing roads, rails, and bridges across the country. We’re eager to act. I wouldn’t say it’s impatience; I would say it’s an interest in moving forward.
Q Thanks, Jen. Is it the President’s position that those who defy congressional subpoenas related to January 6th should face prosecution from the Justice Department?
MS. PSAKI: Well, Kaitlan, I know that that has been raised as an issue, of course, by what we’ve seen happen in Congress. It’s the purview of the Department of Justice to determine if there would be a criminal referral — a criminal — any criminal decisions, so — and they handle exclusively those decisions, so I’d point you to them.
Q But does he think those who defy these congressional subpoenas — that are related to something that he thinks is so important that he is not going to assert executive privilege, as his predecessor has requested — that they should face consequences for defying the subpoenas?
MS. PSAKI: Well, again, Kaitlan, I think why you’re asking this question is because it’s been raised by the Selec- — by the committee — the January 6th Select Committee — about criminal actions or criminal referral. That’s something that is between them and the Department of Justice, an independent agency that would make any of those decisions.
Q And citing the upcoming election for governor in Virginia, Senator Mark Warner said he thinks the House needs to go ahead and vote on the hard infrastructure bill so Democrats can have a win on the table to run on. Does the President agree with that sentiment?
MS. PSAKI: The President wants to get both pieces of legislation passed. That requires having the majority of votes in Congress to get that done, and that’s what he’s working to get across the finish line.
Q Is there any other response to Senator Warner?
MS. PSAKI: Nope. Go ahead.
Q Thanks, Jen. I’m going to follow up on a couple that Steve asked.
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q But he asked about the concern at the White House about these strikes and the potential impact on the economy.
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q Is there a worry right now — as we’re seeing this happening in different parts of the country, different industries — that this could have a significant impact?
MS. PSAKI: I have not heard that expressed by our economic team at this point. I’m happy to check with them and see if that’s a concern they have.
Q And on the timing of negotiations, talking about the patience issue, the White House announced the President’s trip to Europe at the end of this month. Nancy Pelosi has set an October 31st deadline to get the infrastructure package passed. Does the President expect that negotiations will be completed by the time he leaves for that trip at the end of the month?
MS. PSAKI: I’m not going to set new timelines here. I will reiterate that we don’t feel that the time is unending, and we feel it’s time to move forward with negotiations, move to a point — place where we have a unified package, but I’m not going to set a new timeline today.
Q Can the President leave for that trip if negotiations are still going on on Capitol Hill and at the White House?
MS. PSAKI: Again, I’m not going to set a new timeline today. Obviously, we want to move this forward as quickly as possible.
Q Thank you, Jen. And following up on the questions about January 6th: I know you’ve spoken to the decision by the White House Counsel’s Office to tell the Archives to hand over those documents. Has there been any concern or conversation about what might happen one day when the shoe is on the other foot and if another administration or the other party comes in and says there’s an extraordinary circumstance and they want to hand over documents that were deemed privileged by the Biden administration?
MS. PSAKI: I can assure you, Ed, that this President has no intention to lead an insurrection on our nation’s Capitol.
Q I anticipated that would be your answer almost word for word.
MS. PSAKI: Oh, good.
Q But part of — I mean, you can understand that you’re opening, potentially, a Pandora’s box here by setting this precedent.
MS. PSAKI: Actually, we don’t — we don’t see it that way. I understand why you’re asking this question. We talked about this a little bit last week as well.
I think it is ultimately important for people to understand and remember that January 6th was an incredibly dark day — one of the darkest days in our democracy. There was an insurrection on our nation’s Capitol.
What we’re talking about here is getting to the bottom of that. Shouldn’t everybody want to get to the bottom of that? Democrats, Republicans, people who have no political affiliation whatsoever.
I will reiterate that we’re going to assess and review, as is standard in the process, the documents and any efforts to exert executive privilege on a case-by-case basis. And we’ll provide you updates on those as those processes proceed. And we will continue, as it relates to executive privilege for other issues, to evaluate that on a case-by-case basis, as every White House has in the past.
But I think if you look back at past Presidents, Democratic and Republican, there isn’t really a precedent for what we’re talking about with the select committee and what they’re trying to get to the bottom of. And the uniqueness of that, I think, is important context.
Q On the issue of negotiating with Congress on the President’s agenda, the negotiating timetable isn’t open-ended. Is there anything new you can say about what the President himself has done this week to engage in those negotiations?
MS. PSAKI: I can tell you that the President has been deeply engaged on the phone with members, getting updates from his team and senior members of his team on their conversations and discussions; eager to hear where there’s agreement, where there’s still disagreement, and how to shake things loose to move them forward.
Q And I have an FDA question, but not on what you might anticipate.
MS. PSAKI: Oh, I like the setup. Okay.
Q There was a decision this week by the agency to approve specific vapes, or vaping cigarettes, saying they’re appropriate protection of public health. What does the President make of that decision? And does he support taxing e-cigarettes along with other more traditional tobacco products?
I know this was an element of the Build Back Better payfor agenda originally. Does he still support doing that?
MS. PSAKI: It wasn’t something that he had proposed originally, so I would just note that. Obviously, we would —
Q Sorry, yes. Some Democrats —
MS. PSAKI: Some Democrats.
Q — proposed it as —
MS. PSAKI: But I think it’s important context, right? —
Q Yes. Totally.
MS. PSAKI: — that he didn’t propose that.
Look, the FDA, as you noted, did approve some e-cigarettes. They spoke to this, and I would certainly point you to their comments. The President supports the independent review and process of the FDA.
Beyond that, I’m not aware of any proposal for taxing cigarettes coming from here.
Q Thank you, Jen. The White House Chief of Staff, Ron Klain, retweeted a message yesterday — not once, but twice — that inflation and supply chain issues are “high class” issues. But some of the sharpest price increases over the last month included products that every American buys: beef products; chicken; egg; regular, unleaded gasoline; laundry equipment; furniture; clothing. The list goes on. Why you would Ron Klain tweet that? And would you agree that that’s a little bit tone deaf?
MS. PSAKI: Do you think two tweets means more? I’m just curious.
So, just for context, what the — what Ron Klain retweeted was a tweet from the former Chairman of Economic Advisers, Jason Furman, where he said — for full context, which I think is important — “Most of the economic problems we’re facing (inflation, supply chains) are high class problems.” What he went on to say is, “We wouldn’t have had them if the unemployment rate was still 10 percent. We would instead have had a much worse problem.”
So I think the point here is: While there are some critics who are saying — what some of these critics are saying is: I don’t — we don’t know if they’re saying that what they thought was great was when the unemployment rate was double what it is today, or when people were locked in their homes and therefore gas prices were lower.
We’re at this point because the unemployment rate has come down and been cut in half, because people are buying more goods, because people are traveling, and because demand is up, and because the economy is turning back on.
So, Jason Furman, of course, is more than capable of speaking or tweeting for himself, obviously, and providing any additional context.
But what the point is here is that — is that we are at this point because we’ve made progress in the economy, and what would be worse, in our view, is if the unemployment rate was at 10 percent, people were out of work, hundreds of thousands of people were still dying of COVID, and people weren’t able to lose their homes. So, that’s the full context.
Q And that’s a much more eloquent way of putting it than the “high class” comment in that tweet. It’s not the first time that Ron Klain’s Twitter has drawn some sharp criticism. Is that something that the White House is addressing at all, given this pushback, this criticism?
MS. PSAKI: Are we addressing the Chief of Staff’s Twitter habits?
MS. PSAKI: It is not a top priority, I would tell you, at this point in time. The Chief of Staff is out there speaking on his own accord to members of Congress, to the media, frequently, as any chief of staff does. And I think it’s important also for anyone here to be able to tout points that they find interesting, and that’s the purpose of public speech.
Q And then, on the supply chain remedies that we were going through yesterday, there’s been obviously some action from the White House in brokering these agreements, but the private sector is calling for more federal action on things like expanding commercial driver licenses, easing some restrictions.
What is the hesitation? Why hasn’t this happened yet? And is there any concern that if some of these actions aren’t taken right now, at a certain point, it’ll become too late and this problem will just bottleneck further?
MS. PSAKI: They actually have been happening. So the Department of Transportation has been supporting state DMVs for months and months as they return to or even exceed pre-pandemic commercial driver’s license issuance rates, which will allow more people to have commercial driver’s licenses so that they can drive trucks and more trucks that can move goods across the country.
And so, in 2021, an average of 50,000 commercial driver’s license — licenses and learner’s permits were issued each month, which is 14 percent higher than the 2019 monthly average and 60 percent higher than the 2020 monthly average.
The other thing that the Department of Transportation has been doing is expanding hours of service exemptions for truck drivers during the pandemic to support the flow of emergency goods and assistance from some — for some supply chains. So that’s another step.
We also — and so the point is: We’ve been — we’ve been working on these pieces where we — they’ve been in process. And what we announced yesterday was essentially an agreement between the labor unions, who are going to fill the hours — right? — at these ports — an important bottleneck piece — as well as the suppliers who will be using the expanded hours, and the ports themselves which will help move this forward quickly and help reduce some of the delays.
Q Has the President made a decision on the FDA commissioner?
MS. PSAKI: Not yet.
Q With the time constraints for an acting commissioner to serve, is the President committed to beat that time constraint to allow Dr. Woodcock to remain if there’s a nominee?
MS. PSAKI: Well, the President is definitely eager to make a decision about an FDA nominee and, of course, make that decision public once it’s made. We’re just not quite at that point yet.
In terms of the timeline, I’m not aware of what exactly that timeline is, but certainly —
Q For an acting commissioner.
MS. PSAKI: Oh, yeah, yeah, I understand. I just don’t know when it — I don’t know when it ends, but we are certainly eager to do this in short order.
Q On the Connecticut visit, you outlined some elements related to childcare —
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q — that the President wants to talk about. So can we then assume those are red lines for the President — that those kinds of programs and ideas must be included in the package?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would say that certainly addressing the care economy and easing the burden on families — often women, frankly — in the workforce is a core priority, of course, for the President. He wants to see everything in the package, and he wants to lift up what’s in the package so people understand the key components.
I don’t have any new red lines to set for you today. But, certainly, addressing the care economy — childcare is a part of it — is something that’s a priority and important to the President and important to many, many — if not the vast majority or every single member of Congress.
Q Back to the issue of supply chain.
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q In addition to announcing the deal yesterday between the Longshoremen’s union and the Port of Los Angeles, the President also called on the private sector and elements in it to essentially boost their throughput.
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q That requires — or it could require many workers who are already stressed out and overworked to work longer hours. How do you thread that, where, you know — and we see it across the economy — workers are increasingly resigning from their jobs; they’re burnt out? This President obviously believes that there are certain things that the private sector has to do for the betterment of the country. How do you thread those two things?
MS. PSAKI: Well, you thread them by having everyone at the table — representatives of the labor unions ensuring that they can go back to their workers and convey safety is a high priority, treatment is a high priority, pay and overtime is a high priority. It’s important to have these companies at the table so they understand what the labor unions are expecting. And it’s important, of course, to have, whether it’s the ports or other modes and means of transportation at the table so they can also convey what their needs are.
And what he was asking for — you know, if you look at moving goods, for example — you know, UPS and FedEx are about 40 percent of the market of how goods are transported. He’s asking others who are moving goods to also step up their game, other companies and suppliers to also step up their game. And this is a model for how that could be done.
Q The labor union IATSE is talking about striking the studios next week. Their primary complaint is that they’re not given enough time for rest. Is the President, without wanting to step into this dispute, is he sympathetic?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would say, first, that’s a different issue — for clarity, right? That is not about moving goods or the supply chain, just for clarity, for people who are reading the transcript.
Of cou- — the President is — of course I’m not going to have a comment on any individual labor dispute, just to reiterate, but the President believes in collective bargaining rights, believes in workers’ rights, believes that’s the role that labor unions and why they are so important to our country.
So, that’s something that is, of course, between the labor unions and the companies where these — and organizations where these workers are serving, but he thinks that’s a healthy part of what happens in our workforce and our economy.
Q Thanks. On the reconciliation bill and climate —
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q — back to that AP interview with John Kerry — he said that if Congress doesn’t pass the reconciliation bill, it’ll be devastating, he said, “like President Trump pulling out of the Paris Agreement again.” So, does that mean that the administration doesn’t think it can reach the carbon cuts that it’s already promised ahead of the climate summit — that 50 to 52 percent reduction — without reconciliation?
MS. PSAKI: Well, first of all, none of our objectives for the President’s climate agenda begins or ends on November 1st and 2nd, or the week after. This is an incredibly important meeting. It’s a pivotal moment at the start of a decisive decade of action to tackle the climate crisis.
And this is obviously a pivotal period that former Secretary Kerry, our Climate Envoy, is playing a central role in. And we know that the window for limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius is narrowing. Many countries, including the United States, have put forward ambitious commitments in line with the Paris goal. And, of course, we are going to continue to press, until the very last moment, more countries to do exactly the same.
That work is ongoing, but I think it’s not a reflection of anything other than this pivotal period. We’re two weeks before the President goes — two weeks, I think, if I’m doing my math correctly — before the President goes to COP26. It is always an important meeting and an important gathering. It’s an opportunity for global leaders to talk about the climate crisis and the responsibility of countries like the United States and other big global emitters.
But, no, I don’t think it’s — I don’t think it’s — whether our agenda has passed or not is not going to be the defining factor.
Q There were two analyses that suggests that the 2020 census may have undercounted some populations, specifically African Americans. Is the White House aware of this? Are they investigating? Are you looking at, you know, analyzing whether that happened?
MS. PSAKI: I have not looked into this myself, so let me talk to our team and see if we have something more concrete to give to you.
Q Okay. One more.
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q Hundreds of climate protesters — I think they’re gathered outside the White House right now — they’re demanding Biden stop approving fossil fuel projects and declare a climate emergency. I wonder if those are actions that the administration is considering or listening to their demands.
MS. PSAKI: Of course we’re listening to advocates and people who have been elevating the issue of climate for decades. They have important voices, and they’ve put climate on the front of the agenda when it wasn’t 10 years and 20 years ago.
I would encourage anyone out there, or not, to look at what the President is proposing, what he’s trying to push across the finish line at this point, which is an enormous investment and commitment to addressing the climate crisis. That’s in his legislative agenda that’s currently working its way through Congress now. It doesn’t mean his climate commitment ends once he signs this into law; it just means that’s what our focus is on now, and it will have a dramatic, important impact.
Q Thank you, Jen. Last month, the President signed an executive order signaling that the United States was prepared to issue sanctions against various entities in Ethiopia.
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q Given the meeting today, just — what is the administration waiting for? What’s the United States watching right now that’s preventing the administration from issuing those sanctions?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have an update on “if” and “when,” and I know that’s kind of what you’re asking. We often sign an executive order — or the President may sign executive orders to prepare for and have the ability to sign into law sanctions quickly, because the executive order would have already been signed.
As we’ve talked about in the past, obviously what’s happening in Ethiopia are — it’s an atrocity. It’s horrific. It’s something that, frankly, I’m happy you’re asking about because there hasn’t been probably enough attention here in the United States to what’s happening. But I don’t have an update. It’s often an interagency process, and I don’t have an update on what — when a determination will be made.
Q Given Kenya currently has the leadership position in the U.N. Security Council, were there any kind of tangible plans that came out of today’s meeting to try and not only address the atrocities that you just mentioned, but also the fact that U.N. aid workers are also now being expelled from Ethiopia as well?
MS. PSAKI: Yeah — I have not had a chance to talk to our national security team before coming out here about what happened in the meeting. Obviously, Ethiopia was on the agenda, as was counterterrorism; as was Somalia, I’m sure; as was, of course, vaccines, as we talked about.
I’m sure we’ll have a readout of that, and we can see if there’s more to lay down for you.
Q Thanks, Jen. President Biden talked earlier about how vaccine requirements have been helpful. I just wanted to ask if there’s any more serious consideration of requiring vaccinations for domestic flights ahead of holiday season.
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have anything to preview on that at this point in time.
Q On the Congress, just curious, when was the last time, if you can share, that President Biden spoke with Senator Sinema?
MS. PSAKI: I’m just not going to give you a laydown of every call. I can assure you that we’ve been in close touch with her from a very high-staff level.
Q Last couple of days?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t — I’m not going to give you an update of when he did individual phone calls, but we are in close touch with her.
Q Thanks, Jen. Yesterday, you mentioned that the Supreme Court commission was going to release draft preliminary discussion materials today.
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q I’m wondering if there was any update on a timeline, and is that a draft report — or what did you mean by “draft preliminary discussion materials”?
MS. PSAKI: It is — it is an assessment; it is not a recommendation. That is how it was — has been outlined from the beginning.
Given it’s four o’clock, they have to be posting it pretty soon, so I would expect you’ll see it posted soon. But since you gave me the opportunity — we talked about this a little bit yesterday, but I know there’s been a little bit of confusion. What they are looking at and examining are the Court’s role in the constitutional system, the length of service and turnover of the justices on the Court, the membership and the size of the Court, and the Court selection rules and practices.
These are draft preliminary discussion materials because the next step will be a public meeting of the commission, on Friday, and they won’t issue a final report and submit it to the President until mid-November.
So that was just meant to convey that, as should be a part of the process, it will be transparent, they will be publicly available, but there’s a process that will proceed. And the President won’t even get the final report to review until mid-November.
Q I’m curious if the White House sees the Virginia governor’s race as a bellwether — we talked about it a lot in here — and if the outcome is basically a (inaudible) support of the President’s agenda since McAuliffe is running on it quite a bit.
MS. PSAKI: Well, I have to be a little careful about how much political analysis I do from here and not (inaudible) into that too much.
Look, I think the President, of course, wants former Governor McAuliffe to be the future governor of Virginia. There is alignment on a lot of their agenda, whether it is the need to invest in rebuilding our roads, rails, and bridges, or making it easier for women to rejoin the workforce.
I will say as — I will leave it to other outside analysis to convey that off-year elections are often — are often not a bellwether, but — and there’s a lot of history here in Virginia. But, again, we’re going to do everything we can to help former Governor McAuliffe, and we believe in the agenda he’s representing.
Q And on COVID, on travel, is there any update on the exact date when the ban on travel from abroad is going to be lifted? I think last time we heard early November. Is there an exact date that you can share here?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have an exact date for you today. Early November remains the case, and we main — remain on track for that.
Q Is “early November” the first two weeks in November, the first week in November, the first few days in November?
MS. PSAKI: I will let you assess what “early November” means. It means early in November.
Q Thank you, Jen. Taliban’s Acting Deputy Minister of Information and Culture, Zabihullah Mujahid, told VOA that China wants to invest billions of dollars in Afghanistan. Is the administration concerned that Beijing may — that Afghanistan might be the next frontier for Beijing to expand its influence through its investments?
MS. PSAKI: Our focus is on working with the vast majority of the international community on delivering humanitarian assistance and getting it to the right people in Afghanistan to make sure they have what they need.
The United States is far and away the largest provider of that assistance. We’ve worked through international organizations to deliver that. So, that is what our focus primarily is on at this point in time.
Q Okay. And then another one on Iran: You said, earlier this week, that — in regards to Iran nuclear talks — diplomacy is the preferred path. What is the administration’s plan B should Iran continue to stall in negotiations?
MS. PSAKI: Well, we’ve been sincere and steadfast in pursuing a path of meaningful diplomacy to achieve a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA and to address our full range of concerns with Iran.
We’re seeking a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA. If Iran demands more or offers less, these negotiations will not succeed. But, ultimately, that’s what our focus is on, and I’m not going to get into hypotheticals beyond that.
Q Thanks, Jen. Two questions. The President mentioned today that nationwide daily COVID cases and hospitalizations are down. Does the White House have a sense of when guidance will change for vaccinated Americans to once again remove their masks indoors?
MS. PSAKI: We leave any guidance changes to the CDC, so I’d point you to them.
Q Are you hopeful that that’ll happen by the holidays?
MS. PSAKI: Again, we leave it to the CDC. We don’t make predictions like that.
Q Thanks, Jen. I have a couple questions. One to follow up on Eugene’s about Virginia.
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q Virginia’s Senator Mark Warner said today that “the President ought to tell the House that we ought to deliver this infrastructure bill.” It echoes with Terry McAuliffe —
MS. PSAKI: Kaitlan asked — I can answer again.
Q Yeah, yeah.
MS. PSAKI: But Kaitlan asked about it earlier.
Q I understand that, but I want to make sure I get a —
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q — maybe a clearer answer. Just — I want to ask what you make of that, what you make of the Virginia — these Virginia leaders saying that the President and Democrats in D.C. just aren’t doing enough.
MS. PSAKI: I don’t — I didn’t read it exactly that way. I think it was an assessment of what a legislative strategy and approach should be.
What we’re working on, Yamiche, is working with leaders in the House and Senate to get both of these packages moved forward, do it in short order, and deliver for the American people.
I just don’t have a further comment on it than that.
Q The other question I have is about COVID. I’m wondering if you could explain to the American people why there isn’t proof of vaccination or testing required on domestic flights. Is the President getting briefed on that? Is there any sort of assessment on whether that will — that will change?
We’re hearing experts say that the U.S. should follow what Canada is doing, which is doing — taking those policies to their domestic flights.
MS. PSAKI: Again, we’re always looking at options for how we can keep more people safe in this country. I just don’t have a prediction of additional options at this point in time.
Q Could I ask you one last one?
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q I know you said that he hasn’t made a decision on the FDA Commissioner, but I guess I’ll maybe try to — we already have Senator Bernie Sanders, who is saying that he has some issues with Robert Califf, who is someone who Politico is reporting the President is eyeing.
Is the President at all concerned that there are these — already senators who are worried about pharmaceutical ties and ties to drug makers with this person that could possibly be the FDA Commissioner?
MS. PSAKI: Well, given there hasn’t been a decision made at this point in time, I’m not going to speak to a hypothetical maybe-nomination and people’s hypothetical reactions to the hypothetical nomination.
But I will tell you that the President’s, you know, views and his policy positions are pretty clear as it relates to prescription drugs, the cost of prescription drugs, the unacceptably high cost of prescription drugs.
That’s why he has continued to push for it in his Build Back Better Agenda, and he will continue to do that, regardless of who is serving in any particular role in his administration.
Q Jen —
MS. PSAKI: Go ahead.
Q Jen, on the issue of gerrymandering: Gerrymandering is closely linked to voting rights, and you’re seeing Democrats in this nation having their districts redrawn. And they’re affected, and they cannot fall upon or use the Voting Rights Act right now because it’s gutted — the pre-clearance issue.
What is the White House doing, as it relates to this, in the leadup to this vote at the Senate next week?
MS. PSAKI: Leadup to the voting rights vote —
MS. PSAKI: — next week? I think somebody asked this before.
Q They asked about voting rights, but I’m talking about the gerrymandering piece that goes with voting rights.
MS. PSAKI: What are we doing about gerrymandering —
Q Yeah, are you —
MS. PSAKI: — or what are we doing about the voting rights?
Q Yeah, are you leaning in? Is that part of the conversations that the White House is having with senators, as it relates to voting rights? Because it all goes hand-in-hand. I mean, it creates —
MS. PSAKI: I just wanted to make sure I understood what your question was, April.
Look, the President continues to believe that voting rights is fundamental to people’s rights in this country. He has given speeches about it. He has taken actions through executive action. He has supported the efforts of his Department of Justice to ensure they’re putting in place protections across the country.
I think his actions absolutely speak for that. I don’t have anything more to preview for you in terms of —
Q Is he watching this happening in Texas?
MS. PSAKI: Of course he is. Of course he is. And of course we’re extremely engaged through a range of senior officials in having conversations with Congress, with activists, with advocates, with people who are passionately — who share the passion of this White House in addressing these issues and making sure we’re protecting people’s fundamental rights.
Q So how far is he willing to go?
MS. PSAKI: Go ahead.
Q Jen, last Friday when the President signed the HAVANA Act, he said that he was determined to get to the bottom of who is responsible —
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q — for these incidents. What is your message for those who are responsible?
MS. PSAKI: Well, our — well, first, just so people understand, there’s an assessment that’s being done by our intelligence community, understanding fully that everybody wants that assessment to be completed. We want it to be thorough and people — for people to have confidence in it once it’s completed.
Our message to the — to the — I’m not sure what your question is. Sorry.
Q Well, the administration has said that the victims of these anomalous health incidents — AHIs — need to be believed. And in the statement that the President put out on Friday, he said he wanted to get to the bottom of, quote, “who is responsible.”
MS. PSAKI: Absolutely, which is what we’ve been doing and working on in the intelligence community.
Q Right. So, on the assumption there is a “who,” which is what this President said, is there a determination for there to be consequences?
MS. PSAKI: Why don’t we wait until there’s an assessment made and then we can have a further discussion about what the consequences will be.
Q Thank you. Thank you.
MS. PSAKI: Oh, go ahead, Nadia. Go ahead.
Q Thank you. Thank you, Jen. I have two questions. On Lebanon, first: Does the White House still support an independent investigation into the explosion at the port? There was some clashes today; Hezbollah supporters were trying to block this investigation.
And I have another question on Iran.
MS. PSAKI: Sure. We, of course, support — and I would reiterate our support and the inter- — and the support of the international community, which we’ve voiced on multiple occasions and we — for the investigation.
We urge Lebanese authorities to complete a swift and transparent investigation to the horrific explosion at the Port of Beirut. The victims of the August 2020 port explosion deserve justice and those responsible must be held accountable.
So, we continue to be strongly supportive of these efforts in the investigation.
Q And on Iran: The Israeli Foreign Minister articulated yesterday in the press conference that he actually shared detailed a plan B with the White House should diplomacy fail in Vienna. Does the White House — is the White House open to these suggestions from the Israelis of the “plan B,” as he put it?
MS. PSAKI: Our focus is on diplomacy. That’s where our efforts are at this point in time. I’m not going to entertain a hypothetical at this point in time. We’re eager to go back to Vienna and continue the talks.
Q Jen, given the First Lady is going to Virginia tomorrow to campaign, can we expect President Biden will be there in the next two weeks before the foreign trip?
MS. PSAKI: I expect he’ll do more to help his friend, former Governor Terry McAuliffe, I just don’t have details at this point in time.
Q Will that be true in New Jersey as well? Will President Biden be traveling there for that election?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t — I don’t have anything to preview on either at this point in time. But, obviously, we know the elections are soon; the foreign trip is soon. And so, by — by asso- — by — we will certainly have more to convey as soon as details are finalized.
Q Thank you. When exactly will travel restrictions be lifted? We’ve heard it should be early November. Is there a precise date, or when can we expect to know more?
MS. PSAKI: It continues to be early November. That is not a very expansive period of time. But, hopefully, we’ll have a date for you all soon. We continue to be on track for early November into meeting that timeline.
Q Jen, the President has been trying to get OPEC to increase supply of gas. Oil prices have been north of $80 a barrel. Are there any steps that he’s looking at — new steps to try to deal with some of these energy issues?
MS. PSAKI: Well, first, the President is very focused on this. He has asked his team about it. There are a number of people — senior members of the White House team from the NSC, from the NEC working on this issue every single day.
I would say that part is a supply issue, which is why you asked me about OPEC. It’s something we continue to press them on. But part is also a logistics issue of being able to move supply around the country. And that’s something that we’re also looking into options on.
I know you didn’t ask me about this, but I’m just going to also convey — because sometimes they’re combined: the gas issue, as well as the natural gas issue — which is something that we’ve seen — you know, people in the Northeast have understandable concerns about what that may look like for them.
And I would just note — and we haven’t talked about this a lot, so I want to raise it — that LIHEAP funding — coverage of LIHEAP funding is in the American Rescue Plan. And that is something that we have been communicating with a number of states and leaders about, and their ability to access that funding — which is the low-income heating program I think many of you are familiar with — to help prepare for any increase in costs.
But we’re working on both the supply issue and the logistics issue, and looking at a range of options.
Q Jen, in Ghana, legislation is pending before lawmakers that would essentially criminalize being LGBTQ, punishing (inaudible) being LGBTQ with up to 5 years in prison, and advocacy for LGBTQ people with up to 10 years of prison. Will the President reach out to his counterpart in Ghana or partner nations on this legislation?
MS. PSAKI: Well, first, I would say that the President believes that LGBTQI rights are not only human rights here in the United States, but they are around the world, and they are part of human rights that we should continue to raise and will continue to raise in our diplomatic engagements.
I would expect that the State Department would be the first point of contact, so I would point you to them. I can also check with them and see what their conversations have been like.
Go ahead, John. It was John’s birthday yesterday, so you know I have a special place for birthdays.
Q Aww —
MS. PSAKI: A special place in my heart for birthdays.
Q Thank you very much, Jen. (Laughter.)
MS. PSAKI: He’s 29-plus. In case anyone is not sure, he’s 29 and a half. Happy 29 and a half.
Q Well, thank you.
Two questions, please. First, so much has been in the news lately about Taiwan and the flights from China and statements from President Xi, essentially underscoring what his predecessors have said: that Taiwan will be part of the motherland. Will the U.S. live up to the commitment of the Taiwan Relations Act of 1978 and send in U.S. forces if Taiwan is ever attacked?
MS. PSAKI: Well, the U.S. commitment to Taiwan is rock solid and contributes to the maintenance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and within the region. This is why we will continue to assist Taiwan in maintaining a sufficient self-defense capability.
Our approach and our U.S. defense relationship, as you referenced, is guided by the Taiwan Relations Act, and we will uphold our commitment under the Act. We will continue to support Taiwan’s self-defense, and we will continue to oppose any unilateral changes to the status quo.
Our support for, and defense relationship with, Taiwan remains aligned against the current threat posed by the People’s Republic of China.
I’m not in a position to comment on specific operations, engagements, or training, but I would like to highlight that our support for, and defense relationship, for Taiwan remains aligned.
Q Thank you. My other question is strictly a political question. Going back to his days as Senator and Vice President, the President has worked sedulously as a party leader and Democratic —
MS. PSAKI: Sedulously.
MS. PSAKI: Ed O’Keefe is very impressed with that word, as am I.
Q Is he following the race for governor of Texas? And has he called Matthew McConaughey and urged him to run for governor? (Laughter.)
MS. PSAKI: I can confirm there has been no calls to Matthew McConaughey from this office that I am aware of or tracking.
Of course, the President sees his role as governing the country, leading the country, unifying the country. He is also the leader of the Democratic Party. He’s been in politics — involved in politics for quite some time.
Some might say he’s a pretty good retail politician, so I can assure you he is following everything happening out there quite closely.
Q All right, all right, all right. (Laughter.)
MS. PSAKI: All right. Thanks, everyone.
Q Hey Jen, will he take a physical anytime soon and report it to the American public?
MS. PSAKI: He will.
Q How soon — do we know?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have an update for you, but will soon.
Q But before the end of the year?
MS. PSAKI: I promise you. Kelly asks about this all the time. He’s keeping us on our toes.
Q Yeah. Thank you.
4:26 P.M. EDT