James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:54 P.M. EST
MS. PSAKI: Hi, everyone. Okay, I don’t want to disappoint you, but I have no toppers today. (Laughter.) Sorry to disappoint all of you.
Darlene, would you like to kick us off?
Q Yes, ma’am. Thank you. I wanted to follow up on your tweet yesterday about being on the lookout for Russia to use chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine and possibly creating false-flag operations to use them.
What is the evidence to back that up beyond what you said in the tweet that it’s a “pattern” from Russia? Is there more to this than it just being a pattern with them?
MS. PSAKI: Well, they have a large biological and chemical weapons program, so it’s a pattern. But they also have the capacity.
While I’m not going to get into specific intelligence, we look at all of those factors. And we also know, and one of the reasons — one of the — the main issue that prompted my Twitter thread yesterday was that Russia has a history also of inventing outright lies like this, which is the suggestion that the United States has a chemical and biological weapons program, or Ukraine does, that they’re operating. Russia is the one — is the country that has a chemical and biological weapons program.
So the objective was to make clear the inaccuracy of the information, the misinformation they’re trying to put out, and make clear to the world that they not only have the capacity, they have a history of using chemical and biological weapons, and that, in this moment, we should have our eyes open for that possibility.
Q Would use of chemical or biological weapons be a red line for the President in terms of direct U.S. involvement in the war over there?
MS. PSAKI: We are directly involved. We are providing a billion dollars in security assistance. We are the largest provider of that. We are providing humanita- —
Q With the military troops.
MS. PSAKI: With the U.S. military going and engaging in Ukraine and fighting a war against Russia? We don’t have any intention to do that.
Go ahead. Oh, go ahead, Darlene. Go ahead. Last one.
Q One other one. The Defense Intelligence Agency — the director told Congress today that his agency underestimated the Ukrainian military’s preparedness and will to fight. Is that the assessment? Does the White House share that assessment?
MS. PSAKI: We do. And I think, Darlene, the world does. I mean, I think when we saw the preparations of President Putin and the Russian military on the borders of Ukraine, we saw the power of the Russian military, we saw the intentions of President Putin. And I don’t think anyone anticipated the level of courage, of bravery, of capacity to fight back that we have seen in the country.
At the same time, we’ve also seen some miscalculations by President Putin as well, in terms of that capacity and willingness, but also in terms of their own planning and logistics of their military.
Q And then lastly, can you just talk a little bit about the fate of the COVID money, the $15 billion —
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q — that Speaker Pelosi took out of the bill yesterday? I mean, how confident is the White House that you will ultimately get that money?
MS. PSAKI: Absolutely. Oh, did —
MS. PSAKI: Okay. (Laughs.) I just wanted to let you continue.
Well, we need this money. So, without additional resources from Congress, the results are dire. Just to give you some specifics: In March, testing capacity would — will decline — this month. In April, free testing and treatments for tens of millions of Americans without health insurance will end. In May, America’s supply of monoclonal antibodies will run out.
So, failing to take action now will have severe consequences for the American people. That’s why we requested $22.5 billion to avoid severe disruptions to our COVID response. The reason we’ve made the progress we have at this point is because we have been ahead of where the pandemic is, in terms of having the preparations, for the most part, of vaccines, of supplies needed. And we want to continue to stay ahead of that, if we can.
So, these are conversations, as you all know and has been reported out, that are happening with members. But we will need that funding in order to — in order to continue to fight the pandemic.
Q Jen, just to follow up on Darlene: Are you detecting any sign of any imminent use of chemical weapons over there?
MS. PSAKI: I’m not going to get into any intelligence. Obviously, we continue to assess the declassification of that, as you know, Steve, as we have done throughout the course of the last several weeks.
But what we endeavored to do when we put out that information yesterday is to remind the world of the large biological and chemical weapons program that Russia has, the fact that they have used it in the past against dissidents on their soil and on NATO soil, that they — and that they were taking a step to put out misinformation about our own programs, capacities, and those of the Ukrainians as well.
Q And the President spoke this morning with the President of Turkey, Erdoğan. Did they discuss access to the Black Sea, do you know?
MS. PSAKI: They had — I know we just put out a readout that you should all have. They had a constructive, lengthy call. I believe it was almost an hour, if not an hour. And the President is very grateful to the role that Turkey is playing and has played, even earlier today, in hosting diplomatic negotiations at this moment in time.
But in terms of additional specifics, there’s not more I can get into from here.
Go ahead, Kaitlan.
Q Thanks, Jen. I just want to be totally clear: Are you saying if Russia does conduct a chemical weapons attack in Ukraine, there will not be a military response from the United States?
MS. PSAKI: I’m not going to get into hypotheticals. What we’re saying right now is they have the capacity and the capabilities. I’m also not going to get into intelligence. But the President’s intention of sending U.S military to fight in Ukraine against Russia has not changed.
Q But that sounds like even if there is a chemical weapons attack, that calculus will not change. So I just want to be clear on what the U.S. response would be if this happens.
MS. PSAKI: Again, there has not been a chemical weapons attack. We are conveying to all of you what the capacity and the capabilities of Russia are, what steps they have taken in the past.
Let’s hope we are not having a discussion about that. But the President and our NATO partners have not changed their assessment about their plans to send U.S. troops in.
Q Would President Biden let a chemical weapons attack in Ukraine go unanswered by the United States?
MS. PSAKI: We have not let anything go on answered that President Putin has done to date.
Q (Inaudible) chemical weapons attack, would he let it go answered?
MS. PSAKI: We have not let anything go unanswered to date — any steps that President Putin has taken to date. What that would look like, I can’t give you an assessment of that from here at this point.
Q One other question. The U.S. says their assessment is that Ukraine has planes that they could use. They don’t think it would be effective to send more aircraft to Ukraine right now. Ukrainian President Zelenskyy has pleaded for more aircraft, saying that they desperately need it.
So, I guess the question is: How do you square the U.S. assessment with what President Zelenskyy, who is on the ground in Ukraine, says that he needs for his Air Force?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would say, first, the U.S. military is one of the best militaries in the world. What we’re basing our assessment on is both our intelligence assessment and the assessment of our military experts who have been, of course, in touch with their counterparts in Ukraine and our NATO Allies and partners.
And what they assessed was that adding aircraft to the inventory is not likely to significantly change the effectiveness of the Ukrainian Air Force relative to Russian capabilities. The Ukrainian Air Force has several squadrons of fully mission-capable aircraft. And although Russian air capabilities are significant, their effectiveness has been limited due to Ukrainian strategic, operational, and tactical ground-based air defense systems: surface-to-air missiles and MANPADS.
And so one of the — so the other detail is: How are we going to continue to provide assistance that is helpful to them and most effective and most useful to them in this moment? And our — the assessment of our military has been that continuing to provide defensive assistance and materials in that form is what is most useful and effective at this point in time.
Q Thank you, Jen. Just to follow up on the COVID aid bill —
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q — you said the conversations are going on.
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q But if this bill has the dire consequences that you just described, where else can you go to get money for testing and treatment? Is there money in other parts of the government? I mean, if there’s not going to be a standalone bill that gives you it, what are you going to do you?
MS. PSAKI: You need additional supplemental assistance.
Q And what do you think the chances of that are?
MS. PSAKI: We — it is essential we get that assistance. Otherwise, we will not be able to — as I as I just outlined, Mara, and I appreciate you asking the question again, for further clarification — we will have to stop a number of components of our program that are essential to the American people.
Q So you’re saying there is no way you can get money from — move money around that’s already been appropriated?
MS. PSAKI: Well, again, I think that if we had that money to move around, we would be moving it. And our assessment is that we need this additional funding in order to meet the needs of the American public.
And I would also note that a lot of these programs are widely popular across the board, regardless of your political affiliation, providing antivirals, providing tests, providing free — free vaccines. Those are all programs that we’re talking about continuing.
Q And I just had one more question on another subject. The administration has been criticized for putting sanctions on one dictator and then going, hat in hand, to other dictators like Venezuela. How do you explain that?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think our engagement with Maduro — who we don’t recognize, as you know, as the leader of Venezuela but who is detaining American citizens — was to bring American citizens home. That was our first priority in those engagements.
There is not — so as you’re all assessing —
Q It had nothing to do with energy?
MS. PSAKI: There are a range of topics that we discussed. Largely, the conversation was about our approach to the Western Hemisphere. Certainly, Venezuela, as you all know, is the largest producer of oil in the world. But as you’re — or one of them — one of them in the world, sorry. Thank you. Ed gave me a funny look there. I appreciate that. “One of them” in the world.
But part of our conversation — our conversation was focused about a range of issues, including encouraging them, of course, to be engaging in steps toward peace. As you may have seen, Maduro has announced his intention to be a part of the talks with the opposition in Mexico.
But as you are assessing how to spend your energies in this time of a lot of news in the world, I would not focus a lot of them on conversations about the future of the United States importing oil at this point in time — go ahead — from Venezuela.
Q A question on the economy. The inflation numbers that we received today show consumers paying almost 8 percent more than a year ago, and this was before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. So how much higher does the administration expect prices to climb?
MS. PSAKI: Well, as you know, a large driver of these inflationary numbers from the last — these monthly numbers were from energy prices. And we have seen the ener- — the increase, you know, happen as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
So, while we’re looking at year over year — and there were year-over-year numbers that came out about a month ago as well — there are still predictions and projections from the Federal Reserve and outside economists about inflation moderating towards the end of the year.
Obviously, they make those assessments on a regular basis. But in terms of prices going up, we do anticipate that gas prices and energy prices will go up. That is something that the President has conveyed very clearly to the American public. We also believe it will be temporary and not long lasting.
And what our focus is on now is doing everything we can to mitigate and reduce those prices and ensure there isn’t a longer-term impact.
So I can’t make additi- — new projections for you from here, other than to convey that, yes, it is accurate that the invasion by President Putin into Ukraine has impacted global inflation, inflation in the United States because of the impact it’s had on energy prices. And that is a significant contributor to inflation — the inflationary numbers we saw come out today.
Q You said this is “temporary,” and you’ve noted before that inflation is going to wane or is expected to wane by the end of the year. Is that still your belief?
MS. PSAKI: These — that continues to be the projection of the Federal Reserve, of outside economists, and we really rely on them for their projections. But there is also no question that inflation may be higher for the next few months than it would have been without the Russia — without President Putin and Russia’s further invasion into Ukraine, particularly due to higher energy prices.
And obviously, they will watch that and we are watching that, but that is definitely having an impact.
Q And just one more on this topic. You know, the President said earlier this week that American companies — you know, he sort of urged them not to price gouge. Are you aware of any price gouging in gasoline that’s going on right now?
MS. PSAKI: That’s something we’ve asked the FTC to look at. They are the appropriate body. They’re an independent body. So I’d point you to them for any assessment of that.
But that’s something we have to continue to monitor. Right? You know, we’ve been monitoring it. We’ve asked them to monitor it. But obviously, at this point in time, when Americans are paying higher prices at the pump, this is one of the areas where we need to watch closely.
Q Can I ask you about the transportation mask mandate?
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q TSA says it was based on a CDC recommendation. I’m just wondering if you’re in a position to explain the rationale, the science, the logic behind continuing it in places where the community level is low?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would — I would really point you to the CDC to provide further detail.
But I would note: As you know, when you get on an airplane, you travel to different places, right? You’re not just static in one place, whether it’s a green zone or a yellow zone or a red zone.
So what they also announced is that TSA will be — that the CDC will work with government agencies to help inform a revised policy framework for when and under what circumstances masks should be required in the public transportation quarter because it’s unique, right?
If we’re in Washington, D.C., and we’re in a green zone or a yellow zone, you can make a clear assessment. If you’re moving from one zone to another and you’re picking people up from one zone to another, it’s a little bit different. And that requires some consultation, which is what they’re going to endeavor to do between now and April 18th.
Q Completely seperate topic: France said today that the window on an Iran deal is closing. Does the U.S. share that view? Is the sense here that Iran is trying to run out the clock?
MS. PSAKI: Well, our view is that we are close. We have been close for some time now, and we also — for the last several weeks, as we’ve been talking about. We also all know, from having been through these negotiations before, that the end of negotiations is always when the difficult and challenging parts of the conversation typically take place. So, I wouldn’t make that assessment or echo that from here.
We are continuing to have these diplomatic talks. It is in all of our interests to stay at the negotiating table. And that’s what our plan is to do from here.
Q Jen, you said earlier to one of my colleagues that nothing that Russia has done so far in terms of this invasion has gone unanswered, when you were being asked about bio and chemical weapons. Obviously, none of what we have done to answer Russia has steered them from continuing this invasion. So why not consider some alternate strategy to communicate to Russia the consequence if they are to do a bio or chemical weapons strike inside Ukraine?
MS. PSAKI: Like what?
Q I’m asking you. In other words, why not communicate — you won’t say if it’s a “red line,” right? Because you won’t say it’s not our intention right now. So let me start there. Is there any red line for Russia that the U.S. would have some involvement where the military entered into Ukraine?
MS. PSAKI: I’m not going to get into red lines from here, Peter. What I would tell you is that when I said we have not let anything go unanswered, what I mean is that we have amped up a range of military and security assistance, a historic amount to Ukraine, including a range of defensive weapons, which we’ve expedited the delivery. Even in the last 10 days, we’ve delivered about $240 million of that.
And also, we’ve provided a range of humanitarian assistance. And we have basically crushed the Russian economy, which — where the — where the stock market is not even open. So it’s inaccurate to suggest it’s gone unanswered. We have taken all those steps and rallied the world.
Q And I’m not saying that’s gone unanswered. You say it’s gone answered; we’ve witnessed the answer in the form of sanctions. I’m saying, given the potential that you’ve indicated that Russia could use a bio or chemical weapons strike there, why wouldn’t the U.S. communicate to them something that is not an answer, but instead preemptive, to communicate the consequence if they are to take what would be a horrific — this war to a horrific new level?
MS. PSAKI: The President’s first and most important objective is the national security and interest of the United States and being clear and direct with the American people. He has been clear and direct with the American people. He is not intending to send U.S. troops to fight in Ukraine against Russia to start another war. That that would be an escalatory step; that would not be in our national security interests and not in the interests of NATO.
What we have conveyed is Russia’s capabilities, their capacities, and their pattern of using chemical and biological weapons.
Q And so, what does he say then — that’s the message to the American people: his responsibility to them, of course, is before any other. What does he say to Vladimir Putin? If those at the head of the Russian government are considering that, what do you say to them watching right now?
MS. PSAKI: We have been very clear, and our actions have been the evidence of this, that there will be significant consequences for every escalatory step that is taken by President Putin and the Russian government.
Q So let me follow on this very quickly. As it relates to the MiGs, you guys have said you closed the door on supplying combat aircraft to Ukraine right now — the transfer of MiGs. We heard from the Pentagon — your colleague there, John Kirby, said it was “high risk.”
Mitt Romney today said, “There’s a sentiment that we’re fearful about what Putin might do and what he might consider an escalation. It’s time for him to be fearful of what we might do.” Why is it not a risk — a higher risk to wait?
MS. PSAKI: To wait to what?
Q To — we’re not supplying — to not act in providing MiGs to the Ukrainian country? We said that’s a high risk. Why is that a higher risk than not providing them? We’re already witnessing civilians die as we speak.
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would say what our assessment is based on is how to prevent a world war here, Peter, which is a significant weight that the intelligence community, the Defense Department, and the President of the United States weighs at every moment in time. And they weigh —
And I would note that — that there was also, I thought, a very interesting comment that was made that is important, I think, for people to understand how we look at this, which is that there’s an escalation ladder, right? And there’s a difference between an anti-tank weapon, a shoulder-fired missile, an aircraft, and a fighter jet that could cross a border and actually conduct operations on Russian soil.
So how we assess things is how — what kind of assistance can we provide that will be the most impactful if humanly poss- — most impactful in protecting, defending, providing assistance to the Ukrainian people as they are fighting courageously and boldly.
We are also trying to prevent ourselves from taking steps that would be further escalatory. I don’t think we have held back in any capacity in providing assistance, having the backs of the Ukrainians, but we are not going to do things that we think are not in the interests of the United States or our NATO Allies. And that is where the bar is for us.
Q Thank you, Jen. We just heard you say, again, that you think inflation is going to be temporary. We’ve heard you say that it was going to be temporary since last spring. So how long do you guys think “temporary” is?
MS. PSAKI: Well, again, Peter, I think what we do is we rely on the assessments of the Federal Reserve and of outside economic analysts who give an assessment of how long it will last. The expectations and their assessment at this point continues to be that it will moderate by the end of the year.
There’s also no question that when a foreign dictator invades a foreign country, and when that foreign dictator is the head of a country that is the third-largest supplier of oil in the in the world, that that is going to have an impact. And it is.
Q And so, to that point, inflation goes up today. The President’s statement blames the “Putin price hike.” Are you guys just going to start blaming Putin for everything until the midterms?
MS. PSAKI: Well, we’ve seen the price of gas go up at least 75 cents since President Putin lined up troops on the border of Ukraine.
Q And, last month, the statement didn’t mention the Putin price hike. It mentioned inflation because of the pandemic. Why is that?
MS. PSAKI: Well, Peter, last year — the last two years, there was a global pandemic. Everyone who’s — global economists have all agreed that that has been the biggest contributor to date of inflation because of the impact on the supply chain. Obviously, global events impact the economy, the global economy, as well as global inflation. And the price hikes, as a result, that have escalated over the course of time of President Putin’s further invasion of the impact on the global oil markets are of course having an impact.
Q President Biden has hosted electric vehicle stakeholders here at the White House. Would he host oil and gas producers — the people who are the most affected by the Putin price hike?
MS. PSAKI: Well, the oil and gas — I have nothing to preview or predict for you in terms of him hosting oil company executives.
Q Is he open to that?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have anything planned on the schedule for that front. But I will tell you that the President has been clear that he believes they have the tools they need — 9,000 unused permits. They have the capacity they need to go get more oil here in the United States, and he’d encourage them to do that.
Q And just one more about —
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q — electric vehicles. You guys are pushing electric vehicles today. This is a President who always talks about the power of our example. Does he own an electric vehicle?
MS. PSAKI: Presidents of the United States don’t do a lot of driving.
Q He has posted videos where he’s revving the engine of his Corvette in Wilmington. He owns cars.
MS. PSAKI: And he also has driven electric vehicles as President, as — to give a model to the rest of the country.
Q Does he own one?
MS. PSAKI: I think the President’s record on this is clear, Peter. Presidents of the United States — current and when they are no longer — typically are not doing a lot of driving.
Q Do you own one?
Q Thanks, Jen.
MS. PSAKI: Go ahead.
Q The Vice President expressed support for a war crimes investigation into Russia. Why, at this point, isn’t the United States comfortable just directly labeling the bombing of a maternity hospital as a war crime?
MS. PSAKI: Well, first, let me say: The bombing of a maternity hospital is horrific. It’s barbaric. I don’t think anybody who saw that could not have been emotionally, deeply impacted.
There’s a review — a legal review process that the United States undergoes to make considerations of labeling something as a “war crime.” That is the ongoing process that is — we’re pursuing at this point in time. It’s ongoing.
Obviously, if Russia is intentionally targeting civilians, that would be a war crime. But we need to go through the legal assessment and review in order to make a formal conclusion.
Q And one more. The Journal is reporting that Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman declined a request to speak with President Biden recently. Early in his term, the White House said the President would conduct diplomacy with the Saudis through the King rather than through MBS. Why has that policy changed?
MS. PSAKI: That report is inaccurate. So let me start there. The President did speak with the Saudi King just a few weeks ago — several weeks ago. It’s all running together at this point in time. There were no rebuffed calls — period.
But when he spoke with King Salman on February 9th, they talked about — and the readout made this clear — a range of issues and global issues that we can continue to work together on, including deterring Iranian-enabled attacks against civilian targets in Saudi Arabia, supporting the U.N.-backed efforts to end the war in Yemen, ensuring the stability of global energy supplies.
And the President’s focus is really on our relationship moving forward: where we can work together, how we can work together on economic and national security here at home. And he looks forward to that continuing.
Q But does it remain the policy that he will only be conducting diplomacy through the King?
MS. PSAKI: Well, he is his appropriate counterpart. But, again, there are different leaders who attend different global events from a range of countries including Saudi Arabia. So if the Crown Prince had been at, you know, any of the global events that the President recently attended, I’m sure he would have engaged with him, but he was not.
Q Thanks, Jen. Senator Manchin said today that he supported the Republican plan to move forward with four out of five Fed nominees. I know that you’re going to say that Republicans on the Banking Committee should just get back to work and allow the entire slate to go forward, but the President also said during the State of the Union that these nominees were crucial to the fight against inflation. And we saw today, obviously, that’s still a pressing concern.
So, I was wondering if you could walk me through why you wouldn’t take what Senator Manchin called a “win” — get four of your five nominees. Is it because Sarah Bloom Raskin herself is crucial to this fight in inflation? Is it that you’re worried about the slippery slope in the Senate? Like, why not take the four out of five?
MS. PSAKI: I know you gave a little bit of a preview of what I might say there but, one, we don’t have any change in our approach or policy here. The committee should hold an up-or-down vote on all five nominees.
It is important to note that it is not a lack of votes on the committee to move these nominees forward. It is a lack of willingness of Republicans to show up to the committee to actually vote, even against these — this slate of nominees. That is where we have a core issue here.
So, we also would agree with the statements from Republicans in the Senate, like Senator Grassley, who have said that senators should not degrade their advice and consent responsibilities, and should show up and do the jobs the American people pay them to do.
And our hope is that Banking Committee members will show up and do their jobs and vote, or not vote, or not support these nominees, but allow it to move forward by meeting a quorum.
Q But I guess my question is: Why is that core issue more important than the broader fight against inflation for you guys? What is the philosophical thing that you guys are saying it’s more important than getting four Fed nominees on the board in a time of hyped inflation?
MS. PSAKI: We believe all five nominees are eminently qualified and should be given an opportunity to be voted through the committee, where we — we absolutely have the votes. Republicans are just not showing up to get quorum for those — that vote to move forward.
Q All right. On inflation, you said, obviously, that the Ukraine fight is going to — has already driven up gas prices and is going to contribute to inflation in the coming months. I’m wondering what spillover effect you expect into the broader economy. So, do you expect that this increased inflation is going to impact GDP or job growth or those sorts of things? Is that a fear that you’re sort of grappling with? Or — and are there any steps that the White House is going to take to try to mitigate the spillover from inflation?
MS. PSAKI: So we will clearly continue to monitor all of the risks and the impact, but right now, we believe the United States economy is positioned well to deal with the challenges ahead, given, since the President took office, we’ve seen a historic recovery; we’ve added 678,000 jobs last month and 7.4 million jobs since he took office; we’ve seen the fastest decrease in unemployment on record and the fastest economic growth in nearly 40 years.
So, clearly — and you heard the President of the United States talk about this in the State of the Union — inflation and costs are an issue that we will continue to focus. It’s a top priority for him. But in terms of the strength and stability of the economy, we do feel we are — continue to be positioned well to deal with the challenges ahead.
Q I wanted to ask on refugees.
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q I know, obviously, there’s been about 2 million people — 2 million Ukrainians who have already left the country. And I know you’ve said from the podium that most will likely want to stay in the area — in Eastern Europe — but I’m wondering what steps would the administration consider to take in more refugees now.
I know some advocacy groups have talked about, for example, admitting Ukrainians who already have pending visa applications as refugees. Are there steps that the White House, the administration would do now to admit more in the United States?
MS. PSAKI: Well, there are steps, which are not exactly related to refugees but related to the Ukrainian population, including Temporary Protected Status, which we announced and are granting for anyone who has been here since March 1st.
In terms of additional steps, the reason why it’s important to note that we think the va- — it’s not just many. The vast, vast, vast majority of refugees, we believe, will want to stay in neighboring countries in Europe where many of them are — have family, many of them have worked, many of them have friends and others.
So that is our assessment. That is why we are continuing to provide humanitarian assistance to neighboring countries who are providing — who are welcoming refugees from Ukraine, who are providing them the assistance they need in this moment of time. And that’s where we feel our efforts are best focused.
Q Jen, can I follow up?
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q On the refugees, President Duda today, when he was speaking to the Vice President, asked if the U.S. could speed up and simplify as soon as possible the procedures for the Ukrainians who want to come to the United States because they have relatives here and they want to stay here until the war is over. So is that something that the United States is considering? And how quickly do you think that the U.S. could do that?
MS. PSAKI: I’m happy to check on that. I would say again: I don’t know what the numbers are in that regard, but all of our assessments, from communicating with the Ukrainians, with neighboring countries continue to be that the best way that the United States can contribute to this refugee crisis is by providing humanitarian assistance, funding to a range of countries who are welcoming refugees. So that’s where our focus has been.
Q And I also wanted to ask you about comments that Representative Madison Cawthorn made about the Ukrainian government. He said in a video that Zelenskyy is a “thug.” He said the Ukrainian government is “incredibly corrupt.” He said some other things, but he also said that Zelenskyy is “pushing” misinformation on America. Would the White House like to comment?
MS. PSAKI: I would not. Go ahead.
Q Thanks, Jen. The administration has talked a lot about short-term — waiting out short-term effects — short-term effects of sanctions on Russia, and so Americans might now naturally be wondering when the medium-term might start. Do you have any indication at all yet that Putin is being “squeezed” by these sanctions, as you put it yesterday?
MS. PSAKI: Any indication he is being squeezed?
Q Into making a different decision. I mean, the messaging from the White House has been, “This is going to hurt. Russia is to blame. Just wait it out.” What can you tell Americans, sort of like — well, when — how long? I mean, that’s a natural question a lot would have.
MS. PSAKI: Well, because of our efforts, the ruble is worth a penny. It’s the lowest-ranked currency in the world. The Russian stock market has not even opened — and you’ve seen — in days. And you have seen outcry from a number of President Putin’s buddies and cronies in the form of the oligarchs, who we have also been squeezing.
Our calculation has been that these financial sanctions and — that we have rallied the world to support — would have an impact. Our objective is, of course, to bring an end to this conflict. In terms of when that will happen, I’m unfortunately not in the mind of President Putin, but in terms of the impact on his financial sector, the response from people who are close to him and, frankly, from the courageous outcry from thousands of people in Russia, that has been clear. When it will change his calculus, I can’t give a prediction of that.
Q Thanks. And can you talk to us a little bit about the President’s engagement with senators who have met with his Supreme Court nominee, Judge Jackson? There are reports that he has made multiple calls to Senator Collins, for example. How’s it going, and what is his level of engagement right now?
MS. PSAKI: The President has been very closely engaged in this process, even while he is rallying the world to stand up against President Putin. He has made a range of calls over the course of time. I’m not going to confirm specifics of those from here.
I would also note that Judge Jackson has been meeting with a range of members on the Hill, as you all have seen every day, including members who may not have had any record of voting for nominees of ours in the past. But she’s committed to meeting with every member of the Judiciary Committee before her hearing, and she is quickly working through that. And she is also committed to meeting others beyond that period of time. And they’ve — many of them have come out and spoken to her meeting — their meetings with her after that, so I think that gives the best assessment of how things are going: quite well.
Q Thanks, Jen. This morning, a bipartisan group of lawmakers sent an open letter to the President, asking to invoke the Defense Production Act to increase oil production. Is the administration considering a move like that or other conversations with industry to help lower gas prices?
MS. PSAKI: Well, without ruling out or ruling in any options, let me explain to you what the Defense Production Act would do in this regard. It would basically be providing money to oil companies to do something that they already probably have the capacity to do.
Q Have you been in conversation with these oil companies since this latest rise of gas prices has come to increase production?
MS. PSAKI: We have been. We have had senior officials in touch with oil companies, yes.
Q And switching gears really quickly on President Biden’s conversation with the Colombian President today. As a strategic partner, in the latest talks with Venezuela, was Colombia involved in those talks about releasing Americans? And will further talks about releasing Americans from Venezuela be part of President Biden’s conversation today?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t believe they were a part of the conversation with Venezuelans — with Maduro about releasing Americans. I can certainly check on that front. We will, I’m sure, have a readout after the meeting that the President is having shortly.
Q And then, on another migrant crisis. Colombia has obviously been dealing with their own migrant crisis coming out of Venezuela for years now. As part of these — as you’ve all said that migration is going to be a major part of these conversations with Colombia, is the administration prepared to, say, help the refugee crisis that’s going on in that country and manage the outflow from Venezuela into Colombia?
MS. PSAKI: Well, one, they have been a model — Colombia has in many ways — in trying to take steps not only to welcome refugees, but also to crack down in many ways on migration. That’s part of the conversation that the President will have.
We have provided a range of assistance in the past, but I don’t believe that there’s a new assistance package coming today, but that has been part of our engagement with them in the past.
Go ahead. Oh, I’m sorry. Did I skip you, Ed? I’m sorry. Go ahead.
Q In the readout of the call between the President and Turkey’s president, Erdoğan, wrote that the President appreciates “Turkey’s effort[s] to support a diplomatic resolution…” How would you characterize the White House’s role today in supporting a diplomatic resolution to the crisis, if there’s any role the U.S. is playing?
MS. PSAKI: The U.S. is leading the global effort to rally opposition to the actions of President Putin. And we have been engaged with the Ukrainians on a daily basis. We have been — we have provided more security assistance, more humanitarian assistance than any country in the world. And there wouldn’t be the unity of financial sanctions and actions without the leadership of the United States.
So, what we’re doing is we’re putting the Ukrainians in a position of increasing, hopefully, strength in their negotiations and discussions.
Q Is the U.S. playing any concrete role in facilitating these diplomatic talks?
MS. PSAKI: We are supporting the efforts by a range of leaders, including Erdoğa- — including our Turkish allies, including the Israelis, including the French, and others who are engaging directly with President Putin over this.
Q And if I could just ask a follow-up on inflation. You know, you’ve been getting questions about inflation for months.
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q And you talked about a lot of work the White House is doing, but it’s largely been long-term strategy: supply chain work, supporting manufacturing in the U.S., semiconductors. The Americans that woke up with another round of headlines about inflation this morning, is there something you want to point to that’s what the White House is doing to provide short-term relief, like immediate relief to the rising costs?
MS. PSAKI: I would say that a huge part of what we’ve done has provided imp- — has had an impact already. One is, obviously, inflationary pressures have been caused by the pandemic. And getting the pandemic under control, which has been the President’s top priority, has the biggest impact on that. We’ve seen hospitalizations go down. We’ve seen people return to the workplace. We’ve seen 99 percent of schools open across the country.
Also, the steps that our Supply Chain Task Force have taken have already had an enormous impact, including increasing movement through ports by, I believe, about 60 percent. If you look at shelves at stores right now, 89 percent of them are stocked. That is a direct result of the actions of the Supply Chain Task Force and this President.
It is also true that while the early stages of inflationary pressures were caused by the pandemic and caused by the impact on the supply chain of that, that right now what we’re looking at is — are different pressures — right? — which is the pressure of the energy sector that is a direct result of President Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
And what we are doing in that regard is leading the world in responding to that and looking at every option possible, including coordinating a strate- — a coordinated release from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to ensure we’re increasing supply to reduce prices.
So, I would say that there are a range of steps that have already had an enormous impact across the board on addressing inflationary pressures, but we also are dealing now with a new challenge. That is why we’re seeing the inflationary pressures go up.
Q Just to follow up on your point that you said that senior administration officials have been in touch with oil companies about boosting supply. I don’t know, unless this has been reported elsewhere, can you say which ones and what the response has been like?
MS. PSAKI: I’m not going to detail it further, but we’ve clearly met with them. And we remain engaged with them, as we do with a range of private sector companies.
Q Okay. One other on Ukraine. We talked about chemical and biological weapons. As Russia appears to be moving towards encircling Kyiv itself — something that Pentagon officials, you, and others have said could take several days, if not weeks — is there concern about getting enough military equipment into Kyiv in advance of that? Or what would happen — what would be done to make sure that they can still be supplied if this encirclement happens or is underway?
MS. PSAKI: Well, what we have been able to do to date is provide, even in the last 10 days since we announced this new package, about 240 to 250 million dollars in secur- — in military assistance, defensive assistance that, as we noted earlier in the briefing, is what our military has identified as most helpful to them in this moment.
We also, thanks to the omnibus in the parts of many — the many parts of that that we do like will now have about $13 billion in additional assistance, some of which we will be able to expedite and provide hopefully rather quickly.
We — so we have effectively and efficiently been able to provide a range of assistance to the Ukrainians, and we expect we’ll be able to continue to do that.
Q And then, there was a helpful but on-background and off-camera conversation yesterday about —
MS. PSAKI: Oh.
Q — the Colombian President’s visit and details of the Venezuela engagement over the weekend.
I wanted to clarify one or two things. The — one of the officials said that “There were no talks between us and the regime. We traveled down there to secure the release to detain Americans and to return to the negotiating table.”
So, they did not speak with Maduro government officials about getting the Americans released?
MS. PSAKI: Well, we were working with — to free American citizens, as I said yesterday, detained in Venezuela. Obviously, that required speaking with those who had detained them.
I don’t have more details on who exactly was engaged in that from the Venezuelan side.
Q Do you know when was the last time U.S. officials had talked to anyone in the Maduro regime or that was holding those hostages before they went to Venezuela?
MS. PSAKI: Meaning before they were detained in Venezuela a couple of years ago?
Q No, before they got there this weekend. When would have been that last time?
MS. PSAKI: It had been ongoing for months.
Q Okay. So the timing of this visit — I know they said in the call, for example, that this was the result of months of work. Was it prompted by what’s going on in Ukraine — their visit? Or was it the result of unrelated months of work?
Because there are some looking at this saying, “They’re taking advantage of the Ukraine situation, potential vulnerability, the need for oil in the global supply — not just to the U.S, but globally. This must have been why they went this weekend.”
MS. PSAKI: Well, the issue of detainees is our first priority. And we are also — as you know, had discussions about a range of issues, even as they were through different channels.
But I would note that there have also been developments, including Maduro committing to engage with talks with the opposition, that have happened over the last couple of days.
But the release of the detainees was not for the exchange for sanctions relief or buying oil. And as I noted a little bit earlier in the briefing, this is not currently an active — while they are a large — a very large producer of oil, this is not currently, at this moment, an active conversation about importing their oil.
So that’s where things stand at this point in time. But obviously, when there’s opportunity to bring American citizens who are detained home, we’re going to take advantage of that opportunity.
Q Can I follow up on that?
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q On the timing of these meetings with Nicolás Maduro, when did these meetings actually start?
MS. PSAKI: You mean —
Q When was the first time that there was an engagement between the U.S. government and Nicolás Maduro?
MS. PSAKI: Well, the engagements with those who have been detaining Americans have been ongoing for months.
Q But can you be a little bit more specific on the timing?
MS. PSAKI: I can see if there’s anything more specific I can get you, sure.
Q And also, following on that, since the President is already here — I mean, in Washington, D.C. — the President of Colombia, Iván Duque — and about to meet with President Biden, was there any courtesy call from the U.S. regarding this engagement with Nicolás Maduro given the circumstances and given that President Duque has been one of the most vocal critics in the region against Nicolás Maduro?
MS. PSAKI: I’m happy to check and see if there’s any more details we can provide on our diplomatic engagements.
I would note that our objective here and our top priority was bringing American citizens home. Typically, those conversations and the briefing out of them happens in a very, very small circle. And so, I would just note that. But I will see if there’s more detail we can provide.
Q And a last question, if I may: Is there any intention to declare Colombia as a principal extra-NATO ally after the meeting with the President or even prior to it?
MS. PSAKI: Sure. Let’s let the meeting happen. We will have a readout of the meeting after the meeting, and I’m sure there will be some developments coming out of it.
Q Can I follow up on the vote that took out the COVID funding? Obviously, one of the issues that arose with Democrats in the House was the offsets. Was the White House on board with that arrangement, with taking sort of half of that funding from the pre-existing funds? And is that something that would be workable in a standalone piece of legislation?
MS. PSAKI: I’m just not going to negotiate on this from here. Our objective is to ensure that there is additional funding so that we can continue to meet the needs of the American people.
As I noted earlier, those conversations are ongoing, and we will certainly be a part of them from here in our legislative team.
Q And one more on gas prices. I know you’ve spoken, I think, about the gas tax before, but there was a group of Democratic governors who wrote a letter to congressional leadership about a potential federal gas tax holiday. Something that the President would engage Congress on?
MS. PSAKI: We have not taken any options off the table and — including that one.
I would just note that the gas tax, if I’m correct here, is about 18 cents. And obviously, gas has gone up by a larger amount than that.
So, we will consider a range of options. But the biggest impact we believe we can have is working through a range of channels to increase supply in the global marketplace, and that is where a lot of our energies are focused on, but we have not taken options off the table.
Q Thanks, Jen. I wanted to follow up on something you said earlier about how the U.S. is supporting the diplomatic talks between Ukraine and Russia. But has there been conversations about America getting more involved? And is there a point where President Biden needs to bring both sides to the table?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would say that what our biggest focus is on is continuing to support the Ukrainians, the Ukrainian leaders, and we are doing that by being the largest provider of military, security assistance, and humanitarian assistance in the world. And our objective is to strengthen them, boost them as they are participating in these negotiations.
I have not — the President has never closed the door to diplomacy. Certainly, he has been leading the diplomatic effort, largely, around the world as we’re rallying opposition to President Putin’s efforts.
But we’ve also been engaging before and after nearly every one of these conversations with the — with the Ukrainians, with the Europeans to discuss where we can support and get readouts of all of these conversations.
Q And one more: Former Vice President Mike Pence was at the Ukrainian border today. Did the administration know he was going? And was there any kind of State Department support for him or any kind of official support?
MS. PSAKI: I’m certainly happy to check.
Q Follow-up on that —
MS. PSAKI: April, why don’t you do the last one. Go ahead.
Q Okay, Jen. Two questions. One, I want to find out what’s the latest on Brittney Griner, if you have an update. And also what is the end goal when it comes to this situation for the Biden administration?
MS. PSAKI: The — the end goal of the — of the war?
Q Resolution for Brittney Griner —
MS. PSAKI: Oh —
Q — in the midst of all of this.
MS. PSAKI: Well, we have, of course, seen the reports. I cannot speak to the specifics of it because we do not have a Privacy Act waiver. But our objective is always to bring American citizens home who are detained in foreign countries. So, that will remain our focus, and that’s what we’d like to see the end outcome to be.
Q Is this Putin’s bargaining chip? Is she Putin’s bargaining chip?
MS. PSAKI: Again, I can’t speak to the specifics of this case, April. I certainly understand why you’re asking. But our obj- — our focus right now on our — how we’re going to bring an end to the conflict is to support and boost up the Ukrainians, to support diplomatic conversations, and to continue to provide a range of assistance in that — in that light.
Q But you can’t speak to specifically why she’s detained, all of that, but the end result — can you get into a little bit of the weeds, the minutiae as to what you’re doing and how to bring her back?
MS. PSAKI: I cannot speak to that from here. We don’t have a Privacy Act waiver, I would say again. But also for any American citizen held, we typically do not get into specifics because that is not constructive to bringing people home.
Q And lastly, can you preview tomorrow? Is the President — he laid out the next year during the State of the Union, but he’s going to be talking to his own party —
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q — tomorrow in Philly.
What can you — can you give us a little bit of a readout of what he’s going to say? Specifically, I’m trying to get a little bit more —
MS. PSAKI: Okay.
Q — as it relates to the CDC. What is he going to say to them? Because he didn’t have as much equity and inclusion in the State of the Union as some would have hoped for.
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would say I have not reviewed the remarks with him yet or the remarks yet. So, I am not in a position yet to give you a preview of what he’s going to say.
He’s looking forward to traveling to Philadelphia tomorrow to speak with the caucus. I’m sure we can get you all something on that later this afternoon.
1:42 P.M. EST