Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jen Psaki, December 20, 2021
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
3:03 P.M. EST
MS. PSAKI: Hi everyone. Happy Monday.
Q Happy, happy.
MS. PSAKI: Happy, happy. Okay.
One note for all of you at the top. President Biden has nominated and the Senate has confirmed the most diverse class of federal judges in history at a rate not seen since President Reagan.
As you may have seen Friday night and Saturday morning, the Senate confirmed dozens of historical and critical nominees. This included 9 district court judges, bringing the total for the year to 40 — more than any President in his first year in office since President Reagan.
But it’s not just the sheer number of people nominated and confirmed. As the President said at his commencement address last week at South Carolina State, he is proud to have appointed more Black women to the circuit courts than any administration in American history. We’ve confirmed the first LGBTQ woman ever to serve as a federal circuit court judge. And these 40 judges include people who have previously served as public defenders, labor lawyers, and civil rights lawyers, as well as prosecutors and government attorneys.
The Senate also voted to confirm 41 ambassadors to countries around the world, including critical allies such as — including Japan, France, the European Union, and more. These qualified, competent leaders can now finally get to their important work representing America’s interests abroad.
There’s still a lot of work to be done, and we’ll continue to work with the Senate to make sure we have the people in place so that we can continue to serve the American people.
Also wanted to note the Department of Justice announced today that they’ll be awarding $1.6 billion in grants to support a range of initiatives to reduce violent crime and make our communities safer.
This money will help address the surge in gun violence that we’ve seen over the last two years and will bolster steps that the administration has already taken to crack down on violent crime, including the President’s Comprehensive Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gun Crime in June.
These grants will help advance community violence intervention programs, they’ll support evidence-based police and prosecution strategies, they’ll ensure that victims of crime get the resources they need, they’ll help people returning from prisons and jails transition successfully back into their communities, and they’ll support responses to crises like drug overdoses and mental health episodes.
This is just the latest example of the historic levels of funding that President Biden has made available to cities and states to address crime, including through the Rescue Plan; through investments in proven community violence intervention strategies that we announced in April; through the COPS community policing grants announced last month, which are helping to put 1,000 more police officers on the beat across 183 police departments this year; and through earlier DOJ awards, including $1.2 billion for victim assistance and compensation programs and more.
With that — I would say that since there’s space in the back, why don’t folks who are standing sit in some of the back seats, just because I know everybody is focused on the spacing of — spacing in these days.
Go ahead, Colleen.
Q Okay, a couple things. So, on Omicron, cases are rising dramatically across the country. Americans are still traveling en masse. Biden is giving a speech that has been labeled “urgent” that the speech is tomorrow. The Vice President also was saying that scientists were caught off guard by the variants, and then there’s been pushback from the scientific community on that.
So, can you help — just talk a little bit about what the White House’s message on Omicron is. What should the public be thinking? How — should we be concerned? What should we do?
And then the second one — I’m sorry, I’ll ask you after. Go ahead.
MS. PSAKI: Absolutely, Colleen. Well, let me first say that the President, as you noted, will be addressing the American people tomorrow, and he’ll talk about what to expect as we head into the winter months and detail additional steps that he — we will be taking.
The President has been clear that while vaccinated individuals get COVID due — he will restate tomorrow, I should say, that while vaccinated individuals get COVID due to the highly transmissible nature of Omicron, their cases will likely be mild or asymptomatic.
We continue to see and our health experts assess that you are 14 times more likely to die of COVID if you have not been vaccinated versus vaccinated.
Importantly, he’ll restate we’re prepared and that fully vaccinated individuals have the tools to protect themselves with a booster shot and masking where CDC recommends.
For those who choose to remain unvaccinated, he’ll issue a stark warning and make clear unvaccinated individuals will continue to drive hospitalizations and deaths. That is not trying to scare people — or maybe it is trying to make clear to people in the country what the risks are here of not being vaccinated.
What is clear is that we’re not in the same place that we were at — and this is something he’ll reiterate tomorrow as well — at the beginning of the pandemic thanks to the President’s extraordinary work to get over 200 million Americans vaccinated.
To be clear: COVID-19 is not the same threat to fully vaccinated individuals that it was in March 2020, and I outlined some of the reasons why. And again, as I said at the top, he will also announce additional steps.
So, he will outline this clearly tomorrow. He has been candid and he has been direct as he’s provided updates to the American public throughout on our steps to address what we know is an unpredictable virus and a once- — in our fight against a once-in-a-generation pandemic. But that’s what people can expect tomorrow.
Q Okay. Thank you.
On the negotiations over Build Back Better, we see Senator Manchin’s version of events sort of differ from the White House’s version of events in your statement on Sunday — which, I guess, was yesterday; feels like a long time ago.
I just wanted to know if you could talk a little bit about like where the — where the gap is — if the negotiations fell apart over the Child Tax Credit issue, if the White House is prepared to go around legislation on — on the CTC if necessary. Kind of, where are we with Manchin?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would say I think the lengthy statement that I issued yesterday outlined pretty specifically the events of the last few weeks. And it was important to the President and to all of us to make that clear to the American people — the status and the steps that had been taken.
But I’m not going to relitigate the tick-tock of yesterday from here today. I will say that, from the President’s viewpoint — and I saw him this morning — he’s worked with Senator Manchin over the course of decades. They share fundamental values, they’re longtime friends — that has not changed.
And what’s most on the President’s mind is the risk of inaction. And if we do not act to get this legislation done and the components in it, not only will costs and prices go up for the American people, but also we will see a trajectory in economic growth that is not where we want it to be. And we’ve seen projections from Goldman Sachs and others today on that front.
So, he’s no stranger to legislative challenges, and we are going to continue to take steps — work like hell to get it done.
Q Does the President feel betrayed by his friend?
MS. PSAKI: I think our statement yesterday made pretty clear what we feel — what was the factual depiction of events that happened.
But again, the President sees Senator Manchin as somebody who is a longtime friend, somebody he has worked well together on. And our objective and our focus now is moving forward.
Q And where do lines of communication stand at this point between either the President and Joe Manchin, Joe Manchin and the White House staff that you spoke about? Is there contact at all?
MS. PSAKI: I’m just not going to assess or give you an update on specifics from here.
Q And just quickly, on COVID: Ahead of tomorrow’s speech, should Americans expect any new restrictions?
MS. PSAKI: This is not a speech about locking the country down. This is a speech outlining and being direct and clear with the American people about the benefits of being vaccinated, the steps we’re going to take to increase access and to increase testing, and the risks posed to unvaccinated individuals.
Q Does the President still trust Senator Manchin?
MS. PSAKI: Again, I understand the questions here, but our focus is on moving forward. I think our statement yesterday made clear what the course of events were over the last couple of weeks; it was important for the American people to know and see that.
But he considers Senator Manchin a longtime friend, and our focus is on moving forward and getting this done.
Q Are you confident that all 49 other members of the Democratic Caucus are still on board with Build Back Better, since —
MS. PSAKI: I think —
Q — we’re looking ahead?
MS. PSAKI: Sure. I understand, Ed. I can’t, obviously, speak for all of them. But I think you saw quite a bit of unanimity yesterday in the response of people and their desire from across the Democratic Party and the desire to get this legislation done.
Q What would be his message to progressives who he asked to hang with him as things moved over to the Senate now that what many of them warned has happened?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would say, one, his message would be: We need to work together to get this done, and he’s going to work like hell to get it done. And that would be his message. And January is an opportunity to do exactly that.
Q Quickly, on Ukraine —
MS. PSAKI: Yes.
Q The State Department issued a Level 4 travel warning today, saying, “U.S. citizens should be aware of reports that Russia is planning for significant military action against Ukraine.
Jake Sullivan spoke with his Russian counterpart again today. Apparently, over at the Pentagon, they’ve just said that they’ve conducted an assessment of air defense needs in the Ukraine.
Obviously, you’ve said you’re monitoring this. Is U.S. intelligence picking up something new?
MS. PSAKI: Well, let me first say that the travel advisory for Ukraine remains a “Level 4: Do not travel” due to COVID-19. The State Department updated it to include information on Russia’s military buildup on Ukraine’s border just to provide additional information. But it has been at a Level 4.
Q So nothing new otherwise?
MS. PSAKI: Well, again, they provided — they — the State Department provides additional information through travel advisories to make sure they are being transparent with American citizens who are in different countries. And that’s exactly what they did in this case.
And we have historically seen large numbers of Americans and others, of course, traveling to Ukraine during this time of year in the holiday season, so it was just an effort to provide that information directly.
Q Jen, your statement yesterday alluded to working more on Build Back Better next year. Is your expectation that President Biden and Senator Manchin will talk at all before the end of the year?
MS. PSAKI: I’m just not going to give you any updates on their engagements from here — I wouldn’t expect. And we’re going to keep those private.
Q Got it. And do you regard his $1.8 trillion proposal as a nonstarter given that it excludes the Child Tax Credit?
MS. PSAKI: I think the President has been clear about — and I’ll let Senator Manchin speak to the specifics of his proposal. I’m not going to confirm those details from here of what — I know I’ve seen — I know there have been reports out there, but I’ll let him speak to that.
But I would say that the President, of course, wants to extend the Child Tax Credit. That’s something he has spoken to. We know that it was a significant contributor to cutting in half the child poverty rate.
I’m obviously not going to negotiate from here. But, you know, he doesn’t think “compromise” is a dirty word either.
Q One COVID question. On Sunday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio asked the President to invoke the Defense Production Act because of a shortage of at-home tests, monoclonal antibody treatments — and he also said that the Pfizer anti-viral pills should be fast tracked. Are any of those things under consideration at this moment?
MS. PSAKI: Well, we’re in touch — I will say first — with the City of New York and the state, as well as other — all officials across the country experiencing upticks. We’ve sent 30 ambulances to the state and an accompanying team of personnel to help balance patient loads among hospitals across the state.
We’ve already used the Defense Production Act and spent $3 billion to greatly expand the number of at-home tests. So that’s already something we have tapped into.
And as I noted earlier, the President will have more to say tomorrow in his remarks about our efforts to expand access.
Q Senator Manchin, this morning, on a radio interview said, “This is staff. And they drove some things” that they put — and they “put some things out that were absolutely inexcusable. They know what it is. And that’s it.” Do you know what he’s referring to there? And do you have a response to the — his comments about the staff?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t. I would point you to Senator Manchin to outline further.
Q And then, can you walk through — and I know you don’t want to talk about yesterday’s statement — but the cost benefit of — you guys have been so cautious, I think at the President’s direction, of never speaking ill or laying out details of negotiations — what the calculation was by deciding to put out a 700-plus word statement being very clear about some palpable anger inside the White House related to a critical vote in the caucus?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think Senator Manchin had a strong statement yesterday, and we had a strong statement as well. And we’re ready to move forward and get this done, and work like hell to do that with Senator Manchin, with members of the Democratic Caucus, across the Democratic Party. And that’s our focus moving forward.
But that was our basis of our calculus yesterday.
Q And just one more quick one. My understanding is the — what Senator Manchin put on the table, which you referenced in your statement, wasn’t a final offer. It hadn’t been rejected. It was kind of a process that was underway.
What is the process now? Are you working through proposals? Is staff dealing with policy issues? Where do things go from here in terms of the actual proposal?
MS. PSAKI: Well, clearly, the next couple of weeks will be important and pivotal and certainly involve high-level staff engagements, enga- — involve the President and his engagements directly with members. And we have been engaged with leadership, with members of the Senate and their staff over the course of the 24 — the last 24 hours to talk about the path forward.
You saw, I’m sure, Leader Schumer’s statement this morning, and we will stay in close touch and in close coordination with him and his team on the path forward in January.
Q So, two — one on COVID and one on —
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q — on Build Back Better.
On COVID, has there been an outbreak of COVID at the White House, the NSC, the State Department, and the Treasury? And has the President been in contact — close contact with a COVID-positive person and thus in need of quarantine?
MS. PSAKI: The President has a full schedule today and is not in need of quarantine. We will provide information to all of you, as outlined with our commitment from just a few months ago about being transparent about close contacts. I don’t have any updates for you at this mo- — point in time.
But, again, we expect there to be breakthrough cases across the country — right? — and certainly in the federal government. And the most important thing to note for you and for others is that the — 99 percent of the — of the — or more, at this point, of the White House staff is vaccinated. Boosters are strongly recommended and distributed. We have a very thorough process here that people abide by who are going to have close contact with the President — and even beyond that. And those protocols go above and beyond CDC guidelines.
Q But you’re going to say whether or not there’s been a significant outbreak in the various different parts that I mentioned: NSC, State Department, Treasury?
MS. PSAKI: Again, I point you to different agencies to give any additional information. But I would just note that we do expect there to be breakthrough cases, as there are — as there will be across government.
Q Okay. And then on Build Back Better: Did you see the Steve Clemons article today blaming the White House for “incivility” toward Senator Manchin — and specifically, the statement that was released on Thursday — I think, Thursday evening — in which this — the read or the assessment was that the senator thought that that statement blamed him in a — in a way that wasn’t in keeping with the approach that he and the President had been dealing?
MS. PSAKI: I have not yet read his article. It’s been a busy day. But I will tell you that our intention — I think, if you look back to last Thursday — was to provide an update on the future of Build Back Better. And I think it is not a secret where there was opposition to Build Back Better moving forward and where there is support, which is the vast majority of the Democratic Caucus. That was not intended to be directive or hurtful, but to state — be a statement of fact.
Q Yeah, thank you, Jen. In a press call this afternoon, Representative Jayapal, Chairwoman of the House Progressive Caucus, called on President Biden to pursue executive action to pass components of the Build Back Better legislation. Is this something that the White House would consider or even thinks is a realistic possibility to pass some of these elements?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I haven’t had a chance to discuss Representative Jayapal’s call with our legislative team. I’m not aware of that being under discussion. Obviously, we have used executive authority and executive action for a range of steps to make a range of progress, and the President has not hesitated to do that.
The benefit of legislation is, obviously, it makes it permanent. So, there’s a lot of value in that.
But I can see if that’s something more under active consideration.
Q And real quick: Regarding communications with Senator Manchin, you’ve not said much on that. I mean, are you able to confirm that — whether or not President Biden has reached out to the senator today?
MS. PSAKI: I’m not going to detail contacts further.
Q Jen, thanks. Just to drill down a little bit on that: Moving forward, you’ve already taken Senator Manchin to the woodshed. Are you going to invite him back into the fold? Are you going to try to reach out to him?
MS. PSAKI: Of course. And we conveyed, yesterday, that.
Q And secondly —
MS. PSAKI: And I would also note the — the last sentence of my — two sentences of the statement was: “But we will not relent in the fight to help Americans with their child care, health care, prescription drug costs, and elder care…The fight for Build Back Better is too important to give up. We will find a way to move forward next year.”
It also made clear that we absolutely want to work with Senator Manchin and all Democrats to get this done.
Q And are you going to work with to bring — try to bring GOP members into the fold?
MS. PSAKI: We would certainly welcome their efforts or — whether their — their support for lowering cost for the American people and driving up economic growth. We would.
Q And then a follow-up, if I may, on COVID. You said 14 times more likely to die — unvaccinated. Is there a point in time where this administration — I mean, what you said recently about, “Hey, for those who are vaccinated, it’s mild or asymptomatic. For those who are not, death and destruction awaits you.” So, are you pretty much done trying to be diplomatic on this? Is it over with?
MS. PSAKI: I think our responsibility and the President’s responsibility is to continue to convey the risks, to continue — continue — excuse me — to make sure we are increasing access for vaccines, access to information to the public, and that’s what you’ll hear him talk about tomorrow.
Go ahead, Jacqui.
Q Thanks, Jen. Did the White House share the Thursday statement with Senator Manchin before it was put out? And what was his reaction to that?
MS. PSAKI: I’m not going to detail private discussions or private sharing of statements in advance.
Q Okay. And then, on his call-out to Democrats for badgering him, saying that they believe that he could be moved in his position somehow: Is there any regret within the White House or within discussions with Democratic leadership just about how this negotiation went, given that statement from him? And he feels that he’s been badgered and beaten.
MS. PSAKI: Well, that certainly is not our objective, never has been our objective. But our objective is getting this legislation passed and reminding the American people and all people who could vote for it what the stakes are.
So, no, we don’t have regrets about aggressively communicating about it and making sure people understand that if we don’t pass this legislation, costs for the American people will go up and economic growth projections will not go in the right direction.
Q This shows, though, that Democrats just don’t have a large enough majority to call off this kind of transformational legislation without these kinds of significant bumps in the road. But the President, you know, ran as a moderate. Joe Biden is asking for any major policy changes — or excuse me, Manchin is asking for major policy changes to be bipartisan. So why are Biden and Manchin seemingly so far apart on this, where Manchin is wanting to bring Republicans in and the President has, you know, tried to work this out just within the Democrats?
MS. PSAKI: The President would welcome Republicans joining this effort to lower the cost of childcare, to make sure that families aren’t paying thousands of dollars for insulin, to make sure people can afford care for their parents and loved ones. He would welcome that.
I think it’s not a secret that opposition is driven by the concern by many in the Republican Party that they don’t want to raise taxes on corporations and highest income. That’s not a secret. But certainly, we’d welcome support or engagement from any Republicans in this effort to get this done.
Q And then on Omicron and the announcements coming tomorrow, one of the items that you guys have consistently said is on the table and is being evaluated is vaccine mandates for domestic air travel. Is that something that you guys have reached a decision on?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have anything new on that. I think we’ve said in the past that masking is something we know is effective and works. I would expect, tomorrow, you’ll hear more from the President on what we’re going to do more about making vaccines and testing accessible, and what the American people can expect over the next couple of months.
Q And real quick, on this ruling from the Sixth Circuit —
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q — on the vaccine-or-test mandate. Obviously, this has been, you know, a bit of back-and-forth between the different circuits, and it’s still caught up in the, you know, whole process. I understand that the White House has consistently said, you know, “Look to this deadline. We’re going to continue pushing toward it.”
But you’re having some businesses — like, you know, Amtrak, last week, just said that they’re going to have to cut service, and then a few days later said, “Just kidding, we’re not going to.” This, obviously, might change that calculus again. So, what’s the message —
MS. PSAKI: Well, Amtrak didn’t say that it was related to a vaccine mandate. They said it — they gave other reasons for it.
Q I think they (inaudible).
MS. PSAKI: And also, they had 94 percent or higher percentage of their employees vaccinated.
Q They did, but they also said on the Hill, in the hearing, that because they would need to hire qualified employees who met their vaccine requirements, that they anticipated having to cut service from, I think, January to March. And I know what you’re referring to — where they listed off some other concerns. I think it was related to hiring that was paused during the height of the pandemic. But —
MS. PSAKI: Yeah, they talked about a range of challenges they were having. But also, I would note that 94 percent — if not higher at this point — of Amtrak employees are vaccinated. We also know that 60 percent of businesses — if not higher at this point — have put in place vaccine requirements or testing requirements because they know it’s effective for the economy and it creates a safe workplace.
So, we are — certainly welcome the Sixth Circuit’s decision. We feel that the vaccination-or-testing rules will ensure businesses enact measures that protect employees, create more certainty to the — for the economy. And we don’t feel that this is a time for organizations to be backing away from these requirements.
Q You don’t feel that this is a sort of back-and-forth, like businesses are getting whiplash, that customers are getting whiplash from announcements like this?
MS. PSAKI: I think what’s clear is that if you have the vast majority of companies in this country putting in place restrictions and requirements — testing requirements — that it’s an indication that this creates certainty in the workplace, creates — ensures there’s a healthy workplace. And that is outside of this OSHA requirement.
Q Jen, the President’s own medical advisors have suggested that if people are going to gather with family this holiday, that they try to do an at-home rapid test beforehand. But we’re seeing such a lack of the supply at so many different stores. There are very long lines all across the Northeast.
So, what is the White House doing specifically right now to help Americans get access to these tests? And will the President speak to the frustration on that front many are feeling during his remarks tomorrow?
MS. PSAKI: Absolutely he will. I would note that, to date — and we’ve always said this would always be a building process — our objective is to make tests accessible and free for Americans. There are a lot of ways to do that, and there are different ways that Americans are getting access to tests.
If you have health insurance, you can go to your doctor. If you — everyone does not have health insurance; 150 million Americans obviously do. We’ve also made 50 million tests recently available to community health centers and rural health sites. There are 20,000 free testing sites across the country. And we are going to continue to build on that, and the President will talk about that tomorrow.
Q Does the White House feel like, right now, the administration is doing enough to get Americans access to these tests?
MS. PSAKI: We always feel we need to be doing more, and that’s what the President will talk about tomorrow.
Q And just some quick housekeeping items. Given this surge and this spike right now from the variant, how often is the President being tested for COVID? And when was he last tested?
MS. PSAKI: He is regularly tested. I will get — I will check for you when the last time he was tested.
Q And are there any other protocols on campus right now that are changing to accommodate? For instance, you talked about breakthrough cases. That’s something you would expect that would be in fully vaccinated people. Are these staffers who also have been boosted? And is it the White House policy that if you’re working on campus or in close proximity with the President, that you have a booster or a third dose?
MS. PSAKI: Our policy — it is heavily recommended to get a booster. If you are going to be in close proximity with the President, you’re required to be tested that day. That goes over and above typical protocols. Given the workplace we work in, that certainly is appropriate. But — and, of course, we have masking requirements that are in place as well.
So there hasn’t been a change. Obviously, we will continue to consult with our health and medical experts if any changes need to be put into place.
Q And are there any changes right now to the holiday receptions that were already altered that are open to some members of the public here at the White House? Or —
MS. PSAKI: The open houses?
MS. PSAKI: There are — individuals who are attending those are required to be tested in advance.
Q And any changes to the President’s holiday plans at this time, given the spike?
MS. PSAKI: Not at this time.
Q Thanks, Jen. Back on Build Back Better, just curious: What was the reaction among senior staffers here when Joe Manchin said that the President’s aides alienated him and that’s the real reason that he backed away from the bill?
MS. PSAKI: I think our statement yesterday speaks for itself.
Q But Joe Manchin said that that statement was a — an example of retaliation by the White House. What’s your response to that?
MS. PSAKI: The statement was a statement of facts of the events of what happened over the last few weeks, and it was simply an effort to make that clear to the American people.
Q What does this episode teach the White House about the prospects of voting rights? Joe Manchin has also said that he wants that to be a bipartisan effort. Is it going to become law by the time that this Congress is out?
MS. PSAKI: Well, that is certainly our objective. And you saw, I think, in Leader Schumer’s “Dear Colleague” that he put out this morning, that he plans to bring voting rights up when they get back — when the Senate gets back in January. And we certainly support that, and we’ll stay in close coordination with him and his team to get that done.
Q Jen, in terms of the climate provisions in Build Back Better, does the President think that he can achieve the goals that he set out to reach by 2030 without legislation? And as a result of this, is the administration looking at additional executive actions that could be taken on climate to try to meet some of those goals?
MS. PSAKI: We’re always looking at additional steps we can take. That has not changed.
As you know, I think there are multiple paths to reaching the President’s climate goals. We have every intention of passing Build Back Better, which includes enormous climate provisions. I would note that there are a number of steps we have taken without legislation, and certainly, we’ll continue to build on that, including setting a bold target to cut greenhouse gas pollution in America 50 to 52 percent below 2005 levels by 2030; tackling super-pollutants; phasing down HFCs and addressing methane leaks; rallying the world to focus on methane in Glasgow.
We stood with autoworkers and America’s big car manufacturers to roll out plans to boost electric vehicles and create opportunities to save car owners money.
We put America on track for one of every two cars sold to be zero emissions within the decade. And we jump started offshore wind.
I share all that because that has been done without the benefit — the vast majority of it — of legislation.
There are also components in the infrastructure package and law that will also help take steps forward, including the largest investment in passenger rail; helping reduce GHG emissions; building a national network of EV chargers; electrifying thousands of EV school buses; investments in port and airport infrastructure to repair, maintain, and reduce congestion; largest investment in resilience; replacing America’s lead pipes and service lines; and the largest investment in tackling legacy pollution.
So, I would say we are — it is clear from the President’s accomplishments and agenda to date that climate and the climate crisis is going to continue to be front and center for him.
We’re absolutely going to — working to get Build Back Better done. And we are not going to wait to continue to look at a range of options.
Q And just one on schools. Prince George’s County, nearby, is going to virtual learning through mid-January. Does the administration have a view on whether local districts should revert to virtual learning, you know, in the next few months as the Omicron variant progresses?
MS. PSAKI: We continue to believe that local school districts will need to make the decisions that they feel are appropriate for their communities.
Our objective and the President’s objective is to keep schools open, and 99 percent of them are open, have been open. And we believe we have the tools to do that.
One of the steps we’ve talked about a little bit is “test to stay,” which is a proposal that’s been out there by a number of health officials where if your kid is in school now — and you probably know this, and I know this — and they have a close contact, typically they have to quarantine or be out of school.
And there have been health experts who have recommended that there can be a contact tracing and testing regimen that can allow kids to stay in school. And that is very intriguing to the President. And that is what our focus is on.
Q Can I ask, with regards to the speech tomorrow, whether the President has spoken with his health advisors at the CDC about whether they need to change their guidance on Omicron? Will this be part of the speech, in particular?
For instance, right now, we’re seeing a lot of breakthrough cases right now with vaccinated people if they’re not boosted. But the guidance right now says you don’t have to isolate if you’ve been exposed, if you’re fully vaccinated. Should that change? Should the 10-day timelines change? Do we need to, like, pretty substantially overhaul these guidances — guidance for the Omicron variant, given how fast it seems to replicate?
MS. PSAKI: Look, I think the President’s view is that if that is the guidance and the belief of his health and medical experts, who he engages with and is briefed by regularly, then he is looking to them for that guidance.
As you know, they haven’t changed that guidance to date. But given the spread of Omicron, given the transmissibility of Omicron, of course, they’re continuing to look at a range of steps.
Q But we don’t expect that to be part of tomorrow’s speech (inaudible)?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have anything more to preview for you. But, again, the focus of the President’s speech tomorrow is providing expectations to the American people of what they can look ahead to over the next couple of months and an understanding — and an update on what he and his administration are going to do more.
Q Is the baseline expectation for the President right now that cases are going to continue to rise? Francis Collins retired and warned on the way out that we could see a fairly substantial rise in cases, like hundreds and hundreds of thousands of cases a day.
MS. PSAKI: And I think Dr. Fauci has referred — has discussed that as well. As you know, Josh, I think some of it depends — as they have both, I believe, spoken to — on the steps taken by people in this country to get vaccinated, to take necessary precautions.
But certainly, we continue to believe that based on health — based on science, that the boosters can protect people, can prevent hospitalization and death. And that’s why we are going to continue to echo that out to the public.
Q And sorry, forgive me — I know you —
MS. PSAKI: Go ahead.
Q — don’t want to — I know you don’t want —
MS. PSAKI: You’re fine.
Q — bark too much up the tree of what happened in —
MS. PSAKI: Federal Reserve —
Q — in the last 24 hours —
MS. PSAKI: — or something else?
Q Yeah. No, no, no. (Laughter.) I’ll be back tomorrow.
MS. PSAKI: Okay. (Laughter.)
Q The President, of course, spoke with Senator Manchin many times. Senator Manchin seems to be, essentially, blaming the White House, right? He’s referring to comments made by — or staff — or actions taken by the President’s staff. He hasn’t necessarily specified what those are; they’re indications that it’s perhaps the statement from Thursday.
Do you think that there was a misstep on the part of the administration here? Because it feels like if you can’t sort out what ticked him off, then it’s sort of difficult to imagine a path forward on whatever efforts to salvage this will be undertaken in the next weeks and months.
MS. PSAKI: Well, look, I can’t speak for Senator Manchin on what has upset him. I’ll let him speak to that himself with more specifics if he — if he chooses to, and he may or may not choose to, and that’s his prerogative.
All I can convey is that, you know, we continue to focus on how we’re going to get this done. The door remains open; the President considers him a longtime friend, someone he’s worked with on a range of initiatives and objectives over the course of the last several years that they’ve known each other. And that’s really where we’re coming at this from.
Q Thanks, Jen. Earlier — I wanted to ask: Is the President’s speech — will it also talk about life with COVID, beyond a few months?
The President talked in the past about ending COVID, but experts certainly seem to say that COVID may be here to stay much longer than that. Does the President share those views? And will that be discussed tomorrow in any way?
MS. PSAKI: Again, we’re still finalizing the speech, so I can only really give you a preview of what we know to date, which is what I’ve already outlined here. I understand that certainly is a question out there on what it looks like, and we will continue to consult with our health and medical experts on that.
Q Does the President still feel like COVID can be ended?
MS. PSAKI: His objective is to continue — continue to make vaccines available, reduce cases around the co- — reduce hospitalizations and deaths across the country, and do that through making vaccines, testing, and a range of utilities available.
Q On tests: You talked about the Defense Production Act being used to boost tests —
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q — and that there is going to be some conversation tomorrow about increasing use of — increasing availability of tests. Should we expect an announcement about the DPA being used to help bring more tests to the country?
MS. PSAKI: We’re already using the DPA, so that’s already happening. But I’m not going to get ahead more of the President’s — I know he’s been meeting with his COVID team while I’ve been out here, so I can’t — there’s not much more I can preview at this point in time.
Q Thank you, Jen. I’ve got a question about Build Back Better and then a question about the coronavirus.
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q On Build Back Better — returning to Josh and Phil’s questions about Senator Manchin blaming White House staff: Steve Ricchetti was reportedly a top liaison with Senator Manchin. Is Mr. Ricchetti or any other West Wing staff being reassigned as a result of Senator Manchin’s complaints?
MS. PSAKI: No. And Senator Manchin hasn’t even outlined more detail.
Q Okay. And on the coronavirus: Last week, I asked President Biden, on the Lawn, about 800,000 American deaths. When I asked him why he hadn’t done more to press China to be transparent on the origins of the pandemic, he smiled and walked away without giving a verbal answer. I’m wondering why was that his reaction. And can you give us an update on anything he has done to press China for transparency, especially to ensure that there isn’t another pandemic?
MS. PSAKI: Well, we put out an extensive statement from the President on the 800,000 deaths, which I’m sure many of you noted.
And again, I would just reiterate — what we’ve said many times is that we are going to continue to press China to be more transparent, to participate in the global community’s effort to push them to do more to get to the origins of the virus.
As you know, we’ve also tapped into all of the resources we have here through our intelligence community, through working with our partners and allies, and we will continue to press to do that.
Q Does the administration regret the earlier guidance on booster shots where not everyone was eligible and they weren’t made to look like they were an essential part of protecting people from the pandemic?
MS. PSAKI: That was a decision made by our health and medical experts, so I would point you to them.
Q Yeah. Hi, Jen. Does the administration have any plans to lift the travel ban on several Southern African countries, given the fact that Omicron is clearly already here and is kind of spreading pretty rapidly?
MS. PSAKI: I mean, our objective is to not — this is not a permanent ban at all; it is temporary. And we are continuing to assess day to day the decision to lift that ban. But, yes, that is our intention to lift the ban.
Q Okay, got it. And then also —
MS. PSAKI: And I don’t have a timeline on that at this point in time, to conclude my answer there.
Q Okay. And then second question for you, just because — a follow-up on the vaccine mandates for large employers: Those guidelines currently don’t include anything about booster shots. Is there going to be any sort of update to those requirements that will include further guidance on, you know, whether boosters will be included as like a — as a requirement towards being fully vaccinated, essentially?
MS. PSAKI: Sure, it’s a good question. So, we would — first, the CDC has not changed their evaluation of what being “fully vaccinated” means. I think Dr. Fauci has said it’s not a matter of “if” but “when.” And then, obviously, we base any of our policies from the federal government on the CDC guidance.
So, that would be the first step if and when they were to change that.
Q Can you bring us up to speed — I just have two questions: one on Russia, one on Afghanistan.
Can you bring us up to speed on conversations between the White House and the Kremlin over the weekend?
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q And can you clarify the administration’s stance on some of the specific demands that Russia made? For example, most importantly, the one that Ukraine not be allowed to join NATO.
MS. PSAKI: Sure. Well, let me first say — I know we put out a readout, I believe, of — or if not, it will be coming soon. But: “Today, Jake Sullivan spoke with…” Yuri Shakov [sic] — Ushokov [sic] — Ushakov — I’m sure I’m butchering his last name, apologies — “…Foreign Policy Advisor to President Vladimir Putin of Russia. He indicated U.S. readiness to engage in diplomacy through multiple channels, including bilateral engagement, the NATO-Russia Council, and the OSCE. He made clear that any dialogue must be based on reciprocity and address our concerns about Russia’s actions, and take place in full coordination with our European Allies and partners.”
That is consistent with our ongoing outreach and engagement with the Russians, with the Ukrainians, with the Europeans as well that happened through the course of last week.
As it relates to NATO membership or joining NATO, as — as we’ve talk- — said many times but I’ll just reiterate, given I know it was raised through their proposal: The President’s view, the administration’s view is that the right of sovereign nations to choose their partnerships and alliances is a core principle of European security and has been agreed to and reaffirmed many times over the years. This remains U.S. policy today, mean- — it is — we support the aspirations of countries to join NATO and meet specific requirements.
It — NATO’s relationship with Ukraine is a matter only for Ukraine and 30 NATO Allies to determine.
Q Thank you. And then on Afghanistan: What’s the administration’s take on this letter from 46 members of Congress asking the Treasury to unfreeze or ease Afghanistan’s access to foreign reserves, and to do more to allow financial institutions and aid groups to operate in Afghanistan?
MS. PSAKI: Well, there are a number of reasons why the Afghan reserves remain inaccessible, including, first and most immediate, the status of the funds is the subject of ongoing litigation brought by certain victims of 9/11 and other terrorist attacks who hold judgments against the Taliban. And these letal [sic] — legal proceedings obviously cannot be disregarded.
We also — the second reason is, we continue to face difficult fundamental questions about how it might be — we might be able to make reserve funds available to directly benefit the people of Afghanistan while ensuring that the funds do not benefit the Taliban.
And finally, the Taliban remains sanctioned by the United States as a “specially designated global terrorist group.” That certainly has not changed.
But this is, of course, complicated by the ongoing litigation over those funds.
Go ahead. Hello.
Q Thanks, Jen. Does the President think Senator Biden is — Senator Biden — Senator Manchin is going to —
MS. PSAKI: He always thinks of himself as a senator. (Laughter.)
Q Does the President think Senator Manchin —
MS. PSAKI: There you go. You’re not wrong.
Q Does the President think Senator Manchin has been negotiating in good faith?
MS. PSAKI: He has said that from the beginning. He continues to consider him a friend. And, obviously, our statement yesterday over — about the events of the last few weeks, I think, speaks for itself.
Q The reason I ask is that some progressives are alleging — alleging that Manchin was always going to be a no and, in effect, bamboozled the White House into believing that he was negotiating in good faith and was going to pull the plug at the end of the process.
MS. PSAKI: Well, look, I know there’s a lot of theorizing out there; we certainly understand that. But the fact remains that we only have 50 votes in the Senate — that has not changed. You need all of those members to support legislation moving forward.
And I know one of the arguments out there is that we should have waited on the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill. Look, the President has said from the beginning and continues to believe today — and is committed to today to getting both done — obviously, the Infrastructure bill is now law — to getting Build Back Better done.
But if the question is whether we should have delayed and not moved forward with replacing lead pipes for millions of communities — of people in communities across the country, we disagree with that.
Or if you’re — the argument is that we should have waited and delayed replacing broadband, we disagree with that.
And if you believe that we should have delayed in putting many, many union workers to work, creating many, many good-paying union jobs, we disagree with that. We’re going to get both done.
And we certainly understand there’s a lot of theorizing about what happened or what’s going to happen moving forward.
Go ahead, in the middle.
Q Thanks — thank you, Jen.
Q Thanks, Jen.
Q I want to ask you — I’m sorry.
MS. PSAKI: We can go to both.
Q Oh, thank you so much. I want to ask you about that statement that you put out yesterday.
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q Very harsh statement. It’s very rare that I see a President, through a statement, criticizing a member of his own party in the manner in which that statement was written. And I want to ask you as to whether or not you believe that harsh rhetoric coming from the White House, the harsh rhetoric that I’ve seen coming from fellow Democrats, progressives in particular, may push Senator Manchin out of the Democratic Party.
MS. PSAKI: Senator Manchin has spoken to that. And the President continues to believe that they share a range of values. They share a commitment to helping working people, to helping lower costs for the American people.
Our intention yesterday was to provide specific details to the American people about the events of the last few weeks.
And our statement followed a statement by Senator Manchin.
Q The other thing I wanted to ask you about are the comments of Senator Manchin. Over the course of the past several months, the comments that I’ve paid a lot of attention to — you have as well; the op-eds that he’s written for both the Washington Post and his hometown newspapers; the interviews that he’s done with a West Virginia radio host named Hoppy Kercheval — all of them, from my perspective, seemed to indicate that he was not going to support the Build Back Better bill. And yet, your statement indicated utter surprise, in terms of the statement that he made on Fox News yesterday. Why were you so surprised?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think, as my statement very clearly outlined, because there were private conversations and private discussions and commitments made. And so that’s why we were surprised.
Go ahead, in the middle. Sorry, go ahead.
Q Thanks, Jen. So, given the current state of the pandemic, does the President anticipate giving an in-person State of the Union next year, or where are you on those conversations?
MS. PSAKI: Nothing has changed about our intentions or our plans, but we don’t yet have a date set at this point in time.
Q Thank you so much, Jen. Due to the difficulties around testing, do you think public health officials in the United States are getting a correct picture of how Omicron is spreading today in the country?
MS. PSAKI: That’s a very good question. I mean, I would say that, you know, the President — and obviously, as I said, in response to Monica’s question earlier, you’ll hear the President talk tomorrow about his commitment to continuing to expand access to free testing for the American people.
We have taken a lot of steps over the last few weeks and months: We’ve quadrupled our testing capacity over just a few months.
But really, I think that’s a good question — a very good question that I think you could ask — you should ask the health and medical experts and team at the next COVID briefing.
Go ahead, Shelby.
Q Thanks, Jen. I wanted to ask a follow-up on the COVID testing.
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q I know you’ve detailed what the administration is doing already to ease some of these problems, but we’re obviously still seeing them across the country. So, is there anything new that the administration is considering to ease some of these COVID testing issues?
And then, more broadly, you know, how are we in a position, nearly two years into a pandemic, where we’re still dealing with issues like a lack of access to testing?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think, Shelby, on the first, we’re dealing with a once-in-a-lifetime global pandemic that has been very unpredictable, and I think everybody would acknowledge that. And what we’ve done on testing is to continue to increase access, make it affordable and accessible. That’s important morally; it’s important substantively and policy-wise to the President.
Obviously, there weren’t any [at-home] COVID tests available
or approved by the FDA earlier this year, so now there’s eight. And we’ve taken steps to quadruple our testing capacity over just the last couple of months. And we’ve also taken steps to make them widely available at — by sending 50 million to rural health clinics and community health centers, making sure there are 20,000 pharmacy locations across the country.
But, obviously, with the transmissibility of this variant, we’re going to continue to build on that. And that’s what I think the people — the American people will hear from him on tomorrow.
Q Thank you, Jen. I have two foreign policy questions.
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q You have seen the review that indicated the killing of 1,300 civilians in the Middle East since 2014 by drones. I know there was successive administrations, not just the Biden administration. It gives reasons like “fluid intelligence” and “faulty targeting” and “little accountability.”
Since the President (inaudible) on these drone attacks, does that mean that the White House is looking into reviewing the decision itself, in parallel to what the Pentagon is doing? And I have another question.
MS. PSAKI: Yeah, that’s a great question. I know the Pentagon is doing a review, as you noted, and I would certainly point you to them. I can certainly talk to our national security team and see if there’s anything in addition. Obviously, the Pentagon is part of the administration, as you well know. But I will see if there’s anything in addition.
Q Okay, great. And on Iran — the Iranians said that they’re not going back to the talks. Does that mean that economic sanction is inevitable now? Do you still hope that there’s another round before the end of the year?
MS. PSAKI: Yeah, another great question, Nadia. I mean, as we’ve said: Because of the way that the Iranians approached and participated in the last round of talks, we — the President — we did take a num- — asked us — the national security team — to be prepared in the event that diplomacy fails and to take a look at other options. And that has been work that has been ongoing, including in consultation with a range of partners around the world.
In terms of what next steps — it looks like, I don’t think I have anything at this point to preview for you.
Q Rahm Emanuel was just approved as ambassador to Japan. And following Afghanistan — Japan hosts 50,000 American troops, the largest in the world. There’s a concern as to the ongoing trust of the Security Treaty. So, can you — a little bit of assurance to the Japanese people that our treaty will be honored?
And then also, a follow-up on Afghanistan.
MS. PSAKI: I’m not aware of any planned changes.
Q And then, on Afghanistan — the situation for the people that worked with us: Any progress on bringing them back?
MS. PSAKI: Well, we have put out updates over the course — and I would really point you to the State Department — and reiterate that our efforts have continued — to continue to bring American citizens out of Afghanistan who wish to depart and have wished to depart since August, as well as our allies and partners. That’s why we’ve been working so closely in coordination and cooperation with the Qataris. But the State Department really oversees that effort, so they would have any up-to-date numbers for you.
I can do one or two more. Why don’t we go all the way to the back? Go to the middle. Go ahead.
Q Thank you, Jen. Two questions — one on politics and one on foreign policy.
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q Today, two Democratic members of the House of Representatives — Representatives Murphy of New Jersey and Sires — Murphy of Florida and Sires of New Jersey — both announced their retirement, bringing to 22 the number of Democrats leaving the House for one reason or another. Is this something the President talks about? And does he have an opinion on the exodus of members of his own party?
MS. PSAKI: I have learned my lesson in not talking too much about politics from here. But it is true that there are retirements. That happens typically every cycle. The President, as the leader of the party, obviously, I’m sure, will be out there next year. We’ll have more to preview for you for that — on that when it’s an appropriate time.
But I would note that as it relates to the Democratic agenda and what people are going to be talking about out there, we’d rather it be us than them and have an agenda to talk about and an agenda that is about putting — creating millions of good-paying union jobs; an agenda that’s about ensuring we are, you know, lowering the costs of childcare, healthcare, eldercare; an agenda to address the climate crisis. And that’s what you’ll hear people talk about next year. But I’ll leave the politics out of the podium.
Q Turning to Ukraine —
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q — the — President Zelenskyy has charged that the wealthiest man in Ukraine, Rinat Akhmetov, is part of a Russian plot to overthrow him. Is the U.S. considering Magnitsky-style targeted sanctions against Mr. Akhmetov?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have anything in terms of considerations of sanctions to preview for you. Obviously, we are considering a range of sanctions as we’re looking at the buildup of Russian troops and bellicose rhetoric. But beyond that, I don’t have anything to preview.
Let’s go — just Ebony in the middle, and we’ll — then we’ll wrap it up.
Q Thank you. Just two quick questions. I know that the White House has said in the past that they’re — don’t want to go back to a shutdown. But with the increase of —
MS. PSAKI: Yeah. And we have no intention to.
Q Okay. Because I was going to ask, with the increase of Omicron —
MS. PSAKI: Great.
Q — are we going to see that.
The second question is: This morning, Representative Ocasio-Cortez said that the President hasn’t used the full extent of this presidency, kind of echoing what many activists on the ground are saying. What is the response to that in terms of — she’s talking about Build Back Better and also voting rights. What’s the response to what she said?
MS. PSAKI: I didn’t — well, let me say first, on your first question, which is a very good one: I think the reason we’re not going back to a shutdown is because we are now at a very different place we are in — we were in a year ago, which is important for people. And you’ll hear the President talk about this tomorrow. Two hundred million Americans are vaccinated now. That is a stark difference from where we were a year ago. You’ll hear the President again talk more about that.
I did not see the full context of the congresswoman’s comments, but what I would say is that if you — as we look back to the last year, what we know we have accomplished to date is — working with her and a number of members — is getting the American Rescue Plan done, a step that helped put in place — extend and increase the size of the Child Tax Credit, cutting in half child poverty in this country; making sure we could keep 99 percent of schools open in this country.
We also passed the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill — something that, again, will make sure that we’re replacing lead pipes across the country; make sure we’re expanding access to broadband and creating tens of millions — or not tens of millions — let me remedy that — millions of good-paying union jobs. And we’ve also vaccinated 200 million Americans.
Is there more work to do? Absolutely. Of course, there is. We’re not even a year into the President’s presidency. And voting rights is front and center at the agenda — on the agenda next year. You heard Leader Schumer say that. The President reiterated that, I think in his speech at South Carolina State. And we’ll look forward to continuing to work with the congresswoman and others to get things done.
All right. Thanks, everyone.
Q Thanks, Jen.
MS. PSAKI: We’ll do this again. Merry Christmas Week.
Q Might we hear directly from the President about what happened yesterday, this week?
MS. PSAKI: I think you will hear from him on how we’re going to get the agenda done.
Q Will he take questions on it?
MS. PSAKI: He takes questions multiple times a week. So, depends on what you ask.
Q From here? This room?
MS. PSAKI: Depends on what you ask.
3:55 P.M. EST