James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
2:38 P.M. EST
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Good afternoon. Happy Monday.
Okay, so before we dive into regular — regularly scheduled programming here, I have my colleague from the National Security Council, who will be — John Kirby — who will be talking about some recent developments over the weekend in the Middle East. And he’ll have something to say at the top to share with all of you and then take some questions. And then, we’ll take — I’ll take the rest of the questions you have on domestic issues, I’m sure.
MR. KIRBY: Thanks, Karine. Good afternoon, everybody.
So, I just have two updates for you from the Middle East region, with one also related to Ukraine.
As you saw in the statement yesterday from Mr. Sullivan, senior officials from Jordan, Egypt, Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and the United States met over the weekend in Aqaba, Jordan.
This was the first meeting of its kind in decades, with political and security representation from all participants. It also resulted in the first agreement of any kind in many years. The Aqaba Communiqué includes commitments from the Israeli and the Palestinian sides to de-escalate and prevent further violence. The two sides also affirmed their commitments to all previous agreements between them and to work towards a just and lasting peace.
Now, as we said, this meeting was a starting point, but it was an important one. And the importance was demonstrated quite clearly by the violence we saw just yesterday in the West Bank, and we’re seeing reports today of additional violence.
But in ye- — yesterday’s violence, two Israelis were murdered, and then Israeli citizens sought to take revenge in a Palestinian town, resulting in one Palestinian death and many others injured.
The State Department spoke to this yesterday; I’m sure you saw that. And we condemn the violence, of course, in all its forms.
We also agree fully with the statements from President Herzog and Prime Minister Netanyahu that citizens cannot take the law into their own hands. What happened was totally unacceptable — something that we’ve heard loud and clear from our Israeli partners.
The Aqaba meeting was designed precisely to help manage and defuse crises like this — to enhance political and security coordination to help protect Israelis and Palestinians alike.
The President extends his personal thanks to His Majesty, King Abdullah of Jordan, and to President Sisi of Egypt for helping to convene this session.
The United States will continue to remain actively engaged in this format with all parties over the coming weeks, including through a follow-up engagement next month in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.
Now, my second update has to do with Saudi Arabia and Ukraine. As you know, we are and we have been for the last year asking all partners to do what they can to support Ukraine.
And so, we welcome the visit made yesterday by Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister and senior Saudi humanitarian and energy officials to Kyiv for meetings with President Zelenskyy and, of course, the rest of his leadership team. This was the first ministerial visit by an Arab state to Kyiv since the war began.
During the visit, the Saudis and Ukrainians formalized arrangements for the delivery of $400 million in assistance, including generators and badly needed energy products and supplies. Now, these deliveries will begin arriving next week.
This is an important announcement. I’d also point to Saudi Arabia’s vote in favor of the U.N. General Assembly resolution just last week on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — its fourth on these resolutions.
Coming on the heels of the President’s historic visit to Kyiv, we are asking all partners to do what they can, as I said, to support Ukraine. And we recognize these are sovereign decisions that they have to make.
The Saudi initiative is a positive step from the Middle East region, and we hope to see more from our partners over there in the coming months.
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Thanks, John.
MR. KIRBY: Yes, ma’am.
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Go ahead, Nadia.
Q Thank you. I have two questions, actually, on both topics. Let me start with Saudi Arabia. You just praised them on the U.N. votes and on sending $400 million in energy supplies to Ukraine. How does it fit in the general strategy — or the review, rather — that the White House said it will take in the aftermath of the OPEC+ decision?
MR. KIRBY: Okay. Do you have a second one, or do you want to wait on that one?
Q I’ll wait.
MR. KIRBY: Okay. (Laughs.)
So, look, Nadia — I think you know this, and I’ve spoken to this many times: I mean, looking at this bilateral relationship was never about producing a homework assignment. That’s just a misnomer. That was never the intent here.
We have been strategic partners with Saudi Arabia now for eight decades, across multiple administrations and certainly across party lines. And there’s been ups and downs in this relationship. We’ve been very candid about that as well.
But this announcement yesterday in Kyiv of $400 million in support, largely to help Ukraine recover from the energy attacks on their infrastructure, is an important one. And again, we were glad to see it.
The other things that we’ve been happy to see in recent months is a truce now in Yemen, that’s on its 10th month, been consistent. I mean, literally thousands of Yemeni lives have been saved by this truce, by moving forward on a regional defense architecture with Saudi Arabia to help — not only help Saudi Arabia defend itself against attacks — and they still come under attack — but also to help us by helping them in protecting the 70-some-odd-thousand Americans, both military and civilian, who live in Saudi Arabia.
We’re working with Saudi Arabia, and we’re glad to see progress on things like 5G and 6G, through something called O-RAN technologies.
And, obviously, coming on the heels of the President’s trip, we’re working to — continuing to work to see — to see if we can improve integration of Israel throughout the region.
And I think now that that — you remind me that that announcement over the weekend from Oman, that they are now going to allow overflight of their airspace to and from Israel. That also is significant progress that we’ve seen here. And that is a direct result of the President’s engagement on that trip over the — over last summer to the region.
So, look, I’ve been very consistent, and I’ll say it again today: We are focused on making sure that this, like all other bilateral relationships, serves the interests of the American people first and foremost. That’s where the President’s head is, and that’s what we’re focused on here.
We’re focused on — on moving this forward. And we believe that the announcement, again, over the weekend by Saudi Arabia is a step in the right direction.
Q And second, on the Aqaba Communiqué, despite what you said, it did not really translate on what’s happening on the ground. We have seen another wave of violence this morning, as you alluded to. Thirty houses of Palestinians have been torched by settlers who are — according to international law, they are illegal in these — in the settlements. So how do you —
MR. KIRBY: Well, our position on settlements is — stays consistent. I mean, nothing has changed about that. We — we view the expansion of settlements as an obstacle to peace. We’ve been very clear about that.
And as I said in my opening statement, the violence we saw over the weekend is — is just another example of why it’s important that we get both sides together to work on ways to de-escalate.
So, the Aqaba Communiqué, while I understand the point of the question — it happened over the same weekend that there was violence — but that it happened is still a good sign and at least a step that both sides are willing to work to de-escalate it.
And you saw very swiftly, coming out of the Israeli side, condemning Israeli citizens who were, as I said in my opening statement, taking the law into their hands. That was — their law in their own hands. That was not an insignificant statement on their part.
Q But my question is about Mr. Net- — Prime Minister Netanyahu, who said he will continue with the settlement activities. How — is there any consequences for him announcing that?
MR. KIRBY: Well, if you look at the — if you look at the communiqué, it says that they’re not going to be discussing additional settlements now for six months. That’s a positive sign, we think.
And again, we’ve been very clear with the prime minister and the new government about our position on settlements: obstacle to peace. We want to see a viable two-state solution. We don’t believe that additional settlement — settlements work to that end. We’ve been very consistent on that.
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Go ahead.
Q To follow up on Nadia, when the — when the Saudi Arabian government decided to slash oil production targets last year, you said that was an effort to aid Russia’s war effort. Given what you’ve seen over this weekend, would the administration now say that Saudi Arabia is helping Ukraine in this war?
MR. KIRBY: Yeah, I think I — I don’t know that I could improve upon what I’ve said before here on this. We view this announcement over the weekend as a step in the right direction, and it’s an important one. That they are giving — that they actually went to Kyiv and, through their foreign ministry, directly pledged $400 million in energy infrastructure and in financial assistance is not insignificant.
So, it’s a positive step. We’re glad to see it.
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Go ahead, Jacqui.
Q Thanks, Karine. John, on the Department of Energy’s findings, the lab leak most likely caused the pandemic. How should Americans respo- — how should Americans understand China’s response here, saying that this is politically motivated, it’s a lie, there’s no science to back it, and swatting down this information?
MR. KIRBY: Well, I can’t speak for the Chinese, and I wouldn’t endeavor to do that, but just let me back up a little bit.
The President made trying to find the origins of COVID a priority right when he came into office. And he’s got a whole-of-government effort designed to do that.
There is not a consensus right now in the U.S. government about exactly how COVID started. There is just not an intelligence community consensus.
And, I would add, one of the things the President did was he — he’s the one who tasked the National Labs, which report up through the Department of Energy, to study this as well. So, it wasn’t just an effort that was confined to the intelligence community. That work is still ongoing.
But the President believes it’s really important that we continue that work and that we find out, as best we can, how it started so that we can better prevent a future pandemic. I mean, it’s — that’s — the idea here is to get ahead of it so that, you know, should there be another one or should there even be the signs of another one, we can better get ahead of it.
Q China, though, is pretty clearly accusing the Biden administration of smearing them and trying to say that this is baseless, people shouldn’t believe it, and it’s a politically motivated attack.
MR. KIRBY: I’m not going to get ahead of where we are in the process, Jacqui. We — the intelligence community and the rest of the government is still looking at this. There’s not been a definitive conclusion, so it’s difficult for me to say, nor should I feel like I should have to defend press reporting about a possible preliminary indication here.
What the President wants is facts. He wants the whole government designed to go get those facts, and that’s what we’re doing. And we’re just not there yet. And when we’re there yet and if we have something that is — is ready to be briefed to the American people and the Congress, then we’re going to do that.
Q How would the President respond to China, though, if it’s determined that they lied about all this and now we’re trying to paint the administration as — in such a negative light? How will he respond to Xi and —
MR. KIRBY: Well, let’s not get ahead of where we are in the process right now. There is not a consensus on what caused COVID to start. The President wants to understand that so we can prevent better future pandemics. He’s made that a priority.
And I just don’t — we don’t have an answer to speak to, and I certainly — so, given that we don’t have a consensus, it would be foolish for me to get out ahead of speculation on hypothetical situations to come. We just aren’t there yet.
Q Thank you. Thanks, John. The President said that he wants cooperation with China, not conflict. But does the U.S. believe that China is pursuing policies — for example, the spy balloon — that make conflict more likely?
MR. KIRBY: One of the things that concerned us about that whole episode, aside from the fact that it was clearly designed to spy from a high altitude over potentially sensitive military sites, is that the lines of communication weren’t as open, particularly on the military side, as they need to be.
So, the President maintains that his goal in the relationship is competition, not conflict. That has not changed, even in the wake of that spy balloon event.
But one of the things that really does need to — we need to move forward on is opening up lines of communication, particularly on the military-to-military lane. And as you know, those were shut down by the Chinese after Speaker Pelosi — then-Speaker Pelosi went to Taiwan.
Q And also, do you think that there’s — what would happen if China were to send lethal weapons to Ukraine? How would that affect the bilateral relationship?
MR. KIRBY: You know, again, I’m not going to get into a hypothetical here and speculate. We have not seen the Chinese make a decision to move in that direction. We have been very honest and candid, not only with all of you publicly but with the Chinese privately, about our concerns over the provision of those kinds of capabilities. And you heard Sec- — you heard Jake Sullivan talk about this yesterday, in terms of the fact that there would have to be ramifications for that.
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: (Inaudible.)
Q Thanks, Karine. Mr. Kirby, on the Energy Department’s assessment, should the evidence that the department is basing this assessment on be shared with the American people?
MR. KIRBY: As I said, if we have something that we believe can be reported to the Congress and to the American people that we’re confident in, we will absolutely do that.
Q You said that, right now, there is not a consensus. Will there ever be a definitive answer from the Biden administration on the origins of COVID-19? And how much of that is dependent on cooperation from China?
MR. KIRBY: We really do want to know what happened here because the President wants to make sure that we’re postured to prevent any future pandemics — or if not prevent them, to be able to get farther along ahead of them. So we’re working very hard to understand this as best we can.
Again, there’s just no consensus across the government. The work continues. And I’m not going to get ahead of conclusions that haven’t been arrived at yet.
Q Just one last quick follow-up. Who is — what agency is taking the lead on this?
MR. KIRBY: This is a whole-of-government effort. And, clearly, here at the National Security Council — I mean, we’re running the interagency process on this, but it’s a whole-of-government effort.
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Go ahead.
Q Chancellor Scholz is coming to the White House on Friday.
MR. KIRBY: Yes, he is.
Q It will be his second visit in roughly a year. Can you talk a little bit about the expectation for this visit? And is it not unusual that he comes again in such a short time?
MR. KIRBY: I don’t think there’s anything unusual about it. Germany is a strident NATO Ally and a good friend and partner. We’re really excited to get the chancellor here on Friday. I’m sure we’ll have more details to share with you as we get closer to the end of the week. Some of the agenda is still being formulated.
But I think, without question, I’m comfortable telling you that the war in Ukraine will be a prime topic of discussion. And this will give President Biden yet another chance to thank the Chancellor and the people of Germany for all the support that they have provided to Ukraine. They really have stepped up, and they have evolved the capabilities that they’re willing to send to Ukraine as well in a very meaningful way, the Leopard tanks being the most recent example of that.
So, we’re grateful for all that and look forward to a good discussion.
Q What caused DOE to shift its assessment? And was the President himself briefed on that shift?
MR. KIRBY: Again, I’m not going to confirm the press reporting. I’d refer you to DOE, but I’m not going to confirm the press reporting that was out there.
Q And was the President briefed on this?
MR. KIRBY: The President has stayed informed throughout this entire process of a whole-of-government effort to try to get at the at the roots and the origins of COVID.
Q But was he briefed on the DOE —
MR. KIRBY: The President has been kept informed and kept apprised. And he’s been — and he’s — you know, he’s actively wanted to know what we know every step along the way.
Q Okay, so not quite sure there. So going —
MR. KIRBY: I didn’t say that. I said the President has kept informed.
Q Well, I don’t know from your answer whether or not he was briefed on it.
MR. KIRBY: I ans- — I —
MR. KIRBY: I got it.
Q So, other thing. Is the administration
confident in the Israeli government’s approach to the recent violence, given the conservative right-wing nature of the government, its relationship with the settler movement? How does the administration feel the Israeli government is poised to handle this situation?
MR. KIRBY: I mentioned that in the opening statement. You know, we noted that both President Herzog and Prime Minister Netanyahu were very quick out of the gates to condemn citizens taking the law into their own hands and to provide some additional security forces to the West Bank to quell the violence. That was important, it was significant, and we’re grateful for that.
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Just a couple more. Go ahead.
Q Thanks, Karine. To follow on the lab leak theory: Back in October 2021, it was also the case that there was no consensus from the intelligence community, you know, where COVID came from. Without revealing sensitive information, has the IC gathered new information, new intelligence, since then that might have led DOE to draw a different conclusion?
MR. KIRBY: We — again, without confirming the press reporting on the Department of Energy’s work here — and the context for them is that they run the National Labs, and the President wanted the National Labs involved. Again, a whole-of-government effort.
The work is still ongoing. There hasn’t been a final conclusion arrived at here. And not everyone in the intelligence community or across the government necessarily has come to a consensus view here on how it started.
But I want to go back to what I said before, and that’s that — that we — the President believes it’s important to know so that we can better prevent future pandemics. And obviously, regardless of what — what the source is, it’s important for people to know that scientific research can still occur — needs to occur in a safe and secure manner.
Q And on Friday, the President was asked if he was worried that China will side with Russia in the war. And he said that there is “no evidence of that so far.” So does President Biden believe China is neutral in the conflict?
MR. KIRBY: I can’t really improve upon how the President characterized it. The — we have not seen China go all in with respect to supporting Russia.
Q So, it takes them going all in for — is that the bar for partnering?
MR. KIRBY: They have not gone all in in supporting Russia. They abstained from the vote in the U.N. They — while they have not condemned the invasion that Mr. Putin perpetrated down on the Ukrainian people, nor have they made a decision to provide lethal military assistance to Ukraine.
And as the President said, he doesn’t believe it’s in China’s interest to do that — that they — that they should not want to do that, to go in on the side of Russia.
Now, look, the other thing is — a couple things. Every country has to make its own decisions here. And we have been exceedingly clear that we want to see China be on the right side here, which is not support Mr. Putin in any way; condemn this invasion, like so much of the rest of the world has; and participate in the price cap on oil revenue so that Mr. Putin can’t profiteer it; and to enforce sanctions.
Now, they haven’t chosen to do all those things. We obviously believe that they’ve — they’ve got decisions that they have to make. We want them to make the right ones.
Q But he wasn’t —
Q One on —
Q Sorry. Just one more point of clarification. He wasn’t asked specifically about the lethal aid. He was asked if China will side with Russia or not. And he said there’s no evidence of that, but they’re providing non-lethal aid as one example.
MR. KIRBY: The Chinese have decisions they have to make for themselves. We want them to make the decision that so many others nations around the world have made, which is to not make it any easier in any realm, whether that’s economic or military, make it any easier for Mr. Putin to continue to kill Ukrainians. And you — and, again, we don’t believe that it’s in the Chinese best interest — and this is his point — to move in that direction.
Q Thank you.
Q Do you think —
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Go ahead, Phil. Go ahead, Phil.
Q Thank you, Karine. Two quick questions, sir. First, has President Biden asked or does he plan to ask President Xi to cooperate and to — cooperate with investigations into the origins of the virus? Or at this point, does the administration believe that cooperation will not come from China?
MR. KIRBY: We’ve — we have — we have consistently made it clear that we want China’s full cooperation in a full, transparent way with the investigations into COVID, including when he met with President Xi in Bali just a couple of months ago.
Q And then, without weighing in one way or the other on origin of the virus — you’ve made clear that there’s no consensus — does the President believe, though, that the reward outweighs the risk when it comes to gain-of-function research?
MR. KIRBY: Does the reward outweigh the risk when it —
Q Does it —
MR. KIRBY: — comes to gain-of- —
Q Does he think that that type of research is —
MR. KIRBY: I got a history degree. You’re going to have to — say that again.
Q Does the President believe that this type of gain-of-function research is prudent?
MR. KIRBY: He believes that it’s important to help prevent future pandemics, which means he understands that there has to be legitimate scientific research into the sources — or potential sources — of pandemics so that we understand it so that we can prevent them and we — prevent them from happening, obviously.
But he also believes — and this is why he wants the whole-of-government effort here to understand it — that that research has to be done. It must be done in a safe and secure manner as — and as transparent as possible to the rest of the world so that — so people know what’s going on.
So, I think that’s a fancy way of saying “yes.”
Q Thanks, Karine. Hi. Just a quick question on the Northern Ireland dispute and the fact that it has been resolved. Does that open the doors for the United States to perhaps resume talks with London for a free trade deal? And that was nearly done under the Trump administration, but really hasn’t gone anywhere under this administration.
MR. KIRBY: Yeah, I won’t get ahead of where things are right now.
I mean, we’re grateful that the two sides were able to come up with this “Windsor Framework,” as they call it — this — this agreement in keeping with the Northern Ireland Protocols. We do — we believe that this will help improve the prosperity of both the EU and the UK, and will open up all kinds of, now, avenues for trade that — that were somewhat at risk.
So, we’re — we’ll leave things where they are right now.
Q What about the EV tax credits and the dispute over that with the mention in the ERA?
MR. KIRBY: Yeah, again, I’m just not going to get ahead of where we are right now.
Q Follow-up please?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: We got to go. Last question.
Q Thanks, John. Just real quick, the ambassador — the U.S. Ambassador in Israel, Thomas Nides, has just written on Twitter that he can confirm that a U.S. citizen was killed in West — in the West Bank in some of the terror attacks tonight. Are you guys aware of this? Do you have any comment on it? Or is this the first you’re — you guys are hearing of it?
Mr. KIRBY: I have not heard that report until just now. I’m deeply sorry to hear that if it’s true. Certainly, our thoughts and prayers will go out to the — to the family, but I just don’t have any more information on it.
Q A follow-up on Northern Ireland?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: We got to go.
Thank you. Thanks, Kirby. Appreciate it.
MR. KIRBY: Thanks, guys.
Q Thanks, John.
Q Thank you, Admiral.
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: All right, just a couple things at the top and then we’ll get going.
So, today, we are thrilled to announce the May- — that Mayor Steve Benjamin will join the White House as Senior Advisor and Director of the House — of the Office of Public Engagement.
Mayor Benjamin is a long-time public servant who has served the people of South Carolina for over two decades statewide and as a three-term mayor of Columbia.
As a former president of both the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the African-American Mayors Association, his deep relationships with communities across the country will serve our administration and the American people well.
Under Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’s leadership, the Office of Public Engagement has kept equity at the heart of our agenda and has continued to connect with everyday Americans who may not have a voice to reach Washington otherwise.
She has been a close advisor to the President, and he is grateful to Keisha for serving our nation with honor and integrity.
This was always intended to be a short-term assignment, which Keisha graciously extended, and we wish her the best as she returns home to Atlanta to be with her family as planned.
A couple of notes on the President’s schedule today and tomorrow. I’ll start, clearly, with today. In a coup- — in about an hour or so, later today, the President Biden and Vice President Harris will deliver remarks at a reception in the East Room honoring Black History Month.
At the beginning of the month, President Biden issued a proclamation in celebration of Black History Month, and the White House will release an updated factsheet on the Biden-Harris administration’s ongoing efforts to advance equity, opportunity for Black Americans and communities across the nation.
Throughout this month, President Biden has issued an executive order to advance racial equity and support for underserved communities through the federal government.
The President also hosted a White House screening of the film “Till,” the story of Mamie Till-Mobley, who pursued justice after the lynching of her 14-year-old son, Emmett Till, back in 1955.
Vice President Harris and Senior Advisor for Public Engagement Keisha Lance Bottoms hosted student reporters from more than 100 HBCUs across the country for a briefing at the White House.
White House officials hosted Black leaders for roundtables around issues including reproductive health and women’s rights; national security; disparities impacting the Black community, including the LBGTQ+ Black community; Black media priorities; legislation in historic state legislatures led by Black speakers; and efforts to close the racial wealth gap with Black venture capital and private equity stakeholders.
The White House also hosted a first-of-its-kind forum with HBCU student veterans and cadets and the first-ever engagement with HBCU leaders by the National Security Advisor.
Agencies across the administration also facilitated events and announcements, including the Department of Health and Human Services Black Health Summit; SBA Administrator Guzman’s listening sessions with Black business owners; and the Department of House — Housing and Urban Development’s closure of the Road Home program, which disproportionately impact Black Americans [and] will free 3,000 Louisianans from repayment obligations.
And last Friday, the President and the Vice President met with members — Black members of staff from across the Biden administration to emphasize the importance of having diverse voices at the decision-making table and thank them for helping to create a more fair and inclusive democracy across our nation.
The Biden-Harris administration will honor and continue the work of Black Americans who have created a more fair and inclusive democracy, helping our nation move closer to the realization of its full promise for everyone.
And tomorrow, as you all know, the President is going to be traveling to Virginia Beach, where he will highlight how Republicans are threatening default and economic catastrophe unless they can force through their agenda that would raise healthcare costs for seniors, working families, and Americans with preexisting conditions and cause millions of people to lose their coverage.
As the President said before his State of the Union address, he will release his budget on March 9th, and Congressional Republicans should provide that same transparency as well. The American people deserve to know what Republicans are looking to cut, given that, in countless previous budgets, they have repeatedly proposed devastating cuts to essential programs like the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid, which are lowering costs for tens of millions of Americans across the country.
So, we will have a preview call for all of you, as we normally do ahead of — ahead of these types of trips. It will be at 4:45 p.m., so in about an hour and 40 minutes, which all of you should turn — tune into for more details.
I also want to highlight that this week the Commerce Department is announcing a major milestone for the CHIPS and Science Act, a pillar of the President’s agenda to rebuild our infrastructure, supply chains, and manufacturing right here at home.
They are ma- — announcing their process and guardrails for companies seeking to utilize the legislation to invest in this historic effort to rebuild America’s semiconductor industry, known as a “notice of funding opportunity.”
I know a lot of you had questions about the next steps, so here you go. It will be a major point of focus in ensuring we have a skilled, trained workforce that can fill the hundreds of thousands of jobs we are currently recrat- – — creating right here in America.
The need for childcare to boost our for- — workforce is undeniable. Part of the solution to that is that the Commerce Department is going to require companies seeking substantial CHIPS funding to submit a robust childcare plan that reflects the needs of their workers’ communities where they plan to build.
The country needs more workers, especially women, in order to deliver on the President’s bold agenda. And we are committed to working with the private sector to ensure the CHIPS — the success of CHIPS for America and to unlock the full potential — the full potential of our economy. This is a major innovative step just to do that.
And finally, as you all may have seen, a couple of hours ago, the President — at the President’s direction, the Department of Labor and the Department of Health and Human Services announced new actions to crack down on child labor violations and ensure that sponsors of unaccompanied migrant children are vigorously, rigorously vetted.
Child abuse — child labor is abuse, and it is unacceptable. Again, it is unacceptable.
This administration has long been combating a surge in child exploitation. And today, the Department of Labor and HHS announced that they will create a new interagency task force to combat child exploitation. They will also increase scrutiny of companies that do — that do business with employers who violate child labor laws; mandate follow-up calls for unaccompanied migrant children who report safety concerns to the HHS hotli- — hotline; and audit the sponsor vetting process for unaccompanied migrant children over the next four weeks.
Today’s actions make clear that we will continue — we will continue to investigate and hold companies accountable.
We will also — what we also need, which is incredibly important here — we need Congress to take action as well. We need Congress to provide the resources this administration has long requested to better enforce child labor laws. And we need Congress to increase the maximum civil penalty for child labor violations to better deter these bad actors.
With that, Chris, want to kick us off?
Q So, a follow-up on the child labor issue. Is the administration, is the President satisfied with Secretary Becerra’s handling of this issue, given the push that he and others have made to more quickly re- — release children to sponsors, where they wind up in child labor situations?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: So, let me first say: Yes, he has full confidence in the Secretary of HHS.
And I’m assuming you’re — you’re talking about the “assembly line” comment or —
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: So, look, you know, I just want to be very clear. Of course, the President does not believe that — that processing migrants should be treated like an assembly line, and neither does Secretary Becerra.
His — I would refer you to — HHS addressed that particular comment in the story. And I would refer you to what he was — what was said there.
Look, more broadly, though, the health and safety and the wellbeing of children is the priority of this — this President, this administration, and also Secretary Becerra. That means getting kids out of congregate settings and rigorously, as I just mentioned at the top, vetting — vetting families and sponsors that would take in these children.
Q Another question on the abortion pill ruling that is pending. What is the administration doing to prepare for a perhaps unfavorable ruling? Will women lose access to abortion if this really happens? Or does the administration have something else planned for that?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: So, a couple of things that we do want to say here is: What’s at stake is that a single judge is making a decision about a drug that has been around — you’ve heard me say this from here; you’ve heard Jen Klein, my colleague, who has been really leading this effort here, along with the Vice President, internally, for more than 20 years — if you think about this particular drug that they’re going to make an announcement on.
So, look, mifepristone is used safely in more than 60 countries. Not just here in the U.S., but 59 other countries have been using this for 20 years and in a safe way. And the FDA has repeatedly considered the clinical evidence in making science-based determinations to guide its safe and effective use.
Look, while I want to be careful — we don’t know where the co- — the court is ultimately going to land here and what they’re going to decide — the decision could be unprecedented, of course, and devastating to women’s health. And we may find ourselves in uncharted territory once again.
So, we are working closely with the Justice Department and the Department of Health and Human Services, as you — as you all know, to be prepared for a range of potential outcomes that may come out of this. And we’ll be prepared to review and take actions to ensure — to ensure the — the safety and the healthcare of women.
Q And I’ll let you go on, but I just want to ask this, like, very clearly: Can the administration protect access to these medications if the judge rules against the administration?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: So, again, we’re going to be ready for any — any, you know, judgment that may come that may actually put mifepristone at risk. And we are working with the Department of Justice here. We’re working with HH- — HHS to figure out what could be the steps in moving forward.
I’m not going to get ahead of a ruling that seems to be imminent — a court ruling that seems to be imminent, but just wanted to lay down where we are and how we see this process.
Remember, this is a 20-year drug that’s been around, that’s been used safely, that’s been used in 60 countries. And — and so, I’ll just leave it there.
Q Thanks, Karine. To follow up on the child labor violations: First, is the crackdown in direct response to the investigative reporting that came out over the weekend?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: So, I just want to be very clear here. Look, the New York Times story is heartbreaking and it is completely unacceptable. And this is something that we have taken action on. So, just also want to be clear on that.
The President and his administration has long focused on — on making sure that this growing problem of child exploitation is dealt with.
Just a couple of things that I’ll lay out in what we have done — especially the Department of Labor has done — over the last the — last year or two is — because they have been focused on this.
Just last fall, they secured a court order stopping an Alabama manufacturer of Hyun- — of Hyundai and Kia parts from employing children.
They recently also — they got one of the nation’s largest food safety sanitation providers to pay $1.5 million in civil penalties for violating child labor laws.
So, that doesn’t mean that the work is done. That’s why you heard the announcement today that you did from — from the two agencies on what we can do next from the Department of Labor and HHS on what other actions that we can take to move forward.
But, again, you heard me say this at the top: We also need Congress to act. The President asked Congress, in his fiscal year ‘23 budget, for more fundings. It fell short by $50 million. And — and so what that — it was a request for the DOL Wage and Hour Division to be able to do its job.
And because of that funding shortfall, it prevented the department from hiring nearly 200 additional staffers to combat these violations.
So, again, we’ve been working on this. This administration has been working on this for the past two years, taking this incredibly seriously.
And now we’re going to take additional actions to get to the bottom of this.
Q So, apart from lack of money, lack of resources, is there any agency, anyone who should be held accountable for the failure of oversight that led to this situation in the first place? And who is being held accountable?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Look — so, here’s the thing: We’ve taken action to try and deal with a real issue — a really true issue that was exacerbated, let’s not forget, by the last administration.
And so, that’s what we walked into. HHS took action on day one. Let’s — if we take a step back — when we came into came into office, migrant children were being expelled to Mexico where they were subjected to gang violence and exploitation.
So, we’ve reversed that policy, making clear that we — we as a nation have a — more responsibility to do better. So, we took action there.
And, look, we knew that decision would bring new challenges. We were dealing with a once-in-a-generation pandemic that required unprecedented safety measures for children in HHS care.
And you heard us — you heard us, beginning of this administration, talk about how we were moving — trying to move — trying to improve the situation for unaccompanied minors when they were coming in and also how to move them in the most safe way possible.
So, is there more work to be done? Absolutely. But to say that we have not taken this seriously after I just laid out what the Department of Labor has done — over the past several months, in particular — I think, would — you know, would — would be inaccurate.
And, of course, the President wants to get to the bottom of this. That’s why we put forth and announced a task force.
Q Thanks, Karine.
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Let me move around. Phil, I know I didn’t call on you.
Q Thanks, Karine. Kirby got at this a little bit, but given the President’s personal interest in the Northern Ireland Protocol — the negotiations that have been underway — is there an assessment from the administration on the deal that was reached? And does the President have a view of it? Because he’s stated very openly in the past that he’s very interested in it.
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: So, we welcome — we welcome today’s announcement between the United Kingdom and the European Union on the implemen- — and the implementation of the North- — Northern Ireland Protocol.
We understand the Prime Minister Sunak just addressed this, or is about to address it — I’ve lost track of time here — to the Parliament. And so, we will further have comment following that.
But, of course, this is something that we welcome. And we have long said — we have long stated that we wanted to see the UK and the EU reach a negotiated agreement. And so we commend the officials for doing that. And we certainly welcome the announcement.
Q And then, to just go back to the DOE assessment, since I didn’t get a swing at Kirby. Without asking specifically about that, but just more of the tempo and rhythm of things, I think the surprise was that it just kind of popped in the last 48 hours. This has been an all-of-government effort. It’s been across agencies. Can you give us a sense of how this is actually working in terms of, you know, what the timelines are? What kind of effort is going in on a day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month basis as to why this would happen now, why there would be an update now?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: So, I can’t speak to — again, and Kirby was — the Admiral was trying to be very clear here; he didn’t want to confirm the story or speak to the story.
I mean, what I can say, and I would just lean into what the National Security Advisor said yesterday on many of your networks. He did a bit of a round-robin yesterday on the Sunday shows. This is Jake Sullivan. Look, you know, this is something that the President takes very seriously. He directed, repeatedly, his intelligence community to put efforts and resources behind getting to the bottom of the origins — the origins of COVID — COVID-19.
And so, you know, he was — he — he doubled down on that and, like I said, redirected his intelligence community. And that’s what you’re seeing.
But, again, there’s not a consensus here. We’re still going through the process. And as we are getting briefed and updated — the President is — we’ll certainly share that with Congress and the American people.
But he believes — the President believes that it is important that we get to the bottom of this, especially as we need to prepare for who knows. Who knows what the future may hold. Don’t want to get into hypotheticals from here. But we need to be prepared for the — potentially another pandemic.
And so, again, we’ve taken this very seriously. The President has. We need to get to the bottom of what occurred.
Go ahead, Joey.
Q Yeah. Thank you. Following up on that, are there any plans for the administration to release an unclassified version of the Energy Department’s origins — COVID origin report? And if not, why is the administration choosing to keep that assessment classified?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: So, again, I’m going to just repeat my National Security Council colleague who said that he doesn’t — don’t want to get ahead of — or, you know, don’t want to confirm a story. So I’m not — certainly not going to answer that from here.
What I can tell you and reiterate from here — as he has said, as the National Security Advisor has said many times on — on the airwaves yesterday — which is that the President wants to get to the bottom of this because he thinks it’s incredibly important to figure out, to get a sense of where COVID-19 originated from.
Q So does the administration first need to find a consensus before releasing some of these assessments? Or, you know, why not put out what — everything that you’ve found so far?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Well, I think it’s basically what we’ve been saying. There has been no consensus, so I think they’re working through that. The intelligence community is working through — through getting to the bottom of this, as the President has directed and as the President wants to see.
I’m certainly not going to get into — ahead of their process.
Q Thank you.
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Go ahead.
Q Thanks, Karine. I want to ask about the economy. So —
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Shocker. (Laughs.)
Q It is shocking, I know. I know. (Laughs.)
So, a new Fox News poll shows that only 36 percent of voters approve of the President’s handling of the economy; 31 percent approve of the inflation — the way he’s handling inflation. Are voters just not getting the right message? Or is there something wrong with the President’s policies?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: So, look — first of all, no, there’s nothing wrong with the President’s policy. But this goes into a little bit of the COVID origins question that I’ve been — that I’ve gotten a couple of times and that, clearly, my colleague has gotten a couple of times as well.
We have — just coming out what the American people have had to deal with for the last almost three years now, if you think about it: COVID. Right? COVID-19. Once-in-a-generation pandemic, which really put — put the economy, as you know, into a tailspin. And the President, when he walked in, there was — the last administration did not have a comprehensive plan on how to deal with COVID and how to make sure that we were getting people shots in arms — as simple as that; how do we get the economy back on its feet.
And so that’s what the President did. He got the economy back on its feet. We’re seeing more than 12 million jobs created. We’re seeing a lot of improvement where we make sure that we do not leave people behind and we’re building the economy from the — from the bottom up and middle out.
Now, look, obviously, inflation is still too high. The President is doing everything that he can to lower costs for the American people, hence the Inflation Reduction Act that’s also going to lower costs on healthcare, lower cost on energy, and also reduce the deficit by $200 billion.
So we are doing the work, the President is doing the work to get that done.
But, look, as I said, inflation is still very — is too high. And we’re going to continue to focus on that. But we believe that the President’s economic policy is working. And all you have to do is look at the data.
And let’s not forget, we had the — Putin’s war. Right? We have Putin’s war that increased gas prices, that helped increase inflation. That was a problem. And that’s why we — the President took historic action on gas prices. So we’re going to continue to act.
Q So when does the President then tell those people whose wages are rising but rising less than inflation is rising — when can those people expect their wages to outpace inflation?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: So, look, we have — we have talked about this many times, that we are headed into a more stable and steady growth. And — and we think that, you know — and I think I mentioned this last time — there might be some setbacks at times. But we’re going to continue to pursue that — what we believe an economic plan — the President’s economic plan, again, that’s growing the economy, making sure we don’t leave anybody behind, and continue to push that forward.
And here’s — and here’s the part too — and we have to talk about this, or at least I have to talk about this — which is, you know, we have the President and Democrats who are doing the work to try and grow the economy. And then we have Republicans who want to do the complete opposite.
They want to repeal the Inflation Reduction Act — which is actually going to hurt the economy, which is actually going to increase heal- — if you think about the health — health — health prices, and it’s going to actually increase energy costs. Because that’s what the Inflation Reduction Act is supposed to do. And it’s going to have — raise havoc on the deficit.
So we’re trying to do the right thing. Meanwhile, Republicans are trying to reverse the work that we have been trying to do over the last two years.
Go ahead, Justin [Jordan].
Q Thanks, Karine. I noticed there’s no press conference scheduled for President Biden and Chancellor Scholz on Friday. Is that due to any lingering tensions over providing tanks to Ukraine?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: No.
Q What’s the reason for it?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: I — I — it’s not that reason. Look, when — as you know, when — when we have bilats here, sometimes we have two-plus-twos, as you — as you have witnessed. Sometimes we have those types of press conference. And sometimes we don’t. It doesn’t happen — it doesn’t occur at every time. But certainly it’s not — it’s not that.
We — and you heard — you heard the Admiral speaking from here how that relationship has continued to grow, how the German support for Ukraine has continued to grow. And we appreciate their partnership in this, especially as they are — as the Admiral said himself — they are strong partners in the NATO as — as NATO Allies.
Q Thank you, Karine. Sorry, I wasn’t sure.
Just one more on the lab leak news from the Department of Energy. With all of this information coming out — and obviously the President had ordered a multi-agency effort that included the Department of Energy to try to, you know, get at the origins question.
But looking, you know, with hindsight 20/20 and now these conclusions coming out from parts of this administration, was it prudent to have, at the time, some administration officials voicing support for one origins theory over another, like Dr. Fauci did at a couple — in a couple of instances. He said, you know, “My belief is that it’s most likely natural transmission.” Dr. Collins, at one point, sent an e-mail to Dr. Fauci that was discussing the lab leak theory as a conspiracy theory.
So given where we’re at now, looking backward and with respect to how we talk about these things if it ever happens in the future, is it — is it prudent to have members within the administration voicing support for one theory over another if there isn’t a consensus of that?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: So, I do want to speak to Dr. Fauci, because the political attacks on someone like Dr. Fauci, who — and public officials more broadly, but Dr. Fauci who has spent his career saving lives and — you know, whether it was the AIDS epidemic or, as we have just — coming out of this COVID — this once-in-a-generation pandemic, these attacks have been counterproductive. They have not been helpful. This is someone, again, who has spent his almost entire career fighting for the wellbeing, the health of the American people.
And so, I just want to call out the political attacks. I think, again, it’s not been helpful. Dr. Fauci himself has said he agrees with the President that we needed to get to the bottom of this, to get to the bottom of where COVID originated. And that’s what the President did from almost the — certainly the first few months of his administration.
And we have been grateful — again, we have been grateful to Dr. Fauci’s wisdom. We’ve been grateful to Dr. Fauci’s advice during the COVID response.
And we have been very, very clear here: We need Chi- — we need — we need to know more. We need to get to the bottom of how — how — how COVID-19 originated.
And so, that is why — again, that is why the President directed his — his IC and — his intelligence co- — co- — committee — community to get to the bottom of this.
And so, I’ll leave it there.
Q But more broadly than Dr. Fauci though, I guess what I’m getting at is: There was, not so long ago, a point where anyone asking the question of whether a lab leak was a credible theory which should be looked into — you know, a lot of those people were derided as “fringe,” you know, “conspiracy theorists.” So are there lessons learned, you know, looking back, about how we discuss theories when we don’t have all the answers?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: So, what — here’s what I can tell you is — the President’s commitment to getting to the bottom of this. Right? That is what is the most important so that we can — you know, we can share this with Congress. We can share this with the American people. That is why he asked the IC to do its work.
And right now, there is no consensus. There is no consensus. You heard this from Jake Sullivan yesterday. You heard this from my colleague just moments ago.
And we’re going to do everything that we can. The President is asking his team to do everything that they can to figure out where it originated because of what could potentially happen next, because of the potential of having another pandemic.
And I think that’s what’s most important. That’s what the American people should have confidence in, is that you have a President that wants to get to the bottom of this.
Go ahead, Kelly O.
Q Just on behalf of all of us, if we could request a two-and-two with Chancellor Scholz. It’s been more than a year since White House journalists have been able to ask him questions, and he’s obviously a very important ally to the United States.
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: I appreciate that.
Q On the lab: With the Department of Energy having expertise on an oversight of laboratories, does that in and of itself suggests there is something particularly new in this intelligence that should give people a sense of greater credi- — credibility or insight because of the kind of expertise DOE has in this area?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Yeah, the National Labs. No, I understand the question because of the National Labs, which is why they were asked to look into it.
I don’t want to — I’m not at liberty to confirm the reporting, so I’m not going to do that from here.
What I can tell you is, again, there’s been no consensus on this, on when — where COVID originated. So, I’ll just leave it there and not try to — not try to get ahead of the current process at this time.
Q On the student loans case the Supreme Court is going to hear tomorrow, does the President believe there’s a viable plan B if the Court strikes down the plan? And more broadly, how is the administration preparing for that possibility (inaudible)?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: So, I — and I think I’ve said this before — we are very much confident in our legal authority here. That’s why we’ve taken it — that’s why the Department of Justice has taken it all the way to the Supreme Court.
And so, again, we’re confident in our legal authority. We’re going to see what the Supreme Court decides. But clearly, our — the oral argument is happening tomorrow at 10:00 a.m. before the U.S. Supreme Court, so I’ll leave that to the Department of Justice.
But what we want to remind American people, more broadly, is how this program is going to give tens of millions of Americans across the country a little bit of a breathing room that you hear from the President, who says this a lot. That’s part of his economic plan. To make sure that as we are coming out of — coming out of COVID, as we’re — remember, we were taking — releasing the pause — right? — lifting the pause on student loans. And also, by doing this, giving American families a little bit of an opportunity to — you know, to start a family, to buy a home. And that’s how we’re seeing this plan and this process.
It’s unfortunate that Republicans — some Republicans officials across the country think differently. They don’t think that Americans need a little breathing room. They don’t think that tens of millions of Americans who have gone through what we’ve gone through — this is — kind of goes into all the con- — the questions that I’ve been getting — right? — about the economic — our economic plan. “Is it working?” “What is it that we’re doing?” This is all part of this, right? Giving the American people a little breathing room.
And you have Republican officials who — who don’t agree with this and who want to make it more difficult for Americans to get that — to get that relief.
Q The President is going to put out a plan soon on Social Security. Senator Sanders would like to see an expansion of benefits. He’d like to see that paid through ending payroll taxes on higher-income Americans. How does the President assess this? And does he think you could actually expand Social Security benefits while still strengthening the long-term viability of the system?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: So, what I can say is, more broadly, the President has not endorsed a bill at this time. I know you’re asking me about Senator Sanders’s bill. So, he hasn’t done that.
We always welcome proposals from members of Congress in how to extend Social Security solvency without cutting benefits or increasing taxes on anyone making less than $400,000.
Look, but — what we see right now and what the President is focused on is the immediate threat that we’ve been hearing from Republicans for some time on cutting Social Security, on cutting — on cutting Medicare. And — and so, look, we’re going to — we’re going to fight that.
The President said he’s — you heard him during the State of the Union. He was very, very — very strong and very clear about how he’s going to be a fighter for Social Security and a fighter for Medicare.
As I’ve mentioned, the President is going to have a budget that he’s going to put forth next — next week — no, not next week — March 9th. I can’t even remember what — where we are in the month. But on March 9th.
And he, you know, he — he puts it at the feet of Republicans in Congress and say, “Okay, what is your proposal? What is your transparent proposal to the American people? What are you putting forth?” We — we’re going to be ready on March 9th and show that to the American people and ready to have that conversation.
Q Karine, on the boosted SNAP benefits that are going to expire this week, what’s the administration’s message to the Americans who are going to really feel the brunt of this once these expire?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: So, as you know, Karen, Con- — as you just mentioned, Congress made the decision back in December to allow pandemic-era benefits to expire next month. And what we’ve done in response is take steps to ensure Americans’ needs are still being met.
A couple of things that has come out of USDA: They have taken steps to strengthen SNAP benefits and is committed to ensuring that people are aware of the range of benefits that are available to them. And also, as a reminder, USDA updated the Thirty Food Plan [Thrifty Food Plan], resulting in SNAP benefits increasing by an average of $36.30 per person per month, beginning October 2021.
This SNAP benefit increase lifted — increase lifted an estimate 2.3 million people out of poverty, including nearly 1 million children, with an average of — with, I should say, an even greater impact on children of color. And we have called to expand SNAP to additional underserved populations.
So, again, this is a decision that was made by Congress, and it’s going to — as you said, it’s going to expire next month. But we have tried to do the work through USDA to try to do everything that we can to strengthen SNAP benefits.
Q Is the President planning any executive action once these expire? Should we expect that coming soon?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: So, I don’t have any executive actions to announce at this time. But what we have done these past several months is make sure that we can strengthen the SNAP benefits, which has proven to lift certain communities, communities who truly — who — who — who — you know, who have been hurt the most, to get them out of poverty. And so, that is something that you’ve seen throughout — through the President’s actions.
Q And just some of this — the data that you just cited about the millions of people that were kept out of poverty — and that percentage has dropped — to reduce poverty for people and child poverty: Is the expectation now that those gains will be wiped out and the — that will increase then?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: So, what I can — what I can be — what I can commit to is that USDA is going to continue to do what they can to deal with the real issue, to deal with child poverty, to deal with the issue that millions of Americans across the country have to worry about: feeding their children, making sure that they can provide — they can provide just the basics for their families every day.
So, we’re going to do everything that we can to continue to make that happen. That’s why — as we’ve been talking about the economy over the last 30 minutes here, that’s why the President, we believe, has an economic plan. And it’s been proven by the data that — that is — that it grows the economy for — you know, from the bottom up and middle out for people who are normally left behind. And so, that’s going to continue to be the President’s economic policy.
Q Yes. Thank you, Karine. Following up on Karen’s question, is there any concern within the White House or politically that even though the President is not the one responsible for the fact that these benefits may be ending, that we may see polling data two months from now that blame him for more people being in a tough situation or whether the effects that it may have on the economy, if there are more people who are struggling to get basic needs met or have less money to spend on those necessities, is there any concern politically about how the — or how to prevent the President from being blamed for that?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: So, look, I’m not going to get into politics from here. I’m not going to certainly give a hypothetical answer to polling — potential polling, which, as we know, is a snapshot in time.
What I can say, what I can speak to is what the President cares about, is what the President is focused on. He’s focused on the American people. He’s focused on giving people a little bit of a breathing room.
I just talked about the student loan. I just talked about how the economy we see is growing because of his economic policy. I just talked about how the President continues to make sure that we do not leave anyone behind. I just talked about, at the beginning of the briefing, how equity has been at the center of everything that this President has done.
And as we’re still fighting inflation and trying to lower costs, the President has taken actions because of his economic policy, because of the Inflation Reduction Act — right? — and other pieces of — other actions that he has taken, even through USDA and making sure that we give 1 million children who have been dealing with poverty a little bit of a chance and opportunities I was just talking with Karen.
So, look, I get the question about SNAP. I get the question about how, politically, this may look for the President. But it’s not just one thing here.
This is — more broadly, if you look at the what the President has done these last two years, as he looks at the economy; as he looks at American families; as he’s trying to, he says, give Americans a little bit more dignity — right? — to be able to put food on their table; as he talks about not leaving anyone behind — this is part of the ethos of what the President believes as he is working for every American across the country, whether you’re in rural America, in urban, in red state, blue state.
He is a President for everyone, and that’s what you’re going to continue to see from this President.
Q Thanks, Karine.
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: All right, guys. I’ll see you on Wednesday. Thanks, everybody.
3:38 P.M. EST
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