Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jen Psaki and Deputy National Security Advisor for Cyber and Emerging Technology Anne Neuberger, February 17, 2021
1:11 P.M. EST
MS. PSAKI: Hi, everyone. Well, we have another special guest with us here today. Joining us today is Anne Neuberger, Deputy National Security Advisor for Cyber and Emerging Technology. I told her that’s quite a title. Well deserved.
Anne was previously the National Security Agency’s Director of Cybersecurity, where she led NSA’s cybersecurity mission. Prior to that role, she led NSA’s election security effort and served as Assistant Deputy Director of NSA’s Operations Directorate, overseeing foreign intelligence and cybersecurity operations.
She also previously served as NSA’s first Chief Risk Officer, as Director of NSA’s Commercial Solutions Center, as Director of Enduring Security Framework’s cybersecurity public- private partnership, as the Navy’s Deputy Chief Management Officer, and as a White House Fellow.
She is going to provide all of you an update on the administration’s work related to SolarWinds. And she’s willing to take a couple of questions. As usual, I will play the bad cop.
So, come on over, Anne, when you’re ready.
MS. NEUBERGER: Good afternoon. It’s great to be here with you today. So I’ll give an update across our SolarWinds work — what happened, how did it happen, and what are we doing about it.
So, first, what happened? Hackers launched a broad and indiscriminate effort to compromise the network management software used by both government and the private sector. The intelligence community is looking at who is responsible. Until that study is complete, I’ll use the language we previously used, which was to say an advanced persistent threat actor, likely of Russian origin, was responsible.
As of today, 9 federal agencies and about 100 private sector companies were compromised. As you know, roughly 18,000 entities downloaded the malicious update. So the scale of potential access far exceeded the number of known compromises. Many of the private sector compromises are technology companies, including networks of companies whose products could be used to launch additional intrusions.
So why does this matter? Why is this significant? The techniques that were used lead us to believe that any files or emails on a compromised network were likely to be compromised. The scope and scale of our investigation is underway, and we look forward to providing you future updates in the future.
So, how did this happen? There’s two parts to that: them and us. The actor was a sophisticated advanced persistent threat. Advanced: Because the level of knowledge they showed about the technology and the way they compromised it truly was sophisticated. Persistent: They focused on the identity part of the network, which is the hardest to clean up. And threat: The scope and scale to networks, to information, makes this more than an isolated case of espionage.
And then, us: There’s a lack of domestic visibility, so as a country, we choose to have both privacy and security. So the intelligence community largely has no visibility into private sector networks. The hackers launched the hack from inside the United States, which further made it difficult for the U.S. government to observe their activity. Even within federal networks, a culture and authorities inhibit visibility, which is something we need to address.
I want to take a moment to thank the public and private sector network defenders who have been working very hard to find and expel these adversaries from both government and private sector networks.
So, finally, and most significantly, what are we going to do about it? Three things: First, finding and expelling the adversary. Second, building back better to modernize federal defenses and reduce the risk of this happening again. And finally, potential response options to the perpetrators.
So, first, finding and expelling the adversary. We’re coordinating the interagency response from the National Security Council. I was on the Hill last week, had Hill discussions this week, and will be on the Hill next week, as well. We’re working closely with daily conversations with our private sector partners. They have visibility and technology that is key to understanding the scope and scale of compromise. There are legal barriers and disincentives to the private sector sharing information with the government. That is something we need to overcome.
And then, finally, this is challenging. This is a sophisticated actor who did their best to hide their tracks. We believe it took them months to plan and execute this compromise. It’ll take us some time to uncover this, layer by layer.
Second, building back better to modernize federal defenses. We’re absolutely committed to reducing the risk this happens again. If you can’t see a network, you can’t defend a network. And federal networks’ cybersecurity need investment and more of an integrated approach to detect and block such threats.
We’re also working on close to about a dozen things — likely eight will pass — that will be part of an upcoming executive action to address the gaps we’ve identified in our review of this incident.
And, finally, in terms of response to the perpetrator, discussions are underway. I know some of you will want to know what kind of options are being contemplated. What I will share with you is how I frame this in my own mind. This isn’t the only case of malicious cyber activity of likely Russian origin, either for us or for our allies and partners. So as we contemplate future response options, we’re considering holistically what those activities were.
I look forward to coming back and keeping you posted as we continue identifying the scope and scale and begin — and continue our execution.
And thank you so much for your time.
MS. PSAKI: Does anybody have any questions? Go ahead, Phil.
Q Thanks, Anne, for doing this. Just to 30,000 foot it, do you have a timeframe in terms of how long this investigation will take? And then, obviously you’re not going to lay out specific details of what you will do in response, but do you have a timeline on the response as well? Is it tagged to whenever the investigation ends, or how are you guys thinking through that?
MS. NEUBERGER: So, most importantly, as we’re looking at what caused the SolarWinds, we’re also executing the three things I talked about. We’re working to expel the adversary, we’re working to build those networks and improve the cybersecurity of federal networks, and we’re also carefully thinking through how we respond.
So the investigation, as I noted, because of the sophistication, is taking us layer by layer, but we’re working at the same pace to ensure we lock down networks and really think through how to ensure this doesn’t happen again in the future.
Q And do you have a timeline? I understand it’s complicated, but how long it would take to go layer by layer and really understand the scope.
MS. NEUBERGER: I think we’re estimating several months. But as I said, literally, you know, day by day, hour by hour, we’re making progress in understanding it.
MS. PSAKI: Mary?
Q As you look at the scope and the scale of this, do you have a price tag or a sense of a price tag that could begin to account the total cost of damage to the U.S. government from this compromise?
MS. NEUBERGER: It’s a really interesting question. There’s two parts, right? One is, it’s really highlighted the investments we need to make in cybersecurity to have the visibility to block these attacks in the future. And then the second is the scale of the information that was potentially compromised and the impact of how that information could be used in the hands of a malicious actor.
So it’s — there’s certainly a cost with regard to dollars; it’s also a cost with regard to national security. And we’re bounding and understanding both.
Q And there’s been some discussion that entire networks could have to be scrapped and rebuilt essentially from the ground up. I know, you know, you don’t want to get into specifics of a timeline, but are we talking about years, potentially, to try and secure some of these networks going forward?
MS. NEUBERGER: We certainly don’t have years. It’s wise when planning in cybersecurity to consider the worst case, particularly when you’re dealing with such a sophisticated attacker in that way. So we know we don’t have years, and the remediation — the fix and cleanup work is underway already, and we’ll be doing it in a careful way to ensure that we lock down layer by layer. But we know it’s going to be a lot shorter than that.
MS. PSAKI: (Inaudible).
Q And what have you specifically learned about this attack in terms of, kind of, the data that was stolen and, you know, agencies that were impacted? We know the number, but what kind of communications were really impacted by this hack?
MS. NEUBERGER: Good question. One of the things we’ve done from the White House is do a coordinated set of questions to assess that and pull that piece together. It varies agency by agency. And certainly there is a national security impact, and that is what we’re looking to consider: both how we manage the risk of that and how we address it for the future.
Q And do we have any understanding of, kind of, the motive that drove this attack? I mean, based on the assessment that you’ve had, what were the hackers really trying to go after? I mean, any particular agency, out of the nine that you found, that they were going after?
MS. NEUBERGER: Certainly, as we look at the agencies, there are a number of those of high foreign intelligence interest to a foreign government. So we know that was certainly one goal.
But as I noted earlier, when there is a compromise of this scope and scale, both across government and across the U.S. technology sector to lead to follow-on intrusions, it is more than a single incident of espionage; it’s fundamentally of concern for the ability for this to become disruptive.
MS. PSAKI: Go ahead. Oh, go ahead. You had your hand raised for a while.
Q Since it’s involved both government agencies and the private sector as well, how much are you able to share with the private sector as far as, you know, what may have been compromised on their end and what they can do maybe to prevent this from happening again?
MS. NEUBERGER: In the U.S. government — in the United States, the way we’re structured, public-private partnership has to be a core part of national cyber defense. So there’s active sharing going on in both directions: government sharing its insights with private sector entities — both who have been compromised and those who have broader visibility — and private sector entities sharing their insights to ensure we can together scope and scale what occurred.
MS. PSAKI: Can you do one more question? Go ahead.
Q Do you believe you’ll find additional U.S. agencies and private companies that have been hacked, or is it going to — is this the final number? And have you ruled out data deletion or manipulation?
MS. NEUBERGER: So due to the sophistication of the techniques that were used, we believe we’re in the beginning stages of understanding the scope and scale, and we may find additional compromises, particularly given the technology companies that were compromised.
And, no, we have not ruled out potential additional activity, but we’re very focused on carefully taking this step by step to understand the broad implications.
MS. PSAKI: Thank you, Anne, so much.
MS. NEUBERGER: Thank you.
MS. PSAKI: And we, of course, would love to have you back anytime. I’m sure (inaudible).
MS. NEUBERGER: Thank you all.
MS. PSAKI: Thank you again.
Q Thank you.
MS. PSAKI: Okay, just a couple of additional updates for all of you:
Today, President Biden will meet with labor leaders to thank them for their role representing workers and supporting a strong American middle class, and to discuss the importance of passing the American Rescue Plan, which will not only help contain the pandemic and deliver immediate economic relief but will also create jobs, including good union jobs.
Today, our COVID Response Team also announced critical steps to expand testing in the United States, a critical piece of turning the tide of the pandemic and protecting our public health. Today, they have announced that the federal government will invest $1.6 billion — already allocated funds — but in three areas.
And this includes $650 million to support testing in schools and underserved communities. HHS will use these funds to create regional coordinating centers that will partner with labs to leverage their underutilized testing capacity. These coordinating centers will help match lab capacity with demand from schools, congregate settings like homeless shelters, or other underserved populations.
Almost $200 million will go to increase genomic sequencing. This surge in funding will result in a threefold increase in the CDC’s genomic sequencing capacity to get us to 25,000 samples a week. This will help us identify variants sooner, which is obviously important and pivotal at this point in time.
And $815 million will go to manufacture critical testing supplies on things like filter pipette tips, nitrocellulose used in antigen tests, and specialized injection molded plastics needed to house testing regents.
These are critical steps to address vital issues. This funding and these efforts are far from what is necessary; it simply provides a bridge to the funding that is in the American Rescue Plan, which will help us get more shots into the arms of Americans.
I also have an update on the winter storms in Texas, which I know is of great interest to many of you. Our team and FEMA continue to monitor the situation in Texas, as well as other states in the storm’s path that might be impacted. We remain in close contact with states across the affected area to ensure any federal support requirements are met.
FEMA has supplied generators to Texas and is preparing to move diesel into the state to ensure the continued availability of backup power — which, of course, is a major issue on the ground — to key critical infrastructure, including communications, hospitals, and water. FEMA is also supplying Texas with water and blankets at their request.
We’re preparing to quickly process requests from other states for emergency assistance; that’s how the process typically works. And we urge people in the affected states to, of course, listen to their emergency manument [sic] — management officials.
Final updates: Ahead of the meeting this afternoon, the President is taking several steps to expand high-quality registered apprenticeships to reward work, rebuild the middle class, and connect a diverse workforce to family-supporting, living-wage jobs. Specifically, today, he is endorsing Congressman Scott’s National Apprenticeship Act, which the House estimates will create nearly 1 million new apprenticeship opportunities and help ensure women and workers of color benefit.
He’s reinstating the longstanding National Advisory Committee on Apprenticeships, which will help — will bring the voice of unions, employers, community colleges, and other institutions to expanding and improving the registered apprenticeship programs.
And then he is signing an executive order that reverses Trump’s executive order — President — former President Trump’s executive order which spurred the creation of industry-recognized apprenticeship programs. These programs lack quality standards and threaten to undermine the registered apprenticeship programs that have been the pathway to middle class for decades.
I said that was the last. I have one more thing.
Also today, the President nominated Jennifer Abruzzo as General Counsel of the National Labor Relations Board. And many of you have been following the changeover of leadership there. Having spent more than 20 years working for the NLRB, Abruzzo will bring with her deep experience and knowledge of the NLRB’s role and will be an important partner in building a strong and more resilient and more inclusive economy that delivers every American a fair return for their work.
With that — a couple of things at the top.
Q Thanks. I had a couple of questions —
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q — sort of follow-ups from yesterday —
MS. PSAKI: Okay.
Q — and this morning on two different issues. First, on getting the five days a week school: The Vice President this morning, I believe, said it’s a “priority” to get vaccinations for teachers. Can you get to five days a week without vaccinations? Does the President believe that teachers need to be vaccinated before they go back to school?
MS. PSAKI: No, neither the President nor the Vice President believes that — that it should be — it is a requirement. The CDC guidelines included a range of mitigation steps, including vaccinations, as recommendations. But the mitigation steps also included steps like social distancing, the need for a smaller class sizes, the need for sanitation. So these are — this was one of several steps recommended in the CDC guidelines.
Now, at the same time, the President and the Vice President both believe that teachers should be prioritized. And as you all know, that’s up to states to determine; there are federal recommendations. About half of the country — half — about half of the states in the country have prioritized teachers, and they both feel that’s important, including child healthcare workers. And they both feel that that’s something that is impacting working women and moms who are trying to go back to work and trying to make sure that their kids have the attention and childcare they need.
So it’s not a requirement to reopen schools, but they believe that teachers should be prioritized.
Q And on the impact, particularly with women — you just mentioned — also the idea of getting to that 7 million number that the President talked about yesterday — that if you pass the plan, you can get all the estimates that say you can get 7 million jobs back this year —
MS. PSAKI: Yep.
Q — can you do that without getting back to five days of school? How do women go back to work without having their kids full time in school?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I will say one of the reasons that the President has put $130 billion of funding in his American Rescue Plan is because he knows that schools across the country need funding to satisfy some of the mitigation steps that are recommended in the CDC guidelines. I talked with him about this this morning and his concern, as you have raised, that this is deeply impacting women. We’re seeing that statistically with every week and every month of jobs numbers. We’ve seen it anecdotally.
And his concern is about the impact, of course, on working women today, but also on how it will — it will bring us back in the years ahead. Because if there are fewer women who are in the workplace; there are fewer women climbing the corporate ladder; there are fewer women who are getting law degrees, getting doctorates — and that has a long-term impact.
So, you’re right that — or, I should say, what I’m taking from your question is, you know, can we can we get this done if we don’t have funding, if we don’t have the different components. When he announced his goal of opening the majority of schools, he made clear we need to have funding because most — many schools will tell you across the country, they were waiting for the CDC guidelines. They want to know how to do it safely, but they don’t have — they need the funding to hire more teachers. They need more bus drivers. They need the ability to implement the mitigation steps that are going to work for their school districts.
Q And just on last thing from last night. President Biden said no one should go to jail for a drug offense. What did he mean by that?
MS. PSAKI: Well, anyone who had the pleasure of journeying around the country with him before COVID and then during COVID, when it was doing — when it was happening remotely, he talked again and again on the campaign trail about eliminating mandatory minimums and making sure that people suffering from addiction aren’t incarcerated for drug use alone, but instead are sent to treatment. That’s reflected in the plan he put forward on the campaign, and that’s his goal as President.
And, of course, we’re four weeks in, so there’s a lot more policy work to be done, but that is a — that is a commitment and a policy proposal — or policy commitment he talked about on the campaign trail.
Q Thank you. Just a couple of follow-ups again from last night.
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q The President mentioned that, you know, China will face repercussions for human rights abuses against Uyghurs and in Hong Kong and Taiwan, et cetera. What did he specifically mean by “repercussions”? I mean, is the White House considering sanctions? Or even under Trump, there was a lot of Chinese companies that were added to an economic blacklist. Is that likely to continue as you evaluate your options? How are you thinking in terms of repercussions?
MS. PSAKI: Well, what the President — the full context of his comments was also about how, during his conversation with President Xi, he talked about the values of the United States. And that — the fact is, is that even when you’re communicating with another world leader and you’re having a tough conversation, we can’t — our values and our — and our priorities — whether it’s human rights, as it relates to the Uyghurs and what they have suffered through, or the freedom of press or media — they can’t take a backseat. And so the context of his comments were that those are issues he’s going to continue to raise.
As it relates to our policy toward China, we are not in a rush. We are focused on communicating and working with our partners and allies around the world. The President has had a number of conversations, as you know, with Europeans. He will continue conversations with world leaders in the weeks ahead.
But beyond that, there’s an ongoing policy process, and I don’t have anything to preview for you today.
Q So, Jen, you know, just in terms of the existing restrictions that were put under the previous administration, are they likely to continue as you, sort of, you know, take your time and, sort of, have a measured response to this?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I wouldn’t — I didn’t call it a “measured response.” What I conveyed was that our process is to ensure that we are strengthening our economy at home. We want to come to our approach to China, to that relationship, from a position of strength. That is something the President and his national security team are doing.
He is also going to communicate — we see our relationship with China as one focused around competition. He’s also going to focus on working with our partners and allies around the world in Europe and in Asia.
I don’t have anything to preview for you in terms of additional policy steps, other than to convey for you broadly that’s our approach. And when he was answering the question at the town hall, he was reiterating his view that, as President — and his commitment, I should say — that he is not going to miss an opportunity to restate his values and our values as a country.
Go ahead. Oh, well, I can come back to you, but go ahead.
Q On the issue of teachers, you’re making it clear that a vaccination isn’t a must, as the CDC recommends, but that you hope that states prioritize this. Is this administration sharing that message with teachers? Has the President been reiterating that with governors, urging them to put teachers at the front of the line?
MS. PSAKI: The President — absolutely. It’s something he said at a nationally televised town hall meeting last night and something that he will continue to communicate at every opportunity. And, you know, I think what I was conveying — just for full clarity — is that it’s a recommendation. It’s a number — one of many mitigation steps. But the CDC guidelines are guidelines; they’re not requirements.
But at the same time, the President and the Vice President believe that teachers should be prioritized. And in many states, they already are.
Q But you do agree with the guidelines? You do agree with the CDC recommendation that vaccinations are not a must for teachers?
MS. PSAKI: That it is one of — correct. That is one of mitigation — a number of mitigation steps that should be taken by schools to keep things safe.
Now, it’s important to also reiterate — and when I talked to the President this morning, he conveyed this again — that we need money. These school districts need money to deliver on these guidelines. And when his Secretary of Education is confirmed, hopefully next week — I’ll knock on some wood — then he will be leading this effort. This will be his number-one priority is working with the school districts to safely reopen as quickly as possible.
Q And the timeline for widespread vaccine availability keeps getting pushed back. Originally, it seemed we were eyeing sometime in the spring. Now the President, last night, said the end of July. So when do we expect that there will be enough doses for everyone who wants a vaccine to be able to get one?
MS. PSAKI: Well, the President actually — I know we’ve been putting out a lot of COVID news — I realize that — almost every day. The President actually announced last week — or we announced last week that he would be purchasing — that the federal government would be purchasing enough doses to vaccinate 300 million Americans. So he reiterated that last night.
We will get the last shipment of those doses at the end of July. By the end of May, we will have about 400 million doses. So, at that point, once we have 400 million doses, there will certainly be a larger swath of people who will be eligible, who will be able to get access to the vaccine.
But in terms of when every American who wants a vaccine can get a vaccine, we will have enough doses by the end of July, and those have already been ordered from Pfizer and Moderna.
Q And just one more question on — the question of when we get some semblance of normalcy. That timeline also seems to be shifting. Dr. Fauci had said a sense of normalcy maybe in the fall. That’s when you might be able to go to theaters, go to sporting events — still with masks, of course.
Now it seems that’s being slid to early next year. The President said maybe around Christmas. What’s going on here? When do we think we will get back to some taste of normalcy?
MS. PSAKI: Well, this is the question, as I’m sure is the case for all of you, that every neighbor, every friend, every family member asks — at least me in the street when I’m walking my dog in the morning.
We want to be straight with the American public, though. It is — we are not in a place where we can predict exactly when everybody will feel normal again. And it has — there are a number of reasons. One is, even though we will have enough doses for every person in this country, as you all know because we’ve talked about it in here, vaccine hesitancy remains a challenge. We need to ensure that everybody who can get a dose is getting a dose.
We will also need to be masking for some time. We will also need to be still taking social distancing measures. So, you know, there — there’s — of course, this is an understandable question, and I think the President wants things to return to normal, as we all do. But we — we don’t know at this point what that timeline is going to look like.
Go ahead, Phil.
Q Thanks, Jen.
MS. PSAKI: I’ll come back to you.
Q Clarify a couple things on school funding: Are the goals, as they’re laid out right now, for reopening entirely contingent on having the $130 billion? Or are those goals to reopen the majority of schools by the end of 100 days based on not having that money, and that money will only serve to turbocharge things?
MS. PSAKI: Well, when the President announced his goal of reopening the majority of schools in 100 days, he conveyed that money was a pivotal part of that. And it is. And it is not — it is up to, of course, local school districts to determine which mitigation steps they will take. It is up to them to determine how they will use accessible funds. But that funding is needed by school districts across the country and I think will be, you know, essential to our success.
Q I guess what I’m asking is: The scale of what the CDC is recommending, in terms of the changes some schools would have to make — whether it’s through their HVAC systems or their spacing or, as you noted, hiring bus drivers, teachers — that would take time. It takes time to get money out the door. How does that impact the first 100 days?
MS. PSAKI: It impacts it because it means there’s an urgency to getting this money through and to ensuring that schools have the ability to plan ahead.
Some of these schools — and obviously I’m not speaking to any particular district — but broadly speaking, you know, they have funding that they can frontload, right? But they need to know there is security of funding that is ahead. And so this funding is essential to being able to provide the necessary resources to many schools across the country that want to implement these mitigation measures, take the steps, work with their local school districts and school boards to do it, but don’t have the resources to effectively do it.
And, again, as soon as our Education Secretary is sworn in, this is going to be his number-one priority.
Q Just one really quick one.
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q The President mentioned — it didn’t seem like he was endorsing it, just that he mentioned it — the idea of summer school. Is that something he would like to —
MS. PSAKI: Doesn’t every kid want summer school? It’s the dream. Your kids probably want summer school.
Q It’s like a nightmare. (Laughter.) But is that something he would like to see? I know it’s in the discussion and I know it’s — at the school districts. Is that something he’d like to do, if schools are able to reopen, to have a full semester for summer school?
MS. PSAKI: Well, it is something that is an option. And, you know, our Department of Education is also undergoing a study to determine the impact of COVID on kids and schools and what is the impact of doing remote learning; what’s the impact of not being in school with your teacher. And from that, you know, they’ll be able to work with school districts on what’s going to work best to address the challenges and needs that they’re finding through that study.
But this funding that is in the American Rescue Plan can be used for a range of purposes, and we’ve talked about a lot of them: bus drivers, hiring of temporary teachers, you know, PPE or other equipment. But also, it can be used for tutoring or summer school in cases where that would be an appropriate step, and it’s really going to be up to the school districts to determine that.
Q Jen, you’ve said that — you’ve said that the President’s preference is that states prioritize teachers.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
Q This is a vaccine that’s being provided for free to the states by the federal government. Can’t you mandate that states prioritize teachers?
MS. PSAKI: We can provide federal guidelines, which is exactly what we’ve done. But we work in close partnership and coordination with states to make recommendations on the prioritization, and they implement.
Of course, the power of the presidency and the power of the vice presidency is certainly convening what their preference is, which they have both done over the last 24 hours, but that’s not how the process has worked, and I don’t anticipate it would be — that’s how it would work moving forward.
Q Got it. And then, the President said yesterday his goal is to have the majority of K-through-8 schools open five days a week by day 100. What about high schools? What’s the goal for that?
MS. PSAKI: I’m not going to set new goals here, other than to say that the President wants students to be in school, learning with their teachers five days a week, and he wants that to happen as quickly as possible and do it safely. And he’s obviously said he wants that to happen in the first 100 days.
It is harder — and we saw this in the CDC guidelines, but also from many of our health experts — because of social distancing, it is more challenging with older students than it is with younger students. And that is — of course, it has to be a factor and something that I’m sure school districts will consider.
Q But they’re also suffering more, aren’t they?
MS. PSAKI: Well, again, there’s a study that our Department of Education is undergoing to provide — to acquire data to make a determination about recommendations on how to address the impacts. We’ll let them speak to that. But I think we can all see anecdotally, of course, what the impact is on older students. We want students to be back in the classroom but we want to do it safely. And the President is committed to doing that.
Q And then finally, you said previously that the goal was to have the majority of K-through-8 schools open at least one day a week in the first 100 days. Last night, President Biden called that a “mistake in communication.” He wants them open five days a week. So can you clarify what is the administration’s goal for reopening K-through-8 schools in the first 100 days?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I’m not going to take it personally that you don’t hang on every word that I say in here. I did say last Thursday that the President will not rest until every school is open five days a week. That is our goal. That is what we want to achieve, but we’re going to — we look forward to seeing and hearing the CDC guidelines to gain a better understanding of what steps that will entail or should entail. I also said I can assure any parent listening that his objective, his commitment is to ensure schools are open five days a week.
So I think we’ve been consistent for the last several days. And certainly, when I initially said “one day a week,” it was our — it was our floor; it was not our ceiling.
But without a doubt, the President wants schools to open five days a week, wants students to be in the classroom, wants to do that safely. We now have some guidelines from the CDC with several mitigation steps. We’ll have to work — we need funding to do that. That is a pivotal piece of it. Many school districts need funding; they don’t have it. And also, we need our Secretary of Education in place to work to implement.
Q Thank you.
MS. PSAKI: Sure. Go ahead.
Q Another follow-up on last night. The President said pretty clearly that he doesn’t think he has the authority to cancel $50,000 in student loan debt. Today, Senator Schumer and Warren said in a statement that they were told the administration is still working on figuring out if it has the authority. So if your lawyers would determine that canceling this is legal, would the President go ahead with this? And if not, why not?
MS. PSAKI: Well, first, on last night — last night’s town hall, for those of you who didn’t see the whole thing, he was reiterating his previously stated position, which is he doesn’t favor $50,000 in student loan relief without limitation. And he used some examples of the types of schools or when it should be reimbursed or refunded. He said previously that relief above $10,000 should be targeted based on the borrower’s income, based on the kind of debt in question, public schools versus private schools, graduate schools versus undergraduate. Obviously, there’s a lot of considerations at play.
What the President has told Senators Schumer and Warren is that once this team is in place at the Justice Department — and they are not, of course; they’re not confirmed at this point — he will ask them to conduct a legal review of his authority to act by executive action, in conjunction with a policy review from his Domestic Policy Council on his executive — on how executive action debt relief, if any, should be targeted.
So obviously, that’s a review that would need to take place. There’s a legal consideration there, as I think everybody agrees. There’s a policy consideration. And once that’s concluded, he’ll decide the path forward.
Q So he hasn’t yet ruled it out if all of these ifs and buts are still in place? And obviously, you need your team in place and the review to take place?
MS. PSAKI: That’s right. There needs to be a team at the Justice Department to make a recommendation on his legal authority. And obviously, the domestic policy team is in place, but they would be a part of that conversation, certainly, as well.
And in the meantime, if Congress moves forward and sends him a package that, you know, provides $10,000 of student debt relief, he’d be eager to sign that. So there are several levers here, and he’s — he’s looking forward to that process moving forward.
Go ahead. Oh you go — you go ahead. Go ahead, yeah. Sorry, I know it’s like my pointing is kind of all over the place.
Q The President, during the campaign, supported the study for reparations — a committee to study reparations. There was a House Judiciary Committee hearing today. Does the President support the legislation? He stopped short of saying that during the campaign. Would he sign that if it came to his desk?
MS. PSAKI: Well, he’s supported a study of reparations, which is I believe is what’s being discussed, and studying the continuing impacts of slavery, which is being discussed in this hearing on H.R. 40, I believe it is.
And he continues to demonstrate his commitment to take comprehensive action to address the systemic racism that persists today. Obviously, that is — having that study is a part of that, but he has signed an executive order on his first day, which would begin to deliver on his commitment to having an across-government approach to addressing racial inequality and making sure equity is a part of his entire policy agenda.
But he certainly would support a study of reparations, and we — understands — understands that we don’t need a study to take action, right now, on systemic racism. So he wants to take actions within his own government in the meantime.
Q But would he support the bill? Because you’re talking about the study, but if the bill came to the desk, would he sign it?
MS. PSAKI: Well, it’s working its way through Congress. He’d certainly support a study, but we’ll see what happens through the legislative process.
Q And then, just last question on that. The President has done quite a few executive actions.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
Q Why not, on this issue, create a commission and — by executive order?
MS. PSAKI: He actually signed a number of actions on racial equity in — on his first day or his first couple of days in office because he felt it was essential to send the message to the American people and the world that having an across-government approach, ensuring that equity is a central part of his policy agenda was, you know, not just a single — a singular issue but something that would be a part of every policy issue he approaches, whether it’s healthcare, whether it’s economic inequality, a range of issues. That’s his approach and how he’s trying to, you know, change — address the root causes of racism in our country today.
Q But he doesn’t support a reparations executive order? He won’t sign that?
MS. PSAKI: Again, he — well, it would be up to him.
MS. PSAKI: It’s his — you know, he — he has executive order authority. He would certainly support a study, and we’ll see where Congress moves on that issue.
Q Just again — you know, you’re getting a lot of follow-ups from last night, and one more. The President spoke —
MS. PSAKI: Well, I welcome it. Go ahead.
Q The President spoke about minimum wage last night and reiterated his support for $15 an hour. And at the same time, you know, he also tried to explain, sort of, a gradual rollout, and he spoke about 12, 13. We appreciate the clarification your office put out this morning about what that would look like.
I’m just trying to get a better understanding of whether the White House will still insist that $15 go into the — into the bill — the COVID relief bill now. And if it — if that is not happening, what is the path forward? Is it the House legislation, talking about, you know, $15 by October 2025? Is that what the White House would support if this doesn’t happen? What is it looking like?
MS. PSAKI: Well, we’re in the middle of the legislative process for the American Rescue Plan, and we fully recognize, as does the President, having served in the Senate for 36 years, that his bill that he proposed — that included a $15 minimum wage increase, included many other key components — may not look exactly the same on the other ends when it comes out of the sausage-making machine.
But he put it in there — a raise of the minimum wage — because he feels it’s important, it’s a priority, and that men and women who are working hard, who are living an hon- — you know, making an honest living shouldn’t be living at the poverty level.
We will let that process see itself through. It’s not even through the Senate yet. And it will move its way through the Senate process and hopefully soon. But I’m not going to get ahead of the process in Congress.
Q So you’re still optimistic, Jen, that $15 will make it into this package and will become a reality?
MS. PSAKI: We’ll see. It’s up to members of Congress to determine what the final package looks like. It’s a priority to the President; that’s why he put it in the package. But he also — and I appreciate you referencing, you know, the — the — sorry, the — the —
Q The rollouts.
MS. PSAKI: Right, exactly. I just like stumbled over 100 words. I appreciate you referencing that when he was asked this question last night, it was by a small-business owner who was concerned that immediately he would — or this is what the President’s takeaway was: That immediately he would be in a place where he had to pay his workers $15 an hour next month or soon. And the President was explaining to him that this would be a, you know, progressive increase. Right? And that’s something that Senator Sanders supports as well. So he was explaining it would go to 12, then it will go to 13. It would be over a series of time — over a couple of years. So that was how he was explaining it.
But again, the process is ongoing. We look forward to it moving forward rapidly, and we’ll see what comes out on the other side.
Q So he definitely supports even a gradual rollout as an option on the table?
MS. PSAKI: Oh, absolutely, he supports a gradual increase — that it wouldn’t be an immediate — and as does Senator Sanders and as do many advocates for increasing the minimum wage. Absolutely.
Q I wanted to ask one point of clarification on the summer school question.
MS. PSAKI: Okay.
Q Are you saying that there would be an additional funding stream for schools that wanted to go in that direction or it would be part of the larger COVID package?
MS. PSAKI: It’s part of the larger — it’s an option in the school funding that’s in the COVID package.
Q And then beyond that, is the Department of Education going to make an ultimate recommendation on how districts should handle the question of holding in-person summer education for students who have been out of the classroom for so long?
MS. PSAKI: I’m sure that’s something they’ll look at. And I think what they’re eager to have access to is this data on what the impact has been of students being out of school, students learning remotely, hybrid learning. We don’t know; there’s not really a big precedent for this. And they want to be able to look at that data.
And, of course, Secretary Cardona, as a former educator himself — I guess once an educator, always an educator — will be leading that effort and working with school districts.
Q And if I can ask one more on a different topic, just because it’s an issue that’s come up in Congress, it’s being talked about in D.C., is: Does the President, given his relationship with the Senate, have a view on permanent fencing around the U.S. Capitol? It’s likely something that, if it were to happen, would be an appropriation that the President would have to sign.
MS. PSAKI: It’s really up to Congress to determine what measures need to be taken, and I’m sure they’re working with their own — the Capitol Police and others to make that determination. But we don’t have any further comment from here or evaluation.
Q Thanks, Jen. A top CDC official and Transportation Secretary Buttigieg both said publicly in recent weeks that COVID testing for domestic flights was under consideration. And I know you said last week that those reports are inaccurate and the CDC issued a statement saying it’s not recommending it. But, I guess, why is domestic testing no longer on the table at a time when countries like Canada are significantly increasing COVID travel restrictions? And did the White House have a conversation with the CDC about the proposal, given the pressure coming from the airline industry?
MS. PSAKI: No, there’s a policy process for every consideration. Right? And obviously, we have said we will lead with the guidance of health and science experts. And as you noted, the CDC put out a statement on this last week. There are steps that we have put in place, as you may be familiar with, including mandatory masking on flights, which our health experts feel is an effective step that should be taken on airlines. And also, we’ve limited restricted travel from international travel. But that’s not a step that was determined was essential to be made. So we — we’ll follow the guidelines.
Q Thanks. I want to get back to the Texas crisis. So, about a decade ago, federal regulators suggested — they urged Texas to weatherize its power grid. That largely did not happen, or it certainly didn’t happen enough. And, of course, it was only a suggestion because Texas is not part of the national grid. You may have seen that Rick Perry, the former Energy Secretary and Governor of Texas, has said today that Texans would rather endure days of blackouts than submit to federal regulation. Is the President willing to leave 30 million Texans off of the national grid?
MS. PSAKI: There’s a lot packed into that question. I will do my best to answer it. Let me first say that building resilient and sustainable infrastructure that can withstand extreme weather and a changing climate will play an integral role in creating millions of good-paying union jobs, creating a clean energy economy, and meeting the President’s goal of reaching a net-zero emissions future by 2050, and also will be beneficial in future storms.
I will say that there has been some inaccurate accusations out there — I’m not sure if former Secretary Perry made these — but that it was the — that suggested that renewables caused failures in Texas’s power grid. And actually, numerous reports have actually shown the contrary: that it was failures in coal and natural gas that contributed to the state’s power shortages.
And officials at the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which operates the state’s power grid, have gone so far as to say that failures in wind and solar were the least significant factors in the blackout. And I know that wasn’t exactly your question, but I just wanted to convey that since there’s been a lot of confusion about it.
Beyond that — about the power grid — I would certainly send you to the Department of Energy for any further comment on that particular line of questioning.
Q Also, on the crisis, a lot of Texans are concerned that their homeowners insurance is not going to cover, for instance, pipes that burst. Some policies might cover that, some might not. Will FEMA make people whole for that kind of damage?
MS. PSAKI: I would certainly send you to FEMA. They obviously, as I noted at the top, are very involved in providing generators, water — essential steps.
But in any crisis and the recovery of it, there are typically many agencies involved. FEMA is a coordinating body, as you all know, but just for others. But I would send you to them for any other update on that.
Q All right. Quick question from this morning.
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q The President received ashes for Ash Wednesday. What, if anything, is he giving up for Lent?
MS. PSAKI: Oh, what a good question. I should have asked him that question today. I will have to follow up with you on that particular question. I don’t know, sometimes people don’t give something up; sometimes they do something good. So it could be either option, but I will see if I can get more information.
Q And, I’m sorry, I have a question from outside the room, if I may.
MS. PSAKI: Sure, go ahead.
Q Real quick question. There’s a move apparently to rename the Las Vegas Airport for Harry Reid. Any idea if the President would support that?
MS. PSAKI: I have not spoken with him about that. I know, obviously, he has a great deal of respect for Senator Reid. They worked together for many years. He was an incredibly important partner during the Obama-Biden administration, to the then-Vice President. But in terms of the renaming of airports, I believe that’s Congress to determine that, but I will see if the President has any further comment on it. He is, of course, a big Harry Reid fan.
Q Thanks, Jen. I have a couple of different questions. First of all, is the President going to release a statement or say something about Rush Limbaugh?
MS. PSAKI: I know — obviously, the news just came out in about the last hour before I’d come out.
I can say — I’m not sure if we’ll release a statement from the President. He has spoken to — in the past, to Rush Limbaugh’s sickness and illness at the time. And certainly, you know, he — his condolences go out to the family and the friends of Rush Limbaugh, who have — of course, have lost him today.
But I don’t know that I anticipate a statement from the President, but I can certainly pass on his condolences and expression of support for the family.
Q Thanks. And on a different topic: Is the administration going to get involved in the case of Princess Latifa, the daughter of the Dubai ruler who has released videos claiming to be held hostage?
MS. PSAKI: I’m happy to follow up with our national security team on that particular question as well.
Go ahead, in the back.
Q Thanks, Jen. I want to ask you about the meeting that’s going to take place in a little bit with the labor leaders. Richard Trumka, head of the AFL-CIO, has said in the past that he believes the President learned a lesson with his Keystone decision that if you’re going to make a decision in which jobs are lost, you should have a specific simultaneous announcement in which there are jobs added. Trumka said, quote, “I wish he hadn’t,” speaking of the President, “done that on the first day because the Laborers International was right.” The Laborers International has said that a thousand jobs were lost.
I’m wondering, is the President going to bring this issue up when he meets with the labor leaders? Did the President learn any lesson, as Richard Trumka suggested? And is he open to potentially looking at this decision, once again, from another angle?
MS. PSAKI: Well, this is not the first time this has happened in here, where there has been about half of Richard Trumka’s statement or comment in that particular interview shared, and not the full context. And the other context — I unfortunately don’t have it in front of me — is about his belief that the President is committed to creating good-paying union jobs.
And that is certainly what will be central to the discussion the President has with union leaders today, including his desire to create good, clean energy union — good-paying union jobs. And that he believes that those two can simultaneously happen.
He — when he put out his clean energy plan last year, he had union leaders and environmentalists at the same table agreeing to the path forward. And he has an extensive record on this particular issue.
I will say, since you gave me the opportunity: Prior to COVID-19, the Bureau of Labor and Statistics reported that two of the fastest growing jobs were in the wind turbine and solar industries, and that’s just the start. The National Academies of Sciences reported last week that a transition to a net-zero emissions economy could grow millions of jobs over the next decade.
And our plan — the President’s plan, which he’ll talk about today, will make historic investments in infrastructure — in the auto industry, in transit, in the power sector — creating millions of good union jobs, and in the process, also addressing the climate crisis head on. I’m sure he’ll talk about that with the union leaders today.
Q Can I ask you about other future plans as well?
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q You said yesterday, quote, “We haven’t yet determined what the next priority forward would be, but he,” meaning the President, “is engaging with his policy team.”
Earlier this month, when the President met in the Oval with House Democrats, he said, quote, “I can hardly wait to sit down with Peter DeFazio to work on infrastructure. This is the next big piece.” So I’m wondering —
MS. PSAKI: He is excited about infrastructure, and I’m sure he will be talking about it today.
Q But is it indeed the next big piece, or is the administration trying to figure out what the next big piece will be?
MS. PSAKI: Well, first, I will say our focus right now, and the President’s focus, is on the American Rescue Plan and moving that — doing everything he can to move that through Congress; to communicate with the American public; to convey why there’s money needed to reopen schools; to get shots in arms; to get direct checks out to the American people.
We will — I would not expect him to lay out next pieces of his agenda until that package is through and signed, and that relief is going out to the public.
In the interim period, he’s going to consult with a range of stakeholders — labor leaders today; members of Congress and Senate leaders last week; he had a discussion with the American public on television during a town hall last night — to determine what the next steps look like.
Infrastructure is certainly an issue he’s had a long passion for. He does believe it creates good-paying union jobs. He thinks they can be done as clean energy jobs, but we’re going to focus our efforts at this point in time on the American Rescue Plan.
Q And if I may, one more. The Vice President said — speaking of vaccines and distribution, COVID, et cetera — she said, quote, “In many ways, we are starting from scratch on something that’s been raging for almost a year.” However, Dr. Fauci has recently said, quote, “We’re not starting from scratch because there is activity going on in the distribution.” And even today, your administration said that there was — I believe the number was 892,000 doses that were administered in the final week before the President took over.
So is that the best message, to say that this administration started from scratch, when there were indeed doses going out the door and folks, like Dr. Fauci, say that’s not the case?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I don’t think most governors or most of the American people would tell you that they think it was handled effectively and efficiently by the prior administration, given we are where we are.
When the President came in and the Vice President came in, there were not enough vaccines, there were not enough vaccinators, there were not enough vaccination locations.
They’ve taken significant steps to address all of those issues. Yes, in the week prior to the President taking office, there were about 800- to 900,000, as you said, doses doing — being given a day. The average was about 400- to 500,000 prior to that. Last week, the average was 1.7 million a day.
So there are significant steps that have been taken. What they were conveying was that we did not have a comprehensive plan. There were not enough vaccines. There was not enough coordination with governors and local officials. And there were not enough places where people could get the vaccine. And now we’re working to address that. And it was important for the Vice President to convey that because the American people need to know what we’re digging out of, and that was why she said it.
Go ahead. Oh, let me go to the back because he hasn’t had a question yet. And then I’ll go to you.
Q Question on Tokyo’s Summer Olympic Games. So President say any decision must be based on science, but I’d like to know how soon he expects to see a final decision of if there’ll be any Tokyo Olympic Games scheduled. As of now, is he confident there will be a safe Olympic Games in Tokyo?
MS. PSAKI: I just don’t have an update. I understand the question. Lots of focus and interest on the Olympics, but I don’t have any update from here.
Q He would participate in the G7 meeting this coming Friday. I understand he will focus on pandemic, economic, and China. But should we expect there be more discussion, such as Tokyo Summer Olympic Games?
MS. PSAKI: We’ll see. I’m sure there’ll be a range of issues that are raised by the members of the G7, and it’s an important opportunity to have a conversation. Obviously, he’ll be delivering remarks. I think we’ll be previewing his remarks — which will give him a little bit more time to work on, since he was traveling yesterday, later — probably tomorrow night, in advance of Friday. And there’ll be more of an overview of what you should expect him to talk about.
Q Yes, I just had a point of clarification on student loans. As I understood it last night at the town hall, President Biden said he was prepared to write off $10,000 in loans, but not $50,000, because he doesn’t think he has the authority. And you said that that legal review still has to take place. But is the door — for the President himself, is the door to $50,000 essentially closed at this point?
MS. PSAKI: The President has previously stated that he does not favor $50,000 in student loan relief without limitation. And some of what he talked about last night — much more extensively than what I’m about to say, but — is that, you know, there are a lot of factors: public schools versus private schools, graduate schools versus undergraduate schools.
And he also believes that relief above — he continues to believe that relief above $10,000 should be targeted. And $10,000, he’s conveyed — because there’s been proposals in Congress, as you probably know — that he’d be eager to sign that bill that Congress can pass.
But, yes, there is a legal review. There’s going to be a review by our domestic policy team to consider all of these options, and we’ll wait for that conclusion before a final decision is made.
Q Gotcha. And then one other question, just building off of the earlier questions —
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q — about Texas. Does the White House believe that more should have happened earlier to better prepare Texas power grids and water systems for climate change? And what does the White House believe needs to happen there and in other states going forward? And does the kind of crisis we’re seeing right now make any of those things more urgent?
MS. PSAKI: That’s a really important question. I think our focus, though, right now is on providing relief to the emergency situation that we’re seeing in Texas and in surrounding states. I’m sure there’ll be time to look back and evaluate what better preparations — if better preparations should have been done, could be — could have been made. But at this point in time, we’re just focused on getting relief to the people and the state — and the surrounding states, I should say.
Great. Go ahead.
Q Question on — just going back to the five days of school —
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q — again. At the end of the day, unions, local school officials, governors will have the ultimate say on this. So is —
MS. PSAKI: You’re right.
Q — is the President, at the end of the day, is he setting a goal that can’t — that he can’t meet and that is ultimately not his to meet?
MS. PSAKI: Well, you’re right in the sense that — and this kind of goes back to one of Nancy’s earlier questions. Right? This is going to be up to local schools and school districts. However, what has been lacking is clear federal guidelines based on science, done by health experts, to give schools a better understanding or a better roadmap for what mitigation steps they can take to ensure their teachers, their students, their community can return safely. That was what was announced by the CDC, of course, on Friday.
The role that the President can play — I’m not the President; I work — I’m speaking for him — the role the President can play is to work with Congress to get the necessary funding. That is the role he can really play. That is why his focus is on the American Rescue Plan, working with Congress.
The role the federal government can play is from, of course, not just providing the CDC guidelines from the CDC director and their team, but also having our Department of Education work with schools on figuring out, you know, how to apply the review or the research that is currently underway and how to apply the mitigation steps. That will be Secretary Cardona’s first priority when he takes office.
But it will be up to the local school districts to determine the implementation of the mitigation steps.
Q Thanks, Jen.
MS. PSAKI: Thank you, everyone.
Q Thank you.
END 2:07 P.M. EST