Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jen Psaki and Port Envoy to the White House Supply Chain Task Force John Porcari, January 5, 2022

4 months ago
AMERICA NEWS NOW

James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

12:07 P.M. EST

MS. PSAKI:  Hi, everyone.  Okay.  So, today, we have another great guest to kick off the new year — our first guest in the new year: John Porcari, who is the former Deputy Secretary of Transportation and currently the Port Envoy to the White House Supply Chain Task Force.  He’s going to give some brief remarks.  He’ll be able to take just a couple of questions. 

I’ll just note at the top: I have a hard stop at about five of one, so we’ll try to get around to everybody in the room as well.

With that, I’ll turn it over to you.

MR. PORCARI:  Thanks, Jen.  Hi, everyone.  It’s a real pleasure to be here.  I’d like to give you an update on the work we’ve done as part of the Biden-Harris Supply Chain Task Force.  But first, I’d like to give you a quick look back at how we got here. 

The President saw early on how the pandemic was putting our supply chains to the test.  In February, he issued an executive order requiring agencies to produce reports identifying challenges in our supply chains for a set of critical products and for a set of critical industries. 

When the first reports were released in June, he created the Supply Chain Disruptions Task Force at the Cabinet level to use every government lever to address the near-term disruptions related to the pandemic.  One area he asked the task force to focus on was ports and trucking.

In July, Secretary Buttigieg convened all of the key players from the goods movement supply chain: ports, labor, trucking, businesses, and more.

In August, I joined the effort to serve as an honest broker who could help move everyone, from finger-pointing towards taking action.

By October, the President brought together the nation’s largest retailers, ports, and labor, and earned commitments from all to move toward a 24/7 supply chain system.

We also worked with the ports to propose fees on ocean carriers that were leaving import containers at the ports in Los Angeles and Long Beach for too long.  This fee has helped lead to a 40 percent reduction in long-dwelling containers at those two ports.

We worked with the Georgia Ports Authority to provide flexibility to fund $7 billion — $7 million of pop-up inland ports to alleviate congestion at the Port of Savannah.  These pop-up ports started operating in December.  The Port of Savannah has also seen a drop in long-dwelling containers and ships at anchor outside its port.

And there have been several steps we’ve taken in between to help get empty containers removed, to generate commitments from leading retailers to move their cargo during off-peak hours, and working with the state of California to support infrastructure projects.

There are still challenges, and Omicron could surface more, which we’re closely tracking. 

When bottlenecks emerge in the global supply chain, it can take more time for goods to reach store shelves, which can lead to price increases.  That’s why the President has taken such aggressive action to alleviate these blockages, and we’ve seen significant progress. 

First, we were able to sustain a record-breaking holiday shopping season.  As you can see, our preferred measure of goods on shelves, inflation-adjusted retail inventories without autos, rose 0.5 percent at the end of November compared to the end of October, to not only exceed pre-pandemic levels, but also hit the highest monthly level recorded since 1992.

Consumers also received 97 to 99 percent of their packages on time or with minimal delays from the U.S. Postal Service, FedEx, and UPS.

Second, as we begin the new year, the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach announced a new fee on long-dwelling empty containers, building on the success of the fee imposed on long-dwelling import containers in November.  This should help further unclog our ports. 

Third, we’re ramping up efforts to ensure U.S. exporters are treated fairly.  The Port of Oakland, for example, announced new actions to improve U.S. exports, particularly agricultural exports.

Fourth, we’re monitoring potential Omicron-related disruptions at ports overseas and at home while working to prioritize the movement of medical supplies at the nation’s ports, working closely with the Biden-Harris COVID Response Team.

The impact of the Omicron variant may continue to unfold.  And we’ll remain focused on report- — supporting the public health response, building on our progress to help ease bottlenecks in critical supply chains, and ensuring consumers have the goods they need. 

I’ll be happy to take some questions.

MS. PSAKI:  Kaitlan. 

Q    Thanks so much.  One, just — can you lay out in detail what effect you are seeing that the Omicron variant is having on the ports?  You know, and kind of, what are you seeing, what are you hearing from officials?

MR. PORCARI:  In — in the very short term, there have been some increased outages from longshore workers and others.  So far, that has not disrupted operations. 

As you saw early in the pandemic, there are procedures in place, in terms of personal protective equipment and safety measures, for the workers at the ports, and those will be ratcheted up as needed. 

But as we stand here today, the ports and the supply chains are operating at record levels.

Q    Okay.  And then, I guess, just my broader question: In the view of the Supply Chain Task Force, have these supply chain pressures peaked?

MR. PORCARI:  It’s hard to tell if the supply chain pressures are peak — have peaked.  I think what is clear is the pandemic laid bare what was the underlying reality, which was the supply chain was stressed even before the pandemic.  And we clearly have changes to make to build a more durable, resilient supply chain. 

One of the great things that’s happened is, with the passage of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, some of the physical infrastructure upgrades to infrastructure that was built by your parents and grandparents can actually be updated through that infrastructure program.

MS. PSAKI:  Trevor.

Q    At — one of the questions that’s come up from the trucking industry is about whether vaccine mandates are restricting worker supply in that area.  Is that something that you’ve seen?  Is that still a concern?

MR. PORCARI:  Well, first, we know that vaccines work.  And with 200 million Americans vaccinated, it’s a big step forward throughout the supply chain, whether it’s truckers, longshore workers, distribution centers, or any other part of the supply chain.  We’re working hard towards vaccination, which is the real protection for Americans. 

Going forward, we’ve been working with individual industries to make it as easy as possible to get vaccinated.

MS. PSAKI:  Kristen.

Q    Thank you so much.  Thank you for being here.  The Virginia Department of Health said on Tuesday that it’s experiencing supply chain issues with getting COVID-19 tests — rapid tests.  Can you speak to what’s being done to address that issue not just in Virginia, but all across the country? 

And do you anticipate it being a problem, in terms of getting the half billion tests that the President wants to bring online?

MR. PORCARI:  Well, first, I think what that illustrates is that the — it’s the global supply chain and it’s a global COVID issue that’s affecting all countries. 

We have a procedure in place to prioritize medical supplies as needed.  If — you’ll see in today’s White House blog that there’s an example of — within the last week — of medical supplies being prioritized by the ocean carrier, by the longshoremen, the railroads, the terminal operators to move those supplies.

We’re working closely with the COVID task force as they designate those priorities.  We have a procedure in place, starting with the place of manufacture of those medical supplies, to identify them early as they’re put in containers, make sure those containers are separately identified, are what’s — what we call “block stowed” — stowed in a position on a ship where they can be the first off — and then are prioritized for unloading.  That would have to happen, obviously, on a priority basis.

Q    But do you anticipate that the distribution of the 500 billion tests that the President is looking to bring online could be slowed down?

MR. PORCARI:  We’re working hard to make sure that those tests are there when they’re needed.  And together, this supply chain, with the millions of people that work on it, have met the challenges so far.  We expect to continue to do that. 

MS. PSAKI:  JJ.

Q    Hi, thanks.  You mentioned the Port of Oakland coming up with a short-term measure to ease — to alleviate some of the pressure on the agriculture exporters.  Is there a long-term plan to help ease some of those same pressures on the ag industry?

MR. PORCARI:  Yeah, it’s a great question.  And many people focus on the import of goods to the U.S., which is important.  Exporting goods of all kinds, including the agricultural projects, is every bit as important. 

The Port of Oakland partnership that we have is focused on both the short term and the long term.  In the short term, making sure that agriculture exports that go out in containers are not disadvantaged by the global dislocations in supply chains.  And in the long term, making sure that everything from the ocean carrier service that brings those American exports around the world to the physical facilities at the Port of Oakland and other ports are in place.

Again, it’s a great example of where the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law can help build the infrastructure that we need today rather than relying on yesterday’s infrastructure.

MS. PSAKI:  Ebony, you’ll have to be the last one.

Q    Thank you.

MS. PSAKI:  But we’ll invite you back.  (Inaudible.)

Q    Thank you for taking my question.  Very quickly: The American Trucking Association has said that there’s about 80,000 truckers that — shortage of truckers.  And so, how is that feeding into this disruption?  And what is the administration doing to, kind of, compound those effects of the loss — the shortage of truckers?

MR. PORCARI:  Well, first, Secretaries Walsh and Buttigieg have been working hard to make sure that — that trucking, as a profession, is more appealing.  And it’s not just recruiting new people to trucking, it’s retaining the truckers that you have. 

So, whether it’s internship programs where you don’t have to pay for the training to become a trucker, which make it more appealing, or quality of life — quality of job life issues, where it’s — people are more interested in staying in the profession, those are some of the ways that it can be done. 

At the risk of stating the obvious, the private sector has an important part to play here as well in terms of pay and working conditions. 

MS. PSAKI:  Thank you so much.  Thanks for joining us. 

MR. PORCARI:  My pleasure. 

Q    Thank you. 

MS. PSAKI:  Okay.  I only have one item at the top for all of you. 

Just wanted to provide a brief update on our federal testing sites — which we continue to expand and are doing strong work to reach Americans, especially in areas where we’re seeing the greatest need. 

Throughout the holiday, we worked to rapidly establish free testing sites in multiple states.  And in the coming weeks, we’ll have new sites operating across the nation. 

Additional sites are opening this week in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, with Maine, Maryland, Nevada, Delaware, Texas, and Washington State to follow.

Mobile federal testing sites are now open in New York City and New Jersey, which are providing thousands of free tests daily.  Our 12 testing sites in New York City alone have processed over 8,700 tests since the first site launched shortly before Christmas. 

These sites have been effective in reaching a diverse set of communities, with 76 percent of those tested in New York City and 82 percent of those in New Jersey self-identifying as non-white. 

These numbers reflect the Biden administration’s commitment to enduring our — ensuring that our hardest-hit and

hardest

[highest]-risk communities have equitable access to testing.

With that, Darlene.

Q    Thanks, Jen.  I wanted to start with Chicago.  Can you tell us if the White House or the Education Department or the administration at large is doing anything to help get teachers and students back into school there, in the classroom?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, we are in — across government, we are in regular contact with a range of stakeholders on the issue of school reopening and closures, including superintendents, state leaders, principals, teachers, parents, and other school staff.  And that is certainly the case now — today, this week — as we’re — as the President is working and we are all working to keep schools open. 

As the President said yesterday, he wants schools to be open.  We know they can be open safely, and we’re here to help make that happen.  And he agrees with medical, scientific, and education experts that, because of the historic work we’ve done, we are more than equipped to ensure schools are open.  And we’re going to keep our children and educators, who selfless — who selflessly serve their community, safe, but ensure that children are not enduring the mental health impact of not being in school, that we are — there are not gaps in learning.  This includes schools everywhere, including in Chicago. 

Fortunately, 96 percent of schools are doing just that. 

And just as a reminder — and I know I touched on this yesterday — but the President and our administration foresaw early on that schools across the country would need additional resources.  That’s why he fought for $130 billion in the American Rescue Plan for funding to schools to implement mitigation strategies, including $10 billion in — for testing, which has already been distributed to states.  And the Department of Education has also been providing technical assistance and resources for months now on everything from implementing mitigation strategies to connecting schools with testing providers, hosting vaccine clinics, and addressing pandemic mental — related mental health issues. 

So, long story short: We want schools to be open, the President wants them to be open, and we’re going to continue to use every resource and work to ensure that’s the case. 

Q    So, are there any equipment needs or PPE or testing or anything like that, that you’re hearing from Chicago, that the White House can be helpful with in terms of trying to get schools off the virtual model and back into the classroom?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, again, $10 billion in testing has been — in testing funding has been distributed to states already, prior to this month, last year.  That funding — I can certainly check if there’s more funding available from the State of Illinois, but we’re encouraging states to ensure that that money is being spent, is being distributed to schools that need that funding. 

And we already distributed $130 billion in funding to school — to states to distribute to school districts for mitigation measures.

Now, different school districts have made different decisions about what their needs are over the course of the last year, but a number of school districts did take steps to put in place contracts with testing contractors to ensure that they had that availability and access for their schools. 

Q    Thanks.

MS. PSAKI:  Go ahead.

Q    Thanks, Jen.  Looking back to that ARP money, does the White House wish that there was more oversight in where that American Rescue Plan funding went, since the President said yesterday that some of the schools have not used it well? 

And we’re seeing in some places, like Chicago and Milwaukee, some of it has been earmarked for other purposes, including critical race theory.  And, in Chicago, you’ve got kids not going back to school now.

MS. PSAKI:  Well, Jacqui, it’s always been the case that local school districts make decisions about what is needed for their schools.  That’s always been the case, long before the President took office. 

We did distribute that money out to states, as he noted yesterday.  Some have spent it.  Others have not spent it.  They’ve spent it in different ways. 

I would remind everyone that when the CDC put out a range of mitigation measures, there are a range of steps schools could take.  And different schools — some schools needed to redo their ventilation.  Some schools decided to invest in more bus drivers or more space so that they could socially distance.  Different schools made different decisions. 

What is important for people to understand is that there is some of this funding that hasn’t been spent in certain states to put in place mitigation measures.  Now is the time to do that. 

Q    And then, on the new CDC guidance, it’s getting some criticism that it’s confusing — the testing after leaving isolation.  Because it says that, you know, you don’t need to test after day five, but if you can get a test, if you want to test, and you test positive, you should continue to isolate until day 10. 

So, that would potentially create a gap of people who are positive after day five but don’t test and go back out into the community. 

And then there have been other policies that have shifted, including the policy around healthcare workers needing to test negative before returning to work, and then that going away. 

And also, the note in the new CDC guidance that negative tests don’t necessarily mean that you’re infection-free. 

So, is this — is the CDC still led by science and not by other factors in determining its policy?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, Jacqui, the CDC is absolutely led by data and science.  And, you know, again, if they hadn’t changed their recommendations over the course of time, schools would probably be closed across the country, right?

They, of course, are continuing to address, as they have for the past year-plus, steps that need to be taken in order to protect the American people. 

The CDC’s guidance did not add a recommendation for testing, including in workplaces.  The CDC Director just answered this question on a COVID briefing about an hour ago, where she basically said there was a lot of questions about testing and she wanted to provide information in response to that about — about how to apply a test should people decide to use a test. 

They have also conveyed in their guidance — and they can speak for themselves, of course — that transmission and infectiousness occurs in the first five days after a diagnosis with COVID-19, somewhere in the range of 85 to 90 percent of the time, hence their guidance on the five days. 

So, they can speak to their own guidance.  It is led by data and science.  It is not determined here by the White House; it’s determined by the data and the scientists who work at the CDC. 

Q    The CDC — you know, Rochelle Walensky and Dr. Fauci, as we’ve talked about earlier this week, had conflicting accounts of whether testing was necessary.  Dr. Walensky said part of that consideration was what people would tolerate. 

And we know that it’s important to keep schools open, to keep the economy running.  Isn’t it time to incorporate some of those other messaging points into this administration’s discussions about, you know, how we emerge from this pandemic?

We talk about how it’s led by the science and we’re following the science, but it seems like we’re also following, you know, economic needs and political needs and logistical needs.

MS. PSAKI:  Well, here’s the difference from the last administration: We are not driving our decision-making on how we’re addressing the pandemic through messaging or through political concerns.  We’re driving it by what the CDC and the medical doctors and the experts there convey. 

They change their — they update their guidance.  They change their guidance.  Certainly, I’m sure, they have disagreements internally about what guidance they should put out.  That is a healthy part of a discussion of a policy process.

But that’s what we’re driven by.  And that’s also why we do COVID briefings so that you all can ask those questions, as you just did this morning an hour ago. 

Q    And then, the President yesterday said this continues to be a pandemic of the unvaccinated.  Isn’t it also fair to say that it’s still also a pandemic of the vaccinated, given the breakthrough cases that we’ve been seeing?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, Jacqui, we also know that you’re 7 times — 17 times more likely to die of COVID if you are not vaccinated and 20 times more likely to be hospitalized. 

So, I think in terms of the impact — the dire impact on people across the country, we should be very clear about the impact of not getting vaccinated and the people who will be — be hurt, be hospitalized, and face the threat of death the most, and those are the people who are unvaccinated.

Q    And one last question on the CDC announcement — or rather the COVID briefing announcement — the CDC is not going to change its definition of “fully vaccinated” to include a booster shot.  Jeff Zients and Rochelle Walensky said there’s no plans for that.  They didn’t explain, though, why that is.  Can you give us some context on how that decision was made?

MS.  PSAKI:  Again, I would say that’s a decision made by our health and medical experts.  You know, they conveyed the technical definition, as you said, of “fully vaccinated” with COVID-19 has not changed; someone is considered fully vaccinated if they have received a primary series of vaccines. 

They also clarified that CDC recommends people stay up to date, as everybody should stay up to date on any vaccine. 

If your kid needs a vaccine when you go to the pediatrician, and they say, “You get a five-year — you know, a vaccine at five years old,” you kind of hold your breath because you don’t want to have your kid get a shot, but you keep it up to date.  And that’s what they’re recommending.  But they can speak to their own decision making. 

Go ahead, Trevor.

Q    Jen, so, next week, I know we’ve got these three tracks of talks with Russia.  One is U.S.-Russia, one is NATO-Russia, another is broader European security talks.  For the U.S.-Russia talks, are there — is there scope, you know, in terms of what the agenda looks like?  What are the specific areas you want to focus on?

MS.  PSAKI:  Sure.  That’s exactly right.  There are three sets of talks next week.  They start on the 10th in Geneva.  Those will be led by Deputy Secretary Sherman.  Then there’s the 12th in Brussels — the NATO-Russia Council.  And then the 13th in Vienna, which is the OSCE, which will start then; we’ll be represented by our Ambassador to the OSCE, Mike Carpenter. 

So, let me give you a preview, as you just asked, for what to expect. 

Russia has, of course, raised, as you’ve seen them raise publicly — they’ve also raised privately — the issue of European security. 

Let’s be clear: Over the past two decades, it is Russia that has invaded two neighboring countries, interfered in many other elections, used coun- — used chemical weapons to attempt assassinations on foreign soil, and violated international arms control agreements. 

We and our allies will be raising those issues and other issues with Russia in the days and weeks ahead, and certainly as a part of these talks. 

And of course, we cannot forget that there is an ongoing Russian military occupation in Ukraine.  In addition to the three meetings next week, we will continue to actively support progress on the Minsk Accords to resolve the current conflict in the Donbas.

There have been a number of proposals, of course, that Russia has already published — or put out there, advocated for.  President Biden has made clear that we can make progress on some issues, while others are not viable. 

We’re not responding to them point by point, and I don’t expect we will in these negotiations because, in our experience, you don’t make actual progress by negotiating in public and also because many of the proposals don’t merit such a response. 

But Russia is very familiar with our positions, which are grounded in the fundamental principles of European security they once agreed to, including that borders cannot be redrawn by force and countries have the sovereign right to determine with whom they associate.

Finally, we don’t know what next week’s conversations will bring, but our approach to the discussions will be pragmatic, results-oriented, and we believe there are areas we can make progress on with Moscow — make progress on if they come to the table ready to do that.  And obviously, that’s the nature of diplomacy.

Go ahead.

Q    Sorry, just one more.  Within that region, we’ve also seen a lot of instability in Kazakhstan.  Is that something that the White House has a position on?

MS. PSAKI:  Yeah, we have obviously — as you noted, we have seen that, and we have — we’re monitoring reports of protests in Kazakhstan.  We support calls for calm, for protesters to express themselves peacefully, and for authorities to exercise restraint.

There are some crazy Russian claims about the U.S. being behind this, so let me just use this opportunity to convey that as absolutely false and clearly a part of the standard Russian disinformation playbook we’ve seen a lot of in past years.

Go ahead.

Q    Thank you, Jen.  On this plan or agreement that the White House had with Walmart and Kroger to sell those rapid tests at cost, did the White House make an effort to extend that agreement?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, I’m not going to get into details of our private conversations with these providers.  It was a set number of — a set period of time.  But what’s important to — for people to understand, or the American people to understand, is that our focus is, of course, ensuring that we are increasing access and access to free tests to people across the country. 

So, obviously, that has been the case — selling them at cost — something that we strongly supported, advocated for for the last couple of months. 

Since that time, the President has quadrupled the size of our testing capacity.  We have announced the intention to purchase 500 million — we’re in the process of finalizing those contracts, of course — tests.  We’ve made 20,000 testing sites available.  We’ve opened a range of federal testing sites across the country. 

So, our objective is to continue to expand access to free tests for the American people across the country.  And I’d also note, of course, next week, people can submit to their insurers — and we’ll have more details on that; I know you asked about that yesterday, on how that will work — can submit to their employers — or, I mean, sorry, to their insurance companies to get reimbursed for their tests as well.

Q    But, I guess, the point is those half a billion tests aren’t available yet.  You can’t go on a website and sign up for them yet.  You can’t receive them yet.  You can’t yet file a claim with your insurance company to be reimbursed for the tests that people have been buying. 

And so, I’m wondering, since the President has had the CEO of Walmart here at the White House before, they have a pretty close relationship since he took office, why he would not try to extend that agreement that they had with Walmart — that the White House had with Walmart to keep those tests a little bit less expensive than they already are?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, I’m not going to detail private conversations.  But I will just reiterate that next week people can get reimbursed for their — for their tests.  I just announced at the top of this briefing a number of additional federal testing — large sites that we’re opening.  We have 20,000 free testing sites across the country.  And we are very close to being able to announce the — put up the website so people can order, if they desire, free tests to be delivered to their home. 

So, we are very close to continuing to expand access to free tests.  And that’s what our focus is on.  And of course, we certainly believe and our focus continues to be that we don’t want any American to be in a position where tests are only available at an untenable price.  That’s why we are expanding free testing. 

Q    And why make the decision to have people have to file a claim with their insurance companies for each rapid test that they buy to be reimbursed by the companies instead of just making the rapid tests free?

MS. PSAKI:  We are making the tests free.  This is an additional step —

Q    Not all of them.

MS. PSAKI:  We’re making them — 500 million of them free to people who want tests, and we’ll continue to build on that.  But this is another step people can take — 150 million Americans who are insured — to get reimbursed by their insurance companies.  And I expect we’ll have more on that in short order.

Q    A few other questions I have.  Tomorrow, the President is going to speak on Capitol Hill.  Is he going to address his predecessor’s role in the riot?

MS. PSAKI:  Yes.  And let me give you a little more preview of that. 

So, in addition — and I know I noted this yesterday, but I think it’s important for people, so let me briefly reiterate — the President is going to speak to the truth of what happened, not the lies that some have spread since, and the peril it posed to the rule of law and our system of democratic governance. 

He will also speak to the work we still need to do to secure and strengthen our democracy and our institutions to reject the hatred and lies we saw on January 6th and to unite our country. 

I’d also note that President Biden has been clear-eyed about the threat the former President represents to our democracy and how the former President constantly works to undermine basic American values and rule of law. 

And President Biden has, of course, spoken repeatedly about how the former President abused his office, undermined the Constitution, and ignored his oath to the American people in an effort to amass more power for himself and his allies. 

He sees January 6th as a tragic culmination of what those four years under President Trump did to our country, and they reflected the importance to the President of winning what he has called many times, and you’ve heard him call many times, the soul — the “battle for the soul of our nation.” 

So, just as you heard him say on January 6th of last year, I would expect that President Biden will lay out the significance of what happened at the Capitol and the singular responsibility President Trump has for the chaos and carnage that we saw.  And he will forcibly push back on the lie spread by the former President in an attempt to mislead the American people and his own supporters, as well as distract from his role in what happened. 

So, he will, of course, speak to the moment, to the importance in history of the peaceful transfer of power, of what we need to do to protect our own democracy and be forward-looking, but he will also reflect on the role his predecessor had.

Q    Will he call Donald Trump out by name? 

MS. PSAKI:  We’ll see.  We’re finalizing the speech.  But I think people will know who he’s referring to.

Q    One more question.  When it comes to voting rights — and you’ve talked about how important that is to the President — will he directly call Senator Joe Manchin and Senator Kyrsten Sinema about voting rights?

MS. PSAKI:  He is in touch with a range of members of the Senate, including those you’ve mentioned, about a range of topics that are of a priority to him, including voting rights.  But we’re not going to outline more details from here. 

Q    Has he been in touch with them this week?

MS. PSAKI:  I’m just not going to outline more details of private conversations from here. 

Go ahead, Kristen.

Q    Jen, thank you.  Before I get to what’s happening in Washington, I’m wondering if the President has been briefed on the tragic fire in Philadelphia.  We know that 13 people so far have been killed in that fire.

MS. PSAKI:  I have seen those reports — absolutely devastating.  A number of children.  But I will have to get an update on if he’s been briefed.  I know they were just coming out as we were coming out here. 

Q    Okay, thank you. 

Going back to the CDC and the new guidelines, they have come under criticism with a lot of parents, teachers, other folks saying they’re just flatly confusing and that there was a clarification put out yesterday that doesn’t feel much like a clarification. 

And I guess the question is: Does President Biden have confidence and is he satisfied with the job that the CDC is doing?

MS. PSAKI:  He has confidence in the scientific expertise, the medical expertise of the team at the CDC.  And he believes the American people had a desire, a need for us to address this pandemic, led by data and science.  And that’s what he’s going to continue to rely on.

Q    One of the things that people are focusing on is this idea that people can decide whether to get a test.  You were just asked a version of this, but I guess the question is: Why should it be up to individuals to assess their own symptoms or whether they even have symptoms?

MS. PSAKI:  Again, I think, Kristen, I would encourage you to ask the CDC Director and the CDC any specific questions about their guidance.  They’re determined and issued by them.

Q    Okay.  Senator Schumer — Majority Leader Schumer said yesterday that he expects negotiations to resume shortly in the near term between the President and Joe Manchin about Build Back Better.  Do you have — and you were asked about this yesterday —

MS. PSAKI:  I know.

Q    — but let me see if I can get an update from you.

MS. PSAKI:  Okay.

Q    Any timeline or guidance on when those discussions might start?  And will they just start in short order, or is voting rights the priority right now?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, we can walk and chew gum at the same time.  And I can assure you that we are in touch with a range of senators and their staffs and committee staff about Build Back Better, even as we’re working in lockstep with Leader Schumer about getting voting rights done — a huge priority to the President.

So, I would not confuse the legislative calendar with a lack of action or behind-the-scenes discussions about an important priority.

Q    Would the President, ultimately, for the larger goal of seeing Build Back Better pass, be willing to sign a final piece of legislation that did not include an expanded Child Tax Credit?

MS. PSAKI:  I’m just not going to negotiate from here.  But the President obviously sees the Child Tax Credit extension as a key priority.  He sees it as a benefit that has provided essential assistance to families across the country, has cut childhood poverty by 40 percent.  That’s an amazing statistic.

I’d also note — and I mentioned this yesterday, but I got a little bit more information on it.  So we’re going to continue to fight, absolutely, to have it done.  I would note, though, that Americans who qualified for the extended Child Tax Credit will still receive half of the entire benefit when they file their taxes this year.  So the families who have received monthly payments will get up to $1,800 for each child under 6 when they file their taxes and up to $1,500 for each child age 6 to 17.

Obviously, that doesn’t address what happens after here, but just an important component for people to know and understand.

Q    And just finally, quickly, on the speech tomorrow: You’ve given us a little bit of a preview of the substance.  Can you talk about how the President is spending this day in terms of preparing to deliver this speech?  How much is he focused on that today?  Is he doing dry run-throughs?  I mean, obviously, this is a significant moment.

MS. PSAKI:  Sure.  Look, I would say, first: You know, I know the President doesn’t have public events today.  He does have a number of meetings with policy teams, and that’s often what he’s doing behind the scenes.  If you — if he were standing here today, which I know he’s always invited — is what you guys will say — but he would say we never give him any free time or any time to think, and that’s probably true.

So that is a big part of his day today.  He is obviously very personally involved in what he’s going to say tomorrow.  And as somebody who served 36 years in the Senate, you know, he watched in horror as many people who were in Congress that day — whether they were members or staff or people who just had been working in the Capitol building for some time — and what a dark day that was in our democracy.  It hit him personally. 

And I think the role of the former president in this, the role — and unfortunately, the silence and the complacency of a number of far too many — not every, but far too many — member of the Republican Party in the time since then in perpetuating the Big Lie has stuck with him as well. 

So I will say — I would say that, of course, he — he’s involved in the writing of any major speech he gives and feedback and conveying whether it’s meeting the moment of what he wants to say.  But certainly, tomorrow, the significance of it is something that he feels personally about.

Go ahead.

Q    On the idea of some fresh spending for COVID relief for small businesses, first of all, can you share some reaction to that?  And then, also, would the White House be open to spending for restaurants — COVID relief for restaurants — or would the President be opposed to that?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, as you know, we did a major relief package that included helping restaurants just last year.  We are in constant discussions with Congress and leadership about the needs of the American people — whether they are small businesses or restaurants or people sitting in their homes — as we continue to fight the pandemic, but don’t have any new prediction of — or new pending request or specific requests and wouldn’t predict that at this moment in time.

Q    Okay.  And then, on the Federal Reserve, on the search, does the White House have a clear idea from Senator Manchin how he would vote on some of these nominations?  Has the President been running some of the names by him to see how he feels?

MS. PSAKI:  I’m just not going to have an update on that for you.

Q    Okay.  And then a question on some big-tech legislation.

MS. PSAKI:  Sure.

Q    Do you know if the President supports the House package of antitrust bills to rein in big tech?  I know that they were brought up in June. 

MS. PSAKI:  Yeah.

Q    Has he asked the Speaker to bring any of those bills to the floor?

MS. PSAKI:  So here’s where we are: I mean, the President’s view is that the history of the country suggests that strong antitrust laws have been a key to American technological leadership and preeminence.  And for generations, American — our approach has been to expose our main tech firms to more competition.

The President has been very clear in his view that we need more competition in the tech industry.  That’s his fundamental view.  You saw that in the executive order on competition he signed in July.  And his view is that, over the past 10 years, the largest tech platforms have, as they have acquired hundreds of companies, including alleged killer acquisitions meant to shut down a potential competitive threat, that’s not a healthy place for the system.  And the large platforms — the large platforms’ power gives them unfair opportunities to get a leg up on small businesses that rely on them to reach customers.

The President also called on federal agencies like DOJ and the FTC to use their existing tools to tackle these problems in the executive order. 

I know you’re specifically asking about the legislation.  We’re continuing — we’re encouraged — he’s encouraged to see bipartisan interest in Congress in passing legislation to address the power of tech platforms through antitrust legislation and to protect privacy. 

I don’t think we’ve done a statement yet of administrative policy on this particular legislation, but we’re in discussion and we are encouraged by the bipartisan interest in doing something about this.

Go ahead.

Q    A question on climate.  I’m sure you saw Senator Manchin’s comments yesterday — a positive about reaching a deal on climate.  What is the White House’s reaction to that?  And is there a possibility that that could be sectioned off and reach a separate deal on that?

MS. PSAKI:  I’m not going to have any direct reaction to Senator Manchin’s comments, which were extensive. And he frequently talks to the press, which, of course, is a good thing.  But I would say that a key component of the President’s Build Back Better agenda is climate and addressing the climate crisis.  That’s how he feels.  It’s — it’s vitally important to him. 

As you know, there’s a significant investment in addressing the climate crisis in the bill and legislation that we have been working on — with Congress on. 

And that’s important because while we have taken a number of steps from the administration with the power he has as President — tackling super pollutants; phasing down HFCs; rallying the world on methane in Glasgow; standing with autoworkers and America’s big car manufacturers to roll up plans to boost electric vehicles; putting America on track for one of every two cars sold to be zero emissions — these are important steps he’s taken on his own. 

We know that working with Congress on legislation is vital and important to reaching our objectives, to reaching our goals, and to really making an impact.  But I’m not going to negotiate from here on what the specifics are with members of Congress.

Q    And two questions on voting rights.  Does the White House have a response to Senator McConnell who was critical of the focus on voting rights on January 6th, that this was — you know, this day was being used to push Democrats’ agenda on voting rights? 

And then, secondly, does the President plan to address voting rights tomorrow?  And will he address, specifically, the filibuster and changing the rules of the filibuster?

MS. PSAKI:  Sure.  Well, I would say first on the speech tomorrow — I can’t believe it’s tomorrow — but the speech tomorrow, he will touch on voting rights.  But he will have more to say on that soon in a longer format.  And the speech tomorrow is more focused on the day, what it means in our history, and the role that some have played in continuing to perpetuate the Big Lie and perceptions in the country.  But he will touch on it.

I would note, as it relates to specifically the filibuster: In March — just to go back a little bit here, because I expect we’ll be talking about this more — the President said he had, quote, “an open mind about dealing with certain things that are just elemental to the functioning of our democracy, like the right to vote — like the basic right to vote.  We’ve amended the filibuster in the past.”

He’s also said previously that senseless obstruction would be a big factor for him.  And I think there’s no question, objectively, Republicans have not once, but four times obstructed basic legislation that should not be partisan but is about upholding our Constitution, as they simultaneously attack the most fundamental American right: the right to vote.

He also said, back in December, that, if necessary, he supports a rule change to uphold the sacred right of Americans to vote.  And this is reflective of the fact that while he is a creature of the Senate and somebody who respects the history of the Senate, he wants the Senate to function and he wants to move towards and is open to rules changes that will help the Senate function.

So, I expect he’ll have more to say about that.  But I just wanted to note a couple of the things he said, including right before Christmas.

Q    And — sorry, you said a longer format down the line.  Is there another speech planned on voting rights?

MS. PSAKI:  We’ll have more to say soon.  But he’ll have more to say tomorrow — past tomorrow, in another format about voting rights.

Go ahead, Ebony.

Q    I wanted to, kind of, piggyback on what my colleague was just saying, because I was wondering: Does he plan to visit the Senate at all and do a full (inaudible) speech on reform, just as he did when he went to the House, regarding the infrastructure bill?  Can we see that?

And back on the speech again, I know you can’t give out everything.  However, in calling out Trump, is he also going to speak directly to his own party that has stood in the way of the filibuster?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, again, I would just note that, tomorrow, while he will touch on voting rights, it’s not a voting — a speech about voting rights.  And he will have more to say about that soon.  In terms of the location and the format, I don’t have anything to preview for you at this point in time.  But I think you can expect he will make a passionate case for voting rights, as he has done on a number of occasions in the past, and he will do that soon.

Q    I want to ask a quick question on COVID, talking about the tests that are going to be available, free online.  What is the administration doing to confront communities — underserved communities that don’t have broadband access, that are going to have trouble getting and ordering these tests online?  What is the administration doing on that end?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, I would say it’s not — it is an important tool, but it is not the only way that we are providing access to free testing across the country.  And certainly ensuring that we are reaching communities that may have challenges because of lack of broadband access or the inability to order online is part of our objective.

I started this briefing announcing a number of the federal testing sites that we’ve opened and ones that we will continue to expand.  This is in addition to the 20,000

tests

[testing sites] we have available across the country. 

Fifty million tests are in the process of going out — it started in December — to rural health centers and community health centers, though a lot of those are targeted to lower-income communities, communities that may not have access to broadband or be able to order on their computers.  And we will — mobile testing sites is something that we also continue to build out. 

So we will continue to build out all of those options because, obviously, equity is a key priority to the President as we work to address COVID. 

Go ahead, Daniel.

Q    I have two questions.  French President Emmanuel Macron said this week that he plans to hassle the unvaccinated to try to get them to get the shot.  Since there are millions of Americans who have not been persuaded by, you know, the various government campaigns to get vaccinated, does — you know, why hasn’t the President focused more on kind of scolding the unvaccinated to try to tell them, “Hey, this is not working for society and, you know, we keep getting these shutdowns?”

MS. PSAKI:  Well, I would say that if you look just to a little over a year ago, last December, only about a third of the American people were willing to get a shot.  And today, over 85 percent of American adults have at least one shot and more than 70 percent are fully vaccinated. 

So, our objective has been to continue to convey to the American people the fact that getting vaccinated will help protect them from hospitalization, from death.  It will help protect their loved ones.  It will help protect their neighbors and their community.  And we’ve had a great deal of success in that. 

And, obviously, the French will make their own decisions about the most effective way to communicate with their public.

Q    Is there going to be any change in strategy in terms of messaging?  You know, you guys have — had, like, the Jonas Brothers and others.  But what are we — you know, Joe Rogan?  (Laughs.)

MR. PSAKI:  More Jonas Brothers.

You know, I would say, Daniel, that our approach to date has been that we have looked for trusted messengers.  And some of them may have been people who supported President Biden, and many of them were not.

And it’s been important to us to reach communities, meet people where they are, including with voices — some of them have been local officials.  We found — and this is no surprise to most people who have been covering politics — but local officials, local leaders, pediatricians, they are often the most trusted voices in communities, but also to work with voices of people who, again, may not have voted for the President but can be effective in helping encourage people to get vaccinated.

Q    Yesterday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said that Democrats’ version of the Big Lie is there are concerns that Republicans are making it harder for people to vote.  Does the White House have a response to what McConnell said?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, I would just say: Facts are facts.  And when you make it harder to vote, you make it harder to vote.  So, let’s just give a couple of examples:

Michigan Republicans have been replacing members of county boards, of canvassers who voted to certify the 2020 election results, and are replacing them, in some cases, with individuals who ascribe to the Big Lie.

Georgia passed a law that allows the state legislator to control the state election board and, in turn, allows the state elections board to remove local election officials who manage the voting and counting process. 

Texas passed a law that makes it easier for partisan poll watchers to hover around people while they vote and intimidate them. 

Montana passed a law that repeals same-day voter registration, makes it harder for people to vote by mail. 

And Republicans in Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin have been pursuing purported audits of the 2020 election — something that’s been thrown out of 80 courts in service of the Big Lie. 

So, if that is not making it more difficult to vote, I don’t know what is.  But maybe Mr. McConnell has a different definition of that. 

Go ahead.

Q    Thanks, Jen.  Ahead of the January 6th anniversary tomorrow, does the President think Attorney General Merrick Garland has done enough to investigate the attempt to overturn the 2020 election? 

And also, some Republicans are accusing Democrats of playing politics with the anniversary.  Does the President think, like, bipartisanship and relations between the two parties are better or worse off than they were a year ago?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, on the first one, we do something different here: We leave any decisions about investigations to the independent Justice Department — something that the Attorney General naturally demanded and the President wanted in his Justice Department and his Attorney General.

And in the second, I would say that what you’ll hear the President talk about tomorrow is the fact that you don’t just love your country when you win; you love your country, you love democracy in any — in any scenario. 

And what is most disappointing to him is that there has been a silence and, at times, a complacency by far too many Republicans who have sat by and defended the Big Lie and perpetuated misinformation to the American public. 

That is not meant to be a partisan — that is meant to be a statement of fact and an important reminder to people about the history of our democracy in this country.  And I think that’s what people will hear from him tomorrow. 

Q    And I have a quick follow-up.

MS. PSAKI:  I just have to get quickly around here because I don’t want to get — go ahead.

Q    I have a question on testing.  You started by talking about testing capacity and increasing testing capacity.  I’d like to know if the administration, the federal government is doing anything to increase testing processing.  We’ve seen the lines of people waiting, but they’re also waiting a long time to get those results, and that keeps society from moving forward.  So what is the administration doing to help with that processing gap?

MS. PSAKI:  I know that question was just asked on the COVID briefing.  It’s a very good question.  I believe they said they’d look into more information, so let me see if they have more on that.

Q    Okay.  And one more question for you.  Similar vein: With the Omicron variant having such a big impact — perhaps an outsized impact — than we were expecting, is the administration eyeing any additional COVID relief?  I know Jen asked about restaurant relief, but just sort of a larger package to help people sort of get this through new phase of COVID.

MS. PSAKI:  The same answer applies.  We are constantly in conversation with Congress and leadership and members about what we think and what they think the American people need in any moment. 

But it’s important, also, to remember we are in a very different place than we were a year ago or six months ago: historic records of job creation; historic economic growth across the country; historic low records of — low numbers of unemployment — low levels of unemployment, I should say; and 200 million people who are vaccinated. 

So, we’re in constant conversation.  But in terms of a prediction of a specific request, you know, I would say there are constant conversations but nothing new to report at this point in time. 

Q    Thanks, Jen.

MS. PSAKI:  Go ahead. 

Sorry, I want to — let’s — I will quickly get around to the last two — or last three. 

Go ahead.

Q    Okay.  Real quick.  I’m asking one question on behalf of a colleague who couldn’t be here — from Catherine Lucey of the Wall Street Journal: Does the White House see the Teachers Union in Chicago as an obstruction to overseeing schools?  What is their message to union leaders?

MS. PSAKI:  So, I believe I answered this a little bit earlier, and the President wants schools to be open.  He believes we have the tools for schools to be open.  And we’re going to continue to work to ensure that students are in classrooms, they are in classrooms safely, and they are for the foreseeable future.

Q    And, yesterday, New York City Mayor Eric Adams urged local businesses to return back to their offices.  We know that the President has said, you know, it’s safe to return to schools, but does he agree with this message that, you know, workers should be going back to their offices to help out the quote, you know, “financial ecosystem.”

MS. PSAKI:  Local leaders are going to make decisions about what is safe and best in their communities.  I would say that we would — we would really defer to them.

Go ahead, in the back.

Q    About the upcoming Russia talks: What are you guys expecting?  Are you expecting any concrete results after these three rounds of talks?  Or are you just happy with keeping the line of communication open with the Russians?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, I think — and hopefully, I gave a pretty extensive preview of what we expect or what we are going to — into the discussions, the three sets of talks to accomplish.  But I’m not going to make a prediction of what’s going to come out of them at this point.

Q    And just a quick follow-up.  There’s a lot of focus on: “If Russia does indeed invade Ukraine, we will have very harsh consequences for the Russian government.”  What about the status quo?  What is the White House’s position on if things don’t change and they don’t invade Ukraine?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, we are continuing to provide defensive assistance to Ukraine.  We’ve been providing assistance, and we will continue to do so in the weeks and months ahead.  And that is building on, of course, when President Zelenskyy was here. 

And we will continue to discuss, work in close coordination with our partners and allies in Europe as we work to reduce and deescalate the situation on the border. 

Go ahead.

Q    Thank you, Jen.  I have one follow on testing and then one separate question. 

The follow is: You say the CDC is driven by data, but I’m wondering what role the data about just the sheer availability of tests at this exact moment in time is playing in the guidance that they’re offering.  And once those 500 million tests and all of the various tests that the White House is procuring — once those come to market, could we see the guidance change?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, Dr. Walensky answered this question on the COVID briefing and said specifically it had nothing to do with access to tests.  And actually, there’s a wide, expansive — we’re continuing to expand the number of tests that are available, but it’s not an issue with tests — their guidance. 

Q    How is it that a child who has simply been exposed to COVID in school is going to participate in a “test to stay in school” program but someone who has actually had COVID is not required to test to reenter society?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, again, I would point you to the CDC to answer any specific questions on their guidance.  It’s driven by their own data and their own scientists. 

Q    And then on Build Back Better, CNBC and Change Research conducted a poll in late December asking various demographics about some of the legislation that’s been proposed, the state of the economy. 

Pure independents — the group of voters that secured the election for President Biden — they give the President a “D” across the board on economic issues, and only 30 percent say that Build Back Better will grow the economy and create jobs. 

What is your own internal polling telling you about whether independents want Build Back Better and whether you should recalibrate for a different set of policy proposals?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, without getting into internal polling, I will tell you that Build Back Better, as you know, hasn’t passed yet, and we are working to get it passed.  And what we see in a lot of polling is that people like the components of the pa- — of the bill, but they don’t know exactly what is in Build Back Better and what it means. 

And it’s always easier to sell a package to the public once it’s passed.  So, we’re hoping we’re going to get to that point.  That is our objective. 

I would note that while the economic data is very strong right now in a lot of areas — economic growth, job creation, low unemployment — we also understand that the way people are experiencing — the American public is experiencing life right now is through the prism of a pandemic that is alm- — we’re almost two years into. 

They’re tired of it.  They’re fatigued by it.  While it has been an unpredictable historic pandemic, they want it to be over.  And their experience with the economy isn’t — is inherently tied to that.  We understand that — that it’s less about data and more about what people are experiencing in their day-to-day life.  It doesn’t look normal.  They’re worried about there being labor shortages and there being canceled flights, or not enough teachers in school because of the spread of Omicron.  We understand that. 

So, our focus right now is on doing everything we can to continue to fight the virus.  We think that is the biggest driver in making people feel better about their daily experiences and better about, we know, the progress that has been made in the economy. 

Thanks so much, everybody.  We’ll see you tomorrow.

1:01 P.M. EST

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