Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jen Psaki, February 2, 2022
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:35 P.M. EST
MS. PSAKI: Hi, everyone. Okay, as you know, today marks the second day of Black History Month. The President and Vice President are committed to fighting for equity, opportunity, and dignity for all Black Americans each and every day.
And yesterday, a couple of people asked me what we were doing, so I just wanted to give you a quick overview.
On Monday, the President issued a proclamation calling on the nation to celebrate the contributions of Black Americans, honor the legacies and achievements of generations past, reckon with centuries of injustice, and confront those injustices that still fester today.
The President, and Vice President, and First Lady, Second Gentleman, Cabinet officials, and White House staff will host meetings and activities this month centered around the 2022 Black History Month theme: “Black Health and Wellness.” This includes a focus on physical wellness, mental health, environmental justice, economic growth, and spiritual wellness.
White House senior staff will also host important stakeholder discussions on diversity in media, veteran wellness, and increased support for HBCU students.
Last but certainly not least, we will celebrate and acknowledge the invaluable role Black faith leaders have played in communities across the nation, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic.
This is, of course, just brief overview. Stay tuned for more announcements.
Zeke, with that, why don’t you kick us off?
Q Thanks, Jen. With the announcement this morning that the President authorized the deployment of 3,000 troops to Europe — the President previewed that announcement last week and then ordered it today. Is there something — some new piece of information or intelligence that he saw in the last few days that sort of went from being a notional thing to something that to — to an actual deployment?
MS. PSAKI: I would not read this as a decision made based on any events over the last 48 hours or couple of days. We’ve been in discussion and under discussion with our partners and Allies in the region where these troops are going for several weeks now.
And I would just outline for you — I know some of you may have watched John Kirby’s briefing, but just to give some more specifics: A thousand service members from the U.S. Army’s 2nd Cavalry Regiment, which is based in Germany, will reposition to Romania in the coming days. Secretary Austin had discussed this possibility and this deployment to Romania last week in his conversation with the Romanian Defense Minister.
Second, we are moving 1,700 service members from Fort Bragg to Poland, and approximately 300 service members from Fort Bragg to Germany. Both of these moves are to supplement existing U.S. force presence in Poland and Germany.
These forces are separate and in addition to the 8,500 personnel in the United States on heightened alert position — posture that we announced last week.
But I would also note, Zeke, just to finish — the answer — answering your question that, you know, the President has been clear since the beginning of the escalation and the building of troops at the border, and been directly clear with President Putin in — as he was in really December: If Russia stays on an escalatory path, which they clearly have, we will make force posture adjustments to deter and defend against any aggression.
This is not troops that will go into Ukraine. They’re not fighting in Ukraine. These — this is us — this is the United States abiding by our commitments under Article 5 to support, reassure our partners in the region.
Q And for — what is the milestone the President is looking for to — for those troops to come back home? What is the — is it if Russia de-escalates, those troops would go back to their — to their bases? Is that —
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think, as you touched on, it’s not permanent. They’re not intended to be permanent.
And, again, we already had a troop presence in all of these countries where we are doing an increase in troops. So, I can’t give you an evaluation.
Obviously, if Russia decides to de-escalate — to take de-escalatory steps, then certainly that would impact what the force posture needs are in other parts of the region.
Q Senator Hawley was out with a statement today saying that the — that the President should, sort of, take NATO membership off the table for Ukraine and that it wasn’t in U.S. interests to do that. Do you think that sort of rhetoric or, sort of, position by a U.S. senator right now is helpful in this — in this showdown between the West and Russia?
MS. PSAKI: Well, if you are just digesting Russian misinformation and parroting Russian talking points, you are not aligned with longstanding, bipartisan American values, which is to stand up for the sovereignty of countries — like Ukraine, but others: their right to choose their own alliances and, also, to stand against, very clearly, the efforts or attempts or potential attempts by any country to invade and take territory of another country.
That applies to Senator Hawley, but it also applies to others who may be parroting the talking points of Russian propagandist leaders.
Q On a different topic, there’s been a lot of reporting in the last couple of days about how the U.S. is sitting, at per — on a per capita basis, with peer developed countries. The death rate in United States is far outpacing what’s being seen abroad, largely as a result of the lower vaccination and boosting rates here, as well as some other comorbidities and the like.
But does the President feel that he bears responsibility that, you know, a year into office, with this new wave, that the U.S. wasn’t better prepared and that more people are dying here on a per capita basis than are — than in Europe, for instance?
MS. PSAKI: Well, the buck always stops with the President, and he would say that. But I would also tell you, Zeke, that the steps that we have taken to make progress, to prepare in the United States far outweigh what almost any other country in the world has done to date.
That includes ensuring that 87 percent of the population has had at least one dose; inclu- — continuing to increase the number of people who are boosted; ensuring we are taking steps to keep our schools open, to make sure communities that have surges have the federal resources they need.
So, of course, we are still at war with a virus; that is continuing. And it — and that is the President’s top priority. He has said that before.
But I would also note all of those steps that we have taken to ensure we are prepared as we have ups and downs in this pandemic.
Q And, sorry, just one last one. Yesterday, you mentioned that it’s the policy of the administration not — to no longer comment on conversations with Joe Manchin about —
MS. PSAKI: I didn’t say “Joe Manchin.” I said — you were often asking me about Joe Manchin, so I think that was the context of the question, which is absolutely fine. But it is our policy to not give specifics or to — to try not to give specifics of private conversations the President is having with members of the Senate, members of Congress.
There are times — I know, yesterday, of course, we had Senator Grassley and Senator Durbin here, and we did a pool spray of that. So, you may say that’s contradictory, but our effort and our focus is on making progress, and sometimes that means keeping those conversations private — oftentimes.
Q So, I’m just curious because this is a shift from where you were a few months ago. Is that only because the Build Back Better bill failed? Is that — is that why this policy has changed?
MS. PSAKI: I think it’s a recognition that a lot more progress can be made when you’re having private discussions, and that the President’s focus — in terms of what we’re publicly communicating, how he’s speaking to the American people — needs to be on what he’s doing to make their lives better, not constant updates on the legislative process.
Q Thank you, Jen. On the troops that were deployed today —
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q — you’ve said that they aren’t going to be fighting; they’ll be there to offer support. Can you offer any details about exactly what they will be doing there?
And also, about the distribution to these specific countries — why these three places? And why the 2,000 versus 1,000?
MS. PSAKI: Sure, well, what — to be clear, they’re not going to Ukraine to fight, right?
Q Correct. Right.
MS. PSAKI: In a — so, I know that’s what you were asking, but just for clarity for the transcript purposes.
So, this — our effort and our objective here has been to ensure we are ready for every contingency, and force posture increases as part of that preparedness. It’s to reassure our Allies — to whom, as I’ve said, we have a sacred obligation.
This force — or these forces who have gone are trained and equipped for a variety of missions: to deter aggression, and to reassure and defend our Allies.
In terms of why the specific numbers, I’d really point you the Department of Defense, who makes the recommendations and, ultimately, you know, proposes for the President to sign off.
I would note that a number of our NATO Allies have recently announced troop movements as well, similar to what was announced this morning — so, including the United Kingdom, France, Spain, Denmark, and the Netherlands — of their intent to deploy additional forces to reinforce NATO’s easter flank — eastern flank as well. So, this is a reflection of our robust capabilities and our ability to distribute them across Europe, but it’s also consistent with a lot of — what a lot of our NATO partners are doing.
Q John Kirby said that the Pentagon has not ruled out deploying additional troops. Under what conditions would that happen?
MS. PSAKI: These, again, are — these decisions were based on close consultations with our partners in the region; the countries where these troops have been deployed to, of course; and also, the escalatory actions by Russia. But, you know, obviously the President is meeting with his national security team on nearly a daily basis and will make evaluations as needed.
Q And then changing the topics: Senator Luján has been hospitalized after suffering a stroke. In addition to offering well wishes, of course, some of his Democratic colleagues have said this is a reminder that in such a close Senate, any unexpected development could be a challenge to moving forward their agenda. So, has the President spoken with Senator Luján? And does he share similar concerns?
MS. PSAKI: Not at this point. I — let me just reiterate — I know you referenced them — but that we have all been thinking of Senator Luján and his family. I know his team put out an update on his recovery last night. And he’s 49 years old, so I would also note that. But I would point you to them for any specifics on his status. Of course, we’re thinking about him, his family, his entire team at this point in time.
I’m not sure what you’re referring to in terms of concerns about —
Q For example, Senator Coons brought up yesterday that, you know, this could be a challenge for moving forward since they — you know, that 50-50 split is so critical. So, is that something that the President has also considered?
MS. PSAKI: Well, life is precious, as we know. You’re most familiar with the average age of senators in the Senate, but that is true on both sides of the aisle. So, I would just say, we spend most of our time engaging in good faith about the President’s agenda and not making those calculations.
Q And then just one more on the Supreme Court. Given the President’s commitment to diversify it, will he make similar pledges should he have another opportunity to nominate someone? For example, there’s never been an Asian American justice or an LGBTQ justice. So, will he make a similar pledge?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would say that — about judges or just in general, I would say that if you look at the President’s record of judges — circuit court judges, lower court judges — it speaks for itself.
He has had a enormous number of justices he — judges he has nominated who are people of color, who are women. He has nominated and confirmed an extraordinarily diverse bench of qualified individuals to serve on the courts. And that is certainly a priority for him.
I don’t have any new pledges to announce for you. But I think I would point you to his record, which speaks to his commitment to ensuring the court is more diverse — lower courts are more diverse, the higher courts are more diverse — and that that is something he certainly will continue to look at as a priority.
Q Thanks, Jen.
MS. PSAKI: Go ahead.
Q Thank you.
MS. PSAKI: Oh, sorry. I’ll come back to you.
Q That’s okay.
MS. PSAKI: Go ahead.
Q I was just going to ask another follow-up on the troop movements. Is President Biden concerned that Putin might use them as a pretext to act against Ukraine?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think what’s important to be very clear about here is that there is one aggressor here — that aggressor is Russia. They are the ones who have gathered tens of thousands of troops on the border. They are the ones who are threatening to invade a sovereign country.
NATO is a defensive alliance. The steps and actions we are taking are to provide reassurance and readiness to our partners in the region.
If Putin — President Putin and the Russians decide to de-escalate, that would be a welcome step.
Q And a follow-up on the energy issue. Qatar has said it will divert cargoes if needed but needs the U.S. to help mediate changes in supply contracts. Who is the U.S. talking to about diverting supplies? And are any countries willing to forego their Qatari supplies to help Europe?
MS. PSAKI: I certainly understand the question. I would just note that we’re talking to a range of countries and suppliers, not any one individual country.
Obviously, Qatar is a large supplier of oil in the world, so that is certainly a statement of fact. But I don’t have any private — anything about our private conversations to read out from here.
Q And just a quick final one: Does Biden plan to watch the Olympics — U.S. athletes competing? I think it starts Friday.
MS. PSAKI: Yes, absolutely. We all do. I’m not going to rule out an Olympics outfit here. I would encourage all of you to do the same. (Laughter.) Yes, we are looking forward to it and to cheering on our American athletes who will be competing.
Q Just one more on the troop movements. Can you explain a bit more why the President decided to move unilaterally before NATO approved a multilateral deployment? I mean, you’ve talked often in here about how fiercely united the U.S. is with our NATO Allies. Is there a concern that this undercuts that sense of unity?
MS. PSAKI: Absolutely not. And this is an important question because a lot of our NATO partners have done something — taken a similar step. In fact, five other of our NATO Allies have taken steps; the United Kingdom, France, Spain, Denmark, and the Netherlands have all said they have the intent to deploy additional forces to reinforce NATO’s eastern flank.
So, these decisions can be made on a unilateral basis by the United States or any of our NATO partners to boost up support. And obviously, the NATO Alliance as a whole would decide if there was going to be a movement of the NATO Alliance forces.
So, this is something that we have always had the capability to do, as an — as all these other countries do as well, and it’s an option, in addition to what we’ve done to support and plus up our NATO Alli- — our NATO partners — our NATO Alliance.
Q But I think it’s still not clear though that — why? I mean, I know you’ve — we’ve been — you’ve been addressing this here. But why now, then — given that you’re saying there’s no new evidence that’s come to light, necessarily? It’s not that you have a sense that Putin is going to invade any more so than you thought a few days ago.
MS. PSAKI: That’s true. But — and I just noted that — that it wasn’t an event, because I think the way Zeke asked the question — “in the last day or two” or “over the weekend” or something like that.
There — this has been under discussion for some time now with our NATO partners and, of course, within the administration.
There — it is also true that it is — there’s no question that Russia and President Putin has continued to take escalatory, not de-escalatory, steps.
So, it is not that it is one moment. It is — we are looking at events over the course of time.
Q And at the risk of sounding like a broken record: On the Supreme Court search, has the President made any plans to meet in person with any of the nominees? Has he had any direct conversations with any of these potential candidates yet?
MS. PSAKI: We’re just not going to provide updates from here on the process. Certainly, meeting with the nominees will be — well, obviously, with the nominee — but meeting with candidates will be a part of the process. But I don’t expect we’d provide a play-by-play on that from here.
Go ahead, Kaitlan.
Q Thanks, Jen. Two weeks ago, at his press conference, the President said quote, “We’re going to actually increase troop presence in Poland, in Romania…if in fact he moves,” referring to President Putin. He has not moved yet to invade Ukraine, as far as we know. So, can you explain, in the last two weeks, why that calculus has changed for President Biden?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I wouldn’t say the calculus has changed, as much as we look at a range of events over the course of time. And there’s no question that if you look at President Putin’s actions, they have been escalatory, not de-escalatory.
But clearly, he’s been — this has been a topic of discussion from — among our national security team and also between our national security team and their counterparts for some time now.
Q Is the President worried that Putin is going to try to invade a NATO Ally?
MS. PSAKI: The President wants to — we’re certainly hopeful he would not. But the President wants to take steps to reassure our — countries in the region that are part of the NATO Alliance.
And, you know, Russia is a country, President Putin is a leader who has invaded two sovereign countries in the last several — several years. You know, he’s somebody who has used chemical weapons. He’s somebody who has pushed propaganda around the world.
We’re not predicting that he has made a decision; we don’t know that. But we’re also taking the steps to be ready and to be prepared.
Q Are removing these forces that are now being deployed — is that contingent on Putin removing his troops from Ukraine’s border?
MS. PSAKI: Removing — oh, these troops — troops in Eastern Europe?
Q The 3,000 troops that the President is sending to NATO Allies that he signed off on yesterday, is that contingent on Putin de-escalating — not just de-escalating but actually removing his troops from the Ukrainian border?
MS. PSAKI: Well, if President Putin took de-escalatory steps, that certainly would impact our calculus.
But I don’t have anything to outline from here. That’s obviously a decision and recommendations that would be made by the Department of Defense.
Q Okay. And one last question. Last week, I believe, in here, you said that you — the assessment still was that a Russian invasion is “imminent.” That’s the word that you used before, that other officials have used, and you used it last week.
But yesterday, the Ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said she would not use the word “imminent.” She said she does not think a Russian invasion of Ukraine is imminent.
So, I guess we just need some clarification on where that assessment stands right now.
MS. PSAKI: I used that once. I think others have used that once. And then we stopped using it because I think it sent an — a message that we weren’t intending to send, which was that we knew that President Putin had made a decision.
I would say the vast majority of times I’ve talked about it, we said, “He could invade at any time.” That’s true; we still don’t know that he’s made a decision.
Q Okay, so you’re not using that word (inaudible)?
MS. PSAKI: I think I used it once last week.
Q But the decision now is that you’re not describing it as “imminent” anymore?
MS. PSAKI: I haven’t in over a week.
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Go ahead, Jen.
Q Thanks. Just another question, first on President Putin and, sort of, the message coming from Russia. He, yesterday, expressed hope for diplomacy. And after the U.S. announcement on troops today, the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister called the move “unjustified” and “destructive.” So how do you — what is your response to, sort of, their rhetoric of, you know, calling for diplomacy here, given what their posture is on the border of Ukraine?
MS. PSAKI: I would say: Be very open-eyed about Russian propaganda and what they’re putting out there. We know what is happening on the border. Everybody can open their eyes and see they have gathered more than 100,000 troops at the border. They have also built up troops in Belarus at another border. That has not changed. We have not seen de-escalatory actions.
At the same time, we don’t know that President Putin has made a decision to act, and that ensures — means that we are going to, of course, continue to leave the door open to diplomacy. We’re going to continue to discuss and engage where we can find common ground with Russia — with Russian leaders. That doesn’t mean that we are going to bow to what their demands are on issues like NATO and what — and the right of any sovereign country to be able to choose which alliances they pursue. We’ve been clear on that from the beginning.
But, you know, diplomacy means you agree on some things, you disagree on others, you try to figure out where you have common ground, and that’s the process that we’re still undergoing.
Q On another subject, the House is working through the China bill right now, and there were some amendments that were released last night. There’s an effort by some House members to attach guardrails to CHIPS funding, which would mean they wouldn’t be able to get U.S. taxpayer dollars while also investing in China. Does the administration have a view on that?
MS. PSAKI: I’m not going to get into any specifics about the negotiations that are ongoing. Certainly, the President is eager to sign the competition bill into law.
I would also note that Mr. McCarthy made clear he was going to whip against this bill, and let’s just think about how ludicrous that is. He is a leader in the Republican House. This is a bill that would help address supply chain issues. It would help make us more competitive with China. It would provide more than $50 billion in funding to ensure there’s chips manufacturing here in the United States — which would help, by the way, reduce and prevent inflation over time in an industry where one third of inflationary pressure is coming from, which is the car industry.
So, there are important discussions happening right now, but the whipping against this legislation — legislation that warranted a great deal of bipartisan support in the Senate — is certainly a question that hopefully House Republicans will have to answer for.
Q And then just another China question on a little bit of a different subject, which is the COVID tests that are being sent out by the federal government. The Chinese company Andon Health owns iHealth, which is one of the providers. They have a — they signed a $1.3 billion contract with the Pentagon last month for these tests.
Is the administration concerned about, sort of, both the — the, sort of, optics and messaging of sending something to Americans’ homes that says — says “Made in China” on it at the same time that you’re, you know, doing this thing that you consider to be a positive good for Americans, and just kind of the overall, you know, philosophy of giving federal contracts to China?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would say our objective continues to be to increase U.S. manufacturing capacity of tests. We also needed to meet a need that we had in this country for more tests and a shortage of tests and the understandable demand from people across this country to get tests and make them free and accessible, which required us purchasing some of those tests from China in order to meet that demand.
But that doesn’t change our commitment to increasing our U.S. manufacturing to ensure that we will be able to meet that demand with products made here in the United States over the course of time.
Q Thanks, Jen. Yesterday, the national debt passed $30 trillion for the first time. Does the administration see that as a problem? Or do you share the view of some economists that debt doesn’t matter?
MS. PSAKI: Well, the President believes we need to have a sustainable and responsible fixed fiscal policy, which is why he put forward ways to pay for his major proposals. He’s committed to a sustainable and responsible policy in ensuring that our long-term investments are fully paid for, like Build Back Better.
I’d also note that this stands in significant contrast from the previous administration and Republicans in Congress, which passed a $1.5 trillion tax cut for wealthy taxpayers in 2017 and didn’t pay for it.
As we look to the debt, which obviously the President wants to be lower, it’s important to note that more than 95 percent of the national debt was incurred before he took office. The national debt increased by $7.8 trillion during former President Trump’s presidency, which accounts for about 30 percent of its total.
So, we are working to address, we are working to be fiscally responsible, and that certainly is a priority to the President.
Q Okay. One more on Afghanistan. There’s a new report out from the U.N. that says that more than 100 former members of the Afghan government and other Afghan allies of the U.S. have been killed since the Taliban returned to power.
There are additional reports that thousands of Afghan allies of the U.S. are still in Afghanistan. They’re hiding out. They can’t get to the U.S. because of issues with a Special Immigrant Visa.
Does the administration consider it a priority to get these people out of Afghanistan? And if so, why are they still there six months after we withdrew?
MS. PSAKI: We absolutely do. And we’ve — we have also helped thousands of our Afghan partners leave Afghanistan since our full withdrawal at the end of August.
As has been reported, there was a delay in — or there was a gap where there were not flights. Those have resumed, which is a good sign, which will hopefully enable us to continue to get more people out.
Obviously, the President also met with the Qatari leader earlier this week. They have been an important partner here, as we don’t have the diplomatic presence, as you well know, that we had prior.
I would just note that from the beginning, we’ve been able to evacuate more than 120,000 people from Afghanistan — some American citizens, many of them Afghan partners and allies, people who have fought alongside us during the 20-year war. And that is the largest evacuation since the Vietnam War.
So, I would say we are still committed to doing this. We are not naïve about the challenges, nor are we naïve about the conditions on the ground, which is why we are so focused on getting humanitarian assistance to the people in Afghanistan through trusted and reliable sources.
But it is a good sign that the flights have resumed. Obviously, this was a topic of discussion with the Qataris earlier this week as well.
Q Thanks, Jen. Just on schools: New Orleans became the first major district in the country to have a vaccine mandate for all students go into effect yesterday. We know how you guys feel about the need to get vaccinated. But will the White House press other districts to follow in New Orleans’s steps?
MS. PSAKI: We will always — we believe that it’s up to school districts to make decisions about what steps they put in place, and we would certainly advise all of them to follow CDC guidance.
Q On the mandate: There are a number of exemptions that parents can apply for. It’s pretty easy to get an exemption. Does the White House think that sort of defeats the purpose of the mandate or is that okay?
MS. PSAKI: We have exemptions that we implement in the federal government as well.
Q Okay. Staying on education: Yesterday, also, before the President paused student loan debt repayments — or, I guess, extended the pause in late 2021 — it was supposed to resume yesterday. Is the Department of Education pushing forward any other steps to make sure that when those payments relaunch in May, borrowers will be able to make them? Or will the President extend that pause again? Or is he still considering executive action to forgive student loan debt again?
MS. PSAKI: Sure. Well, I would note that no one has been required to pay a single dime of federal student loans since the President took office. As you noted, he extended that pause to May to give breathing room to borrowers who are still coping with the pandemic.
He certainly also supports Congress for providing $10,000 in debt relief — a bill he would be happy to sign into law.
I don’t have any additional executive orders to predict at this point in time. But certainly, in May, if these — if this resumes, the Education Department — the Education Department will continue working to ensure a smooth transition to repayment.
Q Thanks, Jen. Last week, President Biden and President Zelenskyy discussed a macroeconomic package of assistance for Ukraine. What’s the status of those negotiations? What’s the scope and scale of that package? And what’s the holdup, given that the economic damage is happening in real time from the Russian threat and the U.S. already announced its economic package?
MS. PSAKI: Yes, we have been discussing with the Ukrainians an economic — a package of economic assistance. That package and discussion has been underway, obviously, with — at the leader level but also beyond. At this point in time, I think the discussion is with other counterparts from our government and theirs about next steps.
I mean, this was not the first economic package that we are providing to the Ukrainians. We have provided a significant amount of assistance — not just security assistance, but humanitarian and other economic assistance — over the course of time, so that would certainly build on that.
But in terms of a next step, I can check and see if there’s any — anything specific to update you on.
Q Thanks. And just to follow up on the troop levels, why did the President authorize a deployment specifically to Poland and Romania? Are they considered the most vulnerable of the eastern flank countries — compared to, say, Hungary or the Baltics? And is it because the negotiations with the other countries haven’t worked out, or is it because these are considered the most vulnerable members?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think as my colleague, John Kirby, conveyed, we’re also — we’ve left the door open to additional — I’ve nothing to predict on that front.
But this was based on — or this announcement and deployment was based on consultations and conversations with these countries where we have sent these troops. I don’t have any more details about behind-the-scenes conversation to lay out from here.
Q Thanks, Jen. Senator Graham and Congressman Clyburn have been calling for educational diversity on the Court, suggesting the President should choose someone who attended a public university rather than an Ivy League school, for example. As the graduate of a public university —
MS. PSAKI: Me too.
Q — does the President —
MS. PSAKI: Who else here?
Q — does the President have any —
MS. PSAKI: Public schools. (Laughter.)
Q (Inaudible) about the President. Does he have any thoughts on that as a graduate of a public university? Will that factor into his consideration at all?
MS. PSAKI: Sure, I certainly understand the question. I’ve seen their comments. I would say the President’s — and we certainly appreciate Senator Graham’s thoughts and, of course, those of Mr. Clyburn.
What the President’s focus is on is choosing from a wealth of deeply qualified candidates who bring to bear the strongest records, credentials, and abilities that anyone could have for this role.
As you know, he has nominated judges who do not — have not gone to Ivy League schools. So I think that speaks to his value for that.
But in terms of the credentials, I don’t have any more specifics to lay out for you today.
Q And related to that, though, I also just wanted to ask about candidates who have already gone through a judicial confirmation process — either for the district court level or the appeals court level. Is that something the President is going to be taking into consideration: whether they’ve already made it through the Senate Judiciary Committee once before?
MS. PSAKI: The President’s focus is, again, choosing from a wealth of highly qualified candidates who bring to bear strong records, credentials, and abilities to serve on the Court in a lifetime appointment. That is his focus — and also doing that through consultation with Republican and Democratic members of the Senate and experts, not on navigating the legislative process.
Q And shifting gears to one infrastructure question. The — a number of Florida Republicans have complained about the implementation of the new infrastructure law.
MS. PSAKI: Who?
Q Well, certainly Governor DeSantis, Senator Rubio.
MS. PSAKI: What are their complaints? I haven’t even seen them.
Q Well, among the things they have complained about is they’ve suggested the state was shortchanged on bridge funding, that it should’ve gotten a bigger distribution. They’ve complained that the Everglades funding that was announced the other week should have been higher. Coming from Senators Rubio, Scott, and members of the House delegation who voted against the bill. Does the White House have any response to lawmakers who opposed the bill in the first place complaining that their share of the bill isn’t higher?
MS. PSAKI: It’s pretty rich, isn’t it?
I would say, first, I think the Everglades funding — I don’t have it in front of me, but I believe it’s in the billions, if I’m correct. You may have the exact number.
Q $1.1 billion.
MS. PSAKI: Okay. There is also an enormous — I mentioned this a little bit yesterday: About 90 percent of the competitive funding that’s available will go to localities, territories, others who can apply for it. And that’s why we put out this big book just a few days ago: so people know the criteria where they can apply for that funding.
You know, I think Mitch Landrieu, when he was here, quoted, I think, a Nancy Pelosi quote, so I’m just going to quote it. You know, I — you know, now I can’t even remember it.
But the point is, even if you vote against it, you still want the money. We’ve seen that over the course of time. That’s speaks to how political a lot of these votes were, given this is funding that will help rebuild a lot of these communities.
And the President will certainly be making clear who was with him and who wasn’t with him.
Q And last week, the Vice President’s appeal to governors to help with the defense of voting rights — does the administration feel that the effort for national voting rights legislation is dead? And if so, is it now going to focus its efforts at state level?
MS. PSAKI: We have to do both. So, federal legislation is important for a number of reasons, including that it creates a baseline of requirements — requirements or standards in states so people can know, who are fearful, about how they can vote; when they can vote — if you’re a mom of three kids, you should have a lot of options for dropping off your ballot or going to vote early; and ensuring those requirements are standard across states.
It also ensures that for states that have histories of voter suppression, that they would have to seek approval from the Department of Justice to make changes. That’s a good thing.
So, we are going to have to — we’re still fighting for those. The President has said he will fight for those until his last breath.
At the same time, what I think the Vice President was talking about and she will be playing a vital role in is working with states and localities on how we can fight against oppressive voter suppression — voter laws that are popping up in states; how we can empower and engage populations to ensure they know what their rights are.
So we’re ha- — we’re going to do both, and it’s important to do both.
Q And Mitch McConnell said today, given the current COVID facts and science, “It is time for the state of emergency to wind down.” Does the President agree with that? And is that still possible when there’s that hardcore of anti-vaccination people?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I didn’t see the full context of Mr. McConnell’s comments. I will say that the President’s view is that we’re not going to live like this forever; we don’t want to live like this forever. And our objective and our goal is on ending this pandemic as we know it today so we don’t have it — it is — so it’s not something that’s disrupting our daily lives.
We do more — we’ll do more and more to protect people and accelerate the path out of this pandemic. There is a lot of progress that’s been made. Two hundred and ten million people are fully vaccinated; that’s nearly 75 percent of adults. We had less than 1 percent vaccinated when the President took office. About 98 percent of schools are open.
And we understand the sentiment that I think he’s expressing, even if I haven’t seen the full context. We’re of course looking at, when the time comes, what it will mean to end the pandemic as we know it today. But right now, what our focus is on is ensuring we’re implementing the tools that we know that work as we’re still continuing to fight the virus.
Go ahead, in the back.
MS. PSAKI: Thank you, Jen. The Pentagon says that Poland and Romania requested U.S. troops — U.S deployment. Have you received similar requests from other eastern flank countries, Baltic states? And what will trigger additional troops’ deployment to the eastern flank? And I’m going to have one more.
MS. PSAKI: Sure. So, I’m just not going to detail those private diplomatic conversations. I would point you to the Pentagon if they want to share any more detail; I’d be surprised if they did.
But certainly we — those conversations are continuing; they’re not done. And I think my colleague, John Kirby, made that clear during his briefing today.
Q And one more. Has President Biden consulted this decision with the leaders of the Republican Party, and how does he feel about their support? Because there were some voices of the American Right questioning President Biden’s policy towards the Russia-Ukraine crisis.
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would say that we have had an enormous amount of — we’ve done an enormous amount of briefing and engagement with Democratic and Republican leaders about the decision-making and how we’re approaching the escalatory nature of Russia’s behavior on the border.
Leader McCo- — or Senator McConnell made some comments in that regard last week. And this is an issue, in our view, that should not be partisan. What we’re doing here is we’re standing up for what have long been bipartisan American values, which is standing up for the sovereignty of a country; ensuring that they have the right and the ability to choose their own alliances; supporting them with a range of economic, humanitarian, and security assistance; and doing that in a way that’s coordinated with our partners and Allies.
There are some from the Republican Party who have not — not voiced support for that. And again, as I said a little bit earlier in the briefing, if you are echoing — if you are digesting Russian misinformation and parroting Russian propaganda, you may be on the wrong side of this issue.
Q Hi. Two questions.
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q The first: Does the President know who Leonard Peltier is?
MS. PSAKI: I’m sure he does, but I have not discussed it with him.
Q Okay. Just call me and let me know if he knows.
Is he aware of the push by Democratic senators and members of Congress and Native state legislators — and even Pope Francis, at one point — to send Peltier home from prison?
MS. PSAKI: I have not discussed this with him specifically. I’m happy to see if there’s any more follow-up.
Q Thank you. And then my second question is about the Supreme Court. Some Republican senators, like Ted Cruz, are criticizing Biden for saying he’ll pick a Black woman for the Supreme Court. He said it’s, quote, unquote, “offensive,” because somehow the Black woman he chooses wouldn’t be the most qualified for the job.
But Republicans like Cruz also celebrated when Trump picked Amy Coney Barrett for the Supreme Court, with Cruz telling Barrett during her confirmation hearing, quote, “Your children have been wonderfully well behaved. I think you’re an amazing role model for little girls. What advice would you give little girls?”
So, my question for you is: Why do you think Republicans like Ted Cruz are acting so angry about Biden picking a Black woman for the Supreme Court, when they were very happy when Trump picked Amy Coney Barrett for the Court?
MS. PSAKI: I read that exact quote yesterday. I’m glad lots of people are following it. You know, I think that’s really a question for Senator Cruz. But it is important to note, as you just did in your question, that there has never — there was never an objection by Senator Cruz to Donald Trump promising he’d nominate a woman in 2020. You noted what he said to the woman he nominated in the hearing and how he applauded her in the hearing.
The notion — the President’s view is the notion that there has not been a Black woman ever on the Supreme Court in 230 years is a problem with the process, not a lack of qualified, credentialed people to consider and nominate.
And, you know, that’s his view, but I think that’s a question best for Senator Cruz.
Q Why do you think — what’s the difference between Trump picking Amy Coney Barrett and saying he’d pick a woman in advance, and Biden picking a Black woman and saying —
MS. PSAKI: That’s exactly why I called out this issue yesterday. But I am blissfully not a spokesperson for Senator Cruz, so he can best answer that question.
All right, thanks, everyone.
Q Jen, just a quick question.
MS. PSAKI: Yes.
Q Senator Schumer is apparently coming here today to meet with the President about the Supreme Court pick and process. Can you confirm that? Do you have any other information on what their conversation (inaudible)?
MS. PSAKI: I believe it was under discussion to figure out how they could connect, whether it was on the phone or in person. Let me see if I can get more details on it, but it’s part of the consultation process that you’ve seen take place over the past couple of days.
MS. PSAKI: Thank you, everyone.
1:14 P.M. EST