Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jen Psaki, November 29, 2021
MS. PSAKI: Hi, everyone.
MS. PSAKI: Happy post-Thanksgiving, salad-eating days, I guess. (Laughter.)
Okay, a couple of items for all of you at the top. As you all know, today is Cyber Monday — one of the biggest shopping days of the year.
The President will convene a roundtable shortly with CEOs and leaders of major retailers and grocers to hear about their expectation and preparation for a robust holiday shopping season. We’ve already seen some evidence of that over the last several days.
This event will include CEOs from Best Buy, Food Lion, Etsy, Walmart, Mattel, and more. The President will also share a message directly to Americans consumers. Throughout the holidays, products will be on shelves and consumers will be able to purchase what they want and need.
The event follows early estimates that Black Friday sales were up nearly a third since last year. In-store sales were up by even more than that. And we’re hearing similar reports from Small Business Saturday.
After the remarks, the President will deliver — after the roundtable — sorry — the President will deliver remarks on the administration’s work to strengthen the nation’s supply chains, lower everyday costs for families, and ensure that shelves are well stocked this holiday season.
As you all know, the President is headed to chilly Minnesota tomorrow, and he — I wanted to give you a little bit of a preview of that. He will travel to Rosemount, Minnesota, to highlight how the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will deliver concrete results for communities, create good-paying union jobs, and position America to compete and win the 21st century.
He will visit Dakota County Tech — a technical and community college that illustrates how similar institutions across the country will train the next generation of workers and rebuild America’s infrastructure.
The majority of jobs supported by the President’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill will not need a four-year college degree. And the programs provided by community and technical colleges like Dakota County Technical College will provide the training and skill development needed to help workers access the jobs created.
Paired with the historic $24 billion investments in workforce development in the President’s Build Back Better Agenda, schools like Dakota County Technical College will prepare millions of workers with high-quality jobs in growing sectors and will help rebuild and transform the work- — the workforce.
After visiting the college, he will deliver remarks on how the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will deliver for the American people, create good-paying union jobs, lower prices by improving the infrastructure for our supply chains.
And this is also, of course, a part of our ongoing effort to go out there and tell the American people how this bill — this law, I should say, will benefit them.
Q Thanks, Jen. A couple of questions on Omicron and one on the Iran talks. I know we got to wrap at 1:45.
MS. PSAKI: Yeah. And we’ll give you a note — we will note if he’s running a little bit late. And if you have a little bit more time, we’ll keep going. So, go ahead.
Q Great, thanks. So, off the top, the President seemed pretty confident Omicron is going to crop up in the U.S. Can you talk a little bit about when we might expect that to happen, how the White House will inform the public of its spread?
And then, I know it’s going to take a couple of weeks for us or the administration to have a handle on all the issues related to this variant.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
Q What’s — why will it take a couple of weeks? Is the President confident in that timeline? Is he all right with that? Or would he like the scientists to speed up?
And then, lastly, on boosters — he talked about the need for boosters. Does the White House have any plan to ramp up its promotion of boosters beyond what we’ve seen from the President?
MS. PSAKI: Sure. Let me start with the timeline, because I think this is an important piece for the American people to understand what the process is and what the scientists are working on.
So, first and foremost, as you all know, we have a top-notch set of — group of scientists across the country already set up to do this work. And they are working in close coordination with scientists and medical experts around the world. And you saw that coordination happen over the last several days.
So, you know, one of the things that was interesting to watch — I think should be compelling or encouraging — is that as soon as this variant popped up, it was communicated and coordinated around the world, that information was shared publicly in a transparent manner. That — credit is owed to the South African leaders there.
And certainly, the President — to answer one of your earlier questions — is committed to continuing to be transparent with the American people as we see any cases come up in the United States. And Dr. Fauci and other medical experts have pointed to the possibility that that will and could happen. And we will be transparent with the public and track that closely.
So, let me go back to how this process works. These experts — our medical experts are primed to do the work around the clock. When you want to test a virus, you need to isolate it from a swab and purify it, and make sure it is a live virus and the virus you intended to study. This takes a couple — some days. This all takes days.
Then you need to grow stock of it to test. Again, days to weeks.
And once it’s grown, you have to sequence it and make sure it hasn’t mutated again while it grew. Again, days.
And finally, you need to actually test the virus with antibodies from vaccinated people. Again, days.
The last steps needs to be repeated because we want to make sure we’ve gotten this right.
So that is the process that our medical team is undergoing now, because they want to be able to report back some of the important questions and unknowns at this point in time: the efficacy of the vaccines, and what any — if any additional steps are needed to take. And we’re prepared to do those.
What the American people should know is that the President is going to do everything — he’s going to always err on the side of protecting the American people. That’s why we put in place the travel restrictions. And we will continue to assess any step we need to take in order to do exactly that.
I may have missed one of your questions. Did I miss a question?
MS. PSAKI: Oh, boosters and whether we’re going to promote these further.
Well, I would say — you heard the President say this earlier today and we have had medical experts — Dr. Fauci and others — across the airwaves and out there in public over recent days to convey clearly that we know that boosters can strengthen antibodies in — in the American people.
There are still tens of millions of people out there who have not gotten their booster. If people feel they don’t know what to do right now, they’re not sure which step they should take, even as they’re un- — there are unknowns — and we acknowledge there are unknowns we’re looking to get to the bottom of — there’s no question that getting a booster will help strengthen people, protect them. And we will continue to project that out publicly.
Q And then, on the Iran nuclear talks, as they resume: Robert Malley said signs from Iran, quote, “are not particularly encouraging.”
And Israel’s Naftali Bennett said that Iran is trying to, quote, “end sanctions in exchange for almost nothing.”
Considering the pessimism expressed about diplomacy there, how much time is the administration giving to Iran before President Biden moves on to other options?
Q Well, first and foremost, unquestionably, our best approach here is through diplomacy. That is the preferable approach.
So, I’m not going to give a timeline for when that would end. That is what we are going to continue to press forward on.
In terms of rumors out there or reports about what is going to be negotiated: Obviously, I’m not going to negotiate from here, not that you’re asking me to do that.
But our objective has not changed. It remains a mutual return to full compliance with the JCPOA. This is the best available option to restrict Iran’s nuclear program and provide a platform to address Iran’s destabilizing conduct.
That is what we are discussing. Rob Malley is obviously the lead negotiator. We’re working with our European partners in lockstep. And of course, we are going to continue to press toward a diplomatic approach.
Q Thanks, Jen. Two questions quickly on Omicron. The President said there’s more work to do in terms of how dangerous it is, knowing how it spreads.
I’m wondering if you can elaborate on some specifics in terms of what is in place now, systems that are in place now. How is this going to be tracked and traced domestically in local communities across the country, whether you’re working with governors or states? Or is this an area where there’s still more work to be done?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think what the President was trying to convey is that there are several layers of work right now. Right?
I just outlined for all of you the work that is being done, the scientific data analysis that is being done. But I can assure you that our public health — our officials here are in very close touch with — daily — and in ongoing calls with all state health officials and public health partners.
Calls were held throughout the weekend with various public health officials at the state and local level. These calls included state, county, city health officials; state epidemiologists; state laboratory directors; and partners for public health organizations.
So that is something that was started over the last several days. And we are continuing around-the-clock coordination as well.
The CDC is also meeting today with state labs. And throughout the week, we will be engaging with state health associations in order to make sure we are in continued close contact.
Q And then, in terms of states and local municipalities — the President was asked this, but maybe you can elaborate more on whether he thinks these — these areas that have done away with mask mandates should reverse them, given this new strain. He didn’t really answer that. So does he believe that — that perhaps the District and other places should go back to where they were with the mask mandates?
MS. PSAKI: Well, nothing — it has not changed. The guidance from the CDC has not changed — right? — which the District — which D.C. is abiding by and other localities are abiding by.
Our advice continues to be to follow the advice and counsel of national public health experts from the CDC and others. Of course, they’re continuing to assess — as you saw by our announcement over the weekend — our health officials are — any additional steps that need to be taken.
So our advice and recommendation continues to be to watch that closely and follow that in order to protect your communities.
Q Thank you. I wanted to ask if the White House was reconsidering the decision to release Strategic Reserves, given that oil prices have already gone down with the emergence of this new variant?
MS. PSAKI: We are not reconsidering. No.
Q Okay. And I was wondering if there was concern on the part of the U.S. government about the lack of specifics from Beijing on its part about its own reserve releases.
MS. PSAKI: Again, I mean, we al- — are always encouraging any country around the world, including China, to be as transparent as possible in any of their policy maneuvers. But I don’t have any additional concerns to express today.
Q Thank you.
MS. PSAKI: Go ahead.
Q A few on Omicron, and then one on a domestic matter. The President insisted that the travel ban on South Africa doesn’t punish them and the neighboring countries, but South Africa’s leaders say it does. How long does the White House envision that travel ban staying in place?
MS. PSAKI: We will continue to assess that. I would say that the objective here is not to punish; it is to protect the American people.
As you just heard the President say, this is not going to prevent; it is going to delay. And that delay is going to help us have necessary time to do the research by our health and medical teams, to get more people vaccinated and get more people boosted. And he’s always going to err on the side of protecting the American people.
I would note that the difference between South Africa and European countries is that there are already hundreds if not thousands of cases of the new variant in South Africa and not as many — much — a lower number, at this point — in Europe.
But we will continue to assess what steps we need to take to protect the American people.
Q Are you imposing any new testing or tracing on Americans or green card holders who come from those South — Southern African countries once they get here?
MS. PSAKI: Well, we already have stringent requirements in place, as you know: a requirement of vaccinations — a vaccination requirement, and individuals need to be tested three days in advance — within three days, I should say, of traveling.
I don’t have any additional requirements or restrictions to preview, aside from the — the, you know, current restrictions on travel from certain countries.
Q And there’s this trip to Minnesota tomorrow by the President. You have all said you’re going to continue aggressively traveling and selling Build Back Better, the infrastructure plan. Is there any talk of restricting his travel or his movements at all in the coming weeks?
MS. PSAKI: There is none planned at this point. And obviously, we can continue to assess, but we have every intention of moving forward with our plan to sell the President’s Build Back Better Agenda. And obviously, he’s a pivotal player in that.
Q And on Build Back Better: Given that Congress is back, what’s the plan this week, in terms of White House engagement with the Senate?
And to Republicans who say that this is something that could contribute to inflation — I think there was one Senate Republican who called him “the Mad Hatter” for pushing for this at a time when inflation is off the hook — what would — what would you say to that?
MS. PSAKI: Well, on the first piece, I would tell you that our team, senior White House officials have been in close touch already over the last several days on moving our Build Back Better Agenda forward.
We had some of our senior officials meeting with the budgeta- — Budget Committee over the last several days; I think they had two meetings over the last several days. We had a number of our senior White House officials meeting with Leader Schumer’s team last night.
So, I can assure you we are moving forward full speed to get this done and we expect action on it in the coming weeks. We will continue to press for that.
For anyone who’s criticizing, I would say that the way — and we saw, I would say, in recent weeks, even with the votes of Republicans — every Republican in the House went on the record, voting against steps that many economists have said would ease inflation.
What — they voted to raise taxes essentially on middle-class families, voted for higher childcare, prescription drug, and eldercare costs, despite claiming they agree inflation and costs are a problem.
So, we’re out there, Democrats in Congress are out there — many of them — we welcome Republican support, I will continue to say — taking steps to lower costs.
We know that Build Back Better will start cutting childcare costs in half in 2022; make preschool free for many families, starting in 2022; lead to the construction of additional housing units, starting in 2022.
What is the Republican plan for lowering costs, for addressing inflation — something they’re very concerned about but they don’t seem to have any solutions for?
I don’t know what the “Mad Hatter” reference is, but that feels like it’s more applicable.
Q It’s about “Alice in Wonderland.”
MS. PSAKI: Okay.
Q Thank you, Jen. Before Joe Biden was President, he said that COVID travel restrictions on foreign countries were “hysterical xenophobia” and “fearmongering.” So what changed?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would say, first — to put it in full context, Peter — what the President was critical of was the way that the former President put out, I believe, a xenophobic tweet; and how he called — what he called the coronavirus; and who he directed it at.
The President has not been critical of travel restrictions. We have put those in place ourselves. We put them in place ourselves in the spring. But no, he does not believe — he believes we should follow the advice of health and medical experts. That’s exactly what he did in putting in place these restrictions over the weekend.
Q Okay. We saw the President shopping indoors on Saturday behind glass that says “face covering required,” but his face was uncovered. Why?
MS. PSAKI: The President is somebody who follows the recommendations and the advice of the CDC. I don’t know what the circumstances were of that particular moment.
Q He was shopping in a store. And on the glass outside, it said “face covering required,” and we could see him inside and his face was uncovered.
MS. PSAKI: Well again, Peter, our recommendation and advice continues to be for people to wear masks when they are required in establishments. I don’t know what this establishment was. The President obviously follows the health — the advice of his health and medical team.
Q Is there concern that when the President says today “Please wear your mask indoors in public settings around other people” and he doesn’t do that, that it’s going to make it harder to get people to follow him?
MS. PSAKI: I think you see — the American people and all of you see the President wearing a mask every time he comes out to an event, when he’s sitting in meetings. And certainly, he will continue to model behavior he hopes the American people will follow — not for his benefit, but to save their own lives and the lives of their friends and neighbors.
Q On immigration: Joe Biden once described the “Remain in Mexico” policy as “dangerous, inhumane, and goes against everything we stand for as a nation of immigrants.” So why is he keeping it?
MS. PSAKI: He continues to stand by exactly those comments and statements. And the Secretary of Homeland Security put out a memorandum conveying we want to end this program. But we also believe in following the law. And that’s exactly what we’re doing as there was — there was a ruling that required us moving forward with implementation.
Q Okay. And then last one. Since the President said that this administration is monitoring the situation in Waukesha closely, it has been revealed by prosecutors that the assailiant [sic] — the assailant swerved his truck side to side as part of an intentional act to run over as many people as possible. Six people are dead. Some children remain hospitalized. Why hasn’t the President visited the members of this Christmas parade attack?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would say first: As you saw the President convey last week, our hearts go out to this community, to the people in Waukesha; that we’ve been in touch, obviously, with officials there; and we’re all watching as people are recovering. And this is such a difficult time of year for this to happen. It’s a difficult anytime.
Obviously, any President going to visit a community requires a lot of assets, requires taking their resources, and it’s not something that I have a trip previewed at this plan- — point in time, but we remain in touch with local officials.
And certainly, our hearts are with the community as they’ve gone through such a difficult time.
Q So, for the American public that knows that there’s been a rise in COVID in their communities that may be related to the Delta variant, it may be part of this winter surge: If people are experiencing symptoms and they get tested, should they have an expectation that their tests will be in some way compared to whatever we do know about the Omicron variant? Is there a surveillance capability for that kind of study at this point, where in hospitals, testing settings — does that exist now?
MS. PSAKI: Well, so, FDA is closely reviewing the performance of existing COVID-19 tests with emergency use authorization against the Omicron variant. Importantly, test manufacturers with FDA emergency use authorization are required to assess their tests as new variants emerge. And that’s exactly, Kelly, what they’re doing now.
On preliminary view, which is what we have at this point in time, our science and medical experts believe high-volume PCR tests, which is what you get in a lot of medical facilities, and antigen tests, widely used in the U.S., show a low likelihood of being impacted and continue to work.
That is encouraging, but it is something we’re continuing to look at. But, right now, that’s what our early assessment is of our health and medical experts.
Q So, in terms of the surveillance ability around the country as cases are positive, what is the President’s view of our ability to catch that new variant if the expectation is it will be here? I mean, is that — is there a big run-up before we’re actually able to do that?
MS. PSAKI: I wouldn’t say that. I think it’s something that we are in close touch, as I noted a little bit earlier, with state and local public health officials. We’re in constant contact with them.
And we will, again, as I noted earlier, be very transparent about when we see, if we see a case here — which Dr. Fauci made clear that while these restrictions can certainly slow, we don’t — we’re not conveying that they could prevent.
Q And does this change the tempo of how often the President will be briefed, related to COVID? Is that changing his schedule for how often he —
MS. PSAKI: I think, as he noted earlier, he’ll be briefed on a daily basis.
Q The President said that Dr. Fauci told him that he believes that the current vaccines will provide at least some protection from the Omicron variant.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
Q Are you able to explain why that is — why Dr. Fauci would come to that conclusion? You laid out all the steps that have to be taken before we can determine the vaccines’ efficacy. How does the President’s medical advisor get to that conclusion?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would say — this is a question I also asked this weekend. So, not that you need my validation, but I think what Dr. Fauci has conveyed and what he would explain if he were standing here is that there’s no question that vaccines and the boost — and additional boosters help boost up your antibodies to fight the COVID virus — the all — the COVID-19 virus.
These are variants of the virus — something we’re tracking. And, of course, as I noted, our health and medical team is doing necessary data analysis to see — to make an evaluation about the efficacy and if there’s anything that needs to be done by manufacturers to make any changes — which, as I think you’ve seen, a number of the manufacturers have come out and said they’re prepared to do if needed. But we’re not predicting that at this point.
So, what he’s conveying — as a medical expert, most importantly — is that because these vaccines and boosters help, you know, boost your antibodies, that there’s — that the — that it would provide some protection, if not the protection that we have already to date from other variants. And that’s why this is the step that the American people can take.
Q The President, on Thursday, is going to NIH. Is there anything more you can tell us about the purpose of that visit and how it might differ from what we just heard from him today?
MS. PSAKI: Sure. So, the President is, as you noted, going to the National Institute of Health on Thursday, and he will — when he’s there, he will put forward a detailed strategy outlining how we’re going to fight COVID this winter — not with shutdowns or lockdowns, but with more widespread vaccinations, boosters, testing, and more.
That is something that we had every intention of providing an update to the American people on around this time of year anyway, but that’s what people can expect on Thursday.
Go ahead. And I’ll come back to you, Kaitlan.
Go ahead. Go ahead, Sabrina.
Q Thank you, Jen. So, the President said earlier today that there haven’t been any recommendations to put in place domestic travel requirements. But what we saw with the Delta variant is that once it was already here, it spread rapidly across the country. So why not have any testing or vaccination requirements whatsoever for domestic air travel since people are, you know, going fairly openly across the country?
MS. PSAKI: Well, what I think you heard the President say, I think — it was hard to hear the questions, so I think this was a question that was asked, but — was that he wasn’t taking any options off the table, but he’s going to rely on the advice of his health and medical experts. So, I would really point you to them.
I know we’ll have a COVID briefing in the coming days.
Q Okay. And the President said during a CNN town hall that he was open to carveouts for the filibuster, including for raising the debt ceiling.
You said at an October 22nd briefing, he’d “have more to say…in the coming weeks.” It’s been about — it’s been more a month, so what happened? Have there been any decisions around the filibuster?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have any additional update for you at this point in time. Obviously, the President stands by his comments, but I’ll let him speak for any additional updates.
Go ahead, Kaitlan.
Q I just want to clarify on, when the first case — (coughs) — excuse me — of Omicron is detected in the United States — since it’s been described as, essentially, “inevitable” — is the White House going to announce that or the CDC or — how will that be made publicly available?
MS. PSAKI: It’s a good question. I think the most important thing is we will make it available from the government. I’m not sure what source it will come from initially.
Q Okay. Thank you. Just wanted to get clarity on that.
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q What lessons did the President learn from the Delta variant that he’s applying here?
MS. PSAKI: Well, look, I think that there are a lot of lessons we’ve learned that he’s applying throughout. One is to be very transparent with the public and be direct about where there are unknowns, and be clear that there’s information we have at this point and then there’s information that we still need more detailed analysis from our health and medical experts.
It’s also important, in his view — one of lessons learned is to make clear to the public that we have a plan, and we do.
And we are in a different place than we were six months, nine months, and certainly a year ago, because more than 82 percent of people in this country — adults, I should say — have had their first vaccine. They’re widely available. Boosters are widely available. Schools are open. And there are steps that have been taken to put us in a different place to fight any variants.
So, you know, there are a lot of, you know, knowledge that has been built upon for the President, but also our medical team. And we’re using that to apply that as we communicate and as we work to take steps to fight this new variant.
Q Would it have helped if boosters were made more widely available sooner?
MS. PSAKI: That’s a difficult thing for me to acce- — to assess, as a non-medical expert, so I would point to them to ask them that question.
Q One last question: The President said earlier, “South Africa doesn’t need any more vaccines; they’re having trouble getting it out into people’s arms, and the reluctance is there.”
Has South Africa ever turned down vaccines from the United States?
MS. PSAKI: They have not requested additional vaccines. They —
Q But have they turned down vaccines —
MS. PSAKI: Yes.
Q — that we’ve offered to them?
MS. PSAKI: So, we have sent close to 8 million doses to South Africa, 13 million to Southern Africa, over 93 million to Africa, and 275 million to the world.
This is not meant to be a criticism; it is meant to give people understanding of what the challenges are in a lot of countries — is that it’s not just about having vaccine doses as it is about ensuring there’s operational capacity, which is not meant to be a criticism of any leaders in government, but more — it’s challenging to have public health officials in all communities of any country available. And also, there are hesitancy issues in not just the United States, but many parts of the world.
So it’s about having not just the vaccine doses, but also the apparatus, the capability, and also addressing vaccine hesitancy — which is, as you know, something that we have worked hard to address in this country.
Q Do you know when South Africa had turned down the vaccines from the United States?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have any additional details beyond that. I would just note that we are prepared to provide them with additional doses when they’re prepared to receive them.
Q Thank you.
Q Thanks, Jen. Just to follow up on Kaitlan’s question, you outlined some of the problems that countries face in vaccinating their own citizens. Does USAID or any other U.S. government agency plan to help with some of those capacity issues, whether on the operation side or just in the hesitancy side? Is there any effort to go beyond just sharing vaccines but actually help with getting shots in arm?
MS. PSAKI: Yeah, absolutely. And there’s a lot that USAID is doing to date, and we will continue to build on that. So USAID has provided over $267 million of COVID-19 supplemental support to South Africa — Southern African countries to deliver and distribute the vaccines, reduce coronavirus transmission through infection prevention and control, provide key public health information, improve diagnostics and surveillance, train health workers, strengthen case management capacity, deliver emergency food and critical humanitarian supplies and services, and respond to some of the social and economic effects of the pandemic.
As — and that is responsive to the fact that — not just now, we’ve long known that there are challenges beyond having vaccine doses and, if we are going to be the, you know, world leader on fighting the pandemic, that it’s not just about doses, it’s additional capacity as well.
Included in that $267 million, $12 million to South Africa on vaccinations alone. And in South Africa, USAID’s COVID-19 vaccine funding has mobilized and trained healthcare workers, established and equipped vaccination sites, supported vaccine service delivery in rural areas, and supported a national campaign to promote vaccine acceptance. And we will continue to build on that.
And it’s not just USAID; it’s across government — including PEPFAR, including NIH and CDC — as we work to partner with and work with a range of countries to get the pandemic under control.
Q And does the White House have any plans — I know you said that Biden himself — his travel will not be restricted. But in terms of events the White House is hosting this holiday season — the Christmas party, Hanukkah party — are there any plans to restrict size or gathering capacity issues with the — the spread of the new variant?
MS. PSAKI: I know that the First Lady’s office put out some information this morning, including the theme of the holiday season, and there will be more details on holiday parties.
But there are not, as you know, restrictions that have been announced to date by our health and medical experts. So that hasn’t impacted or changed our approach.
Q And just one more on a domestic issue. At a fundraiser late last month, Senator Gillibrand said, “Democrats are terrible at messaging; it’s just a fact.” Representative Susan Wild said that one of her constituents firmly believes the extra money in your bank account from the Child Tax Credit is thanks to the former President. Do you agree with Senator Gillibrand’s assessment? How do you plan to address some of the challenges the party has faced since selling its agenda?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would say, in my experience here — or working communications, it is challenging to sell something before it exists.
And now we have a package that the President is out there selling — including a trip to Minnesota tomorrow, including a couple of trips he already took. And our message is very clear and coordinated and united across the Democratic Party.
And now it’s the time to do that, which is that the President’s agenda, the Democratic agenda is going to lower costs for people across the country and give them some more breathing room. That contrasts with what we’re seeing from the other side, which is not a lot of ideas in the cupboard.
So, I think you’re going to see people out there projecting that message. We now have a package to sell. We’re working to get Build Back Better across the finish line. And the President is going to be out there selling it.
But I don’t — I think I’ll stop there.
Q Okay. Does the economic team have any projections for what the new variant might do for growth, for inflation, for the job market?
MS. PSAKI: Not quite yet that I’m obviously aware of. You know, it is something, obviously, we will continue to assess. But at this point in time, there haven’t been additional restrictions beyond the travel that have been put in place — I mean, as it relates to CDC guidance. So I don’t have any new projections at this point from our economic team.
Q And on the holiday spending figures: If those hold and the entire holiday shopping season is higher than it was last year by a lot, does the President expect that the supply chains will be able to handle that? Do you all expect — and are you bracing people for — shortages, higher prices, et cetera?
MS. PSAKI: I think what you’re going to hear from the President when he meets with these CEOs shortly and hear from the CEOs who — many of whom we’ve been in touch with privately; many of whom, I think, have been outspoken publicly — is that they have plans in place — the leaders of these companies, the leaders of these retailers — to ensure that the shelves are stocked, that people can go buy goods they want, can go buy presents, and that they can do that online as well.
That is the message we’re consistently hearing from them privately, even as we’re seeing projected increases or record, in some cases, sales.
Q I have two questions about the vaccination mandate for federal workers.
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q The American Federation of Government Employees praised the administration for announcing today that no unvaccinated worker will be suspended or dismissed until after the holiday season. Why did OPM make that decision?
MS. PSAKI: That is inaccurate, and that’s an inaccurate statement which I believe they are fixing or providing an update on. Nothing has changed on our deadline or our approach to the federal employee vaccine requirement.
The deadline was last week: November 22nd. And we already have 96.5 percent compliance across a diverse workforce that is the largest in the United States.
I can’t assess exactly what led to any confusion, but what — OMB put out a comment — or a public statement this morning, conveying that counseling, of course, would be the first step. That’s long been our approach in our policy from the United States government.
But it’s inaccurate to suggest — or any reporting — that we have delayed anything or changed that; the deadline has already passed. We’re working to implement.
Q But when you released the vaccination compliance rates last week, you did not include how many workers have requested religious exemptions and how many have received them. Should that information be publicly available for each agency so, for example, we’d be able to see if some agencies are being more lenient or strict on those exemption requests?
MS. PSAKI: We did release the percentage of people who were vaccinated, which I believe was 92 percent and then 96.5 percent compliance across the federal government, as well as agency-to-agency numbers so you know in there what the exemptions are.
Now, there’s different types of exemptions, right? Some are religious. There are other health exemptions. But agency by agency, I would encourage you to ask the agencies for additional data.
Q We have asked. And the VA — we’ve been asking them for weeks to give us that information for the health employees, because they had an earlier deadline to be vaccinated, and they’ve not responded to requests for how many employees have requested religious exemptions and how many have gotten them. And that’s an important distinction.
MS. PSAKI: Well, again, we put out quite a bit of transparent data about — that included what percentage of people received exemptions based on just subtraction, as well as what percentage of people were vaccinated. I can see if there’s any additional data we’ll provide.
Q Thanks, Jen. You had said there’d be a COVID briefing in the coming days. Will we see more press briefings from the President’s COVID Response Team because of the new variant? And can we make a request for them to come here and do a briefing?
MS. PSAKI: Sure. And I believe that — I think they’re going to have one tomorrow or Wednesday. I’m not sure if it’s been finalized yet. And we’ll see if there’s another one planned this week. And I’m happy to make that request as well.
Q Great. And the President’s advisors have said — we heard this from the President — that it would take about two weeks to get a full picture of the new variant. Two weeks, then, would be about two weeks before the holidays. Should Americans at this point feel okay going forward with their Christmas plans and travel plans if that information is still two weeks away?
MS. PSAKI: Well, nothing has changed on our guidance at this point in time. And what we’re trying to do is be as clear and transparent and direct with the American people as possible, including the fact that there are unknowns here, and we’re working to assess those and get to the bottom of them.
But what any American can do who’s planning on traveling or thinking about traveling is ensure they’re vaccinated, ensure they get the booster if they’re not yet boosted, wear a mask, take all of the precautions that are recommended by the CDC.
But, again, we really — we rely on and abide by their guidance, and their guidance has not changed.
Q Thanks so much. I wanted — the President was — seemed pretty clear that not interested in any type of lockdowns, but is the White House or is the administration encouraging some of these cities, including Washington, D.C., to rethink decisions to lift the mask mandates that they have?
MS. PSAKI: Again, we are — we rely on the guidance and the recommendations by our public health officials, including the CDC. And the — and Washington, D.C., based their recommendations on what the percentage of cases were in their — in Washington, D.C., as have other communities across the country.
We continue to recommend that any city and locality follow CDC guidance. If they are going to assess and change that, I can’t make a prediction of that. We continue to advise any locality to follow that.
Q Would the variant be a reason to reassess that?
MS. PSAKI: Again, we rely on what public health officials would advise based on any new variant, which we’re currently assessing, but that isn’t guidance that they have changed at this point in time.
Q And lastly, if you don’t mind, is there any more — any deliverables or anything that you can share more about the President’s remarks later today on supply chains?
MS. PSAKI: He’s really going to pre- — providing an update after meeting — or, in advance of meeting with CEOs about the work that’s been underway for some time to address the holdups in the supply chain — something we’ve made a great deal of progress on — and to report to the American people — sitting with a number of CEOs through private conversations and what they’ve said publicly — that people can be assured there are going to be toys on the shelves, there are going to be food in your grocery stores.
That is something that these retailers have been working on, we’ve been working closely with them on, but I expect that’s what you will hear from him shortly.
Q Does the administration thinks that Moderna, in particular, has a role to play here with fighting the new variant? And should it share its IP with South Africa, as South Africa has been urging?
MS. PSAKI: Well, we’ve been pre- — we’ve pressed, in the past, for any pharmaceutical company to be a productive player in the effort to fight the pandemic.
I know you’re not asking me this, but just to be clear: We can’t compel or force anyone to share their intellectual property data. That’s not something we have that’s wr- — not something written into these contracts, which obviously were done prior to the President taking office.
But, you know, our broad view, the President’s broad view, is that we all have a role to play — the federal government, pharmaceutical companies — in fighting this virus across the world.
You know, we have not only provided doses. The President supports the IP waiver — something that Ambassador Tai is in the lead on — and we are continuing to provide know-how and support, you know, in a range of ways from the federal government.
Q Hi, Jen. Two questions about — one COVID related, one on another topic.
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q Today, a federal court issued an injunction pausing the enforcement of the vaccine requirement for healthcare workers in 10 states. What’s the reaction to that ruling? And how does a ruling like this affect the country’s ability to prepare for the new variant?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would say that what we continue to do — we’re obviously going to abide by the law and fight any efforts in court or otherwise to prevent local authorities, officials, leaders in the healthcare industry and other industries from protecting their workforces.
Individual companies and healthcare leaders and others can put in place requirements in order to protect their workforce. That’s something that a number of companies, a number of healthcare providers across the country have done and done successfully.
So we’d continue to encourage leaders to take steps to protect their workforce. It provides efficiency, it provides security — health security for these workforces, and something we’ve seen be quite effective across the country.
Q And on another note, Kevin Strickland was released from prison in Missouri last week after 42 years behind bars for a wrongful conviction. It’s one of the longest wrongful convictions, incarceration periods in the U.S., but it’s uncertain whether he’s going to get any compensation from the state. Does the President think that Mr. Strickland deserves compensation after 42 years behind bars?
MS. PSAKI: Obviously the — you know, the case of Mr. Strickland is something that we all watched closely. I don’t have anything — any further comment from the U.S. government though on his — on the discussions with the state. I will see if there’s anything more we can add.
Q On the upcoming Summit for Democracy, how is the President planning to approach the leaders? And how or what are his specific actions or commitments to the leaders? And if you can give us more details on the summit.
MS. PSAKI: Sure. So, the Summit for Democracy is coming up on December 9th through 10th. It will convene a broad and diverse group of governmental and non-governmental leaders to set forth an affirmative agenda for democratic renewal around the world.
It will bring together 110 governments representing diverse democratic experiences around the world, as well as civil society and private sector leaders.
And this is an opportunity for leaders to discuss the challenges and opportunities facing democratic governments and how democracies can deliver for their citizens based on the summit pillars of strengthening democracy, defending against authoritarianism, fighting corruption, and promoting respect for human rights.
At the summit, the forum will feature remarks from President Biden and other senior U.S. government officials, plenary sessions with heads of state, and thematic sessions with governmental and non-governmental leaders.
I’m sure we will have more to convey as we get a little bit closer later this week. But this is something the President committed to and he’s delivering on.
Go ahead, Yamiche.
Q Thanks so much. What’s the President’s response to Andy Slavitt — who, of course, was a COVID advisor here in the White House just a few months ago — saying that it would be better to provide mass shipments of the vaccine — hundreds of millions of vaccines — to Southern Africa rather than having travel bans?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would say, one, we are providing — we are far and away the world’s largest provider of vaccine doses, vaccine know-how, vaccine support, as I noted — including to Southern Africa — of any country in the world.
And the President, on the advice of his health and medical team, put in place these restrictions because he’s going to err on the side of protecting the American people. And even though our expectation is it will slow, not prevent, the movement of this new variant, that will give us time to get more people vaccinated, more people boosted in the United States, and ensure we learn more about this variant. So we’re going to do both.
Q And you said, just a few moments ago, there are hundreds of cases in Africa and only a few or as many — not as many in Europe. Could you talk about the science behind that? Is that what the President’s scientists are telling him — that because there are hundreds of cases —
MS. PSAKI: Thousands.
Q — thousands of cases in South Af- — I was just reading what you said — but, yeah, thousands of cases in Africa and not as many in Europe, that’s the science behind why a travel ban needs to be in place?
Because I guess I’m just trying to understand why if one person, let’s say in Germany or somewhere else, gets on a plane and comes to the United States, isn’t that person — just as likely to have the variant end up in the United States? Could you just talk a little bit more about the science behind the reasoning there?
MS. PSAKI: Sure. Well, I think the larger point, Yamiche, is that it is a much larger spread in South Africa than it is at this point in Europe and other countries. We will continue to assess if there are additional restrictions that need to be put in place.
But, again, this is not about punishing anyone; this is about protecting the American people. So when there are thousands of people — or hundreds or thousands of people who are — who have been tracked for a variant in a particular country and a much larger number than another country, you know, obviously the health and medical advisors assess that it would be helpful in protecting the American people to restrict travel from those countries where there is wider spread.
Q So, in other words, it’s the scientists that are saying that, it’s fair to say?
MS. PSAKI: The President made the travel guidan- — restrictions in place on the pure basis of the recommendation of his health and medical advisors.
Q And then one last question: Could you talk a bit about the nuclear talks that, reportedly, President Biden wants to have with China? There are some reports that he wants to sit down and talk about that. Is there any sort of goal there — an arms deal or anything like that — on the President’s mind?
MS. PSAKI: Nuclear talks with China? I’m not sure — with the President?
MS. PSAKI: I’m not — I’m not sure what you’re referencing. Obviously, he just spoke with President Xi recently and had a summit with him. There’s follow-up, of course, to that at a high level of our national security team. I can see if there’s anything more that would be at his level, but not that I’m aware of.