Mar 4, 2021
Press Secretary Jen Psaki White House Press Conference Transcript March 4
March 4, 2021 press conference with White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki. She didn’t give the Trump administration credit for the vaccine plan. She was also joined by the Sec. of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough. Read the transcript of the full briefing here.
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Jen Psaki: (07:45)
Well, we have another very special guest today. Today, we are joined by the secretary of veterans affairs, my former boss, Denis McDonough, who is working tirelessly to build and restore trust in the VA. As you all know, Secretary McDonough served as White House chief of staff in the Obama/Biden administration for four years. He also served in several roles on the national security council, including as principal deputy national security advisor. Throughout his service at the White House, Secretary McDonnell helped lead the Obama/Biden administration’s work on behalf of military families and veterans. He has a busy schedule, as all of our Cabinet members do, but he has kindly agreed to also take a couple of questions after he speaks. I will, as always, be the bad cop. Come on up.
Sec. Denis McDonough: (08:25)
Sec. Denis McDonough: (08:29)
Jen, thanks so much. It’s a total joy to be working with you, as it always is. Good afternoon to everybody here. It’s nice to see some old friendly faces.
Sec. Denis McDonough: (08:41)
I want to obviously thank Jen for inviting me today to speak about the importance of the American Rescue Plan, particularly as it relates to its support to the VA to provide quality care to our veterans, especially during a very challenging pandemic.
Sec. Denis McDonough: (09:01)
Like other hardworking Americans, veterans have been severely impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. Countless veterans have lost jobs, closed businesses, homeschooled their own children and faced uncertain prospects while our nation grappled with the pandemic. Like the rest of the country, many veterans were directly affected by the deadly virus. With more than 230,000 veterans in our care infected by it and, sadly, 10,605 dying from the disease.
Sec. Denis McDonough: (09:33)
At the VA, we’ve risen to the challenge of combating this deadly pandemic. Our integrated healthcare system, the largest in the nation, has been running nonstop since the start of the pandemic to provide much needed care to infected veterans and vaccines to those most at risk. To date, more than 1.4 million veterans have been vaccinated, with more than half of them having gotten both vaccines. And we’re making sure that equity is at the forefront of where and how we distribute vaccines.
Sec. Denis McDonough: (10:07)
At the same time, we continue to deliver routine care while mitigating the spread of infection. VA is leading the country in standardizing the use of tele-health for routine doctor visits. We’re partnering with community and service organizations so that vets do not forgo checkups because of broadband limitations. Last year, for example, in March, VA averaged approximately 2,500 tele-health visits a day. Last month, February, we averaged nearly 45,000 such visits a day. As you can see, this is a major increase and we need the funding in the ARP to sustain this opt tempo for our veterans so we can continue to push through the pandemic.
Sec. Denis McDonough: (10:52)
Lastly, before getting into a little bit more detail on the health situation, the Veterans Benefits Administration continues to help veterans cope with economic impact of the pandemic, from helping veterans avoid eviction and foreclosure to making sure that veterans can continue you to rely on their GI bill to pay for tuition. We make sure that VA can continue to adapt to these challenging times and the president’s American Rescue Plan will do just that. It will provide 17 billion in additional funding to VA to include at least 13.5 billion to improve our ability to provide medical service to veterans affected by COVID, 272 million to cut through the backlog of disability claims, and help us manage the compensation exams, access to which have worsened as a result of the pandemic, and $386 million to develop a rapid retraining program for veterans unemployed as a result of the pandemic.
Sec. Denis McDonough: (11:57)
Now, let me just give you one other figure for you to consider. Since the start of the pandemic, 19 million appointments have been changed, canceled, or deferred as a result of the pandemic. 19 million. Obviously, we’ve been able to compensate for those through the telehealth platforms, but not for all of them. As a result of deferred care, which we’re actually seeing across the healthcare system, not just in VA, we’re going to see increased costs. The ARP is critical to our ability to make sure that we can keep up with those demands of the increased cost.
Sec. Denis McDonough: (12:40)
Our department remains fully committed, obviously, to fulfilling the sacred obligation that President Biden has made clear we have to those who serve in uniform. The rescue plan helps us deliver on that promise, especially in this unanticipated in significant time of crisis. We urge the Senate to pass the much needed plan as soon as possible.
Sec. Denis McDonough: (13:04)
I thank you again, Jen, for the opportunity to be here with you.
Jen Psaki: (13:06)
Absolutely. All right. Go ahead, Jeff.
Mr. Secretary. Can you explain how veterans should go about looking as to where to sign up for vaccinations? Should they be going to the VA, or should they be going to their states and localities? It’s certainly been one of the trickiest parts of the vaccination process to figure out information on that.
Sec. Denis McDonough: (13:30)
Yeah. I want to start by telling I think what is a very positive story. Oftentimes you don’t, at least we have not in the past been focused on good news stories about our scheduling process. Our scheduling process is actually working pretty well. The first answer, Jeff, is those veterans in our care, currently in the 75 and older and 65 and older, who are our particular focus at the moment, should be hearing from our schedulers. Our schedulers are in contact with them. If you just take an example of the VA here in DC, they’re moving through something, on some days, something like 80 veterans vaccinated an hour. Now that’s obviously because of the vaccinators, it’s because of the pharmacist. It’s because of the nurses. But it’s also because of the schedulers, and they’re doing an amazing bit of work.
Sec. Denis McDonough: (14:24)
The first thing is they should be hearing from our schedulers. The second thing is we have a bunch of information on our website at va.gov, including how to get access to opportunities. And then we’re working also with VSO partners and directly with veterans through even my office whom we’re hearing from to make sure that they have the most recent information. Are there examples of frustrations? Absolutely. But we’re staying obviously on top of this, Jeff, trying to be as transparent as possible, and in the first instance, reaching veterans directly to schedule them.
Are there are examples of overlap too where veterans are maybe going to the VA, or going to their state or local facilities as well?
Sec. Denis McDonough: (15:11)
Definitely. Many of our veterans are obviously. This is the beauty of the integrated system, which is we provide care across the range of services. Many of our, the over 6,000,000 vets who are with us, rely on us for care across the board, are very sophisticated consumers of care. But then we have up to 9,000,000 who are enrolled in the VA system and they have choices and we’re seeing them make choices. But again, we are trying to be as affirmative and on the front foot as we can be so that we’re providing that kind of information.
I guess what I’m getting at, and sorry to ask one more, is isn’t there some inefficiency there that would be a problem? If veterans just knew we can get our shots from the VA that will clear space at these other facilities for other people, and it would ideally give them priority at the VA.
Sec. Denis McDonough: (16:05)
Yeah. I guess my answer isn’t that there’s not overlap and that there’s not competition, there obviously is. But I think what we are seeing, Jeff, is that we are very efficiently moving veterans who qualify through the system and we’re hearing very positive feedback on that. There inevitably is going to be some overlap, and that’s what we’re trying to get ahead of with forward contacting and also providing information as clearly as we can about dates and times for vaccinations, how those clinics are going to function, but also not have it just be a jump ball, actually have it be a schedule so we can efficiently get that through the system.
Jen Psaki: (16:45)
Speaker 9: (16:47)
Thank you. Thank you, Mr. Secretary. Can you talk about what the biggest challenges are in getting as many veterans vaccinated as possible?
Speaker 9: (16:55)
Secondly, is a part of that hesitancy at all? Because I know Pentagon officials have said about a third of troops have not-
Speaker 9: (17:03)
… about a third of troops have not opted to get the vaccine. So what are the challenges and does that include hesitancy?
Sec. Denis McDonough: (17:08)
Well, the biggest challenge is supply and that’s why we really need the American Rescue Plan. You’ve heard the president say this, you’ve heard Jeff Zients say this, you’ve heard Jen say this. We have more demand right now than there is supply. And that’s not withstanding the fact that the COVID coordinator, the president have really cranked up supply week on week, including with these several innovative actions even over the last several days with Johnson & Johnson and enhancing the manufacturing capacity. So the big challenge for us is supply. What I hear from our docs is from the moment we get it, our allotments are in arms within two to three days, okay? So I think that’s a pretty remarkable throughput. Now on hesitancy, our lead doc on this testified last week to Congress that in fact, we’re surprised that hesitancy is less than we feared.
Sec. Denis McDonough: (18:08)
Now, that doesn’t mean that we’re not going to confront it, but right now we’re seeing a significant demand, that demand outstripping supply and that demand consistent across categories. In fact, our performance among black vets, Latino vets and white vets is pretty consistent, if not outperforming in black and Latino vets, white vets uptake. Nevertheless, this is going to be a problem going forward. So we’re working very closely with our VSOs, very closely with Congress, and then very closely to tell the story of the more than 1.4 million vets who have gotten vaccinated to date. We’re talking about what that experience has been, which is overwhelmingly positive. But we need the funding from ARP to get this done.
Speaker 9: (18:57)
Quick follow on the supply. Is there a set amount that you’re getting every week from the administration and have you asked Jeff Zients to increase that?
Sec. Denis McDonough: (19:07)
There is a process, well established process that’s run through the inner agency. So we get our allotment every week out of that process. We then channel it out to what we call our visions, which are our regional setups across the country based on their population of the target populations. So we have a very straightforward transparent process by which we get our allotment and dish it out. Now, I think the question over time is we’re trying to demonstrate at VA that we’re very efficient at moving it through in the hopes that as there is extra, that it comes our way. So for example, about three weeks ago, there was 200,000 doses that was additive to our allotment. And as with everything else we’re getting, we move that quickly through the system into vet’s arms on a very clear, efficient process.
[inaudible 00:20:00]. On another topic, as the Capitol is on alert today, I wanted to ask you about the veterans who played a role in the January 6th attack. We’ve seen 30 plus veterans be arrested for participating. We see these militia groups that are actively trying to recruit veterans. What, if anything, can the VA do, are you considering doing to try and combat some of this?
Sec. Denis McDonough: (20:21)
Yeah. So just to fill out the story, I also saw veterans on that day, including members of Congress who were veterans doing remarkable things, including members of the DCPD and the Capitol PD, veterans doing remarkable things. And so I think it’s a full picture there that underscores that basically veterans continue to play a critical role in the country, even after they retire from active duty. And we’re very proud of that. Answer the questions you raised, we’ll take a look at that. We don’t have anything specific to announce now. But again, I want to make sure that we have a full picture of things like remarkable members in the House, Mr. Gallego is one who comes to mind, Senator Cotton in the Senate. These people taking concrete action in support of democracy on the ground that day, they’re vets too.
Jen Psaki: (21:15)
Mr. Secretary, two if you don’t mind. The first one is COVID related. You talked about [inaudible 00:21:22] and kind of what COVID has taken away. When it comes to suicide, what is the VA doing right now tangibly to reach out to veterans proactively? Not just messaging campaigns, though I know those are important, but to proactively reach out to veterans to ensure that needs in that general area are being met?
Sec. Denis McDonough: (21:41)
Yeah. It’s a major priority for obvious reasons, and any individual suicide is absolutely heartbreaking and we’re very focused on reducing these. The most important set of lessons, I think, we have to draw from is the availability of telehealth platform. Demand for mental health services is up. I think that’s a good sign because it speaks to the fact that stigma is being reduced. However, there’s still too much. And that’s a first half of the answer to your question, which is we’re not just passive waiting for vets to come to us. We’re also then working with our providers and with local communities to ensure that we have a good sense of at-risk vets and that we’re establishing contact and ways to be in contact with them affirmatively. Lastly, Congress has given us additional authorities on this and we’re going to use them.
Sec. Denis McDonough: (22:44)
The Hannon Act was just enacted. In fact, I was just speaking with Senator Boozman from Arkansas about this earlier this week. He and Senator Tester spent a lot of time on this question. Giving us new authority to make grants in communities using local providers who know their communities best to ensure that we’re providing assistance to those vets, at-risk vets and making sure that we’re doing things like reducing the stigma. So that’s what we’re doing, Phil.
And just real quick from a policy question, I know this came up during your confirmation hearing, but do you have a plan right now to either reverse or significantly revise the access standards through the VA MISSION Act?
Sec. Denis McDonough: (23:24)
I don’t have a specific plan on that. I’m very in active discussion with people like Senator Moran, Senator Tester, Senator Sanders, about what we’re seeing. We’re also beginning to get data about last fiscal year, what happened in the community. The data we’re getting now is pre-COVID, so basically first quarter and a half of FY20, and what we’re seeing there is a pretty significant uptake in the community. And so we got to, A, be a good partner with that, ensure that we’re paying those bills on time to local providers. We’re keeping vibrant networks so our people have places that they can find care. But we also have to be really careful that we’re also maintaining investment in the integrated system of the VA itself. We have to recapitalize that and make sure that these institutions, many of them over 50 years old are brought up to speed.
Sec. Denis McDonough: (24:15)
The AARP will be important to that too, things like new HVAC, new air control systems, zero pressure rooms so we’re not moving that virus through the hospital. Those are all things that are going to be enabled by the AARP and that’s why we really need the Senate to get this done.
Jen Psaki: (24:35)
All right. Let’s do the last question, then we’ll have to have him come back. Go ahead.
Speaker 10: (24:36)
Thank you, Mr. Secretary. At the top of your remarks, you mentioned the importance of keeping veterans in their homes. The moratorium on forbearance and foreclosures of course was extended through June. Do you think it should be extended further?
Sec. Denis McDonough: (24:48)
Well, we’ll take a look at that. And we’re taking a look at a lot of those things. Incidentally and importantly, in the AARP is additional funding for homelessness programming. We know that this continues to bedevil us as a country. It’s an outrage any night that any vet is homeless. We’re, over the last 10 years, down 50% on those numbers, but they’re creeping back up as a result of the pandemic. And 50%, while progress, is nowhere near where we need to be. So we need that funding in the AARP.
Jen Psaki: (25:26)
Thank you so much, Secretary [inaudible 00:25:27]. You’ll have to come back.
Sec. Denis McDonough: (25:26)
Yeah. Thank you very much. It’s great to see everybody.
Jen Psaki: (25:31)
All right. A couple of other things at the top. As you all saw, many of you reported on this morning, the numbers from the Labor Department out show the 50th week in a row where new unemployment claims exceeded their pre-pandemic high. Hundreds of thousands of Americans are continuing to struggle in this economy. We can’t get numb to what this represents. These are moms and dads, friends and neighbors who will now have to worry about how they’ll support families, put food on the table and make ends meet in the midst of a pandemic. This also underscores the need for Congress to move quickly to pass the American Rescue Plan to get $1,400 checks to the American people. You may have also seen today if you’re covering economic issues, I should say, that the Treasury Department announced a new program called the Emergency Capital Investment Program.
Jen Psaki: (26:25)
Through this program, Treasury will make a $9 billion investment in community financial institutions that have a track record in investing in financially underserved communities, which have been particularly hurt by the pandemic. This support will bolster these institutions so they can continue to play important roles in fostering financial inclusion for communities that have been shut out for far too long. This program is one component of Treasury’s efforts to combat economic inequality. This one announced today is one of three Treasury programs totaling about $12 billion. As you also know in an hour or so, the president, the vice president and the secretary of transportation will meet with bipartisan members of the House, Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. This meeting is meant to build on the conversation the president had with a bipartisan group of senators on February 11th.
Jen Psaki: (27:17)
Investing in our nation’s infrastructure is a top priority for the president, something he’s talked about as a part of his Build Back Better, also back to when he was vice president serving in the last Democratic administration. He believes we have to rebuild our crumbling roads and bridges, improve our communities and create good union jobs for Americans. Chris also tells me he’ll get Secretary Buttigieg here to talk to all of you, so we’re relying on him for that. One less piece, I can’t remember who it was, but somebody in here asked about Mississippi and the water situation on the ground in Mississippi. So as I mentioned I would, we follow it up with our FEMA team. We’re of course, continuing to closely monitor the situation in Jackson, Mississippi. We’re not currently tracking any requests for federal assistance through FEMA from the governor, which is how of course that process works.
Jen Psaki: (28:06)
As it relates to Jackson, the Mississippi State National Guard has numerous water distribution sites in place and the federal government, including the EPA remains in close touch with the governor and mayor to offer support. Alex, why don’t you kick us off?
Sure. Thanks, Jen. Two questions, let’s start with international. What is the US doing to help free AP journalist teams and other journalists detained Myanmar? Including the ongoing crack down against protestors there, has there been any outreach to authorities there and what’s been the response?
Jen Psaki: (28:38)
Well, I will say first that the detainment of journalists, the targeting of journalists and dissidents is certainly something that is of great concern to the president, to the secretary of state and to every member of our administration. And certainly, this issue has been raised. The issue broadly is raised in virtually every diplomatic conversation that members of our team have. As you’re very familiar with, the situation on the ground in Burma is troubling. We’ve obviously been working closely with our partners in the region. We’ve taken a sanction steps, as you know, to send a clear message that it’s unacceptable. I don’t have any diplomatic conversations to update you on. Those would likely happen through the state department. So I would certainly suggest you reach out to them directly.
And then domestically, we’ve seen a couple of high profile ID reports out this week about former Trump officials. Does the president believe that inspector general should continue to investigate and potentially pursue punitive measures against these Trump officials that are no longer in office, or does he think it’s time to turn the page?
Jen Psaki: (29:45)
Well, as you know, the Department of Transportation, Office of Inspector General initiated the investigation into the former secretary during the Trump administration and completed the investigation under the leadership of a Trump appointed inspector general. The inspector generals across agencies are independent for a reason, and we certainly respect their role in moving forward or seeing those investigations through as they see fit. Go ahead, Mary.
The governor of Mississippi has responded to the president’s comments yesterday, and he seems to have taken offense at some of the president’s language. He says, “Mississippians don’t need handlers. I just think we should trust Americans and not insult them.” He’s making an argument that this is really about personal liberty here. Does the president have any second thoughts about the language that he used yesterday? And how does comparing someone to a Neanderthal help convince them to change course and get on board with your public health message?
Jen Psaki: (30:38)
The behavior of a Neanderthal, just to be very clear, the behavior of. Look, I think the president, what everybody saw yesterday was a reflection of his frustration and exasperations, which I think many American people have, that for almost a year now, people across the country have sacrificed. At many times, they haven’t had information they need from the federal government. They haven’t had access to a greater understanding of what the public health guidelines look like. And those include many, many people in Mississippi, in Texas, in Ohio, Florida, in every state across the country. And he believes that with more than half a million Americans lives lost, with families that continue to suffer, that it’s imperative that people listen across the country, whether they live in a red state or a blue state, to the guidance of public health experts. At the same time, you’ve watched the president closely for some time, Mary, as you all have. He’s going to engage with and talk with people who disagree with him on a range of issues, including this one. But he believes that if we’re going to get this pandemic under control, we need to follow public health guidelines. He simply has asked the American people to abide by wearing masks for a hundred days. We’re at about day 40. Are we at day 40? Around there. 60 more days, that’s what he’s asking and he’s certainly hopeful that businesses and people across the country will continue to do that.
Has he reached out to Governors Reeves and Abbott to convince them to try and change course here?
Jen Psaki: (32:05)
I don’t think his view on mask wearing is a secret. They’re certainly familiar with it. He’s talked about it many, many times, and I’m certain when he speaks with them next, he will convey that directly.
The president has said that he’s hopeful that by this time next year, we may be getting some semblance of normalcy again. Is there a concern that as we see states like Mississippi and Texas take these actions, if others follow suit, that that could shift the timeline, that a few states could set back the timeline here?
Jen Psaki: (32:34)
Well, what the president has said publicly and certainly conveyed to all of us is he can’t do this alone. The federal government cannot do this alone. This is going to require additional sacrifice from the American people. He doesn’t think that’s easy. None of us think that’s easy, but he has ordered enough vaccines to ensure everybody in the country is vaccinated and we will have those vaccines by the end of May. But it will require ongoing social distancing, ongoing mask wearing, as we’ve been talking about, and it will also require the American people getting the vaccine. He can’t force individuals to do that. So he can just project the recommendations of public health officials. He can take steps as he has over the last couple of days to ensure that communities are prioritized who are playing key roles in society, but he can’t do it on behalf of the public and it is going to require the public to play an important and vital role here too.
Just one question on vaccines. The president has been pretty critical of the prior administration’s handling of this pandemic saying he inherited a mess here. But when it comes to vaccinations, you are following some of the same playbook here. So does the prior administration deserve some credit for laying the groundwork?
Jen Psaki: (33:42)
Which ones are we following?
Well, for instance, former Trump HHS assistant secretary, Admiral Brett Giroir, has said that you’re following 99% of the playbook they created on vaccines. He has said that the prior administration deserves more credit here for at least getting the ball rolling on some of these.
Jen Psaki: (34:00)
I don’t think anyone deserves credit when half a million people in the country have-
Jen Psaki: (34:03)
I don’t think anyone deserves credit when half a million people in the country have died of this pandemic. So what our focus is on, and what the president’s focus is on when he came into office just over a month ago, was ensuring that we had enough vaccines. We are going to have them now. We had enough vaccinators and we had enough vaccine locations to get this pandemic under control. There’s no question, and all data points to the fact that there were not enough of any of those things when he took office. We are open-eyed about the challenge we continue to live under, and that’s why he has been focused every single day in doing everything possible to get the pandemic under control. But there were shortages in all those areas, which were preventing us from moving forward on getting the pandemic under control. Go ahead.
I have a couple on the COVID bill, but to start with, the previous administration put an end to regular reporting of specific troop levels in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. I understand this is the Pentagon’s bailiwick, but will the president commit to once again reporting specific troop levels in those three countries under his administration?
Jen Psaki: (35:03)
Well, certainly we of course would work with the Pentagon and our national security team to ensure that transparency remains a priority, or is reprioritized, I should say, under this administration. I mean, I’d have to talk to our national security team and our team at the Pentagon about any restrictions they have, but that remains a vital priority for this president and something I know he’s projecting to his entire team.
On the COVID bill, last night when the president was speaking to House Democrats, he said, “I know we’re all making small compromises,” as he tried to work everybody to support the bill, or thank them for supporting their version of the bill. What exactly has the president asked moderates to compromise on in this process up to this point?
Jen Psaki: (35:43)
You’d have to ask them that question. The president has been clear that he is unmovable on the size of the package, $1.9 trillion. And as you know from covering the Hill, that that was a size that some expressed concern about. He has been unmovable about his view that Americans who need help the most should get $1,400 checks. There were some who spoke openly about their concern about that. And he has been very clear that state and local governments need assistance now to keep cops on the beat, to keep firefighters employed and to keep state and local governments functioning. I’m sure there may be other issues that they have concerns about. I’ll let them speak to that, but he has been insistent that the scope of the challenge requires this size of a package. And in order to address these twin crises that we’re facing, it needs to have these key components included.
And then the last one, again from the president last night, the House Democrats. He made the point that this will make everything more possible to get done, I think I’m quoting properly there, passing this now. Is that the kind of theory of the case here? You get this done at this scale, and all of a sudden, some of the difficulties you may have in the US Senate become less so because people see that you were able to produce? I just want to make sure that I understand kind of his thought process going forward..
Jen Psaki: (37:04)
I’m not sure what the context of that comment was. Can you tell me more of the context of it?
I don’t have a full thing in front of me, sorry about that. I was just struck because he said… I will paraphrase. I promise I’m being accurate when I paraphrase this, that the idea being that if they get this done, there will be more trust in government. If there’s more trust in government, therefore, people will be willing to get behind maybe the priorities that House Democrats have going forward, whether that’s on infrastructure, whether that’s on climate, any of those things. He didn’t list those off. And so I guess that’s my question, is does the administration look at the American Rescue Plan and say, “This is our springboard to doing even more broad-based, more bold,” in the words of the administration, “legislative proposals in the future?”
Jen Psaki: (37:48)
We don’t look at it through as political legislative of a lens as you just outlined. But I will say that the president came into office knowing that getting the pandemic under control, helping address and put people back to work, the millions and millions of Americans who are struggling to make ends meet, the one in seven American families that can’t put food on the table, that he knew that those would be his top two priorities. His top one, two, three, four, pandemic, economic, recovery. Pandemic, economic recovery. And that is what this package is meant to help address. And what I’ve heard him say, and this sounds consistent with that, while I don’t know the full context of this, is that of course he wants to build his agenda beyond, build his agenda beyond getting the pandemic under control, beyond addressing and stemming the tide of an economic crisis. Because he believes that investing in infrastructure is imperative, and long overdue.
Jen Psaki: (38:45)
He believes that modernizing our immigration system is long overdue, and is good for the American people, good for our economy. He believes there needs to be more done for caregiving. He believes we need to do more to protect our health, to ensure more people have access to healthcare. So there’s no question that he views the early part of his presidency as focused on these twin crises, but he is hardly going to be done with his agenda and work once we have this package signed into law. Go ahead, [inaudible 00:39:18].
Speaker 11: (39:17)
Thanks, Jen. Does the president believe that the House Ways and Means Committee should be able to obtain Donald Trump’s tax returns?
Jen Psaki: (39:25)
We certainly leave that up to them. The president spoke about this on the campaign trail, but his focus at this point is not looking backward at the former guy, as he has called him in the past.
Speaker 11: (39:37)
But yesterday, the Treasury, the administration at large, asked for more time on how to respond to the subpoena. He won’t weigh in on that, the president?
Jen Psaki: (39:44)
Well, we’ll leave it to the Treasury Department, Department of Justice. And our focus is on getting relief to the American people, on getting the pandemic under control. That’s keeping us pretty busy, so we’ll leave that work to others in the federal government and in Congress. Go ahead and war.
Speaker 11: (39:57)
One more if I can, economic-based.
Jen Psaki: (39:59)
Speaker 11: (40:00)
Gasoline prices are approaching $3 per gallon for the first time since 2014. Americans, as you well know, are cash-strapped. Is the president planning to intervene somehow? OPEC Plus came up this morning and said they were going to limit supply. Does the president plan to intervene somehow, maybe call the Saudi government, Russia? Anything in the toolbox to reign in the gas prices?
Jen Psaki: (40:24)
I don’t have anything on that to preview for you. I will say, since you’ve given me a sort of an opportunity and opening here, is that there’s been a lot of reporting on kind of what kind of relief would come out of the American Rescue Plan. Something that can help address a range of issues the American people are having, whether it’s the cost of gas, or it’s the inability or concern about getting food on the table. So let me just take this opportunity to lay out some of the specific numbers our NAC team, I love number crunchers, crunched for all of you. So under the Senate version of the bill, 158.5 million households are going to receive direct payments. That’s 98% of the households who received them in December.
Jen Psaki: (41:07)
And in the previous round of relief, that 2% sliver all received checks smaller than $600, in some cases, as small as $100. Because as you all know, it was scaled down after a certain income rate. Under the Rescue Plan, almost all of these 158.5 million households are going to receive checks that are more than twice the size of the previous round, not to mention the 66 million kids who will benefit from the expanded child tax credit, and 17 million adults who will benefit from the expanded earned income tax credit. Because of course, there are many tax components, as you all know, in addition to the direct checks that are included in this package. So I just wanted to give a little number crunching lay down. Go ahead, Jeff.
Jen, going back to Texas and Mississippi, is the White House concerned and the COVID team concerned that the loosening or lifting of restrictions in those states will lead to these COVID variants to spread more?
Jen Psaki: (42:07)
Well, one of the reasons that our health and medical experts have continued to call for the American people to wear masks, to social distance, to get whatever vaccine they have access to, is because many of these vaccines have shown to be effective in addressing the variants, and because we’ve seen a spread of variants reportedly in some of these states. So I would say, Jeff, that our concern here is on the health, welfare, wellbeing, and survival, frankly, of people across the country and in states where the recommendations from leadership is not following health and medical guidelines. We have concerns about the impact on the population.
In Europe, there are travel restrictions between European states. The United States is large, and there’s 50 states. Is there any discussion of restrictions for traveling between states when different states have such different ideas about how to fight COVID? And would you encourage or discourage other Americans from traveling to Texas or Mississippi right now?
Jen Psaki: (43:15)
I’m not aware of any discussions, and I certainly wouldn’t do that from here. But I would just say, Jeff, that we are going to continue to use every method of the bully pulpit at our disposal to convey directly to people living across the country, including in many of these states, that mask wearing, social distancing, getting access to the vaccine is the path to go back to normal. And that is how we are going to get it done, and how the American people can return to… Believe me, I’d love to take my kids to birthday parties and to parks and to go to a restaurant. I haven’t been to one in a year. We all want that. This is the pathway to do that, and that’s what we’ll continue to convey. Go ahead.
Just one more quick one on another topic. I’m sorry, but the Capitol is on high alert today because of the potential of an attack related to a conspiracy theory about this date. Is the White House taking any additional security measures? And can you share any intel or read out about what you know about the threat?
Jen Psaki: (44:20)
Well, let me first say, Jeff, that on the specifics of today’s threats, the FBI and DHS have warned that the threat from domestic violent extremism, particularly racially-motivated and anti-government extremists did not begin or end on January 6th. And we have been vigilant day in and day out. Our national security and Homeland Security team has been since then, in part because we are witnessing a years-long trend of false narratives fueling violence, and the current heightened security environment in the national capital region writ large is an illustration of that. I am not going to outline any security steps from here at any point in time, but I can say that our team, the president personally remains deeply engaged in tracking these threats and receiving regular updates as he does from his team about threats, of course, but about incidents happening across the country.
Jen Psaki: (45:21)
It’s something he has personally engaged in. It’s reflected in the comprehensive review he ordered in his first week of the job. He’s also a diligent and an eager consumer of intelligence. And as you’d expect, appropriate elements of the intelligence community and law enforcement are providing a steady pace of information and analysis on a regular basis on domestic violent extremism in the country.
Speaker 9: (45:45)
Thank you, Jen. As more people are getting vaccinated every day, there’s still a lack of clarity about what they should and shouldn’t do, and we’ve reported that the CDC guidance for them was supposed to be released today, but that’s no longer happening. Do you have any guidance about why not, and when Americans should expect to see recommendations?
Jen Psaki: (46:05)
I would certainly point you to the CDC. I believe they said, in your story or maybe another story perhaps, that the CDC’s guidance will not be posted tomorrow. This is a quote from them, “because we have not finalized it here at CDC. Once it is final, we will publish and disseminate it.” And certainly, we know people are eager to hear more details about steps they can take once they’re vaccinated. And we certainly think that once people have a sense of that, hopefully, and we’ll see it when we see it, it will hopefully encourage people to get vaccinated as well. But they’re on their own timeline, and we’ll wait to see when they’re ready to put out that guideline.
Speaker 9: (46:41)
So the White House has not seen them yet?
Jen Psaki: (46:44)
I’m not aware of the White House reviewing the guidelines, no.
Speaker 9: (46:48)
And then on Texas, Governor Abbott said that the Biden administration must stop importing COVID into the country, because he claimed that COVID-positive migrants are being bused into Texas and then sent to other places in the country. Do you have a response to that? And can you elaborate on what the government is doing to test migrants, if anything?
Jen Psaki: (47:13)
Sure. Well, we’re about facts around here. That is not factual, so let me give you an overview of what happens. When migrants are placed in alternatives to detention, their COVID-19 testing… Our policy is for COVID-19 testing to be done at the state and local level and with the help of NGOs and local governments. And that certainly is something that our policy is, is to have that be done, concluded before they are even moved to go stay with family members or others they may know while their cases are being adjudicated. And of course, our guidance to anyone, regardless of status, is testing positive for COVID-19 or experiencing COVID-like symptoms is to social distance, to wear a mask, and seek medical attention as needed. But in general, our approach and our policy is to work with local governments, work with NGOs to have testing, to ensure these migrants are tested. And that can take place, and then steps for isolation, quarantining, and medical care can be taken should that be needed.
Speaker 9: (48:23)
Is there a reason why the burden is on state and local jurisdictions to do the testing, and not the federal government?
Jen Psaki: (48:30)
Well, many of these NGOs have stepped in to help ensure that these steps can be taken. Many of these NGOs have also, if quarantining or isolation is needed, have even reserved hotel blocks in some cases. And you just certainly have to talk to some of them about the steps they take, but obviously their assistance allows the federal government to work with local communities to get this done.
Speaker 9: (48:56)
Thank you. Just one more question on migrants, specifically unaccompanied minors who continue to come to the border every day. We’ve reported that 96% of the HHS beds are already accounted for. Is the administration planning to open new influx facilities specifically for these children, and maybe at military bases or installations like we’ve seen in the past?
Jen Psaki: (49:21)
Well, I’m not in a position to confirm the specific numbers. I can say that there are of course a large number of unaccompanied minors who are coming across the border. And as you know, because we’ve talked about it in here, we believe that the humane approach is to treat these kids with humanity and ensure that they have a safe place to be. Well, I don’t have anything to preview for you in terms of considerations underway at this point in time, but obviously we recognize that with the number that are coming in and the limited facilities we have and our desire to abide by COVID protocols, that it’s a policy process that is imperative and a priority for this administration. Go ahead.
Speaker 12: (50:03)
The Senate Republicans have made pretty clear that they intend to block major Democratic legislation. Given what the president has said about that, has he given more thought to the filibuster and making changes to that? Is he having discussions on that front?
Jen Psaki: (50:17)
Which piece of legislation are they intending to block?
Speaker 12: (50:20)
H.R. 1, policing reform. There’s some union-related legislation that the House is looking at next week.
Jen Psaki: (50:27)
Well, our view is that voting rights, that addressing needed reforms of unions, that moving forward on a number of long overdue policy efforts by Congress is too important to prejudge what the outcome will be. And we’ve certainly seen the threats by some in Congress, but we’re going to continue to work to see if there’s a bipartisan path forward.
Speaker 12: (50:58)
So he is not considering looking at the filibuster [crosstalk 00:50:59]?
Jen Psaki: (50:58)
His policy has not changed on that issue. He believes that-
Jen Psaki: (51:03)
…changed his on that issue. He believes that there is a path forward to work with Democrats and Republicans to get business done for the American people, and he’ll continue to make that case.
Speaker 12: (51:12)
Secondly, why hasn’t the president signed the paperwork to raise the refugee cap? The State Department has been booking flights but has since canceled those?
Jen Psaki: (51:20)
Well, I would refer you to the State Department. I know that they have to have systems in place in order to implement policies like that, but we’ll have more details on where things stand.
Speaker 12: (51:30)
And just lastly, on HR1, it includes some restrictions on so-called dark money, secret money. The president, his allies have just formed an outside group. Will he instruct them to make those donors to that group public, rather than keeping them secret?
Jen Psaki: (51:49)
Well, I’m not sure he’s in the position to instruct them. That’s not the relationship we have, but he certainly can … I would refer you to them on what their policy is going to be for making donors public.
Speaker 12: (52:00)
He’s going to make his position known though, right?
Jen Psaki: (52:00)
And he’s spoken to this issue in the past, but I don’t have anything to … I would point you to the outside group for any further comment on that. Go ahead, Ashley.
Thanks, Jen. A few questions. There were a few late changes in the COVID relief bill that could help several states including Alaska by increasing funding for lower population States, as well as adding money for tourism and seafood processors. Did President Biden sign off on these changes personally, and was this aimed at all at getting Senator Murkowski to support the bill?
Jen Psaki: (52:26)
I would say the majority of negotiations at this point are between senators themself in Congress, and that’s where the discussions are. Of course, the president is engaged with members, as you know, who are here sometimes in the Oval Office who he talks to on the phone, but I’m not going outline any more particulars for you other than the majority of negotiation is between senators and Congress.
And on schools, we know the administration’s goal for the first 100 days. Can you talk a little bit about what the public should expect for the fall when the new school year will start, what the goal is and what the reasonable expectation should be?
Jen Psaki: (53:01)
Well, we don’t have new goals to outline, but I would tell you that now that we have a Secretary of Education in place, his number one priority is ensuring schools are open, that they’re open five days a week, that schools have the information they need to put in place the mitigation steps. Obviously, we need the money from the American Rescue Plan to get that done in certain communities, but our objective is for schools to certainly be open.
But is it fair? Is it a reasonable expectation for parents and families to expect that kids will be back in what we think of as more traditional classroom setting five days a week for the next grade in the fall?
Jen Psaki: (53:35)
Well, that certainly is our hope and our objective, but the Secretary of Education is going to be leading this effort. He’s going to have a summit he’s announced. He’s going to be working closely to help school districts implement, work with them to implement these guidelines that have been put out by the CDC, and so I expect he’ll have more to say on it.
Lastly, how quickly does President Biden plan to move to name a replacement for Neera Tanden?
Jen Psaki: (53:57)
I don’t expect to have an announcement this week. Beyond that, I don’t have anything to preview for you. I would say our focus right now is on getting the nearly half a dozen cabinet nominees, including our nominee to be the Attorney General of the United States, through Congress, because those are essential roles we need to have in place leading those departments. As you know, he’s nominated an incredibly called qualified and well-respected woman, Shalanda Young, to be the deputy at OMB, and we’re certainly hopeful Congress will move forward on that, and then she would be in a place to be the acting head while we go through the process of nominating a replacement for Neera. Go ahead.
On the border, is the White House or the administration planning to ask FEMA to assist with the influx of children coming across the border, and if so, does that mean that you consider it an actual genuine emergency?
Jen Psaki: (54:47)
Well, I would say that that’s probably a question for the Department of Homeland Security, who obviously oversees that, and the Department of Health and Human Services, who oversees the facilities and the shelters where these kids are. Certainly one of our concerns is that there is, as we were talking about earlier, an influx of kids at a rate and a pace that is going to require us to make considerations about where we’re going to safely house them, and that is something that is under discussion in the administration, but I don’t have any … I would send you to them who oversee. The Department of Homeland Security oversees the process.
And in the current stimulus proposal, the child tax credit is expanded temporarily from $2,000 to $3,000. Would the president support making that expansion permanent or any of the other temporary expansions in the bill permanent?
Jen Psaki: (55:41)
Well, the president is interested in exploring options for making the child tax credit permanent as part of the Build Back Better agenda. He’s been heartened to see bipartisan support for ideas like this, including from Republicans like Senator Romney, but we’ll have more to say about all of that once we get the Rescue Plan passed.
And just one more. The president has traveled back to Wilmington a couple of times since taking office. The CDC does still urge people not to travel for personal reasons. Obviously, presidential travel is very different than commercial travel, but should the president be doing more to set an example about personal travel during the pandemic?
Jen Psaki: (56:17)
Well, the president lives in Wilmington. It’s his home. That’s where he’s lived for many, many years, and as you know, as any President of the United States does, he takes a private airplane called Air Force One to travel there. That is, of course, unique from most Americans, but I think most Americans would also see that as a unique circumstance. Go ahead.
Speaker 13: (56:40)
Thank you, Jen. So a group of 9/11 families did a letter to President Biden this week, and they’re asking that the FBI or that he declassify FBI documents that talk about the Saudi link to the September 11th terror attacks. Would this be something that President Biden would consider?
Jen Psaki: (56:54)
I would send you the Department of Justice.
Speaker 13: (56:57)
And then another question. Four years ago this week, President Trump announced that he was going to donate the first quarter of his salary basically back to the government. Wondering, obviously realizing very different financial circumstances …
Jen Psaki: (57:09)
Well, we don’t know. We haven’t seen his tax returns.
Speaker 13: (57:10)
That is true.
Jen Psaki: (57:11)
I’m not sure.
Speaker 13: (57:12)
But will the president consider donating a portion of his salary either back to the government or to a charity of his choice?
Jen Psaki: (57:17)
I’m happy to talk to him about that and get back to you directly or others who are interested. Go ahead in the back.
Speaker 14: (57:23)
Hi. [inaudible 00:57:25] from the Irish Times. [inaudible 00:57:26]. Given we’re in March and less than two weeks away from St. Patrick’s Day, I was wondering what are the White House plans to mark St. Patrick’s Day? We do know that the president, President Biden is very proud of his Irish heritage and just wanted to know do you have any updates on the plans for that?
Jen Psaki: (57:42)
I don’t have an update on specific plans, but the president has a special place in his heart for the Irish, as do I, and I expect certainly we’ll have more details to share in the coming … Soon, given as you said, it’s two weeks away. Of course, any recognition of St. Patrick’s Day would look different from past years, but we will certainly mark the day, and we’ll have more to say on it as we can.
Speaker 14: (58:07)
And just a second question on trade. This morning, the Biden administration suspended tariffs on UK exports as part of the Boeing-Airbus ongoing dispute, but also on this area today, there are continuing tensions around Brexit and Northern Ireland, and the UK has been accused of reneging on international law for the second time over a delay in imposing checks between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Just those two aspects in terms of a UK-US trade deal, where do you think things stand now in the administration? Is the UK-US trade deals a priority for this administration, or are they concerned? President Biden has said before that, and I quote, “Any trade deal between the US and UK must be contingent upon respect to the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland.”
Jen Psaki: (58:57)
So that certainly remains the case. I will say, since you brought it up and everybody may not be following the suspension of tariffs news this morning, in a joint statement, the United States and the United Kingdom announced a four month suspension of tariffs related to the ongoing large civilian aircraft dispute, and the four-month tariff suspension was agreed to ease the burden on industry and take a bold joint step towards resolving one of the longest running disputes of the World Trade Organization. And certainly President Biden has been unequivocal, I should say, in his support for the Good Friday Agreement. This agreement has been the bedrock of peace, stability, and prosperity for all the people of Northern Ireland. We also welcome cooperation between our British and Irish partners on the Northern Irish Protocol and the recent strong statements on these governments’ full commitment to the Good Friday Agreement.
Speaker 14: (59:52)
While we’re on the Boeing dispute, the fact that the UK’s moved to suspend these tariffs on UK exports, is this a sign that the US is prepared to reach some kind of negotiation sediments with the EU on the tariffs of this very long running disagreement over Boeing and Airbus?
Jen Psaki: (01:00:09)
I don’t have anything to preview for you on that. This is just, of course, an announcement made this morning. It was meant to deescalate the issue and create space for a negotiated settlement to the Airbus and Boeing disputes. But in terms of additional steps, I don’t have anything to preview for you. Go ahead.
Thank you, Jen. You mentioned earlier on masks, you referenced the president’s frustration and exasperation with people who are not following the science. It would appear that notwithstanding, there are still millions of Americans out there who are not following the science, certainly in places like Texas, Mississippi, South Carolina and other places. So I’m wondering why doesn’t the president consider ratcheting up his rhetoric beyond Neanderthal and personalizing his concern? Why doesn’t, for example, why doesn’t he think about saying, “Folks, here’s the deal. You don’t have to wear your mask, people are going to die because of you.” That would certainly get people’s attention.
Jen Psaki: (01:01:09)
We’ll note it. I will say the president has been clear that if people wear masks for a hundred days, 60,000 lives could be saved, and he has been clear. He did a whole PSA during the Super Bowl about it, about the benefit and impact of mask wearing. He also though does not believe that people of any state or any American should be hurt by the guidance of their leadership, and so that’s why he’s spoken directly to the American people. We all have or we all are trying to about the impact of mask squaring, of social distancing, and of taking the vaccine when people can have access to it. Go ahead in the back.
Speaker 15: (01:01:52)
To the EU and China, what does the president expect from the Europeans in terms of confronting China [inaudible 01:01:59] strategic competitor, and how does the president see the EU-China investment deal which they struck shortly before he took office?
Jen Psaki: (01:02:07)
Well, I will say first that in the president’s engagements with leaders in the European Union, which were many of his first and early discussions, the relationship with China and working together in partnership and in lock step was certainly central to all of those discussions. And in terms of the specific trade agreements or trade or negotiations I guess I should say, that was announced shortly before he took office. I believe we spoke to that at the time. I don’t think I have anything new to preview or convey to you about that.
Thank you, Jen.
Jen Psaki: (01:02:44)
Oh, sorry. I didn’t get to one person. Sorry, Alex. Go ahead. Go ahead.
Speaker 16: (01:02:48)
I appreciate it. Two questions. First of all, wanted ask about something we hearing from a lot of Republican senators on some of the nominees at EPA and Energy is the idea that they oppose them not necessarily because of the nominees themselves, but because they believe they’ll be taking orders from White House advisors Gina McCarthy, John Kerry. Just wondering if you could respond to that and talk about how the White House envisions their role in relation to the actual Senate-confirmed heads of those agencies.
Jen Psaki: (01:03:16)
It really depends on the agency. As you well know, some are independent, some are not independent. Obviously, anyone who’s a nominated to lead a cabinet agency that is not independent is there in part to deliver on the agenda and the policies of the President of the United States, and they certainly know that when they walk into the jobs. But he also welcomes debate and welcomes proposals and welcomes ideas on how to address the various crises we’re facing, including the climate crisis, so it really depends on who you’re speaking to or who you’re speaking about. I think the president feels confident that his nominees across the board are qualified, they’re experienced, they’re prepared to do the job, and he’s eager to have his team in place and hopeful that the Senate moves forward to confirm the remainder of his nominees.
Speaker 16: (01:04:04)
And then if I could also, any White House reaction to Microsoft and the hack that they’re talking about? Is the president taking any steps, being debriefed on this?
Jen Psaki: (01:04:18)
I’d have to talk to our cyber team about that and see if there have been any updates or briefings on our end. Go ahead, Ashley.
Following up on Shalanda Young, you said that the hope is that she’ll be the acting director. She has a ton of support on Capitol Hill from the CDC, from House Democratic leadership. Why has the administration not just gone ahead and nominated her to be the official director?
Jen Psaki: (01:04:42)
Well, one, the president thinks so highly of her, he nominated her to be the deputy director of OMB, which is a very senior and significant job in the administration. All I was conveying is how the process works. When the deputy is confirmed, knock on wood, they will then become the acting director. Hence, there is a need and an imperative to move forward on that quickly. I will reserve his space for him making his own decision about who is going to lead the Budget Department. We certainly know there’s lots of support on Capitol Hill, and again, he thinks so highly of her, he nominated her to serve in a senior role.
[inaudible 01:05:19] thinks so highly of her, I guess why is the obvious next step not just to appoint her to that top position?
Jen Psaki: (01:05:26)
Well, Ashley, there’s a range of individuals in the country who are qualified for the job, so we’ll leave him the space and time to make a decision about who he’d like to nominate as a replacement for Neera Tanden. Okay, last one, actually. I’m sorry, we’ve gone over now. Go ahead.
Speaker 13: (01:05:42)
Just a quick follow up. Did the president directly speak to Alabama governor, Kay Ivey, who’s actually said that she’s going to extend her mask mandate?
Jen Psaki: (01:05:50)
She did, and I meant to raise that. I’m not aware of a direct conversation between them today. Obviously, the president’s view and his support for the mask mandates and encouraging people to wear masks, given the advice of his health and medical experts, is well-known. It’s something he’s raised on calls with governors, our health and COVID team has raised on calls with governors, but I’m not aware of a direct call between them today.
Speaker 13: (01:06:14)
Do you know if he’s talked to any other Republicans who might be flirting with this idea of opening prematurely?
Jen Psaki: (01:06:19)
I don’t have any other calls to read out for you at this point in time. Thanks so much everyone.
Speaker 13: (01:06:23)