James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
2:55 P.M. EDT
MS. PSAKI: Hi, everyone. Sorry, I think I jumped the two-minute gun. I was just excited to see you all on St. Patrick’s Day.
Okay, a couple of items for all of you at the top. Today, we wanted to highlight the strong unemployment claim data out this morning. In a little over a year, President Biden has brought the American labor market back to one of its strongest positions in history, driving a robust recovery from the economic catastrophe he inherited.
The number of new jobless claims Americans filing for unemployment for the first time fell below the pre-pandemic average in 2019. And the number of Americans who have been receiving unemployment benefits for more than a week fell to the lowest level since 1970.
Three hundred thousand fewer Americans are receiving unemployment claims now than before the pandemic. That means more Americans are getting back to work and fewer are drawing governmental — government benefits.
As we’ve said many times, the data can be volatile week to week or month to month, so it’s important to focus on the broader trends. And those trends show remarkable progress across our economy over the last year, including the fastest year of job growth in U.S. history with 7.4 million jobs created and unemployment down to 3.8 percent.
I also wanted to mark another historic milestone of 500 million vaccines that we have distributed to the world — an unprecedented campaign reaching 113 countries, something that has never been done before.
We did not get here by accident. This is a testament to the same whole-of-government effort we applied domestically, navigating logistical, legal, and regulatory processes to get lifesaving vaccines across the world.
As we mark today’s milestone of delivering a half a billion vaccines to the world, let me be clear: Without additional funding from Congress to support getting shots into arms, USAID will have to cut short our crucial and effective efforts to turn vaccines into vaccinations.
Congress must promptly provide the administration with the urgent funding we need to continue the work of both vaccinating the world and protecting Americans at home.
Last thing I just wanted to note: As you saw this morning reported, Jeff Zients, who has served as our COVID Coordinator, will soon be leaving. So I just wanted to take a moment just to note his service and thank him from the President and all of us.
The President called on Jeff to lead our COVID-19 response because there is no one better at delivering results. I know this personally. I worked closely with him through many challenges over the course of many years in public service and government.
And the thing about Jeff is at every moment, at every opportunity, when there is a big challenge — a pile of manure sometimes — he dives right in to fix the challenge. And that’s what he does. That is what he has done time and time again through his career in public service.
And he led this effort to stand up a mass vaccination campaign; achieve equity in vaccinations across communities; ensure that Americans have access to treatments, tests; and embark on an unprecedented global vaccine campaign that we celebrate — can celebrate today. It would not have happened without Jeff Zients in this job and in this role.
And we are stronger that he is — his service and the service of his deputy, Natalie Quillian, who’s also departing, has literally saved lives in this country.
So we want to thank them for their work, for their leadership, and we will miss them a great deal here.
Zeke, why don’t you kick us off?
Q Thanks, Jen. First, on COVID, the President has had a couple of close calls over the last couple days — the Second Gentleman and the Irish Prime Minister last night. Has he been tested today? And did he test — is there a result of that test you can read out?
MS. PSAKI: He was not tested today. He was tested last Sunday. Neither of these individuals were considered close contacts.
The doctors at the CDC determine what “close contacts” look like. And that — a close contact is someone who was less than six feet away from an infective — infected person for a cumulative total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period. That is how they define it.
And, of course, our doctors look closely at that as well. And neither of these two individuals was — did he spend that amount of time with. And so, his weekly testing cadence remains as it has been; it has not changed.
Q And I know there are a number of particular precautions that exist, you know, to protect the President and keep him safe and healthy. The testing cadence here is not like most people — or it has —
MS. PSAKI: That’s true.
Q — but this broader issue, though, of, you know, the President coming into — maybe not CDC “close contact,” but having close exposure to some people, even for a brief amount of time, it sort of — you know — you know, getting into that bubble around the President. You know, this is something that people around the country are dealing with on a daily basis, but they don’t have the same sort of precautions that are here.
So, you know, if the President hypothetically were to come down with COVID, is that something — or any — or the First Lady or anyone else in this administration — is that a failure at this point? Or is this just a new fact of life that everyone has to sort of, you know, make — you know, make peace with at this point?
MS. PSAKI: Well — (a cellphone chimes) — that was very soothing. I don’t know where that came from. (Laughter.)
I would say our view is: While we’ve made a significant amount of progress across the country in fighting the pandemic — with more than 75 percent of adults fully vaccinated, according to the definition of the CDC — and obviously, we’ve seen hospitalizations come down across the country, including Washington, D.C., the President was very clear when he made his remarks about COVID just a few weeks ago that we are still working — we still have work to do to address the pandemic, to fight the pandemic.
That’s exactly why we need additional funding to make sure we have the types of treatments, the types of testing mechanisms to make them free and available to Americans across the country, to make masks available so that people who are uninsured or people who don’t have the resources can tap into a lot of these — these effective treatments and effective prevention mechanisms.
I would say, for us, you’re right, the testing — the testing modes are a little bit different around here because we are around the President of the United States and the Vice President and, of course, the First Lady and the Second Gentleman. That means, before you see the President, if you are in for a meeting or you travel with him, you are tested. And everyone has different testing cadences, depending on their frequency of seeing him.
Q And then, in anticipation of the call between the President and President Xi tomorrow, has the U.S. government made a determination whether China has decided whether or not to, you know, sort of agree to Russia’s request to provide assistance for its invasion of Ukraine? Is that — is it still a live ball that the President is going to warn President Xi of off of? Where are they in terms of making that decision?
MS. PSAKI: Sure. Well, why don’t I give you a little bit more of a preview on the call, and hopefully it will answer exactly your question.
The President, as I think you’ve heard him say before and I’ve said, is a big believer in leader-to-leader diplomacy. And they have a lot to discuss, given the last time the President met with President Xi virtually was last November — a couple of months ago.
The meeting tomorrow, in terms of how we got here, came as a direct follow-up to the meeting national — our national Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, had with his counterpart. They talked about the two presidents meeting or engaging in the near future during that meeting. So, hence, it is happening tomorrow.
And that meeting, earlier this week, of course, came at an important moment in the conflict, but it also — in Ukraine, of course — it also covered issues beyond Russia’s invasion, and I would expect — of Ukraine — I would expect this meeting would as well, because there are obviously a range of issues that we continue to discuss with the Chinese and the President discusses, of course, when he speaks with President Xi.
But to go to your question, this is an opportunity for President Biden to assess where President Xi stands. There has been, of course, rhetorical support, or the absence of clear rhetoric and denunciation — or the absence of denunciation by China of what Russia is doing. This flies in the face, of course, of everything China stands for, including the basic principles of the U.N. Charter, including the basic principles of respect for sovereignty of nations.
And so, the fact that China has not denounced what Russia is doing, in and of itself, speaks volumes. And it also speaks volumes not only in Russia or in Ukraine, but around the world.
And this call also comes as the — as Jake Sullivan’s meeting earlier this week, as we have made clear our deep concerns about China’s alignment with Russia and the potential implications and consequences of that.
So the President will also share his assessment of that during the call, but I don’t have another — an update for you on any internal assessment. That is just how we are approaching — or he is approaching the call tomorrow.
Q How specific is the President going to be in laying out the consequences for China if they do help Russia?
MS. PSAKI: Well, the President is — never fails to be direct, including in his conversations with President Xi. But we’ll let the call happen, and I’m sure we’ll have more to read out for you after the call.
Q And do you have any idea what military equipment they are thinking about providing Russia?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have any assessment of that from here.
Q Okay. And what do you make of the Putin comments basically calling for a purge of anti-war opponents?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think this is a clear sign that this war is not going how President Putin planned for it to go. And there has been an outpouring of courageous protests and many speaking out against the war, even within Russia.
So, his effort to crack down on dissent, to crack down on the freedom of press, on the freedom of media, on the freedom of protest is actually quite consistent with what we’ve seen his approach to be over the course of the last several years. But I think it’s an indication of exactly that.
Q Which side requested this call between President Biden and President Xi tomorrow?
MS. PSAKI: It was discussed on the — during the call — during the meeting that our National Security Advisor had on Monday.
Q So are you saying it was mutually agreed upon?
MS. PSAKI: They mutually agreed to move forward with it during that meeting.
Q Secretary Blinken just said that the U.S. is concerned China is considering directly assisting Russia by providing them with more military equipment to use in Ukraine. That is not something that we have heard from the administration before. And so, can I get you to speak to how high of a concern that is from the — for the White House right now?
MS. PSAKI: It is a high concern, a significant concern, given our Secretary of State just conveyed that. And certainly, our concerns about China assisting, in any way, Russia as they invade a foreign country is of significant concern and would — the response to that would be consequences.
Q Before Russia invaded, the White House was pretty clear that if they did invade, there would be sanctions imposed on them as a result of that. With China, you’ve just said if they do help Russia, that there will be consequences, but you haven’t said specifically that they will be sanctions. Can you say, without saying what they are, that they will be sanctioned if they do help Russia with military equipment for this invasion?
MS. PSAKI: I’m just not going to outline what the consequences would look like. And I — the President, obviously, will speak with President Xi tomorrow, and he’ll speak directly about that.
Q Just on that point, just so I’m clear: I mean, I understand you don’t want to detail what the consequences could be, but the President in the phone call will make clear not just that there will be consequences but what those consequences could be to Xi?
MS. PSAKI: I’m sure we’ll have more to read out after the call happens tomorrow. But we have not — our National Security Advisor, obviously, didn’t hold back in his conversation he had. Our Secretary of State did not hold back in his comments he just made publicly. And the President always takes the opportunity when he speaks with foreign leaders to be candid and direct.
Q You said the phone call is going to be an opportunity to assess where Xi stands. Should we take that to mean that it’s not clear that the Chinese have made up their mind whether or not to assist the Russians?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think if you look at the last couple of weeks, Mary, you can see that they abstained from a vote in the U.N. Security Council, but they also — and they sp- — they had put out a comment during the Munich Security Conference defending the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, but they also echoed some of the conspiracy theories about chemical weapons and U.S. and Ukrainian intentions.
So, for any country, it’s a question of where you want to be as the history books are written.
Q And do you believe that this is a sign that — or can you characterize at all your understanding of how low the Russians may be running on some military equipment, given that they seem to be turning to China for some help?
MS. PSAKI: I can’t provide an assessment on that from here. But, you know, I know my colleagues at the Department of Defense have conveyed clearly — and I’m happy to echo — that it’s not only not going as they planned; they have had challenges, obviously, with the operations of equipment, with the amount of equipment, even with MREs and food and other supplies. And, you know, that is what we have seen occur on the ground, but I don’t have a numerical summary from here.
Q Thank you, Jen. So, one of the clearest responses we have seen from the Chinese about their possibly helping Russia came from the Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, who told Spanish officials on a call, “China is not a party to the crisis, nor does it want the sanctions to affect China.” What sanctions are they talking about? Did Jake Sullivan specifically bring up the sanctions during the meeting in Rome?
MS. PSAKI: I can’t speak to what he meant. You’d have to ask the Chinese.
Q Okay. Well, has the Chinese expressed the same thing to the U.S. — that they do not want to run the risk of being sanctioned?
MS. PSAKI: I would — the Chinese would speak for themselves. We typically don’t speak for others.
Q Okay. So, just now, Secretary Blinken joined Ambassador Greenfield and the President in describing Putin’s actions as war crimes. I know that you said just yesterday that there is a legal process that is ongoing. How long does that process typically take? How much evidence do we need to collect? And can you clarify who will ultimately determine whether these are war crimes or not?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think Secretary Blinken, in his remarks, also gave some specifics about who from the State Department will be leading that effort. It’s a legal process where they review all of the evidence, and then they provide that evidence and data and information to the international bodies that oversee the investigations. And the international bodies that oversee the investigations would make determinations about violation of international law and whether it’s war crimes by their standards and what the consequences would be.
So we would be supporting those efforts.
Q And do you know how long that usually takes?
MS. PSAKI: A legal process internally in the State Department? It can take some time. But again, I can’t — I would point to the State Department for any update they want to provide on the timeline.
Q Okay. And one more on Jeff Zients. He and Dr. Ashish Jha, who’s going to replace him, have such very different backgrounds and different skillsets.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
Q So what does that say about how the stage of the pandemic has evolved from then and now?
MS. PSAKI: Sure. Well, I would say: What it says is that Jeff Zient’s superpower is that he is an operational and managerial guru of sorts and someone who has taken those skills to a range of jobs he’s had throughout his career, including in the Obama-Biden administration when he oversaw the fixing of Healthcare.gov and oversaw the fixing of the technology that was severely broken and outdated within government at that time.
So, when we came into this administration — I would remind you it’s now a long time ago — there was no real plan. We were left no plan by our predecessors. We needed to put in place a plan to not only get enough access to vaccines but also ensure there are enough vaccinators and vaccine locations. That’s a massive operational undertaking.
Right now, we’re at a point in the process where we have all of the tools and we know the operational systems that are needed. And so, right now, it’s the appropriate time. And Jeff, of course, made this decision on his own. He extended a couple of times to stay longer through some ups and downs in the pandemic.
We’re having a public health expert, somebody who’s as kno- — as well known as — Dr. Jha — is effective in communicating with the country about how we’re going to continue to approach and tackle the pandemic.
Q Thanks, Jen. The President called Putin a “war criminal” yesterday. The Secretary of State just said that that was also his view today. So, given all of that, why are we still having Putin’s Russia broker the Iran nuclear deal talks?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would say that it’s not in our interest for Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon. And Russia is a member of the P5+1. So, that is the pursuit of a deal that would be in our national security interests.
Q So, basically we’re just stuck working with him?
MS. PSAKI: Well, again, I think how the President and any of the P5+1 partners or Europeans or others look at this is: If we can achieve a diplomatic solution where we prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon — despite the efforts by former President Trump to pull us out of the deal, allowing Iran to move far- — move closer to acquiring a nuclear weapon, that would be good for our national security and good for global security around the world.
Q The Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act says that Congress is required to review any new agreement. This is obviously not the same agreement that Obama worked on in 2015. Does President Biden believe that this treaty needs the advice and consent of Congress? And if so, does he believe he has the votes to lawfully affirm it?
MS. PSAKI: Well, if — if and when we have a deal — and we don’t have a deal at this point; otherwise, you would all know — we would carefully consider the facts and circumstances of any U.S. return to the JCPOA to determine the legal implications, including those under the Iran Nuclear Review Act of 2015. And we’re committed to ensuring the requirements are satisfied. So, certainly, we would abide by that.
But we have been keeping members very updated. We’ve been briefing them regularly. Brett McGurk conducted a call just a couple days ago. And we’ve been briefing them with a range of national security officials.
Q And then, has the IGRC — or — done any — or rather, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the IRGC — has it done anything to be eligible to be removed from the terror blacklist?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think you’re asking me this because it’s been out there as a possible discussion, but there’s no deal at this point. So, if and when there’s a deal, we’ll have a discussion about what’s in the deal.
Q Outside of the deal, though, does it take action to be removed from that terror blacklist? Do you have to do something to get off of it?
MS. PSAKI: You have to make a decision, yes.
Q Thanks, Jen. I want to ask you a slightly different version of a question that I asked you yesterday —
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q — about the $800 million military assistance. I asked if you could tell us how quickly it would arrive. And I understand this is a complicated process. To flip it around a little bit, can you tell us how quickly will the first shipment be out the door?
MS. PSAKI: Well, we’ve been doing shipments or deliveries every day or every couple of days. And obviously, the Department of Defense would have more specifics.
But we have effectively and successfully delivered $300 million in military assistance to the Ukrainians on the ground over just the last two weeks. And our effort would be to continue to rapidly provide infor- —
Q And of this —
MS. PSAKI: — provide equipment.
Q — of this new tranche, this new $800 million announcement, can you give us — just characterize how quickly this round will start to be sent (inaudible)?
MS. PSAKI: Well, the operations of that would be led by the Department of Defense, so I would point you to them for more operational specifics.
Q And to stay on the Department of Defense —
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q — the Defense Secretary was speaking with his Slovakian counterpart who said that they were willing to send long-range S-300 surface-to-air missiles if the U.S. would backfill. Does the administration see this as a done deal, as something that is imminent, that would happen?
MS. PSAKI: Well, it’s the decision of any foreign country, as a sovereign country, to decide what equipment they want to provide. What we are mindful of is ensuring that we are maintaining — we have to be careful in our desire to support other countries, that we’re not inadvertently impacting NATO readiness or capabilities or our own.
And again, this is something the Department of Defense can most effectively speak to, but a lot of these military systems would — some of them require months to manufacture or to build. We just don’t — we don’t have a warehouse of just military equipment that’s ready to typically be sent all the time. So, that is a factor.
But we want to find a solution that both enables Allies and partners to provide the support they have available to Ukraine, while addressing the very real need to backfill their defense systems, which is often a significant challenge.
And we just want to make sure that if and when our Allies are donating material, including us, they’re not leaving a gap in their own defenses.
Q Okay. And just, finally, Ukrainian refugees are being turned away at the southern border — I know you’ve gotten some questions about this — because of Title 42, obviously put in place in the early days of COVID-19. Where is the administration in trying to work around this?
MS. PSAKI: Well, right now, as I noted I think the other day, there are discussions about any ways we could be helpful in welcoming refugees into the United States, something the President — Ukrainian refugees, of course — we welcome many refugees, as you know — something the President is willing, of course; happy to do.
The role we’ve been playing to date, Kristen, has been really providing humanitarian assistance. We’ve provided $300 million in humanitarian assistance to the people in Ukraine and neighboring countries. A lot of that is going to help provide support to refugees. Three million in three weeks, which is a startling number, that are going to neighboring countries.
And the bipartisan funding bill the President just signed a couple of days ago provides more than $4 billion in humanitarian assistance, including $2.65 billion through the USAID International Disaster Assistance program, which provides everything from food, healthcare, other urgent support, and $1.4 billion for migration and refugee assistance to support refugees fleeing Ukraine.
But that is where — because the vast, vast majority of refugees want to stay in neighboring countries, that is where we have been focusing our energies at this point.
Q The President has been clear that he welcomes those who do want to come here. But given this law, it — are there discussions about revoking Title 42?
MS. PSAKI: The revocation of Title 42 wouldn’t be done in response to a war in a European country. It’s done by a decision — would be made by the CDC, and then it would be implemented when that is done. And it will be done, at some point, of course, with the interagency, including the Department of Homeland Security.
But, you know, there is a range of discussions about if there are ways for Ukrainian refugees to come. Right now, they’d have to apply, obviously, through existing refugee programs where they would apply from a third country.
Q Thanks, Jen. Given the COVID surge in China and the lockdowns that we’re seeing there, is supply chain issues and, you know, those getting worse, perhaps, going to be part of the call tomorrow at all, or is it focused on — mostly on Russia?
MS. PSAKI: It will be focused on a range of issues. Certainly Russia and Ukraine — Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will be a part of that, but our economic relationship with China, a range of issues of mutual concern will certainly be a discussion.
So, I don’t — I will — we will have more to read out for you once the — once the meeting concludes tomorrow.
And this is, of course, an issue that we are watching very closely. While the ports, I believe, still remain open, one of the challenges we’ve seen on the ground and we are tracking very closely is the number of manufacturing facilities or the number of workers who are not working. Sometimes there’s a lag in what that impact can be in terms of the production of materials and how that impacts the supply chain. So, we are tracking that very closely.
But again, I expect this to be a wide-ranging conversation tomorrow. And we’ll have more to read out once it’s concluded.
Q Also, just to follow up on the President being around some people who’ve —
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q — now tested positive, why not just test the President every day at this point? The administration has done a lot in terms of, you know, saying certain actions are being done out of an abundance of caution. So, in this case, even if it doesn’t quite follow CDC guidelines or goes above and beyond, why not just do that because he’s the President?
MS. PSAKI: Because we’re guided by his medical doctor, and he has kept him at the same cadence. And if that changes, then we will change how often he’s tested.
Q And is the cadence once a week? Or —
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
MS. PSAKI: Go ahead.
Q Thanks, Jen. Questions on a couple of different topics.
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q To try this a different way: Does the President have specific things he wants to accomplish in tomorrow’s conversation with President Xi? Are there specific deliverables he’s hoping to get out of it?
MS. PSAKI: Well, this is, again, an opportunity for him to speak directly, leader to leader, about a range of issues. Of course, the invasion of Russia — Russia inva- — Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will be a part of that, and what role or how — how President Xi sees the role of China in that conflict will be a part of that.
There’s also a range of other topics that they will discuss. But I’m purposely leaving some space for the President to have a direct conversation with his counterpart.
Q And then, on the COVID cases that — for example, with the Second Gentleman testing positive this week, why did the Vice President appear today — I understand she was masked — but in an event with other people around, when CDC guidance is currently that people who have been exposed should stay home and not interact with others for five days?
MS. PSAKI: Well, she is fully boosted. I don’t actually believe that’s an accurate description of CDC guidance of having a close contact. We, obviously, all have had close contacts here. And you’re tested at a regular cadence. And she is abiding by that.
Q Thanks, Jen. Just to kind of follow up on that
bit on COVID: Is one of the reasons why the administration is not going — being extra cautious with the President and the Vice President, even though there is national security issue around this, in part to kind of lead by example for Americans to say, “You can get back to living your normal lives, and you shouldn’t be concerned that even if you get exposed to somebody just briefly, you shouldn’t freak out about that. You don’t need to test a bunch of times”? Is that basically the dynamic that you’re trying to say —
MS. PSAKI: Look — oh, go ahead.
Q — even though if the President — 79 years old — the President of the United States were to get COVID, it might be more serious than, you know, somebody in their twenties?
MS. PSAKI: Well, we don’t know that.
Q Right. We don’t. But (inaudible).
MS. PSAKI: But we also know that COVID impacts people of all ages and a range of — but we take — what we do here, Jen, is not — not exactly as you said. So I wouldn’t agree with your description there.
I would say we do take extra precautions, including individuals who are around the President being tested — that goes over and above, of course. He is the President of the United States, so we do take those additional steps. And we, of course, abide by what the recommendations and advice are of his medical doctor. And if that would be to do increased testing, we would certainly do that. But he does not feel that that is necessary at this point in time based on these recent contacts.
Q I also wanted to ask about oil and gas companies and —
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q There’s been some reports, from the fourth quarter, of them increasing their stock buybacks. There was already, you know, a time when there was a spike in gas prices last year, I think in the fourth quarter. And you’re also just seeing the companies saying that they’re kind of reluctant to up production. And they kind of, in some ways, point to the administration’s policies overall in the sense that even if they were to up production, that, one, it takes months to get to market; and two, it doesn’t fit in with the overall approach that this administration is taking. So what do you say to that kind of viewpoint?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think it’s hard for them to make the argument it’s anything other than business decisions on their part, and they have said that themselves.
The CEO of Occidental Petroleum said, quote, “We have no need and no intent to invest in production growth this year.”
The CEO of Marathon Oil said, quote, “Our cash flow-driven return of capital framework uniquely prioritizes our shareholders as the first call on cash flow generation, not the drill bit.”
The CEO of Pioneer Natural Resources said, quote, “We’re not going to change our growth rate.” “We think it’s important to return cash back to shareholders.” That’s a business decision.
The oil and gas industry right now is receiving profit — windfall profits; we’ve seen that. They publicly report their profits. They publicly report this information.
And instead of keeping up with current demand, too many of these companies, in our view, are making the calculated decision of returning money to investors and shareholders through buybacks and dividends, instead of expanding production enough in the short term, which is what we need.
Again, it’s a business decision, but I think there’s clear evidence of them acknowledging and even shouting that out.
Q So, I have a China question and, with full awareness of the news cycle, a St. Patrick’s Day question.
MS. PSAKI: Oh, okay. All right.
Q China question first. About a week ago, you said that for everything else, by and large, the White House saw China as still abiding by international sanctions. But on Russia, does that view still hold a week later? Is that generally how the White House views China?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have a new assessment of that. We’re obviously watching very closely.
Q St. Patrick’s Day.
MS. PSAKI: Yes.
Q Given the fact that the President very much likes to share his pride of the Iri- — his Irish heritage but also the fact that —
MS. PSAKI: He does.
Q — so many ceremonial–
MS. PSAKI: “More Irish than Irish.” Is that what he said? “Irish Americans consider themselves more Irish.” I think that’s true. I will confirm that.
Q But like that, and also the fact that so many of the ceremonial parts of the job —
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q — have been canceled over the past year, I’m wondering: Did he express particular frustration or sadness that the Oval meeting had to become yet another Zoom meeting today?
MS. PSAKI: He was disappointed. He was looking forward to having the meeting today. And having meetings over Zoom, I think as we’ve all experienced, are not the same. Having spent a lot of time with the President, he is an extrovert, extrovert, extrovert and loves that engagement with people in person. And he was really looking forward to the meeting today.
There will be more in the future. We certainly understand we are still facing the pandemic. And there are more events that he has been able to participate in today to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. So, fortunately, many of them still moved forward.
Q Thanks, Jen. Yesterday, in his remarks to the Congress, President Zelenskyy called for the creation of this new global organization that he called “U-24. United for Peace,” described as an alliance that would supply assistance, including weapons, within 24 hours. I was wondering if the administration has a view on that idea. Is it something that you guys are discussing with Ukraine? And does the U.S. view this as Zelenskyy’s, kind of, alternative for Ukraine entering NATO?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would say, just to reiterate, it’s up to NATO to determine who enters NATO. And obviously, any country, we would support their aspiration to join NATO should they choose and they meet the requirements.
We, of course, did see him convey that in the speech. We don’t have more details. We are very closely engaged with the Ukrainians and speak with them every day.
Beyond that, I would say: In terms of the delivery of weapons, we do it as quickly as we humanly possibly can through our system and in coordination with our NATO partners and Allies. But we know — we support a range of ideas being put out there. We’ll discuss it with the Europeans and others and see if there’s more to report out from there.
Q I also wanted to try one more time on —
MS. PSAKI: Go ahead.
Q — on the President and COVID.
MS. PSAKI: Okay.
Q A lot of the questions are focused on testing, which you’re pretty clear that the testing cadence is not changing. As he looks particularly to a trip next week that is quite important — to Brussels and maybe elsewhere in Europe — is there anything else that he’s doing, I mean, as he’s having these — what the CDC does not consider a close contact but are certain people that he’s around and aware of — is anything about his behavior changing? Are there any other precautions that you guys are taking that are not testing-related?
MS. PSAKI: We have continued to take the same testing protocol — steps which are significant and go farther than CDC guidance goes. But beyond that, the te- — his testing cadence remains the same, and there haven’t been additional changes to our internal protocols.
Q Hey. Thanks, Jen. The Kremlin responded to President Biden labeling Putin a “war criminal” yesterday by calling his remarks “unacceptable and unforgivable.” What is the White House’s reaction to getting criticism from Russia about the President’s remarks?
MS. PSAKI: It’s pretty rich coming from a country where — whose actions are unforgivable in the eyes of the world — global community.
Q Given that there’s an ongoing legal process and investigation by the State Department into whether there was, in fact, war crimes committed, what is the purpose of the President and now Secretary of State getting ahead of that investigation?
I know you said — or the Pr- — you said yesterday that the President was speaking from his heart.
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q Is that what this is — just speaking from their heart?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think Secretary Blinken was as well. And as you heard Secretary Blinken convey in his remarks, what we’re seeing — whether it is the destruction of a theater, where the words “children” or “kids” was written in Russian outside of the theater, according to photos; or whether it is the, you know, targeting of civilians, of hospitals, of maternity wards — if that’s not considered a war crime by human beings, what is?
And there is a legal process that is important to continue that we have at the State Department that is ongoing, that Secretary Blinken spoke about. And any of that information and data we gather would go to the international bodies that would have prosecuted war criminals in the past. That’s where that information would go. It wouldn’t be the United States doing that; it’s the international bodies that do that.
So, we will continue to feed information into that. But, you know, I think it’s important to call out what we see happening on the ground, and I think that’s exactly what the President and the Secretary did.
Q Even though it would go to those international bodies, would the U.S. have a response if that investigation does conclude that there were war crimes? Would —
MS. PSAKI: Well, typically, it’s an international response and it goes through these international systems for a reason. So we will continue to provide data and information to that process.
Q And then, if I can have one more question on behalf of a colleague? There are growing calls from civil rights advocates and some lawmakers to pass Temporary Protected Status for Cameroon. Some have alleged a double standard in how the administration prioritizes pretominant [sic] — predominantly Black and brown countries when it comes to immigration. For example, it took seven months to grant TPS status for Afghanistan, but only took about a week to grant TPS to Ukraine. Is TPS for Cameroon something the administration is considering and looking at?
MS. PSAKI: I’d point you to the Department of Homeland Security, who oversees that process.
Q Thanks, Jen. This morning, Senator Mitch McConnell was talking about Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson on the Senate floor, and he was specifically talking about how some of her supporters have framed her experience as a public defender. He said, quote, “If any judicial nominee…does have special empathy for some parties over others, that’s not an asset. It’s a problem.” He also said the President is “deliberately working to make the whole federal judiciary softer on crime.” Do you have a response to that?
MS. PSAKI: He also said he expected her to get confirmed with some Republican votes.
What I would say, though — because there are others in the Senate who have made faulty accusations about Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s record and specifically about her record on child sex crimes, so let me just take the opportunity to clear that up — not that most people have confusion about it.
But in the vast majority of cases involving child sex crimes, the sentences Judge Jackson imposed were consistent with or above what the government or U.S. probation recommended. For example, there are — there are arguments that have been made out there by Senator Hawley and others that — where he took a snippet of a transcript out of context, when, in fact, Judge Jackson was repeating something a witness said in order to ask a question about their testimony.
So some who are accusing her of being, quote, “soft on crime” also failed to note that what was omitted is a sentencing commission report that’s been touted out there, was unanimously supported by a bipartisan Sentencing Commission.
She comes from a law enforcement family, has devoted her career to standing up for the rule of law, which is why she is endorsed by so many leading law enforcement organizations in the country. And attempts to smear or discredit her history and her work are not borne out in facts.
Q I know Monday is a long ways away, given the news cycle —
MS. PSAKI: It’s all relative.
Q Yeah. Will the President stop at around 11:00 to watch the beginning of the hearing up on Capitol Hill? And will his schedule be adjusted around that?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t know what his schedule is yet. I’m certain that he will catch coverage or catch some of her hearings over the course of next week. But I don’t know what his schedule looks like yet for Monday.
Q Thank you. I have two questions. You have already announced President Biden’s trip to Europe, to Brussels. But there were also reports about a possible trip to Poland. Can you confirm that such a trip is under consideration?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have any more details about his trip to announce at this point in time. As we have them, we will announce them all to you.
Q One more. There are negotiations ongoing between Ukraine and Russia. Does the White House support those negotiations? And what — what’s — how can you describe your involvement — the U.S. involvement in those talks between Russia and Ukraine?
MS. PSAKI: Well, we’ve been involved in a couple of ways. One, we’ve been leading the effort to build support in the global community to put in place sanctions that are crippling the Russian economy, to provide military support and economic support to the Ukrainians that strengthen their hand as they participate in these discussions and negotiations. And we also engage every day with Ukrainians to discuss.
Obviously, I would note that, as you know, our National Security Advisor also talked to his counterpart yesterday as well. But we are continuing to support the Ukrainians’ efforts.
What our concern is, though, is — you know, these diplomatic talks — as they’re ongoing, we have seen no effort, no movement, no evidence that President Putin and the Russians are de-escalating. And that is really what we are going to continue to closely watch.
Q A follow-up on your point about Senator Hawley. Obviously, he’s consistently voted against the President’s nominees. I don’t think he was a swing vote you guys were counting on. However, will his criticism, will the explosiveness of this line of attack — do you worry that it will affect your ability to win over other Republican votes? Is there any concern about this campaign upping the pressure on, say, Senators Collins and Murkowski, who may be more amenable to voting for (inaudible)?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I’m not sure that someone who refused to tell people whether or not he would vote for Roy Moore is an effective and credible messenger on this.
Q Thanks, Jen. I’m going to try again on President Biden and President Xi’s call tomorrow. If you won’t detail the consequences of what happens if China does start supporting — more support Russia, might you indicate whether there are any carrots that the administration has prepared to offer, perhaps tariff reductions?
MS. PSAKI: Well, this is a conversation about where President Xi stands. It’s up to the Chinese to decide where they want to stand, where they want to be as the history books are written. So I think it’s more through that frame than it is about carrots.
Q Okay. And then just one more — two more, actually.
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q As the administration continues to condemn and take action against Russia’s invasion on Ukraine, are there any plans to revisit, review, revoke the Trump administration’s recognition of Israel’s annexation on the Golan Heights and Morocco’s annexation of Western Sahara?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have any updates on that front. I’d point to the State Department.
Q But at this point, can you — can you describe just the administration’s position on the difference between Russia’s invasion on Ukraine and Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights?
MS. PSAKI: I’d point you to the State Department.
Q Okay. And then one more. One more logistical question. Cambodia, the chair of ASEAN, has announced last week that the U.S.-ASEAN summit that the President is supposed to host on the 28th, I believe, is postponed. We haven’t been able to get a confirmation from either you guys or State. Can you clarify on that?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have any updates on the schedule. I know we were working through the schedules of a number of leaders, so that’s always a challenge and a factor. But I don’t have any updates.
Q So it’s still on the table?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have any updates on it.
Q Thank you, Jen. Two on COVID. There are some Americans who have received a second booster — i.e., for a fourth total shot. Is that something that the President has done or will do?
MS. PSAKI: He has not done that. If the CDC recommends it, he would get another booster. They have not.
Q And then, secondly, the White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain, in a tweet today, celebrated the idea that —
MS. PSAKI: Uh-oh. (Laughter.)
Q You know who he is — said — and that he tweets. You said — he said — celebrated the idea that there is a low number of Americans in ICUs today because of COVID. But he also wrote, quote, there’s a “great risk of a new wave.” And there are — certainly, we’re seeing cases surge right now in China and in Europe. And one of the truisms of this pandemic: If it’s in Europe, it ends up here a few weeks later.
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q What precautions and preparations is the administration taking federally and encouraging states to take ahead of a possible new COVID wave?
MS. PSAKI: So, what we have seen — and I think you’re talking about the BA.2 variant — and we are closely watching and monitoring the situation both in Europe and in China — BA.2 is a more transmissible version of Omicron. But we do know the tools the United States has — including the mRNA vaccines, therapeutics, and tests — all are effective tools against this variant.
And China has not used mRNA vaccines, which is an important component of how we’re seeing the response there — or how it’s impacting people there. But BA.2 has been circulating a little different from Omicron, when we were going through that surge in November. It has been circulating here for some time. We currently — it may be higher than this, but as of earlier this week, there were about 35,000 cases in this country. And we expect some fluctuation, especially at this relatively low level.
But this is an example of where the President’s Preparedness Plan that we rolled out just a couple of weeks ago, which lays out what the tools are that we need to move forward safely, is important.
And what we’ve been conveying to governors, to go to your question, or leaders around the country and certainly members of Congress, is that just because COVID isn’t disrupting some of our lives in certain communities as much as it was a few weeks ago, it doesn’t mean it’s gone; it’s not gone. And I think this variant is an example of that.
We do know what we need to manage it. But we are also at great risk of running out of money to do exactly that. And so that is a key part of what we’re communicating to governors, to members of Congress, and others about where we are with funding and the need to end some of these programs soon if we don’t get the funding we need.
Q Just a very short, quick follow-up. Is there concern, though, that this variant, which is more — it seems very transmissible — is coming at a moment when a lot of Americans are seeing waning protection from their boosters just because the timing of the shots, as well as the fact that mask guidelines and other restrict- — regulations have been lifted across the country?
MS. PSAKI: It’s a good question. I would point to our medical experts to answer that. I mean, it is more transmissible, but we know it can be treated. So I think what it is — is a reminder of is that while it has decreased in many parts of the country, it is not gone, and it means we still need to continue to take steps we can to fight the virus.
Q Japan hosts the largest number of U.S. military, about 50,000 troops, about a half a million Americans at any given time in Japan. And many Japanese remember, at that time, Vice President Biden came all the way to Japan about 10 years ago when there was a terrible disaster, but there’s been no interview with any Japanese media.
MS. PSAKI: Oh.
Q Do you think we could arrange that? Just to assure them that the treaty is enforced. Especially the Senkaku, the southern islands, they’re very worried about —
MS. PSAKI: The President does have —
Q Could we get a positive —
MS. PSAKI: He does have a great deal of affection for Japan and has spoken, of course, with their — the current leader a couple of times. I’m happy to take your interview requests under — under advisement.
Q Thanks, Jen. I wanted to ask you about the refugee situation in Ukraine. Does the White House see the refugee situation that was created in Afghanistan last year as different than the one created by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?
And the reason I say that is — is your policy response different? I hear you say that your understanding is that neighboring countries — that’s where people are going from Ukraine right now and not necessarily coming here. But, at some point, is that going to not be an option anymore?
MS. PSAKI: Well, it’s different, in part, for the reason you mentioned. That — in Ukraine, there are — while there have been 3 million refugees or about that number over the last couple of weeks, they have been — the vast, vast majority of them have moved into countries — neighboring countries who have set up really remarkable systems for welcoming these refugees at a really challenging and difficult time.
I know there’s been a lot of reporting from a lot of your networks in Poland and other places where they have had systems in place to welcome refugees. That has been the preference of a — of these refugees. That’s why we have been providing our humanitarian assistance to these countries and to Ukraine directly, in order to help augment the support in — in the best way possible.
Every refugee circumstance is different and has different needs and requirements. And we try to adapt our own response from USAID or from our refugee and migration programming and funding to meet what the needs are in that conflict.
Q I also wanted to ask, on a completely different topic: The President, in the State of the Union, said that he would sign an executive order on identity theft. And I think he called it “pandemic aid fraud” or something similar. Do you have an update on where that is? I know it hasn’t been published yet.
MS. PSAKI: Well, let’s see. What we know at this point in time is that — I mean, he talked about addressing unemployment fraud — right? — through the pandemic. And so, what we’re doing now is ensuring that we’re taking steps toward that.
Last week, the Department of Justice announced a new chief pandemic prosecutor. And we’re working to escalate efforts to crack down on bad actors and support and augment that. But in terms of the executive order, I don’t have an update on the timeline on it.
Go ahead in the back.
Q Jen, two questions: one foreign policy, one domestic.
MS. PSAKI: Okay. I like the setup. (Laughter.)
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q So are you — what do you make of the fact that there now appear to be Chechen and maybe Syrian regular forces fighting on behalf of Russia in Ukraine?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have any confirmation of that from here.
Q And then, on the domestic front, Kathy Hochul, the governor of New York, proposed today making changes to the state’s progressive bail reform law. And it looks like Mayor Adams, who I think we can describe as an ally of the President, would support those changes. So does this administration stand by it’s — what I would describe as a “wholesale endorsement” of bail reform?
MS. PSAKI: I would have to check on the specifics of the New York changes. I haven’t looked into those. I’m happy to do that and talk to our Counsel’s Office about that, and we’ll get back to you.
Q So the Chinese have been very public about how they’re going to continue their normal economic activity with Russia. Is the President going to press President Xi on that? And is he going to ask them to sort of back off their activity like the rest of the world?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think that the conversation tomorrow will be a continuation of the conversation our National Security Advisor had with his counterpart earlier this week. And certainly, China’s alignment with Russia, in a range of ways, is and the potential implications and consequences of that are a central part of that conversation.
Q And then, domestically, on another subject, the Congressional Progressive Caucus Recommendations for Executive Action are out, and they’re asking for a decision to declare a climate emergency and ban all U.S. exports of oil. Is that something that President is thinking about doing (inaudible)?
MS. PSAKI: There are a range of really good ideas out there. The President is looking at all of them. But I don’t have anything to predict for you at this point in time.
Q One last quick one to start for the room: When is the President going to nominate a new Fed nominee? (Laughter.)
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would say that one of the most eminently qualified people ever to be nominated only withdrew her nomination, I think, 48 hours ago, 72 hours ago; it’s all running together.
He very much intends to nominate another eminently qualified person, but I don’t have an update on the timeline of that. Let the financial wires games begin.
Q Thank you, Jen. If the U.S. plans to still engage with Russia on the Iran nuclear deal and perhaps some of these other climate initiatives, what does President Biden expect Russia to bring to the table? I know what the goal is — that we don’t want Iran to have a nuclear weapon — but how does the President think that Putin will be helpful after the President rightfully turns him into a pariah on the global stage?
MS. PSAKI: As it relates to the Iran nuclear deal? I think that our view on this is that it’s not, obviously, in our interest and it’s not in Russia’s interests either for Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon.
And so, while these negotiations — I mean, the people are back in their capitals at this point in time, as you know, but they’re, for all intensive purposes, ongoing.
There have been roles and implementation that Russia has had in the past. But I think what we recognize is that it’s not in their interest either. And we will consider — continue pursuing the diplomatic path forward.
Q And then one more. The New York Times has authenticated emails that appear to have come from a laptop abandoned by Hunter Biden in Delaware. The President previously said that the New York Post story about this was “a bunch of garbage” and that it was “a Russian plant.” Does he stand by that assessment?
MS. PSAKI: I’d point you to the Department of Justice and also to Hunter Biden’s representatives. He doesn’t work in the government.
Q Thank you, Jen. So, there are the recent peace talks going on between Ukraine, Russia, as was already mentioned. It seems that a couple of the things that are being floated — one, some sort of withdrawal by Russia, but they still hold on to these pieces of Ukraine they already have in the east and Crimea.
So, my first question is: Would the U.S. ever back that kind of deal if it’s something that Ukrainians agreed or felt they had to agree to?
MS. PSAKI: We’re here to support the Ukrainians, but we’re not going to negotiate about a negotiation that has not — has not resulted in even the implementation of humanitarian corridors at this point.
Q Fair enough. But the other thing that’s been floated by Zelenskyy himself is that — he basically said the other day, “Ukrainians, get used to that we’re not going to be in NATO, they’re never going to want us.”
But then, he said, “What we would like is some kind of other security guarantees.” Is that something that you’re talking about to them? And what on Earth would that look like — “security guarantees”?
MS. PSAKI: It’s a de- — it’s a decision for President Zelenskyy and Ukrainians to make if they’re going to pursue membership in NATO, a decision for NATO to make if they’re going to be members, including — in terms of other security guarantees, we’re in touch regularly with them but I don’t have more information of what that would look like.
Q Couldn’t — the President isn’t talking about some kind of long-term new mechanism where the U.S. somehow or Western countries or Europe somehow protect —
MS. PSAKI: I think that’s a little premature at this point in time.
Q If I may, on — back to the weapons package.
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q Up until now, the administration has been really very tight lipped about what was being sent to Ukraine. Yesterday, that all changed. We got a whole laundry list. Is that a change in strategy, in messaging? Is that a message for — you talked before about the Russian troop morale, for example, or maybe a message to domestic critics of President Biden? What’s changed there?
MS. PSAKI: Well, we made a decision that we wanted to be very clear about what types of security assistance we’re providing and how it is helping Ukrainians fight the Russian — Russia’s war against them.
And so, yes, you could say that was a change — a decision to make that information available. And we don’t typically, to your point, outline all of those specifics publicly.
So — but we did determine — made a determination to do that because we felt it was important for all of you and the American public to fully understand the range of military and security assistance we’re providing, how it’s working, and how it’s helping them in this war.
Q But was Russian morale a factor in that sort of decision?
MS. PSAKI: It was not, but it was more a decision about recognizing that everybody doesn’t always understand what many people in this room do when we say “security assistance” what that is and how it helps the Ukrainians fight this war.
And there is an understandable outpour of support, of compassion for the plight of the Ukrainian people. And we want to provide as much detail as we can about how we’re trying to help them in this war.
Q And if I may, you were asked about Hunter Biden’s laptop. You also, in October 2020, dismissed it as “Russian disinformation.” Do you stand by that assessment?
MS. PSAKI: Again, I’d point to the Department of Justice and Hunter Biden’s representatives. I’m a spokesperson for the United States; he doesn’t work for the United States.
Go ahead. Go ahead in — okay, we’ll do the last one here.
Q Thank you. Thank you, Jen. I have two questions: one on North Korea and China. North Korea fired new missiles the day before yesterday. What is the — President Biden’s reaction on this? And how do you analyze the type of missiles?
I have a follow-up — second question.
MS. PSAKI: Well, we condemn North Korea’s missile launches. North Korea’s tests risk raising tensions and are destabilizing to the Indo-Pacific. Our commitment to the defense of the Republic of Korea and Japan remains ironclad.
As we have said and North Korean officials, including Kim Jong Un, have publicly noted, we continue to seek diplomacy and are prepared to meet without preconditions. But North Korea continues to not respond.
Q Thank you. When the — President Biden talks with Xi Jinping, the President of China, tomorrow, do — he are going to discuss with President Xi Jinping regarding on North Korea’s missile provocations?
MS. PSAKI: I expect there’ll be a range of topics discussed, including security in the region, but we’ll have more to read out when that conversation continu- — is done.
Thanks, everyone. See you tomorrow.
3:49 P.M. EDT