Press Gaggle by Principal Deputy Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre
Aboard Air Force One
En Route Fort Campbell, Kentucky
10:35 A.M. EST
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: All right. Good morning, everyone. Thanks for joining us for President Biden’s visit to Kentucky, where he will survey the catastrophic storm damage firsthand and offer his support for the people of Kentucky who were impacted by this devastating storm.
The President is accompanied by his Homeland Security and Emergency Response Team, including DHS Secretary Mayorkas, FEMA Administrator Criswell, and Homeland Security Advisor Liz Sherwood-Randall, and by Congressman James Comer.
He will meet with Governor Beshear and other elected officials to receive a briefing of the devastation and walk through impacted neighborhoods in Mayfield and Dawson Springs.
The President’s message today is that he and the federal government intend to do whatever it takes, for as long as it takes, by providing any support that is needed to aid recovery efforts and support the people of Kentucky and of other impacted states as they rebuild.
As you all know, the President quickly approved a major disaster declaration for Kentucky and emergency disaster declarations for Illinois and Tennessee.
To support recovery efforts, FEMA has teams of Urban Search and Rescue and emergency response personnel in Kentucky supporting search and rescue efforts along with disaster — Disaster Survivor Assistance teams to help survivors register for assistance, which they can do through DisasterAssistance.gov or by calling 1-800-621-FEMA.
FEMA has sent 61 generators to help provide power where it is still out, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers personnel are providing debris removal, infrastructure assessment, and power restoration support. FEMA is providing critical supplies to the state, including 144,000 liters of water, 74,000 meals, 18,500 blankets, 5,100 cots, and 1,500 tarps.
A wireless emergency communications center has been activated at the candle factory site for charging and Internet service. And the mobile — Mobile Emergency Response Support personnel are on the ground in Kentucky to provide emergency communications capabilities as needed.
As Governor Beshear said this weekend, “The federal government has been there every step of the way.” Leader McConnell also thanked the President for his rapid approval of Kentucky’s major disaster declaration. He appreciated the administration’s quick work to speed resources to help deal with this crisis. That’s something the President is committed to making sure continues.
And with that, Zeke, you want to take this?
Q Yeah, thanks, Karine. Just, first on the trip today: Does the President intend to meet with any of the family members of those who lost their lives or any sort of real people?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: As you know, in the past — in the past trips that he’s done, sadly, on this type of disaster — weather disaster — when he went to Louisiana, when he went to the Northeast, he does end up meeting with families and folks who have been affected by the storm damages in those respective areas. So, I suspect that will happen here as well today.
Q It’s the 15th; it’s the last day authorized for child tax care credits to American families. Can the President commit to those — to Americans that, on January 15, that they will get a Child Tax Credit payment?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: So, I appreciate the question. Look, it is — you know, the Child Tax Credit clearly was a historical middle- — is a historical middle-class tax cut that is getting more money in people’s pockets. It has — as we’ve heard, it’s cut poverty — childhood poverty by half. That’s what the data has shown. He thinks it is, you know, reprehensible that Republicans are standing against it. And not voting for Build Back Better is essentially voting — or not supporting it is essentially not supporting such a middle-class tax cut for families that has been critical over these past several months.
So the President is going to continue to fight for — he’s going to fight for Build Back Better. We are optimistic that we will get this done before Christmas, and that is our focus, that is our hope, and that’s what we’re working towards.
Q Is it also reprehensible that Senator Joe Manchin doesn’t support that right now?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Look, Senator Joe Manchin is a friend of the President, and we’ve had very good conversations. The President has had two great conversations with him this week that have been productive, that have been — they’ve talked — even Manchin had said this — they talked about iterations of the bill.
I’m not going to say more, because even Manchin said this person-to-person conversation should be kept that way. So, I’m not going to read out more on that.
But we’re — the — we believe the senator wants what we want, which is to deliver for the American people in a way that it has a real affect, especially during this time of COVID and getting the economy back.
Q Does the White House have any reaction to Elon Musk’s comments? He’s made some comments, criticisms of the Build Back Better bill, particularly the union parts of the electric vehicle. And in the last 24 hours, there’s been a — kind of a spat between him and Senator Warren, where he called Senator Warren “Senator Karen” for some criticism.
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Well, as you know, Senator Warren is a friend and has been a partner with us on many of the — you know, many of the President’s agenda, and we appreciate her support. Clearly, I have not heard Elon Musk’s direct comments, but she — we see her as a partner in this and a friend.
As far as the Build Back Better Agenda, look, this is — when you put — we’re about to get knocked out here by this door.
Are you okay, Jenny?
Q Yeah, I’m fine.
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Okay. When we put the Build Back Better Agenda and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, this — those two components will have a historical investment on fighting climate change. This is something that we — the data shows. This is something that we know. And the President is very proud of his economic policy. It’s going to create jobs. It’s going to, you know, make sure we, like I said, fight climate change. It’s going to give the middle-class family, working families a break, breathing room.
And so, we’re just going to continue to implement the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal. Electric vehicles, clearly, is a big component of that. And that’s going to be our focus.
Q Any concerns about the White — does the White House have any concerns about the warning signals here and the tornadoes, how companies responded? Is that going to be part of the questions the President will ask today?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Yeah, I mean, I won’t get into specifics of — you know, of what’s going to be asked. I’m sure the President will be happy to share that at some point during the day.
But I’ll say this: We are glad that OSHA, as well as state and local regulators, are looking into this to help us all understand whether there is anything that could have been done better to avoid these tragic losses of life and terrible destruction.
While it’s too early to know exactly what happened, we will work with the federal government’s experts, as well as state, local, and private sector partners to learn the right lessons and improve how we collectively address such threats in the future.
Q Given all the details that are coming out from Mark Meadows’s texts and other information, is there a role for the Biden administration to investigate what happened at the planning level — not just the people who entered the Capitol, but in the — the people who kind of made this thing happen on January 6th — rather than just leave it to Congress?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Well, look, the President — and we’ve said this before — you know, January 6th is one of the darkest moments in our country’s history, and it’s vital that we have a full accounting of what happened to ensure it never happens again.
And so, you know, the way that we — the way the President sees it, he has full confidence in the January 6th Select Committee’s ability to carry out that work, so we’re going to let that work continue.
Q So, the Attorney General, then, is not doing an independent review of the top-level stuff that was happening?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: I mean, I can’t speak for what the Attorney General is doing. You would have to — I would send you to DOJ. I’m just telling you, with the select committee, the President has full confidence in the select committee members and the Speaker, and he’s going to let that process run its course.
Q Karine, before the President left the White House, he was saying that he made some progress on Build Back Better. Is there anything more you can say on what that progress entails?
And then, of course, is there another meeting or conversation with Senator Manchin planned for this week that you could preview for us?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: So, I don’t have a meeting to preview with Senator Manchin in the next coming days. I can say that — and as we have been saying — they’ve been productive. And the President appreciates the conversation.
You know, as this is all kind of going and the components are being discussed, I don’t have anything further to share on the specifics on where we are right now.
Q And then, given the Omicron variant and sort of the latest data on that, does the President think that schools are going to shut down again? And will the CDC revive its school guidance for Omicron?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: So, look, we’ve been very clear: We have the resources and we know what works to keep everything open, to not shut down schools, to not shut down the government, to not shut down businesses. And so, we’ve been doing this long enough.
And the President made sure to that, which is why we passed the historic American Rescue Plan which gives us the resources not just to make sure that people are getting vaccinated and now getting the booster, but also it has components in there to make sure that school stays open.
And so, we’re very confident that that’s going to be the case. We’re not going to shut down. We are comforted by the resources and what we have learned and the tools that we have in our — in our toolbelts to do that.
Q One more, Karine, if I may.
Q Karine, can you —
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Whoever wants to go.
Q Can I just come back to Mark Meadows? I mean, he was chief of staff at the time this all happened. Does that complicate things, in terms of his claim of executive privilege, given that he’s not a — not in the same position as Steve Bannon? And does that change the way Merrick Garland’s calculus might work?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Look, I cannot speak to what mayor — mayor — Attorney General Garland is going to do. That is — they are an independent agency, so I leave it to the Department of Justice, and I’ll send you there. And so I don’t have any — much more to say about that. I refer you to them.
Q Can you give us an update on the Secretary of State’s trip and why they decided to cut it short, instead of just isolating the people who had tested positive?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: So, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken spoke today with the Thai Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister. The Secretary expressed his deep regret to the Foreign Minister that he would not be able to visit Bangkok this week. He explained that in order to mitigate the risk of the spread of COVID-19 and to prioritize the health and safety of the U.S. traveling party, those that — and those they would otherwise come into contact with, the Secretary would be returning to Washington, D.C., out of abundance of caution.
The Secretary extended an invitation for the Foreign Minister to visit Washington, D.C., at the earliest opportunity and noted that he looked forward to traveling to Thailand as soon as possible. They affirm that they would use the upcoming engagements to further deepen the U.S.-Thai alliance.
Q There have been so many multi-fatality weather events this year. The President hasn’t even been able to go to half of them. Is the message about climate change getting into people that have been resistant to receiving it?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Look, you know, every — he has gone — he has been able to go to Northeast when those affected — those folks who were affected, the states that were affected. He went to Louisiana and had that conversation as well with those in — and was there in person, clearly, to provide — you know, to provide comfort and also make sure the federal government did everything that they could in that regard.
Look, the President talks about the severity — right? — how extreme weather, where we are today, and there’s been connection to climate change.
I would say for today — our focus today is to make sure that the people of Kentucky are receiving all of — all of the resources that they need to move forward. It is going to be a very long — long road ahead. And so that’s the President’s focus right now is to talk specifically, to hear from the elected officials on the ground.
Clearly, I mentioned he’s going to be with Governor Beshear and others, and the Congressman is on the plane. And he’s going to hear directly from the American — well, the Kentucky people — the public, and hear what their needs are and what is it that they’re experiencing and what they’ve been through.
So, that’s the focus for today.
Q The UK is lifting its extra travel restrictions on African nations because of Omicron today. Is the U.S. going to follow suit anytime soon?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: I don’t have anything new to share about the travel — the travel — our travel restrictions. But I’ll say this: The country-based restrictions were intended to be temporary, to buy time, not a longer-term strategy.
As discussed, they’re learning more every day. And throughout each day, we are watching three areas closely: One is vaccine effectiveness; two, transmissibility; three, severity. And the data so far shows vaccines continue to help prevent the worst outcomes and that a booster shot can significantly increase your protection against Omicron.
We also know this is a more transmissible variant, meaning more people get it more quickly. But what’s encouraging is early data suggests fewer people who get it are getting severe — are getting severe diseases. We’re seeing lower numbers of hospitalization and deaths as a proportion of those who have been infected so far.
We’ll continue to adapt our approach to travel restrictions as more data comes in. And like I said, I have no specific updates on timing.
Q One last one on ambassadors. The President is going to end the year with a historic low in the number of confirmed ambassadors. Is that damaging U.S. national security? And is there sort of a concrete example you can point to where —
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Yeah.
Q — something the President has tried to do with a foreign partner hasn’t been able to get done because there isn’t an ambassador in place?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: No, I appreciate the question, Zeke, because it’s really important.
So, President Biden is quickly working to restore America’s position on the world stage. And he has moved swiftly to nominate well-qualified ambassadors who have earned Republican and Democrat — Democratic support.
But instead of putting politics aside, Senate Republicans have led an unprecedented effort of obstruction by blocking dozens of President Biden’s nominees and preventing them from advancing America’s national security interests.
It’s long past time for GOP senators to get out of the way and let the Senate quickly confirm these national security nominees so they can advocate for the interests of the American people around the world.
Q Thanks, Karine.
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: All right. Thanks, everybody.
10:51 A.M. EST