Aboard Air Force One
En Route Allentown, Pennsylvania
12:57 P.M. EST
MR. BATES: Good morning.
Q Good morning.
MR. BATES: I have a few things at the top. And then Admiral Kirby is going to take questions.
We are on our way to Pennsylvania, where the President will visit several small businesses in Lehigh Valley and the Allentown area.
Allentown, a historic steel town, was hollowed out by failed trickle-down economics. But thanks to Bidenomics and the President’s Investing in America agenda, Allentown and communities nationwide are experiencing an economic comeback.
As we saw yesterday, the President’s economic agenda is working, with applications for new businesses reaching record heights.
Sixteen million new business applications have been filed in the last three years. That’s more new business applications in — than the four years of the prior administration combined.
As the President has said, every time someone starts a new small business, it’s an act of hope and confidence in our economy, and we’ve seen 16 million acts of hope since President Biden took office in that regard.
This is the same hope and confidence the President will highlight on the ground today.
Entrepreneurs who have hope and confidence in this economy, supported by the President’s investments, were able to take on the risk of starting a business.
And as a result, in Allentown and beyond, we are seeing a small business boom, more good-paying jobs with rising wages, record-low unemployment, and lower costs for hardworking families.
Similarly, Bidenomics has accomplished the decades-long goal of bringing manufacturing back to America. We have created 26,000 new manufacturing jobs in Pennsylvania under President Biden. Pennsylvania lost 23,000 manufacturing jobs under Donald Trump.
Also, today, we announced that we are implementing one of the most impactful provisions of the President’s SAVE plan, which is the most affordable repayment plan in U.S. history.
Starting next month, borrowers enrolled in SAVE who took out less than $12,000 in loans and have been in repayment for 10 years will get their remaining student debt cancelled.
This action will particularly help community college borrowers, low-income borrowers, and those struggling to repay their loans, and it’s part of our ongoing efforts to act as quickly as possible to give more borrowers breathing room.
We encourage all borrowers who may be eligible for early debt cancellation to sign up for the SAVE plan at StudentAid.gov.
Already, 6.9 million borrowers are enrolled in the plan; 3.9 million have a monthly payment of $0.
The President will continue using every tool at his disposal to get student loan borrowers the relief they need to reach their dreams.
And I’ll underline that proponents of MAGAnomics have consistently opposed the relief that he is delivering for hardworking borrowers.
And then, finally, next week, on Monday, the President will travel to Philadelphia for a service event in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
And with that, Admiral Kirby will take questions.
MR. KIRBY: Thanks.
Hey, guys. I don’t have an opening statement.
Q All right.
MR. KIRBY: Fire away.
Q Can you give any new assessments this morning about how much the Houthi capabilities had been degraded and how significant the damage was to the targets with the strikes last night?
MR. KIRBY: We’re still doing that assessment right now. That’s what we call a battle damage assessment. That’s ongoing. And it could take some hours before we can have a better sense — a clearer sense of what — the actual damage done.
I would just remind that these were all valid, legitimate military targets — all really aimed at going after the Houthis’ ability to store, launch, and guide drones and missiles.
Q Is the President ready for a war in Yemen if it were to come to that? And would he be willing to send in ground troops?
MR. KIRBY: We’re not interested in a war with Yemen. We’re not interested in a conflict of any kind here. In fact, everything the President has been doing has been trying to prevent any escalation of conflict, including the strikes last night.
Q Have you seen the bipartisan group of members of Congress say that the President violated the War Powers Resolution? What’s your response to that?
MR. KIRBY: We’re very comfortable and confident in the legal authorities that the President exercised to conduct these strikes.
Q Are you expecting an attack in the Red Sea today? Do you see that as being ineffective or not really showing that they were degraded after your strikes last night?
MR. KIRBY: Look, I think there was — going into this, certainly, no- — nobody was Pollyannaish about the possibility that the Houthis might conduct some sort of retaliation. So, I don’t have the operational reports on this.
But again, they’ve got choices to make here, and the right choice is to stop these reckless attacks.
As the President said — I’ll point you to the last sentence in his statement last night — he reserves the right and he won’t hesitate to take further action to protect our troops and our facilities and international commerce.
Q Do you know who was in the Situation Room last night when he decided to make those airstrikes — that decision?
MR. KIRBY: He made that dec- — he made the decision to approve these options after the attack on Tuesday — the big attack that was, like, 18 drones, some cruise missiles, a ballistic missile. And he was kept up to speed as that attack was unfolding. It took some time.
When he was briefed that it had been accurately and effectively defended, he called his national security team together — this is Tuesday afternoon — was presented with the response options and approved those options at that time.
Q John, can you talk about the calculation (inaudible) now as opposed to earlier? This has been going on for a while. Some Republicans would say it should have been done earlier; this is overdue. So, what made now the right time to do it?
MR. KIRBY: I think you have to keep it in context for everything they’ve been doing since late November, Peter. And repeatedly since that time — you all have seen the tick-tock. We — on the diplomatic front, we’ve worked with the U.N. We worked with coalition partners to condemn those attacks; work on that U.N. Security Council resolution; put together Operation Prosperity Guardian, which is really about defending international shipping in the Red Sea, boosting our military presence in the Red Sea.
I mean, everything the President has been doing since these attacks really started in late November has been designed to disrupt their ability to do that but also to send a strong signal to the Houthis that they need to stop.
And on Tuesday, we had this very large attack on multiple ships in the Red Sea using, again, a large number of drones, cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles.
And — and right before that, you might remember, the — we issued what can only be understood as a final warning to the Houthis. They violated that, obviously, in this attack on Tuesday. And so, it led to these strikes.
Q On Soleimani. There was — when we had the strike on Suleimani back during the last administration, there was communication with the Iranians through the Swiss, I believe, that was meant to keep it from escalating beyond a certain, you know, level. Is there anything like that going on right now with Iran or anybody else in the region?
MR. KIRBY: I don’t have any diplomatic conversations to speak to in that regard. Again, this was really focused on disrupting Houthi capabilities to conduct these attacks.
Q And — but the Houthis had an opportunity, they knew that this was coming, so they were able to move some of their resources. So, was this meant more as a signal to the Houthis not to try anything further? Or was this meant to actually destroy their capabilities?
MR. KIRBY: This wasn’t some signaling exercise. This was this was — this was designed to disrupt and to degrade Houthi military capabilities.
And as I said in the first answer, while we are still assessing the actual impact of those strikes, we know that each and every target was militarily significant to the Houthis’ ability. So, we’ll — we’ll see where that goes.
Q And just to follow up on Peter’s questions, what is the President’s strategy to keep Iran out of this war?
MR. KIRBY: Well, first of all, there’s no war with the Houthis. We don’t seek a war in Yemen with the Houthis. We want to — we want to see these attacks stop. We know that Iran backs the Houthis just like they back Hezbollah and they — and they back Hamas. We have in the past and we will certainly continue to hold Iran accountable for their destabilizing activities.
I mean, in this administration alone, we’ve issued some 500 sanctions again- — I mean, against 500 entities, 50 sanction regimes. We’ll continue to work with our partners, you know, to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to dissuade these destabili- — these destabilizing behaviors by Iran.
Q (Inaudible) sanctions against Iran?
MR. KIRBY: I don’t want to get ahead of where we are. We have in the past looked at economic sanctions as a tool. They certainly remain on the table. But I don’t — I won’t prejudge any decisions that haven’t been made yet.
Q John, can you tell us about Secretary Austin’s participation in this decision-making process?
MR. KIRBY: It was seamless. It was as if — it was no — no different. His participation was no different than it would be on any other given day, except that he was briefing the President on options and engaged in the discussions from the hospital. But he was fully engaged as he would be in any other event.
Q And on Taiwan elections this weekend. Are you guys following what’s happening? And are you concerned about any implications so soon after the San Francisco meeting?
MR. KIRBY: We are — obviously, we’ll be watching and monitoring the — the elections in Taiwan. Taiwan has strong democratic institutions that we want to see exercised, of course. We want to see free, fair, transparent elections. Obviously, we’re not taking a stake one way or the other in the — in the result. That’s up to the people of Taiwan.
And just like we would say anywhere in the world, it would be unacceptable for any other actor — nation-state or otherwise — to interfere with the — with that — with that exercise of democracy. But we’ll be watching it closely, of course.
Q Back on the Houthis. I don’t know if this is your swim lane or if it’s — if it’s Bates’s. But are you seeing an — is the administration seeing any sort of economic impacts as a result of the strikes as of this morning?
MR. KIRBY: No, not — not at this time. No.
Q Does the President believe the Houthis are a terrorist group?
MR. KIRBY: As we’ve talked about, we are reviewing the FTO — Foreign Terrorist Organization — finding on the Houthis. As you know, we — we delisted them. And we have announced that we’re reviewing that — that decision right now. No decisions have been made yet.
Q How soon can we expect one?
MR. KIRBY: I don’t — I don’t think I can give you an exact timeline or a date on the calendar. I mean, that work is ongoing, largely at the State Department. But — but it’s — it’s an ongoing review.
Q And if the attacks against these vessels don’t stop, is the President willing to do this all over again?
MR. KIRBY: Well, with the caveat that — (Air Force One experiences turbulence) — you okay? (Laughter.)
With the caveat —
Q Sorry, it’s —
MR. KIRBY: No, I know, I know.
Q Yeah. The — it’s — yeah.
MR. KIRBY: I’m reaching for the bulkhead too. (Laughter.)
With the caveat that, you know, I don’t want to get into hypotheticals, and I certainly am not going to talk about potential future military operations one way or the other, I would, again, point you to that last statement in his statement yesterday: He will not hesitate to take further action if it’s required to protect our sailors, our ships, or the — the ships and sailors of merchant traffic in the Red Sea.
Again, I want to come back to the — the Houthis are the ones that escalated here — and, in particular, escalation on Tuesday. And they have a choice to make. And the right choice would be to stop these reckless attacks.
Q And what about Tuesday was so much different? Like, was it the scale? What was it about Tuesday that was significantly different?
MR. KIRBY: It was a — it was —
Q The scale (inaudible)?
MR. KIRBY: It was a significant scale. I mean, almost 20 drones, cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles all — sort of all targeted —
MR. KIRBY: — towards a fairly significant cluster of ships, both naval ships — not just U.S. but a British destroyer, as well as international — I’m sorry, as well as commercial vessels. Some of them the U.S. flagged.
Q Let me ask you: Do you ask the French to participate, and do they refuse?
MR. KIRBY: I won’t get into the diplomatic conversations we’ve had. I mean, you’ve seen the list of people that participated in — you know, you’ve also seen that internationally, even those who weren’t actively involved in the dropping of bombs, many of our coalition partners have signed up to the — the support — nonoperational support but also just, you know, rhetorical support for what we did.
Q Kirby, could you just briefly reflect on this moment in foreign policy for the Biden administration? We have Gaza going on, this, Ukraine. How are you all staying above water and navigating?
MR. KIRBY: You know, the President describes this time that we’re living in as an inflection point, and he’s right. I mean, you look all around the world, and one of the things that’s a common thread is democracy under threat. And it’s in threat in many different ways.
And it’s — the President believes in a foreign policy that — that bolsters our allies and partners, that builds on alliances and partnerships, that recognizes that the United States can’t do it all alone, but that our leadership is vital and important to solving some of these problems.
And I think what you’re going to see going forward this — this coming year is what you’ve seen from the — in the last three years from President Biden, and that is a very active foreign policy built on relationships — improving relationships that need it, shoring up the relationships that we know are strong and solid, and trying to solve these problems in a collateral — in a collaborative but also a multilateral way.
MR. BATES: Thank you, Admiral.
Q And just very briefly —
MR. BATES: We’re about to land, so we’ll take other questions.
Q Just a quick one on oil. Oil prices topped $80 a barrel. What kind of supply disruptions and changes in pricing here in America is the White House tracking?
MR. BATES: We are monitoring conditions. We will remain in touch with our international partners to determine any long-term impact surprises.
But let me be very clear: It’s the Houthis who have been endangering the freedom of navigation in one of the world’s most vital waterways. And they should stop with their reckless behavior, which is costing many countries unjustly, including ours.
Q The Justice Department announced this morning that they will seek the death penalty for the Buffalo supermarket shooter. Obviously, the President campaigned on abolishing the federal death penalty. And this is the first time that Attorney General Garland’s department is pursuing the death penalty. So, what are the President’s thoughts about that course of action?
MR. BATES: What happened in Buffalo was grotesque and a heartbreaking tragedy.
In 2022, in the wake of the shooting, President Biden traveled to Buffalo to meet with the families of the victims impacted by this senseless violence. And as he said there, “hate will not prevail,” because hate has no place in America. Period.
We res- — with respect to the death penalty, the President has long talked about his views on this issue broadly. We will leave it to the appropriate authorities to speak to individual cases and sentencing decisions. And I would refer you to the Department of Justice for anything more.
Q And Speaker Johnson agreed to topline numbers, again, doubling down on his agreement with Schumer. Does the White House see that as potentially averting a government shutdown?
MR. BATES: Listen, House Republicans voted for an agreement in May. Speaker Johnson reaffirmed it on Sunday. And again, this morning, we have an agreement. (Air Force One experiences turbulence.) (Laughter.) And Republicans need to keep their word and stop trying to shut down the government.
Q Are you —
MR. BATES: I’m impressed by everybody’s balance. (Laughter.)
Q Are you in touch with agencies —
Q We’re impressed by your balance.
Q Are you in touch with agencies to potentially plan for that at all?
MR. BATES: Just — sorry, just one moment. As Speaker Johnson and Democratic leaders said on Sunday, we do have a bipartisan funding framework that reflects the funding levels in last year’s bipartisan budget agreement. Republicans need to keep their word.
Of course, we do prepare for every contingency. OMB and agencies are making preparations for every program. But, again, that is — that is out of caution.
This could all be prevented if House Republicans keep their word and do their jobs.
Q What is the President’s message to progressives who do not want to be dragged into another war in the Middle East?
MR. BATES: You — you heard Admiral Kirby directly a moment ago that we are not looking for any kind of war. This was a proportionate action justified by the circumstances, an act of self-defense with bipartisan support.
And, again, we — we have sent strong warnings to the Houthis about how reckless and unjustified this behavior is.
AIDE: Thank you, everybody.
Q Donald Trump says he wants to make tax cuts permanent if he’s elected in 2025. Does the White House have a reaction to at all?
MR. BATES: With the — with the caveat that we do not comment on the 2024 elections, yesterday’s news that, in 2023, inflation dropped by almost two thirds from its peak builds on the progress we’ve been achieving for American families. And that news highlights why there’s every reason to continue the economic growth and momentum of Bidenomics, not decimate the middle class with the hi- — the — the cost-hiking MAGAnomics agenda that Republican officials are proposing.
Americans are now wealthier than during the Trump administration. Americans are earning more than during the Trump administration. More Americans are working than during the Trump administration.
As we’re talking about today, more small businesses are being created than at any point in American history. And a record-breaking number of Americans have gained healthcare coverage.
MAGAnomics would threaten to reverse all those gains by selling middle-class families out to rich special interests, including by demanding in — deficit-hiking tax giveaways for the wealthy and big corporations. And we oppose those kinds of proposals.
Rather than tax welfare for the rich, like MAGAnomics calls for, Bidenomics will continue to power the strongest economy in the world by growing the middle class.
AIDE: Thank you, everybody.
MR. BATES: Thank you, all.
1:14 P.M. EST