James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

1:39 P.M. EST

MS. PSAKI:  Hi, everyone.  Happy Monday. 

Okay.  This afternoon, the President will meet with the White House Competition Council to discuss its success thus far in providing concrete cost savings to — for Americans families, and to discuss plans for further actions in the weeks, months, and years ahead.

The Competition Council was set up by the President’s July competition executive order to coordinate and monitor progress across the entire federal government.  It is comprised of 10 Cabinet members and the heads of seven independent agencies. 

He’ll note today that the lack of competition costs average American households about $5,000 a year, which is a pretty significant sum when you think about people’s budgets.

Since the executive order was signed six months ago, the Council’s members have met every deadline in the President’s order.  These actions across a broad range of industries will bring real benefits to American families.  For example, the FDA has taken action to lower the cost of hearing aids from thousands to hundreds of dollars for the millions of Americans suffering from hearing loss. 

It’s becoming cheaper and easier for Americans to fix the things they already own. 

Following the executive order’s support for the right-to-repair, the FTC will repair — will ramp up enforcement actions against illegal repair restrictions.  Since then, big firms like Apple and Microsoft voluntarily announced changes to their policies so that consumers can readily repair their own phones and laptops.

The Department of Justice, the FTC, and other agencies have increased efforts to challenge or block mergers that would leave customers with fewer choices, higher prices, and lower wages.  For example, the Department of Justice blocked an insurance megamerger that would have raised insurance costs for consumers and businesses alike.

So, this is part of our ongoing effort.

I also wanted to share that NATO is launching a significant military training exercise called Neptune Strike ‘22.  This is something my colleague at the Department of Defense updated on, on Friday.  But it will run through February 4th and is designed to demonstrate NATO’s high-end maritime strike capabilities.

The USS Harry S. Truman Carrier Strike Group will serve as the centerpiece for this military exercise and be placed under NATO operational control.

This is the first time since the end of the Cold War that a U.S. carrier strike group has gone under NATO command.  And this exercise will help demonstrate the unity, capability, and strength of the transa- — the transatlantic Alliance.  It also advances our ability to integrate an aircraft carrier strike group into NATO’s deterrence and defense efforts.

While planning for Neptune Strike began in twenty-two — 2020, long before the current escalation of tensions from Russia’s aggressive posture towards Ukraine, such exercises help the United States and its allies enhance interoperability and ensure readiness for any threat against NATO.

Josh, why don’t you kick us off?

Q    Thanks, Jen.  Two subject areas.

MS. PSAKI:  Yep.

Q    First, Ukraine and Russia.  The President is going to have his meeting with European counterparts.  What does he plan to discuss with them?  And how does he plan to address the issue of natural gas, given that 40 percent of EU’s natural gas imports come from Russia?

MS. PSAKI:  Sure.  Well, as we put out just a little bit earlier today in guidance, the President will hold a secure video call with European leaders as part of our close consultation and coordination with our transatlantic allies and partners in response to our shared concerns over Russia’s military buildup on Ukraine’s borders.
During that conversation, we expect they will discuss diplomacy, deterrence, and defense efforts.  And we’ll have a readout for you all afterwards.  And certainly a discussion about pending — the pending sanctions, or discussion of that, we would expect to be part of that as well.

But in terms of the impact, I don’t have anything more to read out for you on that front.

Q    And then, secondly, per the Supreme Court, should race be a factor in college admissions?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, this is, I think, in relation — I would expect — to the announcement by the Supreme Court about the decision to take up the affirmative action case this morning.

While we’re not going to comment on the litigation — I refer those questions, of course, to the Department of Justice — we strongly believe — this administration — in the benefits of diversity in higher education, and we take very seriously our commitment to advancing equity and equal opportunity for historically underserved populations.
That’s why, on day one, the President signed an executive order launching an ambitious whole-of-government response to center equity throughout the government’s work.  Throughout the Department of Education, the administration has provided historic investments and support for Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Tribal Colleges and Universities, and minority-serving institutions, such as Hispanic-serving institutions, including nearly $21 billion in cumulative support.

And we have moved swiftly to protect student civil rights and equal opportunity, including by issuing guidance about schools’ obligations to investigate and address claims of discrimination and harassment.

So, of course, the Department of Justice, they can speak to their view on the litigation.

Go ahead.

Q    Thanks, Jen.  Has President Biden made a final decision about deploying more troops to Eastern Europe?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, let me give you a brief update.  And I know that my colleague, John Kirby, is going to be briefing shortly, in about 45 minutes or so, at the Defense Department.

We have been consulting with allies on deployments and refining plans for all scenarios.  We’ve always said we would reinforce our allies on the eastern flank. 

And those conversations and discussions have certainly been part of what our national security officials have been discussing with their counterparts now for several weeks.  In fact, we’ve never ruled out the option of providing assistan- — additional assistance in advance of an invasion.

Those discussions have been ongoing with our partners and eastern flank countries.  And again, I would expect that my colleague, John Kirby, would have more of an update on where the process is at this point in time.

Q    So he’ll make a — John Kirby will make an announcement about whether or not he’s made a decision?

MS. PSAKI:  No, I think he will make — he will provide an update on where things stand on those discussions.

Q    Okay.  So, last week, President Biden at the press conference said that the U.S. would fortify NATO Allies, but said it was dependent on an invasion, saying if — he would send more troops to Poland, to Romania, if Ukraine — if Putin did invade Ukraine.  So the fact that he’s considering this now and having these discussions with Pentagon leaders over the weekend, does that suggest that he believes an invasion is imminent?

MS. PSAKI:  We’ve never actually ruled out providing additional support, additional suppo- — assistance to eastern flank countries in advance of any invasion.  And those discussions with them have been ongoing, and certainly that’s been part of our contingency planning.

Q    I guess the question is: There does appear to be a shift in his thinking and his attitude toward it.  Is that how you would characterize it?

MS. PSAKI:  I wouldn’t characterize it that way.  We have spoken to the fact that — and we put out a lot of information about our view of the preparations being made by President Putin and the Russians.  While we can’t get into the mind of President Putin, we are seeing the preparations that they’re making at the border.  We have been very clear and the President has been direct that military action by Russia could come at any one — at any time.  He said that last week as well.

So, we have been in conversations and discussions with eastern flank countries.  Obviously, our Secretary of State just returned from a trip to Europe as well, and he was part of the discussions this weekend too.  And part of that has been contingency planning and discussing what their needs have been.

Q    My last question is: Today, the President has this call with European leaders.  Several of them are on this — the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, NATO, the European Council.  Why is Ukraine not on that call this afternoon?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, we have a range of conversations with the Ukrainians.  Obviously, our Secretary of State met with them last week, and they will be a part of many conversations moving forward.

As I noted a little bit earlier, part of this is a discussion about deterrence and defense efforts, diplomacy, but certainly they will be a part of many conversations as they have been from the beginning.

Go ahead.

Q    So what happened then in the last few days that prompted the Pentagon to present specific potential troop deployments to the President?  Or put another way: Why now?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, I wouldn’t say we’re characterizing it exactly that way.  The President has said — said last week, and we also said, that as we’ve been watching the preparations of President Putin and the Russians, that they were prepared at any moment to take military action.

We’ve also been in ongoing discussions, from our Secretary of State to members of our national security team, with our eastern flank partners about what their needs are and what security concerns they have.

So I wouldn’t say it’s a response to an abrupt moment; it’s a part of an ongoing contingency planning process and discussion.

Q    After this weekend, is he more or less concerned about the possibility of a Russian invasion in Ukraine?

MS.  PSAKI:  Well, he said last week that military action by Russia could come at any time.  That remains his point of view.

Q    And there’s been clamoring in this town and over in Ukraine for a U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.  Where do things stand on appointing somebody?

MS.  PSAKI:  Certainly understand that.  I don’t have any update on the status at this point in time.

Q    The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said decision to draw down the U.S. presence in Kyiv at the embassy was, quote, “premature and a manifestation of excess caution.”

Is this potentially the afterglow of what happened in Afghanistan — a concern for that?  Or is something else more specific prompting people to leave?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, I would say that we — our State Department regularly reviews and assesses what steps need to be taken for the security of our personnel. 

I would note that the travel advisory was already at a Level 4 since back in October.  We’ve also been closely consulting and keeping Ukrainians abreast.  I would say this is more akin to what we — the steps we took in Ethiopia and Kazakhstan than any other country or conflict.

Q    One more on Ukraine and then one other quick subject. 

The House Speaker today has requested a bipartisan, all-members briefing on the situation in Ukraine of the White House.  Is that something you guys plan to fulfill? 

MS. PSAKI:  We have been in close consultation with members and leadership from the beginning.  I don’t have any update on this specifically.  But that’s been our objective and how we have proceeded.  So I’m sure we are working to meet that request and needs of members.

Q    And based on some news reports, it looks as if at least Jake Sullivan and maybe others are talking to senior lawmakers about this on a fairly regular basis.

MS. PSAKI:  And we have been for weeks.  Mm-hmm.

Q    On another subject: Another violent weekend across the country.  There was a shooting in New York; there was a shooting here in D.C. of a police officer.  There have been reports of a possible — executive actions that the President might be able to take in the realm of police reform or police policy.  Where do things stand on that?  And might that be coming soon?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, let me — can I — may I address this weekend first?  And I will come around to your question, but I think you had a few in there — important ones to address.

The events of this weekend are a reminder that law enforcement officers head into harm’s way every single day.  They and their families make an extraordinary sacrifice for their communities. 

The President is never going to be satisfied or complacent when officers are being gunned down, or when Americans have to worry about whether they can safely ride the subway or bus or even be at work. 

We’ve seen a surge in crime — obviously, this weekend is a glaring example of that — especially gun violence over the last two years.  And the President has been aggressive in using the tools at our disposal to combat that.  That’s why he took early action on gun violence last spring, and it’s why he rolled out a comprehensive plan to combat crime last summer. 

He also believes, as many Americans do, that we can and must have a criminal justice system that both protects public safety and upholds our founding ideals of equal treatment under law.  That’s why he not only has implemented this comprehensive plan to combat crime but why he is continuing to advocate for reforms to our policing system.  He thinks that we can do both.  But I don’t have an update on any timings for a next step on that. 

Go ahead.

Q    Thanks.  First, on the markets: Does the President think it’s a big deal that today the Dow Jones is down, at one point, more than 1,100 points?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, to start with, we focus on the trends in the economy, not any one day and any single indicator.  Unlike his predecessor, the President does not look at the stock market as a means by which to judge the economy. 

I would note that the market is up around 15 percent compared to when President Biden took office.  But our measure of success is really how real working families are doing — whether they are — have a little breathing room, whether they have a job that delivers some dignity and a paycheck that can — they can support a family on.  And we’ve seen a great deal of progress made on that front.

Q    Thank you.  On schools: In Virginia, seven districts representing 350,000 students are suing the state.  They’re hoping to get a strict mask mandate for students that has been rolled back by the new governor reinstated.  So who does the President think knows best for students: school board members or parents?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, the par- — the President believes that public health officials have the best guidance on what we can all do to protect ourselves, including teachers, administrators and students. 

It’s always been up to local school districts to determine how they’re going to approach what implementation measures they’re going to put in place. 

But here’s what we know from public health officials, who are the experts on a pandemic: Studies show that masks reduce transmissions in school.  They are a proven tool that helps keep students and teachers safe from COVID.  And they can thus help keep schools open and safe. 

In short, we know it works.  And we need every leader to focus on using the tactics we know work to keep our students safe and our schools open. 

I’d note you mentioned Virginia, but in Texas, the state is fighting a critical public health measure to protect our children and keep our schools safely open.  For Head Start communities, ones that — a provision that is requiring masks to keep students and keep communities safe — they’re fighting against that.  Why is that?  I think that has more to do with politics than it does with public health.

Q    But right now, in Virginia, the law is — now that there’s a new governor — that students should not have to wear masks if their parents say that they don’t think they need to wear masks.  So if a parent wants to send their school — their kid to school with no mask, should that child be allowed to go to school and be in class?

MS. PSAKI:  Again, we’re — what we’re advising school districts on is to abide by public health guidelines and follow public health guidelines.  And it’s about keeping an entire community safe.  And those are the decisions that are being — that people should focus on making.

Q    And just so that it’s crystal clear for anybody watching: You guys think that ultimately, in this conflict between school board members and parents, the school board members should have more of a say in what a child —

MS. PSAKI:  That’s actually not what I said.  I think everybody should abide by public health guidelines, not just to keep their own kids safe but keep their school community safe, whether it’s teachers, classmates, administrators, others in schools.

Q    Okay.  On crime, to follow up on what Ed was asking about: Would you agree that the most important job for any president is to keep Americans safe?

MS. PSAKI:  I would agree.

Q    So you said that the President is never satisfied if people don’t feel safe.  Does he know that after a year in office, people do not feel safe in this country?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, Peter, I think if we look at the facts here, we’ve seen a surge of crime over the last two years.  Would you agree with that?

Q    So what are you attributing the rise in crime to then?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, I think we should be responsible in how we’re reporting to the public what the — what the res- — what the roles are — what the reasons for the surge in crime. 

Gun violence is a huge reason for the surge in crime.  Underfunding of some police departments and their need for additional resources — something the President has advocated for consistently through the course of his career — that’s something we know we need to take action on. 

And it is absolutely true that he will not be satisfied or complacent when officers are being gunned down or when Americans have to worry about whether they can safely ride the subway or bus.  That should not be a political issue.  He’s somebody who has had a long career of — many decades — of fighting for funding for police departments, for local communities in order to reduce crime.

Q    But he’s been here, in office, for more than a year, and the murder rate is nearing a 25-year high.  So, why don’t we see and hear more from the President about this?  We hear all the time about things that you guys are doing to fight the pandemic because that is a risk to American people.  A rising murder rate is a risk to American people too, right?

MS. PSAKI:  And he has spoken to crime.  But I think what people are most focused on, as they should be, are what actions he has taken.  He has unveiled a strategy to focus federal law enforcement resources on combating violent crime, offered unprecedented levels of funding through the Rescue Plan for cities and states to put more cops on the beat and invest in proven community anti-violence programs — something every Republican voted against. 

The Department of Justice has announced $139 million in grants to cities for community policing, which will put 1,000 more officers on the streets.  He’s also proposed doubling those grants, and he’s called for an additional $750 million for federal law enforcement.  He’s announced a zero-tolerance policy for gun dealers who sell willfully — willfully sell illegal guns.  And we’ve launched gun trafficking strike forces in New York and cities across the country.  Actions are important here, and he has a long record of them.

Q    But does the President think that any of that is working?

MS. PSAKI:  The President thinks you should have a plan to address crime and gun violence.  He has one.  And we look forward to working with people who support that effort.

Q    But as the murder rate nears a 25-year high, would he consider maybe trying something different?

MS. PSAKI:  Trying something other than supporting a massive plus-up in funding from his predecessor; cracking down on gun trafficking and gun violence, which is a major driver of the violence we’ve seen across the country; working to support community policing programs and police departments across the country? 

I think most people who want to fight crime would agree that’s the right approach. 

Q    But —

MS. PSAKI:  Go ahead.  Go ahead, Justin.

Q    Thanks, Jen.  Just — I know Kirby is briefing later, but —

MS. PSAKI:  Sure.

Q    — just to put a finer point on it —

MS. PSAKI:  Yeah.

Q    — do you have any information about how many troops are under consideration; what the timeframe for the President’s decision are; sort of, the logistical details of a possible deployment?

MS. PSAKI:  I don’t have any more details from here other than to convey that we’re in close consultation with eastern flank countries about their security needs.  And again, we’ve always said we would support them.  We’ve never said that — that an invasion would be a prerequisite for that.

Q    Do you expect the written response that you’re putting together to include any requests or demands from the U.S. side, including, you know, a timeframe for President Putin to start drawing down troops from Ukraine’s border?

MS. PSAKI:  I don’t have anything to preview in terms of what a written proposal would be.  I would just note — because I — we’ve talked about this a bit — that written proposals have been the basis of basically every agreement we’ve ever had with the Russians and many countries around the world.  They’re a standard part of diplomacy, and they’re a format for providing areas where — conveying areas where you have concern, and also — but also outlining areas where you can work together.  But I don’t have anything to preview on what that would look like.

Q    We didn’t have a chance last week to talk about one part of the President’s press conference where he said he’d like to be in a position to lift — to say that China is meeting its commitments and, therefore, be able to lift some of the tariffs.

I’m wondering: When he said that, did he mean making good on the phase one commitments that have already been out there?  I know China is not meeting those.  Or does he mean additional commitments that you’d be asking for from the Chinese? 

MS. PSAKI:  I think he meant he is looking forward to getting some recommendations through the review process that’s ongoing.

Q    And then, one last one.  There was an FBI raid last week on Representative Cuellar, reportedly over his ties to Azerbaijani oil executives.  I know you’re not going to comment on an ongoing investigation, but do you think that the congressman should step away from his committee assignments or congressional work while this investigation is ongoing?

MS. PSAKI:  I’m just not going to have any comment on this at this point. 

Go ahead.

Q    A couple on — more on Ukraine, Jen.  There’s a proposal that’s floating in the Duma that would ask Vladimir Putin to recognize the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine as independent.  If Putin does that, would you regard that as an escalation?

MS. PSAKI:  I have not spoken with our national security team about that.  You know our view on the sovereign — the integrital [sic] — the sovereign — the sovereignty of Ukraine.  And, you know, I don’t have any other comments on it, though, at this point in time.

Q    Okay.  Under what circumstances would we evacuate American citizens and diplomats from Ukraine?  And can that be done without the U.S. military?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, I think the reason that we — the State Department issued the guidance they did — which, again, is a standard process that the State Department iss- — does — and regularly — with a range of countries where we have security concerns — was to make very clear that we — that American citizens — our recommendation is that U.S. citizens currently in Ukraine consider departing now using commercial or other privately available transportation options, use the online forum and our updated travel advisory to tell us their plans so they can best conduct our ongoing contingency planning, and register in STEP to ensure they receive alerts and guidance from the State Department.

We are — there is not an intention for there to be a departure or an evacuation along those lines, so we are conveying to American citizens they should leave now. 

Q    Okay.

MS. PSAKI:  And, in fact, there’s not — there is not precedent, beyond Afghanistan, for that to be how it operates.

Q    Got it.  And then, just more broadly: For years, NATO members have fallen short of their defense spending commitments.  Last year, more than 60 percent of the Alliance’s 30 members, including half of the Bucharest Nine that are right near Russia there, failed to meet that — their 2 percent GDP spending commitment.  If Europeans aren’t willing to expend blood and treasure on their self-defense, why should Americans be expected to do so?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, we are continuing to advocate for all members to reach the 2 percent goal that has been the vi- — the President’s position since he was the Vice President — so, for many years now.

I would say that we have a sacred obligation under NATO, and we believe it is also in our interest to support our eastern flank countries and their security, and also to be clear about the value we have as Americans, which is that no country should be able to take with force another country, as Russia is attempting to do at this point in time.

Q    And one last one.  You said that military incursions by Russia into Ukraine would trigger stiff economic sanctions.  Does that apply to our policy with China and Taiwan? 

MS. PSAKI:  As it rel- —

Q    If there was a military incursion of some kind into Taiwan, would there be economic sanctions?  Could China expect that?

MS. PSAKI:  I don’t have anything to preview on this — that at this point in time.

Go ahead.

Q    Thanks, Jen.  So, at the press conference last week, the President spoke a lot about Build Back Better and his thoughts about sort of where the sweet spot might be to save as much of that as he can.  I think, the next day, Senator Manchin was asked if he’d spoken with the President, and he said he hadn’t yet.  Has there been any conversation — direct conversation between the President and Senator Manchin since last week?

MS. PSAKI:  We’re just not going to speak to or confirm any conversations the President has with members of the Senate, moving forward. 

Q    Can you broadly give us a sense of when those conversations will, sort of, ramp up in earnest? 

MS. PSAKI:  The President has been in touch with a range of senators.  We’re just not going to outline those or confirm those specifically. 

Q  On — on putting that together and getting it through the Senate with 50 votes, is the State of the Union more or less the soft deadline?  Or is this something that may well extend beyond that?

MS. PSAKI:  We haven’t set a deadline.  I think what our objective is and what the President’s objective is, is to move forward on, you know, an effort in Congress — in the Senate to lower costs for the American people and do that without raising the deficit — pay for it; make sure we’re easing the burden that families have across the country.  We need 50 votes to do that, but that is — we don’t have — we have not set a deadline.

Q    Can I just ask you one other thing about infrastructure?  You may have seen our story and reporting elsewhere about Republican lawmakers, who oppose the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law out in the states, over the recess touting the benefits — taking credit, in some cases, for doing that. 

I know that this is a big pillar of the Democrats’ 2022 midterm argument and the President’s case for a successful first year.  He’s touted the bipartisan nature of this.  Is he going to take issue with any of the Republicans who are out there who — I mean, is he going to call them out for saying that, you know, they should get credit for something that they opposed?  Or is he going to let that slide?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, I would say we welcome the number of Republicans who voted against the infrastructure bill coming around to recognize the impact on their communities.  We’ve seen this playbook before, so perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise. 

And I don’t think I can stand up here and rule out what the President is or isn’t going to call out moving forward. 

Go ahead.

Q    Hey, Jen.  The President spoke last week about Russia’s historic concerns about loss of empire and encirclement.  So, my question is: If you’re sending some thousands of U.S. troops to the Baltics or the eastern flank, is there a chance that that will increase the risk of war rather than reducing it?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, we’ve had troops in the eastern flank countries for decades.

Q    Right.  But we’re — it sounds like what’s being discussed is sending more right now, at a time of real tension. 

MS. PSAKI:  And we have a sacred obligation to support the security of our eastern flank countries.  I think it’s important to remember who the aggressor is here.  It is not the United States.  It is not these eastern flank countries.  It is Russia who has tens of thousands of troops on the border of Ukraine.  They have the power to de-escalate.  We would certainly welcome that.

Q    And I know both you and the President spoke about the “little green men” —

MS. PSAKI:  Yeah.

Q    — infiltrators into the country.  Now that the British have put out intelligence of a possible coup planned by Moscow in Ukraine, how would the U.S. respond if that happened?  Would that trigger the same sanctions that we’re talking about here?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, I’m not going to get into intelligence matters, of course.  We’ve been warning about Russian tactics like this for weeks.  Reports of this kind of plotting are deeply concerning; if acted upon, would constitute a severe escalation.  And, certainly, there would be consequences.

Q    And then, just one more on the sched.  I know we’ve all been anticipating the President is going to hit the road.  Is the reason there’s nothing on the public schedule these tensions with — involving Ukraine, or another reason?

MS. PSAKI:  We — I expect we will have some travel very, very soon.  We’re just looking to finalize the details. 

Go ahead, Kimberly. 

Q    Thanks.  A couple of questions.  First, a quick housekeeping question.

MS. PSAKI:  Sure.

Q    Can you confirm the Qatari Emir will be coming to the White House at the end of the month and if the discussions will center around energy supply to Europe?

MS. PSAKI:  I know there’s been discussion of that.  I don’t have final confirmation of it.  I will work to see if we can get that to you after the briefing. 

Q    Okay, perfect.  And then, as the administration weighs reinstating the terrorist designation on the Houthis, is the President concerned this could block humanitarian aid?  And why would the President consider this if millions are at risk of losing assistance, given his policy of upholding human rights?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, let me first say that we call on all parties to the conflict to de-escalate and abide by their obligations under international humanitarian law to ensure the protection of all civilians, and participate fully in an inclusive U.N.-led peace process.  All parties must commit to a peaceful, diplomatic solution to ending the conflict and advance a durable resolution that improves the lives of Yemenis and allows them to collectively determine their own future.

There have been dangerous escalations in days, which is, of course, why you were asking.  These escalations only exacerbate a dire humanitarian crisis and the suffering of the Yemeni people. 

We are deeply concerned by these reports, and we are continuing to engage at a diplomatic level.  And our Special Envoy, Lenderking, reaffirmed our unwavering commitment.  And he has been recently on the ground pressing parties for de-escalation and protection for civilian lives.

Q    And then, quickly: A UK court is now allowing Julian Assange to appeal his extradition to the United States.  The Justice Department, as you know, isn’t commenting.  But what about the President?  He says press freedom is critical for democracy, so why is he continuing to pursue this case?  Is the reason that he’s pursuing this Trump-era case because Julian Assange embarrassed the Democratic Party in 2016?

MS. PSAKI:  Again, this is under the purview of the dem- — the Department of Justice, so I don’t have any comment from here.

Go ahead.

Q    Thank you.  On the Palin-New York Times case — I know you can’t maybe speak specifically to the case, but does the White House have any concerns about threats to press freedoms, to press access, to the limits of the First Amendment protection?

MS. PSAKI:  I obviously can’t speak to the case, so I appreciate you saying that at the top. 

I will say that I think the President has shown that he respects the value of the freedom of the press.  He obviously took a step earlier this year to ensure there couldn’t be a replication of actions that had been taken over prior administrations, as it related to journalists.  So, I think that speaks to his commitment, but I don’t have any more comments on the case.

Q    And then, following off of Ed, I know you guys have forecasted, potentially, policing reform —

MS. PSAKI:  Yeah.

Q    — executive action.  Some civil rights advocates also want to see additional voting rights executive actions.  Is there anything — any details or any timeline for what you think the President, the White House may do there, considering that it stalled in Congress?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, you know, the President is going to keep fighting until his last breath, as you — as you’ve heard him say, on voting rights because he thinks it’s so vitally important.  We did do an executive order early on in the administration, which was quite extensive and comprehensive, that is still being implemented. 

In terms of additional executive orders that would be possible, that we have the authority to do, I don’t have anything to predict on — along those lines.  But we are going to continue to fight to get federal legislation passed.  We are going to continue to work with states to ensure that there is proper protections.  And there is, of course, more work ahead.

Go ahead. 

Q    Yes.  There are currently at least 150 American military advisors in Ukraine, including members of the Florida National Guard.  Are those soldiers going to remain in Ukraine?  Are there contingency plans if hostilities break out to remove them?  What’s their disposition?

MS. PSAKI:  I would point you to the Department of Defense to ask them that question.

Q    My colleague mentioned Afghanistan.  And one of the things that you hear among Russian propaganda in Ukraine is that the United States is an unreliable ally that is using Ukraine as a pawn.  And they point to the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan as evidence that the United States cannot be counted on.  How does the United States respond to that?  And has the Afghanistan withdrawal complicated diplomacy in this regard?

MS. PSAKI:  It has not, in our experience.  We — the President ended a 20-year war in Afghanistan — something he had talked about consistently doing for some time as he was running for President and even before then. 

I think our commitment to our NATO partners is clear.  Our commitment to Ukrainians is clear.  We’ve sent more security assistance over the last year than in any year in recent history.  We’ve been in constant contact, as is evidenced by the President’s call this afternoon, with our European partners as we work to ensure we’re in lockstep as we approach the next stage and anticipate what President Putin may or may not do. 

So, what I would say to that is: That’s sounds like the old Russian propaganda playbook — something we’ve talked about in the past.  And I’d encourage anyone to be mindful of that.

Q    And then, finally, there’s negotiations going on in Congress for Russian sanctions if they do take military action against Ukraine.  Does the United States support Congress acting?  And are they involved in these negotiations?

MS. PSAKI:  We are keeping — we are regularly updating and briefing leaders in Congress and — about what steps are under consideration, what the status is of things we’re seeing on the ground.  Obviously, we’ve talked about a lot of this publicly as well. 

And we’ve also been clear that we have a — a severe sanctions package of economic options that is under consideration should they decide to invade.

We also recently sanctioned a couple of individuals for their engagement as well. 

But I don’t have anything in terms of the specific steps under consideration.  We have our own severe steps that we are considering here, and we’re keeping Congress abreast of that.

Q    Does it help to have Congress involved?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, we’re working in lockstep with them.  We are briefing them.  We are conveying to them what we’re thinking about and considering, and, of course, getting feedback from them as well. 

Go ahead. 

Q    Thank you.  I recognize that the White House has said that they have, you know, very severe sanctions that are prepared if Russia invades.  Is there any thought to enacting sanctions before Russia invades as a form of deterrence?  Or is that under consideration?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, we did announce a couple of sanctions — sets of sanctions from the Treasury Department last week in response to their — the involvement of a few individuals.

We’ve also plussed up our security assistance packages that we’ve been delivering to the Ukrainians, including recent deliveries over the last couple of days. 

And obviously, as we were talking about earlier in this briefing, there’s been discussions about how we can support the security of eastern flank countries.

But also, we are mindful of what we think is the most effective deterrent.  And the severe economic sanctions pact is something that would be — go far beyond what was done and what was on the table in 2014, including the consideration of imposing unprecedented export control measures that would hit hard at President Putin’s ambitions are part of the discussion.  And our assessment is that is most effective as — as a deterrent tool and not as one we would do in advance. 

Q    Okay.  So, you’re saying the threat of the sanctions is the most effective deterrent tool that —

MS. PSAKI:  Correct.

Q    I have a question, just to follow up.  I know that, you know, you were asked about Americans who are now in Ukraine.  I know you said that there is no precedent, you know, outside of Afghanistan, for evacuations in ca- — if there was, like, some type of military incursion by the Russians. 

So, I just want to be clear: If Americans are still in Ukraine and things start happening with Russia, are they pretty much on their own?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, we are conveying very clearly now that now is the time to leave and that there are means to do that.  Of course, there’s commercial airlines.  You can depart over land.  There’s obviously the embassy there to provide assistance. 

And this is very similar to what we did in Ethiopia, Kazakhstan, and many other countries over the course of the last several decades. 

But there is not an intention or a plan for any military evacuation. 

Q    And just quickly, in the — in the past, a call — another call with Putin was still on the table.  I believe that the President was supposed to talk with his advisors about that this weekend.   Like, what — have any decisions been made about that?  Will there be another call or another talk with Putin?

MS. PSAKI:  The President remains open to leader-to-leader diplomacy, of course.  He knows how effective that can be. 

But I don’t have anything to predict or preview at this point in time in terms of a call between them.

Hold on.  Let me just get to the last two, and then I’ll come back around.

Go ahead. 

Q    The President said last week that he has, basically, on a daily basis, to work to keep unity in NATO.  How unified are NATO partners when it comes to hard and meaningful sanctions against Russia? 

And what is the President’s assessment or the White House’s assessment of the new German chancellor in that case?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, I know that my — that our Secretary of State spoke to this just yesterday.  And what I would note is that — as he said, that we are confident the Germans share our concerns and are prepared to respond swiftly, effectively, and in a united way to Russian aggression against Ukraine. 

Germany is one of our closest allies.  In fact, we look forward of course, to welcoming the chancellor here to the United States in February. 

The Germans have said, as you know, that if Russia further invades Ukraine, the — the future of Nord Stream 2 — the future of Nord Stream 2 would be in grave jeopardy. 

This is real leverage over Putin.  If Putin wants to see gla- — gas flow through the pipeline, he cannot invade Ukraine.  The pipeline is, of course, not operational, but that is often the context of how this question is asked.

I think what the President was conveying is that it doesn’t happen on its own.  It requires work.  It requires conversations.  It requires face-to-face diplomacy.  I think there’s been over 100 engagements that senior members of his national security team and the President have taken a part of — part in, in order to ensure that we are united and strong as we — as we confront the threats posed by President Putin.

Q    Will Germany need more work than other NATO partners?

MS. PSAKI:  I would say Germany remains one of our key partners and allies.  And again, we are working in lockstep with them.

Go ahead.

Q    Yes.  Hi, Jen.  Senator Susan Collins is leading a working group looking at reforming the Electoral Count Act so that during the counting of the Electoral College, a Vice President could not reject one slate of electors and, say, recognize a rival slate supporting a rival candidate.

I’m just wondering whether the White House has talked to either Senator Collins or any other senators about this, and, given, shall we say, recent history, whether the President supports reforming the Electoral Count Act.

MS. PSAKI:  Well, we’ve never said we were opposed to it.  We are in touch with a range of senators — I’m not going to detail who, but — across the board, from se- — through senior members of the legislative team, senior advisors to the President — about a range of steps that can be taken.

What’s important to note — and I’ve said it in the past, but I’ll just reiterate it — that it does not take the place of, it is not a replacement for the John Lewis Voting Rights Act or any of the voting rights federal legislation we were working to get across the finish line because they do entirely different things, including creating a baseline for what the American people should expect and, frankly, demand in terms of what kind of access they should have to participate in the voting process.

And, of course, the — the requirement that any state that has a history of voter suppression would have to get approval from the Department of Justice in order to change voting laws — the Electoral Count Act doesn’t do that. 

But we are open to the conversations.  We’ve been participating in the conversations.  But it’s — it’s not a replacement for.

Q    Okay.  On a different subject, so much of the public discourse about so-called “Havana Syndrome” has come from anonymous leaks.  And I’m just wondering: How soon will the National Security Council release their expert report on Havana Syndrome and — these anomalous health incidents?  And will this report be made, you know, public in a fulsome way?

MS. PSAKI:  Sure.  Well, I know there’s been a recent CIA report that talks about the findings of their interim analysis.  It does not — which does not rule out that a foreign actor may be involved in a subset of reported cases and affirms that the intelligence community will be drilling down in its analysis on a subset of cases — the toughest unresolved ones, of course, to try to determine whether a foreign actor may be involved.

There are a range of investigations and efforts underway across the U.S. government.  And we continue to take every report of a suspected incident safely [seriously].

What’s most important is the President has aksed — has asked his National Security team to ensure we are leaving no stone unturned in ensuring that people who have been impacted receive the proper healthcare they need.

I can’t make a prediction of what a final release of a report would look like.  I would really point you to the intelligence community on that.

Q    Okay.  Just one last one.  Just yesterday, in D.C. — not far from here, actually — there was an anti-mask —

MS. PSAKI:  Yeah.

Q    — anti-lockdown rally where, you know, some of the rhetoric around that was talking about Nuremberg-style trials to, you know, hold Anthony Fauci to account, to go after the media for spreading lies, things like this.

I’m just wondering how the administration is going to respond to what appears to be a growing intensity and potential for violence in the anti-vax movement.

MS. PSAKI:  Well, we are well aware that there is a loud and vocal minority, empowered through social media and media platforms that proliferate disinformation, politicians who espouse conspiracy theories and fundraise off of opposition to public health.  We know that. 

We also know that 87 percent of American adults have at least one shot.  That’s the vast, vast majority.  And over 210 million Americans are fully vaccinated. 

So our view is that it’s wrong, it’s dangerous, and it stands in the way of a coordinated effort to save more American lives. 

Q    Something like only 25 percent — I don’t know what the number (inaudible) is — closer to 25 percent have their booster.  Do you feel like you guys are sort of losing the war when it comes to the messaging on the importance of these types of public health measures, like getting vaccinated?

MS. PSAKI:  Again, our view is that it’s a loud and vocal minority, but still dangerous, still problematic. 

The fact that 87 percent of American adults — all those people, of course, mathematically did not vote for Joe Biden — have had at least one shot means we far surpassed where I think most people think we would be. 

It’s difficult and challenging, of course, to get more people vaccinated.  We know that.  And, of course, efforts that are dangerous and wrong by groups like this are problematic, as is the spread of misinformation on social media platforms, unfortunately out of the mouths of some prominent officials.  All of that is problematic and harmful. 

But again, I think we should be mindful of the large percentage of people that have had one shot, 75 percent have had two shots.  Obviously, our effort has been to get more people boosted, but if you’re starting the process, that’s a good sign. 


Q    Just two follow-ups.  And thank you for working the room and for coming back.  Just two more details —

MS. PSAKI:  Sure.

Q    — on Ukraine.  Was there something specific that prompted today’s meeting with those European leaders?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, it’s a part of our ongoing contingency planning and discussions about what we are seeing, but also how we can help protect and support their security as well.

Q    So it wasn’t like the intelligence report from the British over the weekend or something prompted everybody to get together?

MS. PSAKI:  No.  Part of ongoing contingency discussions.

Q    And, obviously, he gets briefed on this in his daily intelligence briefing.  We know he had this briefing over the weekend at Camp David.  Can you give us any more detail or a sense of how often he’s — the President is being briefed on Ukraine?  Who’s doing it?  Is he asking for updates every hour?  You know, give us some sense of what’s going on on this issue specifically.

MS. PSAKI:  Sure.  I can tell you, from being in a lot of meetings with him that are unrelated to Ukraine as well, that he is often asking for updates and looking for updates from his national security team on where things stand, how conversations are going on.  And that’s something he regularly asks for. 

He’s seeing his team or members of his team every day.  Of course, there are central members that you’re very familiar with who participate in the PDB — Jake Sullivan and others.  And, of course, he’s regularly talking with our Secretary of State, who has been front and center in the diplomatic efforts.

Q    Thanks, Jen. 

MS. PSAKI:  Thanks, everyone. 

Q    Jen, do you have a date on the German Chancellor visit?  You just, kind of, like, offhandedly mentioned (inaudible).

MS. PSAKI:  Yeah, we’ll — we’ll get it to you after the briefing.  Yes.  Important — an important visit.

2:24 P.M. EST

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