Mar 2, 2021
Press Secretary Jen Psaki White House Press Conference Transcript March 2
March 2, 2021 press conference with White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki. She discussed Merck and Johnson & Johnson’s partnership to produce more COVID-19 vaccines, the American Rescue Plan, and more. Read the transcript of the full briefing here.
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Jen Psaki: (00:22)
Hello. Okay, I have quite a few things at the top. Lots of news happening here at the White House. Today in our COVID team’s weekly meeting with the governors, we announced another supply increase for states, tribes and territories from 14.5 to 15.2 million doses per week. This is up from 8.6 million when we came into office. Furthermore, states are also receiving 2.8 million of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine this week. So they are receiving a total of 18 million doses.
Jen Psaki: (00:54)
Later today President Biden will deliver remarks on the status of our COVID-19 response, and he will announce an unprecedented historic step, the two largest healthcare and pharmaceutical companies, Merck and Johnson & Johnson, usually competitors, are coming together to expand production of the vaccine. Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine drug substance, as well as increase its fill finish capacity. They will enter into a historic manufacturing partnership to expand that, I should say. The US government will facilitate this partnership in several key ways, including invoking the Defense Production Act to equip two Merck facilities to the standards necessary to safely manufacture the vaccine and asking the Department of Defense to provide daily logistical support to strengthen Johnson & Johnson’s efforts.
Jen Psaki: (01:45)
And of course, I’ll have more to say on that later this afternoon. Also today, the Biden Harris administration is announcing key conclusions from an intelligence community assessment on the poisoning of Alexei Navalny, as well as measures to hold Russia accountable for this action. The intelligence community assesses with high confidence that officers of Russia’s federal security service used a nerve agent to poison Russian opposition leader, Alexei Navalny on August 20th, 2020. The use of any chemical weapon directly violates international legal obligations and norms of civilized conduct. And our actions today fall into a number of categories and reflect a whole of government response. We are also working with Congress to ensure we’re faithfully implementing the Chemical and Biological Weapons Act.
Jen Psaki: (02:34)
Today, the United States is announcing sanctions on seven senior members of the Russian government, an expansion of sanctions under the Chemical and Biological Weapons Control and warfare Elimination Act, new export restrictions on items that could be used for biological agent and chemical production and visa restrictions. And the Department of State’s Commerce and Treasury will also have releases out shortly with further details.
Jen Psaki: (02:58)
As a demonstration of our transatlantic unity and cooperation with partners over the ocean. Many of the actions we are taking mirror the steps the EU took in October and match additional EU measures being taken today. We also reiterate our call for the Russian government to immediately and unconditionally release Mr. Navalny. I know you’re all interested in what we’re doing on the American Rescue Plan and how we’re engaging with members of Congress, so I have an update for all of you.
Jen Psaki: (03:28)
President Biden and his team continue to engage closely with congressional leadership and with members about the American Rescue Plan, including with Republicans. Yesterday, the president met with a group of nine Democratic senators, and today he’s meeting with the full Senate Democratic caucus for their weekly lunch. In the past two weeks alone, we’ve engaged with over 375 members and offices, over 100 of which were bipartisan engagements. And our COVID team has also started bi-weekly bipartisan member briefings with the Senate and House, where of course we talked about the American Rescue Plan and the impact it can have. I have one other item. I actually had an item on the travel of the First Lady and I will venture to get that to all of you after the briefing. So with that Zeek, kick it off.
First on this note, J&J deal. What role did the president of the White House have in making this partnership happen? Absolutely, the DPA’s given the details of it. How did these two companies come together?
Jen Psaki: (04:28)
Well, as I noted in the opening, these obviously are two companies that are historically been competitors. So the fact that they’re coming together speaks to the ability of this administration broadly to bring them to the table and work together to address the pandemic in the country. It was an across the administration effort. I’m not going to detail exactly which individual was in charge of each component, other than to say that when the president came into office, and as soon as we learned about the fact that Johnson & Johnson was behind in the manufacturing steps and efforts, we took steps to ensure we could expedite that and partner them with one of the world’s biggest manufacturers.
Is the administration doing this because J&J needs this production capacity from Merck to meet its commitments to the federal government for a hundred million doses by the end of June or is this separate from that?
Jen Psaki: (05:22)
Well, certainly our objective is to build on the incredible announcement that we now have three vaccines that the American people can have access to, can use to vaccinate them and protect them from the virus. And we knew, we learned early on that they were … not early on, but in the recent days, it’s all relative. That they were behind on their manufacturing capacity. And so we took steps to ensure we could capitalize on the scientific breakthrough.
But this was necessary for the company to meet its commitments to the federal government?
Jen Psaki: (05:57)
I wouldn’t put it in those terms, Zeek. I would just say that it was a step that helps ensure that Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine, the production of it can be expedited, that the manufacturing of it can be expedited. And that’s of course, good news for the American people.
On vaccines. Yesterday, the topic of sharing vaccines came up in the president’s conversation with president of Mexico. The president said he’s going to talk about in that conversation. Is the president open to flexibility in terms of sharing these vaccines now with long time American allies? And what is the threshold at which the president will start exporting some of these American made vaccines overseas?
Jen Psaki: (06:33)
Well that’s diplomacy and action right there. The president’s been at it for a long time, but the president did not make any commitments nor did he give a timeline. His focus is on ensuring the American people are vaccinated. And yes, now we have more than enough doses. We will have more than enough doses to vaccinate the American people, but there are a couple of factors that our team looks at, including the fact that we don’t know which vaccine will be most effective on children. We don’t know the impact of variants still under consideration, and being looked at by our health and medical experts. We are of course, securing all of these doses so we can plan for a range of scenarios. We have contributed to COVAXX, which is the international coordinating body to help provide assistance around the world. And certainly, when we get to the point where we have vaccinated the American public, of course, we want the global community to be vaccinated. That makes us all safer.
We heard from the scientists in some of these calls, calling on government not to roll back mask mandates and other restrictions on public gatherings. It looks like Texas and other states are in the process of rolling back some of those very restrictions right now. And we’ve not really heard from the president on that. Should we expect to hear from the president? Has the president been directly lobbying governors and state officials against rolling back these in private? And then should we expect to hear from him publicly going forward, encouraging American the American people to follow his guidelines, but not the governors?
Jen Psaki: (07:57)
Well, I will say having traveled with the president of Texas on Friday, he made clear that we need to be vigilant. And that’s also what Dr. Walensky conveyed over the last several days. It may feel a little bit better out there. That’s good news. If you go to the grocery store, there’s more toilet paper on the shelves. There’s more Clorox wipes on the shelves. It’s getting warmer out there and more people are getting vaccinated. People feel better, that’s a good thing. But we need to remain vigilant. We are still at war with the virus, the president, of course, will continue to convey that publicly and also privately in his conversations. Oh, let me see. Go ahead.
Speaker 5: (08:31)
Oh, thank you, Jen. Just a couple of questions on the partnership. What is the timeline by when we can expect the first vaccine to roll off of the lines of Merck’s facilities and has Merck started working on this new vaccine already?
Jen Psaki: (08:51)
I would expect there’ll be more details from the Department of Health and Human Services on the contract and the specifics later this afternoon after the president’s announcement.
And you mentioned that the government is willing to invoke the DPA. Can you give us any more details on that?
Jen Psaki: (09:07)
We did invoke the DPA in order to alleviate two of the biggest bottlenecks facing Johnson & Johnson. One is fill/finish capacity, which is actually kind of the top that’s put on these bottles of vaccines. And the other is drug substance availability, which is some of the components that make up the ingredients in the vaccine. So those were steps, we invoked the DPA in order to implement those particular pieces. But the other piece that we are focused on here is ensuring that the Merck facilities are up to capacity of what’s needed to manufacturer the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Speaker 5: (09:54)
The production here, will that be used for use in the United States, or is it ear-marked for global use? How will the vaccines be used once they are [crosstalk 00:10:02]-
Jen Psaki: (10:01)
We have ordered a set number of 100 million vaccines. There’s a contract that was in process before these steps were taken. So, that’s what these actions will be focused on.
Speaker 5: (10:13)
And one question on the COVID rescue package then. Does President Biden and the White House feel any need to perhaps reduce the unemployment benefits in the bill? As you’re aware lawmakers such as Senator Manchin support a lower threshold in many ways, $300 over $400 per week. What is your position on that?
Jen Psaki: (10:38)
Well, the president obviously had a discussion with a number of senators just yesterday. Senator Manchin was certainly one of them and he’s long said that he would be open to hearing ideas that make the bill and the package stronger. It’s an ongoing process, but I don’t have anything more to read out in terms of their conversation. Go ahead.
Jen, on Russia Navalny and the sanctions that you just announced at the top of this briefing here. The Biden administration didn’t punish Muhammad Bin Salman directly for Khashoggi’s death. You’re not punishing Vladimir Putin directly for Navalny’s imprisonment, only those around them. So how is that going to deter these leaders from this behavior in the future?
Jen Psaki: (11:18)
Well, I would say first that our national security team, as it relates to Saudi Arabia, let me take these pieces slightly separately, Peter. Made a determination that from the moment the president came into office, we were going to treat that relationship differently. And we did not wait for the release of this unclassified report. By the way, it didn’t have much information you didn’t know, or NBC and other outlets were not reporting previously. It confirmed what we have long known, that an innocent reporter doing his job committed to telling the truth was killed in a horrific crime. Our objective is to recalibrate the relationship. We took a number of steps, including releasing this report, including ceasing our support for offensive operations in Yemen, including ensuring engagement was counterpart to counterpart and also pushing forward the release of us citizens and human rights activists who were released.
Jen Psaki: (12:11)
We also took additional steps last week, which were determined by our national security team were the right steps to deter and to change the behavior moving forward. Those included sanctioning the former deputy head of general intelligence. It included imposing visa restrictions on 76 Saudi individuals. It included designating the Saudi Rapid Intervention Force, which is a crucial step, because it structurally addresses an unacceptable pattern of targeted monitoring, harassment and threats to journalists and dissidents and included the Khashoggi rule. And our conversations with the Saudis at every level, make clear that we expect additional reforms to be put in place that their behavior will change. We’ve seen some evidence of that, but we will continue to press on that moving forward.
But also, this is on the back of the new announcements that relates to Russia right now. So if you don’t do anything that directly touches MBS or Vladimir Putin, why do you expect those leaders to stop this behavior?
Jen Psaki: (13:05)
Well, again, Peter, with all due respect, these decisions were made on the basis of decades of experience and consideration by our national security team on what would be most effective and not only deterring actions like this in the future, preventing this from ever happening again, which is of course our objective. But also being able to maintain a relationship moving forward. And of course we have important work we do with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, from intelligence sharing to deterring the actions of militants in the region. And those are in the national interest of the United States.
Let me ask you about immigration if I can. Yesterday, you brought into the briefing room, the Department of Homeland Security, Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, who said the following, he said, “We are not saying don’t come,” to those migrants. He said, “We are saying, don’t come now because we’ll be able to deliver a safe and orderly process to them as quickly as possible.” So the message was, don’t come now. It sounds like the messages come later. So, when should these migrants come?
Well, it sounds like the messages come later. So when should these migrants come?
Jen Psaki: (14:04)
Well, as you know, the president has put forward an immigration reform package that will not only provide a pathway to citizenship, but will help put in place smart security measures at the border. We’ll also address root causes in the region. They’re also is time. And he talked about this quite a bit yesterday, as you know, that we need to dig out from the immoral and ineffective approach to immigration of the last administration. That’s going to take time, probably months for us to be able to process people at the border, to get people on the right path for consideration, for asylum seekers and others. Now is not the moment for that.
So for clarity, it sounds like even if unintentionally you’re sending the message that these migrants can come, they just got to wait a little bit longer. Is that the message you’re sending?
Jen Psaki: (14:49)
Well, we’ve been also clear, as he was yesterday. The majority of people who come to the border are turned away, even kids who come in at the border, unaccompanied minors who come in. And we have emphasized time and time again, we want to keep them safe. We want to treat them with humanity. They are not guaranteed to stay in the United States. They still go through the processing. We just don’t want to send them back in the consideration of whether they can stay here through what is possible through our laws. It is still a difficult time. It’s a difficult journey. We are not encouraging people to come, but we also believe differently from the past administration that we are not going to turn away kids who are under 18.
Is the president going to be briefed on this from the Domestic Policy Council today, DHS assessing 117,000 or so unaccompanied children? 117,000 unaccompanied children will arrive in the U S by their projection this year. Will he learn about it today? And that number seems like a crisis. The secretary said it isn’t, how would we define a crisis?
Jen Psaki: (15:50)
Well, I’ll leave that to the Secretary of Homeland Security to define. He said it was a challenge. It is a challenge. We have more than 7,000 unaccompanied kids who have come into the United States. And that is certainly a lot of children that we are trying to treat humanely and safely, and process through the system as quickly as we can. That’s not easy. That is a challenge. Certainly, the president receives briefings and regular updates from his team. And we typically don’t confirm those publicly, but he is briefed regularly by his team, the domestic policy council and other members of his policy team.
Thank you for your time.
Jen Psaki: (16:27)
Sure. Go ahead.
Speaker 6: (16:28)
Thank you. One additional question on the timeline coming out of this announcement, you mentioned that J&J is set to deliver a hundred million vaccines by the end of June. Will this new partnership help Americans get these shots any sooner?
Jen Psaki: (16:41)
It should. It definitely will expedite the efforts of the United States government having enough vaccines on hand to vaccinate the American public. The president will talk more about that and give more specifics later this afternoon when he speaks to all of you, but certainly three vaccines approved by the FDA, the fact that we have taken these actions, we have used the full power of the federal government to expedite the manufacturing, that certainly should expedite the process and should make vaccines more readily available to Americans.
Speaker 6: (17:13)
And one question on the first lady, you mentioned her travel. She is set tomorrow to go out and tour some schools with the new education secretary. Wondering if you have any additional preview on this? I think she’s visiting two schools that have found a way to reopen. Will she be speaking to some of the challenges that communities across the country are facing now, as they deal with this?
Jen Psaki: (17:29)
She will be, she’ll be traveling. That’s what I was intending to provide more detail on at the top. I must’ve moved the paper out of my binder here, but she will be traveling with the secretary of education who was just confirmed, as you all know. They will be having a conversation at these schools that they’re visiting, that have reopened about what has been effective, what has worked, what are the lessons learned? What do they need more assistance with? And certainly, that is information that they will take back with them after these visits they’re doing tomorrow, that Secretary Cardona, his number one priority is reopening schools. And so certainly, taking a trip with the first lady is an indication of his commitment to that. Go ahead.
Speaker 7: (18:08)
Thanks, Jen. A question about Governor Andrew Cuomo. Vice President Kamala Harris was one of the most vocal critics of justice Brett Kavanaugh, of Senator Al Franken when they faced similar allegations. She said repeatedly, “I believe them, the women,” but she hasn’t said anything about the three women who are accusing governor Andrew Cuomo. And now this third accuser, Anna Rouge, she actually worked for the Biden Harris campaign. So at what point is the first female vice president going to say something about this?
Jen Psaki: (18:41)
Well, I know that’s how the vice president continues to feel. And the benefit of doing a briefing every day is that I can certainly speak on behalf of the president and the vice president. And so let me reiterate that they both believe that every woman coming forward should be heard, should be treated with dignity, and treated with respect. As you all know, the New York attorney general will oversee an independent investigation with subpoena power. And the governor’s office said he will fully cooperate, and we certainly support that moving forward.
Speaker 7: (19:10)
But as you know, it’s one thing to hear it from you and it’s appreciated, but it’s another thing to hear it from the vice president or the president himself. Can we expect to hear from either of them on this topic anytime soon?
Jen Psaki: (19:23)
Well, again, I’m speaking on their behalf, that’s how they feel. They personally both view this as a situation where all of the women coming forward should be treated with dignity and respect and should have their voices heard. And that’s the representation of their points of view.
Speaker 7: (19:40)
And one question on immigration, just to pick up from where Peter left off. I know you have said that you don’t want to label this a crisis. Secretary of New York was in here yesterday saying it’s not a crisis, but now you have Axios reporting that the administration needs 20,000 beds to shelter these children. Based on our own reporting, 97% of the beds through the Office of Refugee Resettlement are full. So I don’t want to sound like a broken record here, but at what point does it become a crisis?
Jen Psaki: (20:06)
Well, I would say, I don’t think we need to meet your bar of what we need to call it. We had the Secretary of Homeland Security yesterday conveying it’s a challenge. We’ve provided numbers publicly about how serious that challenge is. We, of course, because we are approaching this humanely and we are approaching this in a way where we will keep the children safe and in a great break with the past administration. And because we’re doing this at a time of COVID, that is even more challenging because most of these facilities are at 40% capacity. Hence, the number of beds that are being utilized. But again, we’re going to approach this without labeling. We’re going to approach this with policy and with humanity and with a focus on what we can do to keep these kids safe and get them in homes as quickly as possible. Go ahead.
Speaker 8: (20:59)
I was wondering first on the Merck and Johnson & Johnson announcement. Is the administration in talks with any other vaccine manufacturers to pick up either on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine or Pfizer or Moderna to get more doses out right now?
Jen Psaki: (21:13)
I don’t think we have anything to preview on that for you. I will say that the manufacturing process for Pfizer and Moderna does not allow for smooth transfer from one manufacturer to another in the same capacity. So this was a step taken because the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is a more traditional vaccine and Merck’s experience manufacturing other vaccines will allow it to scale and effectively produce the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Speaker 8: (21:41)
And then I wanted to follow on a question you got yesterday about the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. You explained that it was being distributed by population state the state, but there’s I guess a question of whether it might not make more sense to distribute more of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to more rural states where they might not have the capacity… where it might be tougher to ship something that needs to be stored at a extremely cold temperature, where they might only have centralized hospitals and may not be able to distribute that. And so, I’m wondering if you could explain the administration strategy of why Johnson & Johnson isn’t been sent out to places where it might logistically make more sense? You could balance it out by maybe having more Pfizer and Moderna in like Washington DC, where it’s easy to get from one side of the city to the other.
Jen Psaki: (22:28)
Sure. Those are all important considerations, but what the clear advice from our health and medical team is, and they’ve looked closely at all of the questions you’ve raised. All important ones, is that if you have access for the American people, if you have… Whatever vaccine you have access to, you should take that vaccine. And of course, all of these vaccines are being distributed in communities across the country. As we’ve talked about a little bit here, we’re going to have more than enough vaccine doses to distribute to communities across country and to the American people. And we expect to have that done in an expedited pace from what we had been predicting previously, but the guidelines from our health experts, which is what we rely on is that every American should take whatever vaccine they have access to in their pharmacy, at their health provider, at their community center, at the mass vaccination site, whatever it may be.
Speaker 8: (23:19)
Follow up on this. I know you’ve gotten some questions on this, but again, the chief of staff at the beginning, the administration had promised a sort of central clearing house phone internet for vaccine information. Then you’ve kind of pointed to this effort where you can go on-
Jen Psaki: (23:37)
Speaker 8: (23:38)
Yeah, well, I guess this is my question. Do you find that to be sufficient? Because I think what we’re hearing a lot from Americans is that… Americans who want to get this vaccine, it’s extremely hard to navigate. It’s not really functioning. And one promise of your administration was we’re going to federalize this. We’re going to be a central clearing house. We’re going to kind of step in and help what has been [inaudible 00:24:04].
Jen Psaki: (24:03)
You’re right. And the Vaccine Finder website is available in about a half a dozen states. There are also websites in many states that provide access and provide guidance for people looking for where they can get a vaccine and access. So that is true in different states across the country as well. But one of the things we’ve also found and the prison at which we’re looking at this through is that it’s not just about people being able to go on websites.
Jen Psaki: (24:28)
People also don’t all have access to the internet and including many people who are in communities where there’s higher level of vaccine hesitancy or rural communities. And so, we’ve also taken a number of steps, call centers, proactive outreach to communities from health centers to get people to come and take the vaccine, because a website is not going to be the silver bullet that solves everything. It’s a pilot. And so our intention is to expand it, but it’s not going to be the only thing that helps solve this for the public. Go ahead.
Two questions, follow up on the vaccine and then [inaudible 00:27:52] question. On the timing of the administration’s efforts to help pull this deal together, you said that it was within, I think the last few weeks, is that what you had said? We wrote our first story of the New York Times about a possible partnership between Merck and J&J for manufacturing on January 21st. That was when it published. And my understanding is that talks between those companies have been in the works before that even in terms of sort of the corporate discussions between them. So could you help explain how it is that the Biden administration deserves credit for bringing these two together, when it looks like the discussions had been underway long before you guys got here?
Jen Psaki: (25:48)
Well, Mike, just to be clear, I’m talking about when it was finalized, so that we could it forward. Of course there are conversations between companies, but in terms of getting it to a point, and obviously the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was only approved last weekend, right? And we were waiting on the FDA to make the final approvals of the vaccine. But there’s a difference between conversations and it moving forward. And the use of the Defense Production Act, which is something this president and not the prior president committed to invoking, and also the commitment to help get the manufacturing facilities to the place where they needed to be in order to produce the vaccine.
Jen Psaki: (26:30)
So I’m only conveying what got it across the finish line. And I think it’s clear that that has only happened relatively recently, but certainly the history of conversations between Merck and J&J long before the J&J vaccine was even approved you certainly might have more information on than I do.
Second question on the timing of all of this. It’s our understanding that the time that it’s going to take Merck to spin up the production of any kind of either the finish, and then also the production of the vaccine itself is months from now. I mean, the phrase fourth quarter has been talked about, which would seem to undercut your assertion I think to a couple of questions earlier that this partnership in particular is going to have any benefit to the 100 million dose pledge, right? I mean, if your 100 million does pledge is by the end of July and Merck’s production isn’t going to get started until September, October, November-
Jen Psaki: (27:42)
The contract is by the end of June, but I expect the president will have more to say this afternoon on the impact on the timeline.
And then one question on the [inaudible 00:27:52] and Russia sanctions. Russia was sanctioned in very much the same way in the wake of the previous poisoning-
… Same way in the wake of the previous poisoning that was attributed to Putin and the Russian government. And those sanctions essentially were ignored, right? I mean, we now have the Navalny poisoning that came despite the series of similar sanctions that were imposed. So I guess the question is, and I think maybe Peter had a similar question, but what is it that gives your National Security team a level of confidence that some different outcome is going to happen from essentially doing the same thing that was done before? I mean, is there something that we all don’t know about why this is going to be effective? These limited steps, when they essentially, they weren’t effective before?
Jen Psaki: (28:46)
Well, first, the announcement we’re making today was done in harmony with the EU announcement. It was not meant to be a silver bullet or an ending to what has been a difficult relationship with Russia. We expect the relationship to continue to be a challenge. We’re prepared for that, and we’re neither seeking to reset our relations with Russia, nor are we seeking to escalate. There’s also an ongoing process, as you know, to consider a number of steps of concerning behavior taken by the Russians that is still ongoing.
Jen Psaki: (29:21)
And we made this announcement because we wanted to do it in a timeline aligned with the European Union, which does send a powerful message. But we’re not naive about the challenge. We continue to believe it’s a challenging relationship. The President made that clear and made clear what our focuses when he spoke with President Putin, and that review is ongoing. And we, of course, reserve the right to take additional steps and take an additional action at the conclusion.
So just one final thing, is that essentially a concession that you recognize that the steps taken today are not likely to prevent further attempted assassinations by Putin or the regime?
Jen Psaki: (30:05)
No, I appreciate the option. I’m certainly not making that concession. I’m conveying that it was taken today in order to be in the same timeline as the European Union. There is an ongoing review. We reserve the right to take any additional actions at the conclusion of that review. And just reiterating, that the tone and the tenor and the type of relationship that this President intends to have with President Putin, will be quite different from the last administration. Go ahead.
Speaker 9: (30:36)
Yes, Jen, following up on that, you had mentioned also being able to maintain a relationship moving forward with Russia despite the sanctions. What specific areas are you considering such as Iran, Syria, the START talks? Can you be a little specific?
Jen Psaki: (30:56)
Well, of course, we already signed the extension on new START a couple of weeks ago. That is a good example. And that is an example of where engagement is in the interest of the United States and in our national security interests. There are also areas, some of which you touched on, of course, depending on where things land with the invitation for diplomatic talks on Iran, Russia is a P5+1 one partner. They were, as we pursued the JCPOA under the Obama Biden administration, and they certainly would be a key partner if that diplomatic process were to move forward.
Jen Psaki: (31:34)
So the point is, there are areas where we disagree. There are areas where there is significant challenge. There are also areas where we are going to work with the Russians, as we would with most global partners, when we need to take steps that are in the interest of the United States.
Speaker 9: (31:48)
And just one more, if I may, some unfinished business with Democratic Party lawmakers who are still peeved about this lack of Congressional notification. Senator Tim Kaine says, “I learned about it on the news,” and he’s a member of the Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committee. He says, “I don’t think I should be learning about it this way.” What do you say to Senator Kaine and others who are upset on the Hill?
Jen Psaki: (32:15)
Well, I know that statement was from a couple of days ago. I would say that there were notifications done of committee chairs. I don’t have any more specifics on that. There was also additional notifications and conversations that happened on Friday, and we’ve made an offer of classified briefings for anyone who would meet that bar. Senator Kaine is an important partner for this administration. He’s somebody the President has known for quite some time, and we look forward to continuing to work with him on a range of issues. Go ahead.
Speaker 10: (32:47)
Jen Psaki: (32:47)
Either one. We’re not going anywhere. Go ahead.
Speaker 10: (32:47)
Okay. A couple of questions on COVID. We’re seeing reports out of Kansas and Missouri, that small rural areas are receiving large quantities of doses and that larger urban areas are receiving smaller shipments of doses relative to their populations. And so, I’m wondering if the White House is satisfied that state and local governments are doing what they need to do in terms of ensuring vaccine equity?
Jen Psaki: (33:19)
Well, we certainly track when we see, for example, if there were one of the vaccines that were distributed primarily into certain demographic communities or neighborhoods. That would be a concern to us as well. We track that closely. I’m not familiar with these specific issues, but it is something that our COVID team looks at. And as their issues, they raised them directly with state leaders.
Speaker 10: (33:42)
Oh, and on mobile vaccination sites, I’m wondering what the federal role is, and if the federal government is helping to select the sites that these mobile sites are going through?
Jen Psaki: (33:55)
We are working in [inaudible 00:33:57] as I noted a little bit earlier of our COVID coordinator, Jeff Zients, has a weekly meeting with governors where he provides an update, they have a discussion, we’re also involved and engaged with local and state leaders on a regular basis. And certainly, mobile vaccination sites and the implementation of those and where they can most effectively be utilized, is something that is part of that discussion.
Speaker 10: (34:21)
I’m wondering what the administration is doing to avoid some of the problems that might arise with the J&J vaccine that have plagued the AstraZeneca vaccine in Europe, where in Germany and France, the AstraZeneca vaccine seems to be treated as a secondary vaccine or a second choice because of the perception that it has a lower efficacy rate. Is there a concern that that might be an issue with the J&J?
Jen Psaki: (34:49)
Well, one of the reasons that we’ve been very clear and why Dr. Fouci was very clear about this on Sunday, on four Sunday shows, let me just note, is that we now have three vaccines that are safe, that are effective in preventing serious illness, effective in preventing death. And anyone in the country who has access to any of these vaccines should take them. But it is certainly something that we are aware of in terms of that concern, and we are going to continue to communicate broadly and through a range of channels, how effective all of these vaccines are. Go ahead.
Thanks, Jen. Couple of questions on New York. And then one on Russia. Obviously, this third allegation against Governor Cuomo has come out. This woman did work for President Biden during the campaign. I’m wondering what the President thinks about the call for Governor Como to resign and whether he’s spoken directly either to his former staffer or the Governor about this situation.
Jen Psaki: (35:48)
The President believes, as I’ve noted, that every woman who comes forward deserves to be heard and treated with respect. There is an investigation, an independent investigation, that’s being overseen by the Attorney General and which has subpoena power. And we certainly support that moving forward. In terms of any other conversations, I did not work on the campaign, as you know. I know that she did work on the campaign. I believe she was an organizer in Southwest Florida. I’m not aware of a personal relationship that they had, or that he knew her personally, but I don’t have any other engagements. I’m sure she has a number of people she still remains in touch with from the campaign, but I don’t have any calls or engagements to read out.
As you know, Governor Cuomo is also facing questions over the nursing home situation and COVID. He’s currently chair of the NGA. He came up here to The Lighthouse in that capacity to discuss COVID with the President. His top aid, Melissa DeRosa, who’s been pretty embroiled in this nursing home situation, was also advising the administration on COVID response during the transition. Does the President believe he should step aside from the NGA? And are you still seeking advice from his administration on COVID?
Jen Psaki: (36:57)
Well, that’s a decision for the NGA, not a decision for the President or the White House. But I would say that New York, as you know, continues to be one of the hardest hit states by the COVID pandemic. It is one of the hardest hit states by the resulting economic downturn. And of course, we’re going to continue to work with officials in that state to help the people of New York, help get the pandemic under control and help get people back to work.
And just going back to Russia, as Michael was pointing out, we’re now, I believe, right in the midst of the seventh anniversary of the Crimea crisis. And we have seen similar sanctions before against the Putin regime. I’m wondering if you’re considering anything, what’s the next step? What could it be beyond sanctions? And also, as this discussion is happening, is the administration factoring in the captive Americans, Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed, in their response to this and in potential future actions?
Jen Psaki: (37:57)
Well, of course, we raise the fact that American citizens are held by the Russians at every opportunity and at every level. I would say that as I noted earlier, the review is still on ongoing, underway, of several actions, concerning actions, including the reports of bounties being on heads of U.S. soldiers, of intervention or hacking of the 2020 election, and of course, of the solar winds, cyber attack. That’s all underway. The President, the National Security team, reserves the right to respond and in time and manner of their choosing. Certainly, sanctions is part of that. But they reserve the right to respond in a manner seen and unseen, once that process is concluded.
Thanks very much.
Jen Psaki: (38:43)
Sure, go ahead.
Speaker 11: (38:44)
Thank you, ma’am. One question for me and two from my colleagues, who can’t be in the room. First off, something that sort of touches, I guess, on immigration and then also on vaccines. We’re five weeks into the new administration, and the President hasn’t named a permanent FDA Commissioner. And then yesterday, we heard from the DHS secretary who said that he’s trying to rebuild an agency dismantled by the previous administration. But so far, that the President hasn’t named a nominee for Director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, a Director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. What’s taking so long?
Jen Psaki: (39:20)
You’re right. And he is eager to nominate individuals to fill all of those spots. We need to find the right people and the right nominees. Hopefully, we’ll have news on that in the coming weeks, but I don’t have anything to preview for you, unfortunately, on personnel.
Speaker 11: (39:38)
All right. Very good. And then from Christian Daytoc of The Daily Caller, Interior announced yesterday, it’s giving out more than $260 million in grants to help coal production states create green energy jobs. Is the White House launching any programs to help those states transition fossil fuel workers into green tech? Or are they leaving that up to the governors?
Jen Psaki: (39:54)
I’m not familiar with the Interior program. I’m happy to certainly check on that. As I’ve noted in here before, the President is committed to moving forward on the rest of his Build Back Better agenda. We’re going to wait until we’re through the American Rescue Plan and that is signed into law. Direct checks are going out to the American people. More money to get vaccines into arms. Schools are starting to reopen with money. So that’s our focus now, but he believes that we can invest in areas like infrastructure and do that in a way that creates good paying green jobs that are good paying union jobs. And so, I have nothing more to preview, other than that remains his commitment.
Speaker 11: (40:32)
A similar question, or a similar agenda issue type question, from Ella Nilson of Vox. She’s wondering where House Democrats anti-corruption voting rights bill, H.R.1, one falls in the Biden administration’s list of priorities.
Jen Psaki: (40:49)
Well, it is certainly… I believe we put out a statement of administration policy yesterday. If not, it’s coming soon. But I believe we put it out yesterday, and the administration and the President remains committed to protecting the fundamental right to vote and making it easy for all eligible Americans to vote. So that’s something he talked about on the campaign trail, and that’s why we need to pass reforms like H.R.1, the For the People Act and restore the Voting Rights Act. And so, it is a priority to the President, something he’ll be working with members of Congress to move forward on.
Speaker 11: (41:27)
Jen Psaki: (41:28)
Speaker 11: (41:28)
… On my question yesterday, [inaudible 00:41:30] the virtual visitor logs. You released the names of Democrats, Democratic senators, who were speaking with the President virtually. Is there any discussion about making that standard operating procedure as in he has a virtual meeting, you release the names? Or should we expect to ask you each time there’s a meeting?
Jen Psaki: (41:51)
We’ve proactively most of the… I can’t even think of a meeting we haven’t, but we plan to proactively release as we did yesterday. I think when I said that, it was released while I was up here, which is sort of a magical moment.
Jen Psaki: (42:03)
… yesterday. I think when I said that it was released while I was up here, which is sort of a magical moment, but I didn’t really have anything to do with that. We were intending to release the names. We will release the names of members that he meets with. Certainly, we believe in being transparent and making that available to all of you. Of course, today it’s a meeting with the caucus. So that is whoever attends that. I don’t have that list. You’d have to talk to the leadership about that. Go ahead. Oh, thank you. This is a little Phone-a-Friend on the First Lady’s trip that I can give more details on, but go ahead.
Owen Jensen: (42:32)
Hi, Owen Jensen, EWTN, Global Catholic Network. A couple of questions if I may.
Jen Psaki: (42:36)
Owen Jensen: (42:38)
First, pro-life groups right now are very concerned about the phrase pregnancy discrimination in the Equality Act. You’re familiar with that I’m sure. That it would force doctors to perform abortions even if it violates their conscience. There are also concerns the bill would force doctors to perform gender transition surgeries and sterilizations again, even if it violates their conscience. What does the president, President Biden say about those concerns?
Jen Psaki: (43:03)
The president’s been a long supporter of Roe v. Wade. It has been his consistent belief that should be law and he will fight to continue to protect that as being law.
Owen Jensen: (43:14)
Conscience concerns, is that not a concern of his?
Jen Psaki: (43:17)
I think again, I’m just going to state what the president’s policies are. Did you have another question?
Owen Jensen: (43:22)
Will President Biden keep the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division at HHS, the office that was put in place under President Trump? Will he keep it in place to receive conscience complaints from those doctors?
Jen Psaki: (43:33)
You’ll have to talk to a future Secretary Becerra once he is confirmed.
Owen Jensen: (43:37)
Vert quickly on another subject on education. Every day, that goes by some kids are in school year around have been, for example, in Nebraska. Kids have been schools since day one back in August. In other states, it’s strictly virtually. The education gap is widening. No doubt about that. When fall rolls around, if some schools are still not in-person full-time, will the president accept that or will he have a firm deadline in mind that gets the kids back in the classroom?
Jen Psaki: (44:04)
Well, the president wants schools to be back in the classroom. His wife is a teacher. He believes that not only do students want to be in school, but teachers want to be in school, and he wants them to be open five days a week. There were CDC guidelines that were put out. We now have a Secretary of Education. As of just yesterday, this will be his number one priority. And certainly the president looks forward to having schools open across the country.
Owen Jensen: (44:27)
Does that have a firm deadline in mind for when kids should be back? I know he can’t demand it. He can’t do that. I realize it’s up to school districts, but certainly he can create a sense of urgency, right?
Jen Psaki: (44:37)
Well, one of the steps that you could certainly advocate for or any of these folks could advocate for us the signing of the American Rescue Plan, which has $160 billion in it to help ensure schools can make the changes to their facilities, can hire enough teachers so that they can have socially distant kids in classrooms, so that they can have enough bus drivers. And that’s an important component of getting this done as well. Go ahead.
Speaker 12: (45:01)
Thank you, Jen. I have two questions. The first one, I just want to go back on this concept of vaccination, vaccine diplomacy. We see that China and Russia by the tens of millions are giving vaccine to African and South American countries. We understand because you repeat this every day that the president wants first every American to be vaccinated. But at what point, at what moment, aren’t you worried that the US are going to be left far behind and Russia and China will have made major successes with these countries?
Jen Psaki: (45:38)
Well, let me first say that we’ve also made a major contribution to COVAX, which is an international body coordinating the safe, equitable, fair distribution of vaccines across the country. That is across the world I should say. I’m sorry. That is the mechanism and the body that we feel this should be done through. They also ensure that these vaccines reach the standards and meet the standards that we would fully expect them to meet.
Jen Psaki: (46:03)
Of course, we’re concerned by Russia and China using vaccines to engage with countries in a way where they’re not holding them at times to the same standard the United States and a number of other countries would hold them to on human rights, on freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of media even. Of course that’s a concern, but the president’s focus is on ensuring the American people are vaccinated. And of course we look forward to engaging with and continuing to engage with and contributing to the global community’s effort to do that. But our first priority is vaccinating the American people.
Speaker 12: (46:41)
And my second question is on FBI director Chris Wray. In Congress today, acknowledged, recognized said that what happened on January 6th at the Capitol was domestic terrorism. It sounds like the review is done. The review you talked about a month ago. You don’t remember Canada?
Jen Psaki: (47:02)
I do remember, but the president also called it domestic terrorism on January 6th. So he agrees. The review is not concluded. That’s a 100 day review. They’re looking at not just one incident, but many incidents. They want to do it comprehensively, not through a political lens. And when that’s concluded, I’m sure we’ll have more to say.
Speaker 12: (47:22)
You’re not ready yet to say just like Canada a month ago that the Proud Boy is a terrorist organization.
Jen Psaki: (47:29)
Again, I think that we’re going to conclude the review. We’re looking at organizations, white supremacist organizations, a range of organizations across the country and their impact. We’re not looking at individual incidents on their own. It’s important that it’s a comprehensive review. And when that review is concluded, we’ll have more to say. Go ahead.
Speaker 13: (47:49)
Thank you, Jen. Two vaccine questions and one from someone who’s not in the room because of all of social distancing. On the vaccine questions, if there are state, local governments, hospital systems who are having real problems with their websites and their implementation of vaccine registration systems. Is the federal government offering assistance, technical contractor support, maybe using the Defense Production Act to require a federal contractor in the technology space to help them out? What’s being done to help sort of fix some of these technical challenges that state and local governments are having?
Jen Psaki: (48:33)
It’s an interesting question. I’m not aware of our engagement on IT support directly I think is what you’re asking about with state and local governments. Obviously, I’m sure there’s a lot of traffic in certain places and that may have an impact. I can see if there’s more we can convey on that.
Speaker 13: (48:48)
And following up somewhat to a question from a little bit earlier. If there are areas where it seems like a governor maybe giving preferential treatment say to an area where there are more people who vote for one political party or another in terms of the allocation of the vaccines and the location of sites. Is there anything that the federal government can do directly to sort of steer more vaccine doses to locations where the governor may not be allocating them?
Jen Psaki: (49:23)
Well, one of the things we saw when we went to the Pfizer facility and this is true for every vaccine is that they’re tracked. We know where they go. And we certainly know if vaccines are going more heavily to one part or one demographic over another. And that would certainly be a concern. It would be something we would raise directly with leaders in that state, but it is something that we watch closely.
Speaker 13: (49:44)
Are there any examples where that has happened or would that be something you would at this point keep under wraps if it had happened?
Jen Psaki: (49:51)
I’m not aware of specific incidents, but it is something we track and we watch closely. And I think our first step in those scenarios would be to raise it directly with leadership in the states.
Speaker 13: (50:02)
And the question I got from someone who’s actually in California, who was asking whether or not the president plans on engaging in the recall and in support of the governor in the event that there is a recall election in the California gubernatorial race.
Jen Psaki: (50:23)
We’ve expressed support for the governor, but I don’t have any other plans related to the president to preview for you. Kristen, do you have another question?
A question about Dr. Seuss since it’s the only day that you can bring up Dr. Susan in the briefing. It is National Read Across America Day. It’s also Dr. Seuss’s birthday. Both former presidents Obama and Trump have mentioned Dr. Seuss in there Read Across America Day proclamations, but President Biden did not. Why not?
Jen Psaki: (50:52)
Well, first the proclamation was written by the Department of Education and you could certainly speak to them about more specifics about the drafting of it, but Read Across America Day, which is you’re right, has not existed forever. It’s only been around for a short period of time, elevates and celebrates a love of reading among our nation’s youngest leaders. And the day is also a chance to celebrate diverse authors whose work and lived experience reflect the diversity of our country. And that’s certainly what they attempted to do or hope to do this year. And as we celebrate the love of reading and uplift diverse and representative authors, it’s especially important that we ensure all children can see themselves represented and celebrated in the books that they read.
Speaker 7: (51:32)
So does the omission have anything to do with the controversy about the lack of diverse characters in the author’s books?
Jen Psaki: (51:41)
Well, again, I think it is important that children of all backgrounds see themselves in the children’s books that they read. But I would point you to the Department of Education for any more details on the writing of the proclamation. Go ahead.
Speaker 14: (51:57)
Did the president have a reaction of the passing of Vernon Jordan?
Jen Psaki: (52:00)
I’d expect he’ll have a statement out shortly, even maybe as we speak, but shortly about his passing. Yeah, go ahead.
Speaker 15: (52:06)
A little bit of news on the media front. Your predecessor, Kayleigh McEnany has just signed on as a Fox News contributor. I’m wondering if you have any good wishes for her, advice and if she does have a show, if you’d be willing to go on.
Jen Psaki: (52:19)
Sure. I’ve done Fox News Sunday, twice now. I’m happy to go on a range of shows. I will say that I knew Kayleigh a little bit, not well. I met her when we were both CNN contributors and we did a few shows. I’m not sure how many together. Like many Americans, we disagree on political issues, but we talked about our families, our spouses, sports, all sorts of things in the green room. And I certainly wish her the best in her future endeavors.
Speaker 16: (52:48)
Thank you, Jen.
Jen Psaki: (52:48)
Thank you everyone.
Jen Psaki: (52:56)
Oh, oh, sorry. Can I do one more thing? See, I feel like I’m violating a rule here. Oh, sorry. I just want to give you more details about the First Lady’s. I actually woke up this morning and said I want to talk about this and then I didn’t do it.
Jen Psaki: (53:11)
So as you all know and we’ve talked about, the Senate confirmed the president’s Secretary of Education, Miguel Cardona, fellow nutmegger, go Connecticut, in a wide bipartisan vote of 64 to 33. He will be sworn in by the vice president this evening. Tomorrow, the First Lady and Secretary Cardona will travel to his hometown of Meriden, Connecticut and to Waterford, Pennsylvania to tour K-3 public schools that are open for in-person learning. So as Mary asked about earlier.
Jen Psaki: (53:37)
They’re both lifelong educators. They will highlight the key CDC mitigation strategies that the schools have implemented successfully in these locations. Listen to the challenges they are facing due to the pandemic, including the academic, social and emotional needs of students. Highlight the additional resources in the American Rescue Plan needed for schools to remain open, and address the needs of students and thank educators for their work in supporting students and their families.
Jen Psaki: (54:04)
As I noted, this is the top priority reopening schools for Secretary Cardona. And I will expect you’ll learn more soon on who will be running point on that in the Department of Education as well. So thank you everyone. Have a good afternoon.
Speaker 17: (54:16)
[inaudible 00:54:16] Pepe’s or Sally’s?
Jen Psaki: (54:16)
What’d you say?
Speaker 17: (54:19)
Pepe’s or Sally’s?
Jen Psaki: (54:21)
Pepe’s or Sally’s. Oh no. See, I’m from Stanford. So they’re not the same debate there. Better bagels and sandwiches though in the Northeast for sure.