James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

1:10 P.M. EST

     MS. PSAKI:  Hi, everyone.  Hello.  Happy Monday.  Okay, I just have two items for all of you at the top.

     During President Biden’s first 11 months in office, American agricultural exports reached a record $160 billion, generating an estimated $342 billion in total economic output and supporting more than 1.2 million jobs here in the United States.  While we’re proud of this historic progress, we know that agricultural exports could have increased even more but for pandemic-induced supply chain challenges.

     For example, the Port of Oakland, which is underutilized, where other ports are — you know, get most of the traffic.  So, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is partnering with the Port of Oakland to set up a new 25-acre pop-up site to make it easier for agricultural companies to fill empty shipping containers with commodities, like American soybeans, dairy, and specialty crops such as nuts and fruit to ensure there can be more of these goods shipped out of that port.

     USDA and the Department of Transportation also continue to call on ocean carriers to mitigate disruptions to agricultural shippers by restoring service — full and fair service to the Port of Oakland, meaning they shouldn’t bypass it.  They should go there because there’s going to be all these big shipping containers of agricultural goods.

     One other item before we get to your questions.  Today, we released the first edition of our Bipartisan Infrastructure Law guidebook to help state, local, Tribal, and territorial governments acr- — access the benefits from the historic investments in our nation’s infrastructure bill.

     The guidebook is a one-stop shop on the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and contains the most comprehensive information to date on the more than 375 programs included in the law.

     And our primary goal with this is to help our partners across the country know what to apply for, who to contact for help, and how to get ready to rebuild, especially for underserved and overburdened communities who may have more limited municipal capacity to navigate funding programs available.

     We’ve also published an accompanying data file that allows users to quickly sort programs funded under the law by fields like agency, amount, recipient, or program name to make it eas- — as easy as humanly possible.

     With that, Zeke.

     Q    Thanks, Jen.  I just wanted to start with tensions between Russia and Ukraine.  We’ve heard in the last couple of days from some Ukrainian offi- — government officials minimizing or downplaying the imminence of a potential Russian invasion.  There seems to be disconnect between Washington and Kyiv here.  And is there concerns in Washington that talking up the Russian threat is, in fact, weakening the Ukrainian government? 

     MS. PSAKI:  Well, I can only speak for our intention and our responsibility, and we feel it’s important to be open and candid about the threat from Russia. 

     It’s not just words, of course.  You are seeing specifics that we’ve been laying out here, including over 100,000 troops on Ukraine’s borders — amassed on the border, with more troops and weaponry on the way. 

They’ve also been surging troops into Belarus, which our U.N. ambassador spoke about this morning, seeing about 5- — a surge of 5,000 troops in Belarus with plans for more in the coming weeks. 

We’re also seeing Russia undertake efforts to destabilize Ukraine, including through a possible false-flag operation.  It’s dangerous.  We’ve been saying for more than a week that Russia could invade at any time. 

I would note, though, that our effort is to ensure we’re informing the American public and the global community of the seriousness of this threat, even as we work with the Ukrainians, with the Europeans to ensure we are not only preparing them and providing them supplies that they need, but standing up and making clear to the Russians what the consequences will be. 

     So, I can’t speak to the motivation or the reasoning for the comments of Ukrainian leadership; I can only speak to what our efforts are here. 

     Q    And is there any discussions underway in Washington of providing, sort of, economic stabilization to the Ukrainian government as they try to deal with capital flight and other sort of domestic concerns as this sort of stalemate continues right now?

     MS. PSAKI:  Additional economic assistance beyond humanitarian assistance or other economic we — assistance we’ve provided?

     Q    Yeah.

     MS. PSAKI:  I’m not aware of that, but I can check and see if there’s more specifics from our team.

     Q    And then, on Capitol Hill, there — this bipartisan legislation that seems to be coming through pretty quickly that would include, potentially, preemptive sanctions against Russia ahead of a potential invasion — a further invasion: Is that something the President is willing to sign into law should it pass?

     MS. PSAKI:  Well, we are working very closely with Congress on U- — on Ukraine and Russia and the tensions we’re seeing build up at the border.  We’ve briefed you on the number of conversations we’ve had, both in a classified and an unclassified format, and we’ve also had a range of conversations about this legislation. 

     We certainly are encouraged by the fact that there is bipartisan discussions about how to hold Russia accountable, how to have a deterrent impact. 

     Our view is that sanctions can be an effective tool of deterrence, and the deepening selloff in Russian markets reflects our message — our message to Russia.

     But we are in these conversations with Congress, and we look forward to continuing those.

     Q    And just on a different topic, we heard a few minutes ago from Governor Hutchinson, calling on the CDC and the federal government to provide more — clearer guidance for the American public as COVID-19 moves from the pandemic stage to more of an endemic virus that we all have to live with for some time. 

     Can you speak a little bit of how the — does — is that something the President believes as well?  And is there a disconnect between the White House’s messaging for Americans that they should go about — you know, take precautions but they can go about their daily lives in the midst of this Omicron surge, particularly if they’re vaccinated and boosted, but also the precautions that are taken because the President is the President — you know, the distance between him and the governors; you know, not going to dinner last night with the other governors; things like — of that sort?

     MS. PSAKI:  Well, I would say, first, there are a number of precautions that we have long taken from the White House and around the President and Vice President, which I think is to be expected.  He still participated in the event last night. 

     The President’s view, which I think you heard him speak to in his press conference just about 10 days ago, is that COVID and our efforts to address COVID are not going to exist in this current world we’re living in now.

     This is not the new normal — what we’re living in, in this moment.  And that’s important for the public to understand, because right now we’re seeing record hospitalizations.  You know, we are seeing — we are still living with a range of precautions that change how people live their lives. 

     And in the President’s view, that is not — that is not living with COVID in a way that it doesn’t disrupt your life, given we’re still dealing with surges across the country. 

     It is also true, as you heard him talk about — and this is where I don’t think there’s a disconnect; maybe it’s a — maybe it’s the use of words — that we have a range of tools that we had — did not have a year ago.  Right? 

     And this is something we’ve obviously been in close discussion with governors about, whether it is, of course, the fact that more than 87 percent of the — of the country — adults are — have received at least one dose; or the fact that we’ve just ordered a huge supply of pills — that is a game changer in many ways; or that we have masks that are now being distributed across the country and tests as well. 

     So, we are in a dif- — a very different place.  I don’t think we see it as a disconnect.  The President’s view is that right now we still need to keep our heads down and stay at it to fight what is still, you know, surging in parts of the country, but we do have the tools to get to a point where it does not disrupt our daily lives. 

     Go ahead.

     Q    Can you give us any update on the President’s search for a Supreme Court nominee?  He mentioned he’s going to be having in-person meetings here at the White House. 

     MS. PSAKI:  Mm-hmm.

     Q    Is that something that might begin this week?

     MS. PSAKI:  Yes, I can give you an update.  So, as you have heard the President say, he is — he will do his duty to select a justice not only with the Senate’s consent, but with its advice.

     As somebody who served on the Senate Judiciary Committee and was Chair — both as Chair and ranking member, he is steeped in this process and looks forward to advice from members of both parties on the Hill, as well as top legal experts and scholars across the country, working with the Vice President and his team at the White House.  And I think you will see those consultations start this week. 

     So, tomorrow, the President is going to host Chairman Durbin and Ranking Member Grassley at the White House to consult with them and hear their advice about this vacancy.  Chairman Durbin has worked on seven Supreme Court confirmation processes.  The President has also worked for many years with Senator Grassley and respects his knowledge and views.

     So, this will be part of that process, and I expect we’ll have more details to confirm as the week proceeds. 

     Q    The President has said he’s going to be, you know, reaching across the aisle, obviously, as he makes this decision.  We heard, over the weekend, Senator Lindsey Graham supporting his fellow South Carolinian, Judge J. Michelle Childs.  Is bipartisan support a must-have for this President or something that he would simply like to have?

     MS. PSAKI:  Well, I think, one, we appreciate Senator Graham’s thoughts, and the President is working hard to choose from a wealth of deeply qualified candidates who bring to bear the strongest records, credentials, and abilities that anyone could have for this role. 

     I think, as the President views it, what’s his — his objective and his intention is to choose from among a group of — of Black women with impeccable — an impeccable record — impeccable records and impeccable credentials.  And he expects the Senate, Democrats and Republicans, to consider the qualifications of these nominees and do that, as it has been done historically for many decades in the past. 

So, we certainly expect and he has every intention of nominating somebody who — with impeccable credentials.  And certainly, we expect and are hopeful that Republicans will look seriously at whomever he nominates and at what they — who they are and what they would bring to the Court.

Q    And just one more on this.  Our latest poll shows that just over three quarters of Americans, 76 percent, want the President to consider all possible nominees, not only Black women, as he pledged on the campaign trail.  What do you make of this?  And why do you think that a majority of Americans want the President to take a different approach here?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, again, what we can assure the American public of, whether — wherever they fell on that poll, is that he will choose and nominate someone who has impeccable credentials and is eminently qualified to serve as a Supreme Court justice and someone who is eminently qualified to serve in a lifetime appointment. 

He did make a promise to the country.  That’s certainly how he sees it.  And he’s going to work hard on this choice, seeking advice and counsel from, as I noted earlier, a range of leaders, of experts.  And that’s something that he is already pursuing this week. 

I would note that there’s a long history here.  President Reagan promised the country he would nominate the country’s first woman to serve on the Court, and he did so.  Former President Trump also promised to choose a woman just over a year ago, and there was no such complaint from the voices on the Right who are speaking out now. 

But the President’s commitment is to deliver on the promise he made to the country.  But he has — there’s no question in his mind that there is a wealth of qualified, talented Black women to choose from in this — to nominate.

Go ahead.

Q    Can you talk a little more about the size of the pool of candidates that the President will be considering?  We’ve heard a lot about a few names that are currently federal judges the President had appointed, but then we’ve seen some expanding lists.  Could you quantify that to any degree? 

And are all of these women being actively considered for the vacancy, or might it also include future federal positions that the President would also have the power to appoint?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, what I can — this may be unsatisfying, I will just preface for you, Kelly, which I hate to do — but, you know, as somebody who appreciates the solemn importance of the responsibility he has, he’s of course been reviewing a number of potential candidates.  That is a list that is bigger than “a few” in the number of bios that he has been looking for — looking at and that have been prepared for him by his team in order to be prepared if a vacancy occurred. 

We don’t think, and he — it is important to him to preserve the details of the process.  And his intention is to, as you know, put forward a nominee next month.  So this is not a month — many-months-long process.  He is very focused on it and committed to it, but we’re not going to get into details of names, if we can avoid it, or details of numbers at this point in time.

Q    Often, for this kind of process, there is a team appointed to work short term —

MS. PSAKI:  Yeah.

Q    — inside the White House to be sort of a guide for that nominee.  The term of art in Washington is “sherpa.” 

MS. PSAKI:  Sherpa.

Q    Have you made any progress on that?

MS. PSAKI:  We’ve been making progress and expect we’ll have more to announce for all of you hopefully soon.

Q    And last question.  Do you think bipartisanship — the chance to get Republican votes — would be a factor that would weigh heavily on the President among those he would consider?

MS. PSAKI:  I think the President is going to select a woman — a Black woman — who is qualified, who is prepared, who has impeccable experience to serve on the Court.  He’s going to do that based on her credentials, of course having a discussion with her, and not through gaming out the system. 

He believes that Democrats and Republicans should seriously and carefully consider any qualified nominee he puts forward, as he has done in the past himself. 

Go ahead.

Oh, sorry, I’ll come back to you, Jacqui.  I didn’t mean to —

Q    Okay.  That’s all right.

Q    Thank you.  Members of the economic team have been sort of frontrunning the jobs number on Friday, saying that the figures would be wonky because of the course of all the Omicron cases we had during the sample period.  I’m wondering what your expectation or the White House’s expectation for this report is.  And in particular, you’ve had a lot of revisions of these reports in recent months.  Do you think it’s time to overhaul how the Department of Labor does this survey — the methodology and that kind of thing?

MS. PSAKI:  I have no prediction or call for any changes to how the process is run.  But what I can tell you is we’re looking in preparation for the Friday jobs numbers.  We’ll get the monthly jobs report, of course, for January on Friday.

The way the jobs numbers are calculated is: Every month is — there are — is calculated — every month — it’s a little complicated.  But there are some simple things here to understand that most people don’t realize: If a worker was out sick during the week the survey was taken — because it’s — the data is taken over a week, and that is ba- — that is what the monthly jobs numbers is based on — and did not receive paid leave, they are counted as having lost their job. 

Now, that is an inaccurate depiction — and this is why I think you’re asking the second question — of whether or not they were unemployed, but that’s how it’s calculated. 

Because Omicron was so highly transmissible, nearly 9 million people called out sick in early January when the jobs data was being collected.  So, during that same period of time, in the week the survey was taken, the week of January 12th, was at the height of the Omicron spike. 

So we just wanted to kind of prepare, you know, people to understand how the data is taken, what they’re looking at, and what it is an assessment of.  And as a result, the month’s jobs report may show job losses in large part because workers were out sick from Omicron at the point when it was peaking during the period when — the week where the data was taken.

Q    Okay.  May I follow up on Zeke’s question —

MS. PSAKI:  Sure.

Q    — in regards to the President’s distancing at events?  Is it fair for us to interpret that this is a precaution being taken, given the caseloads we’re seeing — in particular in, you know, D.C. but other places?  Is he taking more steps to not sit within six feet, for instance, of people that he had been previously?

MS. PSAKI:  It’s not a new precaution.  We have had a process, and it may look different when people are sitting down — right? — because we don’t do as many events with people seated versus standing.  But when somebody has their mask off, we make a special effort, because they’re speaking, to ensure that that spacing is adequate.

Q    And this applies to the President and the Vice President?  For instance, other people spoke today but were shoulder to shoulder.  So we’re just wondering if there’s a particular rule for the VP and President.

MS. PSAKI:  I know that’s a precaution we try to take around them.  I can certainly see if there’s more specifics of additional speakers.

Q    And, finally, can you give us any update on the Build Back Better negotiations?  Is that a fair word for them?  Is that ongoing?  Can you say whether the President has spoken recently with Senator Manchin or Senator Sinema?

MS. PSAKI:  I’m not going to give any details on any conversations he’s had, per our policy of trying to keep those conversations private.  I will say that there are — is still a great deal of interest; passion, I might say; and advocacy on the Hill for moving forward with a Build Back Better agenda, because there’s a recognition and understanding that it’s long overdue for Congress to take steps to lower costs for childcare, lower costs for eldercare, negotiate the price of prescription drugs, and ask higher-income companies and Americans to pay more.  Those are all also widely popular among the public. 

So, right now, the point we’re at is there’s a lot of discussion among members, their staffs, committees — we’re engaged in those as well — about what big chunk — just to keep using the phrase — we can agree on moving forward. 

And, of course, that would require 50 votes, but those conversations are always ongoing.

Q    Thank you.

MS. PSAKI:  Oh, go ahead, Jacqui.

Q    Thank you, Jen.  Real quick on crime first.

MS. PSAKI:  Sure.

Q    I wanted to ask about: There was an appearance — your appearance on “Pod Save America.”  There was a discussion of Fox’s crime coverage.  And one line has prompted some criticism from people.  It was, “‘Soft-on-crime consequences.’  What even is that [does that mean]?”  Were you speaking in your personal opinion?  Or is that at all a reflection of the priorities of this administration?  Because the criticism is that it would reflect that crime is not a priority of this administration. 

MS. PSAKI:  Well, I encourage anyone to listen to the full context of the interview and the conversation.  What I was speaking to was a chyron on Fox News — since you raised it — which suggested this administration is soft on crime with no basis, given we have had many conversations and back-and-forths with you and your colleagues about the prioritization of the President to ensure that we are working as close partners with leaders, whether it is Mayor Adams, who he’s going to spend the day with on Thursday, or others in the country.

And the facts speak for themselves.  This is what I was talking about in the interview, for the full context.  In the American Rescue Plan, there was additional funding to support local COPS programs, something that every single Republican voted against.  I said in that interview that I know they don’t like it when we call that out.  I’m going to keep calling that out because that’s a fact. 

Also, President Biden has proposed a significant increase in funding for local COPS programs in his budget — more than the prior President.  That’s a fact. 

So if those facts are uncomfortable, I’m sorry for people who feel they need to be critical, but the President has been a longtime advocate of addressing crime.  He’s never been for defunding the police. 

Our Department of Justice has increased funding, has put in place support for strike forces. 

And the other fact that is never talked about in these Fox packages — maybe even this one — is the fact that gun crime is a major driver of crime across the country — also a fact.

So, those are pieces, I think, in that moment I was speaking to.  And, again, we’re about the facts here, and addressing crime is something that is a root of the President’s agenda.

Q    Thank you.  I appreciate that. 

And then, I wanted to move on to the DOJ.  There is a letter from Tom Cotton today, threatening to block the President’s DOJ nominees over the Department of Justice allegedly denying four deputy U.S. Marshals legal defense in lawsuits stemming from the Portland riots. 

Is the White House aware of this?  And can you give us any explanation for why that would be happening? 

MS. PSAKI:  I’m not aware of the specifics of it, Jacqui.  I’m happy to check with our Counsel’s Office, I assume, and see if there’s something more specific we can get back to you. 

Q    Thank you.  And then on — there’s been this leaked video of Border Patrol agents expressing frustration over some of the policies of this administration.  I know that we talked last week about flights, and we’ve heard the explanation for this procedure that they were frustrated over, but this video seems to show that morale is, you know, in a tough place, that these agents are frustrated who are having to carry out these policies.

Is anything being done to improve morale?  Is there going to be any sort of outreach from the administration to Border Patrol, given that we’re seeing more of this come to the surface? 

MS. PSAKI:  I haven’t watched in detail the video.  I will note that — I think it was the migrant flights video.  Is that the one that was — or it’s a different video?

Q    It’s a different video.

MS. PSAKI:  Okay.  I didn’t want to speak to the wrong thing. 

Of course, the role that Border Patrol agents play in ensuring security and safety at our borders is something that there’s great value for in this administration.  I would point you to the Department of Homeland Security, who oversees, of course, the Border Patrol agents, and can see if there’s anything — any more specific programs that are underway. 

Go ahead, Jeff.  And then Jeff.

Q    Thanks.  A follow-up to Kelly’s question about trying to quantify the pool of potential Supreme Court nominees. 

MS. PSAKI:  Sure.  Yeah.

Q    A White House official told us late Friday that the reporting in some outlets that there were three primary contenders — that that was incorrect.  I wonder then: For our reporting, would it be more accurate to say “a dozen,” “dozens,” plural, women under consideration?

MS. PSAKI:  I understand your efforts.  I appreciate them.  I value them.  But I can tell you that the President feels very strongly about ensuring we’re protecting the process. 

What I was getting at with Kelly a little bit, but let me be a little more clear, is that the number of bios and information that the President has been reviewing was greater than the three.

Q    Okay.  On voting rights, what’s the President’s view on the early bipartisan talks around rewriting, reforming the Electoral Count Act?  It doesn’t go nearly as far as he’d wanted on voting rights, but there is perhaps new urgency, given the former President’s comments at that rally and in the statement where he appeared to admit to this scheme to overturn the election results in 2020. 

MS. PSAKI:  Sure.  Well, let me speak to that first, and then I’ll come around to the Electoral Count Act.

So, in terms of the former President, his actions represented a unique and existential threat to our democracy, as the President has said many times.  But, you know, his remarks this weekend, he defended the actions of his supporters who stormed the Capitol and brutally attacked the law enforcement officers protecting it. 

I think it’s important to shout that out and call that out.  He even attacked his own Vice President for not, in his words, having “overturned the election.”  And it’s just a reminder of how unfit he is for office.  And it’s telling that even some of his closest allies have rejected those remarks as inappropriate in the days since.

As it relates to the Electoral Count Act: As you noted, Jeff, in your question, I mean, it is not a replacement.  And I think why we keep saying that is because we don’t want anyone to suggest, who supports it, that it’s a replacement for the John Lewis Voting Rights Act or other voting rights legislation that has important components of it that would provide a basic baseline and important protections for people across the country who are trying to exercise their fundamental right.

We’ve been open to and a part of conversations about the Electoral Count Act.  We’ve never been opposed to it.  We just don’t want it to be a replacement for it.

Q    And lastly, at least six HBCUs received bomb threats today. 

MS. PSAKI:  Yeah.

Q    The FBI says it’s aware of these threats and it’s coordinated with the local law enforcement.  Has the President been briefed?  And do you have anything to say about it from the podium? 

MS. PSAKI:  I will say that these are certainly disturbing.  And the White House is in touch with the interagency partners, including federal law enforcement leadership, on this. 

We’re relieved to hear that Howard and Bethune-Cookman Universities have been given the all-clear, and we’ll continue to monitor these reports.  The President is aware.  I don’t believe he’s received a formal briefing, but he is aware of these reports.  And obviously, as you noted, law enforcement authorities would be running point.

Go ahead, Jeff.

Q    Thank you, Jen.  There was a U.N. Security Council meeting today.

MS. PSAKI:  Yeah.

Q    Russia’s ambassador at that meeting said that the West’s assertion that Russia has amassed 100,000 troops on the border has not been confirmed.  And China, at that meeting, also said that it did not view Russia’s troops as a threat to Ukraine.  I’m wondering about your — the White House’s response to those two comments.

MS. PSAKI:  Well, those are also the two countries that voted against the meeting proceeding — the only two, right? 

I would note that we have based the information we have provided to all of you on substantive reports out there, our own assessments, our own coordinated intelligence gathering with our partners on the ground.  So — and those are assessments that are — as you know, Jeff — are also made by the Europeans.

Now, again, Russia has the power — they are the aggressor here — they have the power and ability to deescalate: to pull their troops back from the border, to not push more troops to Belarus, to take steps to deescalate the situation on the ground. 

But we know what we see with our own eyes.  You have heard members of our depar- — defense team — our Secretary of Defense, as well as General Milley — speak to this in very specific detail, as well as our U.N. ambassador this morning. 

It is not our preference to be having these conversations.  We’d prefer there to be de-escalatory actions by the Russians.

Q    And China?

MS. PSAKI:  And Chi- — look, I think that I can’t speak for the motivation of the Chinese.  They can speak for that themselves.  Obviously, we would encourage any country in the world to be part of an effort to deescalate, to protect and respect the sovereignty of Ukraine, and to make clear that a global value is not allowing one country to invade and take land from another.

Q    Do you have any more details on your plan to impose sanctions on Russia’s — on the Kremlin’s inner circle?

MS. PSAKI:  Let me see, Jeff.  I know there were some reports over that — about that over the weekend.  That has been, as it was back in 2014 — as I think you probably remember — a part of what we have been considering. 

I can confirm we have developed specific sanctions packages for both Russian elites and their family members if Russia further enga- — invades Ukraine.  These efforts are being pursued in coordination with allies and partners.  The individuals we’ve identified are in or near the inner circle of the Kremlin and play a role in government decision-making, or at a minimum complicit in the Kremlin’s destabilizing behavior.

Many of these individuals are particularly vulnerable targets because of their deep and financial ties with the West, meaning they would be hurt by sanctions that are tying them to Western financial systems.

I would also note that this is just one piece of our effort to hit Russia from all angles.  And this is — when Jake Sullivan came here several weeks ago and talked about how this will be far above and beyond what we were considering in 2014 — a lot of what we did in 2014 was around individuals, right?  And we’re talking about major parts of the financial system, but there is a package.  We have developed specific sanctions packages for both Russian elites and their family members.

Go ahead.

Q    Thank you, Jen.  Zooming out a bit on Ukraine —

MS. PSAKI:  Okay.

Q    — more.  Does the President consider it as a risk the different simultaneous things going on right now?  You’ve got North Korea upping its missile game.  You got the — the Taiwan Straits probably has never been more tense than it is now.  And, of course, Ukraine.  Does he consider — fear that there’s any link between these things, not as some kind of coordinated master plan, but that at least one of those — you know, each place is watching the other and will take its cues, and then maybe how Ukraine goes forward could provide a lesson to the other challengers that he’s facing?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, I would say, one, North Korea has been doing missile tests — dozens of them — in prior administrations.  And obviously, we’ve spoken to it each time that that has happened.

Our door — the door to diplomacy remains open, and we have conveyed that clearly.  We are very careful not to combine all of these pieces into one, because they’re all different circumstances. 

There is also — if I flip it on — flip it a little bit — I would say, a clear value that we need to stand by, which is the belief of the United States and our NATO partners that — and other countries, of course, around the world — that you can’t just stand by and accept one country trying to invade and take land from another country.   And this is also about protecting the sovereignty of a country, and that is a value that’s important to stand by as well.

So, as we are — as the President and other members of our national security team are conveying that very clearly — privately and publicly — that’s also sending a message to other countries around the world.

If you look at what President Putin’s stated objectives are — or his spokespeople, I guess I should say — he wants to divide the West.  He wants to divide NATO.  The opposite is happening: There’s been more than 200 engagements with NATO countries.  We are united — fiercely united and standing up to what we see as aggressive behavior, bellicose rhetoric, even as we’re leaving the door to diplomacy open.

Q    Thank you.  One on the Olympics, if I may.  Does the President have a stand on this debate on whether athletes should be able to express political, human rights, or anything non-sporting views at the Olympics?  I know the Olympics has got some rules, but the Chinese came out today with some pretty tough statements, warning people not to step out of line.  What would the President’s reaction be if an American athlete gets up on that stand and says or does something —

MS. PSAKI:  I think we spoke to this last summer and conveyed a support for freedom of speech of individuals.

Go ahead.

Q    Just today we’ve heard Russian diplomats say they see hysteria, “PR stunt,” “megaphone diplomacy” to describe how the U.S. has been talking about what’s going on there.  You’ve all said diplomacy is still the path; that there is still room for that.  And General Milley was very strong about that.  At what point do you decide Moscow is not interested in that and that it will have shift from the “We really want to do this” to “Clearly, they’re not paying attention at this point”?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, I think what’s important to note here is: Our view is that the door to diplomacy should always be open.  And that is what the President, the — our Secretary of State, our Secretary of Defense have been conveying.

I think the State Department confirmed this morning that our Secretary of State will be talking with Foreign Minister Lavrov, I believe tomorrow.  That would be a next step in our diplomatic efforts and engagements here.

But I think we’ve also been very prioritized and focused on — and you saw our U.N. ambassador do this in the — at the — at the session this morning — calling out what we see as misinformation and propaganda, at times, by Russian leaders and others, because it’s important for people to know and understand what the facts are.

But regardless of what people’s public rhetoric is, it’s our view that the door to diplomacy should always be open.  And ultimately, the question here is about what President Putin is going to do.  So, we’re always going to keep that door open.

Q    And back to SCOTUS, just to try one more time —

MS. PSAKI:  Go ahead.

Q    — with Judge Childs.  You had — within two hours of the event here with Justice Breyer and the President, you had Congressman Clyburn — obviously, a very close ally — come out and very publicly push for Childs.  And then, as mentioned earlier, you had Senator Graham do that.

Hard to think of two opposite folks: the number-three House Democrat — like the President, a former Judiciary Committee chair —

MS. PSAKI:  They are both from South Carolina, which may be a factor.

Q    Yeah, of course, with the state.  But when you have — when you’re talking about the bipartisan part of it —

MS. PSAKI:  Yeah.

Q    — how much weight might the President put on something like that, where you have, again, the number-three House Democrat, you have Lindsey Graham uniting for one person and very publicly putting the pressure on almost immediately to, kind of, nudge him in that direction?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, I can only tell you what — how the President is approaching his role here.  And through — he is very familiar and has lived through many confirmation processes and hearings.  He takes his role very seriously.  And his role is to pick the most eminently qualified, credentialed Black woman to serve as the Supreme Court — as a Supreme Court justice, a lifetime appointment.

It is certainly encouraging.  We’ve seen the comments, of course, of Senator Graham and Congressman Clyburn.  We always welcome agreement on anything in this town.  But the President’s focus is not on gaming out the process.  It’s on picking the right candidate.

Go ahead, in the back.

Q    So, the President today — two topics.  It’s on inflation, the first one.  The President told governors today, quote, “We’ve sent you a whole hell of a lot of money.  And we’re going to send you more.”  The Fed Chairman last week, though, said that a drop in fiscal spending this year will help ease inflation.  So, again, what’s the level of concern for the President that more spending would contribute to inflation?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, there is still going to be a massive drop this year because of the end of a number of programs.  So that doesn’t — that doesn’t change what the President conveyed.

I don’t — I didn’t see the totality of it, so I don’t know what the full context of it.  There are still, of course, programs and requests that these governors have, whether it is help on COVID or help with specific small businesses.  And there is still some targeted assistance that leaders still want, they need, and we are delivering from the federal government. 

But that doesn’t change — if you look at the overarching graph of, like, how much federal assistance is going, that it’s a natural drop because of the end of a lot of programs.

Q    So on the Federal Reserve nominees: The Federal Reserve maintains its independence.  One of the picks, Sarah Bloom Raskin, is the wife of Representative Jamie Raskin, as you know.  And it’s been a while since I’ve gotten to see you, so I get to ask about Federal Reserve now.  You know, he was an impeachment manager in the impeachment trial of a Republican president, so does the President believe she can keep that independence from the Fed?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, I would also just — I think she can stand on her own qualifications, not just because she’s a woman, but because she’s done a lot in her career.  She has been said by many to be the most qualified person to be nominated to this role, which I think is probably more important than who she’s married to, I would argue. 

She brings unprecedented experience to this role and the support of economic experts across the spectrum, including from the top economic advisor to former President Bush.  She believes, and she has said she believes, firmly in the independent role of the Federal Reserve and will work in concert with Chair Powell and her colleagues to identify and mitigate a range of risks.

She is also, you know, somebody who, again, as I mentioned, has a wealth of experience that she would be leaning into in this role.

Q    But the federal — the U.S. Chamber of Commerce sent a letter to committee members there, calling into question her activism related to regulations on where banks could lend or should be able to limit lending into certain industries, specifically coal and oil.

MS. PSAKI:  Well, let me note what a couple of others have said.  The community banker and former Fed Governor, Betsy Duke: “The characterization of Sarah Bloom Raskin as someone who will use the powers of the Fed for political purposes is simply false.  I saw every day [her] commitment to the Fed’s dual mandate.”

Former Bush CEA chair, Glenn Hubbard: “[Raskin] brings a wealth of experience to a Fed role.

Former Independent Community Bankers of America President and CEO, Cam Fine: “An outstanding group of nominees.  I hope the Senate will confirm them as soon as possible.” 

And I think, just like any nominee, she should be judged by her qualifications.  She will have a hearing coming up where I’m sure she will answer a range of questions.  But I think her — her background, her credentials, her experience is unquestionable in terms of its preparedness for this role.

Q    So her husband being an impeachment manager had nothing to do with it?  Just to put (inaudible).

MS. PSAKI:  Again, I would say that her experience and her impeccable credentials were the determinant in her being nominated for this role.  And I — I think it’s a little questionable for anyone to raise otherwise.

Go ahead.

Q    Thank you, Jen.  The administration is committed to the release of U.S. citizens held in Iran.  Can you update us if there’s anything new, and whether the White House has asked the Qatari Foreign Minister to mediate since he was recently in Tehran?  And I have another question.

MS. PSAKI:  Sure.  Well, I would say: Obviously, there’s a range of topics, as I think we briefed out to you — and we can talk about — more about that if you would like — that will be discussed during the meeting this afternoon. 

There’s no special coordination between the United States and Qatar on this particular visit about Iran, but, of course, there are a range of topics including the nuclear negotiations that could be a part of the discussion.

Q    So nothing on the release of the hostages?  Everything that was reported is not correct?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, I would say, again, I don’t have anything more to offer to you other than to say that they could talk about the Iran nuclear negotiations, but there’s no special coordination planned for this trip.

Q    Also, the Houthis has attacked Abu Dhabi yesterday while the Israeli president was meeting.  You keep saying that you want to protect your allies in the Gulf, but practically, how can you stop them from escalating, as we have seen in the last few weeks?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, I expect my colleague, John Kirby, at the Pentagon may have more to say on this.  But I can tell you that — as to your question about your — the report: U.S. military personnel responded to an inbound missile threat on the UAE. This involved the employment of Patriot interceptors to –coincident to efforts by the armed forces of the UAE.

I would say we are working quite closely with them.  Again, my colleague will have more to speak to, but we are very focused on working with them and defending against all threats to their peoples and territories.

Go ahead, Shelby. 

Q    Thanks.  I have two.  Nikki Haley and Senator Risch wrote an open letter to U.S. Olympic athletes this morning, warning of a high-risk and potentially (inaudible) political environment.  Is President Biden at all concerned for the safety of American athletes competing?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, I would say, first, that we are very focused on the safety of American athletes.  And as you know, unrelated — all related, I guess — we made a decision not to send a delegation.  It was not related to that; it was related to our concerns about PRC’s ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang and other human rights abuses.  I just wanted to note that for the record.

But in terms of athletes, we do everything possible to work in coordination with the U.S. Olympic Committee.  We’re providing consular and security services to our athletes, coaches, trainers, and staff, as we do for all U.S. citizens overseas.

Additionally, we expect the PRC to ensure the safety and wellbeing of our athletes. 

They have our full support.  We are 100 percent behind them.  We’ve also provided the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee and corporate sponsors with briefings as well.  And we will continue to work in lockstep with them.

Q    And then, going back to crime, I know you noted the President is, you know, not for defunding the police.  He has initiatives on combating crime, but we are seeing crime surge in major cities.  And the President’s poll numbers on the topic — you know, there was a — because he had an approval rating on crime that was at 36 percent in one December poll.  Does that indicate to the White House at all that Americans feel Democrats are out of touch when it comes to safety or criminal justice?  And, you know, what’s the administration’s takeaway to these numbers and the rise in crime?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, I think we all agree or should agree that violent crime is a serious problem.  We actually saw a record jump in murders in 2020 under the former president, and there hasn’t been new FBI nationwide data that has been released to date.  There has been city — some city data, of course, which is important to focus on and talk about. 

Our view is that instead of turning this into a political football, we need to be focused from the beginning of the President’s time — all of his time in office on reducing crime and keeping our communities safe. 

And that’s why he’s been a longtime advocate for more accountable community policing.  That’s why he has supported and advocated for additional funding for proven community programs to reduce crime, why he’s working to crack down on rogue gun dealers who sell firearms to criminals, and why he has taken executive action to crack down on ghost guns. 

So his objective is to work with Democrats, Republicans, mayors, local leaders to work to address what we’ve seen as increases in crime in some areas.  But I would just note that, nationwide, there has been increases in crime over the past few years. 

Go ahead.  Oh, go ahead.  I’m sorry.  Go ahead.

Q    Jen, the governors were just out at the stakes —

MS. PSAKI:  Yeah. 

Q    — just a minute ago, after meeting with the President.  They said their biggest message to the President and the administration is they want flexibility in how they spend these monies.  What can the administration do, or what are —

MS. PSAKI:  Which money?  Just for clarification.

Q    Infrastructure and also COVID relief bills.  They want more flexibility on how they can spend that.

MS. PSAKI:  Sure.  Well, I would say, first, on infrastructure: We just published this massive booklet with the intention of providing a bunch of guidance to governors, state and local electeds, communities about how they can apply for funding. 

It goes through different grant programs, so different programs work differently.  Some of it, as I think we’ve noted in the past, has been against some of the most structurally challenged bridges, for example, which will take some time.  But there are just different ranges of programs that come from different agencies.  Obviously, if there are lead pipes in their state or communities or schools, those are things we’re going to replace; that’s pretty clear. 

But there is a lot of, hopefully, comprehensive information in this lengthy booklet about how — or book — it’s a big book — about how to apply for grants, a follow-up for how to ask questions as they come up as needed. 

In terms of COVID relief funds, I mean, we have — I’d really have to dig into more specifics of what they’re looking for.  There have been areas of some flexibility in terms of how funding has been spent for schools or how funding has been spent for local community programs throughout the course of time, like through the American Rescue Plan and others.  So I’d have to look at the greater context of what their exact issue is.

Q    Okay.  And a final question: What is the federal government going to do to supply — are any supplies going to the Northeast states that just got hit by the blizzard?

MS. PSAKI:  By the blizzard?  So, we work very closely with state, local leaders to respond to natural disasters, of course including storms.  Typically those requests need to come first from governors in the states.  I can check with FEMA and see if there’s any specific request that has come in or what needs that have — that have arisen in the days since the storm.  I mean, “days” — it’s not been that many days, but you get what I’m saying.  We’ll see if we can get more details to you after the briefing.

Go ahead.

Q    On infrastructure, on the topic of this guidebook — I actually just did a report in the state I cover, of California.

MS. PSAKI:  Yeah.

Q    And there were a ton of questions about just the state portion, the formula fund portion —

MS. PSAKI:  Yeah.

Q    — that the state already knows is going to get committed.  So many questions about how that’s supposed to go out. 

MS. PSAKI:  Yeah. 


     Q    How does the White House plan just sort of oversee all of that distribution and sort of make sure that the money is having its intended effect when it gets out the door?

MS. PSAKI:  Sure.  You mean to avoid waste, fraud, and abuse?  Or to —

Q    Not just waste, fraud, and abuse, but, you know,

given that states will have a lot of discretion on how these funds are spent, just in terms of the ultimate outcome being — so what was intended.

MS. PSAKI:  Sure.  Through very close consultation.  I mean, you saw the President have a meeting with his infrastructure task force on the day of his one-year anniversary.  That shows how important the implementation of this bill is to the President.

The objective — what we were trying to do with the publication of this book is to provide clear criteria as a baseline, obviously to build questions off of and to have follow-ups. 

But I think, from here, what the President always says when I’m in meetings with him, with Mitch Landrieu, is: A big part of our job is, you know, spending hours a day calling mayors, calling governors, seeing what local — what questions come from local electeds.  That’s the role he played as Vice President, and that’s what his expectation is. 

So this big book is a base that will hopefully help answer a range of questions.  But different programs are being implemented by different agencies, even as they’re being coordinated by here.  So it really depends on the program implementation to where those questions should be directed.

Q    And in terms of the American people, how do you intend to ensure that the average American ends up knowing what the impact of those bills are?  Are you guys going to do signage the way we’ve sort of seen in the past with many big initiatives?

MS. PSAKI:  I think there will be some branding around that the infrastructure implementation that the American people should be able to see.

Q    And, lastly — you know, it’s still up in the air, but in California, there’s sort of a push to get a single-payer health plan across the state.  Is that something that you think the federal government could end up being able to interface with and something that, you know, if California were to proceed, you guys would welcome?

MS. PSAKI:  In terms of interface in what way?

Q    You know, that if the state were to implement the sort of single-payer plan, that would work with everything else you guys have in the healthcare ecosystem.

MS. PSAKI:  We would, of course, work to coordinate with any state, but I don’t have any more details at this point in time.  We’ll wait to see what they do. 

Thanks, everyone.

1:57 P.M. EST

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