Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jen Psaki, February 16, 2022

Judith Zeng

James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

1:09 P.M. EST

     MS. PSAKI:  Hi, everyone.  Good afternoon.  Okay, a couple of items for you at the top.

     Today, we learned that retail sales increased by 3.8 percent in January, exceeding expectations.  This strong, inflation-adjusted increase reflects the resilience of the economy, even in the face of Omicron.

Compared to this time last year, sales at grocery stores, restaurants, and clothing stores, among others, increased, underscoring the strength of the American economy as we recovered from the pandemic.

This data builds on the historic economic progress we’ve seen over the last year and an extremely strong jobs report last month despite Omicron, which was well above expectations.

In 2021, the economy created 6.7 million jobs — the strongest year of job growth on record.  The unemployment rate declined more than any year on record.  And we achieved a 4 percent unemployment rate years earlier than previously projected thanks to the American Rescue Plan.

Small-business applications and inflation-adjusted household income are both up, and child poverty and hunger are down.

     We’re obviously going to continue to build on this progress.

Second, today we’re marking 60 days of action strengthening America’s trucking workforce.  This is not just about recruitment but also retaining truckers to ensure we can move more goods around the country and lower costs for the American people.

Over 70 percent of all goods in America are shipped by truck, and America’s trucking workforce plays a critical role in the supply chain and the broader economy.

But outdated infrastructure, the pandemic, and a historic volume of goods moving through our economy have strained capacity across the supply chain, including in trucking.

Two months ago, the President launched a multi-agency effort to support and expand access to quality truck driving jobs now and in the year ahea- — and in the years ahead.

While more work remains, we have made remarkable progress in the last 60 days.  We have expanded Registered Apprenticeship Programs.  We’ve launched the Safe Driver Apprenticeship Pilot to connect American adults under 21 to good-paying jobs in the trucking industry.  We’ve cut red tape so it’s easier for drivers to get commercial driver licenses.

And we’ve met with veterans service organizations representing nearly 4 million veterans to discuss ways the administration and industry can attract, train, place, and retain veterans in trucking jobs.

And we will announce the results of the Labor Department’s 90-day apprenticeship program, of course, over the next — after the next 30 days.

This week, Secretary Buttigieg will also sign the charter document for the Women of Trucking Advisory Board, which will provide recommendations to address challenges facing women in trucking, such as barriers to entry, on-the-job safety risks, workplace harassment, mentorship, and more.

Finally, a very quick preview for the President’s trip to Ohio tomorrow.

It’s been just 90 days since — time flies — with the Pres- — since the President signed the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

     And tomorrow, he will travel to Lorain, Ohio, and deliver remarks on how the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law delivers for the American people by investing in clean-up and restoration efforts in the Great Lakes region and surrounding waterways.

These investments will allow for a major acceleration of progress that will deliver significant environmental, economic, health, and recreational benefits for communities throughout the region, including helping people in the community access clean water.

So, those of you going to Ohio, now you have a little more detail.

     Go ahead, Darlene.

     Q    Thank you.  One, are there any plans being made for the President to meet with Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee as a group, the same way he met with Democrats on the committee last week?

     MS. PSAKI:  Sure.  So, he’s continuing to engage with Democrats and Republicans about his Supreme Court process.  I don’t have anything to preview or predict in terms of a meeting with the Senate Judiciary Republicans.

Q    Okay.  Second question.  Is there a date for when the President will send his FY23 budget proposal to the Hill?

MS. PSAKI:  I don’t have a date, either, for you at this point in time.  I think Shalonda Young has conveyed it was expected to be after the State of the Union.

Q    Okay.  And then the last question is: With the Vice President getting ready to go to Germany for the Munich Security Conference, can you talk a little bit about what her marching orders from the President are?  And will she be going with any deliverables or any concrete proposals, specifically to help Europe deal with its energy and natural gas needs?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, she will be traveling, as many of you have been following this know, to Munich, Germany, to attend the February 18th to 20th Munich Security Conference.  She will build on the President’s and the national security team’s intensive engagement with European allies and partners, and emphasize — and continue to emphasize with our partners our ironclad commitment to our NATO Allies, underscore our commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and reaffirm our shared interest in upholding the principles that have underpinned European peace and security.

     She’ll be participating in the formal conference — formal program of the conference, as well as engaging with allies and partners and meeting with leaders on the margins.

     I know her team is planning for a preview call for all of you, I believe later this evening, to give you more details of those bilateral meetings.

     But I would say, in terms of her engagements and what the President expects, he expects and knows, given she is the first in the room and the last in the room, that she will continue to convey to the rest of the world, again, our ironclad commitment to our NATO Allies, our commitment to defending the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine, and our commitment to putting in place severe economic consequences should Russia invade.

Q    Thank you.

     MS. PSAKI:  Go ahead.

     Q    Thank you.  Can you comment on Russia’s investigation into claims of alleged mass graves of civilians supposedly killed by Ukrainian forces in the Russian-controlled regions in eastern Ukraine?  Do you believe this is part of the false-flag operations that you’ve been warning of?

     MS. PSAKI:  Sure.  Well, let me start by saying, as you heard the President say yesterday and Secretary Blinken earlier today: We’re in the window where we believe an attack could come at any time, and that would be preceded by a fabricated pretext that the Russians use as an excuse to launch an invasion.

     And we’ve seen — and we’ve talked about this a bit in here — we’ve seen these tactics used in the past.  So those could include, but not be limited to, the report you just referenced, claims of provocation in Donbas, false state media reports — which I think you should all — everybody should keep their eyes open and aware of that potential — fake videos, false accusations about chemical weapons or accounts of attacks on Russian soldiers that have not actually occurred.

     So there could be a range of false flags and pretexts that we would expect would precede an invasion.  And, again, we remain in that window.

Q    And can you provide any update on the intelligence assessment of who was behind the cyberattacks of Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense and certain banks yesterday?  Can U.S. officials say that Russia was behind the attacks?

MS. PSAKI:  We don’t have any new details on an attribution.  Cyber attribution takes time, in part because adversaries usually try to hide their tracks and it takes time to gather and analyze relevant information.  And these can be — these types of incidents — DDoS incidents can be particularly hard — harder to trace.

     But we have also been in close touch with our Ukrainian counterparts to offer support in the investigation and response to these incidents.     You may have seen the statement from the Ukraine Ministry of Defense that the United States and other partners immediately reached out with support and that some sites are coming back online.

     And I would note, again, as I said yesterday, we’ve been warning for months, both publicly and privately, in our engagements with the Ukrainians and the Europeans that the potential for Russia to conduct cyber operations in Ukraine is part of their playbook as well.

     So we’re particularly concerned, but we don’t have anything new in terms of specific attribution.

     Q    Jen?

     MS. PSAKI:  Go ahead.

     Q    Are you done, Mary?

     Q    Yes, go ahead.

     Q    Okay.  (Laughs.)  Didn’t mean to interrupt.

     MS. PSAKI:  So polite.  Go ahead.

     Q    Secretary of State Blinken today said that he has seen evidence that Vladimir Putin is actually moving critical military assets toward the border with Ukraine and not away from the border as Putin has claimed.  So does the administration believe that Putin is actually escalating this crisis in real time?

     MS. PSAKI:  Well, I think, as Secretary Blinken also said, the Russian troops remain massed in a very threatening way at the border.  And he was responding, I believe, to a question — a good question about whether they were delivering on what they had promised yesterday.  And the answer was no; there’s, you know, what Russia says and there’s what Russia does.  And we’re watching very closely what steps they’re taking.  But they remain amassed in a threatening way at the border. 

     Q    There has not yet been, to our awareness, an actual invasion.  This date had been circled on the calendar as one that this administration, that other governments worldwide were watching very closely.  What do you make of the fact that at this point — it is now darkness in that region — there hasn’t been a military invasion?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, Kristen, without getting into any intelligence or conversations we would have with Allies or partners, what we had conveyed last week, and you heard Jake Sullivan convey very clearly, is that we were in the window.  We remain in the window.

Q    And is there still as much hope for diplomacy today?  Is there more hope?  Where does that thinking stand?

     MS. PSAKI:  We — of course, the door continues to be open to diplomacy.  Secretary Blinken spoke with Foreign Minister Lavrov yesterday.  Jake Sullivan speaks with his Ukrainian counterpart nearly every day, if not every day.  We remain — the President, of course, is going to speak with Chancellor Scholz later this afternoon.  So there are — it is moving forward — diplomatic conversations on many channels.

Q    One quick follow-up to a question you got yesterday about a potential gas tax holiday. 

     MS. PSAKI:  Mm-hmm.

     Q    You said all options were on the table.  Can you go a little further?  Are there actually discussions going on between the White House and Democrats on Capitol Hill about moving forward with a gas tax holiday?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, I also said yesterday no decisions have been made, and that remains the case.  So we always have an open dialogue with members of Congress, and all options remain on the table. 

     Go ahead.

Q    One housekeeping thing first.  Speaking of Secretary Blinken, he was at an event earlier today here in town and said he was cutting his time short there in order to have a meeting with the boss — the President.  Was something added to the schedule this afternoon, or is there something forthcoming?

MS. PSAKI:  Without knowing the details of the Secretary’s schedule, I think the President had the PDB this morning, so it may have been that.  I can check if there’s anything different than that.

Q    Beyond that, Foreign Minister Lavrov told Secretary Blinken yesterday that Russia’s written response to the U.S.-NATO proposals would be transmitted, quote, “in the coming days.”  Has it been received, or is this potentially productive, or seen as a possible delay tactic?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, we look forward to receiving it, as Secretary Blinken has conveyed.  As of my knowledge before I came out for this briefing, I think we’re still waiting for that.

Q    Is there any update on the U.S. assessment of the video released by Russia claiming to show some tanks ending military drills near Ukraine?  I know there was a lot of concern about whether this was legit.  Has there been any determination that it is?

     MS. PSAKI:  I don’t have any new assessment of that, Ed.  I think what we are watching very closely is not just what they say but what they do.  I understand you’re referencing a video, but we’ve also seen, as the Secretary confirmed this morning, continued problematic, troubling buildup of troops at the border and surrounding Ukraine.

Q    I’m not going to ask you if the President is meeting today or soon with Supreme Court nominees because —

     MS. PSAKI:  What if I ans- — what if I was prepared to answer it today?  (Laughter.)

     Q    Well, are you?

     MS. PSAKI:  You’re missing out.

     Q    Are you?  Have there been any meetings?

     MS. PSAKI:  I am not going to provide a — (laughter) — day-by-day update, Ed.  I just had to mess with you there a little bit.  (Laughs.)

     Q    Just for the record, I wasn’t going to ask.  But I am curious — I am curious: This is a President who’s been a participant in this for decades. 

     MS. PSAKI:  Yeah. 

     Q    He knows that in the run-up to a decision there is a public campaign, there’s sort of a backroom lobbying effort by people close to nominees.  There’s been some of that going on in this case.  What does he make — I’m not commenting specifically on anyone’s story or letters sent or anything, but what does he make of that attempt to influence an administration as they make a decision?  And does he welcome it, or does he see it — if it gets a little too personal, perhaps, or petty — as detrimental to the process?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, I think because of the President’s long history and long background you referenced as the former chairman of the Judiciary Committee, as the former Vice President, I believe he’s probably overseen or been engaged with more Supreme Court nominee processes than anyone in history.  He is not going to be swayed by public campaigns or public sniping or lobbying efforts.  He is going to pick an eminently qualified Black woman to nominate to the Supreme Court, and he has a number of potential choices that he’s very excited about.

Q    Just real quick on this: The Club for Growth is now running ads in English and in Spanish targeting Latino audiences and suggesting that the President’s focus on nominating a Black woman to the Court versus qualified Latino judges — and they list a few in their ad — is racist.  What do you make of that?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, the Supreme Court has been around for 230 years; there’s never been a Black woman who served on the Supreme Court.  The President believes that’s a problem with past processes and not a lack of qualified Black women to serve on the Supreme Court. 

     There are also opportunities — perhaps in the future, we’ll see — to nominate others; we don’t know at this point in time.  But the President is proud of the range of credible, qualified candidates he’s looking at and looking forward to making an announcement soon.

Go ahead.

     Q    Thank you.  A quick follow-up on the cyber stuff.  Would the U.S. consider a disruptive attack against Russia, similar to the DDoS one right now being waged against Ukraine?

     MS. PSAKI:  Say that one more time.  What —

Q    I’m sorry.  If the U.S. would consider, like, a distributed denial-of-service attack.  Like, we just talked about potential —

MS. PSAKI:  Yeah.

Q    — cyber responses.  Is that one of the potential options?  Like —

MS. PSAKI:  In terms of what we would do in response? 

Q    Yes.

MS. PSAKI:  I’m not going to outline or detail what options the President would have at his disposal.  Again, he can take any step, seen and unseen.  He has the right to do that.  But we have not even made an attribution at this point in time.

Q    Fair enough.  Russia’s lower house of parliament voted on Tuesday to ask Putin to recognize the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics.  Blinken said today that that move “would necessitate a swift and firm response from the United States in full coordination with…Allies and partners.”  What might such a response look like?  Sanctions, export controls?  What kind of —

MS. PSAKI:  There’s a range of options we have at our disposal.  I’m not going to outline those from here.  But I would also just reiterate a couple of points that Secretary Blinken made in his statement, which includes the fact that the Kremlin’s support of this amounts to the “Russian government’s wholesale rejection of its commitments” — its own commitments — “under the Minsk agreement[s],” which is certainly the reason to have such a strong reaction to it from the Secretary of State.  And “[e]nactment…further undermine[s] Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” constituting a “gross violation of international law.”

So, hence we have — as you said, he conveyed in his statement that “necessitates a swift and firm response from the United States in full coordination with our Allies and partners.”  But I don’t have anything to preview at this point in time.

Q    Quick follow-up on oil.  CNN is reporting that NSC Middle East Coordinator, Brett McGurk, and State Department Energy Envoy Amos Hochstein are in Riyadh today.

MS. PSAKI:  Hochstein (inaudible) —

Q    Thank you for that.

MS. PSAKI:  — in case you have to restate his name on television.

Q    Amos — are in Riyadh today to press the Saudis to pump more oil.  And I wondered if you could confirm that.

     MS. PSAKI:  I can confirm they’re on a trip.  There are a range of range of topics to discuss, including Yemen.  And as you know, we — engaging with our partners around the world about ensuring supply meets demand is part of our objective from here as well.

Q    Okay.  And that’s one of the objectives of the meeting as well? 

MS. PSAKI:  I don’t have more details on the meeting at this point in time.

Go ahead.

Q    Thanks, Jen.  The Secretary of State said today that they have not seen “meaningful pullback” by Russia when it comes to the forces that they’ve put on Ukraine’s border.  What would meaningful pullback look like to the United States?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, I’m not going to define that by troop numbers.  I think we will know it when we see it, which is a verifiable reduction of troops at the border of Ukraine. 

Q    But you’re not looking at a certain metric or anything like that?

MS. PSAKI:  Nothing that I’m going to outline from here.

Q    The President updated the number yesterday, changing it from about 130,000 that we believed that Russia had amassed on the border to closer to 150,000.  How long does the United States believe Russia can maintain that kind of a force posture?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, he also said including in Belarus and encircling Ukraine —

Q    Right.

MS. PSAKI:  — as well, to be clear.  In terms of their ability to maintain that, I’m not going to get into intelligence from here. 

Q    But there’s no judgment on —

MS. PSAKI:  Nothing I’m going to outline from here.

Q    Okay.  My last question: On the CIA station that is being relocated closer to the border of Poland, outside of Kyiv, does the U.S. have concerns that that will affect their ability to be able to track Russia’s movements from Ukraine?

MS. PSAKI:  You have a lot of intelligence questions today, which is absolutely fine, but there’s nothing I can detail on that from here either.

Q    But no concern that the- — moving the CIA station out of the capital is going to affect that ability?

MS. PSAKI:  I’m just not going to speak about our intelligence processes in Ukraine or in the surrounding area from here.

Go ahead.

Q    Thanks, Jen.  Following up on Kristen’s question.  Obviously, the invasion didn’t happen today.  The Pentagon was eyeing today as a possible date that some — we could see some sort of action, some sort of invasion.  Does the White House think that Putin could be bluffing?

MS. PSAKI:  About what? 

Q    About his intention to move forward.

MS. PSAKI:  Not invade or to invade?

Q    Well, either way.

MS. PSAKI:  Well, President Putin has said he doesn’t intend to invade.  We’ve also said he’s prepared — he’s prepared to do that and has lined up troops at the border to — to invade.  So, I don’t think we’re — we are waiting for President Putin’s comments to assess what is being prepared around the border.

Q    Okay.  Do you think that your efforts to put all this intelligence out about his — you know, what might happen next might have deterred something that we could’ve seen in the last 24 hours?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, that’s part of our obj- — has been part of our objective overall, Jacqui — right? — is to make it more difficult for the Russians, for President Putin to lay a predicate for war, to — when our objective is to try to avoid war, prevent war.

Now, it’s ultimately up to President Putin to decide what steps he’s going to take, but putting out specific details about the types of false-flag operations, their efforts to push misinformation through Russian media — the types of tactics they’ve used in the past — that’s all a part of our effort to make it more difficult for them to use these tactics and keep the eyes of the global community open.

Q    And then has this whole standoff underscored the importance of NATO Allies spending 2 percent of their GDP towards defense?  Is that something that the White House will be pressing in the future from our Allies?

MS. PSAKI:  That’s something that the Vi- — President pressed for when he was Vice President.

Q    And then can I ask about a second topic: the Durham investigation?  Durham says there was an outside company with ties to the Clinton camp monitoring server data info on the Executive Office of the President through the Obama administration, possibly into the Trump administration.  Do you know if there’s still a system picking up server data on the EOP — and if not, when it stopped?

MS. PSAKI:  Again, I know you asked my colleague a few questions about this the other day, but I would point you — any questions about this to the Department of Justice.

Q    And then, is what was described in the filing there — monitoring internet traffic — is that — generally speaking, would that be considered something along the lines of spying?

MS. PSAKI:  Again, I would point you to the Department of Justice.

Go ahead.

Q    Jen, thanks.  Is that U.S. confident at this point that all intelligence and sensitive material has been removed and destroyed from the U.S. embassy in Kyiv?

MS. PSAKI:  Look, there’s obviously steps every embassy takes when they move or relocate, but I’m not going to get into those details from here.  I’d point you to the State Department if there’s more they’d like to share.

Q    And oil prices are nearing $100 a barrel.  That’s a milestone that hasn’t been reached since 2014.  What steps is the administration taking at this point to deal with high oil prices?  Have you been talking to allies about a coordinated global release of oil?

MS. PSAKI:  We have been in touch with allies and partners, suppliers out there on the global stage for weeks now in preparation for a range of impacts of — you know, in anticipation of an invasion or, actually, an impact of an invasion, both for natural gas and oil prices on the market.

We will continue those engagements, of course.  As I’ve said and I said yesterday: For the President, all options remain on the table.  As you know, in the past or recent months, he tapped the Strategic Petroleum Reserve — 50 million barrels. Those have been released over the course — or 40 million of them, I think, to date have been released over the course of time. 

We also remain, of course, engaged with Congress and countries around the world about how to meet the demands out there.

Q    One more.  The President urged Congress, this week, to act on gun control on the anniversary of Parkland shooting.  It’s been five months now since David Chipman’s nomination was withdrawn.  What’s the current timetable for nominating an ATF director?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, we certainly would love to have an ATF director in place for the first time in, I think, a decade –someone confirmed.  And unfortunately, I would say David Chipman was eminently qualified for the position and was not able to move forward.  And the President would like to nominate someone to replace him, but I don’t have anything on the timeline.

Go ahead.

Q    In an effort to pry the window open a bit wider into the President’s thinking on the Supreme Court —

MS. PSAKI:  Sure.

Q    — what is the thinking here about some of the pushback that’s been aired on the Left with respect to Judge Michelle Childs in South Carolina?  Does the President reject that criticism that she hews to or has hewn — hewed? — too closely to corporate interests?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, I think — some of the criticism I’ve seen out there is related to her labor record.  If you look at South Carolina, the AFL in South Carolina endorsed her and has been supportive of her.

I think the President — in response — or just to go back to Ed’s question, which I think is similar — the President is not interested in public griping or in lobbying campaigns or efforts to trash other candidates.  He is going to keep his blinders on, look at the qualifications, the cases, the backgrounds, the credentials of these eminently qualified nominees.  All of the ones he’s considering would make excellent, qualified Supreme Court justices, and that’s where his focus remains.

Q    On background and qualifications, how important is it to the President that his choice have served as a public defender?

MS. PSAKI:  Again, I’m not going to get into any more specifics of the qualifications.  You have a short window left before you will know, probably, who he has selected.  And you will have more, I’m sure, analysis to do at that time. 

Go ahead.

Q    Thanks, Jen.  On the stalled Fed nominations to the Banking Committee.  Chairman Brown said today that he’s refusing to move the other picks separate from Sarah Bloom Raskin.  He also said that he spoke to President Biden and that President Biden is standing by Senate Democrats on this.  So, is the White House backing that strategy of holding all the nominees up and essentially waiting for Republicans to show up in the Banking Committee to vote?

MS. PSAKI:  Absolutely.  And I was in the Oval Office when the President spoke with Senator Brown, so I can confirm — not that there was any doubt — that he conveyed exactly that to the senator, that he agrees that Republicans are AWOL on the fight against inflation on this — at this pivotal moment in our economy. 

Everyone understands we need a full Federal Reserve Board — the first one in nearly a decade — to tackle infas- — inflation and bring prices down for American families. 

So, no, we are not advocating for splitting the nominees.  We support Chairman Brown’s decision to keep all five on the Fed board, pushing them forward through the committee.  And we believe Republicans need to do their jobs and show up to vote for these nominees.

Q    You spoke about the urgency with inflation and other issues facing the Fed.  But given that Republicans show no signs of bending and that the Senate is poised to go on recess by the end of the week, I mean, how likely or unlikely is it that we’re going to see a vote before the end of the month on these nominees?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, I would point you to Chairman Brown for that.  He is very committed, and I’m sure — and then, I think, as you’ve seen him publicly, can be quite a bulldog when we wants to get something done.  So, we support his efforts to get these five nominees forward.  There’s a couple days left. 

And all we’re asking is for Republicans to show up and do their job.  They can vote against people or — but not showing up is not — is not delivering on the commitment you made to the American people when they elected you.

Q    Lastly, on that issue, Senator Toomey was at an event where he said he believed the Fed was basically able to perform at full strength, even without the confirmed nominees.  Your reaction to that?

MS. PSAKI:  I think there’s no question that having a full Federal Board fighting inflation — at a time where that is the stated number-one concern of many Republicans, many Democrats, and many in the American public — would be the ideal scenario here.

Go ahead.

Q    You said a couple times just now that the President is not going to be swayed by lobbying efforts.  But I’m wondering:  If that’s the case, what does he make of Congressman Clyburn’s pretty aggressive push for one specific judge, Judge Childs?  Does that count as lobbying?  Is the President listening to that?  This is obviously someone he has in high esteem and is close with. 

MS. PSAKI:  Of course, he does.  He has him in high esteem.  He is close with him.  But, again, the President — who is someone who has been though a number of these processes before, who has overseen hearings, who has played a role as Vice President in helping select incredible nominees and now Supreme Court justices to serve — he is going to consult broadly, and then he is going to look at their credentials, review cases, and make a decision about the right person to nominate for the Court.

Q    And I think the only other angle left on the interviews that you have not been asked is: Will you tell us when the interviews are complete?

MS. PSAKI:  Unlikely.  (Laughter.)  I will tell you — the President will tell you when there’s a nominee. 

The good news is March 1st is around the corner.  So, you know, we remain on track, and you don’t have too much longer to wait.

Go ahead.

Q    Thanks.  Last night, voters in San Francisco voted to recall three school board members.  I’m wondering if the White House has any reaction to that result?

MS. PSAKI:  Sure.  We, of course, did see that.  We don’t have any reaction directly to the decision by the local school board. 

But I would just reiterate that the President’s objective has been keeping schools open, from the beginning.  And now, at this point in time, 99 percent of schools are open, in large part because of the funding in the American Rescue Plan and efforts that he and his Secretary of Education undertook to ensure schools had the resources and the information needed to keep schools open.

We understand where parents are coming from when they want schools to be open as well.  And the President recognizes the mental health impact it has on kids for them not to be open.  So, we don’t have any specific comment on the local school — the local decision about the local school board leaders, but that remains the President’s objective.

Q    And on education more broadly, we saw that be an issue in the Virginia gubernatorial race; obviously, this is the issue here in San Francisco.  I’m wondering what the White House or the President’s message is to parents about — you addressed school reopening, but, more broadly, some of the issues that we’ve seen play — about equity, about curriculum — play in some of these electoral races.

MS. PSAKI:  Well, tell me more about specifically —

Q    So, in San Francisco, specifically, there was controversy over the renaming of schools.  There — in Virginia, conversations about critical race theory.  I’m wondering whether the White House or the President thinks that some of these school boards — maybe in San Francisco and other places — have moved too far to the left, adopted liberal policies beyond, you know, what voters seemingly approve of — or just more generally, how the President thinks of education and some of these issues around equity and inclusion.

MS. PSAKI:  Well, I would say first that the President is married to a teacher, so he certainly trusts in the role of teachers and educators across the country and the kind of curriculum that they are providing.

I’m not going to have any specific comment on any local school board or the politics of school boards, as it relates to any political race either, though.

Go ahead.

Q    (Inaudible.)

MS. PSAKI:  Okay, go ahead.

Q    Thanks, Jen.  Going back to the Senate Banking Committee, would the White House support a rule change to allow the Senate majority to discharge the nomination directly from committee, as they do with legislation?

MS. PSAKI:  I believe that — I would really point you to Chairman Brown’s team and office.  I think they have spoken to this and conveyed — I don’t think that there is a path forward for that, but I would point you to them for any comment.

Q    And yesterday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that he was, quote, “troubled” by new charges that are being brought against Russian activist Alexei Navalny.  Would the White House consider, in consultation with its allies, potentially, sanctions on individual leaders maybe in Putin’s circle to stop this or other efforts that you all could do to help Navalny and the Russian opposition?

MS. PSAKI:  There are a range of sanctions under consideration on his inner circle.

Q    And then, finally, congressional Democrats, again, are talking about student loan cancellation.  Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez discussed this earlier this week, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has also talked about the importance of canceling student loan debt.  Why is this not an issue that — with broad public support and support within his own party in Congress — has the President not worked or pushed harder on to cancel the debt?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, the President has conveyed he’d be happy to sign a bill into law that all of those members could work to get passed.

Q    And then, finally, yesterday marks the 30th House Democrat to announce their retirement from Congress.  Is the White House at all concerned that this is indicative of a political climate in the broader country, in his own party?  And could, simply, the retirements of very senior Democrats on the Hill potentially have implications for the White House’s domestic agenda?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, as you know, I have to be a little careful.  I’ve learned — I’ve learned my lesson the hard way about talking about politics from up here. 

There are a range of retirements every cycle for a variety of reasons.  And what we’re focused on is working with members to deliver for the American people.  And we expect that anyone who’s going to be out there answering questions to people who may vote for them in the future, that they will hopefully talk about the work they’ve done with the President to create the greatest 12 months of job creation in our nation’s history, the largest drop in unemployment rate on record, the largest reduction in childhood poverty ever, the strongest economic growth this country has seen in nearly 40 years.

So, there’s a lot we’re going to be focused on.  The President himself has conveyed he’s looking forward to being out there when it’s time for political season.  But beyond that, I’m a little limited in what I can convey from here.

Go ahead.

Q    I actually do have something.

MS. PSAKI:  Okay.  Go ahead.

Q    One thing.  The — I think — circling back to something I think we asked Karine about a couple of days ago, but —

MS. PSAKI:  Sure.

Q    The mayor of the District of Columbia has announced that she’s going to significantly reduce the restrictions — the COVID restrictions.  The indoor mask wearing, I think, comes off at the end of the month.  The requirement to show proof of vaccination has ended, I think, as of yesterday. 

The campus — the White House campus is in Washington, D.C., obviously, like, affected by the metrics that are around, in terms of case counts and hospital counts and what have you. 

You know, does — does that — are you guys going to follow some of the recommendations that the mayor has put out?  Or are you going to wait for the CDC to make their recommendations before you change any of the activities on this campus?

MS. PSAKI:  We’ll wait for the CDC.  And they’ve said — and I know you had a COVID briefing a little bit earlier today — that they’re continuing to review mask guidelines and how different communities in the country should assess them, but we’ll wait for the CDC is make any changes here.

Q    And on the Supreme Court, I think I’ve thought of one more way, which is to —

MS. PSAKI:  Okay, go ahead.  Go ahead. 

Q    — which is only to say that when the President said the other day that he was considering “about four” nominees, did he mean three?  Did “about four” mean three?  (Laughter.)

MS. PSAKI:  I think the President — the President meant “about four,” and I don’t have anything further to add to that.

Go ahead.

Q    Could it be five?

Q    I’m sorry, I actually do have another way to —

MS. PSAKI:  Sure. 

Q    — to get at that. 

MS. PSAKI:  Go ahead.  Go ahead. 

Q    With the President traveling tomorrow, could we — could you rule out that the announcement would come this week? 

And would you flesh out more details on what you expect the announcement to look like?  Sometimes we’ve seen them take place in primetime with events in the East Room.  Is that what the President is looking out for his announcement?

MS. PSAKI:  We don’t have any details on that to preview at this point in time.

Q    I had to try.

MS. PSAKI:  I appreciate it. 

Go ahead.

Q    And on the State of California — a couple of California-themed questions for you.  So, the EPA is finalizing a rule that would give California a waiver to — and the authority to set its own emission standards.  Why does the administration think it’s important for California to have the ability to set its own emission standards?

MS. PSAKI:  This is a great question.  I know I have something on this, but I don’t have it in front of me.  So let me get you — it to you after the briefing.

Q    Absolutely.  And to follow up on that though: Even with the waiver, California is expected largely to stick to the Biden administration standards, but the President has indicated in the past that he does look to California on these issues.  So, if California were to institute stricter standards — say on either heavy-duty vehicles, for instance — would that be something that the administration would seriously consider mirroring?

MS. PSAKI:  It’s a good question, but I don’t have anything to predict or preview on that front.  Obviously, the President’s objective remains lowering emissions in the country and reaching his ambitious climate goals that he set.  But in terms of what future steps look like, I don’t have anything to predict at this point in time.

Q    And one last one on California —

MS. PSAKI:  Go ahead.

Q    — but not on emissions. 

MS. PSAKI:  Okay. 

Q    Okay.  President Biden has been supportive of Governor Gavin Newsom in many instances.  Does he support Governor Newsom’s decisions to drop the universal mask mandate in California, even as masks continue to be required in California schools?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, there are a number of states who have made decisions — not just California — and announcements.  And what we’ve said and I can repeat is that we will continue to look for and abide by CDC guidance from the federal government.  That’s what we will follow.  But different leaders will make decisions based on what they think is best for their communities.

Go ahead.

Q    Great, thank you.  One more on SCOTUS.  Everyone is going to try. 

MS. PSAKI:  Okay.  Go ahead. 

Q    This is a new tactical maneuver.  Senator Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, today told reporters on the Hill that he is under the impression that President Biden is doing interviews this week.  Can you confirm or deny what Senator Grassley said?

MS. PSAKI:  We said “as early as this week.”  That’s all the detail I have for you.

Q    Afghanistan: This week marked six months since the withdrawal from Afghanistan.  From this podium, Jake Sullivan told us that the commitment to allies there is sacrosanct.  The administration committed to doing everything it could to get our allies out, but tens of thousands of allies — hundreds of thousands if you include families — including the SIV people in the pipeline, are still there and struggling.  What exactly is the administration doing to get them out?  Because on the ground and from Congress, my sources say they think you’re doing nothing.

MS. PSAKI:  Well, I would say that we have successfully helped — I can get you the specific number, but I believe it’s hundreds depart from Afghanistan: partners, allies, people who have stood by our side since we withdrew from Afghanistan at the end of August. 

We’ve worked in partnership with allies and partners in the region, including the Qataris, where we have our diplomatic presence.  We are the largest contributor of humanitarian assistance of any country in the world, which we continue to provide through — through proven third-party aid organizations as well.  And flights just resumed, I think a couple of weeks ago, through Qatar Airways, and that will also play a role in helping.

But we remain committed to working with our partners in the region and to helping those who want to leave Afghanistan who have been serving by our side for 20 years to help do that.

Q    And could you help me — I can follow up — get numbers on women in particular?  And —

MS. PSAKI:  I would point to the State Department, and they have — they would have any details on specific numbers.

Go ahead.

Q    Thank you, Jen.  The British Prime Minister said that Russia is sending signal — or mixed signals or messages.  They say they’re open to — for diplomacy and they keep on building the military back up on the border.  Does the White House believe actually that the Russians are using deceitful tactics?

And can you update us on the talks in Vienna — Iran talks?  Do you think that we’re closer to getting a deal?  You, yourself, said that February is a vital month, that this is crunch time.

MS. PSAKI:  So on the first question, you know, as Secretary Blinken said this morning, there is what Russia says and then there’s what Russia does.  And we certainly believe that they will continue to use false-flag operations, efforts to deceive — lay a predicate for war, which is why we have been putting out as much information as we can on that front, so that the world is aware and knows what to look for and watch for.  And we do that, of course, in partnership with our allies around the world. 

As it relates to Iran, they — I believe they’re still in the eighth round of negotiations.  You know, of course, as we’ve said in the past, you know, we would certainly support efforts or the opportunity to have direct engagement with the Iranians.  We won’t — we’ve said that a deal — our focus remains on a deal that addresses the core concerns of all sides. 

And if it’s not reached in the coming weeks — as we’ve said before, but this remains the case — Iran’s ongoing nuclear advances will make it impossible for us to return to the JCPOA. 

So, bottom line is: Under the JCPOA, Iran’s program was tightly constrained and monitored by international inspectors.  Since the previous administration ceased U.S. participation, Iran has rapidly accelerated and reduced cooperation.  And that is, hence, why we are where we are.

But we — they are continuing to engage — of my last update on this.  But, again, I’d reiterate that the President asked a team to present — to put together a range of options in the event those need to be considered. 

Go ahead.

Q    Yeah, thanks, Jen.  So, on Monday, it was the one-year anniversary of the phase one trade deal with China going into effect.  Written into that deal is very specific enforcement language.  So, when does the administration trigger that language against China because they haven’t lived up to that agreement?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, so, the phase one trade agreement that the President — I think you’re — I think that’s not exactly accurate, as my understanding of what the status of this is at this point — or what anything that’s triggered or not triggered.  The —

Q    It’s not — yeah, it’s not an automatic trigger, but there is specific language in there as to what the enforcement is.

MS. PSAKI:  Well, so, first, you know, when he was running for president, the President made clear that the phase one deal did not address the core problems with China’s state-led economy and harmful economic practices. 

USTR, since that period of time, has been making a concerted effort to see if China will show serious intent to make good on their purchase commitments.  But the fact that they have not met those illustrates the limitations of the framework we inherited.  They’re still in discussions about them. 

So, I don’t have, kind of, an update on that.  I would leave that to Katherine Tai, our ambassador.

Q    Is there a sense of urgency now that China and Russia are moving closer together?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, that has been the case for some time now.  It also does not change the fact that if Russia were to invade, the size and seriousness of the economic consequences and package — that’s not something that China would have the ability to fill in the gaps on.

Q    Thanks, Jen.

MS. PSAKI:  Okay. 

Oh — oh, yes.  I got to go.  Aurelia, why don’t you do the last one?

     Q    Thank you.  Thank you, Jen.  Climate change — a complete change of topic.  According to a report published yesterday, by 2050, the sea level on U.S. coasts would rise by one foot, which means 40 percent of American people who live in coastal areas would see more damaging floods.  What is the administration doing about it?  And does the President feel he is doing enough to fight climate change?

     MS. PSAKI:  Well, you’ve heard the President say, time and time again — especially when he goes and visits communities that have been impacted by major weather events — one in three Americans live in a county hit by a weather disaster this past year, which is a pretty startling statistic.  And last year, extreme weather cost America $99 billion. 

So, we know — we know climate change is real.  Anyone who doubts it: That’s further evidence climate change is real, and it’s exacerbating the extreme weather conditions.  And certainly, this report is further evidence of that. 

What the President has done is, of course, work to pass the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which — a lot of people focus on roads, rails, and bridges — important parts — but it also has an enormous investment in strengthening our nation’s resilience to extreme weather and climate change while reducing greenhouse gas emissions, replacing lead pipes so everyone has access to clean water.  And we’ve also been mobilizing an all-of-government approach to deploy and implement critical clean energy projects.

But I would also note that this is one of the reasons the President is going to continue to press for key components of his agenda — his Build Back Better agenda — including a historic investment in addressing the climate crisis.

Thanks, everyone.  See you tomorrow.

1:51 P.M. EST

Next Post

Former Historic Resources Board chair faces city scrutiny over home remodel | News

Martin Bernstein, a Palo Alto architect and previous member of the Historic Sources Board, uncovered himself in an strange posture past month when he gained a notice from the city informing him that he was violating town code pertaining to get the job done he was executing on his Higher […]