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White House Briefing After Biden Signs Executive Orders on COVID Response. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired January 21, 2021 - 16:30   ET


JEN PSAKI, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: As we saw the jobs numbers this morning, the unemployment insurance claims, I should say, we put out a statement by our NEC director in case you didn't see that.


As we've seen, the reports from Dr. Fauci, just a few minutes ago, this is -- this crisis is dire. And it requires immediate action and we hope and expect members of both parties to work together to do that. We're also not going to take options off the table. So we'll proceed with those discussions over the next couple of days.

Go ahead, Kristen.

REPORTER: Hi, Jen. If I could just follow up on that, there was some reporting there was going to be a meeting this weekend with the bipartisan group of lawmakers. Can you give us any indication? Is that going to happen with President Biden? Or with his economic team? Is that your expectation?

PSAKI: Well, I think the reporting was around a meeting with NEC Director Brian Deese. I spoke with him earlier today. He is definitely going to be engaging with a range of members and a range of different groups of members from Capitol Hill in the coming days. Think we were still working to confirm specific meetings before I came out here and I hope to have more for all of you on that by tomorrow.

REPORTER: OK. More broadly speaking, Jen, President Biden has proposed this $1.9 trillion package.

You already have some Republicans who say, we just passed a stimulus plan. They're not going to get on board with this. Mitt Romney among them who says you just passed a program with over $900 billion. Some people say the price tag is just way too big.

So how does President Biden expect to get this passed with bipartisan support and how does that fit into his broader message of bipartisanship, proposing something?

PSAKI: Well, I think it fits perfect perfectly into his message of bipartisanship. He wants to work with Democrats and Republicans to address the crises that the American people are facing, whether they live in red states or blue states or Democrats or Republicans. The package was designed based on recommendations from health experts, from economists. It's been applauded by everyone from senator Bernie Sanders to the chamber of commerce.

And there are specific pieces in there that are meant to serve as a bridge for the American people, including a large percentage of it that's for unemployment insurance, funding for vaccine distribution. Something that is pivotal. As we've already been discussing here today for re-opening of schools.

So, part of the discussion we'll be having with members is what do you want to cut? And this is a plan that he feels addresses the crisis at the moment.

REPORTER: One quick follow up on that, the work of the Senate is being held up by this dispute over the filibuster. Where does President Biden come down on that? Does he think that there should not be a filibuster so that the Senate could be --

PSAKI: Well, the president-elect spoke just yesterday, as you all saw, about the spirit of working together and bipartisanship to confront the four crises facing us. You've already seen him work with Republicans and Democrats and work toward a bipartisan approach to passing packages that will address the crises we're facing and that's certainly his priority and his preference. So that's what he'll continue to work on, on day two of the administration.

Go ahead, Mike Shear.

REPORTER: OK, see, you can call me.

PSAKI: I just give you a hard time.

REPORTER: That's fine.

So I want to push you a little bit more on that question. Like, if there's this call for unity that the president made in his speech yesterday, but there has so far been almost no fig leaf even to the Republican Party. You don't have a Republican cabinet member like President Obama and I think President Clinton had.

You, you know, the executive orders that he's come out the gate have been largely designed at erasing as much of the Trump legacy as you can with executive orders, much of which the Republican Party likes and agrees with. You've put forth an immigration bill that has a path to citizenship. It doesn't do much of a nod toward the border security. And you've got a $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill that as folks have said already drawn all sorts of criticism.

Where is the -- where is the actual action behind this idea of bipartisanship and when are we going to see one of those, you know, sort of substantial outreaches that says, this is something that, you know, the Republicans want to do, too?

PSAKI: Well, I guess I would send back, there's a lot in there so let me do my best here, but, Mike, is unemployment insurance only an issue that Democrats in the country want? Do only Democrats want their kids to go back to schools? Do only Democrats want vaccines to be distributed across the country? That's -- we feel that that package, he feels that package, is

designed for bipartisan support.

I'll also say that we have also had some positive developments on our confirmations and our nominees. Last night, as you all saw, his -- the president's nominee, now confirmed, leader, first female leader of the intelligence community, was confirmed with a vote of 85-10, 84-10.


You can check me on that. But an overwhelming vote.

We've seen progress today on the nomination and hopeful confirmation of Lloyd Austin. So there's movement, supported by both sides of the aisle, members of both parties.

I think if you talk to Republicans on the Hill which I know many of you do, they'll say they're not looking for something symbolic. They're looking for engagement. They're looking to have a conversation. They're looking to have a dialogue. And that's exactly what he's going to do.

Go ahead.

REPORTER: On that, has the president reached out to congressional leaders to sit down and discuss this relief package? Will he be? How much personal involvement is he going to have in this process?

PSAKI: I expect he will be rolling up his sleeves and will be quite involved in this process, Mary. And he was. Yesterday was quite a busy day for him, as you all know. His schedule was minute by minute and his family was here.

But he was involved even before yesterday having conversations with members of both parties, picking up the phone and having those conversations. He saw, of course, members of both parties. He invited leaders from both parties to join him at church.

Obviously, that wasn't really a discussion about specifics of the bill, but they did -- he did have an opportunity to talk about his agenda and working together on his agenda moving forward. But I think you will see him quite involved in the days ahead. But you will also see the vice president quite involved. You will also see policy leaders, like Brian Deese and others in the administration, quite involved and having conversations with both Democrats and Republicans.

REPORTER: No plans right now to sit down with them?

PSAKI: Well, I think we will have more to share with you soon in terms of engagement of many of our senior officials with members of both parties.

REPORTER: And on the Defense Production Act, just to be clear, has the administration actually invoked the Defense Production Act? And if so, can you spell out what changes we may see because of this? Which companies are being asked to make what? PSAKI: Well, let me give you a very specific example that helped

really make it clear for me. One area is to acquire a more low volume syringes. And what does that is these specialized syringes allow pharmacists and vaccinators to extract an extra dose of the Pfizer vial so making more doses available, of course.

It also prioritizes the Defense Production Act raw materials that are used to produce the vaccine. So, reducing bottlenecks. And it enables manufacturers, us to empower and invoke I guess an action from manufacturers to make sure we have the materials we need to get the vaccines out the door and in the arms of Americans.

In terms of, obviously signed it this afternoon, I'll have to circle back with you on what it -- if it's officially invoked in this moment or takes some time. We can circle back with you after the briefing.

Go ahead.

REPORTER: On stimulus, is the White House drafting a legislative bill?

PSAKI: You mean in terms of the -- what he announced last week, last Thursday?

Well, he announced what his specific ideas will be and what his vision is, but right now we're having discussions with members of both parties as we have for the last week about what that will look like.

REPORTER: OK. So no bill draft coming out of the White House is what I'm saying?

PSAKI: Well, I'm happy to talk to our legislative team about that. I think what was important to the president was to outline what his vision would be. This is how the process should actually work, right?

The president outlines, here's my vision, here's what I think should be in a package, let's have discussions, let's have engagements with both parties and let's see what comes out of the sausage making at the other side.

Go ahead, Anita. I'll come back to you, I'm sorry.

REPORTER: Just following up on what Kristen asked, I don't think I heard an answer about whether the president supports keeping the filibuster, where he sits on that. Has he talked to Senator Schumer about that? He served there a long time. What are his thoughts on that?

PSAKI: I think what I was conveying to Kristen is the president has been clear he wants to work with members of both parties and find bipartisan paths forward. And I don't have any more conversations to read out for you at this point in time.

REPORTER: Doesn't specifically answer that unless I'm not understanding your answer.

PSAKI: I don't think I have more to add to my answer.

REPORTER: OK. Then just on the impeachment trial, I know that there was some talk about sort of the Senate doing both -- both things at the same time, two things at once. There's some reporting this afternoon that Republicans are pushing to have the impeachment trial start in February.

Where do you all stand still now on that? Are you still looking for that? Both paths to happen at the same time, would it be preferably to do that first or okay with later as some Republicans are talking about it?

PSAKI: Well, Anita, I think we have been pretty consistent we believe the timing and the mechanisms for the Congress and the Senate moving forward in holding the former president accountable. We'll leave that to them. And what our biggest priority and focus is ensuring it doesn't delay the Senate, Congress, moving forward in consideration, in discussion around the COVID relief package that the president proposed last week.


Go ahead.

REPORTER: Thank you, Jen.

I have a question for myself and a question for someone who cannot be here because of the social distancing policies.

PSAKI: Sure.

REPORTER: My question is this, and it's about unity again. I've heard from conservatives who are afraid that the president is going to try to pull back religious conscience exemptions for groups like Little Sisters of the Poor. President pledged he would do that in July when Little Sisters won a case in the Supreme Court. The Health and Human Services nominee Xavier Becerra pursued that line of going after the exemptions as attorney general of California.

What's the president going to do on that?

PSAKI: I haven't discussed that particular issue with him. I'm happy to circle back with you, but I don't -- there's not a change in his position from what he said earlier this summer. Did you have another question?

REPORTER: I have a question from Adam Longa (ph) of WUSA-9. He said, we saw the president warmly greet Mayor Bowser during the parade yesterday. She's pushing for the D.C. statehood measure to be on the president's desk within 100 days.

Will the administration get behind this bill, and does the president support it?

PSAKI: I hate to disappoint you, but I will have to circle back with you on that as well. There's quite a bit going on. I have not discussed D.C. statehood with him in the last 36 hours.

REPORTER: I look forward to hearing --

PSAKI: Sounds great. Go ahead in the back.

REPORTER: Yeah, thanks, Jen.

I wanted to circle back on something COVID related. I know the president has obviously made a priority of resuming interest on learning in the first 100 days. I wonder is the administration planning to issue any kind of uniform guidance to states on whether it's re-opening schools, re-opening businesses, indoor dining, stuff like that? Or are you all just planning to kind of leave it to states to do a patchwork based on their own situations?

PSAKI: Well, as Dr. Fauci conveyed, our objective is to ensure that health and medical experts are leading the effort in delivering guidance -- determining guidance and also communicating it with the public whenever possible. And any guidance would come, of course, as you know from the CDC. And we will, of course, defer to that.

But part of our priority and our focus here is on providing more engagement with states, more clear guidance from the federal level in terms of how we're planning to operate, what data we're seeing, how vaccines are being distributed, what we see as the challenges. And that communication has been lacking as we understand it from our conversations in the past few months. That is what we will focus on improving in the months ahead.

REPORTER: Specifically, are you planning on doing daily or weekly calls with states? How are you planning to tap (ph) the communication there?

PASKI: Well, we have an entire COVID team as you know, now, most of them are official and part of their role will be engaging with governors, Democrats and Republicans, mayors, local elected officials to gain a better understanding of what's happening on the ground. That will be how they're going to be in taking a great deal of information. Obviously, health care providers and experts on the ground as well.

We will also do engagements from the level of the president and the vice president as well because they also want to have that conversation with states and local officials on what they're experiencing, what they see the challenges as, and how they can be addressed.

And, you know, that's something I think in President Biden's heart, he is a local elected official still and he gets into the weeds of what they're experiencing and I -- he will be involved in that, himself. Go ahead in the way back.

REPORTER: Thanks, Jen. There's a lot of really big things that the administration wants to do -- infrastructure, the stimulus, tax reform. Can you sort of lay out the cadence for us over the upcoming year? How do you envision those three major things playing out? What's the order? When do you think those will be taken up? When will they happen?

PSAKI: Well, what I can lay out for you on our first full day here is what our initial priorities are, and they revolve around addressing the four crises that the president has stated that the country is facing, including getting the pandemic under control, getting people back to work, addressing our climate crisis, and addressing racial equity.

And so -- go ahead.

REPORTER: No, I was going to ask you, do you think tax reform happens in 2021?

PSAKI: I don't really have any predictions for you on that. I think at this point in time, and for the foreseeable future, addressing the pandemic, getting the pandemic under control, and that linkage to getting people back to work will be his top priority.

REPORTER: Keystone XL, the decision yesterday from the president, what do you say to those who lost their job or will lose their job as a result of the decision? What will the message from the president and the White House be?

PSAKI: The message from the president and the White House would be that he is committed, his record shows the American people that he's committed to clean energy jobs, to jobs that are not only good, high- paying jobs, union jobs, but ones that are also good for our environment.


He thinks it's possible to do both. He led an effort when he was the vice president to put millions of people to work with those -- both of those priorities in mind. And he will continue to do that as president.

But he had opposed the Keystone pipeline back in 2013 when it was -- when there was a consideration of the permit or -- sorry, I don't think it was 2013, I think it was a little bit after that, and he's been consistent in his view. He was delivering on a promise he made to the American public during the campaign.

Go ahead, all the way in the back.

REPORTER: Thank you. I wanted to ask you about the U.S. leadership. What is President Biden's vision of the India/U.S. relationship, the relationship with the world's oldest and world's largest democracies?

PSAKI: Well, first, I would say that President Biden who, of course, has visited India many times, respects and values the long bipartisan successful relationship between leaders in India and the United States. He looks forward to a continuation of that.

Obviously, he selected and yesterday she was sworn in, the first Indian-American to serve as president or vice president. Certainly, a historic moment for all of us in this country, a further cementing of the importance of our relationship.

Go ahead, George.

REPORTER: Yeah. Two questions. One, on the Hatch Act, will this administration take that seriously and do you think it's ever appropriate for this White House to have a political event or political meeting?

PSAKI: Well, as you know, there are some political events that are acceptable, but we certainly take the Hatch Act seriously and will abide by that and you will not see a political rally on the South Lawn of the White House with president -- under President Biden.

REPORTER: The second one, this may sound trivial, but presidents and candidates have some events where they're fun for the candidate. The big crowd and the acceptance speech at the convention, the big crowd at the inauguration, big rallies. Because of COVID, this president has been denied all those. Has he ever been at all wistful about sort of missing the fun parts of being a candidate and the inauguration?

PSAKI: Not -- not in front of me, George. I will say that even yesterday or over the last couple of days, you know, he tried to find a moment of joy with his family and with his grandchildren who bring him a great deal of joy. And a recognition of, of course, the great responsibility he has on his shoulders but a moment in history that he was playing a very important part of.

So I would say he's been in public office, as you all know, for decades, and he's had many joyful moments, but this moment serving as president, coming in at a crisis where thousands of people are dying from a pandemic every day, millions of people are out of work, is not really a time for daily joy as the leader of the free world and he's focused on doing his job to get the work done for the American people. Go ahead.

REPORTER: Why weren't President Biden and all members of the Biden family masked at all times on federal lands last night if he signed an executive order that mandates masks on federal lands at all times?

PSAKI: At the inaugural --

REPORTER: At the Lincoln Memorial. Yes.

PSAKI: I think, Steve, he was celebrating an evening of a historic day in our country and certainly he signed the mask mandate because it's a way to send a message to the American public about the importance of wearing masks, how it can save tens of thousands of lives. We take a number of COVID precautions as you know here in terms of testing, social distancing, mask wearing, ourselves, as we do every single day. But I don't know that I have more for you on it than that.

REPORTER: But as Joe Biden often talks about, it's not just important the example of power but the power of our example. Was that a good example for people who were watching who might not pay attention normally? PSAKI: Well, Steve, I think the power of his example is also the

message he sends by signing 25 executive orders including almost half of them related to COVID. The requirements that we're all under every single day here to ensure we're sending that message to the public.

Yesterday was a historic moment in our history. He was inaugurated as president of the United States. He was surrounded by his family. We take a number of precautions, but I don't think -- I think we have bigger issues to worry about at this moment in time.


Go ahead, Anita.

REPORTER: You mentioned --

PSAKI: Sorry, Jeff, let me go to Jeff, because I already went to you if that's okay.

REPORTER: Thanks so much.

Follow-up on new START. Do you have any indication from Russia that they will object to the extension of five years and has the United States already alerted Moscow about its desire?

PSAKI: Well, we have not -- obviously, as you know, a number of our nominees have talked about our intention during their confirmation hearings over the past couple of days of extending new START. I don't have any calls to read out for you, but I can check and see if any notifications or discussions have happened this afternoon.

REPORTER: And the follow-up on something from yesterday, which I think you referred to, President Biden had said that President Trump left him a very generous note.

PSAKI: Uh-huh.

REPORTER: And he didn't want to talk about it until he spoke to President Trump. Are President Biden and former President Trump going to have a call?

PSAKI: There's no call planned. What he was conveying is that he didn't want to release a private note without having agreement from the former president. But I wouldn't say he's seeking it through a phone call. He just was even trying to be respectful in that moment of a private letter that was sent.

REPORTER: With regard to the former president, has President Biden spoken to Speaker Pelosi at all about the timing of when she plans to bring the impeachment articles to the Senate? And how he would like to see this trial proceed?

PSAKI: President Biden has been pretty clear about what the focus of his conversations are and what his intention is with his engagements with leaders from both sides of the aisle. And in both houses of Congress, including with Speaker Pelosi, someone he's known for quite some time. And that is his intention and focus on getting the COVID package through.

So, he will leave it to her and to now leader Schumer to determine what the path forward and the timeline will be in holding the former president accountable.

Anita, go back to you.

REPORTER: Yeah. You earlier mentioned four priorities of the president. I'm surprised I did not hear immigration for saying that, because yesterday, many of the executive orders were about immigration. There were two major agency releases last night about immigration. The bill is being introduced today.

Do you not see that as sort of the second big push after the COVID bill? Where do you see that? And I guess I would say why is it -- I was going to ask you why is it going to be, you know, why is it such a priority after the COVID bill that you didn't even list it? So I wanted to kind of clarify that and get your thoughts on it.

PSAKI: Well, I wouldn't read into that other than immigration we consider is part of racial equity, part of it -- which is a broad issue but that's how the president has spoken about that crisis over the past several months. And clearly, it is an enormous priority to him because he -- we moved forward in announcing the specifics of an immigration bill, an immigration package he is eager to move forward on with Congress on his first day in office.

But as you know, there's been a lot of history on efforts to do comprehensive immigration reform. To do any form of immigration reform. And what we're hopeful is that this will be a moment of reset and a moment to restart discussions on Capitol Hill. There are already a number of co-sponsors who have been announced to have those discussions. There are experts on immigration who have worked on this issue on both sides of the aisle. Historically, there's bipartisan support, support from the business community, supports from a range of outside groups with different political tilts. And we're hopeful that that will help propel it forward.

REPORTER: Senator Menendez said today on a call, he called it a herculean, you know, effort to get this through, and, you know, it hasn't gone through, you just mentioned it before.

PSAKI: Uh-huh.

REPORTER: I mean, there are Republicans grumbling today that there's not more in that bill they want to see. So is that bill, what do you think the prospect of this bill getting through is?

PSAKI: Well, I don't know if I can predict that the first day. I mean, it's only been out for 24 hours. But what was important to the president in the outline of this bill is that it is addressing a couple of areas that he doesn't feel have been effectively done in the past. The last four years, the immigration policy has been based around funding for a wall. That has not worked. Even to keep the country safer. Even to keep bad actors out. And so his approach is multipronged. It is to do smart security.

Security that will help address and use technology to address keyboarder crossings. Address ports of entry more effectively and efficiently and putting that oversight in the hands of the Department of Homeland Security.

It will also help address root causes of migration.


And that hasn't been in past bills as you probably well know, Anita. It was not in the bill in 2013. It's something he's been an advocate for in his time in public office. And it also has a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants who are living in the country.

There are components up here in the bill that address a lot of the issues that have not been addressed in the past and certainly the components of it that make -- that are talked about, smart security are the kind of border security that we think is essential and more effective than what we've seen over the past couple of years.

Go -- oh. Can I go to Zeke first and to you, Kristen? Go ahead.

REPORTER: I wanted to follow up on a question about the 100 million vaccines in the first 100 days. That's roughly per (INAUDIBLE) basis where the vaccinations are right now. Can you just elaborate a little bit why the president isn't setting the bar a little higher? May be required -- explain to the American people if they've seen these statistics -- have 6 million yesterday. Why isn't the president shooting a little bit higher given the magnitude of the crisis here?

PSAKI: Well, none of us are mathematicians, myself included, so I asked our team to do a little math on this. So the Trump administration was given 36 million doses when they were in office for 38 days. They administered a total of about 17 million shots. That's about less than 500,000 shots a day.

What we are proposing is to double that to about 1 million shots per day. And we have outlined this goal and objective in coordination and consultation with our health and medical experts. So it is ambitious. It's something that we feel is bold and was called that certainly at the time. And we're working overtime to help to achieve it. Try to achieve it.

REPORTER: Is the president trying -- obviously, we'd try to exceed that, if possible. Is it possible we may see in a couple weeks or months that the president would up that goal?

PSAKI: Well, Zeke, there are a lot of factors that go into determining how many shots can get into the arms of Americans. We feel confident we can achieve this goal. Obviously, there are other vaccines that are being considered at this point in time by the FDA. There is funding that will be needed for distribution. There are a number of steps that will help expedite at some point in time. But right now, our focus is on what many health and medical experts have consistently called a bold goal. I will note also some of the reporting this morning which Kristen asked about earlier was that the Trump administration left us with no plan. It's hard for them to both be exactly true at the same time and our team has been putting together a plan -- our own plan as Dr. Fauci talked about for some time to achieve this goal.

But he also mentioned that there are a number of challenges. It's not just about lining people up as you all know, but for people watching in a football stadium and giving them shots. We have to overcome vaccine hesitancy. We have to get to health communities where they don't have access to health centers. That was outlined. A number of steps to address that were outlined in the president's plan today.

But, you know, this is a bold goal. We're going to work every day to achieve it. And we'll build from there. There's a lot more of the administration to go from there and more work on COVID to be done.

Go ahead, Kristen.

REPORTER: President Biden is reversing a number of former President Trump's policies and we're seeing some of former president Trump's staffers be placed on leave or be reassigned. Is there an attempt to purge Trump officials?

PSAKI: Well, there's a new administration, so obviously, there are a number of new officials in place. I know there was some reporting, for example, and I don't know if this is who you were referencing, so you tell me if not, of the head of the NRLB. That's an individual who was not carrying out the, you know, anyone would tell you not just from our administration, the objectives of the NRLB. And so they were -- they're no longer in their position. And we'll take -- make those decisions as needed.

REPORTER: There's not an effort writ large that you're assessing, reassessing individual --


PSAKI: Well, Kristen, as you know, when a new administration comes in, there's a massive changeover in political appointees and nominees and people who will serve in a variety of roles. There are some people, Christopher Wray as an example, I'll just bring him back up, who will continue to serve in his role, but we have great value for career officials, for the officials who have been the heart and soul of agencies across government since long before the Trump administration, but who have served through the Trump administration as well.

REPORTER: On COVID, a question. Did the transition officials know before yesterday that Amazon wanted to get involved in such a meaningful way?

PSAKI: We -- not that I'm aware of. I'm happy to check. I mean, when the reporting came out, I asked the question. I think internally. What was conveyed to me, I don't think we discussed this yesterday, was that we had a lot of outreach, some privately, some publicly, from a range of businesses and private sector entities and certainly welcome that and we'll be considering all of those offers and what makes the most sense in our plans and proposals.