James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

1:24 P.M. EST 

     MS. PSAKI:  Okay.  A couple of items for you at the top.  Today, the President is hosting a roundtable of CEOs of electric utilities from all over the country to discuss his economic growth plan for the middle class — the Build Back Better Agenda — which will lower energy costs for working families, create good-paying union jobs, and build a reliable clean-energy future as we tackle the climate crisis.

     The President and these executives will discuss — or they are discussing, I guess I should say — how investments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and expand tax credits for clean energy and research — for research and development are necessary, overdue, and critical for increasing the resiliency of our electrical grid and essential to helping the pocketbooks of Americans around the country. 

     The executives and organizations attending this discussion operate key parts of America’s power grid, and they know that the best way to ensure future economic growth is to make long-term investments to combat the climate crisis, increase the competitiveness of our industries, and protect our electrical grid from extreme weather events.

     Aamer, why don’t you kick us off?

     Q    Okay, thanks.  So, new CPI numbers come out tomorrow, and economists are forecasting an index of, I believe, 7.3 percent annually.  And I was just wanting to ask: What do you see in the data right now that suggests inflation will fall quickly this year?  And how confident are you that a decrease in inflation can occur without hurting demand in the economy?

     MS. PSAKI:  Well, let me start with a little bit of a preview just so — well, we don’t know the numbers; I know there are projections — but just as people are preparing to look at these numbers and prepare to report on the numbers. 

     So, first, when we look at tomorrow’s data, what we’re looking at is recent trends in inflation.  So, in November and December, price increases showed relative to the month before — slowed relative to the month before.  And in January, they were down almost half from where they were in October. 

     That’s a sign of progress that the inflationary increases are increased — decreasing, I should say, month to month.  And we’ll be looking at that wage growth compared — looking how wage growth compared to inflation in January as well. 

     What is also coming out tomorrow is annual data — right? — which is, I think, what you’re talking about. 

Q    Yes.

MS. PSAKI:  And so, as we’re looking at that, we do — we expect a high year-over-year inflation rate reading in tomorrow’s data, given what we know about the last year — right? — and what we’ve seen over the last year. 

     That’s because year-over-year data largely reflects the price increases over the last year, as we’ve already talked about and we know about. 

     It’s not about the most recent trends, which I think is the important component for people to look at.  Right?  There’s monthly, and then there’s also the annual data.

     So, above 7 percent, as I think some are predicting, would not be a surprise, even though we don’t know what the data is going to be — going to be. 

     But looking at that reading of it as we prepare for tomorrow is still consistent with the path, in our view — to go to your question — that leading outside forecasters continue to project that inflationary- — inflation is expected to decrease over the course and moderate over the course of this year. 

     So, that continues to be outside projections, even as we’re preparing for the new data tomorrow. 

     I think there was another part of your question, but I wanted to explain what people should prepare for.

     Q    Well, I guess, with the — just getting back to “How confident are you that a decrease can occur without hurting demand in the economy?” — was the second part of the question.

     MS. PSAKI:  Well, I would say, as you know, the Federal Reserve has purview over — over taking the independent approaches they so choose to.  And we certainly — as the President has said, he welcomes and supports their efforts to take steps — or their plans to take steps.

     In terms of our confidence: We, again, rely on what their projections are about the projection that inflation will come down, that it will moderate. 

     And we are also continuing to take steps to continue to grow the economy, continue to address the needs that the American people have in the economy. 

     Q    And if I could ask a question about — New York, today, was the latest to work on their mask mandates.  Several states are now, it seems, well ahead of the federal government in explaining the path out of the pandemic.  Is the President now falling behind states in explaining to Americans how are — we all can, sort of, resume our normal lives and get back to normalcy?

     MS. PSAKI:  Well, the President has been clear on — has said that we are moving toward a time when COVID won’t disrupt our daily lives, a time when COVID won’t be a constant crisis. 

     I think you all heard him talk about that in his press conference two weeks ago.  And that is something that — as Jeff Zients, I believe, just said during the COVID briefing earlier today — there’s an active and ongoing work plan to develop a path forward.  And that is — there’s constant discussion about that. 

     I think what you’re referring to, as it relates to New York — which is an important component, especially as Americans are consuming what it means and where we’re going of masks and what the mask guidance is —

     Dr. Walensky was also on this COVID briefing that happened just earlier this morning.  And what she conveyed on that briefing — I know there’s a lot going on, so you may not have all seen what she said, but — is that we certainly understand the need to be flexible.  We want to ensure that public health guidance we’re providing meets the moment we’re in.

     We recognize people are tired of the pandemic.  They’re tired of wearing masks.  I bet all of you are.  I certainly know I am.  We all understand that. 

     But that — what our focus is on is looking at the data and science.  So, there’s good — there are positive signs, as she referred to: cases and hospitalizations are falling.  We’re looking at all of the guidance based on the latest data and science. 

     She also said — which is, I think, important for people to note — that we continue to — while we continue to recommend masking in areas of high and substantial transmission — which is basically the entire country at this point; that’s essentially everywhere — for indoor settings, we are evaluating rates of transmission.  We’re evaluating and looking at data to see if any changes need to be made.  And that is something, of course, the CDC continues to do. 

     So, I would say that we are internally discussing, of course, what it looks like to be in the phase of the fight against the COVID pandemic where it is not disrupting everyone’s daily lives; where people are moving on and living, you know, lives free of, hopefully, masks at some point and many of the restrictions that we’ve all been living through over the past two years.

     But as the federal government, we have the responsibility to rely on data, on science, on the medical experts.  That’s something the President committed to during the campaign.  They committed — they confirmed, during this briefing, they are continuing to evaluate and there’s ongoing discussions and work happening internally.

     Q    And just one last thing.  The Pentagon has yet to commit to media embeds with U.S. troops that have and are deploying to the Baltics?  Why?

     And is it consistent, just generally, with the administration’s pledge to transparency?

     MS. PSAKI:  Well, I just saw the reports about this.  And I will acknowledge to you I have to dig into this a little bit further.  I certainly understand the question and the desire to be embedded with troops and seeing what’s happening on the ground, just as many of you have reporters and outlets who are near the border or seeing what’s happening for yourselves the military buildup of troops. 

     So let me check into this and see if I can get back to all of you. 

     Go ahead.

     Q    Thanks, Jen.  Following up on that, does the White House generally support the notion of troops — embedding with U.S. troops around the world?

     MS. PSAKI:  We certainly have in the past.  Yes.

     Q    But I know that the Trump administration took a different view.  So, does this White House envision a return to the practice of U.S. journalists embedding with U.S. forces — when they’re in Eastern Europe, for example — in the nation’s interest?

     MS. PSAKI:  That has been our overarching approach, as you’ve seen over the last year.  I’d have to check in to this specific question that Aamer has asked me and I think you’re following up on.

     Q    Okay.  Great.

     The White House has made it pretty clear there is no plan for a mass evacuation of American citizens in Ukraine.  And, in fact, you and the President and others have suggested that Americans who are in Ukraine should leave now if they can. 

     At the same time, it’s been projected that Russia could overtake Kyiv in two days if it invades. 

     So, what happens to Americans if they do get stranded in Ukraine?  Should they understand that the U.S. is not coming to get them?

     MS. PSAKI:  Well, let’s just take a step back here.  First, we don’t know that President Putin has made a decision to invade.  We still don’t have a new assessment on that.  Right?

     I’m obviously not going to discuss intelligence reports, which I think you also referenced. 

     What I can tell you is that it’s not just that the President or I have been conveying this warning to U.S. citizens.  This is something the State Department has been doing for weeks and weeks and weeks now.

     I know there have also been a range of reports out there about American citizens.  As you all know, because we’ve discussed this before, U.S. citizens are not required to register their travel to a foreign country with us.  And we don’t maintain a comprehensive list of U.S. citizens. 

     That said, the State Department does estima- — does estimates from time to time.  And I know there have been much larger numbers out there.  So I just wanted to reiterate for all of you that back in October, the State Department estimated there were at the time — so, months ago — about 6,600 U.S. citizens residing in Ukraine.  Not much far- — not much larger than that. 

     There have been — of course, there are periodic times — during the holiday season — where there are assessments of tourists and visitors and others.  But in terms of citizens residing in Ukraine — many of which would be dual citizens. 

     So, what people should understand is that the United States does not typically do mass evacuations.  Of course, the situation in Afghanistan was unique for many reasons, including that it was the end of a 20-year war.  We were bringing a war to an end; we were not trying to prevent a war, as we are certainly in this case. 

     There are a range of means that individuals and Americans can depart from Ukraine, and we’ve been encouraging them to do exactly that. 

     But what we have been — how we’ve been looking at this is much more — much more similar to what was ordered in Ethiopia or Kazakhstan in recent months, where the security circumstances on the ground warranted travel advisories and warnings from the State Department.

     And can you explain how the process would work if U.S. citizens were able to make it by land to Poland or Romania?  What’s the plan that’s being put in place to help them?

     MS. PSAKI:  You mean if they cross the border?  Well, there are —

Q    If there is — if there is an invasion. 

MS. PSAKI:  Well, there are still — I think what we are encouraging American citizens to do is depart now, obviously.  There hasn’t been an invasion, and we don’t know that there has been a decision to invade.  Obviously, we have a range of diplomatic presences — not only in Ukraine, but in neighboring countries — that are always available for U.S. citizens should they need assistance.

Go ahead. 

Q    Thanks, Jen.  HHS just put out a statement clarifying around some reports that crack pipes are not going to be part of the “safe smoking kits” that are funded by the administration.  But can you clarify for us: Were they never a part of the kit or were they removed in response to this reporting and this pushback?  Just — the language was unclear.

MS. PSAKI:  They were never a part of the kit; it was inaccurate reporting.  And we wanted to put out information to make that clear.

Q    So, what is in the safe smoking kit? 

MS. PSAKI:  A safe smoking kit may contain alcohol swabs, lip balm, other materials to promote hygiene and reduce the transmission of disea- — diseases like HIV and hepatitis. 

I would note that what we’re really talking about here is steps that we’re taking as a federal government to address the opioid epidemic, which is killing tens of thousands — if not more — Americans every single day, week, month of the year. 

We put out this statement, though, because there was inaccurate information out there — or I should say, HHS put out the statement because there was inaccurate information out there, and we wanted to provide clarification on the allowable uses for the HHS Harm Reduction program.  It’s not a change in policy. 

This program, though, is focused on harm reduction strategies, including prioritizing the use of fentanyl test strips and clean syringes.  And all of these harm reduction services that will be supported by these programs are intended to save lives from an epidemic that we know is devastating to communities across the country.

Q    And then — so just to put a final point on it, does the administration support any effort then to distribute drug paraphernalia like the types that we were hearing about?

MS. PSAKI:  We — the statement makes clear that we don’t support federal funding, indirect or direct, for pipes.

Q    Okay.  Thank you.  And then on the safe injection sites that the DOJ is evaluating: Was this an ask from the White House that they review that policy?  Because I know that, for years, DOJ has opposed efforts to open safe injection sites.

MS. PSAKI:  It’s under litigation, so I can’t speak to that.  But what I can tell you and reiterate is that the White House is committed — as I will — as I would reiterate for you, many Democrats and Republicans, including Senator Cruz — to taking steps to address the opioid crisis. 

This is not an issue that is inflicting just blue states.  It is inflicting millions of Americans across the country, and it is important that we take steps to address it.

Q    So, just final wrap of those two items: What would you say to critics who are concerned that the Biden administration is somehow encouraging illegal drug use?

MS. PSAKI:  I think that it’s important to step back and remember — just to put a little more of a fine point on it — that we are losing an American life every five minutes to overdose.  We don’t have time for political games. 

The President is focused on saving lives through harm reduction programs.  That’s exactly what we’re talking about here.  They work in red states, and they work in blue states.  We know they save lives; they help connect people to treatment and recovery.  And they were endorsed this week by a bipartisan commission co-chaired by Senator Tom Cotton that examines steps we must take to address the devastating toll of overdoses. 

So, what I would say is: This is not a game.  This is not a political game.  This is an epidemic that is taking the life of five — of an American every five minutes, and we need to work in a bipartisan way to address it.

Q    Thank you.  Can I ask real quick about the masks?  We had another state today dropping the indoor mask mandate as the CDC is confirming that their guidance is not changing.  But these decisions that are being made at the local level, like you guys always talk about, are out of step with the science that is at the forefront of the CDC, of this White House.  So why are we not hearing the same messaging criticizing states that are, you know, making these moves like we heard previously with, for instance, Ron DeSantis?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, I would say there is a distinct difference between standing in the way, which Ron DeSantis did — or Governor DeSantis; I’ll give him his full title — of teachers, school administrators, and others taking steps to protect the students in their school communities.  There’s a difference between standing in the way of it, threatening to pull back funding; and allowing for local school districts to make choices, which is what a number of these states are doing. 

Go ahead.

Q    Jen, quick follow-up on that.  Does the administration risk looking out of touch with where the country is heading, in terms of lifting these mask mandates, if the CDC doesn’t revise its guidelines?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, again, we understand where the emotions of the country are, right?  People are tired of masks.  I would say not even — if you look at the polling though, there’s also a huge chunk of people who still want masks.  Right?  So, it’s not even that specific.  It’s just that, as you noted, there are some states that are moving towards rolling back or giving more choice to local communities about how they will implement these requirements. 

But, again, from the federal government, what our responsibility to do is to abide by what the President committed to on the campaign, which is to listen to scientists, listen to data.  That doesn’t move at the speed of politics; it moves at the speed of data.  And they — Dr. Walensky committed to — conveyed — or, I should say, confirmed that they were evaluating this at the CDC. 

Q    And I want to just ask you about Russia.  You were very careful in your wording when you were asked yesterday the extent to which the administration understands what happened between Presidents Macron and President Putin.  Can you give us any more information today?  To what extent has the administration been briefed, has the President been briefed directly on those talks, and —

MS. PSAKI:  The President spoke with President Macron this morning, which I believe we confirmed?  Yes.

Q    And what does he understand about what came out of that meeting?  Did — does he have the same sense of optimism that President Macron had when he left that meeting — that, yes, perhaps there had been a tiny bit of progress in terms of helping create an offramp for President Putin?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, Kristen, the President spoke, as I noted, with President Macron earlier today.  He, as you know, spoke — hosted the German Chancellor, and I expect he will speak when — with a number of other European counterparts as the week proceeds. 

But what we’re looking at here, Kristen, is not reports out of a meeting but whether or not Russia is taking de-escalatory steps.  They are not.  They are taking escalatory, not de-escalatory, steps.  We certainly hope that that changes.

Q    So you, based on the intelligence that you have, do not share the same measured optimism that President Putin had coming out of that meeting?

MS. PSAKI:  Again, we’re looking at — we’re looking at actions here, and we have not seen de-escalatory actions by the Russians.

Q    Any imminent plans for President Biden to speak with President Putin?

MS. PSAKI:  As you probably are tired of hearing me say, but I’ll just repeat it: The President certainly values leader-to-leader engagement.  He has spoken with President Putin, as you know, multiple times in the past, including in person.  But I don’t have anything to preview at this point in time.

Q    And if I could just ask you one question.  Overnight, the President tweeted about this potential bill that has been proposed in Florida that would restrict school districts from encouraging discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in public schools.  The President tweeted out that he wanted them “to know that you are loved and accepted just as you are. I have your back.”  What, if anything, can President Biden do — is he planning to do — if, in fact, that does pass?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, I would say, unfortunately, this is not the only bill or the only effort we’re seeing across the country to really regulate what students can or cannot read, what they can or cannot learn, and, most troubling, who they can or cannot be. 

As I think you saw on the President’s treat — tweet, it’s cruel.  It’s harmful.  And, you know, it is certainly something that is not helping, you know, young people who are members of LGBTQI+ community who are already vulnerable, are already being bullied.  I think the President felt it was important to speak out. 

But in terms of specific actions, you know, we’re going to continue to voice our strong views on this.  It’s significant the President did that.  And if there’s any additional steps, I’ll let you know. 

Go ahead.

Q    Thanks, Jen.  Back to Ukraine for a second.  Tomorrow, it’s expected to be these — this Russia-Belarus military exercise.  Is it the sense of this administration that what’s expected to be this massive show of force tomorrow and for the next few days after that could provide some sort of cover for an invasion?  And is the White House and are its allies on any kind of heightened alert given what’s expected to happen?

MS. PSAKI:  I wouldn’t make a prediction of that.  I’m sure your colleagues will ask the Pentagon that question.  But I think as we look at the preparation for these military exercises, again, we see this as certainly more of an escalatory and not a de-escalatory action as it relates to those troops and the military exercises. 

This is happening at the border of Ukra- — at the border as well.  So, that is certainly concerning to us, but I wouldn’t make a prediction of what it means in terms of invasion.

Q    Okay.  And back to masks, not to belabor it — but in a matter of weeks, Americans have heard the White House say masks are so important you should get online and order yours for your family right now.  You’ve got, now, this wave of states that are saying, “Actually, you don’t have to necessarily wear masks.  We’re going to do away with some of these mandates.”  And now you’ve got the CDC saying its guidance stands; “We’re going to review things, but the guidance stands.”  Can you blame Americans for being confused and frustrated and having no idea who they should be listening to right now?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, our guidance is consistently — has consistently been this: When you are in a high-transmission area, which is everywhere in the country, you should wear a mask in indoor settings, including schools. 

     There are states that have rolled back their mask guidelines, that have given more flexibility to communities.  They’re different; they’re just not uniform, what every state has done.  And, certainly, we continue to advise and recommend abiding by public health guidelines. 

     Q    But do you dispute that Americans are confused by what’s happening right now?

     MS. PSAKI:  Well, I think we should do everything we can to prevent them from being confused, so I’m restating what our policy is here, from the federal government, which is based on public health guidelines.

     Q    And does the CDC run the risk of becoming irrelevant in the minds of many Americans, given that their states are moving along — ahead without them? 

     MS. PSAKI:  Well, I don’t think the federal experts on health and medical advice should be irrelevant to Americans at a time where we’re still facing a pandemic. 

     Go ahead.

Q    Negotiations on a Russian sanctions bill have stalled in Congress, or hit a bump.  What is the latest White House thinking on that bill?  What are some of the things you want to see emerge in the weeks ahead or days ahead?

MS. PSAKI:  Sure.  Well, first, we believe it’s an important — important to show a united front to Russia and, hence, we’ve been doing a range of briefings with Democratic and Republican leadership and members and committees over the course of the last several weeks.

     We’ve been gratified by the bipartisan support we’ve seen for the actions we’ve taken and will take if Russia further invades Ukraine.  We welcome the bipartisan focus on Russia and Ukraine in Congress and think that a bipartisan bill would send a strong message to President Putin.

Q    There’s momentum building for a bill to bar lawmakers from owning stock.  Does the White House believe that lawmakers should own stock?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, let me just, first, reiterate something many of you who covered the campaign may already be familiar with.  But, one, President Biden believes — has never been somebody who’s owned and traded stock as a member of the Senate.  He’s talked about that a lot throughout his career. 

     During the campaign, he committed to work with Congress to take steps to ensure that there wasn’t conflicts of interest that are being presented as — as this legislation is being discussed.  And he also believes that all government agencies and officials, including independent agencies, should be held to the highest ethical standards. 

     It’s early in the legislative process, so I don’t have a new comment today on the specifics of this legislation.  But I would just reiterate how the President has operated and conducted himself, as he has been in public life for just a few years now.

Q    Last question.  Senator Manchin has talked about there’s no more Build Back Better bill publicly.  Has the White House or your team ever considered rebranding the bill — a name change?  Is that something that you’ve considered and you think would be beneficial?

MS. PSAKI:  Sure.  Look, I think our objective is working with Democrats, Republicans — if they decide they’re for lowering the cost of prescription drugs, they’re welcome to join us in this effort — but to determine how much of the President’s Build Back Better agenda — whatever you call it — can be moved forward. 

And there is agreement on a number of big components, including with Senator Manchin, about the importance of lowering the cost of childcare, what burden that has on families across the country; about the importance of lowering the cost of healthcare; of making the tax system more fair; of negotiating — of allowing Medicare to negotiate the price of prescription drugs, something the President will be going to Virginia tomorrow to talk about. 

     So, these discussions are ongoing.  A lot of them, as the Pre- — you heard the President say at the press conference two weeks ago, are happening between members on the Hill — right? — to determine what they can have support for.  And our staff and senior members of the team are engaged in those as well. 

     Go ahead.

     Q    Jen, given that the CDC guideline still remains that masking is recommended in schools, if you are a parent, a teacher, a student living in a state where that is no longer recommended, should you still follow the CDC guideline?

     MS. PSAKI:  Yes. 

     Q    Yes?  So, even if the state is not requiring that you wear masks in the schools?

     MS. PSAKI:  Well, this is where we would advise any American to follow the CDC guidelines.  And as Dr. Walensky said, and you referenced, they’re constantly evaluating — right? — because the data is changing, the science is changing.  It certainly is positive that case numbers have come down, hospitalizations come down.  And they look at all of that information. 

     That’s why it’s also important to note the difference between leaders who are saying, “We’re going to leave it up to localities, local school districts to make decisions.”  No parent who wants to send their kid with a mask should be penalized.  No teacher or — who wants to wear a mask should be penalized or school district who makes that choice should be penalized. 

     But it — a lot of these decisions have been up to local school districts.  In the past, we have made a — we have funded and we have made announcements about a number of mitigation measures, which we will continue to work with school districts to implement. 

     Q    And it’s been almost a month, I think, since President Biden addressed the issue of the pandemic in the form of a major speech.  Why has it been that long since Americans have heard from him in, sort of, that kind of a setting about the pandemic?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, I would say, first, the President answered questions about the pandemic less than two weeks ago during a press conference.  And, certainly, we have regular COVID briefings to provide the American people with an update on where things stand. 

     We’re currently, as I noted a little bit earlier, discussing what the next phase of the pandemic looks like.  That’s an ongoing process.  And the American people can expect to continue to hear from the President on it.

     Q    Would it be fair to say that the President believes the country is turning a corner on the pandemic?

     MS. PSAKI:  Again, I don’t want to characterize, other than to convey that we look at hospitalization numbers — they’re coming down.  That’s a good sign.  There’s no question about that. 

     We are looking at all of the tools we have in our toolbox, which is — certainly puts us in a very different position than we were in a year ago, whether it’s the antiviral pills, the ability to send out masks and tests to Americans who want them, the fact that 75 percent of adults are vaccinated. 

     This is all good — these are all good signs, all good information.  But we’re continuing to discuss and assess internally what the next phase might look like.

Q    And I’d like to ask you a question about a CNN investigation about the Kabul airport blast back in August.  This investigation looked at medical records; it interviewed doctors in Kabul, victims, and witnesses; and it raises some questions about whether anyone was hit by gunfire, either by U.S. or British troops after the airport bomb blast. 

     So, we’re wondering: Should the Pentagon further investigate this matter?  Or does the President believe that this matter is closed?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, I know that my colleague John Kirby is going to brief later this afternoon, and CENTCOM has put out information on this.  But I would really point you to them for further comment.

Go ahead.  

     Q    Thank you, Jen.  I have a question about how the President is going to make the decision about changing the recommendation on masks.  Is he totally determi- —

     MS. PSAKI:  He will make the decision based on what the CDC advises.

     Q    Right.  Well, that’s what I wanted to ask.

     MS. PSAKI:  Yeah, okay.  Go ahead.  Sorry. 

     Q    So, the CDC calls the shots here.  It’s not like he measures trade-offs — the economy, mental health, people’s behavior.  It’s just when the CDC says it’s okay to do, that’s what will determine his decision, but he doesn’t take into account all these other factors? 

     MS. PSAKI:  Well, what he has made the commitment to the American people on, back when he ran for President and we’ve tried to abide by, is that he would listen to —

     Q    “Listen” is one thing.  But —

     MS. PSAKI:  Listen to the data, listen to the science.  And, certainly, our health and medical team — obviously, the CDC is part of that, Dr. Fauci, other experts.  You’ve heard though, I would note, Dr. Murthy and others talk about mental health impacts.  So, I would point you to them to talk about all the factors.  But we’re certainly going to listen to our doctors and medical experts.

     Q    What I’m trying to determine is what does “listen” mean.  Does it mean that the CDC calls the shots here?  Or, as these governors have done, does the President take into account the trade-offs?

     I mean, this is about public health.  It’s not, like, just some kind of abstract thing in a vacuum.  People — kids’ mental health is affected by wearing masks.  Human behavior is part of this; the economy is part of this.  Does he take those into account, or does he assume the CDC will do that for him?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, I think, Mara, it’s also important to note that masks are effective at reducing transmission in schools and other places.  And we know that from what the data has told us, right? 

     There are a range of health and medical experts who advise the President and make determinations about how the CDC guidance will be changed.  But that is what we rely on, yes.

Q    There are a lot of doctors who are now signing statements saying it’s time to lift mask mandates, especially for kids.

MS. PSAKI:  I understand that, but we rely on the health and medical experts who work in the federal government, as we should, even as we account for and consult with outside experts. 

     Go ahead.

Q    Thanks, Jen.  You mentioned the President’s trip tomorrow to Virginia.  Do you expect a new announcement of some sort on prescription drug prices?  Or is it going to be kind of a familiar argument about the importance of his Build Back Better plan?

     And he’ll be appearing alongside a vulnerable House Democrat.  Will that type of travel, where he’ll be going out with Democrats facing tough reelection battles, be sort of the North Star as he accelerates his travel schedule, or at least has said that he wants to do that?

MS. PSAKI:  Sure.  Well, on your second question, you know, I’ve become quite careful about what I say about politics and campaigning from this podium, but the President himself has said — so I can point to that — that he is eager to go out there and hit the road for Democrats who are fighting for an agenda for the American people. 

     So, certainly tomorrow, when he is out in the Richmond area with Congresswoman Spanberger, this is an opportunity for him — to go back to your first question — to really talk about his view that the fact that Americans are forced to pay two to three times more for drugs than citizens in other advanced economies is unacceptable, it’s flat out wrong, and we need to act to stop the abuse of American families. 

He — as you’ve heard him say many times and I expect you would hear him say tomorrow, insulin, which was invented over 100 years ago, costs roughly $10 to make, but families are sometimes charged over $1,000 for that — for it.  That’s unacceptable.  It causes untold pain for thousands and thousands of families. 

And Medicare being able to negotiate the cost of prescription drugs — I don’t know that it needs to be a new policy.  It’s a good policy supported by many, many Americans, the vast majority across the country — Democrats and Republicans, independents.  And we obviously want to continue to fight to get it done.

Q    And then, Iran announced today that they have — or said that they have developed a missile that can strike Israel or U.S. bases in the region.  I’m wondering if you have a reaction to that and then, also, kind of, generally wanted to check in on where you thought the sort of progress on talks over a new nuclear deal are standing right now.

MS. PSAKI:  Well, in terms of where things stand: Special Envoy Malley and his interagency delegation have been in Vienna for the eighth round of talks.  As we’ve said, and this is a consistent — the report you referenced is consistent with this — Iran — our talks with Iran have reached an urgent point on mutual return to full implementation of the JCPOA.  A deal that addresses the core concerns of all sides is in sight, but if it is not reached in the — in the coming weeks, Iran’s ongoing nuclear advances will make it impossible for us to return to the JCPOA. 

So those talks and conversations are going — are ongoing.  But I would say that, as I — as we noted back, I believe in December, the President asked his team to prepare a range of contingencies because we are at a pivotal point because of the progress that they have made in recent years as a result of the former president and his team pulling out of the nuclear deal.

Go ahead.

Q    Jen, thank you.  Does the President have a particular opinion about this trucker action going on in Canada right now? Because it does — it is affecting not only Ottawa but, obviously, some of these border crossings.  And could it have — possibly have some impact on the U.S. economy —

MS. PSAKI:  Yeah —

Q    — in the long run if this continues?

MS. PSAKI:  So, we are watching this very closely.  And because, as you kind of touched on here, the Ambassador Bridge is Canada’s busiest link to the United States and accounts for about 25 percent of trade between the two countries, and so the blockade poses a risk to supply chains for the auto industry because the bridge is a key conduit for motor vehicles, components, and parts; and delays risk disrupting auto production.

We are in close contact.  We’ve been doing a great deal of work on this.  Liz Sherwood-Randall, our Homeland Security Advisor, convened a meeting just today.  We’re in very close contact and coordination with the Customs and Border Protection team, and Canadian counterparts, Michigan Governor Whitmer, and industry stakeholders. 

We are also monitoring very closely and engaged with auto companies on what the impacts could be of auto parts, which is what — what would come from Canada and the impact on the United States. 

We’re also looking — tracking potential disruptions to U.S. agricultural exports from Michigan into Canada. 

There are a number of steps that we have proactively taken, I should say — the Customs and Border Protection team.  They’ve worked with Canadian counterparts to route traffic from Ambassador Bridge to Blue Water Bridge.  There is still a lengthy delay, but it is enabling some of these trucks and transports to get through.

They also opened all nine commercial lanes, including a fast lane at the port to process diverted traffic, and they’re working closely with relevant automakers and other public- and private-sector stakeholders to discuss alternative processing.  So, we’re working to ensure there’s movement.

The other issue — let me just touch on what you didn’t ask about but is an important component too — is there are workers who need to go across the bridge to get to Canada or to get to the United States.  And the — we are — the workers — they go over the Ambassador Bridge, typically — they are being detoured to the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel, which is open, which — enabling them to move — move past. 

So, we’re very focused on this.  The President is focused on this.  And we are working very closely with the team at DHS, with Canadian officials, and others to do everything we can to alleviate the impact.

Q    Does the President have an opinion on this action?

MS. PSAKI:  An opinion on it?  In what — tell me more what you —

Q    In what the truckers are doing.

MS. PSAKI:  About the —

Q    The message they want to send.

MS. PSAKI:  Well, we support peaceful protest, but we have concerns when those protests turn violent.  And certainly, I think it’s important for everyone in Canada and the United States to understand what the impact of this blockage is — potential impact on workers, on the supply chain.  And that is where we are most focused. 

Q    A follow-up on the border?

MS. PSAKI:  Go ahead.

I’ll come back to you.

Go ahead.

Q    Thank you, Jen.  I have a couple of questions on schools and —

MS. PSAKI:  Sure.

Q    — guidelines around COVID.  You’re saying, you know, the CDC — its guidance remains that there be universal masking in schools and the White House supports that recommendation.

As you point out, some of these Democratic governors who are lifting mask mandates in schools, they are allowing local authorities to make some decisions.  But the reality is: There are going to be a lot of parents who no longer have their children wear masks in schools.  And given community transmission is still high across the country — I mean, the whole map on the CDC website is red — are you not concerned that these decisions are going to potentially lead to outbreaks in schools?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, our focus continues to be to recommend everyone follow CDC guidance, right?  And we know that wearing masks effectively reduces transmission, as much as people are understandably tired of wearing masks — we understand that. 

There were a number of other mitigation measures that schools have taken.  Obviously, now kids age 5 to 11 are eligible to get — to be vaccinated.  Testing so kids can remain in the classroom even if there is a case is something we have also talked about and supported.  And funding from the American Rescue Plan ensured that there was capacity and ability to improve ventilation, social distancing, and take other steps that are also effective mitigation measures in schools.

But, again, you know, our view is that if a student or a parent chooses to wear a mask, they should be able to freely so that — and they should not be prevented from doing that. 

Q    You know, one — this is happening as we still see this trend where there is a drop-off in the vaccination rate when you reach those who are under 18 — among adolescents, I think it’s just over half of adolescents are vaccinated — and an even bigger drop-off among those who are ages 5 to 11, with pretty high numbers still around vaccine hesitancy.

Why hasn’t the White House called for a vaccine requirement against COVID-19 for K-through-12 schools, which many public health experts say is really the only way that you will be able to protect students in the long term?

MS. PSAKI:  Because those decisions have historically been up to school districts. 

Go ahead.

Q    Hi.  A couple of questions: On the Child Tax Credit, Mitt Romney just suggested that you consider a bipartisan path toward his alternative version of the program. 

MS. PSAKI:  Does he have 10 Republicans with him?

Q    So, he says it’s — he has a bipartisan group that’s been successful in the past and that he is going to try and get here.  Has the White House engaged with him on this recently?

MS. PSAKI:  We have been engaged with every member who is open to engaging and looking to move the President’s agenda forward?

Q    Is his version an acceptable alternative if he can get the votes to the White House?

MS. PSAKI:  I don’t have any specific reaction to his version, but I would just note that in order to get any component of the President’s agenda forward if it’s broken off of a reconciliation package, you’d need 60 votes.

Q    On COVID: Kristin Urquiza, who spoke at the nominating convention for the President, told us a couple of weeks ago that she is disappointed that the President hasn’t met and engaged more directly with people who are affected by COVID.  So, we’re at over 100 — over 900,000 deaths now.  Are there any plans for the President to host people at the White House who have been affected by COVID, whose families have been affected by COVID?

MS. PSAKI:  I’m happy to check and see if there is any plans.  I would note that the President has spoken about COVID and his plans and his commitment to addressing the pandemic more than perhaps any other issue since he became President.

And more importantly than that to, I think, most Americans, he has taken very specific actions to ensure that vaccines are available, that tests are available, that masks are available, that schools are open, which — that is what impacts people’s lives on a daily basis.  But I can see if there is any plans for that. 

Go ahead.

Q    Is it the sense inside the White House that the decisions by Democratic governors to relax some of these mask guidelines is driven mostly by, as you said, the speed of politics and not the public health guidelines that are driving the federal government’s policy.

MS. PSAKI:  I didn’t actually make that assessment, but I would point you to all of them to ask them questions about what they based their decision-making on. 

But, again, we understand local leaders — we continue to advise local leaders, whether they’re governors or others, to make decisions based on the science and data about what’s happening in their communities — and what is going to keep in schools safe, what is going to keep kids in their — people in their communities safe. 

And we will continue to abide by what federal guidance is advising, which is based on the science and health experts in the federal government. 

Q    And then on the meeting later today with President Biden and the companies, how much is he relying on these companies to make clean energy decisions kind of on their own in the absence of climate legislation that is, you know, currently stalled or being renegotiated in Congress right now that we know would be necessary to reach the White House’s goals on clean energy?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, I think as many of these leaders have said — I mean, they know that the industry of the future is clean energy, and so there is an incentive for them to act and move in that direction.  And, certainly, the President agrees with that. 

And there are a number of steps, even as we’re working to continue to push to get Build Back Better passed, that we have already passed into law as a part of the infrastructure bill, for example, including clean charging — charging stations around the country, incentivizing the purchase of electric vehicles, which, of course, is a — is an industry that will help many of the American auto industry producers prosper over the course of time. 

But, certainly, it’s where the industry is going.  And there’s agreement between government and many of these industries about the opportunity for the United States to be a leader in the clean energy movement in the world. 

Go ahead. 

Q    Thank you so much.  I just have two foreign questions and a round of follow-ups.  Starting with Build Back Better World, do we have any news on when that’s going to be officially launched?  Have you identified any programs?  Can you share any details? 

MS. PSAKI:  Well, we’ve talked — the President has talked about this quite a lot on the global stage.  Let me see if we can get an update from the NSC team about any new specifics on it. 

Q    Then I want to talk about something that Russian President Putin said —

MS. PSAKI:  Sure.

Q    — the other day.  He made what many Russian speakers interpreted as a rape joke directed at Ukraine.  Given that diplomacy is all about talking, how does the administration view talk like this?  Does it shorten the diplomatic off-ramp because it’s a pretty undiplomatic thing to say?  And has the White House communicated to the Kremlin, you know, “Yo, that’s not cool”?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, first, I would say that any joke about rape would certainly be something that everyone in this government would be outraged by, whether it’s happening from the mouth of a U.S. official or a foreign official. 

I’d also note that we have never held back in our concern about the lack of truthfulness of some of the statements that come out of the mouth of President Putin and members of the Russian leadership, and also the bellicose rhetoric that has come out of their mouths.  So, we have never held back on our concern.  And certainly, that joke would not be something that we —

Q    Have you reached out to the Kremlin?

MS. PSAKI:  I don’t have anything more in terms of diplomatic discussions. 

Go ahead, April. 

Q    Jen, two topics.  One, back on the HHS issue —

MS. PSAKI:  Yeah. 

Q    — and pipes.  You know misinformation has a terrible ripple effect.  What is this administration doing?  Because this has permeated a lot of corridors that people are taking this in.  Are you or the administration or HHS planning on doing something beyond the statement to let people know that this is misinformation and correct it? 

MS. PSAKI:  Yeah, that’s a really important point, because I think there’s been a lot of misinformation and about particularly this issue.  And — and it has really clouded over what is a hugely important issue in this country, which is a fight against the opioid epidemic and the need to have bipartisan approaches that are going to help communities that are impacted address it.

But, yes, we will certainly be building out our efforts to effectively communicate that we are not — that what — what is in a safe smoking kit, what is not in smoking kit — safe smoking kit, and what we are effectively trying to do with our harm reduction program. 

Q    Has damage — has a lot of damage already been done just by this information in certain communities, are you finding?

MS. PSAKI:  We certainly have seen — and I think, April, one of the reasons we felt, even though we have never — this has never been a part of what has been funded, we felt it was important to put out a public statement from the federal government to make that clear, because we saw the spreading of misinformation and the fact that it was having an impact on a range of communities.  And we felt, even though it was never true, that we needed to put out a proactive statement.

Q    Okay.  And on a second topic: I asked you on Monday about President Biden and his last — the last time he talked to Anita Hill.  Do you have any more information?

     MS. PSAKI:  You did ask me that.  I don’t have an update on that.  I will venture to see if I can get one today.

     Q    Is she part of the external group that is working with the White House on these nominations for Supreme Court?

MS. PSAKI:  There are a broad range of individuals — legal experts, scholars, members of Congress of both parties — that are being consulted with.  We have not put out that list of individuals publicly.  I can see if there’s more information we can provide.

Q    Go ahead, in the middle.

MS. PSAKI:  Thanks, Jen.  Two quick questions.  One, we’ve heard from the White House about this effort to reach out to Republican senators on the Supreme Court nomination.  I wonder if you could explain a little bit, kind of, what the focus of those conversations are.  Are you guys, you know, fielding suggestions on who the nominee should be?  Are you giving them a shortlist and getting their reaction?  I’m just kind of curious, sort of, what the focus of the outreach to Republicans is.

MS. PSAKI:  Well, as the President has said, and we — I’ll just reiterate — we’re going to choose a nominee — he’s going to choose a nominee whose qualifications, record, character, and devotion to the Constitution and rule of law make them deserving of support on — from both sides of the aisle.  And there are many candidates at the top of their fields who fit that profile and who have received bipartisan support in the past. 

So, these conversations are not uniform.  Right?  Sometimes — and the President is certainly seeking input, seeking feedback.  But he is treating the process as he believes it should be treated, which is with seriousness, which is approaching it from a bipartisan manner and seeking engagement and advice from a range of officials, elected and non-elected.

Q    And then, secondly, unrelated, but there was some reporting this week that Labor Secretary Marty Walsh has offered to help resolve the Major League Baseball lockout.  And I wonder if the President has been in touch with him about that or if he has an opinion or a viewpoint on the lockout.

     MS. PSAKI:  I’m happy to check on that.  And my husband is also looking for an answer.  So, I will — I will check on that.  I don’t have anything new.

Go ahead.

Q    Yeah, in — yesterday, in the event, you highlighted electric vehicles.  Today, you’re highlighting the — the utility companies are here.  Three percent of the market is electric — for vehicles — in the U.S.  So, if Americans go out and buy a lot of electric cars, can the grid handle the load without using more coal power?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, I think we’re trying to address this from many fronts — right? — as you know and you’ve seen in the President’s infrastructure legislation, which includes additional charging stations, which includes incentivizing and making it more affordable and accessible for Americans to purchase electric vehicles. 

But what we’re seeing is the increase in the market for electric vehicles increase year by year — right? — as they become more affordable, as there are more charging stations, as they are able to — as more Americans can see themselves driving electric vehicles.  And this is certainly something not just the federal government but many of these automobile industry — companies are also seeing opportunity in. 

So, we’re all moving to — as the increase of the — as the market is increasing, as more Americans are purchasing these electric vehicles — to ensure there are the charging stations and the mechanisms needed for them to be driven. 

Q    Sure.  But can wind and solar handle that amount of load on the system?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, again, we’re working to increase all of the — all of the components of what is needed to ensure that electric vehicles can be powered across the country. 

Go ahead, Karen.

Q    Jen, can I ask you a question on Africa?

Q    Thanks, Jen.

MS. PSAKI:  Hold on.  I’ll come back to you.

Go ahead.

Q    Thanks, Jen.  When the President met with governors last week, did any of them ask specifically for more guidance from the federal government as they were considering easing some of the COVID restrictions?  And did any express any frustration that the CDC is not moving quickly enough for them?

MS. PSAKI:  I’m not going to speak for the governors; they can certainly speak for themselves.  I can just speak for what our position is and what we’ve conveyed to the governors, which is exactly what I’ve outlined for all of you.

Q    Has the President urged any governors to hold off on easing these restrictions?  Has he had any direct conversations since then about what they’ve all started announcing this week?

MS. PSAKI:  We’re continuing to convey directly to governors our recommendation that they abide by federal public health guidelines, but also our understanding and — that they may make decisions based on what they feel is best for their communities.

Q    And has he had conversations this week with any (inaudible)?

MS. PSAKI:  I don’t have any to read out for you.

Go ahead.

Q    Hello.  So, President Biden nominated Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti to the U.S. Ambassador to India.  Garcetti’s former top spokeswoman has filed a complaint with state, local, and federal prosecutors, demanding that he be prosecuted for perjury for repeatedly denying that he knew about another former aide’s alleged sexual misconduct.  She’s saying that the mayor lied under oath during his testimony before a U.S. Senate committee considering his appointment to the ambassadorship.  Is the President aware of this complaint?  Has he spoken to the mayor?  Does he plan to rescind Garcetti’s nomination?

MS. PSAKI:  I — there is no plans to rescind any nominations.  I would point you to Mayor Garcetti’s office for any further comment.

Go ahead.

Q    Jen, a question on Africa —

MS. PSAKI:  Go ahead.

Q    Thank you, Jen.  About the virus, again.  Is the reluctance of the President now — I mean, there seems to be increased caution, to put it that way — the approach he is taking, compared to a lot of the others.  Is there any link between that and perhaps having felt burned during the summer when we had this “independence from the virus” —

MS. PSAKI:  Are you referring to masks?  Sorry.

Q    Yeah, and —

MS. PSAKI:  Oh, okay.

Q    So, I’m referring to the masks and the — his caution at kind of moving on as, obviously, a growing number of people are doing.  Is this in any way linked to him feeling a little burned by what happened during the summer, when, you know, the Delta came pretty much as he was inviting people for a barbecue here to celebrate independence?

MS. PSAKI:  He’s basing his decision or — on what the advice of our health and medical experts continues to be, and the fact that they are continuing to evaluate and look at the data and the science.  And that is a commitment he made to the American people at the beginning.

We also recognize that while hospitalization rates are coming down, there’s still high transmission rates throughout, basically, the entire country.  And he is cognizant of that as well and the fact that we need to look at the totality of that and make recommendations based on what our science experts are conveying.

Q    Okay.  One on Nord Stream, if I might — a quick one. 

MS. PSAKI:  Sure.

Q    He said very clearly — he promises — literally promises — to stop it — stop the Nord Stream if there’s an invasion — like a — like a full-blown invasion. 

If there isn’t a full-blown invasion, which obviously is at least as likely as there being one — and it could be, you know, a hundred different things that could be happening over the next month, year, two years — not to mention that Russia already occupies part of Ukraine and so on — what’s the rationale for supporting Nord Stream at all?

MS. PSAKI:  We don’t support Nord Stream. 

Q    Okay.

MS. PSAKI:  We have been clear we oppose the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which is a Russian geopolitical project that undercuts the energy security and national security of a significant part of the Euro-Atlantic community.  That’s long been our position. 

It’s not online — the pipeline.  The German regulators have said it is not currently on track to be approved until at least the latter half of 2022.

And we’ll continue to work with Germany, Ukraine, and other allies and partners to implement the July 21st Joint Statement.

And again, if Russia invades Ukraine, Nord Stream 2 will not come online.

Q    Jen, do you have any comment on the series of bomb threats that are happening in D.C. schools right now?  D.C. police are reporting that Dunbar, Theodore Roosevelt, Ron Brown High School, several others are now under bomb threat and evacuating schools.  What do you say about that, especially after yesterday?

MS. PSAKI:  I don’t have any new information on these threats.  I’m happy to see if there’s a new updated comment we can get for all of you.

Of course, we are in touch with local school districts, as we have been since yesterday, and our — and our Homeland Security experts will do everything we can to ensure that schools have the resources they need.  But I don’t have any new information on it.

Thanks, everyone.

Q    Jen, Jen — a question on Africa.  No question on Africa again.  It’s been three months, Jen.

MS. PSAKI:  Thank you, everyone.

2:16 P.M. EST

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