Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jen Psaki, December 14, 2021

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Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jen Psaki, December 14, 2021

James S. Brady Press Briefing Room 2:08 P.M. ESTMS. PSAKI:  Hi, everyone.  Okay.  Two updates for all of you at the top.Today, a new st

James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

2:08 P.M. EST

MS. PSAKI:  Hi, everyone.  Okay.  Two updates for all of you at the top.

Today, a new study from the Commonwealth Fund found that vaccinations, which President Biden has prioritized and taken bold steps to expand, have saved over 1 million lives, prevented more than 10 million hospitalizations, prevented more than 35 million COVID cases. 

This is not by accident.  The President made it his top priority to make sure vaccines were readily available to Americans as early as possible. 

He deployed the National Guard, activated FEMA, and began a smooth process to distribute vaccines to trusted locations like pharmacies and community health centers. 

He passed the historic American Rescue Plan that ensured we could continue to have the resources needed to expand and accelerate our vaccination campaign.  

And he has taken bold steps, like vaccine requirements, to accelerate vaccinations when they slowed down. 

We know the vaccinations save lives.  And for those fully vaccinated, boosters are critical, and this is further evidence about the impact.

I just wanted to provide another brief update on our work in helping address the storm rescue and recovery efforts.  The President approved emergency disaster declarations for Illinois and Tennessee last night in addition to the major disaster declaration he approved for Kentucky to support recovery efforts.

FEMA has teams of Urban Search and Rescue and Emergency Response personnel in Kentucky supporting search and rescue efforts, along with Disaster Survivor Assistance Teams to help survivors register for assistance.

FEMA has sent dozens of generators to Kentucky, along with 135,000 liters of water, 74,000 meals, and thousands of cots, blankets, infant toddler kits, and pandemic shelter kits to support the people of Kentucky.

And finally, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers personnel are providing debris removal, infrastructure assessment, and power restoration support.  And Mobile Emergency Response Support personnel are on the ground in Kentucky to provide emergency communications capabilities as needed.

And of course, we’ll continue to provide updates to all of you.

Josh, why don’t you kick us off?

Q    Thanks, Jen.  Two questions.  First, is the President meeting again with Senator Manchin?  And what was so constructive in their conversation yesterday that caused this meeting?

MS. PSAKI:  That caused the meeting?  Or —

Q    That led to this follow-up meeting.  What was the progress?  What was the forward momentum?

MS. PSAKI:  Sure.  Well, as you heard our spokespeople say and Senator Manchin convey yesterday, they had a constructive and productive meeting yesterday and continued the conversation about how to lower costs for the American people across the country. 

We’re not quite there yet.  Hence, the conversations will continue both at a staff level and certainly with Senator Manchin directly. 

I don’t have anything in terms of a call or meeting to announce that’s scheduled at this point.  But you heard them both convey they’re going to be in touch, and we expect that to be the case in the coming days. 

Q    And then, secondly, Congress is going to vote on increasing the debt limit.  Why does President Biden believe it’s better politically and economically to increase the debt limit rather than scrap it entirely?

MS. PSAKI:  I know there are some proposing that.  I would note that the debt limit has now been raised 82 times — am I right in my math there?  Eighty-two times now?

Q    More than 80 is what I go on.

MS. PSAKI:  More than 80.  That’s probably a safe way to say it.  And that it represents a shared responsibility to pay for past spending by both parties. 

There’s plenty of time for conversations about what it should look like moving forward, but there’s no question it’s a good sign that we are not going to be on the brink of defaulting our U.S. economy or sending the U.S. economy into a reception [sic] — a recession, jeopardizing Social Security benefits, payments to our troops, or other critical functions of government. 

So there’s no question, Josh, I expect that those who have alternate ideas or proposals for the debt limit moving forward may be outspoken of those moving forward, but certainly this is a good sign that we’re going to avoid a default and putting all those payments at risk. 

Go ahead. 

Q    California is bringing back statewide indoor mask mandates.  Should other states consider similar action?
MS. PSAKI:  We really leave it to leaders and states to make decisions about what needs to be done to keep communities safe. 

Our advice continues to be to follow the guidance of the CDC and our public health officials.  And that advice is based on — continues to be that if you’re in moderate- or high-transmission areas, they have specific recommendations about how to keep communities safe. 

Q    In October, you suggested that Biden was going to speak on the filibuster, and you said “in the upcoming weeks” or something along those lines.  Any guidance on timing on when he will speak on that and what he may say?

MS. PSAKI:  I don’t have any updates on timing, nor am I going to get ahead of the President himself.  But certainly, getting voting rights done is something that he is committed to and is eager to get passed and signed into law. 

Q    Last question: Any response to the revelations that the GOP lawmakers were texting Chief of Staff Meadows, along with prominent Fox News hosts, ahead of the — during the January 6th riots?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, it’s disappointing and unfortunately not surprising that some of the very same individuals who are willing to mourn, condemn, and express horror over what happened on January 6th in private were totally — in private — were totally silent in public — or even worse, were spreading lies and conspiracy theories and continue to since that time.

So, disappointing, not surprising.  Unfortunately, we’ve seen a trend from some of the same individuals.

Go ahead. 

Q    It’s been one week since the President had his virtual conversation with President Putin.  Have you seen anything that leads you to believe there has been a de-escalation?

And also, I know both presidents had tasked their teams to continue conversations.  Can you outline any of those conversations and what they’ve entailed?

MS. PSAKI:  Sure.  Let me — let me give you an update on that, Phil, in terms of the ongoing conversations. 

So, as I noted yesterday, but let me give you an update on what’s happening today: We are continuing to consult closely with our European allies and partners to determine the best format for the security talks that President Biden and President Putin agreed to.  And we’re consulting closely with our partners on how to proceed. 

So as part of that, obviously, our Secretary of State was meeting with his counterparts over the weekend for pre-planned meetings. 

Our Assistant Secretary of State, Karen Donfried, was just in Kyiv for meetings with Ukrainian leaders, and to reinforce the United States’ commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and to discuss the path forward.

Today, she’s in Moscow to meet with Russian leaders to express our concerns about Russia’s escalation of forces surrounding Ukraine, and to speak directly with senior Russian officials and underscore our commitment to help resolve the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. 

So, those conversations are a reflection of the follow-on that we expected and predicted following the conversations last week. 

Of course, our objective continues to keep — be to keep this on a diplomatic path and to lead — for that to lead to de-escalation.

Q    Have there been any signals of de-escalation — troops pulling out or signs from Russian officials that they are stepping back to some degree?

MS. PSAKI:  Again, we’re watching this closely.  I don’t have any updates on that from here. 

But it is a good sign that there are diplomatic engagements and discussions that are continuing, including with Russian leaders and officials, Ukrainians, and our European partners.

Q    And then just one quick one on Build Back Better: Is the President kind of, in this moment, of the mind that the final package will look like whatever can get 50 votes?

MS. PSAKI:  That’s usually how it works, isn’t it?  (Laughter.)

Q    Well, it depends on if you have red lines or what you’ve laid out.  I know what your red lines are. 

MS. PSAKI:  I didn’t mean to give you a hard time.

Q    No, I know.  But I’m just saying.

MS. PSAKI:  Yes — look — look, I think the President is the first to say, having done this as a senator for 36 years, that progress often requires compromise.  And you’ve seen that already to date. 

What we’re talking about now does not look like his original proposal.  So, there’s already been a significant amount of compromise.  He’s come down in numbers in some of the areas that were in his original proposal.  And he’s comfortable with that because he knows in order to make progress, compromise can’t be treated as a dirty word. 

We’re still in that process now.  Now, we’re much further along than we were a month or two months ago, but those conversations are continuing, obviously, with Senator Manchin yesterday and others as we work to get this bill across the finish line. 

Go ahead.

Q    You note that you’ve made some progress but that you’re not there yet.  Following the conversation with Manchin yesterday, is the President more or less optimistic that you can get there before the end of the year?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, I’m just going to quote two important players in this effort and what they said yesterday.  Leader Schumer said, “The work is not yet finished, but we’re working hard to put the Senate in a position to get the legislation across the finish line before Christmas.”  And we’ve seen — we trust his leadership and his efforts to get this done. 

Senator Manchin said, “We’re just talking about different iterations.  That’s all.”  “We’re engaged.”  “[Let’s] at least see the bill, see what they write, what’s the final print.”

I would also note, Mary, in terms of the process, that the parliamentarian still needs to rule on components before the bill would go to the floor. 

So, right now, we’re right in the thick of it.  We’re working to get it done.  And, of course, the President is eager to see it passed into law and signed so that we can give relief to the American people.  But I can’t make more predictions beyond that. 

Q    And on the President’s trip tomorrow to Kentucky, can you give us any more sort of update or guidance on what he may be doing?  Will we be hearing from him?  Is the First Lady or any members of Congress going to be traveling with him?

MS. PSAKI:  So, I can confirm that he invited the Kentucky delegation to travel with him.  I would leave it to them to convey their travel plans.  It’s only natural and understandable that some of them may have alternate plans — either to have been there in advance or go later — so we’ll leave that to them.  And as is standard, we’ll provide all of you a manifest list tomorrow. 

I would say that while the President is there, he will be surveying the storm damage firsthand, making sure that we’re doing everything to deliver assistance as quickly as possible to impacted areas to support recovery efforts. 

I can tell you from traveling on some of these trips with the President in the past, often what happens is he will ask leaders directly, “What do you need?  What are you not getting?  And how can we make it faster for you?”  And then he will get back in the car and he will give an assignment to a staffer and say, “Get this done.”  Even me — I don’t always know, but I figure it out. 

So that is how I would expect he would — will approach this.  He’s going to be joined by Governor Beshear; Secretary Mayorkas, who was just there; his FEMA Administrator, who is — who was just there will also join him.  And he wants those on the ground to know the federal government is there to provide whatever support is needed for them. 

You’ll also see him make brief remarks and provide an update as well and also engage with people who have been impacted directly by these storms.

Q    And just one more thing.  Today is the first anniversary of the first shots going into arms last year.  I’m wondering if we can get your reaction to something that the Democratic governor of Colorado said last week about the vaccines.  He said this has brought “the end of the medical emergency,” as it relates to the virus.  He says, “Those who get sick, it’s almost entirely their own darn fault.”  I’m wondering if the President agrees with that sentiment.

MS. PSAKI:  I would — I would say those are not the President — words the President has used or would use.  You know, the President believes that his responsibility continues to be providing access, providing information to the American people — even those who are hesitant, even those who did not vote for him, even those who have not yet received a shot — because more people are still getting shots, more people are still getting boosted.  And his responsibility is to continue to take steps to protect the American people.  So that would be his view.

Go ahead, Ed.

Q    Another on vaccines.  Does the President have any comment on the first group of service members who have been discharged for refusing to get the COVID vaccine?

MS. PSAKI:  So, I know — I’d, of course, refer you overall to the Department of Defense.  My understanding is that 99 percent of the Air Force is in compliance.  So, we’re talking about less than 1 percent, which — to us, the story is that it’s more than 99 percent who are in compliance.  

I would also note — and they can give you more detail on this — but this is at the end of months of counseling and engagement with those not in compliance about what is required here. 

And, of course, there were people who were granted exemptions — who applied for those and granted exemptions.

As the Secretary of Defense said, the requirement will help ensure readiness, which is what the American people expect from their armed forces, and we’re certainly encouraged by the high level of compliance from the department.

Q    Last night, a federal appeals court upheld the ruling that required the administration to reinstate the “Remain in Mexico” border policy. 

MS. PSAKI:  Yeah.

Q    Do you know if there’s any plan for the administration to file an appeal in the Supreme Court to finally settle, once and for all, whether this policy still needs to exist?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, you know where we stand from a policy standpoint on this: We believe it’s ineffective, inhumane.  And the Secretary of Homeland Security has conveyed multiple memos in that regard, which is, of course, consistent with the President’s view.

I’d point you to the Department of Justice for any legal plans.  But certainly, you know, we note that decision this morning, and obviously would reiterate that this is a — while this is a program that we disagree with, the injunction dictating court order implementation remains in effect, so we continue to comply with it in good faith.

Q    There is another policy that’s in place that a court didn’t require you to put in place, and that is Title 42.  I’m just curious if that is — if the plan is to keep it in place going into next year.

MS. PSAKI:  That guidance is determined by the CDC and our health experts based on whether or not we’re in the middle of a fight against a global pandemic, and we continue to be.  But I’d really defer to them on any plans or decisions to change those requirements.

Q    And just one quick one from overseas.  I’m curious if the administration has any comment on the case of Sergei — forgive me for getting this wrong — Tikhanovsky, the Belarusian opposition leader who was — apparently been sentenced to 18 years in jail now for organizing protests against President Lukashenko.

MS. PSAKI:  Well, we have in the past — and let me just reiterate, our deep concern about any crackdowns on freedom of speech, freedom of expression, the right of freedom of speech by opposition leaders.  I have not spoken about this particular case with our national security team.  I’m happy to do that, Ed, and get you a more comprehensive comment and the pronunciation, which I’m not sure of either, so we’ll get you that too.

Go ahead.

Q    Thank you, Jen.  Why is it that there are still Americans stranded in Afghanistan?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, I think — let me just reiterate something that Tony Blinken said back in August, which is that if Americans who are in Afghanistan wanted to leave, whether it was three weeks from now, a month from now, two months from now — back in August — we would help them get out.  And that is something that we’ve delivered on our word on. 

I would note that since that time, we have directly assisted 479 American citizens, 450 lawful permanent residents, and SIV holders and SIV applicants to depart Afghanistan.  That was — that’s important to convey because it’s important for people to understand who were there; that even if they decided not to — they decided not to today, we are still going to help them depart.  And there’s evidence of that.

Q    Okay.  Four hundred seventy-nine left behind is a lot higher than the 100 to 200 that President Biden was talking about at the end of August.

MS. PSAKI:  Four hundred and seventy-nine who we’ve helped depart since August.

Q    Right.  And he said that he thought that there were — “We believe…[there are] 100 to 200…with some intention to leave.”  So how does the number — how do you guys get the numbers?

MS. PSAKI:  There were people who wanted — determined they wanted to leave since then, and it is our responsibility to help them depart.  So that’s evidence of our commitment to do exactly that.

Q    And is this something, as there are now at least about a dozen who want to leave right now — is this something the President works on every day?

MS. PSAKI:  Certainly, he receives regular updates from his team, and we — the State Department and other national security officials really lead this effort. 

I would just reiterate that the United States does not track or put a tracker on American citizens traveling overseas, whether they’re in Afghanistan or any country around the world.  That would be quite a Fox News story — wouldn’t it be? — if we did that.  We don’t do that, but we do provide a range of services, even when we don’t have a presence in a country.  And our efforts to get American citizens out of Afghanistan — many of them dual citizens, many of them who’ve lived their whole lives there since that time — is evidence of that.

Q    Thank you.  And then, following up on something that you said yesterday: When you say that “We’ve seen an increase in crime over the course of the pandemic.  There are a range of reasons for that,” would you consider one of the reasons in the “range” prosecutors who are cutting people, who are accused of many criminal offenses, loose too quickly?

MS. PSAKI:  Again, I am not, as I wasn’t yesterday, going to give an assessment for every — every motivation or reason for crime in different communities across the country. 

What I have noted, which you see in data, is that there has been an increase in crime since the start of the pandemic.  I will let others assess what the reason for that increase in crime is.  That is all I was conveying yesterday.

Q    Okay.  There are some reports that these smash-and-grab robberies are being organized on social media platforms.  Is the administration doing anything about that? 

MS. PSAKI:  Well, we are monitoring, of course, these thefts very closely, as we’ve talked about a bit in here.  The videos and reports we’re seeing are very troubling.  Our state and local law enforcement partners have primary jurisdiction over break-ins and robberies of this kind, but I can say we’re aggressively using every resource at our disposal.

In terms of how they’re being organized or orchestrated, we’d really refer you to our law enforcement authorities — FBI, DOJ, and other local authorities — on that.

Q    And last one.  The reason that I ask: You guys have not been afraid to call out social media companies.  Like, when you thought that they were a platform for COVID disinformation, you said that that was a public health matter.  Why not call them out for this?  Do you not consider this a public health matter? 

MS. PSAKI:  Well, we believe that there should be investigations that should occur to determine the origin and what prompted any of these thefts.  And so, we’ve offered — the FBI and DOJ are in contact with affected jurisdictions to offer assistance with investigations, including in identifying how these incidents are planned and organized. 

And certainly, we don’t believe any platform should be used to conduct robbery or theft. 

Go ahead.

Q    Jen, as you know, this is a very hard day and anniversary: nine years since the awful shootings that took place at Sandy Hook.  The President has obviously faced fierce criticism and resistance from Republicans on new gun restrictions in his efforts.  He likes to say that he tells it straight to the American people, even when it’s not convenient.  Does the President concede that another year is likely to pass without meaningful legislative action on guns?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, the President is never going to predict a lack of progress for a year ahead of time.  I will tell you — I will reiterate, though, that the President has not — has taken more steps using his executive authority, by this point in a presidency, than any President in history, because he believes more needs to be done to address gun safety. 

And on a day like today — and hopefully you all saw the video we released of the President marking today — it’s a reminder of the fact that more progress needs to be made, that there are steps that need to be taken, whether it’s banning assault weapons, whether it’s ensuring that there are — that gun manufacturers should be held accountable, whether it is putting in place universal background checks.

These are all steps that the President would support. 

He is also encouraged, though, by the fact that there are some states that have taken initiative to put in place assault weapons bans, to put in place red flag laws that we know could have prevented some of these tragic circumstances.  And he is going to continue to look at more work that can be done.

Q    So you can’t predict, but clearly, the political capital, as you witnessed, is not there.  He was in charge of this when he was the Vice President however many years ago, as well, and witnessed the roadblocks that he ran to — ran into many times from Republicans.  So what needs to change?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, I would say, first, he’s encouraged by the activism that we’ve seen across the country and the impact, he believes, that has had on state laws that have changed. 

I would also note that he has not waited, and he has taken steps to rein in the proliferation of ghost guns, better regulation of stabilizing braces, encouraging states to adopt laws, as I noted.

And he is going to continue to press and encourage action on existing legislation: the Violence Against Women Act, the requirement of background checks and gun sales, and even Build Back Better, which, of course, we’re talking about and trying to get it — trying to get it signed.  That would invest $5 billion in evidence-based community violence initiatives — interventions.

So, he’s going to continue to look for ways to make progress, even as there is obstruction by some in Congress.

Q    Last quick one.  He heads to an in-person fundraiser tonight.  I can’t think of the last one that he’s done.  This may be the first one in the course of his time in office.  You can tell me if there is another that I am missing here.

As we’re speaking about in-person events — just because a lot of people look to the White House for, sort of, guidance on these things, as an example — what is the White House’s position on holiday parties taking place here?  How are you guys handling that?  Have you changed your position?  Are they not happening?  What are you doing differently?

MS. PSAKI:  We’re celebrating the holidays here at the White House this year through a variety of ways.  The First Lady received the annual arrival of the Christmas Tree, of course, unveiled the holiday decorations.  The President, the First Lady, the Vice President, and the Second Gentleman hosted the National Tree Lighting.  We’re also going to be hosting some holiday open houses, inviting guests to see the holiday decorations in person in the coming days. 

Of course, we’re going to continue to implement COVID protocols.  So, it doesn’t look exactly like it has always looked here, but we are going to continue to celebrate, to embrace the holiday season, and look for ways we can do that.

Go ahead.

Q    Thanks, Jen.  On January 6, are you — has the President taken the time to personally review any of the records of his predecessor on that day?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, this is really something that’s done primarily through the White House Counsel’s Office, as should be appropriate.

Q    Can you tell us — the public schedule you guys put out last night is rather thin today.  What is the President doing today?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, let’s see: The President has two local interviews he will be doing later this afternoon.  He has a number of internal meetings with senior members of his staff that have happened throughout the course of the day today.  His Presidential Daily Brief.  And I believe there’s some mayors who are visiting today as well.

Q    What’s the purpose of the meeting with the mayors?

MS. PSAKI:  It’s not a meeting with the President — the mayors.  They’re here.  I’m not going to get ahead of it beyond that.  But he has a full schedule today.

Go ahead.

Q    Thank you, Jen.  I wanted to follow up on guns.

MS. PSAKI:  Sure.

Q    In California, Governor Newsom is pursuing a proposal that would allow private citizens to sue anyone who manufactures, sells, or distributes assault weapons in his state.  It’s based on the legal framework that was used in the Texas law to ban abortion after six weeks.  Does the White House support Governor Newsom’s approach here?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, first, I’d note there’s no legislative text in California.  It’s a proposal or something that’s being discussed. 

The President has long expressed his support for an assault weapons ban.  He has called on Congress to pass a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.  He’d like that to be done at a federal level.

He’s also taken action to rein in ghost guns, called on Congress to keep guns out of the hands of abusers, taken other strong executive actions to keep people safe from gun violence.

He’s also made clear over the last several months that he believes that S.B. 8 is not only an attack on women’s reproductive rights, but that he will continue to fight for one’s long-recognized constitutional right under Roe v. Wade.

I know that part of what has been proposed here is about immunity from liability.  The President has supported in the past the repeal of the liability — of PLCAA, which is something — it would (inaudible) a special immunity for gun dealers and subject them to the same type of lawsuits faced by all other businesses.

That’s something that could certainly move forward in Congress.  But I don’t have any response to a specific proposal that isn’t legislative yet.

Q    And as you note, the President marked the Sandy Hook anniversary.  He’s called on the Senate to pass stricter gun laws.  But what are you doing — what is he doing himself to corral votes?  And given the gridlock, would he support a filibuster carve-out to get something done on gun legislation?

MS. PSAKI:  I don’t have anything new to report to all of you on the President’s position on legislative processes.  But I would just reiterate the fact that the President has long been an advocate for commonsense gun reform measures.  He led the effort to get the Brady bill passed, to put an assault weapons ban in place, to get universal background checks passed, to put in place dozens of executive actions when he was Vice President, and has done more than any President in history, at this point in his presidency, to use his executive authority to take action on guns.

Go ahead.

Q    What is the White House planning to do, if anything, to commemorate January 6th?  I feel like there’s been a little push and pull internally at the White House, you know, not necessarily wanting to elevate former President Trump, but also wanting to respond to some of the threats.  So, how are you all approaching that?

MS. PSAKI:  I don’t have anything to report to you at this point in time about our plans.  I expect we will have more as we get closer to the end of the year.  But, you know, the President — to the President, January 6th was one of the darkest days in our democracy.  It was a day that our Capitol — our nation’s Capitol was under attack.  And I think there’s no question you’ll see us commemorate that day.

Q    Just one more thing. 

MS. PSAKI:  Sure.

Q    On Monday, Russia said that it may be forced to deploy intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe in response to NATO’s plans to potentially do the same.  And I’m wondering what is the White House’s response to that.

MS. PSAKI:  I would just reiterate that NATO is a defensive alliance.  Nothing has changed in that regard, despite the rhetoric of the Russians or other leaders around the world.

We have spoken about the importance of engaging in de-escalation and diplomacy.  Now is not the time to take steps that would do the opposite.  So, we remain focused on diplomacy — on engaging with our NATO partners, engaging with Europeans, engaging with the Ukrainians and the Russians, as I just outlined we are doing, even as we speak.

Go ahead.

Q    Thanks, Jen.  Lawmakers reached a deal on the Uyghur forced labor legislation.  Can you just share a little bit about what the administration’s concerns were with the original legislation, what compromises the administration sought?

MS. PSAKI:  I certainly understand the question, but I don’t think I’m going to get into the details of the legislative behind-the-scenes discussions.

Our effort is to often provide technical assistance to ensure that bills are implementable.  But if — the President will sign the bill.  We have been clear that we share Congress’s view that action must be taken to hold the PRC accountable for its human rights abuses and to address forced labor in Xinjiang.

We’ve already taken action on the global stage in that regard, leading an effort at the G7, putting in place financial sanctions and global — and putting global Magnitsky visa restrictions.  And I think that’s evidence of our commitment to this.

Q    On travel restrictions for South Africa and some of the neighbors: Given the widespread transmission in Europe and Omicron cases in the U.S., any update that you can provide on when the administration may modify or even lift those restrictions?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, the country-based restrictions were intended to be temporary to buy time, not a longer-term restrictions — not longer-term restrictions.

And as we said at the beginning, we’re going to look at a range of data, including our own.  That process is still ongoing, and we’re watching three areas closely: vaccine effectiveness, transmissibility, and severity.  And we’ll continue to adapt our approach to travel restrictions as more data comes in.

I don’t have any update today on the timing, but certainly, again, just to reiterate, our intention is not for these to be permanent, and we’re evaluating when we can lift them.

Q    Can I ask one more question on student loans?

MS. PSAKI:  Sure.

Q    I think you said last week that you’re working on a plan to help students pay.  But what about President Biden’s campaign to forgive or cancel $10,000 in student loan let — debt?  Pardon me.  And, you know, what is the message to those people who feel that he’s yet to follow through on that promise? 

MS. PSAKI:  If Congress sends him a bill, he’s happy to sign it.  They haven’t sent him a bill on that yet. 

Go ahead.

Q    Thanks, Jen.  Two questions.  First one on Kentucky. When the President travels tomorrow, he’s going to be going to a region that voted overwhelmingly for former President Trump.  You said yesterday he wants to be a source of comfort when he’s there.  Can you talk a little bit about how he prepares to go to what seems like it’s going to be the most conservative area of the country that he’s traveled to as President?  And does it make it harder to be that source of comfort, given how much polarization and political division we’re seeing at this moment right now? 

No, I think the President looks at people through the tragedy they’re experiencing — the heartache they’re feeling at the loss of life, the loss of their homes; questions many people are raising, I know, about whether they can build back from this — this storm that’s impacted their communities.  He looks at them as human beings, not as people who have partisan affiliations. 

And in his heart, he has empathy for everything that they’re going through.  And the message he’s going to send to them directly and clearly tomorrow is: We’re here to help, we want to rebuild, we are going to stand by your side, and we’re going to help your leaders do exactly that. 

So, no, I wouldn’t say it’s hard to prepare.  I would say the President just wants to send a clear message and stand by people in these communities as they’re going through this difficult time. 

Q    And then secondly, just to follow up on Peter’s question about the holiday parties.  I know you’ve said it’s going to look a little different than it has.  Does that mean the President is foregoing the sort of traditional parties that Presidents host for members of Congress and others? 

And if so, is that due to a specific reason?  Is it the new variant?  Is it the state of the pandemic and infections in general?  What is that, sort of, you know, different kind of holiday schedules based on?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, as I touched on a little before, it’s more we’re going to be having some open houses, which — a range of people will be invited to those open houses — have the opportunity to see the decorations and see the East Wing decorated and the Christmas tree that the First Lady welcomed just a few weeks ago. 

Obviously, we’re still in the middle of a pandemic.  We’re still taking precautions as it relates to large events, big visitors, et cetera.

Go ahead. 

Q    There are several progressive groups and lawmakers who are increasingly vocalizing the idea that inflation — high inflation is being driven by corporate greed, including companies with high profits — some of whom have met at the White House with President in recent months. 

Does the President endorse that idea?  Does he think that corporate greed is a big driver of inflation right now?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, I think that the President thinks the way people across the country, American families, digest inflation is by price increases.  And if you look at industry to industry, it’s a little different. 

So, for example, the President, the Secretary of Agriculture have both spoken to what we’ve seen as the greed of meat conglomerates.  That is an area — one where people go to the grocery store and they’re trying to buy a pound of meat, 2 pounds of meat, 10 pounds of meat, it is — the prices are higher. 

That is, in his view and the view of our Secretary of Agriculture, because of — you could call it “corporate greed.”  Sure.  You could call it “jacking up prices during a pandemic.”

There are other areas where we’ve seen increases because of supply chain issues.  And we’re seeing those increases around the world as it relates to gas prices, oil supply, and things along those lines. 

So, I would say there’s some areas where we have seen corporations benefit — profit from the pandemic.  And — and, certainly, the President would agree with that component. 

I don’t know the full context of all of their remarks.

Q    And then on something unrelated: When the President was interviewing candidates, including his eventual selection for the Fed Chair, did he express any preferences about the path of interest rates or tapering or any other monetary policy in the coming months?

MS. PSAKI:  He certainly defers to the independence of the Federal Reserve and the Chair in any engagements he has with them. 

Go ahead.

Q    Thanks, Jen.  The supermarket chain Kroger announced it will stop giving paid leave to unvaccinated workers if they get COVID.  Is this an approach that the White House supports?  What’s your response to that?

MS. PSAKI:  We know different private sector companies and entities are going to take different steps to incentivize people to get vaccinated, to keep their employees safe and their workforce safe.  But I don’t have any further — it’s not a recommendat- — not a policy we’re putting out there from the federal government.

Q    Generally, does the White House support private companies imposing penalties, like insurance surcharges or other methods, to try to get people vaccinated?

MS. PSAKI:  That’s not something we have put out from the federal government. 

But, again, we’re not going to comment on every single policy made by every private sector entity.

Q    And just a quick follow-up on the debt limit.  What do you say to Americans who see this as yet another example of Congress kicking the can down the road?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, I would say that — in what way?  I’m not sure who — who is saying that?

Q    Extending it until 2023.  But it’s going to come up again right after the midterms.  What do you say to people who say, “We’re just going to be having the same conversation a little bit over a year from now”?

MS. PSAKI:  I’m not sure what American person is saying that or is concerned about the debt limit, but maybe there’s somebody you’ve met on the street.  I don’t know.  (Laughter.) 

But I will say that, you know, our view — the President’s view is that this has been done in a bipartisan way.  The American people shouldn’t be worried about whether or not elected officials are doing what they should do and raising the debt limit to make sure we’re covering bills that have already been incurred — which I think is sometimes a misunderstanding out there. 

We’re not talking about future spending or the size of the Build Back Better package.  I’m not saying you’re suggesting that at all.  And that, you know, I think the President would — would convey that this is something that should just be done in due course — as it’s been done more than 80 times, to quote Josh, in the past — and that it shouldn’t be something that consumes weeks, months of time.  It should be done because we want to avoid default.  We want to ensure people are getting their Social Security benefits; that retirees are being paid, military; and that there’s no risk to the U.S. economy. 

Go ahead.

Q    So, with regard to Russia, you’ve said several times that you — the President and allies are working to move this towards the diplomacy. 

But when Jake was in the briefing room last week, he said a couple times the way to assess whether there is progress is seeing changes in the facts on the ground along the border. 

It’s been a week.  He said you’d look for that within a matter of days.  Has the administration seen any changes with regard to the presence of Russian troops on the border?

MS. PSAKI:  I don’t have any additional assessments — we, obviously, watch that closely from here — to make from the podium.  But what I think it’s important to note is what we’re working to prevent or deter, which is the invasion of Ukraine by Russia.  Right? 

And we are looking to continue these diplomatic conversations to deter that and send a very clear message through coordinated meetings, engagements with our European partners that there would be significant and severe consequences should they move forward.

Q    So how long, I guess, is the administration willing to accept the current status quo?  Because I know there’s a red line if Russia invades Ukraine.  But what if the troop numbers just sort of stay the same at the border indefinitely?  I know you’re looking to see some movement from Russia.  How long is the current situation tenable?

MS. PSAKI:  I’m not going to give you a timeline from here.  We’re obviously engaged in daily conversations with Europeans, with Russians, with Ukrainians, and conveying exactly what we think should happen here to de-escalate the situation on the ground.  But I’m not going to give you a timeline or a day — a deadline from here.

Go ahead.

Q    Thanks, Jen.  Amtrak, just now, announced that they are suspending their vaccine mandate.  They had said the requirement was to get vaccinated.  They suggested there might even be service cuts because they would not have enough staffing.  They’re now suggesting that they would once again revert and allow testing to be an acceptable alternative.  Does the White House have a reaction to this?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, I would say that a number of private sector companies — including our own recommendations — would have vaccination or testing options. 

The last data I saw was that 96 percent of Amtrak employees had been vaccinated.  That’s a pretty high number.  So, I guess they’re talking about the remaining 4 percent.  And they’re trying to work to ensure that there are adequate employees on the job. 

I would also note that — I know there was some reporting last week about delays — potential Amtrak delays, which I think they attributed to issues outside of the vaccination requirements and not that. 

So, the last data I saw was 96 percent.  Certainly, vaccination or testing is something we have been recommending from the federal government, so I don’t think we have any concern. 

Q    I know that’s a subject near and dear to the President’s heart. 

One more —

MS. PSAKI:  Sure is.

Q    — overseas.  The United Kingdom has been really under siege from the new variant of the coronavirus.  There’s been dire warnings from the Prime Minister, new restrictions put in place. 

Can you talk about whether there’s been increased consultation between administration officials here and their counterparts in the UK about what they’re seeing with this new variant?  And any plans for a conversation between the President and the Prime Minister?

MS. PSAKI:  I don’t have any conversation between the President and the Prime Minister to predict, although we certainly remain open to leader-to-leader engagement, as does the President if that’s what his team is recommending at this point. 

We do have regular consultations with health officials from around the world, whether it’s European countries, the United Kingdom, countries in Africa, about what we’re seeing as it relates to this variant because different countries have different data. 

We’re using some of that data and assessing some of that data even as we have our own.  And some countries are ahead or behind where we may be.

So, those consultations are primarily happening between health officials, but they are ongoing and are an important part of our assessment and our preparations here. 

Go ahead, in the middle. 

Q    Thanks, Jen.  Two quick questions.  The first: With Dr. Fauci’s previous statements about the potential for additional boosters, do we know what longitudinal data Pfizer is collecting to determine what the impact of increased frequency of vaccines may have on our health?

MS. PSAKI:  Do you — so, just so I understand your question, are you asking about what in- — what a booster — what data we are relying on for a — on why a booster would help?

Q    On the data — what Pfizer is collecting to talk about the frequency of the shots that we’re now talking about.  So, you have the first set and now you have this one, but are we — is there any data that we know about — the study that they’re collecting — information that they’re collecting?

MS. PSAKI:  To get a third shot or something different?

Q    About the impact that it will have on our health — the number of shots that we’re getting.  (Inaudible.)

MS. PSAKI:  I’m sorry.  I’m not totally understanding your question.  But we have our own data we assess that the CDC and the — and other health officials in the U.S. government — they consult closely with Pfizer, with Moderna, with all of these pharmaceutical companies to ensure that they’re looking at their data as well. 

And we, of course — they make recommendations whenever they think there needs to be an additional shot.  So, they made a recommendation about the efficacy of boosters.  That is something we have seen have — provide additional protection from the Delta variant, which is still the predominant variant.  And we also — and you’ve seen Dr. Fauci say that that provides additional protection as it relates to the Omicron variant as well. 

We haven’t made any change in terms of what, at this point, “fully vaccinated” means, but Dr. Fauci as — has also said — sorry — that it’s not a matter of “if” but “when.”

Q    The second question is: Is the President planning any clemency grants before Christmas?  I know we haven’t heard anything in about two months.  He was saying that the White House was reviewing commutations for those on home confinement.  Is there any update?

MS. PSAKI:  Let me check with our — with our Counsel’s office and see if there’s any update.  I know we’ve talked about this before and his intention of using clemency, but I don’t have any update on the timeline of that. 

Go ahead. 

Q    Thanks, Jen.  A couple quick ones for you.  On Kentucky tomorrow, will the President meet directly with anyone who has lost their homes?  Can you provide more specifics on that direct engagement?

MS. PSAKI:  He certainly will engage with people who have lost — have — maybe have lost loved ones, lost their homes.  I don’t know what exact tragic circumstances individuals will have, but these communities have been broadly impacted.  And, as you know, he’s going to communities that were the hardest hit by the storm.

Q    Okay. 

And then on the expanded Child Tax Credit: Does the White House have a backup plan if Build Back Better does not pass this week to make sure that those payments continue to be made into the new year?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, our intention and our hope is certainly to get Build Back Better done. 

I think if you’re asking me if the Child Tax Credit could be peeled off — I think is — if that’s what you’re asking me — others were asking me this yesterday — again, our focus on the legislative front is on Build Back Better and getting it done. 

I would note there have been some Republicans who have said they might support Child Tax Credit in the past.  I’d put you all out there to report on what they would or wouldn’t support.  But that would require 60 votes.

Q    Okay.  And, lastly, the House is expected today to recommend that former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows face criminal prosecution for contempt.  Does the President believe that the Department of Justice should prosecute Mark Meadows?

MS. PSAKI:  We leave that to the Department of Justice.

Go ahead. 

Q    Thank you, Jen.  So, you’ve said the social spending package would lower costs in various areas, like childcare, but would it lower inflation?

MS. PSAKI:  That’s what dozens of economists have said. 

Q    It would?  Okay.  Even though, like, childcare could go down but food prices could go up — they believe that the more spending that happens that food prices can come back down, as well as the other things people are buying?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, 56 economists say that Build Back Better will help, quote, “alleviate some of the strain caused by inflation.” 

And I think what’s important to note here is — and you’re an economic expert of sorts, even if you play one on TV, but I know you actually are — is that as we talk about inflation and data — a very important way to look at it and evaluate it, look at the Federal Reserve projections — American people, how they’re experiencing this at home, is a rise in costs in different areas — right? — whether it’s meat prices when they’re buying burgers, or gas prices, or other areas.

So why we — why we explain Build Back Better the way we do is to convey exactly the areas, to the American public, where it will lower cost.  Childcare is a huge cost burden on a lot of families across the country, and it will have an immediate impact next year. 

Go ahead.

Q    Thank you, Jen.  Two foreign policy questions.  The first one: It’s year-ender season, so I would ask you, what does the administration consider your biggest achievement in foreign policy in this first year?  And also, what lessons have you learned from what is arguably the biggest failure, which is Afghanistan?

MS. PSAKI:  You know, this is a great question.  I want to be thoughtful about it.  I want to talk to the President about it, and I’m happy to do that.

Go ahead.

Q    Can I — can I follow up on China?

MS. PSAKI:  Yeah.

Q    There’s a Washington Post report that says that Huawei actually has a bigger role in China’s state surveillance.  Do you have a reaction to that?  And are there any additional plans for restricting more Huawei products?

MS. PSAKI:  I don’t have anything new on that either, but I’ll talk to our national security team. 

Go ahead.

Q    Thank you.  A quick follow-up.  When you were asked if the President works on getting, you know, these Americans out of Afghanistan every day, you said that he receives regular updates.  Obviously, this is still a top priority for him, right?

MS. PSAKI:  Absolutely.  But I think it’s important for people to understand the hard work that’s being done, day in and day out, is through our diplomatic team — the State Department team — who are working on the ground, working with the military and others to get Americans out.

Q    And then, a second question.  The previous three administrations publicly celebrated Afghan women who stood up to the Taliban.  In particular, a number of former First Ladies and the State Department brought some of these women to Washington and even gave them the International Women of Courage Award.  Some are, unfortunately, stuck in Afghanistan right now.  Does the United States still have a commitment to them?

MS. PSAKI:  Absolutely.  We celebrate, we honor the courage of these women.  We are committed to continuing to provide a range of assistance and to working with a range of nonprofits and NGOs around the world. 

And I don’t know what’s next for the International Women of Courage — a really important celebration of courage around the world — nor can I predict that, but certainly a number of them would be great honorees. 

Okay, April.

Q    One thing: Can we get your take on the year-ends?  Because many of us are doing year-end pieces —

MS. PSAKI:  Sure.

Q    — and that would be, if — when you give it, make sure we all get it. 

MS. PSAKI:  Yep.

Q    Two questions; one on student debt forgiveness.  Is the President settled on $10,000?  Chuck Schumer wanted $50 [thousand].  Is he settled on that, or is he looking for somewhere in between?

MS. PSAKI:  The President has said in the past, April, that if some — if a bill was sent to his desk to — on $10,000, he would sign that into law.  There have been questions and asks about what executive authorities could be used; that has been under review.  I don’t have anything to report on that at this point in time.

Q    And the second question: Activists, once again, are trying to tighten the vise, up and down Pennsylvania Avenue, on issues of voting rights.  I’m hearing from sources here in the White House, as well as some activists, that are saying that Joe Manchin has softened a bit on the filibuster.  Can you comment on that?  Is that the case?  Is that true?  And has he said that to the President?

MS. PSAKI:  I will let Senator Manchin speak for himself on his views on voting rights and the filibuster.

Q    Well, wait, how much — how much of the conversation with the President of late has been about voting rights with Joe Manchin?

MS. PSAKI:  They typically discuss a range of topics.  I’m not going to read out their private conversations further.

Thanks, everyone.

Q    Jen, will the President have a press conference anytime soon here?

MS. PSAKI:  We’ll see.  I will let you know if we do, Brian.   You’re invited.

Q    Thank you so much.  We’d love to see him.

MS. PSAKI:  Thank you, Brian. 

Q    Thank you.

2:52 P.M. EST