Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jen Psaki and Infrastructure Implementation Coordinator Mitch Landrieu, January 18, 2022
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:05 P.M. EST
MS. PSAKI: Hello, everyone.
MS. PSAKI: Take your time. We’re good. Okay, good afternoon. (Removes facemask.) Oh, masks are a little difficult with earrings, I’m learning right now. Okay. Well, okay. (Laughs.)
Happy day 364 of this administration. I’m excited to welcome the President’s Infrastructure Implementation Coordinator, Mitch Landrieu, to the briefing room.
As you all know, Mitch served as the 61st Mayor of New Orleans. Under his leadership, New Orleans is widely recognized as one of the nation’s greatest comeback stories, recovering from Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill.
Mitch served as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, was named “Public Official of the Year” in 2015, and was voted “America’s Top Turnaround Mayor” in a survey of mayors in 2016.
Prior to serving as mayor, he served two terms as Lieutenant Governor of Louisiana and in the Louisiana House of Representatives for 16 years.
As the President’s Infrastructure Coordinator, Mitch oversees the largest long-term investment in America’s infrastructure and competitiveness in nearly a century.
I wanted to have him come speak with all of you following our announcement on Friday of more than $27 billion from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to fix an estimated 15,000 bridges across the country ahead of the President’s meeting later this week with the Infrastructure Implementation Task Force, which he co-chairs.
With that, I will turn it over. He’s agreed to take a few questions before he has to go build some more bridges. (Laughter.) I worked on that all day.
MR. LANDRIEU: Good morning, everybody.
Q Good morning.
MR. LANDRIEU: So, this is what this room looks like. (Laughter.) I’ve wondered for a while. It’s nice to see. Happy New Year to you.
My name is Mitch. The President asked me to help him build a better America. I said, “Yes.” I hope the people of America agree too, because it’s going to take all of us to get this done.
When President Biden came into office just one year ago, he pledged to use the power of the presidency to help everyday Americans, to bring people together, and to rebuild our country and economy.
For decades, we just talked about “Infrastructure Week.” But President Biden reached across the aisle and, in a bipartisan way, actually got it done. Promises made, promises kept.
Let me tell you, every week now is going to be “Infrastructure Week,” except the difference is we’re actually going to build stuff.
With the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, President Biden is delivering the largest investment in infrastructure in a generation. That means “in most of our lives.”
A little more than 60 days ago, our team hit the ground running to deliver results. We’ve now convened the task force made up of Cabinet members a total of six times. This Thursday will be our seventh, and the President will be with us.
We’re discussing hard questions, seeking to flesh out the tough stuff first. I’m a firm believer in running to the fire, not away from it.
We’re breaking down silos across agencies — on guidelines, on permitting, on hiring.
This is “one team, one fight” mission. And we are going to operate in that way.
We also need good partners. The fact of the matter is that most of the building will actually be done by states, by the cities, by the counties, by the Tribal leaders. That’s why our team, and me personally, have been reaching out — extensive outreach to state and local officials.
At this point, we have reached out to all 50 governors and their key staff, I have spoken to hundreds of local officials, and we have gotten a fantastic response from them all.
As you know by now, we have asked states to appoint infrastructure coordinators, which we think will help foster cross-agency collaboration and make it easier for them to get problems solved very quickly.
Already, states like Delaware and New Mexico have appointed coordinators. And states like Arkansas and Michigan are setting up interagency task forces.
Our team is here to be problem-solvers, to deliver, to build the team, and to help tell the story. Ultimately, we want to help people take advantage of this great opportunity to build a better America.
Now, as a country, we haven’t spent this amount of money on infrastructure in generations. So, we’re talking about how to do it with accountability and transparency — on time, on task, on budget, spending taxpayer dollars both wisely and well.
Earlier today, I convened the inspectors general of federal agencies involved in implementation of the law, letting them know we want to do this in a partnership just like the President did when he was the Vice President and he led the Recovery Act process — as the President has expected from his team since day one, including the implementation of ARP.
As the President has made clear, results and accountability go hand in hand. To deliver results now and in the years to come, the federal government must undertake this work in a manner that is deserving of the public’s trust. So, we’re going to lean forward. Stewardship of public dollars is a high priority.
But I want to level set: This infrastructure work in general is not a one-time economic stimulus. It is not a race to see how many ribbons we can cut before the end of the year.
Doing this is going to require balance. It’s going to require order. We are definitely going to go fast, but we are not going to hurry and we are going to get it right.
On the nuts and bolts, we’re on the right track. As the President laid out last week, we’ve made real progress — you’ve seen the announcements — rebuilding roads, ports, and airports. We’re making progress on delivering high-speed Internet to every American. We’re making progress on ensuring water systems deliver clean water by replacing lead pipes.
And of course, on Friday, the President rolled out the massive $27 billion allocation to states to fix over 15,000 bridges — the largest bridge program in American history.
You see, bridges connect us. They connect people, the movement of goods. They connect communities. They connect the country. With this investment, President Biden is creating a bridge to the future, a pathway to win — a pathway for all of us to win.
And today, we have another great announcement. The Department of the Interior is announcing a new interagency program for cleaning up orphaned wells, a key initiative of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. The law includes $4.7 billion to clean up orphaned well sites — plugging, remediation, and restoration activities.
So, what does this mean for the people of America?
Millions of us — millions — live within a mile of hundreds of thousands of orphaned and abandoned wells that leak and spew. These wells jeopardize public health and safety by contaminating groundwater; seeping toxic cheminals [sic] — chemicals; emitting harmful pollutants, including methane.
This well-capping program also creates jobs and will revitalize rural economies in places where people are directly affected by a transitioning economy.
And like so many of the issues we face, cleaning it up will take an all-of-government approach.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland is leading this effort, in close partnership with the Department of Agriculture, EPA, and the Department of Energy. And already, 26 states have asked for funding to take advantage of this opportunity to clean up this mess.
Secretary Haaland told me the other day a story about a school she visited where children had tissues in their nostrils due to constant nosebleeds — a result of contamination. Can you imagine having our children have to learn in this kind of environment? It has gone on for quite a long time.
That’s why we’re doing this: real results where people live and where it really matters, cleaning up communities, fighting climate change, creating new and better jobs, and building a bridge to a future economy. It’s a really consequential effort.
And later this week, there will be more announcements to come.
In closing, let me just say the President has been clear in his charge to me: Build a better America without unnecessary bureaucracy and delay while, at the same time, doing what is difficult for the sake of what is right.
And so “better,” as we have said many times, means creating good middle-class jobs, investing in American manufacturing and building capacity right here at home, supporting disadvantaged and underserved communities so that no one and no community is left behind, advancing climate resilience and sustainability so that we can be better prepared and ready for whatever is coming our way.
All of this will make us stronger and better, reduce costs for middle-class families, and help us compete. This is what building a better America looks like for all of us.
Jen, back to you.
MS. PSAKI: All right.
Jeff, go ahead.
Q Mr. Mayor, thank you very much. I was wondering if you could tell us what the response from some states in your old neck of the woods has been. We’ve seen many federal programs — Obamacare, one example; other things — some red state governors have been resistant.
Are you seeing a different kind of response on things like infrastructure, which — the programs of which are popular, but the administration isn’t necessarily?
And just give us a timeframe of when you think some of these ribbon cuttings — I know that’s not the metric — but when will they be happening? Anything this year?
MR. LANDRIEU: Yeah, Jeff, thank you so much for that. A very wise person said, you know, “Even if they vote no, they want the dough.” (Laughter.) And that — (laughs) — that’s absolutely true, especially on infrastructure.
As I said, I have personally spoke to over 40 governors — 3, their chiefs of staff. The others we have been contacted through staff. I’ve talked to a number of Republican governors — all of whom, in the reddest of red states, were very welcoming. They were very appreciative that the President had asked to call.
We clearly acknowledged with each other that we may have differences of opinion on other issues. But on building roads and bridges and airs- — and airports and clean water and broadband — you know, 75 percent, 80 percent of the people of America want these things to happen. And the governors have committed to work with us to actually get it done.
You mentioned that in my neck of the woods — I’m from the state of Louisiana, as you know — we have gotten beaten to death by Katrina, Rita, Ike, Gustav; the national recession; the BP oil spill; and a bucketload of other stuff. We always wonder when the locusts are coming.
And we have had interaction, as I was Lieutenant Governor, with a Republican governor who I served with and a Democratic governor. In both of those instances, bipartisanship really is at the forefront of these initiatives. There are going to be some differences, but at the end of the day, there really is common ground. And I feel very good about the willingness to lean forward and to do the things that all of our constituents need, irrespective of what party that they’re in.
In terms of turning dirt quickly, as I said to you — to level set with everybody in this room — because you will ask me about this from time to time, “Can you hurry up? When is the money going to get to the ground? When are the first ribbon cuttings?” — first of all, this is very different from the American recovery program. This is a long-term investment in rebuilding America better.
And so, there are a lot of these programs that are actually new; many of them are not. This happens in two ways. Some of this is through formula funding that has been set. Every governor has received an indication of what the states are going to receive for the next five years. And that’s across whoever is sitting in the governor’s chair so they can start planning today and actually start breaking ground as soon as they’re ready to do that.
The other part of this bill is competitive grants. Some of those are going to take a little bit of time to set up. My expectation is there’s some projects that you’ll see people turning dirt on in, definitely, the spring or the fall. Which ones they are, I can’t actually point to you right now, but there’s no reason why that shouldn’t happen, especially if some of the projects have been in the line for some period of time.
MS. PSAKI: Mary.
Q To that point, you know, the President promised
shovel-ready projects. The administration hasn’t yet been able to identify which of those projects might be getting underway soon. When will we get a better sense of what projects are coming?
MR. LANDRIEU: I can’t give you an exact date. But as I said to you, with the announcements that have happened in the first 60 days — and you have a list of what those announcements are, so I don’t need to repeat them — but you remember the investments that we made in ports and the investment that we just made in bridges and the ones that we sent out — the ones that Michael Regan sent out on clean water and clean air.
The governors now have this money. On top of that, some of this money is fungible from the American recovery plan as well. So as soon as the governors and legislatures decide where this money is going to go — and they do it with appropriate attention to equity, climate, using American products, and other things of that nature — those projects shouldn’t take long. However, it takes a long time to build a bridge. You know, you don’t build a bridge in a day.
Now, sometimes people in this town know that you can tear down things a lot quicker than you can build them, and they work hard to do that. In this instance, we’re going to take time and do it right, but we’re going to do it as quickly as we possibly can.
MS. PSAKI: Joey.
Q Yeah. Thanks, Mayor. I’m curious about the $66 billion for Amtrak. What is the process looking like in terms of spending those funds? Again, on the timeline, when do you think that that — those dollars will get out?
And is it going to be — in terms of figuring out which projects, I know they have, like, you know, planning that Amtrak does, and a lot of it is focused on that Northeast Corridor that travels up the Northeast coast. You know, is that going to be a process that Amtrak itself figures out what they’re going to spend? Or is there going to be input also from the administration, the White House? How does that kind of work?
MR. LANDRIEU: Well, first of all, we’re going to all figure it out together.
MR. LANDRIEU: You can count on that. Secondly, just to make you aware of the scope of this project: It’s $1.2 trillion; there are 14 agencies, plus some, that have some level of involvement. In many of these plans and programs, it takes three or four agencies to coordinate. And then there are some independent agencies, and Amtrak is one of those. As you notice, they have $66 billion to do a really, really big job.
And, of course, you won’t be surprised to know the President has a special interest in trains, and he’ll — will talk to you about it for a very, very long time. But he knows more about it than many engineers in an unbelievable way.
We’ve started those conversations with Amtrak. You have rightly noted that the Northeastern Corridor is the one that needs immediate attention. The President, however, has also indicated that he’s really interested in trying to make sure that we look at where the connections are that connect moving people that’s cheaper, faster, and is also climate-
So, we’re in the process of — well, of kind of putting that together. And we’ll have a plan in the not-too-distant future.
Q Is that something that it could be started this year or more likely something —
MR. LANDRIEU: I think a lot — again, I don’t want to speak specifically for Amtrak; it’s an independent agency — there are many things that can be started right now. And as I have said to you, in some of these models that we have, in some formulas, that money has actually already been indicated and sent out of the door.
So that’s just going to be a matter of administrative work that we have to do.
MS. PSAKI: Nancy, this is going to have to be the last one. Go ahead.
MR. LANDRIEU: Hey, Nancy.
Q Thanks, Mitch. Based on what you’ve seen so far, how many state governments have the capacity already to evaluate this huge number of projects all at once and determine which ones are most worthy of the funding? Because as we saw, for example, with the American Rescue Plan, you might be very organized here at the federal level, but if they don’t have the staffing and the know-how and the capacity at the state level, there’ll be bottlenecks.
MR. LANDRIEU: Correct. That is a fantastic question, and thank you for asking this.
As you heard me say throughout this talk, it’s all going to be about balance: How do you go fast and how do you get it right? How do you really try to do the right thing but at the same time not go too slow? How do you deal with actually getting money to the ground quickly and making sure that people have the capacity to use it?
Let me say this again to all of us who are younger than 80 years old: You have not seen this in our lifetime. And when we have tried to do this in the past, because we haven’t spent a lot of time building up what I call “downline logistics” — you’ll hear me say this many, many times — sometimes up here in Washington, they want to create a cow, and when it gets down to the ground, it looks like a pig.
And the point is to make sure that what we’re trying to do down here gets down to the ground with the people from the ground up understanding it, knowing it, analyzing, and working in partnership with them.
One of the things that should be obvious to anybody in this country is that we have a capacity problem on the ground. Notwithstanding the current circumstance that we’re in, even if the world were perfect, you have to say to yourself: Are we ready to build this much stuff this fast?
And the answer is: If you triage it appropriately; if you plan appropriately; if you run to the fire and one of the fires is, “Do we have enough people, do we have enough materials, and if we don’t, how do we create workforce training programs, how do we build capacity, how do we manufacture products here?”; and you understand that this is a 5- to 10-year cycle, you can actually move into it if you do it intentionally and with thought.
So, to answer your very specific question: There are some states that have been in this business for quite a long time and have moved big stuff. And they’re obviously more prepared than others.
One of the great challenges and one of the great missions the President gave us bec- — and it falls under the umbrella of equity and climate: What about these small Indigenous communities that don’t have the capacity to apply for a grant? What happens if they get a grant? Do they have the ability to spend the money?
And our team has raised that up — all of our agencies — that says: We’ve got to run to that fire, and we have to start building capacity on the ground level. And then: How, actually, are we going to do that? What does workforce training [look] like? What does the partnership with community technical colleges look like? How is labor going to build apprenticeship programs to lift up people of color who have not been involved in the (inaudible)? And how do you create this virtuous cycle of success and moving in one direction?
This is why — back to Jeff’s questions earlier — if everybody cooperates, if everybody saves their fire for all of these hot-button issues that we all tend to disagree with, and don’t focus that on infrastructure — because there’s not a Republican or a Democratic way to fill a damn pothole — then we ought to be able to get all of this stuff done more quickly and better.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what a better America looks like for President Biden.
Thank you all very much.
MS. PSAKI: All right. Thank you so much.
MR. LANDRIEU: I appreciate it.
MS. PSAKI: Invited back anytime, as I always like to say.
Okay. All right. This a little bit better this time. Okay, I just have a couple of items for all of you at the top. I have a bit of a hard out at quarter of or 10 of, so we’ll get around to as many people as possible.
I know that many of you are tracking that we are about to reach our one-year mark here in the administration. And we just wanted to note a couple of the points of progress that have been made that you’ll hear the President talk more about and members of our administration also talk more about over the coming days.
And you know how we love charts around here. So we have some charts that lay out a pretty stark contrast between where we started and where we are now.
So just to highlight a couple of pieces: During the President’s first year, we saw the most dramatic change in our economy of anywhere in the world. It was the biggest year of job growth in American history, and it was the direct result of actions taken by President Biden and Democrats in Congress, including the American Rescue Plan, the vaccination effort it helped fund, and now the Bipartisan Infrastructure law.
And you can see the economic data there quite starkly. I mean, look at the initial unemployment claims. They’re, on average, eight hundr- — they were at 812,000 a year ago; they’re now at 210,000. The unemployment rate and, obviously, job creation the year before the President took office and the last year.
As it relates to COVID: If we look to a year ago, only 1 percent of adults were fully vaccinated; 74 percent of adults are fully vaccinated now.
In terms of at-home tests on the market — I know we’ve talked about tests a lot — zero on the market a year ago. Now we have 375 million people per month — or tests are distributed, I should say, per month. Forty-six percent of schools were open a year ago; now over 95 percent.
This is progress that’s been made. Obviously, there’s more work that’s going to be done, that needs to be done. The job is not done yet, but we have a plan to address the challenges we’re facing. And we’re going to stay at it.
With that, Colleen, why don’t you kick us off?
Q Okay. Thanks, Jen. I wanted to ask about negotiations over voting rights. I wanted to see, you know, what you guys are expecting this week. And then what’s plan B if things go south, you know, to secure elections and ensure voting access if the bills don’t pass?
MS. PSAKI: Well, as you all know, the negotiations — or the debate is starting in the Senate. The President’s view is that the American people deserve to see where their leaders stand on protecting their fundamental rights. That is a reason to move forward with this debate and this vote this week.
And his view is also that opposing rule changes to make the protection of voting rights a reality is supporting an — an obstacle to protecting voting rights. It’s part of the important process.
In terms of what — so, we will continue to — and you’ve heard the President say and I’m sure he will reiterate for you if anyone asks him tomorrow that until his last breath, he will be fighting for the protection of voting rights. And that means conversations and fighting to get legislation at the federal level through is going to continue. And those conversations will continue.
I will note that, in addition, we have also been working with organizations all across this country who are building diverse coalitions to pass voter laws and push back against those that make it harder to vote and threaten free and fair administration of elections, in addition to doing the critical work to register and educate voters.
These organizations have built grassroots leadership at the state level. They’re providing training, policy research, messaging guidance, and directing — organizing to register voters, deploy voter protection teams in states that are rolling back voter protection.
I’d also note: The Vice President knows Americans at every level are focused on this fight. And she will continue engaging and leading this effort with activists, policy leaders, and elected officials around the country.
But, right now, our focus is on the debate, on the vote that is going to be happening, and on the fact that it will highlight very clearly for the American people who stands with them in protecting their voting rights and who stands against it.
Q That makes sense. What do you hope to achieve with the Secretary of State heading not only to Ukraine, but then later to Geneva to meet with Lavrov, especially since, you know, talks with — over Ukraine aren’t exactly going all that well right now?
MS. PSAKI: Well, let me just give you a little bit of an update on where things stand. And obviously, you’re following this closely.
But, this morning, Secretary Blinken spoke with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov. They agreed to meet in Geneva, as you — as you noted. At that meeting, Secretary Blinken will urge Russia to take immediate steps to de-escalate. He will also fly to Kyiv to consult with President Zelenskyy and Ukraine’s leaders, and to Germany for consultations.
As you also know, there is a congressional delegation that is also on their way
there [back]. And it’s — a note — I would note that that just indicates that support for Ukraine has always been a bipartisan issue, and we welcome that.
But where things stand right now: President Putin has created this crisis by amassing 100,000 Russian troops along Ukraine’s borders. This includes moving Russian forces into Belarus recently for joint exercises and conducting additional exercises on Ukraine’s eastern border.
So, let’s be clear: Our view is this is an extremely dangerous situation. We’re now at a stage where Russia could at any point launch an attack in Ukraine.
And what Secretary Blinken is going to go do is highlight very clearly there is a diplomatic path forward. It is the choice of President Putin and the Russians to make whether they are going to suffer severe economic consequences or not.
Go ahead. Oh, let me go around to people who haven’t had a question.
Q That’s fine. Go ahead.
MS. PSAKI: Go ahead, Trevor.
Q Could you — when you’re talking about, kind of, this meeting that the Secretary of State is going to have with Sergey Lavrov, what is the — is there an expectation that he’s going to provide some sort of response to the issues that were raised in the January 10th meeting?
MS. PSAKI: Well, again, I don’t have anything for you to specifically preview on the behind-the-scenes negotiations and discussions.
But our position has been crystal clear from the beginning — the position of the President and the Secretary of State — that there are two paths: There’s a diplomatic path forward — we certainly hope they take that path; there’s the other path.
It is up to the Russians to determine which path they’re going to take, and the consequences will be severe if they don’t take the diplomatic path.
Q And in terms of the consequences, there has been reporting out of Europe that essentially this idea that’s been floated about taking Russia out of the SWIFT financial payment system is basically off the table at this point. Is that accurate?
MS. PSAKI: No option is off the table in our view. We continue consulting closely with European counterparts on severe counter- — consequences for Russia if it further invades Ukraine.
Q And do you have a commitment from the German government that they will end the Nord Stream 2 pipeline?
MS. PSAKI: I think, as you know, it is not functioning currently. You’ve seen the steps that they have taken recently. The pipe- — Germany’s Federal Network Agency has suspended cert- — the certification process, as well, of Nord Stream 2.
And our view continues to be that stopping the Nord Stream 2 pipeline is a critical — credible piece we hold over Russia at this point in time, especially since it is not functioning. And if sanctions are imposed right now, which some are proposing — and Russia views these sanctions as a sunk cost — then this would be one less consideration in its calculus.
So, of course, we’re consulting closely with all of our partners and allies in this. But I would just note, again, that the pipeline is not operational — that Germany’s Federal Network Agency has suspended the certification process.
Q Thanks. Staying on Ukraine and Russia: What does the White House make of the evac- — the evacuation of Russian diplomatic staff from their embassy in Kyiv? And do you think the threat of invasion is getting higher or lower?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think, as I noted a few minutes ago, we believe we’re now at a stage where Russia could at any point launch an attack on Ukraine. I would say that’s more stark than we have been.
In terms of the decision to move — to move — to evacuate their embassy or to move personnel out of their embassy, we have information that indicates the Russian government was preparing to evacuate their family members from the Russian Embassy in Ukraine in late December and early January.
We certainly would refer you to them for more specifics about what their decision is.
But we don’t have an assessent [sic] — assessment on why and the meaning.
Q Okay. And then, another one: On reports that the White House is in talks with the FAA and wireless providers on the 5G rollout and those potential disruption to airline travel, is there anything more you can tell us on this agreement you’re working on? And are you trying to prevent any flight cancellations which could start as soon as tomorrow?
MS. PSAKI: Well, we are — those conversations are ongoing. I don’t have an update at this moment, but they’re ongoing right now, I would say.
So, we have the safest airspace in the world. We’re committed to reaching a solution around 5G deployment that maintains the highest level of safety while maintaining distruptions [sic] — while minimizing disruptions to passenger travel, cargo operations, and our economic recovery.
We certainly understand what’s at stake for both industries. We are actively engaged, as you said, with the FAA, FCC, wireless carriers, airlines, and aviation equipment manufacturers to reach a solution. And we believe that with continued cooperation, we can chart a path forward. But certainly minimizing flight disruptions, ensuring safety and travel is a top priority.
Q And then, one more — going Bloomberg on you —
MS. PSAKI: Go ahead.
Q Microsoft buying Activision Blizzard will create the world’s third biggest video game company. Does the White House have any competition concerns with this acquisition?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would just note that, today, there is an announcement by the FTC and the Justice Department that’s probably happening now — broadly speaking — this is not about this specific case — which is, in our view, a critical step towards delivering on one of the key priorities of the executive order the President has signed, which is strengthening enforcement against illeger [sic] — illegal mergers, and it basically kicks off the technical process to review merger guidelines.
As it relates to this specific case that you mentioned, I don’t have a comment on this specific merger. But I just wanted to point you to their announcement — their press conference that may be going on right now.
Go ahead. Oh, Joey, let me — go ahead.
MS. PSAKI: Let me — go ahead — so I just get to the people (inaudible).
Q Yeah, sure.
Q Thank you. There’s bipartisan supply chain resiliency legislation in the House: the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act. Is the White House engaged in getting lawmakers on board with this?
MS. PSAKI: Very closely engaged. And we’ve been advocates for investing in manufacturing here in the United States, including investment in our chips manufacturing capacity. But we’re very closely engaged in these discussions.
Q Can you say a little bit more about that — where — what kind of discussions you’re having, and where there’s (inaudible)?
MS. PSAKI: Just that we’ve been engaged from the beginning, the President has long been an advocate for increasing investment in our manufacturing capacity at home, and we are looking forward to it moving forward.
Q Okay. And then, I have another one: Does the President think that members of Congress should be prohibited from trading stocks? The President is prohibited from doing this. So, where does he stand on this? And should their spouses be too?
MS. PSAKI: The President didn’t trade individual stocks when he was a senator; that is how he approached things. He also believes that everyone should be held to the highest standard, but he’ll let members of — the leadership in Congress and members of Congress determine what the rules should be.
Go ahead, Michael.
Q Thanks, Jen. A couple of questions on what happened in Texas over the weekend.
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q How is it that an individual who was known to MI5 in Britain, who was on a watchlist as of 2020, ended up in a synagogue in Texas? How — how did that happen?
MS. PSAKI: Well, our understanding — and, obviously, we’re still looking into this — is that he was checked against U.S. government databases multiple times prior to entering the country, and the U.S. government did not have any derogatory information about the individual in our systems at the time of entry.
We’re certainly looking back, as I referenced, at what occurred to learn every possible lesson we can to prevent attacks like this in the future.
Beyond that, I’d certainly refer you to the Department of Homeland Security.
Q And, obviously, the President referred to the incident as “an act of terror.” What is the significance of referring to the individual as a “terrorist” or referring to the incident as a “terrorist incident”?
MS. PSAKI: I think — and I talked to the President about this that day as well. I think there’s no question that when somebody goes into a house of worship and threatens and holds hostage individuals who are there that that is an act of terror. That is terrorism. That is why he called it that, because we don’t need to be — because it’s very clear that’s what it is.
Q Hi. Thanks, Jen. Getting back to voting rights for a minute —
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q — you mentioned that the White House administration is going to continue to push back against state legislatures. The President mentioned this as well last week.
But just to drill down on that a little more, can we expect to see more litigation from the Department of Justice around this?
And if you look at cases that have already been filed under Section 2, we know historically that takes a very long time — years — to resolve. Are you confident that there is any action you can take that would result in any outcome before the midterms?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I’d really refer to the Department of Justice. As you know, they have doubled their funding for voting rights protections. But in terms of individual cases or legal intentions or actions, I would point you to them.
Q And then, quickly, to shift a little bit to healthcare and the Affordable Care Act — that was something that President Biden ran on: expanding the ACA.
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q He’s able to do that, of course, through the Rescue Plan. But some of those other pieces were tied to Build Back Better: expanding Medicaid, again addressing subsidies. Is there a plan B, a consideration of what steps could be taken if Build Back Better doesn’t pass?
MS. PSAKI: Well, here’s the good news: There’s a lot of interest, excitement, and engagement with a broad range of members of Congress about the shared desire to get something done and to lower costs for healthcare, for eldercare, for childcare.
And those — there are a range of conversations that are ongoing. Lots of ideas that we’re discussing and we’re engaged with. That is the status.
The President proposed this as part of his package because he — as you said, he has advocated for, he ran on, he has fought for an expansion of access to healthcare, lower costs for healthcare.
He also feels very strongly about lowering the cost of prescription drugs — something he thinks is — frankly, shouldn’t be controversial in this country. “If you’re not for lowering the cost of prescription drugs, what are you for, Republicans in Congress?” is his basic fundamental question.
So, this is something we will continue to discuss, we’re continuing to fight for and work for. But, you know, I know there have been a range of reports out there, and I would just make very clear there is no specific proposal we are putting forward. We are just engaged in a range of conversations with members of Congress about what to do next.
Q Thanks, Jen. Can you provide an update on the COVID testing website?
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q Is it ready to go? Has the hotline number been created? You know, resiliency against crashes — that type of thing.
MS. PSAKI: Sure. So, COVIDTests.gov is in the beta phase right now, which is a standard part of the process typically as it’s being kind of tested in the early stages of being rolled out.
We didn’t start from scratch here, of course. The Postal Service already runs a website that sells goods to the public.
As you know, every website launch, in our view, comes with risk. We can’t guarantee there won’t be a bug or two. But the best tech teams across the administration and the Postal Service are working hard to make this a success.
So, it will officially launch tomorrow morning. It’s in the beta testing phase right now.
And I would also note that the U.S. Digital Service, which was an organization founded after HealthCare.gov — after the HealthCare.gov rescue, has been supporting the Postal Service to ensure that they have what they need to be successful in this critical moment.
And so, looking forward to an official launch tomorrow morning. And right now, it’s in the beta phase.
Q On Ukraine and Russia, I know you said that the United States is ready for Russia to engage at any time. I wanted to ask you, though, about the media narrative of the falsifying — or alleging that Russia is going to say that Ukraine is going to attack Russia. Have you seen any indications of that? Has that — has that narrative been put it into works yet?
MS. PSAKI: We talked about this a fair amount on Friday, because we’ve seen efforts to push that narrative in the media and in the public.
And I think one of the key roles we can play here is making very clear that there is a long history of propaganda from Russian leadership — that they use it as a tool to spread misinformation as a means of gaining ground. And we should be very clear about what’s accurate and inaccurate. And that’s an inaccurate narrative.
Q Thank you, Jen. Thank you. Since there are so few reporters in here today, I’d like to ask briefly about three transparency issues.
The first one I’m kind of amazed hasn’t been brought up more in this room: That is that Vanity Fair reported recently that, on October 22nd, a group of health experts from Harvard, the Rockefeller Foundation, and other groups proposed on a Zoom meeting with administration officials a plan to mass distribute coronavirus tests to homes before Christmas to prevent a winter surge of COVID-19 cases, but that they were told, three days after that Zoom meeting, that that idea was dead.
So, I emailed you about this yesterday and again this morning so that you’d be able to track down a firm answer on two details here. The first detail is: Which administration officials attended that October 22nd meeting? For example, did Drs. Fauci and Walensky participate?
And was President Biden personally briefed at the time on that recommendation before it was passed over?
MS. PSAKI: Well, maybe people haven’t asked about it because we’ve done a lot of what was discussed in that meeting that happened a couple of months ago, including massively expanding our testing program and capacity.
And the issue at the time, which was a very small part of the conversation, was that the market had not expanded enough to, at that moment in time, be able to launch the website we’re launching tomorrow.
And the President, you know, used the Defense Production Act, invested $3 billion to expand it, quadrupled the size of our testing capacity, and now we’ve ordered one billion doses.
So, we see that as — our COVID team and the members who participated saw that as a very constructive meeting, a good meeting, a lot of which we’ve worked to implement.
Q So, the idea though to mass distribute tests to homes before Christmas and New Year’s — that idea was not adopted. How can President Biden shut down the virus if he’s, you know, not being briefed on these ideas? I mean, that’s my question. So, I’m wondering: Who were the advisors, and was President Biden briefed on this idea at the time?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think I just answered your question, which — you may not have been listening. Maybe you were waiting to read your next question, which is fine. But I just answered your question —
Q But you didn’t, though. (Inaudible) which advisors or —
MS. PSAKI: Let me finish. Let me finish, Steven.
Q — whether President Biden was briefed.
MS. PSAKI: Steven, I’m finishing.
What I said to you just a minute ago is that we did not have the capacity at the moment. We had a very constructive meeting with this group. We agreed in the need to expand our testing capacity. That’s why we quadrupled the size of our testing capacity and why the President had already used the Defense Production Act to invest $3 billion. But the market did not have the capacity at that moment to do what we’re doing tomorrow.
Q Yes, I hear what you’re saying, but that’s not the question I asked. The question I asked was: Which — which —
MS. PSAKI: Do you have another question? I think I’ve answered your question.
Q — which advisors? And was President Biden briefed at the time?
MS. PSAKI: Again, I’ve answered your question. If you have another one, I’m happy to answer it.
Otherwise, I’m going to move on to the next person.
Q Okay. Well, I’m disappointed I didn’t get answers there, but I’ll move onto another one.
MS. PSAKI: Great.
Q The second question is that, in light of President Biden’s first year coming to a close, the data indicates that he spent a quarter of his days at least partially in Delaware. In light of that, will the White House be reconsidering the — the decision not to release visitor log information from his Delaware residences?
MS. PSAKI: Well, the President goes to Delaware because it’s his home. And it’s also where his son and his former wife are buried. And it’s a place that is, obviously, close to his heart.
A lot of presidents go visit their home when they are President. We’ve also have gone a step further than the prior administration and many administrations in releasing visitor logs of people who visit the White House, and we’ll continue to do that.
Go ahead in the back.
Q Thank you. Third question — my third —
MS. PSAKI: I think we’re done, and we’re going to move on.
Go ahead, in the back.
Q Reuters reported this morning: “The Biden administration is reviewing e-commerce giant Alibaba’s cloud business” for U.S. national security reasons. Can you confirm?
MS. PSAKI: I’d really have to check with our national security team on that. I’m happy to do that, and we’ll get back to you after the briefing.
Go ahead, in the back.
Q Hey, Jen. I want to pivot back to voting rights —
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q — particularly the President’s speech last week. I
wonder if you could talk a little bit about how it came together. But also, I wonder if you’ll respond to some of the criticism about it — that it was too aggressive or divisive and that, you know, some of the rhetoric that he used wasn’t, you know, conducive to getting folks who are opposed on board.
MS. PSAKI: Well — sorry, which piece did you want me to start with?
Q Whichever one is best for you. (Laughter.)
MS. PSAKI: Okay. Well, I would say first that, you know, the President delivered a powerful speech about the protection of people’s fundamental rights in this country, which is their right to vote — their right to vote for anyone they choose, whether it is him or someone else.
It was not a partisan speech. It was intended to lay out for the public exactly what’s at stake and lay out for elected officials what’s at stake. And he stands by everything he said in that speech.
Q Can you talk a little bit about how it came together though? Like, who did he — who did he or the White House consult with? Like, how did he land at this point? I’m just trying to get to the genesis of it.
MS. PSAKI: Well, he consulted — there have been discussions for months on voting rights on the Hill with Democrats. Certainly, an open door to Republicans to have a discussion among members and among staff about a path forward — something that 16 Republicans who are serving today have supported in the past.
And also, he consulted a lot with civil rights leaders. We consulted with civil rights leaders, with voting rights activists, and others who have been working around the clock to advocate for voting rights.
Okay. Go ahead, Jeff.
Q If I could ask you a couple questions — first, what is the administration or the White House doing today on the 5G controversy, if anything —
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q — in the remaining hours before the midnight deadline?
MS. PSAKI: So, there are ongoing discussions right now with members of our economic team who are closely engaged with — at the FAA, FCC, wireless carriers, airlines and aviation equipment, manufacturers to reach a solution.
As you noted, tomorrow is the deadline. Our objective is, of course, to reach a solution around 5G deployment that maintains the highest level of safety while minimizing disruptions to passenger travel. That’s what we’re working towards.
But everyone from Secretary Pete Buttigieg to members of our economic team are closely engaged in these discussions.
Q Okay. And heading into the President’s press conference tomorrow on the eve of his one-year anniversary, he has long said that he would talk “straight from the shoulder” — I think is his words — to be — kind of give an honest assessment of things. What is your honest assessment of the last year of the Biden administration? And how can the voting rights failure not be seen as some type of a metaphor for these challenges?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would say, in terms of voting rights, his view is that it’s never a good idea not to shoot for the moon with what your proposals are and what you’re fighting for.
And the alternative is to fight for nothing and to fight for nothing hard. And that sometimes — oftentimes, as you know; you’ve covered a couple of administrations — you don’t get everything done in the first year.
But what we feel good about — and this is why I brought some of these charts, to just show the contrast — is that coming into an incredibly difficult circumstance — fighting a pandemic; an economic — a massive economic downturn as a result; an administration that was — prior to us, that did not effectively deal with a lot of these crises — that there’s been a lot of progress made.
We need to build on that. The work is not done. The job is not done. And we are certainly not conveying it is.
So, our objective — and I think what you’ll hear the President talk about tomorrow — is how to build on the foundation we laid in the first year.
Q On 5G, the FAA has had two years to come up with a plan for this, to deal with this implementation. Should they have acted sooner to minimize disruption? Did the FAA drop the ball here?
MS. PSAKI: You know, I think, Mary, there’ll be lots of time to look back and see how we got here. And I know many of you will do that, and, of course, that is understandable. But right now, over the next 24 — or less than 24 hours — what we’re focused on is trying to come to a solution that will minimize travel — disruptions to passenger travel, cargo operations, and our economic recovery. And that is why it’s so important to hopefully come to an agreement and ensure more planes are flying out there.
Q And —
MS. PSAKI: Go ahead.
Q — just on voting rights: Unless something has dramatically changed, which it doesn’t seem likely, this is going to fail. You have made clear that the President is going to keep up this fight, fight with every last breath he has. Does that mean that this is the top priority going forward, legislatively? I ask because, obviously, BBB is still stalled as well. Where is the President going to be putting his energy, in terms of (inaudible)?
MS. PSAKI: We can and will advocate for both. And that is reflective of what’s happening now too.
Of course, voting rights is right now being debated. It’s going to be on the floor. The President was out last week, as you know, giving a powerful speech about why this is so important to move forward.
At the same time, we were having a range of conversations on Build Back Better because we also want to get that done. So, we’re going to keep fighting for both.
Q Thanks, Jen. You know, the airlines are using some pretty dire language to describe what’s going to happen tomorrow if the President doesn’t step in and take action. They’re saying that the nation’s commerce will grind to a halt, that the vast majority of the traveling and shipping public will essentially be grounded. Does the President share the view that the airlines have about how bad this is going to be if the White House doesn’t step in?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think what we’re trying to do now is come to a solution to avoid exactly that. And it is true that if there are hundreds or thousands of flights that are grounded, that means not just disruptions to passenger travel. That also means cargo operations, that means that goods aren’t moving around as quickly and effectively as they need to in order to not have supply chain disruptions.
So, this is something that we are very focused on, we’ve been closely engaged on, and we want to avoid that and prevent it.
Q Can you explain why the FAA and the FCC seem to have different views here? The FAA seems to share some of the concerns that the airlines have about the possible implications of implementing 5G, whereas the FCC has said, based on the data it’s seen, it’s not a problem.
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think part of this is having a negotiation and trying to find a solution. I’m not going to speak for the FCC, which is, of course, independent. Our objective is to prevent this from becoming the economic disruption that you referenced in your question.
Go ahead, Joey.
Q Yeah. Thanks, Jen. You mentioned the beta testing is already underway, in regards to the COVID-19 testing website. One of my colleagues discovered that they’re already — you are already able to purchase that — or not purchase them — order them —
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q — for free online.
So, you know, for people who are purchasing them today, is — are these orders being registered? Are they going to be able to get theirs —
MS. PSAKI: Yeah. That’s beta testing.
Q Yeah. Okay. Yeah.
MS. PSAKI: Yeah. So, meaning we’re going to launch it formally tomorrow morning, but this is how we did Vaccines.gov as well. So, it’s kind of a part of the process.
Q And then, you have an official rollout tomorrow morning. What time in the morning can we expect?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have the exact time for you at this moment. But again, it’s going to be out tomorrow morning — mid-morning tomorrow — and we’re looking forward to getting free tests out to the public.
Q And on the same topic, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan yesterday on “Face the Nation” said the federal government has, quote, “fallen short in a couple of ways” recently, in regards to its COVID-19 response. He pointed to these 500 million rapid tests, saying the federal government has purchased tests that his state had already contracted rather than purchasing new tests.
He said, quote, “We’re sort of hijacking the tests that we already had plans for, and we’re now getting some of” these — “those providers to tell us they no longer have the…rapid tests.”
So what is the White House’s response to that criticism that the federal government is purchasing the same allotment of tests and hamstringing some state efforts here?
MS. PSAKI: I’d have to check into that — on the accuracy of that with our COVID team, and I’m happy to do that.
All right. Thanks so much everyone.
12:51 P.M. EST