James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

4:17 P.M. EST

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

Today we have some exciting updates on our competition agenda.  First, we have progress on our administration’s effort to lower the price of Internet for millions of Americans.  I bet you there are people who once lived in apartments or still do in this room who will love this, if you haven’t already seen it.

Today, the FCC announced important steps to increase competition in the market for high-speed Internet, which President Biden requested in his executive order on competition.

As some of you may know, the landlord, if you live in an apartment, sometimes requires you to purchase Internet service from one source.  And today, the FCC voted on a bipartisan, unanimous basis to crack down on exclusivity agreements between landlords and Internet providers, known as “sweetheart deals,” which lock tenants in apartments and office buildings into just one option for Internet.

That might be good for the landlord and for the Internet service provider but bad for tenants, bad for American — the American people, bad for people living in apartment buildings who may have to pay more and accept lower quality service.

More than a third of Americans live in apartments and condos, and many businesses operate in multi-tenant buildings, like office buildings or malls, so this is a sweeping problem the FCC is starting to fix today.

And second, a competition update that is relevant for our national security: Today, the Department of Defense released a new report required by the President’s competition executive order, explaining the new actions to promote competition in defense contracting. 

This report details that since the 1990s, the number of aerospace and defense prime contractors has shrunk from 51 to just 5.  That consolidation means taxpayers have to pay more for defense services, and it threatens our national security.  Strengthened merger oversight is one of the five actions the Defense Department is taking to address the problem.

We’ve already seen concrete progress on that front this week.  On Sunday, the FTC successfully blocked Lockheed Martin’s $4 billion attempt to acquire Aerojet — a proposed megamerger of major defense suppliers. 

The FTC had filed a lawsuit explaining that the merger would jack up the price the U.S. government has to pay, while delivering lower quality and less innovation. 

Also wanted to note — last item from me at the top — is we’re thrilled the Senate did its job today and confirmed the renowned clinical trialist Dr. Robert Califf once again to the job of FDA Commissioner and once again on a bipartisan basis.

He brings to this critical post a lifetime of knowledge and the institutional experience that will ensure he hits the ground running and is guided by the science on critical missions facing the FDA — from continuing to lead the fight against COVID-19, to combatting the opioid crisis, to ensuring the safety of our nation’s food supply.

Josh, why don’t you kick us off.

Q    Thanks, Jen.  Two things on Ukraine.

MS. PSAKI:  Yes.

Q    First, markets have obviously already been reacting to that situation.  Gasoline prices are up 20 cents a gallon over the last 30 days on average. 

Is the President saying that if people are paying more at the pump, that is essentially a direct result of Vladimir Putin’s actions and he is to blame for the current burst we’ve seen in higher prices?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, the President wasn’t making a market assessment or how the market moves.  What he was conveying very — very clearly to the American public is that if Russia to — were to invade and we were to put in place crippling sanctions, that would have consequences or an impact here at home.

So I know that wasn’t exactly how you were asking the question, but that was what he was conveying in his answer.  In terms of the price of gasoline, what we’ve seen — as we know, back in December, it went down by about 10 cents, thanks to tapping the Strategic Petroleum Reserve — something where there’s still releases that have been ongoing. 

The President also made clear in his remarks that he is open to — all options are on the table to help bring down the price of gasoline.  But he wasn’t making a market assessment; he was just making clear to the public that if Russia invades and we put in place crippling sanctions, that would have an impact on the public.

Q    And then secondly, on Ukraine, the President talked about diplomatic efforts. 

MS. PSAKI:  Yeah.

Q    Could you go into more detail on what those diplomatic efforts could be?  Is this going to be more U.S. interaction?  Could there be a face-to-face meeting with Putin? 

And then how would you define success under diplomacy?  Is it as simple as no invasion or are there broader goals you’re looking for, given that everything is now on the table — or more things are on the table?

MS. PSAKI:  Sure.  Well, on the first part: You may have seen, or not, that our Secretary of State spoke with Foreign Minister Lavrov earlier today.  The President spoke with President Macron earlier today as well.  I think the readout just went out to all of you, or it should be in your inboxes as well. 

And what he means by “ongoing diplomacy” is that it will continue at the pace and urgency that you have seen from him over the last several weeks and from his team.  And it — some of it will come from the President.  Some will come from high-level members of his national security team.  And some of it will come from our European partners or NATO Allies, who we remained in very close contact with.

In terms of engagement with President Putin, you — as you know, he spoke with him on Saturday.  And he believes in the power of leader-to-leader diplomacy, but I don’t have a prediction of a next engagement at this point in time.

Q    And what about —

MS. PSAKI:  Oh, sorry.

Q    How do you define success?

MS. PSAKI:  I wanted — sorry, I didn’t get to that last part of your question. 

You know, the — how we define success is, I think, how a lot of our European partners and NATO Allies would define it, which would be a de-escalation — a proven de-escalation at the border of Ukraine, where the Russians are pulling back their troops, where they are making clear to all of — to the global community, to the media, to the public that they are not invading Ukraine and backing that up with actions.

Go ahead.

Q    Thanks, Jen.  Following up on this energy question in terms of the impact on our energy, which the President mentioned —

MS. PSAKI:  Yeah.

Q    — and then the consequences here at home.  What should Americans be prepared for?  Worst-case scenario, what should they expect if this happens?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, I think what the President was touching on was the fact that if Russia decides to invade, there could be consequences here at home.  And that could have an impact on energy prices, which could have an impact on prices at the gas pump.

And we’re taking — while we are taking active steps to alleviate the pressure on our own energy markets — and every option is on the table to offset rising prices, as you saw the President act last fall — a range of options remain on the table — he also wanted to be very clear and direct with the American people about what the impact could be and the fact that, in his view, defending democracy and liberty is never without cost, but we need to convey to the American people exactly what that could look like.

Q    And one more on Russia.  If President Putin decides not to invade, does President Biden consider that a victory?

MS. PSAKI:  I think the world — the global community would consider that a victory.  But again, I think what the President’s view is and what the national security team’s view is, is that this is ultimately up to President Putin.

And every step we’ve taken up to date over the last weeks and even months — to coordinate with our NATO Allies; to stay in lock- — in close touch with leaders in Congress and members about what our plans are; to put together a crippling sanctions package — what we are doing is we’re presenting the choice to President Putin.  He, ultimately, is going to decide which path he chooses.

Go ahead.

Q    Jen, I just wanted to close the loop on a few things.  So the — Ukraine has been experiencing a number of cyberattacks today.

MS. PSAKI:  Yeah.

Q    A number of its banks were affected.  The Defense Ministry was affected.  Has the United States attributed those attacks to Russia?

MS. PSAKI:  I don’t have anything on the attribution at this point in time.  I know there have been a range of reports.  What I can say is that we have been in touch with the Ukrainians, our Allies and partners — working with them to deter and respond to malicious cyberactivity. 

We have also been warning for weeks and months, both publicly and in our engagements with the Ukrainians as well as our European partners, about the potential for Russia to conduct cyber operations in Ukraine, but I don’t have anything more specific on attribution at this point. 

Q    Okay.  And just, you know, kind of moving a little bit into the realm of the hypothetical.  There are a lot of steps that —

MS. PSAKI:  Oh, boy.

Q    I know.  There are a lot of steps that Russia could take that are short of an invasion but that are still, you know, aggressive —

MS. PSAKI:  Yeah.

Q    — you know, including cyber, including — there’s this step that their congress has taken on recognizing its breakaway regions in Ukraine as being, you know, separatist legitimately — and the separatist regions.  Would the U.S. respond to any — any things like that with sanctions as you would to, you know, an actual invasion?

MS. PSAKI:  We have conveyed before and I’ll reiterate now that we would be prepared to respond with [to] a range of malicious activities or actions that the Russians were to take.

Q    Okay.  And then one more thing.  I know that you — there’s — you know, you’ve said that there is very little daylight with you and European allies on this issue.  The German Chancellor said today that Ukraine joining NATO is simply not on the table; it’s not on — an agenda item right now.  Is that how you would characterize it from the White House?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, I think, as you’ve heard the President conveying and you just heard him convey in his remarks, our view from the United States is that nations have the right to sovereignty, to territorial integrity, freedom to set their own course and choose who they associate with. 

So we, the United States — we’re never going to pressure or any country to join or not join a global alliance.  That is up to them and up to the other members of NATO.

Go ahead.

Q    Thanks, Jen.  Just — you say all options are on the table.  Let’s be more specific: On the possibility of a gas tax, how would they — would the White House support doing that?

MS. PSAKI:  I have nothing to predict for you at this point, but all options remain on the table.

Q    He said in his speech, “If Russia attacks Americans in Ukraine, we will respond.”  Is there specific intelligence suggesting that some kind of targeted attack on Americans in Ukraine is possible?

MS. PSAKI:  I don’t think he was suggesting that.  I think, as we’ve conveyed, as we’ve warned and been very clear about the risks that would be posed to anyone who’s in Ukraine, including American citizens, were Russia to invade — one of the biggest militaries in the world — that there would be serious risk to civilians.  That’s, I think, what he was conveying.

Q    And with the Ukrainian President slated to be out of his country this weekend to go to the Munich Security Conference, does the U.S. think that’s a good idea for him to be gone right now?

MS. PSAKI:  I don’t think we have an assessment on that from here.  Obviously, the Munich Security Conference is an opportunity for any leader to engage with, communicate with other leaders in the world.  And, obviously, the Vice President is going, as you know.

Q    He’s got a busy day, obviously, with Ukraine, but has the President talked to any Supreme Court nominee?  Have any interviews been scheduled?  Will they happen in person or virtually?

MS. PSAKI:  I’m going to disappoint you here, Ed, and just convey that I think we’re not going to give day-to-day updates from here, moving forward, about whether or not he’s done interviews. 

What I can confirm for you is we’re still on track to — for the President to make a decision and make an announcement before the end of the month, which is in two weeks.

Q    We file that under the “got to ask.”

MS. PSAKI:  He will do some interviews in the next two weeks.  That’s what I can confirm for you.

Q    There we go.

MS. PSAKI:  Go ahead, Jacqui.

Q    Thanks, Jen.  We’ve been told for a long time that some cyberattacks would likely precede an invasion.  So, if it turns out that Russia is behind what happened today — or is — I guess, how I should phrase it is: Is there work being done quickly to figure out if Russia is behind what happened today so that sanctions can be imposed before there is bloodshed?  Or is the calculus still sort of centering on force on force or some, you know, passing over the border?

MS. PSAKI:  Sure.  Well, we are constantly doing those assessments.  And certainly, as any cyberattack happens, that is certainly a process that happens behind the scenes and that our intelligence community and our national security community undertakes, as it would be in this case as well.

I would note, though, as it relates to sanctions: One, there’s a range of means that we could respond, both seen and unseen, to a — to a cyberattack or any other attack.  And the President has the purview to do whatever he chooses in that regard. 

But our view remains that the crippling package of sanctions is an effective deterrent.  So if you do that all in advance, what is to stop them from moving forward?

Now, that may be a different policy issue — difference of opinion, I should say, on policy issues with some in Congress, and that’s okay.  But that is our view from the administration.

Q    And then, this may or may not be related at all, but is there any information on what caused the power outage on the North Lawn?  Every TV network lost power at the same time
during the President’s remarks.

MS. PSAKI:  It was a very inconvenient time, I will just note, for all of you —

Q    The timing was suspect, yes.

MS. PSAKI:  — and for us.  I don’t have any assessment of that, no.  Or — yes. 

Q    Okay.

MS. PSAKI:  Go ahead.

Q    And then, does the White House view Ukraine giving up on NATO aspirations as a possible off ramp?  I understand that, you know, the President has said, the administration has said over and over that NATO members would not, you know, encourage — or would not — would not give up that ability for someone else to join. 

But, you know, they do have a long way to go, and now that there’s, you know, all of this concern that if there was a member — if they did become members, it could potentially trigger Article 5.

Is there any discussion among NATO Allies about, you know, how significant it would be if Zelenskyy were to make that offer himself?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, we have not raised that from the United States.  And again, I would reiterate what I said a little bit earlier, which is that our position is that we are not going to pressure Ukraine or any country to join or not join an alliance, that it is — nations have the right to sovereignty and territorial integrity, and that’s a choice for them to make.

Q    And then, why is the administration encouraging Americans who are evac- — or fleeing through Poland to be — to bring proof of COVID-19 vaccination?  As I understand it, Poland does not require that.  So is there going to be a shift in messaging for Americans who are trying to get out through Poland?

MS. PSAKI:  I would check with the State Department on that.  I’m happy to follow up with you — for you on your behalf as well.

Go ahead, Kristen.

Q    Thank you so much, Jen.  I wanted to circle back to the idea of what de-escalation would look like and how the administration would trust that it were actually real.  Do you have a sense of how many troops you would need to actually see with your own eyes, through satellite images or otherwise, would need to withdraw in order for this administration to feel as though Putin were, in fact, de-escalating (inaudible)?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, I think, Kristen, that is a decision that we would make in partnership with our NATO Allies — right? — and European countries. 

And you look at everything from satellite imagery — something that many of you have access to — to validation and verification of what they’re saying they would do.

So I can’t — I’m not going — I’m not going to be in a position, nor would I expect the Defense Department would be, to give you a troop number, but I think it would be very clear if that were a step they were taking.

Q    Okay.  And I think there’s been a lot of mixed messages publicly coming out today.  Among them, the NATO Secretary-General that there is cause for “cautious optimism” when it comes to some of these talks that are happening behind the scenes.  Does the administration, does the President share that cautious optimism?  Because we heard from the President very firm language.

MS. PSAKI:  Well, the President also conveyed it would be positive if it was verified that they pulled back their troops.

And certainly, the openness to diplomacy is something that everybody should support and I think our NATO Allies would support as well.

At the same time, we’ve seen this playbook before.  And especially given the history of President Putin and the Russians, their history of false-flag operations, of misinformation, we need to verify.

Q    So — and I guess that’s my question: Does the administration share the NATO Secretary General’s cautious optimism?

MS. PSAKI:  I think I’m not going to — I don’t think we need to put in more words than what the President just conveyed in a speech to the country.

Q    The GOP senators have unveiled a sanctions bill.  Have you assessed whether or not this is something the administration wants to see some movement on, this is something that you would potentially support, given that the bipartisan talks stalled?

MS. PSAKI:  Not yet, because it just came out.  But again, our view remains that a bipartisan effort would be the best effort moving forward.  And as I conveyed to Jacqui a few minutes ago, you know, our view continues to be that the crippling sanctions package we’ve designed is meant to be a deterrent.

Go ahead, Ken.

Q    Jen, the Senate is working on this stopgap funding bill that, you know, the deadline is Friday.  What’s the level of confidence that the President will be able to sign that extension by Friday?

And, separately, has the administration been talking to the two Republican senators who have raised concerns — Senator Lee and Blackburn?

MS. PSAKI:  We are engaged with a range of Democrats and Republicans, and certainly we are hopeful that we will be able to sign this.

I would note, though, that I believe — and correct me if I’m wrong here — that one of Senator Blackburn’s primary concerns is about a relation to the — to the funding of crack pipes.  Is this correct?  Which is not an issue.

So, this is a — this is an issue — what is happening here is the potential to hold up funding in the government and important programs around an issue that is not an issue, because we’ve been very clear that we are not providing funding for crack pipes.

Q    And then, the Senate Banking Committee had planned to vote on your Fed nominees today.

MS. PSAKI:  Yeah.

Q    There was a holdup there.  Republicans have objected to Sarah Bloom Raskin’s nomination.  What does the administration think of this delay?  And is the administration going to provide any additional details to Senator Toomey — some of the issues that he’s raised?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, let me first say that this is a very extreme step that’s totally irresponsible, in our view.  It’s never been more important to have confirmed leadership at the Fed to help continue our recovery and fight inflation.  And, obviously, they have a unique role to play, an important — a vital role to play as it relates to inflation.  And I think Democrats and Republicans have agreed on that for decades. 

So Republicans are out there saying, “Inflation is a problem.  It’s a huge issue.”  We agree.  And then they’re not even bothering to show up to even vote against these nominees to the Federal Reserve.  What message is that sending to the American public?

So we — and I would note, just on Sarah Bloom Raskin, since you asked me about her as well: You know, she’s one of the most qualified individuals to ever be nominated to the Federal Reserve.  She’s made the strongest ethics commitments in the history of the Fed, even as she’s made extensive disclosures to the Banking Committee as a natural part of the process.

Senator Toomey has continued to promote false allegations that have already been shot down by ethics experts, the Kansas City Fed, the founder of Reserve Trust, and Sarah Bloom Raskin herself.

So we’re going to continue to work with Chairman Brown on a path forward and look forward to the Banking Committee eventually holding a vote to commit these — to confirm these five nominees.

Go ahead.

Q    Is there any entertaining of other options if it stalls in committee?  You know, there appears to be some question about whether the Senate as a whole can advance these nominations.  Is that something you’re exploring?  Or is that something that you don’t think you have the power to do?

MS. PSAKI:  You mean in terms of different legislative processes or different —

Q    There’s some speculation that the full Senate could, sort of, skip the committee vote if it stalls out in bringing them forward.

MS. PSAKI:  Sure.  I don’t —

Q    Do you believe the Senate has that power, or does it have to go through a committee?

MS. PSAKI:  Our focus right now is on working with Chairman Brown on moving these nominees through the committee.

Q    And can I ask also on COVID funding?

MS. PSAKI:  Mm-hmm. 

Q    HHS briefed Congress this week, requesting what — $30 billion in funding.  Can you just give us a sense of — A, can you confirm that?  B, what, in particular, do you need this funding for?  And has the existing funding been allocated?

MS. PSAKI:  Sure.  So, HHS’s briefing today, or this afternoon, was a part of our regular conversations with Congress about various resources it needs, including what is needed for COVID response.  This is important because, while we continue to have sufficient funds to respond to the current Omicron surge in the coming weeks, our goal has always been to ensure that we are well prepared to stay ahead of the virus.  So we’ve been in these ongoing conversations about what those needs might look like, and this was a part of that effort.

In terms of funds that have been allocated or spent, more than 90 percent — so, available Rescue Plan funds, which is where the funding has come from to date, have been obligated or allocated.  Ninety percent of that has been for purchases of vaccines and therapeutics, vaccine distribution efforts that have gotten shots in arms, testing, including for schools and at other high-need locations.

Resources from the Rescue Plan and prior COVID response bills have enabled us to respond forcefully to the Delta and Omicron surges.  And what we’re trying to do now is stay ahead and stay in contact with Congress about what those needs might look like.

Q  And Secretary Blinken said yesterday that the U.S. is not on pace right now to meet the President’s goal — or the WHO goal of vaccinating 70 percent of the world by later this year.  Is any of this funding aimed at jumpstarting global vaccination efforts?  And can you talk a little bit about why you’re not on pace?  Is it, for instance, a supply problem?  Or is it a problem with what Secretary Blinken called “last-mile” type stuff, getting “shots in arms” — to borrow language of the COVID group?

MS. PSAKI:  That is — that is an undervalued part of it, I should say.  So, I’m — thank you for raising that part of it.

So, right now, we’ve shipped over around 440 million doses and are continuing to aggressively share around 10 million doses a week to the world free of charge.  We’re the first country to buy doses for the sole purpose of sharing them with the world.  We also bought, as you know, a billion doses. 

And Secretary Blinken, I think, made those comments in part because he wants to rally the world to do more. 

But a big part of our effort right now and where we have seen challenge is turning vaccines into vaccination, which means working closely with our partners on the ground and dealing with hyperlocal issues countries may be facing to increase vaccination. 

And this is a big part of the focus of Ambassador Power and USAID’s Global Vaccination initiative, but part of it is that “shots in arms” component.

Q    Have countries started deferring their U.S. donations because the capacity is the problem more than the supply?

MS. PSAKI:  There have been moments, yes, where countries are not able to receive the doses that we’re able to provide.

Q    Thank you.

MS. PSAKI:  Go ahead.

Q    Thank you.  Raise — creating a gas tax holiday takes legislation.

MS. PSAKI:  Yeah. 

Q    And I’m wondering, what are other things that the President could do on his own to mitigate a gas price hike because of Ukrainian conflict?  What else can he do by himself? 

And in terms of releasing oil from the SPR, have you made a determination of how much cost rise that would offset?  In other words, what good does it do?

MS. PSAKI:  Sure.  That’s a good question.  And those are assessments that our economic team is constantly, of course, making.  We did see even the anticipation of the release, back in December, helped lower the price by about 10 cents.  But that — those assessments are constantly being made.

In terms of — without a decision being made, which I know you’re not asking, but just to be clear: There are steps the President has taken in the past, obviously tapping the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.  He has also engaged, we have engaged with oil-producing countries around the world.  That’s something we will continue to do because, clearly, we need to ensure that the supply out in the global market is meeting the demand.  And, obviously —

Q    You mean, encouraging other countries to produce more?

MS. PSAKI:  Correct.

Q    Is that what you’re saying? 

MS. PSAKI:  Yes. 

Q    Yeah, okay.

MS. PSAKI:  And that’s been a part of our effort, even as we anticipate what impact there could be from an invasion.  So, as you know, there’s obviously a difference between natural gas shortages and the impact on home heating, which is largely a regional issue, but we have been still — in Europe — but we’ve been still working with partners on that as well, but also on the supply of gas out in the market — oil, I should say, or gas. 

Go ahead.

Q    The President said that “an invasion remains distinctly possible.”

MS. PSAKI:  Yeah.

Q    Some senior administration officials said, a couple days ago, that “as soon as this week.”  Is that still the timeline, or has anything shifted based on kind of mixed messages of the last couple of days?

MS. PSAKI:  We don’t have a new assessment.  As I think you heard the President say, it’s — there’s a distinct possibility, but we don’t have a new assessment of a decision being made either.

Q    And then, I know there’d been internal discussions about giving a speech like the one the President gave —

MS. PSAKI:  Yeah.

Q    — today for some time.  Why today?  And then, the intent behind it: Obviously, it seemed to be looking to hit on multiple audiences to deliver specific messages to them.  So why — why today?  And why that range of messages?

MS. PSAKI:  You know, Phil — Phil, I mean, you all have been covering this very closely — the potential of an invasion, our diplomatic engagements — and there’s no question the American people have been consuming what you have been reporting. 

But I think we felt and the President felt it was important to be very clear and direct with the American people about what the impact could be on them, what the consequences would be, what our values are, and why it is important to stand by not just the territorial integrity and sovereignty of a country, but also stand among our Allies and partners around the world. 

So, it was very important to him to lay out very clearly what — the steps we’ve taken, the actions we’re prepared to take, what’s at stake for the United States and the world, and how this will impact us here at home. 

In terms of why today: It wasn’t based on — obviously, as you saw — a desire to put out a new policy or based on something new internally.  It was just our — the President’s interest and feeling it was time to speak directly to the American people about all of those issues.

Q    And then, just last one.  On the first point that you made there: Is there concern, either by the President or inside the White House, that perhaps the understanding or support for, kind of, traditional Western alliances that have been a pillar over the last 80 years is waning or doesn’t exist to the degree that it used to?

MS. PSAKI:  No, I think, Phil —

Q    Inside the country, I mean.  Inside the country.

MS. PSAKI:  Yeah, no, it’s a good question.  I don’t have any data assessment of that.  But we also are fully aware of the fact that, right now, the American people are still grappling with a pandemic.  They’re grappling with rising costs.  Some — two iss- — two big issues the President speaks to quite frequently. 

And it was important to him to be able to lay out clearly for them what this, you know, potential conflict, potential invasion — in a place that may feel far away — and how it could impact them — how that could impact them, and his engagement. 

Go ahead.

Q    Yeah, thank you, Jen.  President Biden today said there’s 150,000 Russian troops encircling Ukraine.  That appeared to be a higher number than previously reported.  I think 130,000 is how, most recently, we’ve seen it characterized.  So was the President confirming an actual escalation of Russian troops?  Or why did he present a new number there?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, I think over the last dozen days or so we’ve seen a dramatic acceleration and buildup of troops.  And so, the President said in his remarks very carefully, it’s encircling Ukraine on the border and also in Belarus.  And so, I think he felt it was important to give an assessment of where things stand.

Q    And, secondly, regarding a gas tax holiday, you said, quote, “All options remain on the table.”  There is right now a bill from Senate Democrats that would institute a suspension of the gas tax for the rest of the year.  Does the White House support that specific bill? 

MS. PSAKI:  We haven’t made any decision about additional steps at this point in time. 

Q    Thanks.

MS. PSAKI:  Go ahead.

Q    Thanks, Jen.  Two questions.  As you mentioned earlier, Vice President Harris is headed to the Munich Security Conference this week.  Does the President plan to also send Secretary Blinken?  And if so, would a last-minute addition suggest a different or perhaps reduced or more limited role for Vice President Harris at that conference?

MS. PSAKI:  I don’t think there’s any plans to limit or reduce the Vice President’s role at the Munich Security Conference or at the global stage — on a global stage.  She’s going to give a speech while she’s there.  And she is a vital and important representative for the United States and our values and our intentions at this point in the world. 

But in terms of plans for Secretary Blinken to attend or not, I can check with the State Department and see.  There are plenty of leaders to meet with, so more bandwidth.

Q    And on — on a different note: The President continues to talk about his Build Back Better plan.  He did so today; did a couple of events last week.  What is the White House expectation at this point about the future of that plan?  Is there any evidence of any sort of forward movement, forward progress, even on a pared-back version of that?  There doesn’t seem to be a lot of optimism or action right now on Capitol Hill.  But can you talk about what the White House expectation is for that and why the President continues to bring this up?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, the President continues to bring it up because, as we talk about the impact of inflation — which most people experience in their daily lives as rising costs — one of the ways that we can address that is by passing legislation that will help lower costs for Americans, whether it’s childcare or healthcare or the cost of prescription drugs.  And we can do that and fully pay for it by making the tax system more fair. 

So, what is encouraging to the President is that there is broad support for lowering costs for the American people in all of those categories and for making the tax system more fair.  And we are continuing to work in lockstep and in partnership with a range of senators.  And they’re having their own discussions about moving these efforts forward.

Go ahead.

Q    Thank you very much, Jen.  One question on Asian Americans, and one question on Ukraine.  On Asian Americans: Actually, the Team USA Gold Medal winner, Chloe Kim, revealed, as an Asian American, according to AP, quote, “…she was tormented online daily.  She says she was consumed by the fear that her parents could be killed whenever she heard the news about another brutal assault on an Asian person.”  Unquote.

Actually, under President Biden’s watch, in 2021, the anti-Asian hate crimes increased by 339 percent.  It seems we don’t see much action taken by the White House.  And even in a press briefing, the very last time you mentioned about Asian Americans was last May.  So, will the President take some action or even just record a video, like what he did last year to raise the awareness?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, let me say first that Chloe Kim — I’m obsessed with the Olympics, so I’m just going to give you a little biography here, but she’s 21 years old, and she made those comments, which is incredibly courageous and brave that she spoke out about the fear she had — the fear she has for her family members.  And she’s not the only Asian American to do that, but she is somebody who is now a double Gold medalist.  Amazing.  And so I just want to take a moment to applaud her for her courage in doing that.

I will say that the President has put in place a task force.  He has hired a senior-level staffer to be a representative and be someone who can speak to these threats and these concerns and these fears felt by the Asian American community, because there’s a number of steps we need to take and continue to take to address.

And we’ve seen this rise, unfortunately, because of hate-filled rhetoric and language around the origins of the pandemic.  And that is something that Asian Americans across the country have been feeling. 

So I can just reiterate for you that the President is absolutely committed to continuing to speak out, to crack down, to take steps, and again, would thank Chloe Kim for her courage.

Go ahead, Amna.

Q    On Ukraine —

MS. PSAKI:  Let me — I just have to keep going because we got a —

Q    Just a couple quick on Ukraine, Jen.  President Biden said that we should give diplomacy every chance to succeed.  Secretary Blinken, after his call with Foreign Minister Lavrov, said that a window remains open to resolve this peacefully.  I just — on the timeline, how long does the President think that window should stay open if there’s no invasion but also no pullback of Russian troops?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, what’s the alternative if we don’t leave the open — the window to diplomacy open, right?  I mean, you know, our objective, obviously, is that you heard the President say today there is no threat the United States is posing to Russia, to the Russian people.  There’s no threat that Ukraine is posing to Russia. 

What we’re working to do here is leave a forum for de-escalation for — and prevent a war.  And so, for — to us, the door to diplomacy should always be open, and we should always look for opportunities to de-escalate.

Q    Is there any concern this turns into, like, a frozen conflict basically, where troops just stay on the border and there’s no invasion but also no pullback?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, again, there’s going to have to be a continued dialogue and discussion.  But Russia not invading Ukraine and not risking and impacting the lives of many, many people in that country, including potentially American citizens, would certainly be a step we would welcome.

Q    And just on what Americans should prepare for: You mentioned the threat of cyberattacks.

MS. PSAKI:  Yeah.

Q    The President mentioned that as well.  And we know Homeland Security has previously mentioned they’ve seen an uptick in scanning on U.S. critical infrastructure and so on.  Should Americans be prepared for a potential Russian cyberattack on critical U.S. infrastructure or other networks?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, I would say: Even before we’ve been discussing the buildup of troops at the border, and even before we’ve been discussing the bellicose rhetoric, we have seen an uptick in cyber activity by malicious actors around the world, either those living in countries or the countries themselves. 

And so that is something — I don’t have any new threat or new warning to post today, but that is something we have certainly been amping and increasing our focus on, as an — as a threat that’s emerging but has been the case for the last several years.

Q    Jen, can you take a question on Africa?

MS. PSAKI:  Yeah.  One second.

Go ahead.  And then I’ll go to you.

Q    Jen, just this hour, lawmakers put out a bipartisan statement warning President Putin.  I know you’ve said from the podium that the White House doesn’t need Congress to pass the sanctions package to implement your own sanctions package, but wouldn’t it have sent a stronger message if there had been an agreement reached?  What message do you think it sends to Putin that all we got out of Congress was a statement?

MS. PSAKI:  I think President Putin knows very clearly, because he’s heard it directly from President Biden’s mouth, that if he invades — if he invades Ukraine, that there will be crippling sanctions, and we don’t need Congress to act in order to do that.

Q    And when will the President make a decision on any new energy policies to impact prices at the pump?  Because even without an invasion, prices have risen beyond where they were before the emergency reserve release back in November.

MS. PSAKI:  You’re right.  And the President is very focused on making sure we’re doing everything we can to lower the cost for Americans in any way it hits them, whether it’s prices at the pump, or when you go buy a pound of meat, or wherever it may be.  So, we’re continuing to assess.  And he’s continuing to look at options.  I don’t have a prediction of — of any decision though.

Go ahead.

Q    Thank you, Jen.  On Africa —

MS. PSAKI:  I’ll go to you after, Simon.  Go ahead.

Q    Thanks, Jen.  Switching topics entirely.

MS. PSAKI:  Sure.

Q    The President is headed later this week to Ohio.  He said that he’d like to be out in communities with people —

MS. PSAKI:  Yeah.

Q    — frequently.  How often would he like to be out there per week?  What are you guys (inaudible)?

MS. PSAKI:  Every day?  (Laughs.)

Q    Well — (laughs) — well, but when he says that —

MS. PSAKI:  Yeah.

Q    — what is your anticipation?  Is he looking to travel two, three days a week?  And when would you expect that to ramp up?

MS. PSAKI:  You know, I think you can expect that to increase around the State of the Union and after.  And I think we are constrained by a couple of things, including the CR funding but also the fact that there is a whole lot going on in the world.  Even though he can be President anywhere, he also has a responsibility to sometimes be in the White House — or oftentimes be in the White House.  So — but he’s looking forward to getting out there more in the coming weeks.

Q    Does he have anywhere specific that he hasn’t been yet, or places that he hasn’t been, that he feels — frequently enough — that he’d really like to get back to?

MS. PSAKI:  Good question.  I would venture to guess that he has probably been nearly everywhere, given he ran for President a couple times and Vice President.

Q    I meant since he’s been —

MS. PSAKI:  As President, I don’t have any prediction of states or a readout of states that he is looking forward to going to, but I’m sure he — he is looking forward to traveling around the country — blue states, red states — across the gamut.  
Go ahead.

Q    Jen —

Q    Thank you, Jen.  On Africa, you said —

MS. PSAKI:  Oh.  Okay.  Okay, Simon.  I’ll go to you.  Go ahead, Simon.

Q    Okay, thank you.  Thank you.  It’s been three months.  So, if you can allow me to ask two questions.  The President spoke with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia on January 10.  It’s been almost a month now — more than a month since that call took place.  And the WHO yesterday released a statement saying that they still don’t have access to the Tigray region for humanitarian access because the government is not allowing them to have fuel.

So, is the President still interested in anything else apart from Ukraine?

MS. PSAKI:  Of course, he is.  The President has to be the — a global leader in the world.  And he is responsible for not just what’s happening around the world but also what’s happening domestically. 

Let me give you an update or a comment from here:

We are hopeful that recent steps taken by the government of Ethiopia and other actors might open a path to resolving the conflict.  Over the last month, the Prime Minister has taken steps to promote dialogue, release political prisoners, and enable expanded delivery of medical supplies in the Tigray region.  We continue to have serious concerns about the humanitarian situation in Ethiopia, and we are focused on working with our parties — with all parties to end the source of the suffering, the military conflict.

Go ahead, Karen.

Q    Thanks, Jen.  President Zelenskyy tomorrow is calling for a day of unity — a national holiday tomorrow in Ukraine.  His message for the last couple of days, if not longer, has been “don’t panic” to Ukrainians.

Does the administration have concerns that Zelenskyy and Ukrainian leaders have not adequately prepared the Ukrainian people for a Russian invasion?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, I’m not going to speak to that.  What I can speak to is what we feel our role and responsibility is, which is to provide a range of information about what we see at the border, what we see Russia preparing, and our assessment of what impact that could be.  Every leader makes their own decisions.

Q    And do you have an update on the humanitarian assistance that the U.S. is talking with European allies should that happen and the Ukrainian people need that?

MS. PSAKI:  Sure.  I know we — Secretary Blinken made an announcement — I believe it was yesterday — about additional assistance.  Let me just see if I have any more details on it in here, and if not, I will get that to you shortly after the briefing, Karen.  Let me just see.

Let’s see here.  Let me get you — I can get you — let’s see. 

Last — so, we did offer — we just announced — sorry — a  sovereign loan guarantee to Ukraine of up to $1 billion to bolster Ukraine’s economy amidst pressure resulting from Russia’s military buildup.  This builds on the $3 billion in sovereign loan guarantees we issued to Ukraine between 2014 and 2016.

We’ve also committed more security assistance to Ukraine in the last year than at any point in history — $650 million. 

And we also announced we’re launching a new Partnership Fund for a Resilient Ukraine with our European — with our Allies and partners to include — to continue to expand on that.

The last thing is we — the Export-Import Bank has made available $3 billion in support for projects in Ukraine, and the Development Finance Corporation has a current investment portfolio in Ukraine of approximately $800 million across more than a dozen projects.  So, we’ve obviously provided a range of assistance, which we will continue to build on. 

Go ahead. 

Q    Jen, will Vice President Harris be meeting with President Zelenskyy when she’s in Munich?

MS. PSAKI:  I don’t have anything on her planned meetings at this point in time.  I expect we’ll have more as we get a little bit closer, and I expect they’ll do a preview call from her team as well.

Q    And then an Olympics question.

MS. PSAKI:  Yeah.

Q    Does the administration have any reaction to the IOC’s decision to allow Russian figure skater — I’m going to butcher her name — Kamila Valieva to continue competing in the Olympics after her doping scandal?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, I would point you to the statement made by the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, who oppose the decision made in Beijing, saying it, quote, “appears to be another chapter in the systemic and pervasive disregard for clean sport by Russia.” 

But these were independent decisions made by the U.S. Anti-Doping [International Testing] Agency and Court of Arbitration for Sport.  We don’t have any additional comment from here.  I would point you, again, to the U.S. Olympic Committee.

Go ahead.

Q    So, the U.S. Energy Information Administration shows data that Russian oil being imported in the U.S. has been increasing over the past year.  In May of 2021, it was the most on record. 

Now, the President said he wants to use all tools to keep gas prices down.  Is he looking at temporary things to keep gas prices down should there be a Russian invasion?  Or is there any consideration in reversing some of the policies and going back to increasing U.S. energy independence? 

MS. PSAKI:  I don’t have anything to detail for you, inclu- — in terms of what he is considering.  But our overarching objective is to decrease the impact on American consumers and increase the impact on Russian leaders. 

Q    Well, you talked about the boycott on the Republicans of the Fed nominees.  Does the White House support allowing four of the five nominees to go through and then dealing with Sarah Bloom Raskin later?

MS. PSAKI:  Again, we are working with Chairman Brown to move all five nominees forward. 

Go ahead.  Right there.  Go ahead.  Yeah. 

Q    Thanks, Jen.  Do you have any update on maybe steps the White House is taking in the event that the trucker protesting in Canada heads to the U.S. and, also, especially to D.C. around the time of the State of the Union?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, we — our Department of Homeland Security team has been assessing and I gave an update last week that they also increased support — federal support around the Super Bowl when there were those reports. 

I would note the Super Bowl did move forward and there was no halting of that, so that is a positive development as well. 

But we are constantly assessing any impacts or any security impacts.  But I don’t have anything to preview for you. 

Go ahead. 

Q    Thanks, Jen.  I wanted to ask — back to the Supreme Court.  The President received a report with recommendations on how to reform the Supreme Court late last year.  Has he at all reviewed the report yet and taken a position on it? 

MS. PSAKI:  It wasn’t a — it wasn’t — I would just remind everyone: It wasn’t recommendations; it was a broad assessment from across the gamut of scholars from all ends of the political spectrum who were looking at a range of historic issues as it relates to the Court. 

The President has been reviewing that, but I don’t have anything to read out for you on that front. 

Q    The other thing I wanted to ask you was about voting rights.  The President signed this expansive executive order a year ago on voting.  I believe Susan Rice put out —

MS. PSAKI:  Yeah.

Q    — an update on it in September or October.  Could you provide an update on what agencies are doing?  We’re going to start beginning seeing elections as soon as next month.  I believe that’s in Texas, but other states are going to start to have them.

MS. PSAKI:  Yes, I do have a lot on this, not in front of me.  So, in terms of what agencies are working on or what they’ve been working on and what they’ve basically been doing —  so you’re — have more detail on this than maybe others do. 

But all of the agencies were tasked with putting together their own plans to expand voting access, and they’ve been working on those plans.  They’re all at different points in the review process and how it will be implemented. 

But if you look at past examples, where — I think it was back in the ‘90s — where if you went to the DMV to renew your driver’s license, they would offer you the opportunity to register to vote — you know, stuff like that. 

But let me see if we can get you something — and anyone else who’s interested — after the briefing. 

Q    Thanks, Jen.

MS. PSAKI:  Okay, we’ll do one more.  And then we’ll wrap it up. 

Go ahead. 

Q    Thank you so much.  One on China, one on Afghanistan.  First of all, China’s foreign ministry has been really critical of U.S. rhetoric on the Russia-Ukraine crisis, calling it “hyping up the possibility of warfare,” saying the U.S. is “clamoring for bloc confrontation.”  What does the White House make of this rhetoric?  Are you going to take any action against it, either through talk or other means?  And what do you make this closeness between Moscow and Beijing? 

MS. PSAKI:  Well, I would say that the — first, the meeting that they had a couple of weeks ago reflects an approach both countries have already taken for some time, which is to move closer together.  We know, and we’ve said before, but China is not in a position to compensate Russia for their economic losses.  And we have tools to deploy if we see foreign companies, including those in China, trying to backfill sanctions.

You know, I would say our overarching view, though, is that if Russia chooses to move forward, it will cost China and how it’s viewed in the eyes of Europe and the world.  And that’s something for them to assess. 

We are trying to prevent a war here.  That is why we are putting information out and why we are engaging with the global community. 

Q    And then how do you respond to Afghans who are critical of the executive order that proposes to split the frozen Afghan money?  They say that, you know, they weren’t involved in the 9/11 attacks, so why are they getting less of these funds that they’re entitled to? 

MS. PSAKI:  Well, I would say that, first — let me start with the fact that this is one step in the process.  No funds can be transferred until the courts make a ruling. 

What the President was trying to do was enable certain U.S.-based assets belonging to Afghanistan’s central bank to be used to benefit the Afghan people, otherwise it would have been held — right? — and that money wouldn’t have been going. 

And so, that’s why we saw — and he took a proactive step to facilitate access to $3.5 billion of those assets for the benefit of the Afghan people and Afghanistan’s future. 

More than — as you know, many U.S. victims of terrorism, including the relatives of victims who died in the September 11  terrorist attacks have brought claims against the Taliban and are pursuing these assets in federal court. 

So, more than $3.5 billion in assets are going to remain in the United States and are subject to the ongoing litigation.  But what I think it’s important for people to know and understand is he took this proactive step to sign the executive order in an effort to try to provide some of this funding to the Afghan people. 

Q    When will that happen?  When will —

MS. PSAKI:  Well, the courts have to rule in order for it to happen. 

Q    But the other half — the $3.5 billion?

MS. PSAKI:  Right.  The court — that has — it has to — the courts have to rule in order for any of the funding to move forward, I believe, is my understanding.

Q    But why — how is that proactive then?

MS. PSAKI:  He’s making clear that he believes that half of the funding should go to the Afghan people to — for humanitarian purposes. 

Thanks, everyone.

Q    Thanks, Jen.

Q    Will President Biden meet in person with the Russian president?

MS. PSAKI:  I think I answered that question a little bit earlier.

5:04 P.M. EST

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