Updated: February 23, 2021
Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jen Psaki, January 28, 2021
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
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2:32 P.M. EST
MS. PSAKI: No guests today. Good afternoon, and happy Thursday. Before we get into questions — and I promise ample time for questions today — I wanted to share just a few updates with you.
First, today, President Biden signed two executive actions that will begin to restore and strengthen Americans’ access to quality, affordable healthcare. Specifically, he directed agencies to reexamine rules and other policies that limits — limit Americans’ access to healthcare and consider additional actions to strengthen Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act so they can continue to provide access to lifesaving care for millions of Americans.
As a result, the Department of Health and Human Services will open Healthcare.gov for a special enrollment period from February 15th to May 15th. And just as a reminder, the prior administration only had it open for six weeks, so this is double that length of time.
Starting February 15th, Americans without health insurance can go to Healthcare.gov and sign up for health coverage, often at little or no cost.
The President also rescinded the global gag rule, which bars international nonprofits that — international funding — sorry, let me state this again — which bars international nonprofits that provide abortion counseling or referrals from receiving U.S. funding. And he directed the Department of Health and Human Services to take immediate action to consider whether to rescind regulations under its Title 10 Family Planning Program.
These also, of course, build on the actions the President has taken to put equity at the heart of his administration’s response to COVID-19.
Second, I wanted to update you on the amendment being made to the Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness Act, or PREP Act, declaration on the COVID-19 response. HHS will amend the current PREP Act declaration to permit recently retired doctors and nurses to administer COVID-19 vaccines and to permit anyone currently licensed to vaccinate within their home state and to administer shots across state lines. So we’ve talked a lot in here about the need for not just vaccines, but vaccinators, and this is an effort to put more vaccinators in the field.
A number of states have already taken action to ease licensing requirements to expand the vaccinator workforce, but this nationwide acce- — action will make that easier across the board. The amendment will help us in our vaccination efforts with the continued goal of 100 million shots in 100 days.
Also, today, I just wanted to point you to what you may have all seen, the statement by National Economic Council director Brian Deese, about the quarterly GDP and weekly unemployment claims.
And finally, I know on the Vice President’s schedule, today, she’s doing local TV interviews and meeting with editorial boards in West Virginia and Arizona to discuss the American Rescue Plan.
So, with that, go ahead.
Q Thanks, Jen. I’ve got two: one foreign, one domestic. I wanted to ask you about the Pakistani Supreme Court’s decision to release the man that was convicted of the killing of journalist Daniel Pearl. Does the White House have a response? And are there plans to ask for his extradition to the U.S. for a trial?
MS. PSAKI: The United States is outraged by the Pakistani Supreme Court’s decision to affirm the acquittals of those responsible for Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl’s kidnapping and brutal murder, which shocked the world’s conscience in 2002.
This decision to exonerate and release Sheikh and the other suspects is an affront to terrorism victims everywhere, including in Pakistan.
We recognize past Pakistani actions to try to hold Mr. Pearl’s murderers accountable, and we do note that, as of right now, Omar Sheikh remains in detention in Pakistan, under national security authorities. But we call on the Pakistani government to expeditiously review its legal options, including allowing the United States to prosecute Sheikh for the brutal murder of an American citizen and journalist.
And we’re committed to securing justice for Daniel Pearl’s family and holding terrorists anywhere accountable for their heinous crimes.
And the State Department, I know, also just put out a statement.
Q And I wanted to ask about this flurry of executive
orders we’ve seen. President Biden ran on a pledge to restore unity. He promised, on Inauguration Day, he’d be a President for all Americans. But since he’s gotten into office, he’s been largely acting unilaterally. I mean, we saw a record-breaking number of executive orders. He has not yet met with lawmakers on Capitol Hill, and we’re not even quite sure who he’s talking to on Capitol Hill.
So what do you say to Americans who are watching all of these executive orders? And does the White House think that this is the best way to make policy, considering an opposing president could come back in, four years from now, and erase all the work he’s done with the stroke of a pen?
MS. PSAKI: Well, let me — there’s a lot to unpack there. So, let me — let me try my best.
First, the President put forward a large and bold COVID relief package — $1.9 trillion — that is meant to address the challenges the American people are facing and the dual crises that we are — that the country is facing, from the pandemic to an economic recession as a result. That package has the support of the majority of Americans, according to every poll that we have seen publicly released.
So I would say, first, that part of unifying the country is addressing the problems that the American people are facing, and working to reach out to Democrats and Republicans to do exactly that. And that’s exactly what he’s doing. He is calling — he’s had calls with Democratic and Republican members of Congress — many of them. He’s doing more calls today, but he’s doing calls regularly throughout the week and has done them back to when he was inaugurated, and even before then. But he’s also calling Democratic and Republican mayors and governors to talk to them about what their needs are on the ground.
So, his objective, as President, is to deliver on what he promised in his Inaugural Address: govern for all of the American people by focusing on addressing the issues that people are facing that aren’t just hitting blue states or red states, aren’t just hitting Democrats or Republicans, but are crises that we are all facing. And I think the polls will tell you that people are responding to that.
In terms of executive actions, he also ran with a commitment to take steps immediately to address the pain and suffering that the American people were feeling, and that includes overturning some of the detrimental, harmful, and, at times, immoral policies and actions of the prior administration. But he’s the first to tell you, as he said many times publicly, he is not going to take executive action alone. That’s why he’s put forward a number of packages that he’s actively working with members of both parties to move forward on.
Q A quick follow-up. If the issue is that Congress is so broken that he needs to work quickly, unilaterally, to get some of this done, then does he support the move towards reconciliation that Senate Democrats are talking about right now? It’s essentially the same idea.
MS. PSAKI: Well, I didn’t say that that was his point of view. Those are your words, not mine. I would say his view is actually that these policies — the policies in his COVID relief package — are policies that are not Democratic or Republican. Everybody wants their kids to go back to school. Everybody thinks that there should be more shots in the arms of Americans. Everybody thinks that the American people should get more relief and a bridge in this period of time that is such a challenge.
So what he’s saying is, “Here’s my proposal. Here’s how I think. Here’s how economists, medical experts, health experts think we can address these crises we all agree are impacting all of our constituents across the country. Let’s have a conversation about it.” That’s what he’s doing.
At the same time, he’s not going to delay action that can — that would help bring relief to the public and help bring access to affordable healthcare to the American people, help ensure women have access to reproductive — reproductive health — health, as well.
So, you know, there are a lot of steps he’s taken over the past couple of weeks. He’s not going to delay actions that require immediate — immediate action that he can — that he can bring that relief immediately, but he’s also going to work with Congress. He’s proposed multiple bills to do that.
Q Following up on that, Democratic leaders on the Hill appear to already be eyeing reconciliation. We heard Leader Chuck Schumer today saying that they’re moving ahead with or without Republicans. Does this undermine your calls for bipartisanship, and are you urging them to give this more time?
MS. PSAKI: Well, for — we’re all very close to this here, of reconciliation and all the terminology in Washington. Everybody who’s watching may not be. Reconciliation is a parliamentary process. It’s a way to get legislation through. It’s a way to get relief to the American people.
The President wants this to be a bipartisan package, regardless of the mechanisms. Republicans can still vote for a package, even it goes through — if even if it goes through with reconciliation. There’s no blood oath anybody signs. They’re able to sign — to support it regardless. And he wants this to be a bipartisan package. He’s listening to Democrats and Republicans — we all are — to ensure that that’s what it looks like at the end of the day.
Q But it doesn’t seem that you can get both the speed you want and the bipartisanship at the same time. So which is the priority?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t think that’s true. We refute that notion. You know, these challenges that the American public are facing are urgent. People don’t know how to plan to have food on their table now. They’re worried about whether their kids can go back to school in a couple months, now. They’re worried about getting the vaccine now. And those are issues that Republican-elected officials are hearing, Democratic-elected officials are hearing from their constituents, and we’re confident that people are going to listen to them and come together to support a bipartisan bill.
Q And just one other question on COVID.
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q The South African variant has now been discovered to be here in the U.S. You, of course, have taken steps to ban non-U.S. citizens from South Africa from traveling here. That ban goes into effect on Saturday. Can you explain why Saturday? Why not sooner?
MS. PSAKI: Well, the testing requirements we put in place that you noted were put in place for all departures, including South Africa. They take place — they will be put into effect at 12:00 — at noon, I guess — noon on January 26th.
So this actually goes into effect Friday night — fair — to Saturday morning — close — and was put into place very quickly over the course of a week to stand up the necessary process. I mean, it takes a little bit of time to put these restrictions in place, to work with airlines, work with regulatory authorities to get them in place. We did that as quickly as possible and before there was a reported case of course, because we’ve seen the reports, and we listen to health and medical experts.
Go ahead, Kaitlan.
Q So, given that Democrats have kind of indicated they will move forward with or without Republican support, would President Biden sign a bill that only Democrats voted for?
MS. PSAKI: Well, we’re not quite there. That’s getting us a few steps ahead of where we are now. He continues to believe that this can be, should be, and will be a bipartisan bill that receives support from Democrats and Republicans. And he’s having conversations with and listening to leaders and members of both parties to assure that we get to exactly that place.
Q But if we got to that place where only Democrats had voted for it, is he okay with that?
MS. PSAKI: We’ll have a conversation at that point. We’re not there yet.
Q Okay, so a second question on — given all the volatility surrounding Wall Street and GameStop, what is the Biden administration doing to protect the average American investor if there is going to be potentially a major market correction coming?
MS. PSAKI: Well, the SEC put out a statement; I believe it was today — or in the last 24 hours, I should say. We refer you to that. We’re not going to have additional comment from here.
Q Nothing beyond just monitoring it? Has he had any conversations with economic officials about what’s going on?
MS. PSAKI: We don’t — he’s briefed by his economic team frequently, but I don’t have anything more to read out for you.
Q Is the SEC, DOJ, or broader administration specifically looking at Robinhood and other platforms’ decision to prevent retail investors from purchasing certain stocks, like GameStop?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t know anything more on this aside from to point you to the SEC statement.
Q Okay. And just one more question. Is the administration working with Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to push Gary Gensler’s nomination, given the frenzy on the stock market?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I haven’t — I have not spoken with our legislative team about Gary Gensler’s nomination specifically, but certainly the President has spoken about the urgency of getting his team in place to address the range of issues we’re facing, and I don’t think that would be any different for Mr. Gensler.
Go ahead, Sabrina.
Q Thank you so much. First, on the COVID relief package, in order to cut a deal, would President Biden be willing to entertain a smaller package?
MS. PSAKI: Well, first — and I know you didn’t ask me this, but since there was some reporting this morning, I just want to take the opportunity to be crystal clear: We are not looking to split the package. That is a not a proposal from the White House. I talked to the President about it this morning. That is not what our focus is or our intention is.
And the reason is because we are not going to put ourselves in a place or anyone in a place where we’re choosing between helping families to put food on the table and making sure kids go back — get back to school, or making sure gets kids get back to school and getting a vaccine in the arms of Americans.
Now, at the same time, what the President has conveyed to all of us and had — during his conversations with members of Congress is that he’s put his proposal out there. He was in the Senate for 36 years. He, of all people, appreciates the back-and-forth, the engagement, the opportunity to hear from members of all sides on what they like, what they don’t like, things they think should be smaller; some have proposed things should be bigger. There’s, of course, lots of ideas — no member of Congress is a wallflower — that are out there in public, and certainly that reflects the private conversations as well.
And, you know, there are areas — for example, there has been some discussion of: Can this be more targeted? You know, the President believes that based on his recommendations of his — of economists and his health and economic experts, this is a plan — this is a overall package and proposal that is absolutely targeted toward the people who need it most. But he’s happy to have a conversation about that and happy to have a conversation about any component that people are coming at him with good ideas.
But our focus is on making it better, improving the package, as people have good ideas. We’re open for business and open to hear from members of Congress on that. But we’re not going to do this in a piecemeal way or break apart a big package that’s meant to address the crisis we’re facing.
Q Just to follow up on COVID, can you confirm that the Biden administration is actively looking into expanding mandatory testing for domestic travelers here in the United States? And what other new domestic requirements can you detail that might be forthcoming?
MS. PSAKI: Well, we had put out, just a couple of days ago, as we talked about earlier, some specific requirements on international travel, as you know. I don’t have anything to preview for you or predict on domestic travel restrictions. Our team is always evaluating how to keep the American people safe.
Q Thanks, Jen.
MS. PSAKI: Can you — can you give the American people any hope that the vaccine supply is going to go much over 10 million doses a week for the next couple months?
Well, as you know, but in case people watching don’t know, we made it — the President made an announcement just two days ago about increasing the supply of vaccines to ensure that we are getting as much of the supply into the hands of governors and elected officials as we can, to get the vaccine into the arms of Americans.
We’re going to continue to push. As he said, he’s going to continue to push; we will all continue to push. But the issue is not just vaccine supply. A big issue is vaccinators and the abil- — the capacity to have people who can put the vaccine into the arms of Americans in communities and in neighborhoods, to be able to do that, and it’s also vaccine locations.
So we increased — we already made an announcement, less than 48 hours ago, about increasing the vaccine supply going to states. He will continue to push. Our goal is, of course, to continue to increase in all of these areas.
Q But the main issue is supply, isn’t it?
MS. PSAKI: It’s one of the issues. You know, we will have — we will be in a place by this summer where we will have enough supply for the public, but that doesn’t ensure that we — that everybody will have had a vaccine because we need to ensure we have the materials to do — to distribute the vaccine; the vaccinators and qualified individuals to literally put the shots in the arms of Americans; places to do it. There — this is why this is such a herculean task, because it requires so many components.
Q Sanofi just announced that it has struck a deal with Pfizer to produce 125 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine, but that’s all going to the EU and it’s not going to start until this summer. Has the White House been talking to domestic pharmaceutical companies about doing something similar more quickly?
MS. PSAKI: Well, he did — the President did invoke the Defense Production Act, as you all know, last week. But we’re not — to quote Dr. Fauci, because it’s always a good place to be, we’re not producing shoes here, we’re producing vaccines. And we are — want to work very closely with the manufacturers and the companies that are the experts on producing these to ensure they can do exactly that. It’s not easy to start from scratch in a new facility. We’re very mindful of that.
And so, right now, we’re certainly reviewing all options, but our focus is on continuing to work directly with the manufacturers and their facilities to get the vaccines out the door.
Q Thanks, Jen. I’m Nandita from Reuters News. One question on the healthcare EO today. How many people does the White House expect will sign up during the supplemental time period? How many people are you expecting will sign up for these insurance programs through the federal exchange?
MS. PSAKI: Well, we don’t have a number to previc- — to predict for you. But the reason that the President signed the executive order today was because it felt essential at a time of a pandemic when millions of people are concerned about their healthcare; many — far too many still don’t have access to open up an expanded window for Americans to be able to apply.
And we will have a robust public campaign — public paid media campaign — to reach the American people, and we’ll be putting a lot of levers and resources toward that. But I don’t have a prediction for you in terms of the numbers.
Q So, absolutely no estimates going in?
MS. PSAKI: We’re not going to do predictions from here, just as many American people who don’t have access and currently are not on the exchange that we can reach will be our goal to reach.
Q Okay. And I had a follow-up on the markets and everything that’s happening with GameStop. You did mention, I believe yesterday, that the Treasury Secretary is monitoring the situation and she’s, kind of, on top of it. There have been some kind of concerns about her previous engagements with Citadel and speaking fees that she has received from Citadel. Are there any plans to have her recuse herself from advising the President on GameStop and the whole Robinhood situation?
MS. PSAKI: Well, just to be clear, what I said was that we have — the Treasury Secretary is now confirmed. Obviously, we have a broad economic team. The SEC put out a statement yesterday that I referred to. But I don’t think I have anything more for you on it, other than to say, separate from the GameStop issue, the Secretary of Treasury is one of the world-renowned experts on markets, on the economy. It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone she was paid to give her perspective and advice before she came into office.
Before she came in to be the Treasury Secretary, I should say.
Q Jen, I have a couple of foreign policy issues.
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q The first one is on Taiwan. Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman said yesterday that the Chinese military activities in the Taiwan Strait is a necessary response to foreign intervention and that any efforts towards independence means war. Does the administration believe that Beijing is testing the U.S. on the issue of Taiwan? And how would you respond?
MS. PSAKI: Well, the good news is that my longtime friend John Kirby is giving a briefing today at the Department of Defense, and I would certainly refer you to him and any comments he makes on this specific issue.
Do you have another question?
Q Yes. So, on — I’m just, again, following up on Secretary Blinken’s statement yesterday on the review of the sale of F-35s to the United Arab Emirates and also missiles to the Saudis. What is the message of the administration to the region in terms of your position on the Abraham Accords? I understand the President is open to having more countries join, but how urgent is it for the administration? And what would be your strategy? Would you, for example, continue the carrot-and-sticks approach of the Trump administration?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I know Secretary Blinken was just confirmed yesterday. I love having all these Cabinet members and colleagues in places and agencies because there’s even more expertise out there. But, as you know, we’ve recently paused some arms sales to ensure they meet our strategic objectives, including how to end the conflict in Yemen. But State will be able to speak to it in greater detail.
And as you also noted, there’s going to be an ongoing review of a range of policies, including what our engagement will be in the Abraham Accords.
Q But in terms of the urgency, how urgent is it for the administration that more countries sign on?
MS. PSAKI: Well, again, this will be under the purview of the State Department; I’m sure they’ll be speaking to it. And the Secretary was just confirmed earlier this week, so we’ll give him a minute to figure out where his pencils and pens are, but certainly it’s important — an important issue and one that they will be reviewing soon, I’m sure.
Q I have another question on Russia. Do you have anything else to add now that the Russian court has rejected the appeal of Alexei Navalny? Anything else that you’d like to add beyond what you’ve said?
MS. PSAKI: No, as I — as I noted the other day, and it was clear in the readout that we issued of the President’s call with President Putin, he did not hold back in conveying his concern and — about the treatment of Alexei Navalny and the treatment of protesters. And that is certainly something that will be continued to be — we’ll continue to communicate at many levels with the Russians.
Q Hi, two questions — actually, a third. I just wanted to follow up on — just on the Russia question. Is there anything at all that you can give us in terms of the tone of that call or the length of the call? I mean, the topics that you laid out — kind of boom, boom, boom — were all pretty — it seemed like a quite a difficult conversation for the Russian President, perhaps. And I’m just wondering if you can give us any sort of sense of color about how it went.
MS. PSAKI: Well, I’m not in the business of reading out anything the Russians are doing; I know you’re not exactly asking, but sort of. I will say that President Biden had clear objectives that he wanted to get across during that call. He has never held back as it relates to President Putin or his concerns about the actions of the Russian government, and he certainly conveyed that clearly during the call.
As you know, there’s also a review that’s underway about a range of activities that is being overseen by his national security team, and he touched on a number of those issues during that call. But I don’t have anything more for you. I’m sure — I’m sure the Kremlin is happy to give you a readout of how well President Putin thinks the call went.
Q Another question is just on immigration. A federal judge in Texas has blocked your 100-day deportation pause. I just wanted to see how that’s impacting the Biden agenda and if that is in any way a reason for perhaps a delay in the immigration EO that we’ve been expecting?
MS. PSAKI: No, I will say, I know we had a statement on the specific case you referenced, which I’m happy to circle back with you on it if you haven’t received it.
In terms of our overarching agenda and approach to immigration: You know, there was an early and draft version of the — of our — what our executive order plan and schedule looked like, and that was early and was draft and was not accurate. But I will tell you, get some sleep this weekend, we’ll have more to say next week on immigration — the President will. So we’ll have more to report out to you in the next couple days.
Q And just one final thing here. I was curious — some of my colleagues have earlier been asking you about reconciliation and, sort of, the tension between moving quickly with Biden’s legislative agenda versus, sort of, a longer period of negotiation.
And I do wonder, with this last week, you did have Senator Leahy in the hospital, Senator Mark Warner in, you know, quarantine because of COVID; there’s a pandemic going on; and you have the slimmest possible majority in the Senate. Is there any sort of — when you look at the health situation, is there any sense that perhaps, you know, moving it along quickly while you still have a majority might be the better move?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I’ve watched Senator Leahy in action for quite some time, and he has been — continues to be an advocate, as we know, for justice, for equality. And I — you know, he’s pretty wily and fierce. So we’re pretty confident we’re going to be working with him for a while. And as you know, he’s resting at home, and we wish him — we wish him our best.
But I would say the President came into office knowing he was going to have a slim majority and that it would be essential to work with both Democrats and Republicans, and that it would be extremely challenging, if not nearly impossible, to get big, bold work done on behalf of the American people without working with both parties. And that’s exactly why he has, himself, had a number of engagements and calls with members of Congress — Democrats and Republicans — and why he has asked his team to do exactly that as well.
So we’ve known, of course, even before — even before the election in Georgia, we thought — there wouldn’t even be a slim majority and we would be in the minority. So, you know, he’s been planning for that and we’ve been planning for that through the course of the last several months.
Go ahead. Anita.
Q I’m following up on immigration. I understand what you’re saying about the document that’s out there with some executive orders and dates, but the Chief of Staff also indicated that immigration would be coming by February 1st, which I believe is Monday. So are the immigration executive orders coming on Monday?
And is this — is there some desire to wait until the Secretary is confirmed for the executive orders? Or can you give us any more — shed some more light on this?
MS. PSAKI: No, I would say, as you guys may know from doing your own planning with long-term enterprise stories, sometimes things change. And things change in communications planning and what day you’re going to put information out, and there’s a range of reasons for that. But I would say: Stay tuned. We’ll have more to say next week.
Q So you won’t say if it’s Monday or not? Just sometime next week?
MS. PSAKI: It will be next week.
Q Okay. And is one of the executive orders that we’re talking about a plan for family reunification at the border? And if that’s one — obviously, there’s many — but that’s one that a lot of people are waiting to, kind of, hear what that plan is. Is that something we should expect?
MS. PSAKI: Well, the President talked about his commitment to putting together a commission for reunifying families. He remains committed to that, and we’ll have more to share on that soon.
Go ahead, all the way in the back.
Q Thank you so much, Jen. Raquel Krahenbuhl from TV Globo Brazil. I have two questions. Going back to the climate crisis — during the campaign, President Biden warned of economic consequences if Brazil did not reduce deforestation on the Amazon. I’m wondering what kind of consequences he’s considering; if it could hurt, for example, the trade negotiations with Brazil or the OECD support.
MS. PSAKI: Well, we just announced yesterday that we’re going to be doing a climate summit coming up in the next couple of months. And, of course, this is a big priority for President Biden, and that’s why he asked his good friend, former Secretary Kerry, to lead our climate international effort. And certainly Brazil will be a key partner in that.
But in terms of what those negotiations and discussions look like, it’s a little too early for that at this point, and I’d certainly send you to the State Department and Secretary Kerry’s office for more details.
Q Okay, so just a follow-up: Did he invite the Brazilian President? Will he invite for the summit? And is also President Biden still planning to label countries as “climate outlaws”? And if so, would Brazil be a part of this list?
MS. PSAKI: Well, we’re not quite there yet, given we just announced it. There haven’t been invites or anything that went out, but we’re happy to keep everybody updated. And certainly, as the United States is a large emitter, so is Brazil, so is China, so are many large countries and large economies, and we all have a role to play in addressing this crisis.
Q And one more question, Jen: When does President Biden think he will be able to start doing — or he will do his first international trade? And where would be the first place he would go?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have anything to preview or predict for you at this point. As you know, we haven’t done any domestic travel yet, given COVID. So I certainly don’t have any predictions about a foreign trip.
Go ahead, Sabrina.
Q I have a question on — in her confirmation hearing yesterday, U.N. Ambassador-designate Linda Thomas-Greenfield said she believed that BDS — the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement to pressure Israel — is unacceptable and borders on — or verges on anti-Semitism. Is that a characterization that the White House shares when it comes to the BDS movement?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have anything more for you on, kind of, our position. It’s, I think, been — the President has spoken to this as a candidate and prior as Vice President, but I don’t have anything new. And I’m happy to get back to you if there’s anything I can get you from the national security team.
Q Thank you. Rob Crilly with the Washington Examiner. Just to actually follow up on that: Linda Thomas-Greenfield also said she would be “standing against the unfair targeting of Israel, the relentless resolutions that are proposed against Israel unfairly.” Is that the position of the White House? I mean, Israel, after all, is in violation of international law: illegally occupies the West Bank and Gaza. Do you believe it’s unfairly targeted?
MS. PSAKI: You know, I didn’t see her full hearing yesterday. Actually, I didn’t see any of her hearing. I’m happy to review it and take a look and see if there’s more we can speak to from our end.
Q Can I also just bring it back to the executive orders — the questions we were discussing at the start? Because I’m still trying to, sort of, reconcile this deluge. What are we at? I think we’re at 26 executive orders now, and reconcile that with the campaign rhetoric. Because in October, Joe Biden said there were limitations on the use of executive actions — things he can’t do by executive order unless you’re a dictator. “We’re a democracy. We need consensus.”
I think you said earlier that some of these executive orders will be used to roll back some of the “immoral” things that the previous administration had done. If you’re calling these things “immoral,” is that seeking consensus and unity? And then, also, does it suggest that President Biden sees himself as perhaps a benevolent dictator?
MS. PSAKI: Well, Rob, I’m sure this wasn’t your intention, but I think you took the President’s comments a bit out of context. He was asked about tax reform and whether that could be done via executive order — during the interview with George Stephanopoulos, which you’re referring to.
Q (Inaudible) question. But I think the answer is a bit more —
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think the — I think the question is pretty important context for everybody. And he said, “No.” And the President also said during an interview with columnists back in December that he didn’t think executive action should be used for everything. And that certainly is his point of view.
But there are steps, including overturning some of the harmful, detrimental, and, yes, immoral actions of the prior administration that he felt he could not wait to overturn, and that’s exactly what he did.
Now, any historian will tell you that he walked into the presidency at one of the most difficult moments in history. That required additional executive action in order to take — get immediate relief to the American people. But he believes, as is — as is law, as everybody knows how a bill becomes a law — is that, in order to make action and policy permanent, you need to work with Congress.
That’s why he has also proposed a COVID relief package — a big, bold package — some say very big; I agree with that — and also an immigration bill. He has not — he has not held back or delayed putting forward legislation either. So, he’s going to use the levers that every President in history has used: executive actions. But he also feels it’s important to work with Congress — and not just one party, but both parties — to get things done.
Go ahead, in the back.
Q Thank you, Jen. A couple of questions. One technical question on the EOs signed today. Does the EO on ACA open the marketplace to non-citizens, to legal residents or undocumented immigrants that may be able to benefit from the extra care?
MS. PSAKI: It doesn’t change the requirements for qualifying for the Affordable Care Act; it opens it up for three months for people who would be already eligible for the Affordable Care Act. So — but obviously, there are, you know, the Health and Human Services team will continue to look for ways to expand access.
I will say — you didn’t ask this, but this is a common question, so I’m just going to proactively answer it — that we do feel, as an administration, that ensuring that all people in the United States — undocumented immigrants, as well, of course — should receive access to a vaccine, because that, one, is morally right, but also ensures that people in the country are also safe.
Q And that was my second question. How are you guiding the states actually —
MS. PSAKI: Oh, all right. Good.
MS. PSAKI: Okay.
Q How are you guiding the states —
MS. PSAKI: It’s a common one.
Q Yeah. How are you guiding the states if any — in any way to get those undocumented communities to come forward to get vaccinated? Many of them in the states don’t have any way to prove that they’re residents of those states in order to go to their local clinics and prove residency to get the vaccine. So how are you working with the states to get that done?
MS. PSAKI: It’s challenging. We’ve talked about this a bit in here. I mean, there is obviously vaccine hesitancy, which certainly exists in communities of undocumented immigrants, and the concern of what it will mean for their status. And — but we are focused on ensuring we get the vaccine out broadly into communities across the country because that will make the American people safer, and it’s something we have to be both creative about, aggressive about, ambitious about. It’s one of the reasons we need additional funding through the American Rescue Plan, but also one of the reasons why we plan to have an aggressive public education campaign to help embolden and empower local doctors and authorities.
Q And if I may ask one more on Cuba: Do you guys plan on starting — walking back all of those restrictions that were put into place under the Trump administration after the Obama administration had opened things up with Cuba?
MS. PSAKI: Well, our Cuba policy is governed by two principles. First, support for democracy and human rights. That will be at the core of our efforts.
Second is Americans, especially Cuban Americans, are the best ambassadors for freedom in Cuba. So we’ll review the Trump administration policies, as we are in a number of other areas of national security, with an eye to assure — ensuring that our approach is aligned with that. But, you know, we will take our own path. I don’t I don’t have anything to predict for you at this point in time.
Go ahead, Alex.
Q I wanted to clarify something. We talked a little bit about the administration’s stance on the school re-openings yesterday.
MS. PSAKI: Sure. I wasn’t really clear on that, so I got a little better information. (Laughs.)
Q Ron Klain indicated that he believes, or the administration believes, that schools need more funding for them to be safe enough to reopen for students to go back. But there’s been a number of studies, including the recent one out of the CDC, that have shown evidence that schools are perfectly safe for students to go back and there were recommendations that they should get back. So this seems like a bit of a dispute between teachers unions and, sort of, data and the science. So where does the administration stand in that dispute?
MS. PSAKI: Well, first, let me be absolutely clear: President Biden want schools to open, and he wants them to stay open because it’s obviously very disruptive for families that — I’m a mother — you know, for anyone who has kids, for kids to come in and out of school. But that means making sure, as you said, that every school is able to have the equipment and resources to open safely — not just rural schools or private schools, which often is where a lot of the school re-openings and schools staying open is happening. It’s more of a challenge in public schools, where they don’t have that funding from tuition or smaller populations where it’s easier to put in place the actions needed to keep the schools open.
But the CDC study, which I know has gotten a lot — received a lot of attention, was based on, kind of, an area that was more rural in Wisconsin. It was not — and I think what Dr. Walensky has said is — and I think she said this on CNN last night — is that, for areas where they are more populated or schools where there is a lot more foot traffic, that they’re going to need to be a lot of steps put in place in order to make the schools’ reopening safe.
But we are committed to doing that. That’s why the President signed an executive order last week, supporting the safe reopening of schools. It requires the Departments of Education and CDC to provide evidence-based guidance, so that will include things like testing, smaller class sizes, more ventilation, better cleaning, PPE, strong state and local public health guidance.
But we want to provide that clarity from the federal government because there’s a lot of confusion. And public schools, especially, don’t know what steps they need to take, how to ensure they’re safe. Those are all decisions that are going to be made locally, but we want to give them the guidance.
That’s in process. Our team is working on that — Dr. Walensky at the CDC and our health experts — and we hope to have more specifics soon.
Q Maybe two more questions?
MS. PSAKI: Go ahead.
Q So, Americans’ savings rate is — has been up throughout the pandemic. And so I’m wondering: Why give all Americans a $1,400 check, and why not means test for the relief that your — your administration is talking about?
MS. PSAKI: Well, first, the proposed checks — I mean, the — have the same criteria as the package that received broad bipartisan support in December, right? So, approximately, the $1,400 checks would go to families making approximately $150,000 a year. There’s a scaling up, as I think you’re referencing, up to about $300,000. I think you all are aware of this, but just for everybody else.
And, you know, there has been some questions about that. President Biden, our economic team — we’re open to discussing that, but we want to ensure that the families that need relief, that need assistance, get it. And I would say, at a time where we saw the economic data, today — and this was reflected in Brian Deese’s statement — it was worse than any week — I don’t want to misquote myself here — that we saw during the Great Recession.
I mean, people are suffering. Thousands — millions of people are out of work. People don’t know how to put food on the table. These challenges are real. We — the data shows it, but we also see long lines for food pantries. We see, you know, people who are out of work and don’t know what they’re going to do to make ends meet. And so that’s tangible, that’s real. And we want the pack- — the package is going to need to be big and bold to address that.
Q And then, since we’ve been talking about women’s health and access to abortion today: Does the administration plan to suspend the requirement that the medication abortion pill be picked up in person? I know that that’s something that advocates have been pushing for after the reversal under the Trump administration.
MS. PSAKI: Yeah, I’ve certainly seen some reporting and questions about that. I’ll have to talk to our health team about that specifically.
Q Jen, can I ask one more about the travel restrictions? A lot of our —
MS. PSAKI: Sure, go ahead. And then Kaitlan, and then we’ll go to you.
Q A lot of our viewers are asking if there will be any kind of consideration for waivers for students or unmarried couples, like fiancés, since there is now the requirement for testing and quarantine.
MS. PSAKI: Well, I know there has been a lot of coverage of this and questions because this is — these are people’s lives and human beings who are missing their loved ones and their family members.
And just to restate what the requirements are now: So spouses of American citizens and lawful permanent residents are able to travel under these restrictions we’ve put in place on international travel, although they have to take part in the mandatory pre-departure testing, and that applies to everyone. And we are reviewing and assessing, I should say, how students and unmarried couples — and how we can proceed with that moving forward.
I don’t have anything to preview for you but we’re certainly — our team is looking into that.
Q But what is the criteria? Why countries with high numbers, like Russia or India or Mexico, are not on the list?
MS. PSAKI: Well, our health and medical team takes a close look at what restrictions we need to put in place in order to keep the American people safe, and that’s how we review it. It’s not about geopolitics. It was, at times, in the prior administration; that’s not how we approach things. It’s about where we need to put restrictions in place to keep the American people safe.
I promised Kaitlan she would get the next one.
Q So just to get some clarification on the CDC study about schools being good to reopen if precautions are taken: Is the White House position that it needs to be further studied, since you’re citing just the one school in Wisconsin? Or does the White House agree with the recommendations from the CDC about schools reopening?
MS. PSAKI: Well, the CDC hasn’t issued the formal recommendations or requirements on how all schools across the country can open. They did a report, as they do reports frequently, based on an area in Wisconsin — important and interesting data, no doubt — but it — that is not reflective of every school district and community in the country.
And so they will be coming out with more specific requirements — or more specific, I should say, guidelines for the public because there are schools that are in much more highly populated areas; there are schools that have far more kids in classrooms, far more kids walking into the school. And they want to ensure that there’s clarity on testing needs, class-size needs — you know, public health guidance that that people can abide by. But, you know, their recommendation is that K-12 schools should be the last settings to close after all of these mitigation measures have been employed and the first to reopen.
So we all want schools to open and be open for good. What I’m reflecting on — or what I’m trying to clarify, I guess, is that, you know, schools in cities are dealing with different challenges than schools in rural communities. And schools in Wisconsin may be dealing in different challenges than schools in, you know, downtown Atlanta. Right? So there needs to be kind of — the CDC will issue more specific guidelines soon. They’re focused on it now.
Q Okay. And last question on this. So President Biden has said he wants all schools to reopen in his first 100 days. Is that still the goal if Congress does not pass this proposal which has the money for schools, which Ron Klain and others have said is what they believe schools need to reopen?
MS. PSAKI: I sense skepticism about the bill getting passed. We don’t feel that. Look, I think the reason —
Q I’m skeptical of everything.
MS. PSAKI: I know. That’s your job. (Laughter.) Look, I think, Kaitlan, one of the reasons why we’re so focused on the American Rescue Plan and getting it urgently passed through Congress is because we need this funding in order for schools to reopen and for them to have the support to ensure that they have proper ventilation, better cleaning, testing, PPE. That’s a key component of the package.
And that’s one of the reasons we’re not going to negotiate out that versus vaccine funding or, you know, unemployment insurance, because that’s a key component, and we need that to ensure that schools will have the resources across the country to be able to reopen. And that’s exactly what the President wants to happen.
Q Thank you, Jen.
MS. PSAKI: Okay. She was very patient. Go ahead.
Q Thank you. I just wonder if there is a general sense of frustration just about the pace of things — you know, given the vaccine distribution; you know, some of what you inherited from the Trump administration; trying to roll out executive orders; you know, working with Congress and, sort of, having some lawmakers raise concerns. Is it harder to change things than you all thought it would be?
MS. PSAKI: I — (laughs) — I’m only laughing because we’re on our eighth day here. So, you know — and in that period of time, the President has signed multiple executive orders. He has proposed several comprehensive bills. He’s had many conversations with members of Congress about the urgency of getting things done.
And I will say, in those conversations, there is an understanding and agreement about the urgency of addressing these issues. So, no, we’re — we’re actually pretty hopeful and optimistic about the opportunity and the ability to work with Democrats and Republicans to get packages through to help bring relief to the American public.
But we also recognize that members of Congress have — they’re not wallflowers. They have different points of view. They have lots of ideas. They’re going to bring those forward. We’re hearing them, and we’re just eager to move things forward as quickly as we can. But we’re on day eight, so we are confident we’re still on a pretty rapid pace here.
Thanks, everyone. I appreciate all of you. I’ll be in my office. Thanks for your time, and we’ll do this again tomorrow.
END 3:18 P.M. EST