May 20, 2021
Press Secretary Jen Psaki White House Press Conference Transcript May 20
May 20, 2021 press conference with White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki. She addressed the conflict between Israel and Gaza. Read the transcript of the full briefing here.
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Jen Psaki: (00:00)
I think I got a little ahead of the two minutes, but it seems okay. Okay. One item for all of you at the top, the unemployment data released this morning, show us reaching the lowest level of new claims since the beginning of the pandemic, and the moving average has been cut by more than a third since President Biden took office just four months ago. We know the policies the president has enacted are making a difference. Today’s four week average of 505,000 new claims is down from 752, 000 the week the American Rescue Plan was signed, and badly needed economic relief started getting out of the door to families and communities around the country.
Jen Psaki: (00:39)
Who doesn’t love a chart? So here’s a little chart of the weekly unemployment claims just to show you all the trend. These numbers can be volatile, so we caution against reading too much into any single report. And obviously we’re looking at trend lines over time, but the trend is clear. In addition to declining unemployment insurance claims over the president’s first three months in office, the economy has created an average of 500,000 new jobs a month, eight times more than the average of the three months prior. And this is a direct result of President Biden’s vision to build our economy from the bottom up and the middle out.
Jen Psaki: (01:12)
With that, Darlene, why don’t we kick it off?
Thanks Jen. So on the Middle East, yesterday, the White House said the president had spoken to the prime minister, called for a significant deescalation. The prime minister in turn said he was going to push forward with the operation in Gaza. So the question is, where does that leave the president and the administration today? So what does what happened yesterday say about his level of influence with the prime minister?
Jen Psaki: (01:39)
Well, first let me say Darlene, that our objective, as we’ve talked about a bit in here, is to take every step we can through diplomatic channels, through quiet and intensive diplomacy to bring an end to this conflict. Just to bring us back to a little historical reference here, which I lived through, many of you did as well. Back in 2014, the conflict on the ground went on for 51 days, 51 days. We are at about 10 days now. Now every day that passes and lives are lost, Palestinian lives, Israeli lives is a tragedy, but our approach here and our strategic approach here is to continue to communicate directly, stay closely interlock with the Israelis, with partners on the ground, to do everything we can to bring an end to the conflict. We have seen reports of a move toward a potential ceasefire, that’s clearly encouraging. Obviously we can’t get ahead of any agreements that may be brokered.
Jen Psaki: (02:36)
But I would say that to go back to answer your original question there, Darlene, we’ve now held more than 80 engagements with senior leaders in Israel, the Palestinian authority, and across the region, either in person or by phone. And again, that our view and our approach has been to use the role of the United States and the relationships with countries on the ground to conduct our efforts quietly and through diplomatic channels.
Do you have anything on a call between the president today and LCC and Egypt?
Jen Psaki: (03:08)
I expect we will have a readout shortly. I can confirm they had a call. And just to remind you, a part of that engagement is a reflection of what we’ve been talking about a bit in this briefing room, was the important role that a number of countries in the region can play, including the Egyptians, in bringing an end to the conflict. And they have an important role to play in influencing Hamas, hence the president had a conversation with him this morning. I expect we’ll have a readout shortly.
And just one quickly, if I can switch to infrastructure. Senator Capito has raised the possibility of using unspent COVID-19 money to pay for infrastructure. Is that an approach the White House would be open to?
Jen Psaki: (03:48)
Well again, I know there’ll be a range of ideas and proposals that will come forward, from Senator Capito, from other Republicans and other Democrats as well. The president’s bottom line, as you’ve heard me say a few times before, is that he does not want to raise taxes on people making less than $400,000 a year. We certainly, in that scenario, would need to assess whether these funds are needed and not take them away from fighting the pandemic that we continue to battle every day. Go ahead.
Speaker 1: (04:16)
Thank you Jen, couple topics quickly. First, House Republicans are claiming that they have significant circumstantial evidence that COVID-19 originated in a lab. Has the White House seen any circumstantial evidence that it did not originate in a lab?
Jen Psaki: (04:32)
Well, I think first I would caution you against disproving a negative there, which is never the responsible approach in our view when it comes to getting to the bottom of the root causes of a pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands of people in the United States. I will say that our view continues to be that there needs to be an independent, transparent investigation, and that needs to happen with the cooperation and data provided from the Chinese government. We don’t have enough information at this point to make an assessment.
Speaker 1: (05:03)
Part of the reasons some of these lawmakers say that is, is because China is not cooperating right now. At what point would President Biden call President Xi and say, “We’ve got 587,883 dead Americans. We’re just trying to figure out if COVID originated in one of your labs, let us in.”
Jen Psaki: (05:23)
Well, I would say that we have made that call publicly many times. We have conveyed that privately, and we have certainly communicated that they were not transparent from the beginning. That’s not acceptable. There’s an opportunity now in the next stage of this effort, for them to be transparent, to participate in international investigation that can bring a conclusion to the origins and provide information that we, Republicans, Democrats, everyone in this country would love to have access to.
Speaker 1: (05:48)
On Nord Stream, I know that there’s a lot of talk about Nord Stream and Keystone, and I’m just trying to help people understand.
Jen Psaki: (05:56)
Speaker 1: (05:57)
Well, yes. President Biden blocked the Keystone XL pipeline here because he said it would undermine US climate leadership and undercut our ability to urge other countries to take ambitious climate action. So how is he urging other countries to take ambitious climate action, if he’s letting other countries build Nord Stream II?
Jen Psaki: (06:17)
First, we’re hardly letting any country or other countries build Nord Stream II. When the president took office, 95% of this pipeline was built. We’ve continued to convey that we believe it’s a bad idea, a bad plan, and we have also put in place and taken actions over the last several days to make that clear. In large part, because our view is that it’s a Russian geopolitical project that threatens European energy security and that of Ukraine and Eastern Flank NATO allies and partners. Hence there’s a geopolitical concern about this pipeline and we’ve taken steps over the last several days to make that clear.
Speaker 1: (06:56)
So a lot of concerns, and it seemed like there was the ability by the US government to sanction some officials to stop the project at 95%. But you’re not doing that, and I’m just wondering-
Jen Psaki: (07:08)
In what way were we going to be able to stop a project in another country that’s been built 95 percent?
Speaker 1: (07:15)
Make it more difficult with the sanctions on some of these officials involved.
Jen Psaki: (07:18)
Well, we have imposed sanctions on four Russian entities, four Russian vessels that engaged in sanctionable activities. We’ve also imposed sanctions on nine vessels belonging to the Russian government. This is the largest number of entities listed under this act to date. So we have certainly taken significant steps and we’ve also made clear, in public and private channels, our opposition to this plan.
Speaker 1: (07:38)
And then quickly on Israel, progressives in the House and Senate are hoping to block $735 million worth of weapons to Israel. Would the president ever go along with that?
Jen Psaki: (07:46)
Well, let me first say that the State Department is overseas arms sales and any confirmation of those specific details or notifications that may have gone to Congress. So I would let them speak to that specific proposal you’re asking about. I will say that we’ve had a long, abiding security and strategic relationship with Israel, that has been certainly the case for decades.
Speaker 1: (08:06)
As a candidate though, President Biden boasted that he was the only one in the race who had ever brought world leaders together to solve a major problem. There’s a major problem in the Middle East right now. So why aren’t the leaders and the people there benefiting from all of his foreign policy experience?
Jen Psaki: (08:23)
Do you not count the 80 engagements we’ve had with countries around the world, including the president’s call with the leader of Egypt, the four calls he’s had with the Israeli prime minister and the fact that there have been reports of a ceasefire, of a movement toward a ceasefire?
Speaker 1: (08:37)
I would say, do you not count him telling Benjamin Netanyahu, who he says he’s known for a long time, that he expected a de-escalation by yesterday and Netanyahu just ignoring him?
Jen Psaki: (08:52)
Well, first of all, I would say that we are continuing to work toward that, and that we have believed that they are in a position to start winding their operations down. And certainly that is what we’ve been conveying, and that is what we expect to happen in short order.
Speaker 1: (09:06)
So last one, the president says that foreign policy is something he has done his entire life. Is it working?
Jen Psaki: (09:14)
I would say that if you look at the fact that the global community believes that America’s back, has a seat at the table, that we’re going to continue to lead in the efforts to get the climate crisis under control, to lead in the efforts and engagement around the world. Certainly bringing about an end to this conflict, but also moving toward diplomacy as it relates to North Korea, and moving toward a place where the United States is returned to the place of being a leader in global forum, as we hope to be at NATO, I would say we’re certainly working on changing the tide of the last four years. Go ahead.
Speaker 2: (09:50)
There are decidedly mixed signals coming out of both the Iranians and Europeans on the chances of a nuclear deal being struck. Can you tell us who’s right?
Jen Psaki: (09:58)
I don’t know if I’m going to assess in that exact term, in that exact phrasing, but I will tell you this. We remain engaged as a party in these discussions. Obviously our discussions, as you know, from following this, are through indirect talks through the Europeans. We continue to believe that our efforts as it relates to preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon need to happen through diplomatic channels. And those talks and engagements are continuing. We always know, from having lived through these negotiations before, there will be bumpy roads, there will be different assessments, but we’re continuing to work toward progress.
Speaker 2: (10:38)
On South Korea, the president’s seeking to tap into the US vaccine supply as part of his visit. How does the White House view such a request from advanced economies like South Korea? Is there a higher bar? Can you give us some color on those requests?
Jen Psaki: (10:56)
Just for clarification, so you mean the president of South Korea is looking to tap into our vaccine supply. We certainly expect that the leaders will discuss ways the United States can support South Korea in its fight against COVID-19, as well as how we can work together to combat the pandemic around the world. And certainly they will raise a range of issues. I know they’ve noted that this is one that they intend to raise, which is hence why you’re asking me about it. I will say that, as it relates to the vaccine supply that we’ve announced, we are going to be sharing with the world. We will look at that and we will make decisions, which are still ongoing, with a couple of criteria in mind, how to do it equitably, how to ensure we’re reaching parts of the world that need help the most, how to do it in a way that’s fair and has a regional balance. So I don’t expect that assessment to be made in advance of tomorrow, but certainly we welcome the opportunity to discuss with them how we can work together to address the global pandemic.
Speaker 2: (11:56)
One more question on South Korea. John Kerry and others have called on South Korea to double its 2030 targets for carbon cutting emissions-
Speaker 3: (12:03)
… Korea to double its 2030 targets for carbon cutting emissions saying they won’t go far enough to meet the 2050 goals. Should we expect any movement on that? Should we expect South Korea to come a little bit higher on those 2030 goals as far as [inaudible 00:00:15 ?
Jen Psaki: (12:15)
Well, we are working with South Korea in areas of mutual interest and certainly climate ambition, addressing the climate crisis that’s facing the global community is part of that. Sectorial decarbonisation and clean energy deployment, we expect will be a part of the discussion. And we are looking forward to enhancing technical exchanges on economy-wide decarbonisation aligned with the global goal to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions. So I certainly expect that addressing the climate crisis, what we can do mutually, what steps they can take, perhaps what steps we can take will be part of the discussions. But in terms of what the outcome of it will be tomorrow, I’m not in a position to get ahead of that. Go ahead.
Thank you, Jen. Understanding that there have been more than 60 phone calls between-
Jen Psaki: (12:57)
Okay. 80 between the administration and regional leaders. Why is the president and vice-president now reaching out to their regional counterparts beyond Prime Minister Netanyahu and Abbas. Why not make those some of the first phone calls?
Jen Psaki: (13:13)
Well, the president spoke with Prime Minister Abbas just… He spoke with him last week already. These conversations-
[inaudible 00:13:19] in addition to them.
Jen Psaki: (13:20)
Well, I would say, Kristen, that these conversations have been happening at a very high level. The secretary of state, other high level members of the administration, our national security advisor, we’ve read out many of these calls, not every single one. But we’ve read out many of them as well. And we have felt that those conversations are constructive, that they have been helpful partners in working to bring an end, to get to the point we’re at now, where we are working to unwind. We’re encouraging the unwinding and the end of the conflict on the ground. And there are moments when it’s the right moment for the president to have a call directly with the global leader himself. This is one of those moments.
Could the president have tried to move forward with this ceasefire earlier if he had started reaching out to LCC and his other partners in the region several days ago?
Jen Psaki: (14:06)
We have been very closely aligned, in touch and working in lockstep with our partners in the region. That is not required [crosstalk 00:14:14] but Kristen, the way diplomacy works, that does not always require a call from a global leader. We have been working in lockstep with them at still a very high level to bring an end to the violence, bring an end to the conflict on the ground and they share a desire to do exactly that. And there’s no question that their relationship and ability to engage with Hamas ensures that they can play a very powerful and impactful role in this regard. But the reason… let me just say one more point. The reason that we’re at this point in terms of the evolving conversations and statements and readouts that we have put out is because the situation on the ground has also evolved and that those readouts reflect that.
And I just want to be very clear about where things stand. Is it the administration’s understanding that both sides have now agreed to a ceasefire at this point?
Jen Psaki: (15:02)
We have seen reports of a potential ceasefire, which we certainly see as encouraging, but we are not in a position to get ahead of any agreements that may be brokered.
You’re not in a position to confirm there’s in fact a ceasefire-
Jen Psaki: (15:14)
No, no. But we have certainly seen those reports. Those are encouraging. That’s certainly what we’re encouraging and what we are working toward.
I wanted to ask you about the commission to investigate what happened on January 6th. Obviously the bill passed through the House. It is facing very steep odds in the Senate. And the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi has said that if necessary, she would be open to moving forward with a commission that would only have the support of Democrats. Would the White House support that and have any concerns that the optics of that would ultimately undercut any findings?
Jen Psaki: (15:48)
Well, we’re not at that point yet. And we’ve certainly seen the speaker’s comments. What I will say, since you gave me the opportunity, is that the attack on the Capitol on January 6th was an unprecedented assault on our democracy. It demands a full independent investigation into what happened. This is not a political issue in the president’s view. This is a question of how we secure our democracy and the rule of law. So it’s incredibly disappointing to see how many representatives have opted to turn this into a political issue instead of doing what’s right for our country and our constitution. And they still have the opportunity to do the right thing.
Speaker 3: (16:20)
Just a follow up, would you be open to the possibility of a commission-
Jen Psaki: (16:24)
There hasn’t been a vote in the Senate yet. Obviously our hope is that Senate Republicans do the right thing. Put partisan politics aside, vote in a way that supports the preservation of our democracy, of our constitution. They have the opportunity to do that. If they don’t have it, we’ll have a conversation about it.
And just finally, there is a lot of skepticism on Capitol Hill that there will in fact be a bill that they’ll pass, the George Floyd bill, by the anniversary of George Floyd’s death next week. Has the White House accepted that, that it is all but an possibility at this point? That it will pass and what will the president do on the anniversary?
Jen Psaki: (17:02)
Well, I don’t have anything to preview yet in terms of the president’s schedule next week. We will certainly mark the anniversary as it was a moment that impacted millions of Americans and certainly the president on a personal level. I will say, Kristen, that obviously we are in close touch and we certainly defer to the expectations of the key negotiators here. And I would note that Senator Booker has indicated that there’s good energy to the talks. Senator Scott has said that the key for us is to keep making progress. And we certainly support those efforts. The president talked about the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act in his joint session speech put a marker down because he feels it’s important to be bold, to be ambitious. And that’s exactly what he feels we’re hopefully working toward. Sure, go ahead.
So yesterday President Biden told the prime minister that he wanted to see significant deescalation yesterday and on a path to a ceasefire yesterday. So did he see that significant deescalation and does he believe they are on the path to the ceasefire?
Jen Psaki: (18:04)
Well, Caitlin, I would say we’re not going to give a day by day grade here of the efforts. But I will say that our objective is to continue to push and encourage all parties in the ground. Israel, of course. The president has spoken to Prime minister Netanyahu as you know, four times, more than any other world leader, and to start winding their operations down. We have seen reports of a potential ceasefire. That is certainly encouraging. And we believe that they are at the point where they certainly should be positioned to bring an end to this conflict. But again, as I started off conveying, we’re also in a place where we want to bring this to an end as quickly as possible. That is clearly our objective, but we are only on about day 10 or 11 here. When we look back at 2014, that was about 51 days and we’re going to continue to press behind the scenes, press through intensive quiet diplomacy to bring an end to the conflict.
I just wondered because he did set the deadline of significant deescalation yesterday. So I’m just wondering if they met that mark to his liking.
Jen Psaki: (19:08)
Again, I’m not going to give a public evaluation from the president of day-by-day actions. What I can tell you is that we are continuing to work behind the scenes through these 80 engagements with senior officials to advocate for, to convey that they should be in a position now to start winding their operations down. And that is what we are hopeful to see.
Okay. And what are the national security reasons for waiving the sanctions on the company and CEO behind Nord Stream 2?
Jen Psaki: (19:37)
Well, I know we made this announcement from the state department just yesterday and they certainly spoke to this from their end. We also put in place a number of sanctions, as you know, on Russian officials and Russians who were engaged in the building of Nord Stream 2, to send a clear message that we think that this is a bad deal. That it is a geopolitical plan that we feel puts our Eastern flank NATO allies and partners and Ukraine at risk. So that is why we put those in place. We-
So what’s the reason for waiving the sanctions?
Jen Psaki: (20:13)
We certainly have an important vital relationship with leaders in Germany. And we make a range of decisions through a range of global factors.
Okay. And my last question, about 15 days ago, I think, Michael Fanone who is a DC metropolitan police officer, who was there on January the sixth was being tased, they stole his badge, suffered a lot of trauma. And he says that he still is living through. He says he sent you a letter about 15 days ago talking about the emotional anxiety that he still struggles with on a daily basis and saying it’s time to fully recognize the actions of the officers on that day. So I was just wondering if the White House has a response to him.
Jen Psaki: (20:53)
I’m happy to check on the status of the letter. Obviously, the president’s view is that there are a number of officers who lost their lives, paid a tremendous sacrifice on a day that will be a stain on our democracy for many years to come. And certainly many who survived. This will be a long lasting trauma. I’d have to check on the letter and the status of that.
Okay. Thank you.
Speaker 4: (21:17)
Thanks, Jen. You’ve said a couple of times that you believe that the Israelis are in a position to start winding their operations down, and that’s what the administration expects to happen in short order. Have the Israelis conveyed that they are going to wind down operations and can you define short order? What type of timeline are you looking for?
Jen Psaki: (21:34)
Well, I will let them convey what they feel they’ve accomplished. Our view is we believe the Israelis have achieved significant military objectives that they laid out to achieve in relation to protecting their people and to responding to the thousands of rocket attacks from Hamas. And so that’s why, in part, that we feel they are in a position to start winding their operation down. We continue to believe that they have a right to defend themselves. But this is where we see, again, our evolution of the readouts that we’re sending, of what we’re conveying, what the president’s conveying directly to the prime minister is also a reflection of what we’re seeing on the ground and what our officials who are working in close, in lockstep with both Israeli officials, Palestinians, others are also seeing on the ground. So it’s a reflection of all of that. But in terms of their assessment of that, I will certainly leave that to them. And obviously our objective is to work toward a ceasefire.
Speaker 4: (22:30)
So there has not been a message from the Israelis to the administration that they are going to-
Jen Psaki: (22:34)
I’m not going to read out their messages from them. They can do that. I can read out what we are conveying to them.
Speaker 4: (22:39)
And why is the president not publicly calling for an immediate ceasefire rather than a path to a ceasefire? The deescalation, not right now, stop this. What is the thinking behind that?
Jen Psaki: (22:51)
I think the president’s been clear. He wants to see a wind down of this, of the violence, an end to the violence and a winding of their operations down as quickly as possible and lead to a ceasefire as quickly as possible. So I don’t think he’s attempting to mince words there in what he hopes the outcome to be.
Speaker 4: (23:08)
And then are there any consequences if Israel does not show progress toward that deescalation, toward the path to ceasefire?
Jen Psaki: (23:15)
Our focus is on getting to a ceasefire and bringing an end to the violence, to the suffering of the Israeli people, the Palestinian people, many people in the region. So I’m not going to get ahead of that to predict consequences. Go ahead. Oh, go ahead, Jenny. Sorry, go ahead.
On infrastructure, Senator Capito said that she expects a counter offer from the White House tomorrow. Can you confirm this is the deadline. Is there a deadline for tomorrow to make a counter offer?
Jen Psaki: (23:40)
We do expect. We had constructive conversations at a staff level on Tuesday, on the Hill with Senator Capito, other ranking members with Steve Ricchetti and Louisa Terrell, Secretary Buttigieg, Secretary Raimondo. And we expect those conversations to continue tomorrow.
Okay. And then on another piece of legislation on the Hill that I know is a priority of yours, the Endless Frontier Act-
Speaker 5: (24:03)
… That I know is a priority of yours, the Endless Frontier Act. Obviously, you guys care a lot about semiconductors. It seems like the negotiations have hit a couple of hiccups, which is kind of normal, but at what point is the White House getting involved in smoothing this over? Because I know this was supposed to go on a faster track than your infrastructure proposal. Are you guys involved at all through your legis affairs team or do you leave this all to Senator Schumer?
Jen Psaki: (24:28)
We’re absolutely involved. We’re strong supporters of the Endless Frontiers Act as was evidenced by the statement of administration policy we put out earlier this week and we are hopeful and looking forward to signing it into law.
Speaker 5: (24:40)
Are you behind the scenes pushing to resolve the hiccups that are currently holding up-
Jen Psaki: (24:46)
Our legislative team is closely involved with members and with their staff on moving it forward.
Speaker 5: (24:52)
One last one also on infrastructure. If you can lay out what the White House and the president himself was doing to urge congressional Democrats to support his proposed tax increases.
Jen Psaki: (25:08)
I’m sorry, say that one more time.
Speaker 5: (25:11)
What the president and your legis affairs team, what type of outreach you’re doing with Hill Democrats on the proposed tax increases?
Jen Psaki: (25:22)
Well, I would say the vast majority of Hill Democrats support raising taxes on the highest income and also in corporations, as do the vast majority of Americans. So I would flip that question around and really the question we’re posing out there is if you don’t want to pay for these proposals, these historic investments in infrastructure, these investments in ensuring that we are making our workforce more competitive and rebuilding roads, rails and bridges around the country, investing in broadband.
Jen Psaki: (25:52)
If you don’t want to do it by raising taxes on the top 1%, going back to the tax rates of President George W. Bush, raising them on corporations, many of them didn’t pay any taxes in the last few years. What’s your alternative? That’s really the question we’re asking most people in the country and in the democratic caucus support raising taxes on the highest income and I’m on corporations. Go ahead.
Speaker 6: (26:13)
Thanks, Jen. On infrastructure, given that there were staff level talks earlier in the week. Just give us an idea if the ball has been moved forward, has there been any movement on maybe the pay for us? If you just talk about the importance of the president’s proposal and asking Republicans to submit their own. Did they do that? How constructive was this and how much did the ball move from where it had been prior to Tuesday?
Jen Psaki: (26:38)
I wish there was a daily ball moving monitor. You guys would probably love that too. It doesn’t always work that way as you know, with these negotiations and discussions with members and their staff. Our team felt they were constructive conversations. They’re obviously needs to be follow-up as we fully expected because negotiations and compromise require many, many conversations, sometimes back and forth proposals. We expect those to continue tomorrow, those discussions and we’re looking forward to that, but I’m not going to be evaluating kind of the percentage of progress after each meeting.
Speaker 6: (27:13)
Do you expect the talks and focus to continue beyond tomorrow? There are some Democrats on the Hill talking about it’s time to just move on.
Jen Psaki: (27:20)
Look, the president’s view and the view of senior members of this administration is that he was elected. The American people expect him to work with members of both parties, to attempt to work with members of both parties to get business done on their behalf. And he’s doing exactly that. So we’re looking forward to constructive conversations tomorrow. We’ll have to evaluate how those go and what the next step is, but I’m not going to get ahead of the conversations tomorrow.
Speaker 6: (27:44)
I’ll just ask you one on the 1/6 Commission that hangs in the balance in the Senate. You said just a few minutes ago that this is a matter of preserving our democracy. If it’s that important, is this an issue where the president is going to be lobbying members, picking up the phone calling Republicans and perhaps speaking to the country using the bully pulpit to push lawmakers on this, or is he going to sort of save those calls for other issues?
Jen Psaki: (28:11)
Well, he’s made clear what his view is on the mark on our democracy that was January 6th and he’s conveyed that clearly publicly on numerous occasions. I don’t think there’s any secret about where he stands on the commission. We also put out a statement on the administration policy on this as well just a couple of days ago. And certainly as he’s having discussions with members, if appropriate, he raises a number of issues. But I think it was important for us to convey where we stand in our view that this is an issue or commission that shouldn’t be viewed through a partisan lens. And we don’t think the American people view it that way either. Go ahead.
Speaker 7: (28:46)
Jen, thanks. The Texas governor yesterday signed an abortion law that bans the procedure at six weeks. What specifically is the White House looking to do and what specific steps will I have to take to try and protect abortion access?
Jen Psaki: (28:59)
Well, first as you noted, but for others who haven’t followed this as closely. This is the most restrictive measure yet in the nation and the most restrictive recent assault on women’s fundamental rights under Roe v. Wade. And critical rights continue to come under withering and extreme attack around the country. The president and vice president are devoted to ensuring that every American has access to healthcare now more than ever. He continues to support the robust agenda he put forward during the campaign to protect women’s fundamental rights, including by codifying Roe v. Wade. Obviously, there are some actions that will be through legal processes and through the courts. Those are decisions for the Department of Justice and others to make, but certainly the president supports and believes we should codify Roe v. Wade and that is his view regardless of these backward-looking steps that are being taken by states in the country.
Speaker 7: (29:51)
And Jen, both Pfizer and Moderna CEOs are saying COVID boosters could be needed as early as September. How has the administration prepared for that in terms of contracts of companies? What would that mean for efforts to send shots overseas?
Jen Psaki: (30:04)
Sure. Well, first we would wait for the FDA to certainly make that official recommendation to the American public. I will say that when we purchased such a large quantity of supply and doses, we were also factoring in a range of contingencies, and that includes that potential. We don’t know if that will be what the FDA concludes, but we plan for that. And in addition to the supply that we’ve already ordered, we are going to be focused on continuing to work with manufacturers to increase supply globally, of course, through our own manufacturing facilities. And we’ll continue to build from the supply we’ve already ordered
Speaker 7: (30:39)
One more really quickly. Last week, 25 members of Congress sent the president a letter asking him to appoint a special envoy in Northern Ireland. I’m wondering if he has any plans to do that, and if so, what the timing will be.
Jen Psaki: (30:51)
We did see that letter. Certainly that decision and recommendation would probably be made by the State Department in terms of what is needed on the ground. So I don’t have any personnel announcements to convey or a timeline for that. Go ahead.
Speaker 8: (31:05)
All right, thanks. Will President Biden [inaudible 00:31:08] President Moon to join the Indo-Pacific Quad. And if South Korea is not a part of the Quad, does that kind of leave a big hole in your hopes for the containing China?
Jen Psaki: (31:16)
Well, the Quad has four members, so not to be too mathematical about it, but I would say that that already exists. I would say that South Korea is an incredibly important partner to the United States, hence the president is having one of his first bilats in-person with the president of South Korea. And I think that sends a clear message.
Jen Psaki: (31:37)
Now, in terms of working with South Korea to address regional security issues or strategic issues in the region, certainly there’ll be an opportunity to talk about that. We expect that North Korea will be a central topic of the discussion, of course tomorrow, but they also will discuss climate. They will also discuss economic partnership. They will also discuss China and those will all be a part of this bilateral conversation and meeting tomorrow.
Speaker 8: (32:05)
But in terms of like a full fledged membership, I know you’d have to rename it. Is that going to come up? Is the president going to push for that?
Jen Psaki: (32:13)
Look, I think that South Koreans may bring up a range of issues, of course, but I’m just framing for you what we expect the focus of the discussions to be about. And I would also convey that there are a range of forums and formats through the international community where the US works with a range of countries. We may work with, of course, Japan and South Korea on a range of issues. There has been history of that through trilateral cooperation as you know.
Jen Psaki: (32:40)
There are a range of international organizations that we are a part of and South Korea is also a part of. So I don’t have anything to predict or anticipate in terms of a change in membership of the Quad, but I would just note that the fact that they are here tomorrow, that it’s a bilateral program makes clear the importance of that strategic relationship.
Speaker 8: (32:59)
Has President Biden ruled out the possibility of a face-to-face meeting with Kim Jong-un of the North. I mean, is that even a possibility?
Jen Psaki: (33:07)
I don’t expect that to be top on his agenda.
Speaker 8: (33:10)
And just one quick one on taxes. Do you have any fears of the new IRS enforcement plan might create some political blowback, some wariness in the public just the idea of, “The tax man’s coming, I might face an audit.” What should people know about that?
Jen Psaki: (33:23)
Well, I think it’s one of the reasons that we want to be absolutely clear that what additional enforcement from the IRS would be focused on are people who are not paying their fair share. That is not hard-working middle class Americans who are working hard, paying taxes, putting food on the table. There are a range of other entities that are less likely to pay their fair share of taxes.
Jen Psaki: (33:49)
So we will continue to be absolutely clear about that. Lower middle class Americans are for the most part across the board compliant with their tax obligations. But there are cases where corporations are not paying their fair share and they’re able to play by their own rules, paying half or less than what they owe. And that’s really what the focus is. Go ahead in the back.
Speaker 9: (34:12)
Thank you, Jen. On taxes again, the president has called on the wealthy to pay their fair share. I’m wondering if the president would like to see reforms, so the way the S-corporations are treated given that the Obama administration said that those corporate structures could sometimes be used as loopholes. And yet, President Biden between 2017 and 2020 used an S-corporation according to his tax returns and reporting and Bloomberg to avoid paying nearly $500,000 in self-employment taxes.
Jen Psaki: (34:44)
Well, I will say first that he received no income from a CelticCapri in 2020, which is the S-corp and it’s dormant. And it will not be engaging in any business other than to receive potential royalties, which would relate to books he has already written. And of course, as you know, you only know about this because the president released his tax returns, which has long been history, a historic precedent even if it wasn’t over the last several years.
Jen Psaki: (35:11)
In terms of additional tax reform proposals, I don’t have any to announce for you today. I would note that the president paid a higher rate than most high income individuals and most corporations around the country.
Speaker 9: (35:22)
All right. And then another one with regards to the question of what’s happening currently in the Middle East. I know that you touched on the Iran nuclear deal, but there’s reporting earlier that the leader of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard said that the rocket attacks from Palestine hitting Israel was a sign of “a new Palestine.” I’m wondering if that type of rhetoric coming out of Iran has any effect on the president’s eagerness to rejoin the treaty, the Iran nuclear agreement and sort of if there is any interplay between those two spheres.
Jen Psaki: (36:01)
I think it’s important to be very clear. Iran-
Speaker 9: (36:03)
… and those two spheres.
Jen Psaki: (36:03)
Well, I think it’s important to be very clear. Iran, they are bad actors and they’re bad actors in the region. And that is very clear. That is our position. However, we believe, the president believes that it is in the best interest of the United States and in the best interest of countries in the region to have more visibility into Iran’s nuclear capabilities, and to prevent them from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
Speaker 9: (36:30)
Can I ask you one more on the Colonial Pipeline?
Jen Psaki: (36:31)
Speaker 9: (36:32)
Has the president been briefed on any intelligence suggesting that the DarkSide hacking group, which claim responsibility, operates under the indirect supervision of any Russian intelligence services? Is there any relationship that we have seen?
Jen Psaki: (36:48)
I think the president was clear last week in what the intelligence assessment is about the Russian government’s involvement or knowledge of the hacking. At the same time, they are a criminal entity that is on Russian soil and therefore they have a responsibility.
Speaker 9: (37:05)
Jen Psaki: (37:05)
Sure. Go ahead.
Speaker 10: (37:07)
Hi. I just wanted to go back to Israel really quick. So yesterday, Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez accused Israel of using American weapons to target media outlets, schools, hospitals, other sites. The other day, Congresswoman Omar called the Israeli prime minister an ethno-nationalist. I know you’ve talked about the White House’s message to Democrats, but does the president specifically denounced these comments?
Jen Psaki: (37:30)
I think we have a responsibility here to speak about this as the issue that it is, which is a conflict that is killing people in a region and our efforts to bring that to an end. The president doesn’t see this through the prism of domestic politics. He sees this through the prism of what role the United States can play as a leader in the global community to engage in quiet, intensive diplomacy, to bring an end to the suffering and the tragedy on the ground.
Speaker 10: (38:00)
Just to follow up on that. So of course this isn’t just a domestic issue, but there is infighting between Democrats and one of President Biden’s big messages is unity. So what is being done to unify his own party on this issue? And how has this infighting not hurting that message of unity?
Jen Psaki: (38:19)
Well, here where there is agreement. We all want to see an end to the conflict on the ground. We all want to see an end to the suffering for Palestinian people, for the Israeli people. There’s a disagreement on tactics. There’s a disagreement on some aspects of how we engage, but we all agree that we want to end the suffering. And that is certainly a unifying message. Go ahead in back.
Speaker 11: (38:42)
Thanks, Jen. I want to pick up on a couple of things on my colleagues have asked on infrastructure and taxes. First though, on infrastructure, has any progress been made? I know you say that the conversations have been constructive. The talks are going to keep on going, but has any progress been made through the lens of the White House?
Jen Psaki: (38:57)
Well, here’s what’s progress. We have Democrats and Republicans, the ranking members of a range of important committees in the Senate, having discussions with members of our senior White House team, a Democratic administration about an agreement that we need to invest in infrastructure. Are we on the same page on every component of how it should be paid for or on the numbers? No. Do we know it will have a successful outcome? No, we don’t know that yet because this is democracy in action. This is compromise. This is negotiations. And it looks foreign because we haven’t seen this in some time, but it’s ongoing. So we’re not going to give a day by day grade. It’s not particularly constructive to do that.
Speaker 11: (39:34)
What’s the bigger challenge at this point, the top line figure or the pay for?
Jen Psaki: (39:37)
The top line figure or the pay for?
Speaker 11: (39:39)
Yeah. What’s bigger lift at this point?
Jen Psaki: (39:42)
Look, I think I’m not going to rank order them, but I will say that it’s not been a secret that the largest area of disagreement is paid fors. And obviously if you have a higher top-line number, you need more pay fors. Doesn’t require a mathematician for that.
Speaker 11: (39:56)
And then on taxes, with the guidelines of the Treasury Department put out today, as it relates to the IRS.
Jen Psaki: (40:03)
Speaker 11: (40:04)
What is the argument that you would make that the inflows and outflows of someone’s account should be monitored by the IRS? And since the Treasury Department says those who make under $400,000 aren’t going to be audited any more than they have been in the past. Essentially, are you creating a two tier audit system, those who make more than $400,000 and those who make less?
Jen Psaki: (40:31)
Well, I would say that lower and middle income Americans who are working hard, getting their paychecks, are not typically the issue at hand here. And what the tax compliance report conveyed today is that… Or confirmed today, I should say, is that it’s past time to reform our broken tax system, that teachers, firefighters, nurses, and other hardworking Americans, they report their income. They pay required taxes. Wealthiest Americans and corporations, because they often operate under different tax systems. It already is a system that is living into Americas. They are able to pay lower tax rates. That’s not fair. That’s basically what the president is conveying.
Speaker 11: (41:16)
So what would you say that to the person who does well, pays their taxes and just doesn’t want the government seeing the outflows and inflows they paid by the book and they say, “Hey, I don’t think this is right?”
Jen Psaki: (41:28)
Well, again, I think what our focus is on here is ensuring that any American pays the taxes that they are owed. And if they are paying the taxes that they are owed, then they have little to worry about. But there’s no question that given that for the last 10 years, the IRS has been repeatedly underfunded, currently has 20,000 fewer staff, including fewer enforcement staff than it did a decade ago, that proposals like the president’s proposal to increase a 10% increase in funding for the IRS that would largely be used to strengthen enforcement on wealthy and corporate tax filers and help ensure those at the top pay their fair share is certainly something that I think the vast majority of Americans would feel is fair and effective. Go ahead.
Thank you, Jen. I’m going to bring it back to the Middle East questions. The UN chief just said, I’m quoting him, “If there is a hell on earth, it is the life of Palestinian children in Gaza. So far, 65 children have been killed, 40 women. In total 230 civilians, 50,000 people have been displaced.” Since this administration put human rights protection as a forefront of your foreign policy, why can you do more to protect the life of Palestinian children and exert more pressure when on one of your closest ally, which is Israel, to avoid killing children?
Jen Psaki: (42:45)
Well, I would say that what our effort has been focused on, Nadia, is conveying behind the scenes that certainly while Israel has a right to defend itself, that it is time now to bring an end to this conflict. That there has been too much suffering, too much tragedy. Every life lost, every one of these children who has lost their life. Every family that has had to mourn the life of a loved one is certainly too many. We have certainly had a shift in our approach as it relates to our engagement with the Palestinians from the last administration, including the fact that the consulate was closed. They had ended assistance to [inaudible 00:43:23] and during the last administration, and they did not have that open line of communication engagement. They also ended humanitarian assistance and security assistance to the Palestinians, which we have resumed. So we have certainly taken a different approach and we believe our role here can be playing a role behind the scenes, conveying that it’s time to bring an end to the conflict.
And on Iran talks from Vienna is indicating that by next round, Iran might come into compliance and the US might lift the sanction. Do you consider that June 18th, which is the day of the Iranian election, and is the end of Iran commitment to the IEEA as the deadline for the White House to try and to achieve something?
Jen Psaki: (44:07)
Well, I’m not going to set new deadlines today. I’m sure that won’t surprise you. There certainly political factors that are factors for countries like Iran that are key parties in these discussions and negotiations. Our, of course, goal is to mutually return to compliance with the JCPOA, and we would be prepared to lift the sanctions necessary for JCPOA compliance only if Iran were prepared to return its nuclear program to its JCPOA status. We will see where we get with that as our bottom line. Thanks everyone.