James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
3:05 P.M. EST
MS. PSAKI: Hi, everyone. Happy New Year! I hope everyone had nice time with family and friends.
MS. PSAKI: Thank you.
I just have two items for you at the top.
I just wanted to highlight that yesterday President Biden, Agriculture Secretary Vilsack, and Attorney General Garland met with family and independent farmers, ranchers, independent processors from across the country to discuss the challenges they have faced as large conglomerates have absorbed more and more small processors, significantly reducing competition in the meat and poultry processing industry.
This is just one example of a broad suite of executive actions being taken by agencies across the economy that will promote competition, protect consumers and workers, and lower prices.
When dominant middlemen control so much of the supply chain, they’re able to increase their own profits at the expense of both farmers and ranchers who make less for their product and consumers at the grocery store who pay more.
So, just to be clear: Farmers, ranchers, and poultry growers — of course, they are growing the meat — or overseeing the meat. It goes to the meatpackers and processors — that is where we see the middleman; goes to grocery stores, restaurants, and other retailers; and then to consumers. And our concern is about where prices are being elevated and they should not be.
Many farmers and ranchers now have little or no choice of buyer for their product and little leverage to negotiate, causing their share of every dollar spent on food to decline.
Fifty years ago, ranchers got over 60 cents of every dollar a consumer spent on beef, compared to about 39 cents today.
Similarly, hog farmers got 40 to 60 cents on each dollar spent 50 years ago, down to about 19 cents today. So that, obviously, is a significant concern. If you see the wholesale of beef value and the cattle value, that should not be how the lines — the gap between the lines.
I just wanted to highlight again: We announced we’re investing up to $1 billion in new and expanded independent meat and poultry processing capacity, workforce development, and other assistance. All of that was included in the American Rescue Plan. We’re continuing to strengthen rules to protect farmers, ranchers, and other producers. And we’re enforcing existing competition laws vigorously and fairly. And our new White House Competition Council will make sure agencies work together as appropriate.
Finally, we’re bringing greater transparency to the industry. The USDA announced steps on that back in August, and we’ll continue to build on that.
I also just wanted to highlight that, yesterday, the Department of Justice announced two important new steps to address gun violence and keep guns out of the wrong hands.
First, they issued a final rule making clear that federally licensed firearms dealers must sell safe storage devices that are compatible with the firearms they sell. Individuals who choose to keep a firearm have a responsibility to safely store their firearms. This rule will make it easier for gun owners to purchase a safe storage device and keep guns from being stolen and used by criminals, accessed by children, or obtained by other people who shouldn’t have access to the weapon.
Second, the Department of Justice issued a best practices guide to federally licensed firearms dealers to make sure they understand their obligations to comply with the federal laws and keep guns out of the wrong hands.
And, of course, this announcement builds on the work the President and the administration did over the course of 2021, which represented more action on gun violence prevention — the executive authority — than any President in his — in a first year in office in history.
With that, Darlene, why don’t you kick us off?
Q Thanks, Jen. Happy New Year to you and your team.
MS. PSAKI: Happy New Year.
Q I just wanted to start off with getting an update on the 500 million at-home test kits that you all are supposed to be sending out at some point this month. Can you say if the contract has been signed yet? And if not, when do you expect that to be signed? And also, the website — what is the status of getting that up and running?
MS. PSAKI: Sure. Let me give you an update of where we are in the process.
So, as Jeff Zients said last week, the Department of Defense and HHS are already executing on an accelerating — accelerated contracting timeline. This is the largest, of course, over-the-counter purchase of tests to date. And the RFP — the Request for Proposal — that has been sent out to industry allows us to best understand logistics, timing, and manufacturing considerations.
So, where we are now is that the RFP has been closed as of today and we are currently evaluating the responses to it, which means we are finalizing the contracts.
While I expect we can share additional details with all of you soon — and, certainly, we hope to do that — we’re on track to start seeing movement on some of the awards through the RFP this week. So, the first deliver- — delivery for manufacturers will start later this month. That’s our expectation.
When we have those deliveries in hand, we will put the website up, make it available so that people can order tests at that point in time.
Q And then, secondly, do you have anything to share on what the President’s message will be on Thursday when he goes to the Hill for the anniversary of 1/6?
MS. PSAKI: Sure. Absolutely. I can give you some highlights at this point in time. And obviously, the President is still working through and reviewing his own remarks.
But on the afternoon — what you can expect, I should say, is that the President will speak to the historical significance of January 6th and what it means for the country one year later.
As a reminder, on the afternoon of January 6th, the President called what was happening at the Capitol then “an unprecedented assault on our democracy” and an attempt to subvert our Constitution and interfere with the peaceful transfer of power.
So, on Thursday, the President is going to speak to the truth of what happened — not the lies that some have spread since — and the peril it has posed to the rule of law and our system of democratic governments — governance.
He will also mark that day — commemorate the heroes of January 6th, especially the brave men and women of law enforcement who fought to uphold the Constitution and protect the Capitol and the lives of the people who were there. Because of their efforts, our democracy withstood an attack from a mob and the will of the more than 150 million people who voted in the presidential election was ultimately registered by Congress.
And 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. And obviously, we’ll have more to preview as we get closer to the speech.
Q Just one more.
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q Since the President didn’t take questions from us either today or yesterday, can you tell us whether he can live with a smaller Build Back Better package, or a package that doesn’t have the Child Tax Credit in it, or with only employed people qualifying for the Child Tax Credit, which is what Senator Manchin says he wants?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I can tell you that the President absolutely wants to get Build Back Better done, is committed to get it done because it will lower costs for Americans across the country — childcare, eldercare, healthcare — a lot of the areas that are impacting American families’ budgets across the country.
I can tell you that that’s — those are conversations he and many members of our senior team will continue to have with a range of senators who are involved in this process in the weeks ahead and that we’re not going to outline them in more detail from here.
And I would also just reiterate that the President sees and recognizes and values the contribution of the Child Tax Credit and what it did to help redu- — lower the — prevent 30 percent of kids from being — from being in poverty last year. And it’s something that he advocated for, he introduced, and he called for himself. So, he absolutely wants to see an extension of the Child Tax Credit.
I would note — this doesn’t answer your question, but I thought this was an interesting thing someone shared with me this morning — that the way it was designed is that payments are going out one — every month for six months. As soon as people file their taxes, they will get the other half. So, we absolutely want it to be extended. We’re going to fight for that. But there is also additional payment that will come to people who are eligible when they file their taxes.
Q Hey, Jen. Happy New Year.
MS. PSAKI: Happy New Year.
Q And since the President didn’t take questions from us, we weren’t able to clarify. He said to the — to the vaccinated and boosted, quote, “You can still get COVID,” but it’s very “unlikely” you’ll be “seriously ill” — roughly what he said.
Have we reached a point in the pandemic now where he’s basically saying to Americans, “Accept the fact you may get the virus, but if you’re vaccinated, it won’t be that bad”?
MS. PSAKI: I think what he’s saying to Americans is: We know there are going to be breakthrough cases. We’ve had them at the White House. We are seeing them across the country and, certainly, elevated rates of cases in certain communities across the country, including in Washington, D.C.
But the step that’s most important that people can take to prevent — reduce the potential for hospitalization and death is to get vaccinated, get boosted. He’s not telling anyone to accept anything. He’s just conveying to people what they can do to protect themselves.
He’s also said very clearly — and I think he’s illustrated that — this in what he said publicly, as have our doctors — that we’re going to be direct and straightforward with the American people. We know cases are going up. But we also know that if people are boosted, it is going to significantly reduce their potential to be hospitalized and certainly prevent to — to die. And that is what we’re conveying to the public.
Q Okay. So, let’s — let’s be straight here for a second: Cases are rising across the country; tests are hard to come by in many places, or there’s long lines for them; schools are closing again or having to go virtual — and that’s not just because of the weather in some parts of the country, but because of the pandemic.
There is a sense among many that the country has lost control of the virus. Would the White House agree with that?
MS. PSAKI: We would not. And here’s why: We’re in a very different place than we were a year ago, Ed. Two hundred million people are vaccinated. Those are people who are protected — seriously protected from illness and death from the virus.
We have also just purchased the largest over-the-counter purchase of tests in history: 500 million tests. That builds on the fact that we have already distributed 50 million tests back in December to rural health centers, to community health centers; the fact that we have 20,000 sites across the country where you can get free tests; the fact that, next week, people can get reimbursed for their tests. And we are going to continue to build on that.
It also — on schools, I would say: Ninety-seven percent of schools are open across the country. And the President wants school to be open. That’s why, months ago, even when people questioned his advocacy for this funding, he advocated for $130 million in the American Rescue Plan and $10 billion to cover testing, even when many people said that was not necessary and was not needed.
That has all been distributed to states. If states have not used it — and some have not — and if school districts have not used it, now is the time to use it.
So, I would note that we have taken steps to prepare for any contingency, any moment. And we’re working to implement and build on that from here.
Q He mentioned — you just mentioned outbreaks here at the White House. Is it a large number? Is it anyone — I know there’s a policy that you’re only really going to let us know if it’s the top four individuals in the government or their spouses, but has there been a wide outbreak here in the West Wing or across the White House campus?
MS. PSAKI: Well, our policy is that — which I think is important for the public to know, because it is in the public interest to know —
MS. PSAKI: — and, of course, your interest: If there is anyone who has a close contact, as deemed by the White House Medical Unit, with the President, the Vice President, the First Lady, or the Second Gentleman, we will make that information available, as we have done, as those instances have occurred.
And I was only conveying there are breakthrough cases here. There’s 2,000 people who work on the White House complex, right? The — 99 percent of them are vaccinated, and there will be breakthrough cases here. Thanks to the vaccination, those cases have been mild.
But again, there are — there are rising case numbers across the country, and we expect to be in line with that.
Q And just on another topic — and you kind of discussed this with Darlene — but Senator Durbin today suggested that Build Back Better has kind of taken a backburner spot — to add the B’s.
MS. PSAKI: There’s a lot of alliteration there.
Q — a lot of “B’s” there — as voting rights pushes ahead, as we near the MLK holiday.
Is that the White House’s stance right now — that voting rights is, sort of, issue number one up there, or should be?
MS. PSAKI: Well, we’re working — and you’ve seen, I’m sure, the “Dear Colleague” letter that Leader Schumer put out just a couple of days ago, and we’re working in lockstep with Leader Schumer on that, on getting voting rights done. He’s obviously put a timeline for that. We’re going to work with him on getting that done.
But that doesn’t change our commitment to Build Back Better.
Q Thanks, Jen. Why hasn’t the CDC revised the definition of what it means to be “fully vaccinated” yet, given that the President has spoken about boosters for months now?
MS. PSAKI: Sure. It’s a good question, Jacqui. I don’t speak for the CDC. Obviously, they speak for themselves, given they are — they make decisions based on data and science.
So I would point you to them. I know they have a COVID briefing tomorrow.
Q Well, we’ve had the President, you know, emphasizing the importance of boosters for months. And, you know, people have to ask the question, or a lot of people are asking the question, you know: Would revising the guidance cause some sort of logistical or political or economic consequence that the White House isn’t ready to embrace — something like, you know, not being able to go to restaurants or people go to offices or industries that have suffered labor shortages?
MS. PSAKI: We have boosters — we have boosters available for every American. They can get boosted now, regardless of what the CDC guidance is, whether you were just approved for the booster or you were approved weeks ago.
Q So do you expect, then, that that guidance will change eventually?
MS. PSAKI: It’s up to the CDC, and they make those decisions based on data and science.
Q Will we have any update on when they might make a decision on that, given that there’s been so much time?
MS. PSAKI: I encourage you to ask them that question when they participate in the COVID briefing tomorrow.
Q Okay. And then, similar line of questioning —
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q — but this time about the FDA.
MS. PSAKI: Okay.
Q There have been some decisions by the FDA over the last few months that have happened without consulting the panel of independent experts that we saw for authorizations for the vaccines themselves. We haven’t seen that with boosters.
A couple examples: On the 19th of November, FDA authorized the booster for all adults; 29th, the CDC announced people 18-plus should get boosters. December 9th, they — the FDA authorized boosters for 16- and 17-year-olds. Then, just yesterday, the FDA amended the emergency use authorization for the Pfizer booster for kids ages 12 to 15.
So, I guess my question is: Why has the protocol been different with the boosters than it was for the emergency use authorization for the vaccine itself?
MS. PSAKI: Jacqui, the FDA makes their own decisions, not driven by what the White House is telling them what to do. So, I would point you to the FDA to get any comment on that.
Q So, it doesn’t — I guess, then, the White House is not — or the FDA is not getting rid of its independent panel of experts by any White House guidance?
MS. PSAKI: Absolutely not. And again, I think they would confirm that themselves. And I think what’s important to step back here is — recognize we’re still in the middle of a pandemic. There are still far too many people who are not vaccinated. There are still kids who are at risk because there are not enough people — adults vaccinated. And I think what we’re all collectively trying to do here is protect more people and save more lives, whether you work here or at the CDC or the FDA.
Q Is the President, then, okay with the FDA making these authorizations without calling their panel of experts?
MS. PSAKI: Again, I would point you to the FDA, and they can speak to their decision-making process.
Q Okay. And then, real quick, on the Florida surgeon general and testing: What’s your reaction to his comments that the U.S. needs to “unwind” its “testing psychology,” where people are planning their lives around testing? Is that sound medical advice, in the White House view?
MS. PSAKI: I would really point to our own health and medical experts on when tests should be administered and utilized and our focus on making them more available, accessible, and free to the public.
Q And then, real —
MS. PSAKI: Oh, go ahead.
Q — real quick: Is there any reason why the CDC did not include a testing component when it revised its guidance for isolation? Given that there is such a scarcity of tests, there’s been some criticism that, you know, the CDC couldn’t tell people they should get tested when they emerged from isolation because then people would try to get tests and they’re not available, and it might blow back onto the administration.
MS. PSAKI: Again, the CDC makes these decisions. I expect they’ll have an updated guidance if it hasn’t already gone out.
Q Thank you. Can you —
MS. PSAKI: Oh, sorry, Kaitlan, I’ll come back to you.
Q Can you give us an update on the President’s selection — you’ll be shocked to hear me ask this —
MS. PSAKI: The Fed!
Q — the Fed, yes — you know, and, in particular, whether he’s made the decisions? Is it a question of the announcement not having been done but the decisions are made?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have anything more for you at this moment. I expect we will have more soon, and I will let this President speak to his decision and whom he will select.
Q My colleague, Katia Dmitrieva, and Jennifer Jacobs — they were reporting that economist Philip Jefferson is likely to be nominated for one of the seats. And he would be just the fourth Black man to hold a position on the central bank’s board in its history.
Can you comment on Mr. Jefferson’s candidacy or whether — or what role equity will be playing in the President’s determinations for all these seats?
MS. PSAKI: Sure. I can’t speak to an individual name. I can say that it has been a priority for the President to ensure that there — that equity and making sure there are diverse choices and diverse leaders representing different roles in the Federal Reserve. Just as it has been a priority for him in other points — in parts of his government, it is an important part of his decision-making process.
Q And could we just go back to the testing issue?
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q Do you have a sense of how long the 500 million will be, you know, spread out in terms of timeline? They’ll start in January, but —
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q — when will all 500 be available?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have an update on that at this point in time. Certainly understand the question. I expect as we finalize the contracts, which we’re in the process of doing, we’ll have more information on that.
But, again, we expect the first shipment from manufacturers to come soon.
Q And on testing: One of the — some of the biggest retailers — Walmart and Kroger — have raised the price of Abbott’s BinaxNOW test. They’ve been selling it at cost because the detail — deal — excuse me — with the White House that expired. They are now about 19, 20 bucks, and they were at about 14 per box of two tests.
I’m wondering whether there any talks ongoing with retailers to bring that price back down to an at-cost level or whether you’re confident that the increasing supply of tests will more or less work itself out in the market.
MS. PSAKI: Well, I can’t give you an update on any conversations. I can tell you that our objective is, of course, to increase and scale up access to free tests. Hence, next week, people who have health insurance — 150 million Americans — will be able to get those tests or get reimbursed for those tests, hence making — ordering of — sending 500 million tests for free out to Americans — 20,000 free testing sites, 50 million tests that we’ve already given out.
So that is our focus from the federal government. Obviously, we want a competitive market out there that will lower the cost of tests over the course of time as well.
Q And, sorry, one more: The President’s announcement today on the therapeutics — the ordering of more Pfizer courses — has he ruled out ordering more of Merck’s pill, which was easier and quicker to make but had less effective results in its clinical trial?
MS. PSAKI: He hasn’t ordered — he hasn’t ruled anything out. I would say this is — just as you’ve seen with any of our steps on COVID, whether it’s the antivirals or other steps that have been approved out there in the market — the monoclonal antibodies — we’re going to continue to build on the orders we have done to date. So this is just the recent step to expand what we have in our medicine cabinet.
Q All right. Thank you.
MS. PSAKI: Go ahead.
Q Thanks so much, Jen. With the CDC expected to update its guidance on isolating today and the confusion that the agency generated over that guidance last week on what you should and should not do after you’ve tested positive, I’m wondering if the President himself thinks that the CDC has been clear on that.
MS. PSAKI: Well, what I can tell you, Kaitlan, is that CDC is offering its updated guidance in real-time of a fast-moving and changing pandemic environment. And we’ve seen them change guidance and update guidance on other occasions. They made this recommendation last week based on science.
The vast majority of transmission, infectiousness occurs in the first five days after diagnosis with COVID-19, somewhere in the range of 85 to 90 percent. If people are asymptomatic, five days of strict mask-wearing will prevent future transmission.
Obviously, they are expected to update that today. I’m not sure if any information has gone out on that at this point in time, so I won’t speak to that ahead of them.
But they are just continuing to assess every day, every week what information can — they can update on based on the science. And sometimes that means changing recommendations, that means adding to recommendations. But that’s what happens when you lead with the data and the science and not — lead with a clear communications plan.
Q Well, last week, Director Walensky did say that it wasn’t just the science, it was also what people can tolerate. And I don’t really think that much has changed in the last week. So I just am wondering if the White House thinks that the CDC is doing its best to offer the clearest guidance possible to people, because it seems like they’re generating a lot of confusion when they do offer guidance.
MS. PSAKI: Well, our objective is to provide clarity and help provide clarity on their decisions whenever we can. And so that’s why I just listed out why they made the recommendation, based on the science, on the 5 days — the change to 5 days from 10 days.
Q On testing and the rule that’s going to go into effect next week, where private insurers will reimburse people for the tests that they’re buying at home, you still have to file a claim for each test. Is that correct?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have — that’s a good question. I don’t have the details of exactly how it would work. I would assume some version of filing a claim or filing paperwork, but I can get you more specifics on it.
Q Has the administration done the math and added up the cost of what it would be to just make these at-home tests either one dollar, like some other countries have done, or free for everyone?
MS. PSAKI: Well, we’ve looked at a range of options. I would say that what — when — they’re free for everyone. They’re actually — a lot of countries have done what we’re about to do — right? — which is, for people who want tests, they can request them online and get them for free.
I don’t know of countries — maybe there are some — that have sent them to every person living in their country. This is about making them free and accessible to the people who want them, and we want to do that. And there are some countries who have done that — some who’ve had to stop doing that because they haven’t had enough access to tests to continue programs like that.
Q Right. But we’re still waiting on the details for that.
I do want to switch subjects just for one more question. Why has the President not nominated an ambassador to Ukraine yet? And does he plan to do so soon?
MS. PSAKI: He absolutely plans to nominate an ambassador to Ukraine. Just like any position, he’s always looking to find the right person to nominate to fill the role — an important one.
Q Has he interviewed people for that position?
MS. PSAKI: I’m not going to get into more details about a personnel process.
Q Thank you.
MS. PSAKI: Go ahead.
Q Jen, Happy New Year to you.
MS. PSAKI: Happy New Year.
Q So, Senator Manchin — he presented a proposal to you on December 14th, an outline of a Build Back Better framework that included $1.75 trillion in spending. Is — to your knowledge, is that still available as a fallback position?
MS. PSAKI: I’m just not going to get into private discussions or conversations with any members of the Senate from here. I know that’s maybe a change, but we feel that’s the best way that this is going to work to get this done.
Q Got it. Okay so — and just on — I mean, if — had you taken that framework and put it through the legislative process, we could have text the Senate could be moving towards a vote this week on something that Senator Manchin supports. Why is it that you haven’t decided to —
MS. PSAKI: Have you done a vote count on the former proposal?
Q I have not. Please correct me if that’s — if that’s wrong. But why not — if he’s, kind of, the major stumbling block to getting legislation passed, why not go with something that he endorsed a month ago?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think, Trevor, it’s important to note that — and I think as Senator Manchin noted earlier today — we have a very slim majority in the Senate. That means you need every single senator from across the spectrum of the Democratic Party agreeing to what a package looks like moving forward.
We’re not naïve about how challenging that is and how challenging it can be, but we feel good about the possibility of getting something done. What the final package looks like, I can’t outline that for you at this point in time. I would note that when he spoke earlier today, he also said he saw a lot of good things in the package and a lot of good basis for discussion. And there’s agreement among Democrats about lowering costs for Americans, about lowering the cost of healthcare, lowering the cost of childcare, lowering the cost of eldercare. That’s a very strong basis.
We’ve got to work through the details, and we’ll keep having those conversations privately.
Q But you don’t think his framework would pass?
MS. PSAKI: Again, I’m not going to give you a vote count or whip count from here, but I think it’s important to note that you need 50 votes in order to — you need every single Democrat to support a package in order for it to move forward, even through reconciliation.
Q And is there any plan to reengage with him at any point on this?
MS. PSAKI: We’re going to keep those engagements and conversations private.
Q Okay. Then, another topic. Back in the summertime, when OPEC said that it was going to boost production of crude oil by 400,000 barrels per day, Sullivan said it’s “simply not enough” during a “critical moment in the global recovery.”
Today, OPEC stuck with that decision to keep the exact same amount of oil production increase. Why is the White House’s reaction different this time?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would say first, since you gave me the opportunity: We do appreciate the close coordination over the recent weeks with our partners — Saudi Arabia, UAE, and other OPEC Plus producers — to help address price pressures. We welcome OPEC Plus decision to continue increases in production.
And together with our recent release from the SPR, we believe this should help facilitate the global economic recovery. We’ll continue to monitor prices in the context of global economic growth and engage our OPEC Plus partners as appropriate.
And obviously, as we said at the time, our objective is ensuring that the supply out there meets the demand. Obviously, we took our own steps in coordination with others as well.
Q But they haven’t made any changes to their — what they’re doing. So why — why is the message different?
MS. PSAKI: Again, we took steps on our own. Right? We have taken steps in coordination with other countries around the world. And our objective is to ensure that the supply out there meets the demand. We’ll continue to have conversations if we have ongoing concerns.
Go ahead. Oh, go ahead. Go ahead.
Q Hey, Jen —
MS. PSAKI: Sorry, I just jumped around there. It was a confusing pen point.
Q Okay. Well, Happy New Year to you.
MS. PSAKI: Happy New Year.
Q Yes. So, the President, he’s making remarks on Thursday, as you said. And he has often denounced the January 6th events. But could you talk a little bit about why he refrains, to the extent that he does (inaudible), from condemning ex-President Trump personally, not just for January 6th, but for his ongoing campaign — which is very persistent, almost daily, maybe at least weekly — to discredit Americans’ faith in the election process?
So, in short, does President Biden think that his predecessor is acting normally, or does he think he’s a threat to democracy, which is what some people would say?
MS. PSAKI: You know, I have to say, I don’t think we’ve held back on this front. I mean, President Trump’s role in subverting our Constitution, attempting to block the peaceful transfer of power, and defending a mob that attacked our Capitol and law enforcement has been well documented. And it’s something obviously the President spoke about in terms of that being one of the worst days in our democracy.
And he’ll speak to — as I noted a little bit earlier, he’ll speak to the historical significance of January 6th — what it means for the country one year later; the importance of the peaceful transfer of power, which, obviously, the prior administration and the prior President weren’t a part of.
And — but I think there’s a larger message here to the country about who we are and who we need to be, moving forward.
Q Does he consider ex-President Trump to be a threat to democracy?
MS. PSAKI: I think he’s spoken to this in the past.
Q Okay. On the same issue, but a little more broadly: The polls keep showing, again and again, that something like 70 percent of Trump voters think the election was rigged, that President Biden is not legitimate, and so on.
Is there anything that President Biden feels he should have already done or is there anything he feels he still can do to actually talk directly to those people and try and get, you know, people’s reality to match a bit more in this country?
MS. PSAKI: I think what he’s going to continue to do is speak to everyone in the country — those who didn’t vote for him, those who may not believe he is the legitimate President — about what he wants to do to make their lives better. And he sees that as his responsibility as the President of the United States. That’s what he will continue to do.
Q Thanks, Jen. Happy New Year. So, Senator Schumer just said that he and Senator Manchin talked numerous times during the break, mostly on voting rights but also on Build Back Better. And he also says that the White House will be having more talks, with Manchin’s, quote, “participation and cooperation” on Build Back Better.
So can I ask: Did the President and Senator Manchin talk at all over the break?
MS. PSAKI: We obviously confirm the conversation they had two weeks ago. I don’t have any more conversations to confirm for you.
Q Thank you. And given what Schumer said about more talks in the future, do you know the next time they’ll talk about this (inaudible)?
MS. PSAKI: I am not going to predict that for you, but I can assure you that the President and members of our senior team will, of course, be in touch with a range of senators who care deeply about moving Build Back Better forward.
Q Can I clarify something on the —
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q — testing delivery timeline?
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q You said the first deliveries go out later this month, then the website goes up, then people can sign up. So probably, those tests — people can expect end of this month, early February to their home?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think what I was trying to convey, perhaps not as articulate — articulately as I meant to, is that we will put the website up when the tests are available to be sent — right? — as to not cause any confusion.
So, I think the timeline I provided was that — for the first delivery for manufacturers will start later this month. And obviously, then we will work to get it out the door as quickly as possible.
Q So given that a lot of experts are saying, “If Omicron follows the surge it did in South Africa, it could be peaking here as early as next week and probably start declining by the end of the month,” is there some concern that these tests are being provided too late, when the worst is already behind us?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would say, first, that there’s unprecedented demand — we know that — right now for tests; there was in advance of the holidays for understandable reasons. People wanted to see loved ones. They wanted to ensure they tested before they saw loved ones. And we were not where we needed to be; we’re still not.
What we’ve done is try to do this as quickly as possible through an expedited, accelerated contracting process to ensure that tests are available for free to people across the country as quickly as possible.
Now, at the same time, we know that online and in retail stores across the country they are restocking shelves with tests. That is a good thing. We are continuing to open more federal testing sites, as we have done in New York and different cities that have been hardest hit across the country. And we continue to have 20,000 free sites across the country.
So, we’re not working on one channel. We are doing it as quickly as we can to get these 500 million tests in our hands, doing it through an accelerated expedited process, but we’ve also taken a number of additional steps to ensure — the federal testing sites, just to note, are in New Jersey, D.C., New York City, and Philadelphia. Those are some of the places, just to give you a sense. And we’ll continue to build on that, which we have the capacity to do.
Q Given the surge that we’re seeing now, is it fair to say if those free tests had been made available earlier — before the holidays, before people traveled and where contacting gatherings occurred — would we not be seeing the same numbers we’re seeing today? Wouldn’t it have prevented some of that spread?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t know that we can make a prediction of that. It’s a good question to ask the doctors.
Look, I would say though and again reiterate, as the President said before Christmas: We were not where we needed to be. What he did do is he quadrupled our testing capacity from the summer to December. He made 50 million tests available at rural health centers and community health centers in December to expand that access. We opened these federal testing sites in December.
So, these were steps we took to, as quickly as possible, expedite our capacity, even in December, as the demand — the unprecedented demand was rising, and doing everything we could at an accelerated pace.
Of course, you know, we would’ve liked to have more in our hands earlier.
Q Can I ask a —
MS. PSAKI: Go ahead.
Q — follow-up quickly on the Child —
MS. PSAKI: Oh, go ahead.
Q — just Child Tax Credit question. We know those aren’t going to hit families’ accounts this month — right? —
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q — even though there’s relief down the line. But for families who were relying on it month to month, is there any talk of executive action or anything from the White House to provide more relief for them?
MS. PSAKI: We are always looking at how we can help provide relief to American families and the American people. If you — if Build Back Better were to pass in February, there is an option of doing retroactive checks. But I would note that our objective is to get this passed. The President wants to see the Child Tax Credit extended.
Q To follow up on testing then, if it’s going to take that long.
MS. PSAKI: I should say in January — sorry. In January to do February, if that makes sense.
MS. PSAKI: Yeah, go ahead.
Q Along those same lines, for people who see those long testing lines — you have more sites, but it’s cold out; people don’t want to wait in that. You swing by CVS, there are no tests.
While waiting for all this expanded capacity, what is your advice to people who may be going back to college and want to take a test or they want to go see their grandparents, or whatever it might be? If their workplace says, “We want you to take a self-test before you walk in,” what can people do in the meantime until that capacity does get built up?
MS. PSAKI: Well, it depends on the person, which is a hard question to answer. But I would say that there are still many doctors’ offices that are administering tests. If somebody has health insurance, that’s something that you can go do.
Everyone does not have health insurance. There are community health centers, rural health centers. You can go look online and see if there is one near you and go to that.
We have just opened a number of federal testing sites in New Jersey, D.C., New York City, and Philadelphia. We will continue to expand those — big federal testing sites — and we have 20,000 free sites across the country.
Different communities and states are doing — taking different steps. Some libraries are providing tests. Some community buildings are providing tests. It really depends community to community.
If tests are required, there’s a number of steps and we’re — that people can take, and we’re working to expand that as quickly as possible.
Q And lastly, you had mentioned rising cases, the President mentioned rising cases a little while ago — every doctor has said that. We’ve also heard from Dr. Fauci and other doctors saying, “That’s not the number to look at. We know they’re going to go up, but maybe hospitalizations is a better case.”
MS. PSAKI: I think — yeah, that’s an important point.
Q What’s the President’s barometer? Is there one number that he kind of gauges to get an idea of where the country is right now?
MS. PSAKI: Well, what I was trying to say in response to Ed’s question — again, maybe not as articulately as I’d like — is, as Dr. Fauci said, one of the areas that we are concerned about and focused on is hospital capacity and that — how that is impacting medical professionals and the capacity for hospitals to take people in. So, we look at a range of metrics, but we certainly look at that as we see rising cases.
It is fortunate in many areas that the vast, vast majority, if not all of the people, who are going to hospitals — are unvaccinated — not in every community; it depends community to community. So that’s why we are also continuing to echo and advocate for people to get vaccinated, to get boosted to protect themselves. That’s the most important step they can take.
But certainly, as Dr. Fauci said, we are looking at and concerned about hospitalizations — or capacity given hospitalizations.
Go ahead, in the back.
Q Back to testing: How can employers be obligated to test unvaccinated workers when there’s such a shortage right now? And what will OSHA do when it starts enforcing this rule in a few days when employers say, “Well, sorry, we can’t comply because we can’t find any tests”?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would first say that two thirds of employ- — of companies — almost two thirds of companies have taken steps to put in place either vaccination requirements or testing requirements. They’re all implementing it in a different way. And the leadership of these companies is making a decision about what works best for their workforce.
Giving that option is something, certainly, we support. Obviously, getting vaccinated — they’re free across the country, available across the country — is also a very easy option for many people, and many companies are opting to do that.
As OSHA works to implement and work with companies to do that, our objective and what we’re continuing to focus on is continuing to increase capacity of free tests that are targeted more though at individuals and households, less than companies. And obviously, to work, there’s now nine tests that are approved to go to market that different companies and different school districts and others can have direct contact with.
So, there’s a range of ways to get access to tests, and we’re working to increase capacity to make them free and accessible to households and individuals across the country.
Q So, are you saying it’s up to workers to find tests themselves if they must be tested to go to work rather than their employer providing them?
MS. PSAKI: Actually, I’m saying — and I think what I said pretty clearly — is that different companies — about 60 percent of them have already implemented — are implementing the test or vaccine requirements in different ways — company to company, employer to employer. So — and many of them have done it extremely successfully, including many of the airlines, a number of huge hospital systems.
And this has helped make — remember what the objective is here. The objective is to make workplaces safer, to provide more security to people.
If you look at the data that just came out this morning, JOLTS — that was a shout-out to Bloomberg; they’ll get that — they’ll get that reference — data that came out today — there are still many people who are fearful about going back to work. That is one of the reasons why it’s important to put in place these requirements and why employers have taken the step to provide that certainty to people in their workplaces as well.
Q I want to ask one more question related to the workforce. The White House labor task force, led by Vice President Harris, was supposed to release a report in October about how the federal government can boost unionization in this country in a variety of employers. It’s January 4th and that report has not come out yet. What’s going on? And does the — do the President and Vice President still care about this initiative, given everything else that’s going on?
MS. PSAKI: I would say the President has been an advocate for collective bargaining rights, for the rights of workers, for the str- — for strong unions, for six — five decades of his career, and I think that speaks for itself. And the Vice President, while a little younger — not in public office quite as long, but has also been a strong advocate for the rights of workers.
And so, I think that speaks for itself. Of course, this is an initiative they ini- — they put forward. I am certain I can check on the status of the report.
Q Thanks, Jen. A couple of topics, if you don’t mind.
As you know, the anniversary of the opening of Guantanamo Bay detention facility is next week.
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q The President promised to close it. You reiterated that in February. What’s taking so long?
MS. PSAKI: Well, let me first say that the National Security Council continues to work closely with the Departments of Defense, State, and Justice and other departments and agencies to do exactly that.
I would note — and I know this was put out during a very crazy, holiday period of time, but in the President’s statement on the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2022, he outlined that:
“Section 1032 of the Act continues to bar the use of funds to transfer Guantánamo Bay detainees to the custody or effective control of certain foreign countries, and Section 1033 of the Act bars the use of funds to transfer Guantánamo Bay detainees into the United States unless certain conditions are met.
It is the longstanding position of the executive branch that [those] provisions unduly impair the ability of the executive branch to determine when and where to prosecute Guantánamo Bay detainees…In some circumstances these provisions could make it difficult to comply with the final judgment of a court that has directed the release of a detainee…In addition, the limitations in Section 1032 of the Act constrain the flexibility of the executive branch with respect to its engagement in delicate negotiations with foreign countries over the potential transfer of detainees.”
There are only 39 remaining individuals at Guantanamo Bay, but I just wanted to highlight that piece that was in the NDAA statement because we feel it’s obviously creating a burden and a hindrance to our progress here.
Q So it’s the foreign — the transfer to foreign countries that’s causing delays essentially?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think I listed three cur- — three car- — clear pieces there and limitations on how funding can be used, and how this — this Section 1032 also limits, at times, how an individual can be released, as well as, three: how we can negotiate and communicative with foreign countries about it.
Q But some of them have been awaiting trials for years. What — what’s causing — why is that taking so long?
MS. PSAKI: Again, I would say this is what we see as one of the major, if not the major hindrance. Beyond that, I would point you to — point you to the Department of Defense.
But there are 39 remaining individuals there. And obviously our commitment continues to be to close Guantanamo Bay.
Q One other topic. The Iranian president said yesterday, as the talks begin in Vienna again, that President Trump — former President Trump should be put on trial for the killing of General Soleimani. I’m wondering if I can get your reaction to that and whether that hinders discussions around the — Iran’s nuclear future this week.
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would say that I don’t have any direct comment on his comments. I would note that he has his own politics and his own audience that he speaks to, just as many country — leaders in other countries do.
But, right now, Special Envoy Malley is currently leading an interagency delegation to the eighth round of talks in Vienna, which resumed on January 3rd. There was modest progress in talks last week, and we hope to build on that this week.
What is clear is that if we do not soon reach an understanding on mutual return to compliance, Iran’s accelerating nuclear steps will hollow out the JCPOA. So, our priority remains reaching and implementing a rapid mutual return. And I expect those negotiations will focus on those topics at hand, not comments of any leaders around the world.
Q A couple of different topics here as well. First, from the administration’s point of view, given what we’ve learned from the January 6th Select Committee, does it appear the Capitol riot played some kind of role in an overall coordinated effort to overturn the democratic process? So, something longer perhaps and more than just one day.
MS. PSAKI: Just so I understand your question, are you saying — talk a little bit more. Tell me a little bit more about what you’re trying to ask.
Q Yeah, sure. So, there’s the isolated events of that day —
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q — but there’s also the investigation that goes back much further and spans more time. Does it appear that there’s that sort of longer throw there than just what occurred on January 6th at the Capitol, based on what we know from the select committee?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I’m not going to speak for the select committee. And obviously, they will speak for when the conclusion of their report will be and what details.
I would note that we have conveyed our concern in the past about the fact that many Republican members of Congress have stood by the “Big Lie” since then. They were outraged at the time about — many of them — about the events that happened on January 6th. Who could not be who was watching them? And since then, they have done nothing to help support the work of the committee, to help argue against the “Big Lie.” And, you know, that sort of lack of action, inaction, silence, you know, is something that is irresponsible as well.
Q And then —
MS. PSAKI: Oh, go ahead.
Q Sorry, another from Todd Gillman, a fellow (inaudible) seat —
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q — rotation at the Dallas Morning News. Does the White House have a reaction to Senator Cruz saying President Biden may be impeached if the Republicans take back the House next year, specifically for the border policies?
MS. PSAKI: Well, our reaction is: Maybe Senator Cruz can work with us on getting something done on comprehensive immigration reform and putting in place measures that will help make sure smart security is what we see at the border, taking a more humane approach to the border instead of name calling, accusation calling, and making predictions of the future.
Q Thank you, Jen. I have questions about voting rights and also about political appointments. On voting rights, the midterm elections are 10 months away. Is the President concerned that the window is closing to pass legislation that could have an impact on how people vote in the midterm elections?
MS. PSAKI: I’m not going to make a prediction of that. What I will say and what the President will talk about in his speech on Thursday is also that, you know, people came out — the American public came out in record numbers last November and participated in our democracy, and we shouldn’t underestimate the role of the movement and — grassroots movement of the public to have their voices heard.
But he absolutely feels that getting voting rights done is fundamental, it’s essential. He’s going to work in close lockstep with Leader Schumer and others in Congress to get this done.
But I’m not going to make a prediction at this point on the timeline. It’s obviously a first priority for them in the Senate.
Q Is it a first priority for the President?
MS. PSAKI: Yes, he’s working with Leader Schumer on it.
Q In December, he said at South Carolina State University, “We’re going to keep up the fight until we get it done.” What does that look like? What does the fight look like for voting rights for President Biden?
MS. PSAKI: It means getting it passed into law and signing it into law.
Q So what steps is he taking over the next several weeks to make that happen?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would — I would first say that the President has — you can expect to hear more from him soon, and I’m not going to get too far ahead of that.
But the President has taken a range of steps within his own authority on voting rights, whether it is signing a historic executive order early in his presidency, supporting the efforts of the Department of Justice to increase funding for the protection of people’s fundamental rights across the country. And he also spoke to his commitment or openness to making changes to the process to protect people’s constitutional rights, should that be the point we get to.
This is obviously going to be front and center on the Senate’s agenda when they return, and he’s looking forward to being a part of that.
Q On political appointments, the President, right now, has had 266 political appointments confirmed by the Senate. That is roughly on par where President Trump was in his administration at this time. It’s about 100 less than where Presidents Obama and Presidents Bush were at this time in their first years in office. Is that lower number of political appointments impacting how President Biden can govern and implement his policies within the executive branch?
MS. PSAKI: Well, so, just for the specific numbers — and you gave a number of these — but we ended 2020 — 2021, I should say, with more than 300 of President Biden’s nominees for Senate-confirmed positions pending confirmation by the Senate. Approximately half were on the executive calendar and awaiting a floor vote — just to give you all a sense — meaning they could have moved forward; more of these could have moved forward.
Many of our nominees have received overwhelming support and majorities from Democrats and Republicans. And the process, for most of the time in the Senate, was wound up in lengthy debates when, really, there could have been unanimous consent votes and moved many of them forward.
So, our — the President’s view is, of course, having the people that he has nominated, selected — highly qualified individuals — leading departments, running different parts of agencies — small, large agencies that impact people’s lives across the country — is important and imperative to getting his agenda done and moving things forward.
Obviously, there are career employees who — ensuring effectively that agencies are running. But, of course, he wants to have his team in place — his people leading these agencies to continue to move his agenda forward.
Q Does he want the Senate and Senate leadership to spend more floor time on pushing nominations through?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think there’s a way to move them forward without consuming hours and hours and days of floor time. We’ve seen some agreements. And we were — we were encouraged by the agreement that happened right before the winter holiday to move a number of nominees forward. And we’re hopeful we can push more forward in the weeks ahead.
Q But there are still 141 positions where there has been no nominee put forward. Why is that?
MS. PSAKI: Again, I think the President, one, is eager to have these nominees he has nominated confirmed; that’s something the Senate can do — Congress can do. And there are nominations. He wants to find the right person to fill the position.
Go ahead. Last one.
Q Thank you, Jen. And Happy New Year.
MS. PSAKI: Happy New Year.
Q I have two questions. One for a colleague who couldn’t be here.
MS. PSAKI: Okay.
Q My first one is that Tesla opened an electric car showroom last week in Xinjiang, just days after President Biden signed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act into law. Does the White House have any comment? And will it do more to discourage American companies from doing business in Xinjiang?
MS. PSAKI: Sure. Yes. So, I can’t speak to the specific situation of one company, but as a general matter, we believe the private sector should oppose the PRC’s human rights abuses and genocide in Xinjiang.
The international community, including the public and private sectors, cannot look the other way when it comes to what is taking place in Xinjiang.
As we’ve said before, companies that fail to address forced labor in the supply chains — in their supply chains and other human rights abuses face serious legal, reputational, and customer risks, not just in the United States but in Europe and around the world.
And we’ve been clear about our views on the ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang. We will continue to hold the PRC accountable.
I would also note that we’re committed to taking action to assure — ensure our supply chains are free from forced labor, including with the bipartisan Uyghur Forced [Labor] Prevention Act the President signed last month and, obviously, our continued leadership on the world stage.
Q Great. And one more is on — in light of the surge of Omicron variant and many events like the 2+2 security talks going virtual, is the U.S. considering shifting this month’s U.S.-ASEAN Summit to a virtual format, or will you still do in person?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have any changes to the format to preview at this point in time, but we’ll check and we’ll keep you all updated.
Thanks so much, everyone.
3:56 P.M. EST