Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jen Psaki, February 16, 2021
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:17 P.M. EST
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MS. PSAKI: Happy Tuesday. All right. I have a couple of items for all of you at the top. A lot of you have asked — maybe not in this room, but in general: What’s next? What are we focused on next? And the answer is the President is going to continue working on getting the American Rescue Plan passed. That is his top priority. He is traveling to Wisconsin later this evening, as you know, to have a conversation, engage with the American people about his plans to get the pandemic under control, to put people back to work. And Congress is continuing to do their job. Over the course of the coming weeks, we’re looking forward to making progress.
There was also news out this morning about a foreclosure moratorium extension. Some of you may have seen. The COVID crisis has triggered a housing affordability crisis, with more than 10 million homeowners behind on mortgage payments and communities of color at even greater risk of eviction and foreclosure.
Today, the administration is taking another step to bring urgent action — relief to the American fam- — American families struggling to keep a roof over their heads. So, something the President talked about on day one, we talked about on day one. But today, the Departments of Housing and Urban Development, Veterans Affairs, and Agriculture announced they will extend and expand the foreclosure relief programs, building on the steps President Biden spoke about a couple of weeks ago.
These critical protections were due to expire in March. But as part of today’s announcement, the foreclosure moratorium and the mortgage forbearance enrollment window will be extended through June 30th. The administration will also provide up to six months of additional mortgage payments to — forbearance for borrowers who entered forbearance on or before June 30th, 2020.
These actions will bring needed relief to most of the 2.7 million homeowners currently in forbearance and extend forbearance options for nearly 11 million homeowners with government-backed mortgages across the country. It’s critical — it remains critical that Congress pass the American Rescue Plan to deliver more aid to struggling homeowners.
As we speak, or maybe a little earlier, depending on when the call wrapped, Jeff Zients had a regular call with a number of governors — our COVID Response Coordinator, of course — providing them with key updates on our pandemic response, as well as hearing from them about the work they’re doing on the ground.
As a part of that call, he announced that we’re increasing the vaccine supply to 13.5 million doses per week that will go out to states. This is a 57 percent increase from the amount states received when the President was inaugurated. So since then, obviously, we have announced a couple of increases over the course of time.
We’re also announcing that we’re doubling the supply to our pharmacy program. When we announced that, we said it would be — it would be building over time. So this — today’s announcement amounts to 2 million doses going to local pharmacies this week, and this program will expand access in neighborhoods across the country so that people can call and make an appointment and get their shot conveniently and quickly.
Eventually, as supply increases, more than 40,000 pharmacy locations nationwide will be providing COVID-19 vaccines through this program. This is a critical, critical part of our plan.
Last — or, sorry, second to last item. Last but certainly — or second to last, but certainly not least, we opened Healthcare.gov as planned and as we had announced for special enrollment period until May 15th to provide all Americans the opportunity to sign up for health insurance. They can go to Healthcare.gov. Nearly 9 million Americans are eligible for free or subsidized health insurance.
Finally, as you know, a brutal Arctic mass impacted the central United States this weekend, bringing freezing rain, sleet, and snow from Texas to the Mid-Atlantic. On Saturday night, Texas Governor Greg Abbott requested a federal emergency declaration due to the severe weather storm. Homeland Security Advisor Dr. Liz Sherwood-Randall called Governor Abbott on Sunday to let him know that the President had immediately granted his request to help meet the state’s mass care and shelter needs.
Yesterday, Liz additionally called the other governors in the storm’s path on behalf of the President, including Governor Ivey of Alabama, Governor John Bel Edwards of Louisiana, Governor Laura Kelly of Kansas, Governor Reeves of Mississippi, and Governor Kevin Stitt of Oklahoma. She expressed the President’s strong commitment to ensuring that the federal government proactively does everything it can to support state and local officials in preparing for and responding to the events that impact our citizens. We will, of course, continue to monitor the storm’s updates in the days ahead.
With that, Zeke, go ahead.
Q First, Jen, the President’s schedule didn’t have a whole lot of official events before he leaves this afternoon. Can you give us a sense of what he’s been doing today?
And then, does he plan to reach out to those specific governors from those affected states — Governor Abbott and others — who have been affected by the storm?
MS. PSAKI: I expect — so let me take the second, first. The President has been kept abreast, as I noted, of the events and been provided updates — regular updates on the storm and the progress and, of course, the emergency declaration. I don’t have any calls to read out, but I expect he will be involved personally. And if we have calls that he’s making himself, we will provide that information to all of you.
In terms of what he’s spending his day doing, he’s continuing to have meetings with his policy teams and experts about his plans to bring relief to the American people and public. And, you know, he’s remained — he’s remained focused on that today behind the scenes before he travels to Wisconsin for a town hall later this evening.
Q And then, just on this vaccine announcement: Is there any discussion of this winter weather affecting the vaccine distribution? And what steps is the federal government taking to ensure that there’s no spoilage of those vaccines, which have to be kept in those very cold temperatures during shipping, and (inaudible) delays?
MS. PSAKI: You’re right that we monitor, obviously, weather. Mother Nature and the weather can sometimes impact and requires contingency planning, which is something our team is quite focused on. Our COVID-19 response team is also in close touch with state and local governments across the country. We’re monitoring the situation in Texas very closely. Obviously, FEMA is running point on a number of the operational pieces. But while I don’t have an update now, it’s something we’re very mindful of, and we contingency-plan to ensure people are getting the doses they need at an appropriate timeline.
Q And just one quick one on a different topic. Congressman Bennie Thompson filed a civil suit against former President Trump — part of what we expect to be sort of a slew of civil suits against the former President and others involved in the January 6th insurrection. Does President Biden have any response to that? And does he support efforts like that to use the civil courts to hold President Trump accountable?
MS. PSAKI: You know, he certainly supports the rights of individuals — members of Congress and otherwise — to take steps through the judicial process, but I don’t think we have a further comment on it than that.
Go ahead. Oh sorry, Trevor, let me go to you. I promised. Go ahead.
I’ll come to you next, Mary.
Q So, just on — two on foreign policy for you. First, there was a rocket attack in Iraq yesterday, and Iraqi officials have said that the group that took responsibility for that attack has ties to Iran. My question is: One, whether you’ve made that determination as well. And, two, what kind of retaliation would be considered (inaudible)?
MS. PSAKI: Sure. Appreciate the question. We’re still working through attribution with our Iraqi partners to determine precise attribution for this attack. Obviously, that’s a priority.
I will convey that we are outraged by last night’s rocket attack in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region. Initial reports indicate that the attacks killed one civilian contractor and injured several members of the coalition, including one American service member and several American contractors. And we offer our condolences to the loved ones of the civilian contractor killed. The Iraqi people have certainly suffered for far too long from this kind of violence and violation of their sovereignty.
I will also note — and I think the State Department provided this update, but just for all of you — Secretary Blinken has reached out to the Kurdistan Regional Government Prime Minister Barzani. And Secretary Austin is speaking with his counterpart to offer assistance with the investigation and to help hold accountable those responsible for this attack. But we have not determined attribution at this point.
Q And do you expect that there would be retaliation if — once that declaration is made?
MS. PSAKI: Well, as always, the President of the United States and the administration reserves the right to respond in the time and the manner of our choosing, but we’ll wait for the attribution to be concluded first before we take any additional steps or obviously have any additional announcements.
I will convey to you that obviously diplomacy is a priority with this administration and something that is front and center to our engagement with our global partners around the world. And certainly, these calls are evidence of that, but that will always be a part of our strategy as well.
Q And to the point of diplomacy, one thing that Germany has asked for is some relief, as far as the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. And I’m just curious if you have an update on that, whether Biden will consider waiving the ability to do sanctions on (inaudible).
MS. PSAKI: Well, our position on Nord Stream 2 has been very clear, and it remains unchanged. President Biden has made clear that Nord Stream 2 is a bad deal. It’s a bad deal because it divides Europe, it exposes Ukraine and Central Europe to Russia — Russian manipulation, and because it goes against Europe’s own stated energy and security goals.
We’re continuing to monitor activity to complete or to certify the pipeline. And if such activity takes place, we’ll make a determination of the applicability of sanctions. Importantly, sanctions are only one among many important tools to ensure energy security. And we’ll — of course, we’ll do this all in partnership with our allies and partners, but our position has not changed on the — on the deal.
Q The President is changing gears this week, obviously, looking beyond the Hill to get out and sell this plan to the American people. Is this a sign that he recognizes that he’s not likely to get Republicans in Washington on board?
MS. PSAKI: He certainly wouldn’t agree with that. I would say that the President’s view of the package — well, one — I would say first — the President has not “shifting gears,” he has been focused every single day — even as others have not, which is understandable — on engaging with partners, stakeholders, people who agree with him, people who don’t agree with him on getting this package through.
This is an opportunity, as you noted, to go out and have a conversation with the people of Wisconsin — people who agree with him, people who disagree with them. But if you look at the polls, they are very consistent. The vast majority of the American people like what they see in this package. And that should be an indication, or should be noted by member of Congress — members of Congress as they consider whether they’re going to vote for it or not.
Q So is he hoping then that these visits will help build pressure on members of Congress?
MS. PSAKI: No, his objective is really to make sure he is engaging directly with the people who are impacted by the pandemic, who are impacted by the economic downturn, who are worried about whether they’re going to get a shot, who are — don’t know where — where to get information, who are worried about whether they’re going to be able to put food on the table. That’s the focus of this trip.
Obviously, Republicans in Congress will have to make their own choice about whether they support the final package. It’s still working its way through Congress. But the vast majority of the public supports it, including the vast majority of most members’ constituents. So it’s really a question for them.
Q And on another topic, would the President sign legislation to create a commission to investigate the January 6th attack?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I saw an announcement — I believe it was yesterday, if I’m remembering correctly — by Speaker Pelosi — or some comments, I should say. It’s, of course, Congress’s decision to form this commission, as we’ve talked about a bit in here, but it’s certainly one the President would support.
And President Biden has made clear his views on the tragic events of January 6th, including where responsibility for them lies. He backs efforts to shed additional light on the facts to ensure something like that never happens again.
In addition to the recently announced desire to put together a commission or form a commission, we’ll continue to work with Congress to identify measures that the federal government can take going forward to prevent violence we saw on January 6th. And as you know, probably, Mary, there’s a number of hearings that are upcoming in the coming weeks, and we’ll be cooperative with those, of course.
Q What would he hope to learn through a commission? Because obviously, we saw a very thorough airing of the events last week.
MS. PSAKI: Again, I don’t think the tenets of the commission have been formed. That’s up to Congress to do. We have a role to play in the federal government, of course, with ongoing investigations out of the Department of Justice, but he supports efforts to move forward with it — the desire to have one, certainly, understanding and knowing how much the events on the 6th impacted members sitting on the Hill.
Q Jen, thank you. The President and yourself have frequently cited what you describe as the “failures” or the “shortcomings” of the Trump administration, as it relates to their response to COVID. We’re now nearly a month into this administration. Does the Biden administration now own the coronavirus response?
MS. PSAKI: Well, certainly, the President of the United States owns the response to the COVID pandemic. That’s why he has focused on it every single day. However, it’s important for the American people to know what we inherited when the President came into office. And what he inherited was not enough supply, not enough vaccinators, not enough places for vaccinations to happen. Communities had been left to fend for themselves. And so, that’s what he’s been focused on and working on.
But certainly, if he were standing here, he would say that’s why it’s the issue he wakes up every morning and is focused on, because addressing it is what’s on the minds of the American people. And he’s the President; it’s his responsibility to focus on it.
Q Let me ask, if I can — I want to bounce around a little bit back to the impeachment trial that just wrapped up. You guys posted a statement late on Saturday where he said the final vote, though it “did not lead to a conviction, the substance of the charge,” the President said, “is not in dispute. Even those opposed to the conviction” — he cited Mitch McConnell — “believe [that] Donald Trump was guilty of a ‘disgraceful dereliction of duty’ and ‘practically and morally responsible for provoking’ the violence unleashed on the Capitol.”
So, if he wasn’t convicted through an impeachment trial via Congress, via the Senate, how should a President who commits acts that President Biden says are not in dispute be punished?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think, obviously, there was a process that worked its way through the Senate. That’s why we put out a statement on Saturday evening.
Q Does he support criminal prosecution?
MS. PSAKI: That — that will be up to the Department of Justice to determine. We’re doing something new here, and there’s going to be an independent Justice Department to determine what any path forward in any investigation would look like.
Q Absent this President’s actions though, do you think — does something like this — does it seem — I mean, Mitch McConnell left that door open to criminal prosecution. Would actions like this — do they meet the bar for criminal prosecution?
MS. PSAKI: I am not going to speculate on criminal prosecution from the White House podium. We — the President is committed to having an independent Justice Department that will make their own decisions about the path forward.
Q Let me ask you a last question, if I can. It’s housekeeping around here. TJ Ducklo, as we know, is no longer working for this White House. He was suspended for a week after comments that he made to a female journalist. The President, as you know, on Inauguration Day said, “If you’re ever working with me and I hear you treat another…with disrespect, talk down to someone, I promise you I will fire you on the spot…No ifs, ands, or buts.” He didn’t fire TJ on the spot. He has since resigned. Has the President’s position on talking down or disrespecting others changed?
MS. PSAKI: I think the President leads by example, and I try to do the same. And on Saturday, when we announced that TJ Ducklo had resigned his position — something we all agreed was the right path forward — I made clear that every day we’re going to try to meet the standard set out by the President in treating others with dignity and respect, with civility, and with a value for others through our words and our actions. He’s no longer employed here, and I think that speaks for itself.
Q Jen, thank you. As you prepare to put out an immigration plan as soon as the end of this week, can you give us a little more information on the timing? And also, when it comes to the DREAMers, can you give us any specifics on whether a potential pathway to citizenship will be part of the plan for that particular group?
MS. PSAKI: Well, there certainly is — part of the proposal that the President outlined and proposed on day one is an earned path to citizenship — right? — for 11 million immigrants who are undocumented immigrants, who are living in the country.
He’s also somebody who believes in the rights of the DACA recipients to be in the country. He was here during the, of course, Obama-Biden administration, of which he played a prominent role — an important role — and supported that program.
We’ve outlined the tenets of what we think the proposal should look like, which includes that, but also includes funding to address the root causes, includes investment in smart security. But Congress will have to work through what it looks like moving forward and what components will be included in here or what components could be dealt with separately.
Q And how important will it be to this administration that this be one overarching, large, comprehensive package versus pieces of an immigration plan that are broken up and passed separately?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I understand and I’ve read — I know there’s different points of view and different views from prominent and important advocates on this particular issue. But we’re going to let the bill be presented formally at some point soon; I’m not going to get ahead of that process.
And certainly the President feels that all of these requirements that are in the bill — these components of the bill — are what makes it comprehensive. They all need to be addressed; that’s why he proposed them together.
Q And does the President plan to rescind these Trump-era restrictions on immigration and work visas that have dramatically limited immigration? They’re set to expire at the end of March. Will he let those expire naturally or will he rescind them before that?
MS. PSAKI: Let me talk to our Department of Homeland Security. It’s likely a conversation that would happen in coordination with them. Obviously, the President — his view is that the approach of the prior administration was immoral but also ineffective in terms of addressing the challenge — the many challenges of an outdated immigration system. But I don’t have an update on those particular requirements.
Q And then just one question on Afghanistan. Has the administration decided whether to further troop withdrawals below 4,500? And if the decision hasn’t been made yet, when do you expect one?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have any update on that front or a timeline of when any additional decisions will be made.
Q Do you feel that the previous administration withdrawing troops so quickly tied this administration’s hands?
MS. PSAKI: You know, I think the President is somebody who is not new to the global stage, and certainly not new to the difficult decisions that me- — need to be made around issues related to Afghanistan, issues related to the men and women who are serving, and our own national security. So he’s making decisions through that prism, but I just don’t have an update on what any timeline will look like.
Q Thanks, Jen. First, on the vaccine: You were talking earlier about how the President wants to address the concerns of everyday Americans with vaccine and the pandemic. One way the White House Chief of Staff proposed doing that last month was creating a national clearinghouse for vaccine information that would either be available online or through a hotline.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
Q Can you update us on the — on the progress of that? Is that close to being rolled out?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have any update for you, other than to convey that our team is always considering a range of options to make information more accessible, ensure more people — more of the American public know how they can get a vaccine, when they can get a vaccine, where they can go to get a vaccine. That’s part of the reason the President is, of course, traveling to Wisconsin. But I don’t have any update for you on a clearinghouse or a website.
Q So it sounds like that’s only still under consideration. Is that something that’s really not in the works at the moment?
MS. PSAKI: There are a range of options under consideration, and their focus is on taking the steps that are the most effective and efficient, and prioritizing those in the order through which they would help the American people.
Q Now, on the situation in Texas, beyond disaster relief, is the administration considering any actions to address not only Texas’s power grid, but the power grid in the central United States that seemed to really struggle with the winter weather, in addition to some other issues? I know Texas is not really part of the national power grid. Is the administration looking at that situation and considering any kind of actions in the short term to address it?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think our focus right now is ensuring that the millions of people across Texas who were impacted by the storm get the relief they need. Obviously, that’s why the President and his homeland security advisor took very quick action over the weekend.
Clearly, as there are investments in the future in energy se- — in energy — forms of energy, I should say, across the country, they’ll need to plan for inclement weather. But I think that’s a discussion and conversation that’s a little bit down the road.
Q Well, due to the fact that the Texas grid is not part of the national system, was that alarming to anyone in the administration? I mean, would you prefer that there be a national grid that’s all integrated?
MS. PSAKI: I would send you to the Department of Energy and others to answer that question.
Q Thanks, Jen. Back on tonight’s trip: Is there any particular reason Wisconsin was chosen as the site of tonight’s town hall?
MS. PSAKI: You don’t like Wisconsin? (Laughs.)
Q No, I’m just wondering —
MS. PSAKI: It’s a little cold. I looked it up this morning. But —
Q I’ve been there; it’s lovely. But is there any particular reason why? Is it Ron Johnson, in terms of pressure on him, or engage Democrats in a state the President just won? Why Wisconsin?
MS. PSAKI: Well, Wisconsin is a state where clearly there are Democrats, Republicans, independents, as we saw from the final outcome of the vote in November — people who have different points of view on a range of issues. And it was a state that — where people have been impacted by the pandemic; they’ve been impacted by the economic downturn.
And the President felt that he could have a good conversation with people about the path forward and also even people who disagree with him. So it was not more complicated than that.
Q Let me ask you about the President’s ambitions in terms of getting Congress to pass gun control measures. In a statement you issued over the weekend, the President said the time for action is now. You’re asking Congress to do a lot of things now. What is your timetable for action on what the President calls “commonsense” measures? And what’s the realistic hope that you have that they’ll pass both houses?
MS. PSAKI: Well, we haven’t proposed a package at this point, so it’s hard for me to make a prediction about its likelihood of passing. But I will say that the President is somebody, throughout his career, who has advocated for smart gun — smart gun safety measures. He has — not afraid of standing up to the NRA — he’s done it multiple times and won — on background checks and a range of issues. And it is a priority to him on a personal level.
But I don’t have a prediction for you or a preview for you on a timeline of a package, and certainly not what it will look like and how it would go through Congress.
Q One more question for you. The colleague who sat in this chair last week asked you a question about whether you — this administration sees Saudi Arabia or Israel as allies of the United States. Your answer was interpreted by some as something other than “yes.” So I want to give you an opportunity to answer that question more directly now.
MS. PSAKI: Well, first let me say, on Israel, I know there’s been some questions about when the President will speak with Prime Minister Netanyahu, which was, I think, the root of that question or how the question started.
So let me first confirm for you that his first call with a leader in the region will be with Prime Minister Netanyahu. It will be soon. I don’t have an exact day for you, but it is soon. Stay tuned.
Israel is, of course, an ally. Israel is a country where we have an important strategic security relationship. And our team is fully engaged — not at the head-of-state, yet, level quite yet, but very soon. But our team is fully engaged, having constant conversations at many levels with the Israelis.
And on Saudi Arabia, I would say: You know, we’ve made clear from the beginning that we’re going to recalibrate our relationship with Saudi Arabia and that — you know, President Biden — one of the questions there was also — just to go back to the context of it — whether he would be speaking with MBS. And part of that is going back to engagement, counterpart to counterpart. The President’s counterpart is King Salman, and I expect that, in appropriate time, he would have a conversation with him. I don’t have a prediction of the timeline on that.
But I’ll also say that, you know, we have — Saudi Arabia is in a position where they’re defending themselves from threats from the region. You know, they are — they have critical self-defense needs, and we will continue to work with them on those, even as we make clear areas where we have disagreements and where we have concerns. And that’s certainly a shift from the approach of the prior administration.
Okay, go ahead.
Q I’m just following up on his question. Does the President still plan to take executive action on gun violence?
MS. PSAKI: The President has a range of actions at his disposal. I think you were asking, Steve, about a legislative package, which I know. But he hasn’t ruled out either of those options, of course, but I don’t have anything to announce for you in terms of what the next steps would look like.
Q If I can just follow up on Texas. Is there anything else the White House can do to administer immediate relief to the residents of Texas right now?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think we are — our team — our national security team, in part led by Dr. Liz Sherwood-Randall, who is our Homeland Security Advisor — a position, I would note, that did not exist in the prior administration — is in close contacts — in close contact, I should say, monitoring developments of the storm. The President is kept abreast of that as well, and we are engaged with them and what their needs are and what steps can be taken.
Of course, declaring a federal disaster declaration ensures that you have access to, you know, national resources, and I think that was a step that was welcomed by the governor.
Q I have a quick circle-back question. You said a few weeks ago that the White House would check to see if it was technically possible to release the visitor logs from the Trump administration. Is there any answer on that?
MS. PSAKI: I actually did answer that question, so —
Q You did already?
MS. PSAKI: Yes.
Q What was the answer?
MS. PSAKI: The answer was: It exists in the National Archives, so they would have access, and you’d have to go to them for access to archives of their visitor logs from their period of time when the — President Trump was there.
Q Okay. And then, just — you said a gun package, TBD on timing; it’s not in the works yet. In terms of what’s next after the relief package, is the plan to still do a big Build Back Better bill next or a more narrow infrastructure bill next? Do we know what’s coming next?
MS. PSAKI: We’re focused right now on getting the American Rescue Plan passed. But the President is committed to engaging with a range of stakeholders. Of course, he had the meeting last week with senators about infrastructure. It’s one of the areas where there’s opportunity to work together.
I think most people wouldn’t argue that our roads, our bridges, our streets need to be rebuilt, but there are a lot of different needs and policy objectives the President has. So we haven’t yet determined what the next priority forward would be, but he is engaging with his policy team, as Zeke asked earlier — what he did today, what he did over the weekend — and a lot of that is having those discussions internally and with stakeholders about what it looks — what’s next.
Q Yeah, thanks, Jen. A couple of quick questions. Both Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have both expressed some opposition to increasing the minimum wage as it’s laid out currently in the proposal, in the Senate. And I wondered: Is President Biden open to, I guess, lengthening the period of time over which the minimum wage could be increased? So, for example, you know, getting it to $15 by 2030. Is he open to potentially extending the timeline there to get more people on board?
MS. PSAKI: Well, we’ll let the process play out through the Senate — through the House first, then through the Senate, as they’re negotiating what the final components will look like in a package.
The President put an increase in the minimum wage in the initial package because he thinks it’s important for American men and women, who are — have a full-time job, working hard, to have a decent wage, and he thinks it’s long past time to raise the minimum wage. But we’ll let the process see itself through, and I’m not going to negotiate what he’d be open to and not from the podium.
Q And just a couple other quick ones. One, I just wanted to clarify something. Prime Minister Trudeau’s office, after their call — his call with President Biden in January — he said that they had agreed to meet in February. And I just want to see if you could clarify: Do they plan to meet in person, or was that just — you know, the phrasing was off and they, kind of, (inaudible)?
MS. PSAKI: You can meet over video, as we all know. I don’t have any timeline of a meeting to convey or to confirm for you, though I would anticipate for all of you that it will be a couple of months before the President has an in-person or an — has an — invites a foreign leader to meet in person here at the White House.
Q And the last thing: Spring training for baseball starts this month, and I wondered —
MS. PSAKI: So my husband tells me.
Q — has the White House or the Biden administration been in touch with Major League Baseball to, you know, give recommendations about safety protocols about whether it’s safe to have the season at this point?
MS. PSAKI: I — I’m happy to check with our COVID team and see if they’ve had any conversations. Obviously, this is not the first season during the pandemic, but I will check and see if there’s any role we have to play here.
Go ahead, in the back.
Q Thank you, Jen. With the President’s — President Trump’s impeachment behind us, do you believe an impediment has been removed, in terms of passing the COVID relief act? I mean, was that a distraction for anyone on the Hill or in the White House?
MS. PSAKI: It certainly wasn’t for us. And members of Congress on the Hill continue to do their job in having conversations at the committee level. It was an — obviously, an important week in our nation’s history. The President put out — we put out a statement from the President on Saturday. And we understand why there was a focus on it from, of course, the media and also from many in the public. But we have said from the beginning that the President would remain laser focused on getting the American Rescue Plan passed. That’s exactly what he did last week, and what he’ll continue to do this week. And we are pleased with the urgency we’ve seen from members of Congress as well.
Q Jen, does the President still plan to address Congress this month as he has said he expects to? And do you have any more information for us about the time?
MS. PSAKI: We don’t know where the February 23rd date came from. It’s a great mystery. I’ve not Nancy Drew-ed that one out yet, but it was never planned to be in February and we don’t have a date for a joint session at this point.
Certainly, the President looks forward to addressing the public. We remain in touch with leaders in Congress about a timeline and a format and what that would look like. Obviously, it won’t look like it is looked like in the past, that many of you have covered and I’ve attended, where you all sit on the floor of Congress and the President gives a speech, because of COVID. But we’re not behind any timeline because that date was never accurate.
Q And then one more on immigration. There’s a federal judge in Texas who could soon decide the fate of the DACA program for DREAMers. If he moves to kill that program before Congress addresses the issue, what is the administration prepared to do to shield this population from deportation?
MS. PSAKI: Well, the — the DACA program is important to the President. It is a program that he has long been committed to protecting and preserving and taking every step he can to do exactly that. I’m not going to get ahead of a judge’s ruling in Texas, but we will certainly watch closely. And if there’s more to say after that, we will — we will share it.
Q Jen, Mitch McConnell said — on the Republican opposition to COVID relief, he said this is going to help unify their party. He said, “I don’t think many Republicans are going to be up for many things that are coming out of this administration.” Do you remember what Mitch McConnell said in 2010 about the Biden adminis- — about the Obama administration then? He said, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term President.”
So I guess my question is: What lessons were learned from then? And given McConnell doesn’t see any political incentive to work with Democrats, can you work with someone who isn’t motivated to work with you?
MS. PSAKI: Well, the President has known Senator McConnell for some time, and he is speaking — spoken with him a number of times. And he’s certainly hopeful that they can find a way to work together in addressing the challenges facing the American people.
But, I don’t know if it’s about lessons for us, as much as — you know, the country is looking —
Q You’re in the White House.
MS. PSAKI: Well — well, here’s the thing though: The country is looking for action. I mean, the country is looking for progress, for solutions on COVID, on the economy. The package that the President has proposed has the support of almost three quarters of the public in most polls.
So, I’m not sure what numbers Senator McConnell is looking at, but the American people have been clear what they’re looking for. And if they make a decision — Republicans in Congress, Senator McConnell — to vote against the will of their constituents, I would suggest you ask them why that’s smart, politically, for them to do.
Go ahead, in the back.
Q Yeah, good afternoon. Owen Jensen, EWTN Global Catholic Network.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
Q So, regarding the American Rescue Plan, groups like — pro-life groups, including the Susan B. Anthony List are very concerned that millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars will go to the abortion industry, in violation of the Hyde Amendment. We know where President Biden stands on Hyde Amendment, but that being said, can this administration right now guarantee, if the American Rescue Plan is passed, that no taxpayer dollars will go to the abortion industry?
MS. PSAKI: Which component of the American Rescue Plan are you referring to?
Q I’ll pull it up right here. “A $50 million funding increase for the Title X program.” “$750 million for global health activities and billions in funding for community health centers without applying the Hyde Amendment.”
MS. PSAKI: Well, the President’s view on the Hyde Amendment is well known, as you have stated in your question. He also believes that community health centers are a key part of addressing the pandemic, of ensuring that people in communities have access to vaccines, have access to treatment and information about — about making sure they’re healthy and their loved ones are healthy.
So that remains a priority to the President. He’s shared his view on the Hyde Amendment. I don’t think I have anything new for you.
Q Okay. To follow up on it though, can he guarantee Americans who don’t want their tax dollars — pro-life Americans who don’t want their tax dollars funding abortion, can he —
MS. PSAKI: Well —
Q Can the administration guarantee those tax dollars won’t be used for abortions?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think, Owen, as I’ve just noted, three quarters of the public supports the components of the package, wants to see the pandemic get under control, wants to see people put back to work, vaccines in arms. So I think that answers your question.
MS. PSAKI: Okay, we’re going to move on. Go ahead, in the back.
Q In a couple of — in a couple of days, the President will address the Munich Security Conference.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
Q And I think one point the Europeans would like to better understand is what he means with “foreign policy for the middle class.” Does it mean to uphold Donald Trump’s tariffs, like in the case of aluminum from the UAE? Is the Biden administration using the same reasoning as the Trump administration?
MS. PSAKI: I can assure you that the President — this President does not have — is not looking to the last presidency as the model for his foreign policy moving forward.
President Biden has been working in the global arena for decades. And what he means by “foreign policy for the middle class” is ensuring that our team working on economic issues, our team working on national security issues, our teams thinking about how policies impact the American people are talking and that we make decisions and make policies through that prism.
We are certainly reviewing a range of tariffs that had been put in place by the past administration. I don’t have any updates on that for you. But what the President is speaking to is the importance of contemplating integrating our domestic and national security teams, and the policymaking and the process that they go through, and his view that we are stronger globally if we take care of our house here at home. So that is part of his objective as well.
Q Thanks, Jen. When President Biden and Governor Andrew Cuomo met last week, did they speak about the delayed release of data on the COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes in New York?
MS. PSAKI: The focus of the meeting was on the President providing an update on his plans to help get the pandemic under control, to discuss with them the American Rescue Plan. And in a large group meeting, have a discussion about what the challenges were that were facing governors and mayors. You heard some of the mayors come out here. So, no, that was not a focus of their conversation or a topic.
Q And then, another quick question. A lot of people, including Dr. Fauci, have said they felt side effects from the COVID vaccine. Did the President or Vice President feel any side effects?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t think I have any updates on that for you. They got their second vaccine several weeks ago, and they did that in public. But I can check if there’s more of an update from any side effects weeks ago.
Q And as the print pooler, I have a question from a colleague. (Inaudible.) Is that okay?
MS. PSAKI: Sure, go ahead.
Q Thanks. This question is from Thomas Burr with News Nation: The President is flying to Michigan to tour the Pfizer plant and (inaudible) the COVID vaccine. What is the administration doing now, almost a month into office, to increase vaccine availability? And how many White House staffers have been vaccinated?
MS. PSAKI: We provided an update a couple of — maybe a week ago or so. And we’re — our focus is on being as transparent as possible with our efforts to vaccinate senior staff and other staff around the White House complex. We have a limited footprint as well here because every staffer is tested on a daily basis as well.
I think we said the objective was to have hundreds vaccinated by the end of February. I can double check if that’s the latest update on that particular front. What was your — sorry, what was your other question?
Q And then, what is the administration doing now to increase vaccine availability?
MS. PSAKI: To the American public?
Q Yes, now almost a month into the administration.
MS. PSAKI: Well, we’re taking a couple of steps. One is, we’re increasing supply. Obviously, the President took the step of purchasing enough vaccines to ensure we have vaccines available to vaccinate every American by the end of July.
He’s also — we’ve also increased by 57 percent the vaccine supply that’s going out to states. We’ve also taken steps to increase the number of vaccinators we have — people who can actually put those shots in arms. So that includes deploying members of the National Guard; taking steps including ensuring that retired nurses and doctors can be a part of the vaccination crew that is — vaccinator crew, I should say, that is putting shots in arms. So we’ve increased the number of vaccinators.
And we’ve also increased the number of vaccination sites, partly by, you know, putting a plan in place to have several hundred community health centers where vaccinations can be distributed; working with states on mass vaccination centers; working with pharmacies, as we announced earlier — as I announced earlier in the briefing, I should say, to get vaccines in the hands of pharmacies — which 90 percent of the public lives within five miles of a pharmacy.
So there are a number of steps, but our focus has been on those three components: increasing supply — vaccines; increasing vaccinators — the people who can put those vaccines in arms; and increasing vaccination locations so people know where to go.
Q Sorry, just wanted a quick follow-up on the President’s appearance before a joint session of Congress. In his primetime address last month, in January, reading from prepared remarks, he said: “Next month, in my first appearance for a joint session, I will lay out my Build Back Better plan.”
So it feels like he did say it was going to be in February.
MS. PSAKI: Well, I — what I was referring to is there was reporting on February 23rd, and I don’t know where that date came from, which has never been inaccurate [sic]. So —
Q So it was never going to be in February? It was —
MS. PSAKI: It was ne- — the February 23rd wasn’t — just an inaccurate date — no one’s fault; it just was. And it created some confusion, so I was just trying to clarify it.
Obviously, the President looks forward to speaking to a joint session. We just don’t have a date yet for when that will be, and obviously it will look different because of COVID and because we want to be safe and project the — that safety and our responsibility of projecting that to the American public.
Q So there’s no specific reason it was potentially delayed from what the President himself thought last month?
MS. PSAKI: There is not. And he conveyed — you know, he is looking forward to providing more details on a jobs package and, you know, next steps in his agenda. And he still is looking forward to doing that, and we just don’t have a date yet to announce for all of you.
Q Thanks, Jen.
MS. PSAKI: Thank you, everybody. Have a good day.
END 12:59 P.M. EST