Dec 18, 2020
Biden Harris Transition Team Press Conference Transcript December 18
The Biden-Harris transition team held a virtual press conference to provide updates on the transition on December 18, 2020. Read the transcript of the briefing here.
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Jen Psaki: (02:39)
Good afternoon, everyone. Thanks for joining us this afternoon. I’m going to first kick it over to Yohannes to give us an overview of some of our work with the agencies through the agency review teams. I’ll give you a summary of where we are in the confirmations effort, as well as some events to look ahead to next week. With that, I’ll turn it over to Yohannes.
Yohannes Abraham: (02:59)
Thanks, Jen, and thanks everybody for being on. I’m just going to give you a couple updates from the agency review process, starting with a few updates related to COVID-19.
Yohannes Abraham: (03:09)
The transition’s COVID-19 advisory board continues to engage regularly with administration officials on the vaccine’s distribution and approvals. As multiple news outlets have reported, without urgent action this month by Congress to put sufficient resources into vaccine distribution and manufacturing, which the bi-partisan group is working on, there’s a real chance that after an early round of vaccinations the effort will slow and stall. Now we will also need additional action next year to fund the rest of our distribution efforts. Finally, we need the Trump administration to act now to purchase the doses it has negotiated with Pfizer and Moderna and to work swiftly to scale manufacturing for the US population and the world.
Yohannes Abraham: (03:50)
As I mentioned, we’re also closely following the negotiations in Congress to renew a COVID-19 relief bill. While we’re encouraged by the bipartisan efforts in Congress, around 900 billion in economic relief, this package is only a start and we will need more action next year. We must focus significant resources on direct public health response to COVID-19.
Yohannes Abraham: (04:10)
Now I know many of you have asked questions about recent reporting around DOD’s cooperation with the transition, so I just wanted to say a few words there. As we said last week in the briefing, our agency review teams continue making progress on a shortened timeline, and we’ve benefited from constructive cooperation within many departments and agencies, but we have met isolated resistance in some corners, including from political appointees within the Department of Defense. We were concerned to learn this week about an abrupt halt in the already limited cooperation there, and as indicated by DOD earlier today, we expect that decision will be reversed.
Yohannes Abraham: (04:44)
An orderly cooperative transition is especially imperative in the national security and foreign policy realm due to classified and otherwise non-public information needed to do the job. No department is more pivotal to our national security than the Department of Defense, and a failure to work together could have consequences well beyond January.
Yohannes Abraham: (05:02)
Again, an orderly and cooperative transition is especially imperative in our national security realm. And I do want to just take a minute and thank the DOD career professionals who have made valiant efforts to be helpful over the course of this process.
Yohannes Abraham: (05:20)
With that, I’ll turn it over to Jen.
Jen Psaki: (05:22)
Thanks so much, Yohannes.
Jen Psaki: (05:24)
Let me give you a little bit of a preview of next week. On Monday, President-elect Joe Biden and Dr. Jill Biden will receive the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine in Delaware and they’ll also think healthcare workers at the facility. We’ll have more details on the specifics of when and where on Monday, but obviously we want to make sure we are not creating chaos around where he’ll be getting it done; but he will be doing it in public, which is important to us, as he stated many times to send a clear message to the public that it is safe.
Jen Psaki: (05:56)
Consistent with security and medical protocols, the vice president-elect will not receive the vaccine at the same time as the president. We expect she and Mr. Emhoff will receive their first dose of the vaccine the following week, and we will have additional details on that next week.
Jen Psaki: (06:14)
We had another big week announcing additional nominations for the Cabinet, including some historic firsts, including the first Native American interior secretary and the first-ever Native American Cabinet secretary with representative Deb Haaland; first openly gay person to lead a Cabinet department in our nation’s history, Mayor Pete Buttigieg for the Department of Transportation; and the first African-American man to serve as EPA administrator, to be nominated to serve as.
Jen Psaki: (06:41)
We’ve now rolled out 19 out of roughly two dozen Cabinet-level positions, and it continues to be the most diverse Cabinet in history while also being one of the most qualified and crisis-tested, given the challenges we’ll be facing when President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris are, take the oath of office, I should say, on January 20th.
Jen Psaki: (07:05)
With leaders in both parties now preparing for President-elect Joe Biden to be sworn in on January 20th, we also just wanted to note that some confirmation hearings have been set, but we are looking ahead to moving the process forward in January. We expect Democrats and Republicans will be eager to confirm qualified nominees who will be helping to lead agencies that will address the crisis we’re facing from the pandemic to the economic crisis, to even rebuilding our relationships in the world. Just to give you a point of reference: In 2017, 19 of Donald Trump’s nominees received their hearings on, or before inauguration day, and in 2009, 25 of Barack Obama’s nominees received their hearings before inauguration day. We certainly understand this year is different, for a range of reasons, but we are eager and hopeful that we will be able to work with members from both sides and their teams to get our nominees confirmed.
Jen Psaki: (08:08)
This week, nominees had more than a hundred meetings with members of Congress of both parties to discuss their nominations. Nominees also joined meetings with a range of outside groups and participated in public events to build support for their nominations, including treasury secretary and deputy treasury secretary nominees, Janet Yellen and Adewale Adeyemo, met with groups that advocate for racial and economic justice. HHS secretary nominee, Xavier Becerra, participated in a Politico Live event about disparities in healthcare. Racial equity taskforce co-chair, Marcella Nunez-Smith, participated in NAACP Town Hall on COVID, and CA chair, Cecilia Rouse, met with African-American women leaders.
Jen Psaki: (08:52)
We will have more of that in the coming weeks. It’s important for us to have the nominees and team out there as much as possible so the American people can get to know them even in advance of their confirmations.
Jen Psaki: (09:04)
Today, in addition to the Cabinet announcements this week, we announced additional members of our White House communications and press teams. We’ll have, of course, more members to announce in the weeks ahead, leading up to the inauguration. But I’ll just note since part of them is our team, from the beginning, President-elect Biden has made clear our team should look like the country. This team is not only built from the men and women who worked their tails off electing Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, it will also be the most diverse press and communications team in history. We’ll have more to report on our teams and many other teams and White House personnel in the weeks ahead. We’ll be announcing with the goal of announcing 100 White House staff by the end of the year.
Jen Psaki: (09:46)
The last thing I’ll say about next week is that you should expect President-elect Joe Biden in the next weeks will have additional announcements about his Cabinet. I can’t give you an exact timeline on that because of course decisions need to be made, and we want to give him the space and time to do that.
Jen Psaki: (10:03)
He’ll also be taking a few days off to spend time with his immediate family. As he said on a Stephen Colbert’s show last night, like millions of Americans, his Christmas will look very different this year. We’re asking families across the country to stay at home and limit their travel, and the President-elect will stay at home in Delaware with Dr. Biden and they’ll forego their traditional larger family gathering.
Jen Psaki: (10:26)
With that, we’re happy to take your question.
Speaker 3: (10:32)
Great. With that, we will take our first question from Alice Olsen.
Alice Olsen: (10:37)
Thank you so much. I wanted to ask what the reaction is to Cedric Richmond’s COVID diagnosis in terms of what will change in terms of safety protocols on the team and whether the decision to have the president-elect vaccinated on Monday was moved up or influenced by that news?
Jen Psaki: (11:02)
Sure. Alice, thank you so much for your question. There was no change in the timing of the president-elect’s vaccination. We, of course, have been relying on the advice of Dr. Fauci and the medical experts, and that was the time that worked best for him to accomplish that.
Jen Psaki: (11:22)
I would say on Congressman Cedric Richmond, as you may have seen in the statement we put out last night, he was not in close contact with the president-elect, as it’s defined by the CDC. His interactions were in open-air settings, masked and did not total a cumulative of more than 15 minutes. We’ve completed contact tracing, and it was determined that no additional staff were in close contact with Congressman Richmond and need to quarantine.
Jen Psaki: (11:46)
As you also know, the president-elect is tested regularly. We put that information out regularly and consistently, and we will to do that in the days ahead. For us, we will continue to be transparent. We have COVID protocols in place that everybody abides by who has any contact or attends any event with the president-elect or meeting. We will continue those and we will continue to be as transparent as possible as quickly as possible as we were when we learned of the congressman’s diagnosis.
Alice Olsen: (12:23)
Quick follow-up: Is there any concern that despite all of the precautions that you’ve been taking for months that someone so close to the president-elect still contracted this very contagious virus?
Jen Psaki: (12:37)
Well, certainly getting the pandemic under control is front and first and foremost, the top priority for the incoming administration. We see every day, the thousands of people who are being impacted, that’s why our protocols are so serious and taken so seriously by every member of the president-elect’s team. As anyone who knows, who has attended an event as a part of the pool, every reporter is masked, every person in the building is masked. There are testing requirements. I would just say that we will continue to abide by those. We will continue to do contact tracing in every scenario that arises, and we will continue to provide transparent information. That’s been our consistent approach all along, and that’s what you can expect in the weeks ahead.
Speaker 3: (13:33)
Thanks. Our next question will come from Annie Karni.
Annie Karni: (13:36)
Hi there. I just had a question. I wondered if you could clarify why President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris are staggering their vaccinations? I hadn’t heard anything about vaccinations. I actually quoted a doctor in a story who said it would have been great to see Pence and Trump doing it together today. Obviously that didn’t happen, but can you explain that? I wasn’t aware that there was some security or health reason to stagger.
Jen Psaki: (14:06)
Sure, Annie. It’s a great question. Thanks for asking it.
Jen Psaki: (14:09)
We of course abide by the recommendations of our medical experts and health experts, and their recommendation was that they do it separately. As I noted, the vice president-elect will be getting the first dose of her vaccine the week after Christmas, so it will be happening quickly. That’s another opportunity, of course. This is not the reasoning, but I will just state that it is another opportunity for us to reiterate to the American public that it is safe and important for people to abide by when a vaccine becomes available even more broadly. But it is based on recommendations that the only reason, the primary reason, is based on a recommendation by our medical and health experts.
Annie Karni: (14:52)
But what was their reasoning for that recommendation?
Jen Psaki: (14:55)
That they should do not do doses at the same time. I’m not going to go into more details than that, but it is the recommendation that they did it separately and that they stagger the first doses.
Speaker 3: (15:09)
Great. We’ll now take our next question from [inaudible 00:15:12]
Speaker 6: (15:12)
Hi. Thanks so much for doing this, you guys. I appreciate it.
Speaker 6: (15:16)
Just sort of following up a little bit on the Richmond diagnosis. Jen, you had mentioned that the protocols are such that there’s not a concern about the president-elect’s health, but can you detail, excuse me, exactly what those protocols are? I mean, I’m quite familiar obviously with what the media’s protocols are, but is there any sort of requirement that people who are in contact with the vice president or the president-elect, excuse me, have COVID testing the same way that media does? If you could go through that, that would be helpful.
Speaker 6: (15:53)
Then I have a second question about just what you’re planning when you do start working in the West Wing. If staff will have to have a vaccine in order to occupy offices there, or are you guys going to have some kind of Zoom administration? If you can sort of outline your planning on that, I’d appreciate it.
Jen Psaki: (16:15)
Sure. A Zoom administration is very 2020. I don’t think I’d heard of Zoom until pre-COVID, but right around the start of COVID.
Jen Psaki: (16:23)
I will say that, as you know and anyone who’s attended an event knows, there’s a requirement to have two negative tests even to be in that facility in the building and at the time of an event. Staff are held to the standard of having N95 masks, of also having multiple negative tests, of quarantining and holding ourselves to strict standards about who we interact with. I’ve only interacted with members of my immediate family and close bubble. I think that is true of many members of the president elect’s incoming team. I haven’t even been to Delaware in a few weeks, so I would say that there are stringent standards and expectations.
Jen Psaki: (17:14)
It’s, of course, to keep everybody safe, including of course the president-elect and the vice president-elect, but all of the staff, all of you, but also it’s to be a model to the American people. There’s a lot being asked of the American people right now: To wear masks, to, of course, abide by strict protocols, to not be a part of large family gatherings. And we’re expected to do the same.
Jen Psaki: (17:40)
I don’t have more details other than to say that it is conveyed to us regularly and frequently that we are to abide by strict protocols and to be, to the best of our ability, models to the American people, given what we’re asking at this difficult moment in our history.
Speaker 6: (18:00)
And then on the other question about what you’re thinking about and planning in terms of moving into the West Wing?
Jen Psaki: (18:08)
Oh, sorry. That was a great question too.
Jen Psaki: (18:10)
We don’t have more information for you at this time. I think we expect that everybody who would traditionally be and historically be working out of the West Wing probably will not be working out of the West Wing on January 20th and January 21st. We’re waiting for and will abide by the guidance and direction by our medical experts and doctors. I expect we’ll have more on that in January.
Speaker 6: (18:33)
And just really quickly, following up on the first question, would that mean that Cedric Richmond would have had a negative COVID test before Monday, on Monday for him to be in proximity with the president-elect?
Jen Psaki: (18:48)
We can circle back with you after the briefing. Obviously, everybody, including of course Congressman Richmond, abides by the same protocols. But we’ll circle back with you if we have more information on that post-briefing.
Speaker 6: (19:01)
Speaker 3: (19:04)
We will take our next question from Jeff Zeleny.
Jeff Zeleny: (19:09)
Hey, guys. The acting secretary of defense, Chris Miller, said this morning that meetings with your transition team at the Pentagon will take a holiday pause. He said there was an agreed upon two-week break between the two transition teams, so that is one of the reasons why there seem to have been a breakdown in [inaudible 00:19:31] meetings.
Jeff Zeleny: (19:31)
Did you, A, agree to a two-week holiday pause? And what is your understanding of when your next briefing meeting will be between your Pentagon teams?
Yohannes Abraham: (19:43)
Thank you for the question. Let me be clear, there was no mutually agreed upon holiday break. In fact, we think it’s important that briefings and other engagements continue during this period as there’s no time to spare, and that’s particularly true in the aftermath of the ascertainment delay. There was no mutually agreed upon holiday break.
Yohannes Abraham: (20:01)
In terms of when meetings will resume, meetings and requests for information which are substantively interchangeable, it’s our hope and expectation that that will happen immediately, and that we will be able to have access to, and our agency review teams, we’ll be able to have access to the sort of information that is invaluable in terms of keeping the homeland safe and all the other myriad of responsibilities that fall under DOD’s purview.
Jeff Zeleny: (20:31)
All right. Thanks, Yohannes.
Jeff Zeleny: (20:32)
If I could follow up really quickly, when did you all learn that these meetings were taking a break, or not happening?
Yohannes Abraham: (20:41)
Our agency review teams yesterday were informed. I don’t know what the exact transmission mechanism was, but they were informed yesterday that meetings were being pulled down and they immediately and appropriately escalated it.
Jeff Zeleny: (20:56)
Are you seeing this across any other agencies of the government or is the Pentagon the only department where there’s been a request, I guess, or a decision on their side to take a holiday break?
Yohannes Abraham: (21:09)
I’d go back to what I said at the top, which is to say there have been many agencies and departments that have facilitated the exchange of information and meetings over the past few weeks since the ascertainment. There have been pockets of recalcitrance, and DOD is one of them.
Jeff Zeleny: (21:32)
Could you share which others have been difficult?
Yohannes Abraham: (21:35)
I don’t have anything to share with you on that today other than to say it’s our hope and expectation across the board, given the challenges that the country faces, is that all of the agency review teams be given access to the information that they need to the job that they needed to do for the American people.
Jeff Zeleny: (21:56)
If I could ask just one quick follow-up of Jen, sorry. Is it still the president-elect’s aspiration and goal to name all members of his Cabinet before Christmas, or is it possible that some may seep into the post-holiday or new year?
Jen Psaki: (22:13)
Well, Jeff, as you know, as I started with, we have announced the majority of the Cabinet, but there are still a number of important roles to be announced. It’s all based on when decision-making is made and we want to give him the time and space to do that. I will say there certainly I would expect there could be more next week, but certainly more following. It just depends on decisions over the coming days.
Speaker 3: (22:39)
We’ll take our last question from Yamiche Alcindor.
Yamiche Alcindor: (22:44)
… so much for taking my question and thanks so much for doing this briefing.
Yamiche Alcindor: (22:48)
I want to get back to what Yohannes was just talking about when it comes to there was no mutually agreed upon holiday break. That is of course in direct contrast to what Acting Secretary Miller is saying. Just to be clear, are you saying that he’s not being truthful, that he’s just making that up?
Jen Psaki: (23:04)
I don’t think we need to communicate that. I think you can make your own judgements, Yamiche, about the information we provided. It’s not in our interest to provide inaccurate information about the status of our engagements. Our preference here is to just continue our work through the agency review teams, through our experts, and many of them we’ve brought back in who have decades of experience, to work on these issues leading up to January 20th. Our preference is certainly for things to proceed as usual, and that’s our hope.
Yamiche Alcindor: (23:46)
And then on that, just building from DOD, because I had another question about Russia hacks, but on kind of the operation that you’re getting, it’s my understanding that cooperation has been uneven. Can you give us examples of what you’re getting and what you’re not getting and how the White House has tried to resolve that? I’m hearing there might be other holdups in other agencies.
Yohannes Abraham: (24:06)
I don’t have anything else to share there other than to say, as I said before, there have been many agencies and departments that have been willing participants in a smooth transition; but there, as I said before, there have been in places like DOD that have been less cooperative, as we’ve seen over the last 48 hours.
Jen Psaki: (24:28)
Just to be clear, as Yohannes said in the beginning, the career officials at the Department of Defense have been cooperative and helpful and we’ve been working with throughout this process. This is more of an isolated issue with a limited number of political appointees.
Yamiche Alcindor: (24:46)
On the Russia hack, does the president-elect view this as an act of war or more along the lines of traditional espionage? What’s his view of this Russian hack that we’re learning about?
Yohannes Abraham: (25:00)
As the president-elect said yesterday, there’s still a lot we don’t know about the breach, but what we do know is a matter of great concern. Our teams have been briefed by some of the career public servants who are working around the clock to respond, and we’re grateful for their efforts.
Yohannes Abraham: (25:13)
The president-elect also issued a warning to our adversaries who would attack us with malicious cyber operations: There will be substantial costs. The administration will reserve the right to respond at a time and in a manner of our choosing, often in close coordination with our allies and partners. While our adversaries shouldn’t expect us to telegraph our punches, they should expect that the president-elect is a man of his word.
Jen Psaki: (25:35)
Thanks, everyone. Have a great weekend. We’ll try not to keep you too busy.