James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

1:39 P.M. EST

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Good afternoon, everybody.  Happy Friday.  We’ve made it.

Okay, as you all know, the President is headed to Warsaw on Monday night, where he will meet with Poland’s President Duda and the leaders of eastern flank NATO Allies to reaffirm the United States’ unwavering support for the security — the security of the Alliance.

He will also deliver remarks ahead of the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.  And joining me today from the National Security Council is John Kirby, who will preview the trip.

John?  Do you want to come up?  You’re welcome.

MR. KIRBY:  Great.  Yeah, sure.  Yeah.  I just wanted to make sure I wasn’t rushing anything.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  It’s all — it’s all yours.  No, no.  I know we were talking about something else back there. 

MR. KIRBY:  We — we were —

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  But we’re not going to mention that.  (Laughs.)

MR. KIRBY:  Yeah. 

Q    Oooh.  (Laughter.)

MR. KIRBY:  Well, now you opened it up.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  (Laughs.)  I know I did. 

MR. KIRBY:  It had something to do with my age, I think.

Thanks, Karine.  I appreciate it. 

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  No problem. 

MR. KIRBY:  And thanks, you all, for giving me a chance to come up here and talk on a Friday.

But as Karine just mentioned, the President is very much looking forward to his trip to Warsaw next week, which is ahead, of course, of the one-year anniversary of Russia’s brutal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. 

After he lands on Tuesday morning, he will meet with President Duda of Poland to discuss our bilateral cooperation as well as our collective efforts to support Ukraine and to bolster NATO’s deterrence.

Poland, as you know, is a close NATO Ally and has been a critical supporter of Ukraine over the past year.  President Biden will thank President Duda and, in fact, the Polish people for the $3.8 billion in military and humanitarian assistance that they have provided to Ukraine over the past year and for all the efforts that the Polish people have done to generously welcome more than 1.5 million refugees from Ukraine. 

The two leaders will discuss Poland’s important logistical role, as well, in helping the U.S. facilitate deliveries of military and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine from not only the United States, but from our allies and partners. 

The President will also have a chance to thank Poland for how they have hosted now an increased number of U.S. forces, including those that are permanently stationed and those who were deployed to Europe as part of our force posture adjustment — adjustments — the ones that we announced last year following Russia’s invasion.  There are some 10,000 American troops in Poland right now, most of them on rotational orders.

On Tuesday evening local time, President Biden will deliver remarks in Warsaw on how the United States has rallied the world to support the people of Ukraine as they defend their freedom and democracy.  President Biden will make it clear that the United States will continue to stand with Ukraine, as you’ve heard him say many times, for as long as it takes.

And on Wednesday, President Biden will get a chance to meet with the leaders of the Bucharest Nine, otherwise known as the B9.  Now, these are largely the group of eastern flank NATO Allies who are basically and, quite frankly, literally on the frontlines of our collective defense right now.  And he’ll do so to reaffirm the United States’ unwavering support for the security of that Alliance and transatlantic unity. 

The leaders will discuss our efforts over the past year to strengthen NATO, which is stronger and now more united than it was — than it has ever been, and how each of our nations will continue to work together as Allies to continue our unwavering support for Ukraine.

This is an important trip for the President, and it comes at an important moment.  It also follows days of diplomacy at the Munich Security Conference, where the Vice President; the Secretary of State; the Senior Director, here at the NSC, for Europe; and many other Cabinet members, administration officials, members of Congress are all meeting with our allies and partners to discuss our enduring support for the people of Ukraine, as well as our transatlantic unity and our ironclad support for our NATO Allies in light of all the changes to the European security environment over the last year.  And as the President believes, that security environment has changed.  Not “is” changing, not “will” change — “has” changed.

In fact, Vice President Harris is meeting with foreign leaders, including Chancellor Scholz of Germany, President Macron of France.  Tomorrow, Vice President Harris will deliver a keynote address about our support for Ukraine and the atrocities that Russian forces continue to commit against the Ukrainian people.

As you all know, close coordination with our Allies and partners has been a priority for President Biden since taking office and throughout the past year as we support Ukraine.  In addition to his engagements in Poland, President Biden is looking forward to hosting Chancellor Scholz at the White House on March 3rd. 

And the President will be speaking with a number of our allies next week on the phone, including Prime Minister Sunak of the United Kingdom, President Macron of France, and Prime Minister Meloni of Italy.

As we approach the one-year mark since this invasion, we can proudly say that our support for Ukraine remains unwavering, and our alliances and our international coalition in support of Ukraine remains stronger than ever.

With that, I’m happy to take some questions.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  John, neither of us have hit our prime yet.

MR. KIRBY:  Beg your pardon?  (Laughter.)  Oh, oh, we’re back to my age again.  Yeah.  (Laughs.)

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Go ahead.

Q    Thank you very much.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  No, go ahead.  Scott.

Q    I actually had a brief follow-up on the balloon incidents from earlier this week.

MR. KIRBY:  Okay.

Q    Had you seen this story in Aviation Week that an Illinois hobby club feels like their balloon might have been a candidate for the balloon shot down a week ago?

MR. KIRBY:  I have.  I’ve seen that press report.

Q    Any response to that?  Because it’s a very particular location in the last set of data that they got.

MR. KIRBY:  Yeah, we just can’t confirm those reports or what — what the remains of that balloon might actually end up being.  And we haven’t recovered it.  So it’s very difficult, until you can get your hands on something, to be able to tell.

And because of where it is, over Lake Huron, I mean, we all have to accept the possibility that we may not be able to recover it.

Q    But a quick follow.  I know the President said yesterday he “stood by it,” that it was “out of an abundance of caution.”  But an anecdote like this, does it make any sort of reconsideration of perhaps this was an overreaction at any point over the past week?

MR. KIRBY:  So, I’d ask you, just for a second, put yourself in his shoes, certainly in light of the Chinese spy balloon and what was a very real, certainly a very sizable, and tangible security threat — surveillance threat to the United States — in the wake of that.

So the military finetunes their radar parameters to see more, and, of course, they’re finding more.  And you got these three, and they’re unidentified.  They’re not responding to any kind of communication.  So we don’t know who owns them or what their purpose is.  You know, and they’re flying in sovereign U.S. airspace.  They’re also at altitudes that could affect the safety of civilian air traffic and, based on the flight path and the prevailing winds, potentially moving over sensitive military sites.

And the military leaders come to you and they say, “Mr. President, we don’t know what these are.  We’re concerned about what they could be and about where they could be going and what the purpose might be.  And we recommend that you take these down in the safe — you know, in the interest of safety and security of the American people and out of an abundance of caution.”  And the President acted on that recommendation because he takes so seriously his responsibilities to protect this country, our secrets, our interests, and our people.

So, the short answer to your question is: Absolutely not.  You know, given the situation we were in, the information available, the recommendation of our military commanders, it was exactly the right thing to do at exactly the right time.

Now, going forward, and you heard the President talk about this yesterday, we’re going to make sure we’ve got some new rules in place for how we make decisions in future circumstances. 

That doesn’t mean — and it doesn’t mean — and you heard the President say this yesterday — it doesn’t mean that there will be additional shootdowns if he believes there’s a legitimate threat to our safety and security.  But it does mean that we’re going to put a new set of parameters on the decision-making process going forward.

Q    But it — and just last — a follow-up on that.  Everything you just said, can that coexist?  Let me rephrase: Was there any feeling of frustration of perhaps this was a 12-dollar hobby balloon from a group of kids in Illinois, after the fact?

MR. KIRBY:  Again, given the information that we had at the time and the legitimate concerns about potential surveillance in the wake of the Chinese spy balloon, you make decisions based on the best information that you have.  And ultimately, you have to come down to some core principles when you’re making decisions as Commander-in-Chief.

Of course, the most core principle at all — of all is safety and security of the American people and our interests.  So, again, I say to you, the short answer to that is “no.”

And, frankly, given the circumstances, in light of what happened with the spy balloon, wouldn’t that be a better outcome?  If it turns out that they were, in fact, civilian or recreational use or weather balloon and therefore benign — which is what the intelligence community thinks — isn’t that a better outcome than to have to think about the possibility of greater threats to our national security?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Go ahead, Jacqui.  And then we’ll go to the back.

Q    Thanks, Karine.  So, John, I take that to mean you guys don’t have any plans to reimburse the “Bottlecap Balloon Brigade”?

MR. KIRBY:  I don’t know of any plans to reimburse.  We honestly don’t know what this is.

Q    More generally speaking, what can you tell Americans about what they should expect in the future?  Understanding that these new parameters are going to be classified, if they see something in the air, should there be any concern that a missile is going to follow it?

MR. KIRBY:  Again, we’re not going to rule anything out — in or out, in terms of how we’re going to treat additional potential unidentified aircraft.

I thought the President did a terrific job yesterday of putting this into some context and making it clear to the American people that their safety will always come first, that these are likely — we’re going to find out that they were likely of a benign purpose and not a threat at all.

So there shouldn’t be any overarching concern by the American people that the skies are somehow full of attack balloons or that they’re — that they’re at greater risk. 

If anything, look back at how we dealt with this — again, with information that we had that wasn’t complete, but yet legitimate concerns about a threat, and dealing with that threat safely and efficiently.  Nobody hurt.  Nobody hurt as these balloons were taken down.   And I think that that should give the American people a measure of comfort and confidence.

But the President wants to make sure that as we go forward, we do so smartly and we do so effectively.  And that’s why he wants a set of new rules determined so that we can now deal with these in a — in a — perhaps a different way going — you know, going — in the future.

Q    While we have you here, what can you tell us about this ISIS raid in Syria? 

MR. KIRBY:  Yeah.  So I think you saw Central Command put a statement out that, last night, U.S. military and SDF partner forces conducted a helicopter raid against an ISIS senior leader, a man named Hamza al-Homsi, and he was overseeing the group’s deadly terrorist network in eastern Syria before he was killed in the raid.

As the Pentagon has reported, an explosion during the raid also resulted in four U.S. troops and one of the working dogs suffering some — some injuries.  The troops and the working dog are in stable condition.  They’re are being treated at a U.S. military facility — a U.S. mili- — medical facility in Iraq.

And I think the Pentagon will have more information on that. 

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Okay, in the back.  In the back, yes. 

Q    Thanks, Karine.  And thanks, John.  So, first — two questions.  First, will the American public eventually find out what these three unidentified objects are, including which companies they belong to and which specific benign purposes they had?

MR. KIRBY:  We would like nothing better.  But I can’t sit here and promise you that we’ll get to that level of fidelity of detail.  A lot of it’s going to depend on an ability to recover these three objects. 

And just to remind you, one is on sea ice in the north of — north of Alaska in arctic conditions.  Extreme — extremely bad winter weather up there.  They have not been able to really mount anything on the ice to find them now. 

The other is in the Yukon Territory.  Thick wilderness.  And as of today, I don’t believe the Royal Canadian — Canadian Mounted Police or their investigative organizations have been able to get to it. 

And then the other one fell over Lake Huron, again, in very deep water.  I think the Canadians have decided that they’re not going to look for it anymore.  I don’t believe that the United States has made a call on that yet. 

So, pretty tough conditions.  Going to be very difficult to find them, let alone, once you find that debris, be able to do the forensics to identify it.  So I can’t promise you that we’ll know definitively one way or the other.

Q    And a question on President Biden’s talk with Xi Jinping.  So as the administration is trying to ease tensions, the House Select Committee on China is trying to focus on human rights abuses by the regime by planning hearings, et cetera, on that topic.  Will President Biden bring up human rights issues with Xi Jinping?

MR. KIRBY:  The President never fails to bring up human rights concerns.  And when he met with President Xi in Bali, he brought it up then. 

And it’s not just with President Xi.  The President believes that — that you have to lead with your values, particularly in foreign policy.  He’s never shy about bringing that up.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Go ahead, Mario.

Q    Thanks.  Thanks, Karine.  John, what’s the likelihood that President Biden meets with President Zelenskyy next week?

MR. KIRBY:  There’s no meeting — you’re talking about on the trip?

Q    Mm-hmm.

MR. KIRBY:  There is no meeting with President Zelenskyy scheduled for the — for the trip right now. 

Q    And related to President Xi and that call with President Biden, as well: Have tensions cooled enough to where the two — the two leaders could jump on the phone together right now?

MR. KIRBY:  There is an open line of communication. And I’m not denying that there aren’t still tensions, particularly in the wake of the spy balloon.  We don’t believe it’s the appropriate time right now for Secretary Blinken to travel to Beijing. 

And you heard the President, that he will — he will want to have another conversation with President Xi, as you might expect that he would.  But — but we don’t have anything on the schedule right now.  And we’ll have to do that at the time when the President believes it’s appropriate. 

What’s really important here — and I know the question was about President Biden and President Xi — is that the lines of communication with the PRC remain open.  I recognize that there are tensions, but the Secretary Blinken still has an open line of communication with the foreign minister.  We still have an embassy in Beijing with a terrific ambassador, Nick Burns.  And the State Department also can communicate directly with the PRC’s embassy personnel here.  So the lines are open. 

Unfortunately, the military lines aren’t open.  And that’s really what we would like to see amended.  And it was, of course, curtailed after Speaker Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan.

Q    Is that a precondition for a call?

MR. KIRBY:  There’s no preconditions for a call.  The President will — will want to have a conversation with President Xi at the — at the appropriate time. 

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Go ahead, Weijia.

Q    Thank you.  Thanks, Kirby.  Just a quick one on the President’s trip to Poland.  Is he going to be making a stop to Rzeszów or anywhere other than Warsaw?

MR. KIRBY:  Right now, the trip is going to be in Warsaw.

Q    Okay.  Before the Chinese spy balloon incident led to a finetuning of radar, how is the administration tracking these flying objects, if at all?

MR. KIRBY:  Let me go back and just — I want to answer your first question again.  I said “right now.”  The trip will be in — to Warsaw.  So I didn’t want to make it sound like I was alluding to a change to it.

Q    Okay. 

MR. KIRBY:  And your second question was, how were we tracking these before?

Q    Correct.  Because the reason why you were able to detect and shoot down these three objects the President said yesterday was because we finetuned —

MR. KIRBY:  They adjusted the radar. 

Q    Correct.  Yeah.

MR. KIRBY:  Yeah.

Q    So what were you doing before, if anything, to track aerial objects?

MR. KIRBY:  The commander of NORAD, General VanHerck, spoke to this last week.  And the way he characterized it was that they were — they were tuned to look for — defaulted to look for other types of threats in our airspace — fast moving, lower altitude, more kinetic potential threats, such as ballistic or cruise missiles or bomber fighter aircraft.  That’s what their focus was; that they had not — they had not adjusted the, as he called it, “gates on the radar” — the filters — to look for things that were much higher, much slower, and a smaller radar cross-section — harder to see. 

So as we said the other day, when you adjust for that, you’re likely to see more of what you’re asking the radar to look for.  But it just wasn’t set for that.

He was focused on other types of threats, more kinetic threats to our — or potential kinetic threats in our airspace. 

Q    So it sounds like — you know, yesterday, the President said that he wanted to work to establish a better inventory of unmanned airborne objects.  Does that mean currently there is no inventory?

MR. KIRBY:  I wouldn’t say there’s none, but — but I think it’s fair to say that he wants us to focus a little bit more on this particular issue and — and learn more about what’s out there, what — what’s up there, quite frankly. 

Q    Got it.  And then how long do you think it will take to implement this four-step plan?  And what will you do in the meantime?  Is the policy to shoot them down before you implement these four things the President wants?

MR. KIRBY:  No.  I think you can imagine that even though we’re still working on the policy parameters, that — that we’re going to continue to follow a very deliberate, thoughtful decision-making process here should there be another track.  There aren’t any right now.

I can’t give you a timeline specific to the calendar about when will be done this work, but it won’t take very long.  I think in a matter of days we’ll be able to transmit to Congress the classified parameters we’re still working out through the interagency right now, and get those to the Hill
within days, I think.  And then — and then we’ll be executing on it. 

So there’s not — I don’t want to leave you with the impression that there’s going to be some big, old air gap between him wanting these parameters written and us being able to execute on them.

Q    About how long do you think it’ll take?

MR. KIRBY:  I mean, we’re already, in many ways, using some of those parameters just informally as — as we’re looking at the skies.  Again, there’s no active tracks right now.

So I think it’ll just be — we’ll commit — we’ll transmit these parameters within coming days.  It won’t be very, very long.  And it’s not like it’s, you know — it’s — it’s going to be sent to be debated on or voted on.  It’s going to be our parameters — parameters divined by the National Security Council team and the interagency on how we’re going to deal with this.

Q    Thank you.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Go ahead, Chris.

Q    Hi.  So, a question on the trip to Poland.  Polls show American support for — support for Ukraine has softened somewhat.  There’s obviously concerns about House Republicans not going along with more support for Ukraine.  How does the President try to square that with his message of support on the trip?  And is his audience — would you consider it to be a domestic audience back home, or is his audience Russia and other countries in Eastern Europe?

MR. KIRBY:  The President well knows that when he — whenever he speaks, he’s speaking to people all around the world as well as, of course, the American people.  But I think you’ll — you’ll hear messages in the President’s speech that will certainly resonate with the American people, will certainly resonate with our allies and partners, without question resonate with the Polish people who have done so much and continue to do so. 

And I — I would suspect that you’ll — you’ll hear him messaging Mr. Putin as well, as well as the Russian people. 

Now, I want to go back to your first question, because it — it almost assumes as if support is going to wane or waver or dwindle.  And that’s just not how the President sees it. 

Yes, there are a small number of members on Capitol Hill, in the House Republicans specifically, that have expressed publicly their concerns about support for Ukraine.  But if you talk to the House leadership, you won’t hear that.  And you certainly aren’t going to hear it on the Democratic side.  And you don’t hear it on the — in the Senate. 

There has been terrific bipartisan support through the entire year.  Think about what we’ve done over this year.  All of it has been done in the full consultation and coordination with Congress.  There’s no such thing as a blank check.  We’re all doing it together.  And the support from Congress has really been extraordinary.  And the President looks forward to that support continuing.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Go ahead.

Q    Thank you very much.  Is the President prepared to send U.S. fighter jets to Ukraine?  What’s the current thinking on it?

MR. KIRBY:  We — he talked about this.  And I think the President actually got asked this question, and he spoke to it.  I don’t have anything to add from what the President said.

I’ll just tell you that we remain in constant communication with the Ukrainians about what their needs are.  And those needs have evolved as the war has evolved, and we’ll see where this goes. 

Q    If Poland has MiG-29s at Ramstein Air Base, is the U.S. prepared to facilitate the delivery of those MiG-29s if Poland (inaudible)?

MR. KIRBY:  I don’t know of any requests by the Poles to transmit their M-20 — their MiG-29s to Ukraine. 

We have never dictated to another partner what they can or can’t give or on what timeline.  And if — if one of our allies and partners wants to provide fighter aircraft to President Zelenskyy, that’s certainly a sovereign decision that they have every right to make, and we would welcome that. 

Q    My last follow-up on this.  There’s $100 million in the appropriations bill in July to train Ukrainian fighter pilots on U.S. aircraft.  What’s the status of that training?  Are they —

MR. KIRBY:  There’s no training underway right now because there’s no — there’s no commitment by the United States to provide fighter aircraft. 

Q    But you don’t have to have a fighter aircraft to do the training.

MR. KIRBY:  There’s no training underway right now about fighter pilots. 

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Go ahead.

Q    Thank you, Karine.  On President Biden — on President Biden’s trip to Poland, can we expect any deliverables during this trip, like a new military package for Ukraine or a new framework of support for Ukraine?

And another one: You just mentioned at the beginning of this press briefing that there are 10,000 U.S. troops in Poland.  Why there’s no meeting with the troops on President Biden’s schedule?

MR. KIRBY:  The President routinely visits with the men and women of the military and their families, and so does the First Lady.  You can’t look at a single set of remarks he ever gives, including yesterday, where he doesn’t call out the troops and how prideful he is in them.

And this particular trip is a short one, and it’s going to be focused on events in Warsaw. 

You never want to make it about you when you’re up here, but as a veteran myself, I can promise you I never worried ever, when he was Vice President or certainly as President, about his concern for the welfare of the men and women in uniform and their families.  Not a single bit.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Go ahead, Andrea.

Q    And what about the first question —

MR. KIRBY:  I was trying to ignore —

Q    — on the deliverables?

MR. KIRBY:  — I was trying to ignore the first question.  (Laughter.)  I thought that if I was eloquent on my second answer —

So I’m not going to get ahead of the President.  I think you can understand that.

We have been consistent in rolling out additional security assistance packages to Ukraine on a fairly routine and regular basis, and that will continue.

I’m not going to speak — get ahead of the President’s remarks.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Go ahead, Andrea.

Q    John, I want to ask you — you’ve spoken with other allies —

MR. KIRBY:  And I — one —

Q    Sorry.

MR. KIRBY:  — I will say that I think you’ll hear from the President, in his speech, continued, tangible support for Ukraine going forward.  I mean, there — he will talk about the ways in which we’re going to continue to support Ukraine going forward.

Q    So, on the balloon question.  So, you’ve reached out to allies, told them that, you know, you believe that these balloons have been sighted over, you know, dozens of countries.

MR. KIRBY:  Forty to fifty.

Q    Forty to fifty.  Have you asked other countries to take action against those balloons?  And have you seen an increase or decrease in the sightings and the activity since this all became public?  And I have another quick one. 

MR. KIRBY:  No, the purpose was not to ask them to take action one way or another.  These are, again, sovereign decisions that nations have to make. 

It was about informing them of the context, the forensics that we did to learn more about this program and the ways in which their countries may have been overflown in the past.

Q    Okay.  And then, just following up on Marek’s question, Zelenskyy today spoke at the Munich Security Conference, and he asked the West — urgently appealed to the West to provide more, bigger, heavier weapons more quickly because everyone fears the offensive that is expected.  So, you know, what do you say to Zelenskyy?  What will Harris say when she, you know, is —

MR. KIRBY:  You can’t hardly blame him, can you?

I mean, one year on, how many millions flown into refuge inside and outside the country?  How many soldiers killed?  How many towns and cities destroyed?  How many hospitals and schools bombed?  Can’t blame President Zelenskyy for wanting more, heavier, faster.

I mean, he’s a commander in chief in a time of war — a war he didn’t ask for it and certainly had — there was no justification for it.  And we understand that.

We also understand the clock.  And we know that time is critical here, particularly the time in the wintertime now, when the fighting is not quite as widespread across the country, there’s quite a bit of vicious fighting in — in and around Bakhmut. 

In fact, I’d like to talk about Bakhmut in a second, even though you didn’t ask about it.

So we’re going to try to do what we can to use this time to get Mr. Zelenskyy as much as possible, as fast as we can, so that when the weather improves — and we all have to assume and expect that the Russians will want to go back on the offense; right now they’re fighting over Bakhmut, but it’s possible that along that arc from northeast to southwest, that they may want to renew their offensive operations — that he’s ready for it, and that if he chooses to, he can go on the offense as well.

You didn’t ask about Bakhmut, but I — I want to mention it just briefly, a little bit.

I mean, we’ve talked about Bakhmut in the past.  No strategic value to the Russians.  Seems to be an operation almost exclusively run by Mr. Prigozhin and the Wagner Group, more than it is the Russian Ministry of Defense.

They have made incremental gains in and around Bakhmut over the last few days.  And we certainly can’t predict one way or the other.  I mean, it is possible that, you know, they might end up being successful in Bakhmut.  But it will prove of no real worth to them because it is of no real strategic value. 

The Ukrainians will continue to maintain, we believe, strong defensive lines across the Donbas and will be — and still are fighting very, very hard for Bakhmut.

But I do want to say this about the Wagner Group, and particularly with respect to Bakhmut.  I mean, again, they’re treating their recruits, largely convicts, as basically — as cannon fodder, throwing them into a literal meat grinder here, inhuman ways, without a second thought.

And while fighting in Ukraine, we estimate now that Wagner has suffered more than 30,000 casualties, including approximately 9,000 killed in action.  About half of those who were killed — Wagner folks who — contractors who were killed — were killed since mid-December.  So, think about that.  Two and a half months, 9,000 [4,500] killed as the fighting in Bakhmut has intensified. 

Based on previous intelligence, we estimated that about 90 percent of those killed in the December fighting alone, just in December, were convicts.  Men that he just plucked out of prisons and threw on the battlefield with no training, no equipping, no organizational command, just throw them into the fight.  Ninety percent killed were convicts.

We believe that Wagner continues to rely heavily on these convicts in the Bakhmut fighting, and that doesn’t show any signs of abating.

I know you didn’t ask that question, but I wanted to get that out there.


Q    Thank you.  Does it remain the case that no companies, institutions, or other entities have come forward to the federal government to claim possible ownership of the three objects that were shot down?

MR. KIRBY:  As far as I know, it is true that no one has come forward to claim ownership.

Q    Okay.  And so, that Illinois group, they’ve not come forward, that was s- —

MR. KIRBY:  I’m not aware of any formal process or official process on behalf of that group to come forward.  We’ve seen the press reports.

Q    Yeah.  Have you identified any possible entities that could be responsible for these?

MR. KIRBY:  Not that I’m aware of, no.

Q    So you have no possible leads on where these objects might have come from?

MR. KIRBY:  We don’t, sir.  And I think it’ll be very difficult to make some sort of positive identification unless you can get to the debris.  And even that could be a difficult process.

Q    So it hinges on the debris?  I mean, there’s no way to identify it without looking at the debris?

MR. KIRBY:  I mean, unless an organization comes forward and knows definitively that it was their property.  But, I mean, even that might be difficult for that entity to know.

Q    Is the government going to try to reach out to this Illinois amateur balloon group?

MR. KIRBY:  I know of no outreach to that group.  We don’t have the debris.  There’s no way to — there’s no way to positively identify it.

Q    Thanks.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Go ahead.

Q    Thank you.  One quick question regarding the Chinese balloon.  Can you tell us what’s been determined from the wreckage that was found from that particular balloon?

MR. KIRBY:  No, I can’t, because we’re not done doing the analyzing.  They did finish their recovery operations off the Carolina coast.  They got almost all, at least that which was recoverable.  And it’s quite a bit — it’s a significant amount — including the payload structure, as well as some of the electronics and the optics.

And all of that is now at the FBI laboratory in Quantico.  They’re analyzing it.  They’re looking at it.  And we need to let them do their work in a thoughtful, deliberate way.

I want to caveat all this by saying there may be some things we will not be able to disclose, and I think you can understand why that is.

But we’re going to exploit this material as best we can.  We learned a lot already from the balloon by surveilling it while it was flying over the country.  We’re going to learn even more, we believe, by getting a look at the guts inside it and see how it worked and what it was capable of.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  In the back.

Q    What about the information the Chinese have been —

Q    Thanks, Karine.  A question —

Q    — able to learn about the U.S. —

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Hold on, one second.

Q    — based on that surveillance?

MR. KIRBY:  Again, we’ll have to — we’ll have to get inside it and do the best we can on the forensics of it.

That said, we do not believe that they were able to get anything additive to what already they were able to get through other sources.  Because we could predict its flight path along that jet stream over the continent, because it was moving slow, we were able to put in place protocols at sensitive military sites in the — in our — in the country, particularly in the Midwest, to limit any collection ability. 

So we don’t believe that the balloon was able to collect anything of great significance, certainly nothing additive to what the Chinese may have already been able to do through other means.

Q    Thank you.

Q    Thanks, Karine.  John, a year ago, in Poland, the President said that Vladimir Putin shouldn’t remain in power.  We were later told that this wasn’t a call for regime change.  Given that we’re now one year on, the war has dragged on this time, is there any change in the U.S. approach?  Do you think removing Vladimir Putin from power in Moscow would help bring an end to this war?

MR. KIRBY:  There’s no change in our policy with respect to the Russian government. 

What could end the war is real simple.  I mean, it ain’t hard.  All he’s got to do is take his troops out of Ukraine.  They don’t belong there anyway.  Pull them out.  The war would be over.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Go ahead, James.

Q    Thank you very much, Karine.  And thank you, Admiral.  Two questions about this whole series of military shootdowns.

First, it defies reason that you would have zero idea what these three objects were since the fighter jets themselves took video of their sorties.  Will you release the cockpit videos from those missions?

MR. KIRBY:  I’d have to refer you to DOD on that, James, in terms of releasing the imagery.

I never said we had zero idea.  I said we don’t know what they are, and so did the President.  The President also told you that the intelligence community’s leading explanations at this point are that they were benign purpose, probably commercial recreation or scientific research. 

But we — we may not be able to go to 100 percent certainty on that unless or until we can get to the debris and analyze it.  And as I said earlier, that task alone is going to be very difficult, and I can’t predict with certainty that we’re actually going to be able to get — recover the debris.

But we never said we had no idea.  We have — we can’t prove definitively.  The intelligence community has helped us try to do some analysis on this, and that’s their leading explanation.

Q    So, you have tried to portray this entire sequence of events as one in which the Commander-in-Chief demonstrated good judgment at the right time and did the right things.  The President’s critics obviously see it differently.  And what they depict is a Commander-in-Chief who, according to a Washington Post reporting, was able to track this Chinese spy balloon from the inception of its mission off of Hainan Island, all the way to U.S. airspace and across the country.  And eventually, that was shot down after the Chinese had a good look at whatever they wanted to see with that balloon.  And who then presided over a series of missions in which millions and millions of dollars were spent and missiles were fired at objects that you now concede most likely were benign in nature. 

And that suggests a Commander-in-Chief who overreacted after allowing the Chinese spy balloon to do what it did and then went trigger-happy on a bunch of kites and balloons that had no military threat to them.

What do you say to that depiction of events?

MR. KIRBY:  I’ve already — I’ve already reacted to that exact criticism in the first questions of the briefing.  I’ve already reacted to it.

Nobody — no Americans in the air were hurt.  No Americans in the air or — and the ground were hurt, James.  No significant surveillance achieved by the Chinese spy balloon.  And — and now we have an opportunity to learn even more about this program, a program that we started to really study in earnest when we came into office.  No apologies here. 

You make the best decisions you can with the information you have and at the recommendation of the leaders in the Defense Department who are going to have to execute on that mission.  The President did exactly that.  He put the safety and security of the American people first.  And he will never apologize for that, nor should he.

Q    And with everything you know now — knowing everything he knows now, would he take the exact same steps and shoot off these expensive missiles at these benign objects?

MR. KIRBY:  We’re going to put some more policy parameters in place, James, to govern the way we handle these going forward.  You make the best decisions you can with the information you have, at the recommendation of military leaders.  I can’t say it any more than that.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  All right, we got to move on.  Go ahead, Patsy.

Q    Thank you, Karine.  John, you’ve said often — actually, let me just really clarify one more thing before I move on to Ukraine.  Have we —

MR. KIRBY:  I can’t imagine anything I said needs to be clarified.

Q    (Laughs.)  Yes.  Have we put forward the formal request to the Chinese for the call with President Xi?


Q    Okay.  So there’s no formal request just yet?


Q    Okay.

MR. KIRBY:  That doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen or the President still doesn’t want to talk to President Xi.  He will.

Q    Understood.  On Ukraine, you’ve said often that Ukraine gets to decide when it wants to negotiate.  But at this point, is there any serious effort or is there any effort from the administration’s side to look at pathways to peace?  Do we have any idea of what those pathways to peace might look like?  Is that even realistic at this point, absent of Putin stopping his aggression?

MR. KIRBY:  We’re working with Mr. Zelenskyy on his 10-point proposal.  I think you’re all familiar with that.  And he asked if the United States could devote some of our team to help his team sort of figure out how we can best operationalize that proposal.  And that work is — that work is ongoing.

Q    Okay.  And I think part of the problem with the pathways to peace that doesn’t seem like it’s realistic at this point is, you know, the issue on who keeps what territorially.  That just seems like it’s way off in the future.

MR. KIRBY:  Why do you think it’s not realistic right now?

Q    Well, I mean — I don’t know, is it?  Do you think that it’s realistic?  Is — what is the —

MR. KIRBY:  Do you think Mr. Putin has shown even a scrap of interest in ending this war?  Like I said, the war he could end today.  No.

And what’s he doing instead?  Launching cruise missiles and drones into civilian infrastructure, knocking out the power, knocking off the heat, killing kids, sending kids to camps inside Russia, buying drones from Iran, and trying to buy artillery shells from North Korea.  This is not a man who’s at all serious about ending this war. 

And quite frankly, it doesn’t — it shouldn’t have to end through negotiations.  Now, that’s likely the way this will go when President Zelenskyy is ready for it.  But he could end it now just by pulling his troops out.  He has shown no indication of being willing to do that.  And so there cannot be a serious peace proposal or negotiation until the Russians have shown even a scrap of interest in actually stopping the murder and the slaughter of innocent Ukrainian people. 

And in the meantime, as President Zelenskyy very eloquently said over in Munich, there’s a need — a real need, an urgent need — for the rest of the global community to come together and support him so that his troops can succeed on the battlefield.  And that’s what we’re going to stay focused on right now — so that if and when he does negotiate, he can do it with a position of strength.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Go ahead, Peter.

Q    John, one on each topic we’ve been talking about right here.  First, as it relates to the Chinese spy balloon: Given the reporting that the U.S. was monitoring and were aware of it since its departure from China, much the same way that they shot it within the 12 miles off the coast of South Carolina, why not make an active decision to shoot it in the 12 miles or the miles off the West Coast as well?  Why not shoot it before it was over U.S. land —

MR. KIRBY:  Without speaking to —

Q    — and potentially a threat?

MR. KIRBY:  Without speaking to the veracity of this reporting, I would — and the specific nature of our ability to track it — the NORTHCOM Commander/NORAD Commander, General VanHerck, has already spoken to this in terms of why he didn’t take action at the time.

Q    But wasn’t that — wasn’t he speaking to when it was over the United States, not —

MR. KIRBY:  No, he was speaking to — he got asked specifically about —

Q    About the territorial waters.

MR. KIRBY:  — about approaching Alaska and why he didn’t take action.  And he talked about — he talked about no hostile intent, no hostile threat —

Q    Yeah.

MR. KIRBY:  — and concern for — for lives and livelihoods on the ground. 

Q    Do we have a domain awareness gap? 

MR. KIRBY:  He has said — he has identified a domain awareness gap.

Q    Is that being assessed as part of this review that’s taking place in some form?

MR. KIRBY:  So, it’s not a review.  We’re simply developing —

Q    As part of this effort?

MR. KIRBY:  We are developing new policy parameters that are going to be helping us with the decision-making process, Peter.

Now, Van- — General VanHerck talked about a domain awareness gap.  Some of that gap has been addressed by finetuning the radars and making them more sensitive to things that are high, slow, and small. 

And we’ll certainly continue to work with the Defense Department as they begin to move forward.  They got a new budget they’re working on.  If there needs to be more resources — more resources applied to this particular challenge, then that’s certainly a conversation worth having. 

Q    Then lastly, about the trip.  In late January, the administration announced dozens of Bradleys would be sent to Ukraine.  Any update?  Those obviously needed to be built.  Any update on the timetable within which those will be delivered to Ukraine?

MR. KIRBY:  The — I think you’re a little — you’re getting a little confused.  The Abrams tanks are —

Q    Excuse me.  I meant to say —

MR. KIRBY:  — are being procured through —

Q    Correct.  I meant to say Abrams.  Yes, correct. 

MR. KIRBY:  — (inaudible).  Yeah. 

They are — I don’t know where they are in the procurement process.  That’s a better question for the Defense Department.  I’d refer you to those guys.  But it’s going to be many months before they can be — the contractor for procu- — built and procured and getting — getting them into Ukrainian hands.  It’s going to be — it’s going to be awhile. 

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Go ahead, Aurelia.

Q    Thank you.  When the President says he’s going to support Ukraine as long as it takes, does it mean that if President Zelenskyy decides to launch a battle to retake Crimea, the President would support him as well?

And another question.  Can you confirm that top Pentagon official has arrived in Taiwan for a visit?

MR. KIRBY:  On the first question, I’m not going to get into a hypothetical.  I’m certainly not going to hypothesize about potential future operations that the Ukrainians might or might not conduct.  That’s up to President Zelenskyy and his team. 

When President Biden says “as long as it takes,” he means as long as it takes.  He’s not trying to be cute by half.  There’s — there’s — there’s no special way to interpret that.  He means as long as it takes.

Hopefully, it won’t take any longer than another day or so, but I think we all know that’s not the case. 

So when he says it, he means it.  And I think all you got to do is look back at the last year, at the — at the unprecedented amount of assistance — security assistance alone.  Forget about the — just the financial and humanitarian assistance that the United States has not only provided, but led the world in providing.  So he stands by that.

And I can’t confirm your other question.  You’d have to talk to my colleagues at the Defense Department.  I don’t — I don’t have detail on his schedule.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Two more.  Go ahead.

Q    Do you — are you able to provide any update on whether there are discussions of other Western leaders coming to Poland while President Biden is there?  There have been rumblings that Rishi Sunak could come or Macron —

MR. KIRBY:  Grumblings? 

Q    That’s the best word I can come up with.  (Laughter.) 

MR. KIRBY:  Grumblings of what? 

Q    Rumblings that Rishi Sunak, Macron could — could come to Poland while the President is there next week. 

MR. KIRBY:  Yeah, I don’t know of any plans that — you’d have to talk to their offices about their travel. 

As I — as I said, he does look forward to meeting with the B9 — the Bucharest Nine leaders.  So there will be leaders from the eastern flank countries of NATO coming to Warsaw to meet with the President, with President Duda. 

I do not know about — I don’t know about anybody — others.

Q    And then just one follow-up —

MR. KIRBY:  Well, I did say in my opening statement that he will reach out to Prime Minister Sunak, he will reach out to the Prime Minister Meloni of Italy, and he’ll talk to President Macron of France next week.  He’s anticipating conversations with them next week. 

Q    Okay, thank you.  And then, does the White House have any sense of when it will need to go back to Congress and ask for another security assistance package for Ukraine?

MR. KIRBY:  No.  I mean — again, hopefully, we won’t need to, but we’ll certainly be prepared to.

We are still executing — in the early phases of executing on the appropriated funds we got at the end of the last Congress, which was some 42, I think, billion dollars.  Much of that was devoted to security assistance.  And as you can see, we’ve already started sending packages. 

We believe that this funding will get us through much of this year, and I just don’t have a date certain where I would tell you we’d have to go back.  But obviously, if we feel like we need to — back to the President’s comments about “as long as it takes” — we’ll do that.  And we’ll do that at the appropriate time, well in advance of the expiration of any existing funds.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  And last one.  Natalie, right? 

Q    Priscilla. 

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Priscilla. 

Q    Yes.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Well, welcome to White House.

MR. KIRBY:  Well, you got close.

Q    Thank you. 

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  No, I’m not close at all.  (Laughs.)

MR. KIRBY:  I was trying to be nice.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Thank you.  (Laughs.)

Well, welcome to the briefing room. 

Q    Thank you.  On next week’s visit, are there plans for President Biden to cross into Ukraine?

MR. KIRBY:  No. 

Q    And then, on the balloons, the protocols and the way they’ve been adjusted now and how the parameters will be adjusted in the future, does that give the administration confidence that objects that are benign in nature won’t be shot down?

MR. KIRBY:  What I can tell you is these parameters will help us sharpen the decision-making process now that we are looking for more and finding more.  And you think, “And that’s appropriate.” 

But I’d also point you back to what the President said.  If he deems something as a threat, he’s not going to hesitate.  So you’re asking me, can I promise that — that if he were to take that action, that every single thing would turn out to be exactly what we thought it would be?  I can’t promise that.

All I can promise you is that he will always act in the best interest of the American people, our national security interests, our — our — the ability to protect our sensitive military sites and our nat- — our nation’s secrets.  That will always come first.  And that will always be the default position that he’ll take as he makes these decisions. 

Q    So that doesn’t rule out, then, objects that are benign (inaudible)?

MR. KIRBY:  You’re asking a hypothetical.  I mean, we’re not even there yet.  All I can tell you is that every decision he’ll make going forward will certainly be in keeping with these new parameters, but also designed to keep us safe.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  All right, thank you so much.

MR. KIRBY:  Thank you.  Sorry to take so long.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Are you kidding me?  We appreciate it.  We appreciate it.

Q    Thanks, John. 

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Thank you so much, Admiral. 

MR. KIRBY:  Have a great weekend.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Okay, I just have a couple of things at the top. 

One of them — I’ll start off with Turkey/Syria and the assistance that we are providing currently after the devastating earthquake.  So the U.S., through USAID, is airlifting more than $2.5 million worth of emergency relief supplies to the people of Turkey as part of the $85 million in assistance we have pledged to support the people of Turkey and Syria, following, again, the devastating February 6th earthquakes. 

Today, U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Jeff Flake met the arrival of the initial delivery of these supplies at Adana Airport while the supplies were loaded onto trucks for delivery to affected communities. 

Secretary Blinken has also announced travel to Turkey over the weekend. 

Over the coming days, USAID will continue to transport relief supplies on approximately 10 flights with more than 1.8 million pounds of supplies of kitchen sets, hygiene kits, heavy-duty plastic sheeting for temporary shelters, and high-thermal blankets to provide for hundreds of thousands of people.

In Syria, we must keep aid flowing so that the Syrian people get the help they so desperately need.  The decisions earlier this week to open two additional border crossings for U.N. convoys is welcomed but long overdue, and we must ensure that they cannot be turned off on a whim. 

We believe that a Security Council resolution codifying the opening of additional border checkpoints in a Security Council resolution is the best way to do that.  And we’ll continue pressing that forward. 

I also want to say a few words about Senator Fetterman, and — before we — before we continue.  Millions of Americans, as you all know, go untreated with depression every day.  Senator Fetterman did the right thing and brave thing today — or just this week — by getting the help that he definitely needs. 

So the President is committed to making sure every American can get help they need too, which is why he made addressing mental health a priority.

From his earliest days as President, his administration has made unprecedented investments in expanding access to mental health services, including better incorporating mental health into the broader healthcare system, securing bipartisan funding to get more mental health resources to schools, and bolstering that 988 suicide hotline.  In the State of the Union speech just last week, the President continued to call for Republicans and Democrats to work together to get this done. 

As the President and First Lady shared this morning, they are thinking about John, Gisele, and their entire Fetterman family today.  And they — they are grateful to Senator Fetterman for being an example to this. 

And briefly and last, I want to say to all of you: Yesterday, Secretary Walsh announced that he will step down from his role as Labor Secretary in the upcoming weeks.  As the President said in his statement about the Secretary’s departure, Secretary Walsh is “one tough union chief.”  And “[h]is record at the Department of Labor is a testament to the power of putting a card-carrying union member in charge of fighting for American workers.”   Through the Secretary’s leadership, the administration “has helped unions secure a historic pay raise for rail workers, continued the fight for paid sick days for all American workers, strengthened workplace protections, and ushered in a historic surge in union organizing.”  Secretary Walsh’s work “has made life better for millions of working Americans, and will serve as a model for all future Labor Secretaries who truly value American working people.”

We certainly wish the Secretary well in all his feat- — in all his future faceoffs and also puck drops.  So, good luck to you, Secretary Walsh.

And — and we can start the briefing. 

Q    Okay.  So question on — the House Oversight Committee wants to examine the U.S. pullout from Afghanistan, a second, you know, Republican-led investigation into the withdrawal.  Does the White House plan to cooperate with this investigation?  How does it feel about it?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  So I’ll say this: We have been providing Congress with information on Afghanistan and the operation for this past year.  So don’t have anything to add there. 

As you know, the White House Counsel is very much focused on the oversight.  They’re the ones who are answering questions and dealing with — with the letters.  Certainly we’ll take a look at the letter.  So I would — I will let them speak to this. 

Q    And what’s the status of the administration’s own internal review?  There’s been a lot of talk about this?  Is that ever going to be finished or released publicly?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  So it’s — I don’t have any update on the review.  I know that’s been asked a couple of times.  I know that Jake Sullivan came and spoke to this some time ago, our National Security Advisor.  Just don’t have an update for you all. 

And once we have something to share, we certainly will provide it.

Q    Is this something you could commit to getting an update on for next week?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  I would have to — I would have to honestly speak to Jake Sullivan and the National Security Council team.  But I know that that came — that’s come up a couple times here at the podium and he’s spoken to this.  I would just have to go back to them and get some information for you.

Q    Thank you, Karine.  Regarding Senator Fetterman: While the President was at Walter Reed yesterday, did he by any chance see the Senator there?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  I don’t have any — I don’t have any meetings or conversations with Senator Fetterman to speak to at this time. 

Q    Okay.  And regarding the Memphis police officers charged in the death of Tyre Nichols, as you know, this is a community that’s been hurting.  I was there in Memphis when the video was released, for the funeral.  We saw the Vice President there.  The people there want change to the policing system.  Does the White House believe that that can actually happen? 

And also, what’s the — sorry, what’s the White House’s reaction to the officers pleading not guilty today?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  So I — I want to be very mindful because it is an ongoing case, and we are always careful here when there is a criminal investigation or a case moving forward. 

But I’m just going to reiterate what the President has said before, and — you know, nothing can bring back Mr. Nichols back to his family and — and also the Memphis community.  He should be — he should be alive today.  And — and, sadly, his — his family has to continue to mourn the death of — the death of their — of their loved one. 

But we do believe — the President does believe that Mr.  and Mrs. Wells and — and also Tyre’s son, Mr. Nichols’s son, and his whole entire family deserve a swift and full and transparent investigation.  And that’s what the President believes, and that’s what should be called for.

But I’m not going to get, certainly, ahead of an investigation at this time.

Q    Thank you.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Go ahead.

Q    Has President Biden spoken to Senator Fetterman’s wife —


Q    — since he —

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  I don’t have a — I don’t have any — any conversation to read out at this time. 

As you know, the President has developed a — a very good, close relationship with the Fettermans over the last several months.  You saw the President visit Pennsylvania multiple times during the midterm elections.  And so they’ve gotten to know each other. 

I think, you know, the President and the First Lady put out a very heartfelt tweet just lifting up Senator Fetterman and what he has — what he has committed to do for himself and spoken — and speak — really speak to an issue that millions of Americans have to deal with every day.  And that is incredibly courageous and brave to do. 

And of course — of course, we — we wish him a speedy recovery.

Q    On the response in Ohio and the train derailment with the hazardous materials: There’s federal officials on the ground.  How long does the administration expect for those officials to stay there?  And can the White House provide any assurances, based on the information provided to the White House, on — for the residents in that town?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  So, as you — as I mentioned yesterday, and as you all know, this is certainly a priority for the administration — the health and the safety of the community in East Palestine. 

Just a couple of things that I want to say at the top to all of you.  So we have mobilized a robi- — robust, multi-agency effort to support the people of East Palestine, Ohio.

EPA is helping the state test the water and air, collect soil samples, and screen homes. 

The Department of Transportation is helping get to the bottom of what exactly happened, how — what led to the derailment.

FEMA has been closely coordinating with the Ohio Emergency Management Agency and federal partners. 

The governor said just yesterday — asked for — or asked just yesterday for public health support. 

And today, as we have announced — and I actually talked about this yesterday, how HHS and CDC were getting involved.  And today, they both — both those agencies announced they are deploying a team of medical personnel and toxicologists to conduct public health testing and assessments. 

So we are committed to supporting the people of Palestine every step of the way.  And we are going to be on the ground helping them as long as it’s needed. 

And — and also, we’re going to hold Norfolk Southern accountable as well.  And we’re seeing that — we’re seeing that accountability.  We’re already doing that process.

Go ahead, Andrea.

Q    Karine, you got a bunch of personnel changes happening at the White House and openings.  How quickly — excuse me — how quickly will you be announcing nominees for the Labor Department job and to replace, you know, the — Lael Brainard at the Fed?

And then, just in that context, there’s a report out that Carla Frank is also leaving, if you could confirm that.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Say the last part.

Q    Carla Frank is leaving as Political —

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Okay.  Don’t have any — any personnel announcements to make at this time.  I can say to you that under the Department of Labor statute, Julie Su will serve as an Acting Secretary, which is common. 

But as far as personnel announcement, I don’t have anything to share at this moment.  Clearly, filling the role of — you know, filling those two roles are critical and important and a priority.  Just don’t have to share — anything to share at this moment. 

Q    Can I just follow up?  I mean, what are you looking for in a Labor Secretary?  You talked about what you thought Marty Walsh brought to the job.  What are you looking for?  Your economic team, you’ve —


Q    — you’ve raised a lot of concerns over the last year about corporate profit taking, about just, you know, empowering unions, kind of, supporting union — unionization drives.  You — are you looking for a strong labor leader?  And is that something

that you also would like to see in the next person to go to the Fed?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Yeah, I think that’s a — both very good questions.  I’m going to leave that to the President to decide what it is that he’s looking for in those two — those two key, critical positions.

You know, no one’s going to — no one’s going to replace Marty Walsh.  He was one of a kind, as I just laid out, and incredibly effective.  And we are very, very thankful for his service and wish him well.

So don’t want to — don’t want to say that’s the — you know, don’t want to say that’s what we’re going to be looking for.  But also, that’s for the President to decide.

As far as the President’s economic plan or how he sees the economy moving forward, you kind of see that — what he’s been able to lay out these last two years.  And certainly, he wants to continue to build on that, continue to build on growing the economy from the bottom up and middle out.

I’m not going to get into, you know, into — into too many details there.  As you know, it’s the Federal Reserve, so we’re always trying to be really mindful there.

But as soon as we have — as soon as the President has decided who’s going to be next to fill those two positions, certainly we will share that.

Go ahead.

Q    Thanks, Karine.  To follow up on that, both the CBC and CAPAC have endorsed Julie Su to officially become the next Labor Secretary, in part because, quote, “the inclusion of an AANHPI as a Cabinet Secretary is long overdue.”  Is she on the President’s shortlist?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  So I’m not going to get into who’s on the President’s shortlist or not. 

But I do want to address the fact that we recognize that it is a priority for the AAPI community.  And we are — and we are proud that, through our work with members of Congress and stakeholders, we’ve made the most diverse administration ever — ever.  Not even in modern politics, but ever.

And so — so — and we believe we have — and it’s — it’s facts — we believe we have a historic number of AAPI appointees at the level, including three in Cabinet, all of whom are women, which is Vice President Harris, as you know; Tai, as well.  And so we have a number of AAPI ambassadors, like Michelle Kwan and Chris Lu.  And it’s — it’s also — about 14 percent of our appointees identify as Asian American, Native Hawaiian, or Pacific Islander.

So this is a President that has made a priority to make sure that he has an administration that looks like the country.  And — and that is incredibly diverse and historically diverse.

So that is a commitment that he’s going to continue to make.  I’m just not going to get ahead of the President’s decision at this time.

Q    And then, switching topics.  On a topic that you brought up —

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Uh-oh.  (Laughs.)

Q    — with John Kirby earlier —


Q    — when you said that neither you or he are — have “hit your prime yet.”  Does the President have anything to say about this national conversation that was sparked after a claim that was seemingly made in defense of the President, that Nikki Haley is not in her prime because women hit their prime in their 20, 30s, and 40s?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  You know, I’m not going to comment directly to that.  That is something, clearly, that needs to be addressed by —

Q    Right, I only bring it up because you — you brought it up with John.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  No, no.  No, no.  I’m going to say something.  Just give me a second.  I — I have something to say.

When you look at this President’s administration, and we have talked about the numbers before, it is — there are more women in his senior — in his senior advisor, in his senior staff roles than men.  And I think when you think about that, you see a President that truly — that truly takes pride and takes deep consideration into making sure — and meaningful consideration to making sure there are diverse voices around him.

And I think that’s impor- — that’s important.  And I — and so what I want to say is: Just watch his actions, watch what he’s done.

You just asked me about — about — about Julie Su.  And I laid out what the President has done in having the most diverse administration.  And so I think all you have to do is look at the numbers, look at the people around him, look what he’s been able to do, look how he’s lift up different communities, including women.  And I’m just going to leave it there.

It is, clearly, truly a priority for him.  And I’ll just leave it there.

Go ahead.

Q    If I can ask you very quickly about that raid that took place in eastern Syria, just because John Kirby didn’t get to it: Has the President been briefed on the circumstances?  Has he had any conversations with those who were wounded?  Any more detail about his relationship to that event?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  So the President has been briefed.  I don’t have anything more to what John Kirby just laid out.  He — we would — I would refer you to the Department of Defense on any specifics on who’s — on who’s been wounded or any — any details — other details outside of what John Kirby laid out, but don’t have anything else.

Q    Did the President sign off on that raid?  Obviously, it was successful, as the DOD or the CENTCOM reported.  Was the President a part of the decision-making before it took place?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Again, I don’t want to get into too much of specifics on this.  But when it comes to situations like this, of course, the President is closely involved.

Q    And can I ask — the First Lady was supposed to travel to Indiana today.  She didn’t go because her office says that she’s not feeling very well.  Can you give us any better —

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Yeah, so —

Q    — it’s not COVID.  Is she okay? 

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  It’s — it’s —

Q    What’s the — going on?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  I can say from here that it’s not COVID.  She is under the weather.  And — and I’ll leave it there.  But is — is recuperating.

Q    So it’s a cold, basically?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  I’m not — I’m not a doctor, so I’m not going to go into specifics on what it is.  But I can say that she is indeed under the weather.  It is not COVID.  And her trip to Indiana that was supposed to happen today will be rescheduled at a later date.  And I’ll leave it there.

Q    Okay.  Obviously, we hope she gets well soon.  The last question —

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Yeah.  Yes, we should.

Q    — is about Rick Scott.  As you saw, he edited his policy plan on sunsetting federal programs after five years to say it now exempts Social Security and Medicare.  He says, to the President, to Democratic and Republican leaders, that it was never intended to refer to Social Security and Medicare.  In the White House’s view, does that end this conversation?  Is the discussion over this issue done?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  What do you think?  (Laughs.)  So I thought you would ask this question, so I have a couple of things to say to — to the senator.

So I’ll first say this: that the President congratulates Senator Scott on joining the post-State of the Union red wave, as we have seen, from Republicans acknowledging that they are, in fact, been attempting to put Medicare and Social Security on the chopping block.  Because that’s what they are actually saying: that they were indeed attempting to do that.

So, for the past year — and we have the facts.  The past year, he has explained the absence of an exception by saying, “If it’s worth keeping, we’re going to keep it.”  But make no mistake, his true colors are undeniable and on the record.  They have been speaking out both sides of their mouths here.  That’s what Republicans in the Senate, and Congress more broadly, have been doing.

Cutting Medicaid and Social Security benefits is a longstanding passion of Senator Scott’s, as it for — as it is for a majority of the House Republicans who compromise the Republican Study Committee and many of his senate colleagues ranging from John Thune and to Ron Johnson.

And so, for example, in 1990s, Senator Scott supported fully privatizing Medicare.  And let’s not forget, just weeks ago, they all said and were saying that they wanted to repeal the Inflation Reduction Act. 

By doing that, you certainly do — it would be one of the biggest cut to Medicare benefits if he were to do that.  And let’s not forget, the Inflation Reduction Act actually cuts down the deficit by $200 billion.

So we thank Senator Scott for continuing to share his heart with the world.  And — and we — you know, with that, I’ll just leave it there.

I’m going to go to the back a little bit here.  Go ahead.

Q    Thank you, Karine.  I wanted to ask about the situation in Ohio.  One thing you did- — I don’t know has been mentioned in the list of agencies that have been involved, and maybe it’s because you don’t have visibility into it: Is the Department of Justice — is the effort to hold Norfolk Southern accountable also extend to potential criminal liability, or has that been ruled out based on the fact that DOJ is not on the list of agencies?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  So, as you know, there is an investigation underway.  But we have done some things to hold Norfolk Southern accountable. 

Just a couple of things: EPA has secured Norfolk Southern’s commitment to cover — to cover all the cleanup costs, which is incredibly important.  And they’re requiring the railroad to document the release of hazardous con- — containments [contaminants]. 

There’s also an active, as I said, investigation underway.  Once the investigation is complete, the federal government will use all available and appropriate authorities to ensure accountability and prove all safety.

So let’s get the investigation going.  See where it takes us.  But already, we are making sure that they are being held into account.

Q    And on the balloon and the objects, sort of more of a domestic question, does this review or the effort to come up with this guidance and the intelligence regarding future shootdown protocols — is there anything that extends to the FAA regarding who may be required to file a flight plan or anything sort of for the public that people who may have small aircraft may need to do going forward?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  It’s a very good question.  I’m just going to allow the process to continue.  And as soon as we have parameters put forth, we certainly will share what we’re able to.

Some of that stuff is going to be — some of the information that — that will be provided by this — this interagency team will be classified, and we want to make sure that we protect — will protect that.  And so I’m just going to let the team do its work.  And we’ll — we’ll provide more information as soon as we have it.

Go ahead, Ed.

Q    Thank you, Karine.  Thank you.  So, ask you about credit card debt.  A New York Federal Reserve study now shows that Americans’ credit card debt reached a record level.  It also shows that delinquencies are up with that credit card debt, as well as delinquencies on auto loans.  Is the President concerned that we’re seeing a crack in the economic foundation because of inflation?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE: So just two things about — about that particular report.  So the report does not just measure borrowing, it measures credit card balances, including spending that it’s paid off every month.  So that’s important to note.  And also further, credit — credit card balances relative to take-home pay are lower than they were pre-pandemic.

So those are two things that are important to take to account.  And let’s not forget, as you know, Ed, there are other indicators that we also look at, which is really important.  The household net worth is 23 percent above pre-pandemic level.  Fifty-one percent fewer Americans are entering bankruptcy than before the pandemic.  Mortgage, auto, and credit card delinquencies are below pre-pandemic levels.

In fact, mortgage delinquencies are at near-record lows since the start of the data in 2003.  And over the last few years, we’ve seen credit card scores strengthen an expansion of credit.

So we also have to look at the other indicators.  And so, just wanted to make sure that — and I know you do as well, but want to make sure that we point that out too — that to you.

Q    So the President doesn’t see weakness, then, in the overall economy?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  No.  If anything, I just mentioned where we are.  We’re — I mean, if you look at past indicators that I just laid out, whether it’s household, whether it’s mortgage delinquency, we are at levels that we were pre-pandemic.  And so I think that matters. 

And let’s not forget, we were talking about the economy moments ago.  A lot of that is because of the work that this President has done on the economy, because of his economic policy, because he makes sure that no one is left behind, because he came in at a time where the economy was tanking and was able to turn that around and grow the economy.

And so, I think if you’re looking at the indicators and you’re seeing levels pre-pandemic, I think that matters.  And so that’s — we’re going to look at all the indicators and make sure we point out, as you’re asking me about this credit card debt record reached — record — there are two things that I just laid out, which it does not measure.  And so that’s also very important to take into account.

Go ahead, Mario.

Q    Thanks, Karine.  Speaking of the economy, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus today sent a letter to the President urging him to appoint a Hispanic American to fill the vacancy left by Fed Vice Chair Lael Brainard.  Is that something he’s considering?  Do we have a timetable yet as to when he will nominate someone?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Yeah, my answer is going to be similar to what I gave Andrea, which is: I just — I’m not going to get ahead of the President on this, at this moment.  Clearly, it’s an important vacancy that the President is going to make a priority to fill, but just not going to get ahead of — on what the criteria is going to be, who it’s going to be, who’s on the shortlist, not on the shortlist.  I’m just going to let the President decide.

Q    And, separately, are there any plans for the President to visit Ohio in light of the train wreck?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  So, as you know, the EPA Administrator, Regan, was there.  He held a press conference just over 24 hours ago, while he was in East Palestine. 

I just don’t have anything to share about the President’s schedule.  As you know, he’ll be in Poland the beginning of next week.

Go ahead, Jacqui.

Q    Thanks, Karine.  Just a follow-up on the Social Security stuff as it relates to the debt ceiling.  Recently, HHS announced some proposed rates for Medicare Advantage that would result in a $3 billion reduction to the program.  I know Becerra pushed back on that characterization.  But can you explain: How does it square with the President’s commitment not to cut Medicare?  Or are there cost-saving measures in there somehow — in the broader program — that you wouldn’t characterize as a cut, if it’s a cost-saving measure?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  I mean, I’m not going to go beyond to what Secretary Becerra said.  What he said is basically what — where the President is.

I want to be very careful here because — and as you know, the President is going to put forth his budget on March 9th, and he’ll talk about what he thinks is fiscally responsible and put forth a budget that’s fiscally responsible.  And — and he mentioned this in the State of the Union.  He’s going to talk about how he’s going to continue to lower the deficit by $2 trillion.  And you guys will see the specifics of that — of that budget when it comes out. 

And let’s not forget, the President also lowered the deficit the first two years by $1.7 trillion.

So, all of that is important as the President is growing the economy and making sure that no one is left behind, that he’s also lowering the deficit.  And he’s doing that with these very historic pieces of legislation that we have seen him sign into law these — this past two years.

But I want to be very clear: When it comes to — when it comes to protecting Medicare, when it comes to Social Security, the President is going to continue to fight to make sure that those are not being held hostage by the Republican Party, to make sure that we are fighting for programs that tax po- –taxpayers, pardon me, pay into.  We’re talking about veterans.  We’re talking about seniors.

So this is something that the President has been very clear about.  He talked about it this week, he talked about it at the State of the Union.  We need to make sure those programs, those lifesaving programs, for many Americans, millions of Americans, are not played with just like what Republicans are trying to do.

I just laid out moments ago how Republicans have been talking about for years — for years — how they want to cut those really key programs for our veterans, for our seniors.

And so the President, again, is going to continue to fight for those.

Q    Thank you.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Go ahead.

Q    Thank you.  Earlier today, when the White House released some background information on Ohio, one thing that was said by officials is that if Norfolk Southern backed off the commitment to pay for cleanup, then the administration would be prepared to issue a legally binding order to get reimbursed three times the amount.

I’m wondering if that was just, like, a warning, or if there has been indication thus far — a recent indication from the company that they could back off that commitment from them.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  So, I don’t have any indication that they are backing off of that.  I just laid out how, you know, they — that EPA is requiring — is requiring — or the company has committed to cover all cleanup costs.  That is something that EPA has worked very hard on and is making sure that the company is doing.  And from what I understand, they are going to do that.

And as I said before, there is an investigation underway, and we’ll know more.  But I don’t have any indication of what you just laid out.

Q    It would also — it was also said that a CDC team, as you were saying, was being dispatched, that they’re going to be on the ground on Monday.  I’m hoping you can kind of explain for people just why they’re only hitting the ground on Monday.


Q    Why it’s not happening actually now, but also why it didn’t happen — this has been going on for a couple weeks now — why it didn’t happen before.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Well, I want to be very clear.  On February 4th, we had folks on the ground within hours.

Q    An EPA team, right?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Yeah.  Yeah, EPA team.  But this matters, right?  This happened on February 3rd.  On 2:00 a.m. on February 4th, hours after the derailment, the EPA team was on the ground.  So I just want to make sure that the American people understand that we did take action and folks were on the ground.

So — so — so it is, like, multiple federal agency, again, were on the ground, not just the EPA, within hours.  It is also important to remember that it was a serious accident.  And so, when these incidents happen, you need to let the emergency response take place.  So that is important as well.

Senior leadership arriving in those initial days would detract from those urgent response — response efforts.  And when it was appropriate, the EPA Administrator went, as you saw him yesterday.  And additional agency offic- — officials, as you just mentioned — HHS, CDC — will be visiting soon.

But the work is happening.  We’ve been on the ground, again, since February 4th, hours after the derailment happened.  And — and we are committed — we are committed.  This is — the federal government is committed to making sure that the community gets what it needs and will be there on the ground for as long as it takes.

Go ahead, Karen.

Q    Kirby mentioned humanitarian assistance when he was talking about the President’s trip.  But, you know, obviously, the President has talked so much recently about the U.S. security assistance to Ukraine.  Last year, when he was in Poland, he met with refugees.  That was a big part of his message there.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Yeah, I remember that.

Q    How much of this trip will be about that side of it?  Will he meet with refugees?  Will you add some component like that for this trip?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  So, I’m not going to get ahead of what we’ve laid out.  He’ll be in Warsaw, as you know.  He’s going to make a major speech.  And he wanted to do this ahead of the anniversary.  As you all know, the anniversary will be a week from today, of Russia’s brutal war against Ukraine.

I don’t have anything else in any further details to share on that.  He mentioned the eastern flank — right? — the — which is incredibly important to be there to show — to show our commitment, our commitment to Ukraine but also our NATO Alliance.

And so that’s what you’re going to hear from the President.  Don’t have anything more to share on any humanitarian aid or security assistance. 

Clearly, there’s — we have done a lot over this past year, and there is — there continues to be bipartisan support as you look at that assistance.  And we will always share that with you when we’re ready to announce more.  But certainly I’m not going to get ahead of the President from here today.

Okay, I’m going to take one more.

Q    Thanks, Karine. 

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Oh, okay. 

Q    One more?  Want to do one more?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Oh, gosh.  (Laughs.)  I’ll take one more.

Q    In the back?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  One more.  One more.  I’m trying to call on somebody I haven’t called yet.  Go ahead, Alex.  I haven’t called on Alex in a while.

Q    Thank you, Karine.  Thirty-one Democrats joined with Republicans to vote against revisions to the D.C. crime bill, and now that heads to the Senate.  And there could — you know, obviously, because the margins are narrower, the — they could reject those divisions as well. 

I know this administration supports D.C. statehood and sovereignty.  At the same time, what does it make of the debate over the revisions to the crime bill and, you know, just the issues with public safety in the nation’s capital?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  So, just because you mentioned the House Republican, I just have to say this on the record: It is yet another clear example of why, as you just mentioned, D.C. deserves statehood.  That is something that the President has supported since his campaign and will continue to do so.

As it relates to — as it relates to the D.C. crime bill itself: Look, the President has never been clearer that we must do more to reduce crime and save lives.  And that’s why he’s taken those executive actions that he’s done the last two years.  He outlined, as you all know, the Safer — Safer America Plan. 

The President believes that making our communities safer requires a couple of things: funding the police and promoting effective prosecution of crimes affecting families today, from gun crimes to carjackings to fentanyl trafficking; investing in crime prevention, including drug courts, mental health, substance use disorder services, human — homeless services, summer jobs, and mentoring for teenagers and young adults.

And so all of these things — community violence interventions and a fairer criminal justice system — that is something that the President is going to continue to push. 

The third and last thing I’ll lay out is taking additional commonsense steps on guns to keep dangerous firearms out of dangerous hands, including banning assault — assault weapons ban, which is something that the Pres- — you heard the President talk about just last week.

So, look, the President has put forth a plan, a Safer — a Safer Community — a Safer America Plan to make sure that our communities are indeed safe.  He’s taken actions the last two years, and he’ll continue to do that.  And so I’ll just leave it there for now.

Thanks, everybody.  See you next week.  See some of you in Poland.

2:55 P.M. EST

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