Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jen Psaki,

Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jen Psaki, August 24, 2021

President Biden is engaged with the Tigray war and his spokeswoman does not rule out imposing sanctions against President Isaias and PM Abiy – as were imposed on Gen Filipos

James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

3:43 P.M. EDT

MS. PSAKI:  Thank you for your patience today.  Promise not to make it a habit. 

Two items for all of you at the top.  As you all know, last month, the White House — we announced the President will be hosting a meeting — would be hosting a meeting, I should say — with private sector leaders on August 25th — which is, of course, tomorrow — on cybersecurity. 

The President, members of the Cabinet and his national security team, and private sector and education leaders are going to be meeting to discuss how we can work together to collectively improve the nation’s cybersecurity.  The escalating cyber threats we face require a whole-of-nation effort. 

The President will be joined by leaders from the tech, the critical infrastructure, insurance, and education sectors.  And we will have more details for you later today, but I just wanted to note that is happening tomorrow.  And there’s, of course, a lot of ground that we will be covering. 

I know a number of you have been asking this as well — and yesterday evening, the President spoke — or last night, I should say — the President spoke to New York Governor Kathy Hochul prior to her being sworn in as governor of New York.  He congratulated her on her new job and historic role as the next governor of New York.  They talked of their shared time at Syracuse University, and Governor Hochul told the President she wanted to visit Washington to meet with him to discuss infrastructure and how to work together to improve the lives of New Yorkers.  The President looks forward to hosting her at a future date.

As you know, she also joined a call on Saturday with other Northeastern governors with the President, the FEMA Administrator, and Homeland Security Advisor Liz Sherwood-Randall to discuss tropical storm Henri and the federal response to help mitigate the storm’s impact. 

With that, Aamer, go ahead.

Q    Great.  A couple on Afghanistan-related questions.

MS. PSAKI:  Sure.

Q    First on — a Taliban spokesman said today that the group would bar Afghans from accessing the roads leading to the airport to allow foreigners to pass.  And, I guess, for evacuation efforts, what does this mean for Afghans who assisted and can’t get through now?  What are you going to be — does this effectively cut off those Afghans from being evacuated?

MS. PSAKI:  No, that is not how you should read it.  One, I should note we have been in direct contact not just with American citizens, but with SIV applicants — Special Immigrant Visa applicants — and Afghans whose departure we are facilitating about how and when to come to the airport.

And our expectation, which we have also conveyed to the Taliban, is that they should be able to get to the airport.  It is also true — and I know this may be some of the confusion out there — that there are a number of Afghans who may not — they may not qualify for these programs.  And we’ve seen, over the past several — over the past nine days, a rush of people attempt to come to the airport. 

We certainly understand that, but that also creates security risk and one that we have great concern about. 

So to be clear, individuals who are eligible for Special Immigrant Visas or others who we are helping facilitate their evacuation and their departure, we are in touch with them, are working to be in touch with them about how and when to come to the airport, as well as American citizens, as you well know, and we expect that they will be able to reach the airport.

Q    And — sorry, just to — the Afghan — or the Taliban are saying that they don’t want Afghans to leave, that now they want these Afghans to stay, that they’re needed to rebuild the country. 

MS. PSAKI:  Again, our expectation, and what we will continue to convey directly through a range of channels we have, is that the individuals — the Special Immigrant Visa applicants, those who are eligible, those who we are facilitating their departure, will be able to reach the airport.

Q    And on the statement that you just put out about a half hour ago about the August 31st deadline and sticking to it.

The President has — allies both here at home and abroad have wanted him to push that deadline back some.  And also, critics of the President are speaking out very strongly on his decision.  What do you say to those who are criticizing the President by sticking to this deadline?  It amounts for him to — capitulating to the Taliban.

MS. PSAKI:  Well, first — and I think — I’m just going to read the statement.  I know a number of you have seen it, but just in case, because I think it has quite a bit of additional context that is not exactly aligned in — you know, he stuck with the deadline, as you just conveyed. 

During a meeting this morning with the G7 leaders, the President conveyed that our mission in Kabul will end based on the achievement of our objectives.  That is a key component there.  He confirmed we are currently on pace to finish by August 31st.  As you all know, in the last nine days, we have effectively helped evacuate 57,000 people, and that has continued to escalate the number of people we’re getting out each day. 

And our focus is — continues to be on evacuating Americans who want to come home, third-country nationals and Afghans who were our allies during the war. 

He also made clear that with each day of operations on the ground, we have added risk to our troops with increasing threats from ISIS-K, and that completion of the mission by August 31st depends on continued coordination with the Taliban, including continued access for evacuees to the airport.

In addition, as we noted in the statement, he asked the Pentagon and the State Department for contingency plans to adjust the timeline, should that become necessary. 

So I think there’s quite a bit of context in there, including the threat from ISIS-K, which is quite real, and one that we are tracking and monitoring very closely from our national security and intelligence teams, to the continued cooperation of the Taliban as it relates to getting American citizens and our key allies on the ground to the airport.  And the third, of course, is ensuring that we have contingencies should they be needed.

So, I think those are pretty important caveats in the reporting.

Go ahead.

Q    If you do have to adjust the timeline, how long are you talking about?

MS. PSAKI:  I’m not going to get ahead of any contingency plans that are drawn up by the State Department and the Defense Department.  As you all know, the President has been meeting and being — and attended and participated in briefings with his national security team once a day, sometimes twice a day; is in constant and regular contact.  And I suspect we’ll get some updates in short order.

Q    And when do you need to start pulling troops out of the Kabul Airport to make — to meet the August 31 target?

MS. PSAKI:  It’s a great question, Steve.  I just don’t want to get into operational details that are under the purview of the Department of Defense. 

Go ahead.

And you are correct — I will note that it would not be — there would have to be time in advance of the 31st or time in advance of whatever the date is in order to do that.  But they can give you the operational details. 

Go ahead.

Q    So does that mean that the evacuations will stop before the actual 31st so then there is time to get the troops and their machinery and weaponry out of there?

MS. PSAKI:  That would be correct, yes, that there would need to be time to wind down the presence. 

I will note, though, that the purpose of this statement is to provide additional context of what the President conveyed to the G7, which includes a number of very key components as he assesses day by day.  And that includes the threat of ISIS, which is of great concern, understandably, to the President, given the threat it poses to our military who are on the ground, serving proudly and bravely on the ground.  It also includes the essential aspect of having the Taliban’s coordination continue over the coming days so we can facilitate as many people as we’ve been getting out.

Q    And so what I read from this statement is: He has not ruled out extending the deadline.  Is that right?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, he asked for contingency plans but believes we continue to be on track to accomplish our mission.

Q    And one more question, Jen.  Sorry, I know it’s three.  Does this mean, if he does stand by this August 31st deadline, that every single U.S. troop will be out of Afghanistan by August 31st? 

MS. PSAKI:  Again, I will leave it to the Department of Defense to get into operational details.  As you know, and as I’ve noted, he is meeting with his national security team every single day, often more than once a day, to continue to discuss.  And as I noted also in the statement, he’s asked for contingency plans. 

Go ahead.

Q    Thanks, Jen.  Just to follow up on Aamer’s question: So are you saying that despite this threat by the Taliban to stop Afghans from boarding planes, that you’re not seeing any slowdown in Afghans being able to get to the airport if they need to?

MS. PSAKI:  I’m conveying that what we have articulated is that indivi- — Afghans — not every Af- — there are millions of Afghans, as we know, who want to leave the country — or a large number of Afghans who want to leave the country.  I think that’s safe to say.

What I’m talking about is the individuals we have prioritized — those who have fought alongside us, who are eligible for Special Immigrant Visas, who otherwise we are facilitating their departure.  And that our expectation is that they will be able to reach the airport.

Q    So I’m just trying to figure out if the Taliban has made good on this threat yet, and it sounds like you’re saying they haven’t. 

MS. PSAKI:  I don’t have an update on that.  I’m just conveying to you what our expectation is and what we are continuing to communicate directly. 

Q    And then, is the CIA Director now the chief negotiator for the U.S. in Kabul?  And how long does he plan to stay there?

MS. PSAKI:  I certainly understand your question.  I’d refer you to the CIA on any specific questions about his location or specific role. 

Go ahead.

Q    For a little bit of clarity — because minutes and hours matter here —

MS. PSAKI:  Sure.

Q    — when we talk about August 31st, is the understanding between the U.S. and the Taliban that that ends at midnight at the end of August 31st Afghan time, American time?  Is it the end of the 30th heading into the 31st?  When exactly is the deadline as it currently exists?

MS. PSAKI:  It’s really a great question, and I want to give you a very clear and articulate answer from the team on the ground, so I’ll just have to get back to you on that to make sure we give you the accurate information.

Q    So what is the last — I know that you’re continuing to do this actively —

MS. PSAKI:  Yeah.

Q    — as you indicated to one of my colleagues a moment ago.  Obviously, there’s going to be time needed to be able to get out the American troops and others who are helping facilitate this process.  What is the last call for Americans on the ground there to come to the airport at Kabul?

MS. PSAKI:  We are in touch with Americans directly, and we have contact with — and I can give you an overarching — an overall assessment of where we stand with that, if that’s helpful as well.  But I’m not going to give you more of an articulation of that from here. 

Q    Are there any active threats?  You talked about, in that statement, the threat that’s posed by ISIS-K, but are there any active threats to Kabul, to HKIA, right now? 

MS. PSAKI:  I’m not going to give you an intelligence assessment from here either, but I can convey to you that we have increasing concerns about the threats, and that is certainly a part of the President’s assessment and decision making. 

Go ahead. 

Q    Thank you, Jen.  Is there any concern that maybe trying to reach this deadline and get everybody out, mistakes are being made now that there is a report that at least one of the Afghans evacuated to Qatar has suspected ISIS ties? 

MS. PSAKI:  Well, first, I would say we have a stringent vetting process, which includes background checks before any individual comes to the United States.  So I can’t speak to one individual, but I can tell you and confirm for you that we take the vetting of any individual who comes to the United States, and comes out, incredibly seriously.  And it’s an extensive process. 

I would say that this is now on track, Peter, to be the largest airlift in U.S. history.  So — and that is bringing American citizens out, it is bringing our Afghan partners out, it is bringing allies out.

So, no, I would not say that is anything but a success.

Q    Okay.  And I know that you said yesterday it’s “irresponsible” to say that Americans are “stranded” in Afghanistan right now.  What do you say to the American citizen in Kabul that Fox spoke to this morning?  Her name is Fa- — she’s going by “Fatima.”  She says, “We are stranded at home…For four days…three days, we didn’t hear anything from anywhere.  And…they’re saying to go to the airport, but we’re not being given clear guidance… Our emails are getting ignored.” 

MS. PSAKI:  Well, why don’t I convey to you exactly what we are doing.  And I think what’s important to note that I also said yesterday in the full context of my answer, which I put out today, was that we are committed to bringing Americans home who want to leave, and that is the President’s commitment. 

We are — so let me explain to you how our process works.  And there have been some very good questions, including from you and from others about this.

One, as we’ve said, this is a dynamic number.  We’re working hour by hour to refine and make it precise.  Understand your desire and interest in having exact number of American citizens on the ground, and the State Department, I expect, will have an exact update on that tomorrow. 

Just to remind you, the U.S. government does not track our citizens when they travel around the world.  We rely on self- reporting not just in Afghanistan — anywhere in the world.  People have to decide to register or not; it’s up to them — individuals — whether they decide to register or not, wherever they may be. 

And if you register when you’re in a country like Afghanistan, you aren’t required to de-register.  The State Department also issues alerts.  They have publicized phone number and e-mail to contact if you’re in Afghanistan and want assistance to leave.

And for months, the Department has been telling Americans to leave Afghanistan for their own safety.  It is our responsibility and our role to work with and help American citizens who want to leave. 

Let me finish — I’m almost done — and then you can ask a follow-up question. 

In recent days, they have reached out to every American citizen registered in Afghanistan directly, multiple times.  This is a 24/7 operation.  Embassies all over the world are supporting phone banking, text banking, and e-mail efforts.  If we are not in touch with this individual, give me their contact information and we will get in touch with them.  If any of you are hearing from American citizens who can’t reach us, give me their contact information, and we will get in contact with them.

Our estimate of the overall number of American citizens who are there can increase because folks are just now responding to our outreach who may not have registered.  It can also decrease because people leave, they don’t tell us they leave; or individuals who may reach out and convey they have the documentation needed, don’t. 

So there are a range of factors here, and it’s our responsibility to give you accurate information.  That’s what our focus is on.

Q    But you say no Americans are stranded.  This is someone in Kabul who says, “I am stranded.”  So is there a better word for somebody who can’t leave the house to get to the airport because Jake Sullivan says ISIS is outside the airport?  What — if it’s not “stranded” —

MS. PSAKI:  I would welcome you providing their phone number, and we will reach out to them today.

Q    That can be arranged.

MS. PSAKI:  And I can assure you of that.

Q    And the final question: If the Taliban said that staying past the 31st was going to provoke a reaction, and then President Biden decides, “Okay, we won’t stay,” do they have the same kind of influence over military planning as the Commander-in-Chief?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, first of all, Peter, the Taliban’s deadline was May 1st — struck in a deal with the prior administration.  The President’s timeline was August 31st.  That’s the timeline he set and a ti- — and a period of time he needed in order to operationalize our departure from Afghanistan. 

I’d also note that, as I said — as we conveyed in the statement — that our objective and our focus, and the focus of the Commander-in-Chief, is always going to be on the safety and security of the men and women who are serving our country in the military.  And that has to be a factor here, and that certainly is a factor for him as he thinks about the timeline. 

Go ahead. 

Q    Can President Biden assure that Afghan allies that helped the military will be able to get out?  And will he extend a deadline to help those people get out?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, I will say that we will certainly have additional folks eligible to come to the United States after August 31st that we will help relocate. 

But I would also note that we have now evacuated 58,700 people in the last nine days, and we are continuing to be in direct contact with eligible Special Immigrant Visa applicants, of course with American citizens, and with individuals who would — we are working to facilitate their departure.

So our focus is on getting the job done by August 31st, and that’s what we’re doing day to day at this point.

Q    And, secondly, on the vetting question, we’re seeing more debate in — across the country about — as the refugees come here.  What is the White House doing to convey the vetting standards and to assure any kind of state officials that people that may end up in their state are okay? 

MS. PSAKI:  Well, first, no one is coming to the United States who has not gone through a security vetting process.  I would note, to Peter’s earlier question, for people who we evacuated who had not yet completed security vetting under the usual SIV application process, in the interest of getting them out of Afghanistan to third countries, we are also front-loading our security screening to complete the steps that have proven most likely to surface derogatory information while these Afghans remain at transit sites in Europe and the Middle East before they arrive here. 

So, actually, to go back to his earlier question — because it’s all related — it’s actually the system working.  And we have a vetting process and a background check that can happen in advance of individuals coming to the United States if they’ve gone through the SIV process, or individuals who have been moved to third countries before they move further. 

Q    Just to follow up real quickly: So is there going to be an education campaign?  Is there going to be information sent to stakeholders across the country who may have some concerns?

MS. PSAKI:  Oh, sorry, do you mean domestically here in the United States? 

Q    That’s correct.

MS. PSAKI:  Oh, absolutely.  Sorry, I was misunderstanding your question. 

Yes, we are in touch with governors, we are in touch with local authorities, we are in touch with communities.  We’ve been engaging with local media.  And we will continue to do that so there’s an understanding of the stringent process that we have in place before individuals come to the United States.

And I think a part of that is also a reminder that these are individuals who fought alongside the United States over the last 20 years, and that’s part of who we are as a country and part of, you know, the fabric of the United States.  So that’s part of it as well.  But in terms of the specific vetting components — yes, we are absolutely thinking about that and ensuring we are communicating that effectively, or that’s our objective. 

Go ahead.

Q    Thanks, Jen.  Can you share more about the possible incident of Havana syndrome that delayed the Vice President’s trip? 

MS. PSAKI:  Sure.  First, I will say that the Vice President is now in country, in Vietnam, and certainly we take very seriously — let me just get the information so I can get it to very clearly.

Hold on one second.  Hmm, a lot going on today, I will just note.  No shortage. 

Okay, so we — we, of course, take any reported incident of Havana syndrome seriously.  And while this is not a confirmed case at this point in time, we take any reported incident — which was recent and was reported publicly, I will note — quite seriously. 

As a result, there was an assessment done of the safety of the Vice President, and there was a decision made that she could continue travel along with her staff.  It was not a person traveling in her party or anything along those lines.

Q    Does the White House believe she was targeted or someone on her team may have been targeted?

MS. PSAKI:  That is not an assessment that’s been made.  It was an individual who was in country, and it had been reported previously.

Q    Okay.  Can you confirm that it was two embassy staffers in country? 

MS. PSAKI:  I don’t have any additional detail beyond that.

Q    Okay.  And one on Afghanistan.  For Afghans who are at risk in Afghanistan who won’t be able to get out in time, how will the U.S. try to keep them safe after August 31st?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, I think, as I just said in response to, I think, Alex’s question, there are individuals who will be eligible after — who we expect — who will certainly be eligible after August 31st.  And we are determining how, operationally, we can deliver on that.

Q    Thanks.

MS. PSAKI:  It’s a good question.  I don’t have an update right now.

Go ahead.

Q    I have a question about a report on the conditions in Doha.  It was reported by Axios today.  A U.S. Central Command internal e-mail described the housing for thousands of evacuees as, quote, “awash with loose feces and urine and a rat infestation,” as a “life-threatening humanitarian disaster.”  Is the President aware of these conditions?  And is there anything going on to improve them? 

MS. PSAKI:  Absolutely.  And I think the report is actually from a couple of da- — I know — I understand it was in Axios this morning, but I believe that the conditions were a report from several days ago. 

And certainly the State Department and other officials who are working in close coordination with countries who are hosting individuals as they’re passing through, or maybe as they’re landing there for a longer period of time, have been working to improve those conditions.

Q    Is there anything specific you can say about how they’ve improved over the past few days?

MS. PSAKI:  I’m happy to get you an update on that.  But it is something we are aware of.  It is something we worked quickly to improve.  And certainly we want the individuals who are being evacuated to be treated with respect.  We also want them to be safe, hence the speed necessity, but we worked to improve the conditions as soon as we learned.

Go ahead.

Q    Thanks, Jen.  In the statement that you released, you said, “The President conveyed that our mission in Kabul will end based on the achievement of our objectives.”  Can you be more specific about what those objectives would be?  Are we talking about getting all Americans out, a certain number of Afghans out who helped the American effort?  What will be the specific sort of benchmarks in deciding that the objectives of the mission have been met? 

MS. PSAKI:  Well, the statement also conveys in evacuating Americans who want to come home, third-country nationals, and Afghans who were our allies during the war.  And we, again, have evacuated 50,700 people in the last nine days.  That is the mission we’re continuing to work to deliver on. 

I also noted in the statement — we also noted in the statement that, of course, we have to assess the security threats and the security threats not only to individuals on the ground — to the men and women serving on the ground — I mean, that is front and center in the President’s mind.

Q    So that means all the individuals in the categories that you note in the statement, getting all of them out?

MS. PSAKI:  Again, I think we’ve been clear that our objective is to — any American who wants to leave, to help them leave.  That is what we’re focused on every single day.  I don’t have anything more to add beyond what I said in the statement.

Q    And can I ask one follow-up?

MS. PSAKI:  Yeah.

Q    Putting aside the specific activities of the CIA Director, why did the President decide to dispatch him to meet with the Taliban?

MS. PSAKI:  I’m just not going to have any more on this.  As we’ve noted and confirmed many times in the past, we are in regular contact with the Taliban.  They are currently overseeing most of the country of Afghanistan, so, by necessity, that’s part of the jobs of our national security team.  But for any details on the CIA Director, I’d point you to the CIA.

Go ahead. 

Q    Thanks, Jen.  During the COVID Response Team briefing, Jeff Zients gave some overall statistics about the allotment of personnel, ventilators, and ambulances across the country. 

MS. PSAKI:  Sure.

Q    Do you all have a state-by-state breakdown of that, or even more granular?

MS. PSAKI:  I can certainly check.  You mean in terms of materials we’ve provided to states? 

Q    Where is the federal government’s resources going.

MS. PSAKI:  Yeah, absolutely.  I’m certain we do.  We can see if that’s something we can get out to you as well. 

Q    Okay.  And then I have a question on Section 1005 of the American Rescue Plan, which is the debt relief for farmers of color.  This has obviously been mired, now, down in, I believe, 13 lawsuits. 

Obviously, these farmers, though, still need debt relief.  Is the administration exploring any other ways of getting these resources to farmers of color under this program or under an alternative scheme through the administration? 

MS. PSAKI:  Well, as you noted, there is active litigation.  And, obviously, we had proposed plans to provide assistance to these farmers, and hence — and there’s active litigation that’s ongoing. 

But I can convey to you that our commitment is to certainly help these farmers.  I would point you to the Department of Agriculture for any more specifics about their programs.  But I know that equity is central to their objectives and certainly is part of how they — how they orchestrate any of their programs. 

Go ahead. 

Q    Thanks.  Do you know what the tenor of the G7 meeting was today?  Was there any, like, dissatisfaction expressed by some of the Allies?  Can you say if they conveyed some of their displeasure with the U.S. actions or the President’s actions? 

MS. PSAKI:  I know Bloomberg has reporters all around the world, and I will let them report on their leaders and not, kind of, give an evaluation of their tenors.  But —

Q    Can you also say if it’s accurate that the U.S. is already starting to reduce the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan? 

MS. PSAKI:  I would point you to the Department of Defense for any operational specifics.  I know they’ll brief again today. 

Go ahead. 

Q    Just a couple quick clarifications.  Earlier today, the Pentagon said that it’s about 4,000 Americans who have been evacuated.  Can you provide additional context?  Was that on military flights, on military flights and charters?  Anything else you could say about who these people were and whether that gives you any more of a sense of how many remain in Afghanistan? 

MS. PSAKI:  Well, I would say it’s more than 4,000 Americans plus their families, so it’s actually a larger number than that.  But, yes, more than 4,000 passport holders or American citizens plus their families.

In terms of their mechanism for departure, it’s a very good question.  I don’t have that level of detail in front of me, but we can see if we can break that down more specifically.  So, you’re asking about whether they came on military planes or charter planes?

Q    Yeah, earlier, you had been kind of breaking those two —

MS. PSAKI:  Sure.

Q    — (inaudible) did this military plus charter. 

MS. PSAKI:  Yes, which we will continue to do.  But I will see if there’s a — more of a concrete breakdown for you. 

Q    And are you able to say, at this point, if the indication is that this has to go beyond the deadline, is that something that would be telegraphed or indicated beforehand, or would that be a last-minute decision or announcement from the government?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, again, I mean, I think as we stated in our — in the statement I put out earlier, we are currently on pace to finish by August 31st, but the President also asked the Pentagon and State Department for contingency plans.  We’ll let them brief him on those before we give a further assessment. 

Q    Jen.

MS. PSAKI:  Go ahead.  I’ll come back to you.  Go ahead.

Q    Thanks, Jen.  Two questions on the Vice President’s trip delay.

MS. PSAKI:  Sure. 

Q    The last-minute delay of the flight suggests that her and her team found out about this case of anomalous health incident last minute.  How last minute was it?  When did the case occur?  And are you concerned with the timing, given her travel?

MS. PSAKI:  Again, I think this is similar to Stephanie’s question.  There hasn’t been any additional assessment of any targeting, as I think you’re asking about.  It hasn’t even been a confirmed case at this point in time.  And certainly it shouldn’t be a surprise that for the Vice President of the United States that, you know, additional precautions were taken.  It was a recent case and one that was publicly reported.

Q    And then, the Embassy of Hanoi said that there was a thorough assessment before she proceeded on with the trip.  If you genuin- — if the government genuinely doesn’t know what’s causing these incidents, then how can you guarantee the Vice President’s security? 

MS. PSAKI:  I’m not going to get into security details.  I can assure you that the Vice President of the United States wouldn’t travel further to a country if there wasn’t confidence in her security on the ground.

Q    Jen, you —

MS. PSAKI:  Go ahead.  Oh, sorry, April.  Go ahead. 

Q    Jen, as you said, there’s a lot going on.  Just across the street, maybe an hour or so ago, there were voting rights activists who said the President need to do more — needs to do more.  They also said that the President needs to lean in on the filibuster in the Senate, as the House is expected to pass Voting Rights H.R. 4 today.

MS. PSAKI:  Mm-hmm.

Q    What is the thought behind that from the White House as people of all walks of life are out there saying that he needs to do more, that this President is not doing enough for the constituency that he said that he was going to work for? 

MS. PSAKI:  Well, I would say, first, that voting rights and ensuring access to voting continues to be a central priority for the President.  And in any White House and for any president, you have to do many things at one time.  And he certainly is the first to understand that. 

But he stands by the activists and their vocal calls for more and for forward action.  I would say he’s with them.  He’s maybe not the right target of their frustration, you know, because his objective is also to get voting rights legislation passed, and he would like to sign that legislation into law.

Q    But he doesn’t believe in ending the filibuster, and that’s the big hurdle in the Senate.  And they are saying that we are now voting like we voted in 1964.  Voting rights has been stripped by the Supreme Court twice, and now there are restrictive laws in states that are precluding free and fair voting in this nation.

MS. PSAKI:  Absolutely, April.  And it’s outrageous, and the President is outraged by it.  And that’s why he has asked his Vice President to lead this effort.  That’s why he has taken steps, including a historic executive order on voting rights.  That’s why he has supported the efforts by the Attorney General and the Department of Justice to continue to take steps that are at their disposal to crack down on these abuses across the country and why he will continue to make this a central priority for him. 

Q    And lastly, yesterday —

MS. PSAKI:  Go ahead, Karen.  I think we got to keep going —

Q    But lastly, yesterday —

MS. PSAKI:  — because we’re going to run out of time.

Q    — they said you were going to talk about yesterday.  We don’t know what happened yesterday.  Was he in support of — taking the knee in support of police reform, or was he just kneeling?  Because we were told to ask you. 

MS. PSAKI:  Well, the President certainly supports police reform, but he also was taking a photo with a sports team, and he has also kneeled in other occasions with sports teams in the past.

Go ahead, Karen.

Q    A follow-up on some of the questions about your statement.  When you say there that he’s asked the Pentagon and State Department for contingency plans to adjust the timeline should that become necessary, what metric would determine whether that becomes necessary?  What is the President looking for?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, Karen, I think it’s not as simple as a metric.  I understand your question.  But for any president, they’re making a risk assessment in coordination with their teams.  And the threat from ISIS-K is real.  The possibility of a deterioration of coordination with the Taliban is real.  Putting our servicemembers at risk is real.  And those are certainly part of the President’s decision making in any regard. 

And again, we continue to be on track.  It’s been nine days.  We’ve evacuated 58,700 people.  Right now, it’s the 24th.  We have about seven days until the 31st.  And we’re going to continue to press hard to get American citizens out, get our Afghan partners out, SIV applicants and others who are eligible for departure out.

Q    And can you update us on the President’s engagement with members of Congress this week, specifically on Afghanistan?  Who’s he talking to on this?  And just some of the conversations he’s had.

MS. PSAKI:  Well, the President has had a range of conversations with members of Congress — a lot of them have been about his Build Back Better agenda — a range of Democrats from across the political spectrum.  I don’t have an assessment for you of how many of those have included questions from them about Afghanistan. 

I can confirm for you — which is often the case — we have been doing a number of briefings from our national security team with members of Congress, some of them in a classified briefing.  And we’ll continue to do that and remain closely engaged with our process and our progress on the ground. 

Go ahead.

Q    In a statement today, you said that the mission in Kabul would end on the achievement of our objectives.  What percentage of Afghan allies would constitute “achieving that objective”?

MS. PSAKI:  I’m not going to put a number on that for you, nor have we put a cap on how many of — how many Special Immigrant Visa applicants there can be, or how many individuals who would be eligible for any of our range of programs could come to the United States.  We’re going to continue to work to process.  We’re going to continue to evacuate.  We’re going to continue to work with nearly two dozen partners around the world to move people out of the country.

Q    And second question: The administration has used federal funding as a lever to push, you know, nursing homes to vaccinate their workers.  Has the administration considered using Title I funding for schools to push vaccination requirements for teachers?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, I would say, first, that we’ve seen, including recently — I think today or yesterday — in Missouri, additional steps taken that, in our view, put more kids at risk.  The President thinks that’s completely unacceptable, and he has asked his Secretary of Education and — directed, I should say, his Secretary of Education to use all his authority to help those school districts doing the right thing to ensure every one of their students has access to a fundamental right of safe in-person learning. 

This can include a number of considerations, but I’ll let the Secretary speak to that. 

Q    Is Title I funding what it looks like?

MS. PSAKI:  I’ll let the Secretary speak to it.  But the President has directed him to use every authority to ensure we’re protecting kids across the country. 

Go ahead.

Q    You mentioned today that we can provide you with information about those who are stranded, and I think a lot of us in this room are getting calls, and I know at least one person there. 

MS. PSAKI:  Yeah.

Q    Is there a better way that the White House can create these more direct connections to these people?  Because this seems to be like a — you know, we have more access to these people.  So just wondering how these people can directly contact (inaudible).

MS. PSAKI:  One, anyone who has an American citizen who they are — who are — they are looking to help get out — any of you, send them to me directly and I will get it to the right place.  We are absolutely committed to this.  This is an across-the-government commitment. 

Why I laid out all the specific steps we’re taking is because I wanted to provide an understanding of what we’re doing from here.  Anyone we have contact information for — and it is possible that the person you know, or the person Peter knows, we may not have contacted, or the right contact information.  That is also entirely possible. 

We are reaching out via phone, via text, via e-mail, any way we can.  And we’re giving them instructions on how to get to the airport and when to come to the airport.  We have an entire apparatus and operation set up on the ground.  We’re advertising.  And this is a 24/7 operation of reaching out to these individuals.

Q    And regarding the Vice President: Was she in contact with these people that were experiencing these syndrome — these symptoms, rather?

MS. PSAKI:  No.

Q    And then, did she get medically evaluated?

MS. PSAKI:  There was a security assessment made.  She was not on the ground yet. 

Go ahead.

Q    Thank you, Jen.  Two questions.  Yesterday, the Biden administration announced sanctions against the (inaudible) military in Eritrea for human rights abuses in Ethiopia’s Tigray region.  Is the administration planning to extend those sanctions to the Prime Minister of Ethiopia and the President of Eritrea? 

And how is the President — is the President going to be involved in the crisis in Ethiopia the way — the same way he was engaged in the crisis in — between Palestinian and Israel?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, I can certainly confirm those sanctions.  As you noted, I don’t have anything to preview for you in terms of additional sanctions.  Obviously, we continue to evaluate — reserve that right should that be a recommendation made and something the President approves.

And I will certainly note that the President — we are closely tracking — we are closely engaged with high-level officials on the situation on the ground. 

Q    The second —

MS. PSAKI:  Go ahead. 

Q    I have a follow-up question.  Please.

Q    Thank you.

MS. PSAKI:  Okay, let me just get — I just have a few more minutes in case we got to gather, so I just want to get around to as many people as possible.  We’ll just keep track of it. 

But, go ahead. 

Q    Thank you, Jen.  As a follow-up to Jennifer’s question —

MS. PSAKI:  Sure.

Q    — about the G7 virtual meeting this morning: From a White House point of view, when that meeting was over, was the President satisfied that the message had gotten through to them?  Was — did you think there was a consensus among those leaders?  Was there a lot of pushback?  Or were you happy with how it ended?  Let’s put it that way.

MS. PSAKI:  I appreciate the different way of asking the question.  (Laughter.)  It was very creative. 

I will — I will say first, the President is about to give an update both on the progress that is being made in the House, and also his meeting with the G7 leaders.  I know that that was now several hours ago, but we wanted to wait, as there was progress being made in the House, for him to give that statement.  So he can speak to that, and he will speak clearly to what he conveyed to them directly, to give you all a sense. 

In terms of the assessment from others: Again, I would point you to them on anything further.

Q    But do you think he was satisfied with it at the end?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, I think the President felt he conveyed what his position is.  And part of his position, which was part — a big part of his decision, as it related to bringing our troops home and is also a huge factor for him now is about what we’re asking the men and women in the military to do and, obviously, the decision to bring them home, related to fighting a war that the Afghans wouldn’t fight themselves.  And now it, of course, is a factor for him what threats are being posed to them every day that they are on the ground there. 

Go ahead.

Q    Thank you.  Two quick questions.  How do you describe the U.S. relationship with Taliban now?  Do you think it’s a de facto ruler — they are of Afghanistan now?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, I would say, first, that it is — it is true that they have taken over much of Afghanistan, but this is not about trust.  This is not about validation. 

Right now, we are working with them in a coordinated way to get American citizens, to get Special Immigrant Visa applicants, to get individuals who are eligible to evacuate from the — from Afghanistan out, either to third countries or to the United States.

But I’m not going to put a further label on it than that.

Q    (Inaudible) was that the Taliban has included former President Karzai and Dr. Abdullah Abdullah as a (inaudible) member of coordinating council.  How do you see this development there?

MS. PSAKI:  I don’t have an update on their discussions at this point in time from here. 

Go ahead. 

Q    Hi, Jen.  Shira — 

MS. PSAKI:  Oh, I’ll come back to you.  Sorry about that. 

Go ahead.

Q    Thank you. 

Q    Shira Stein from Bloomberg Law.  Would the President accept a Build Back Better package that doesn’t include a Medicare drug-pricing negotiation?

MS. PSAKI:  Certainly lowering the price of prescription drugs is a top priority to the President.  That’s why he proposed it.  I’m not going to negotiate from here, but I also know there’s a lot of support in Congress for that initiative.

Go ahead.

Q    Thank you, Jen.  A follow-up on the metrics question.  And it’s a hypothetical, but it’s not something that is —

MS. PSAKI:  Oh, I love hypotheticals.  They’re my favorite.

Q    No, this is — this is not realistic.  I’m just trying to (inaudible).

MS. PSAKI:  Go ahead.  Go ahead.  I didn’t mean to — go ahead.

Q    Okay.  Say, after the withdrawal — it’s done; the U.S. declared it’s done; everyone is out — if one U.S. citizen was suddenly discovered, you know, saying, “Hey, I really want to get out and I’m stuck” — who knows where; somewhere in Afghanistan or in Kabul, (inaudible) got any problem — would this trigger a diplomatic, military, all-hands-on-deck-type thing to get that person out, whatever the date?

MS. PSAKI:  Our commitment continues to be to U.S. citizens: If they want to leave, we will help get them out.

Q    No matter what the date?

MS. PSAKI:  Again, we expect there could be some, but I don’t — I’m not going to get into it further.

Go ahead. 

Q    Thanks, Jen.  A question to follow up on — you said the President has been in touch with members about the Build Back Better plan.  I wondered, did he have direct conversations with this group of 10 moderates who were in talks with the Speaker about advancing, you know, the bipartisan package versus the reconciliation bill?  Did he have direct contact with them or did he reach out to them at all as they were trying to kind of broker this (inaudible)?

MS. PSAKI:  He spoke with a range of members, including some from the Group of Nine, I believe it is, about the path forward.  And obviously, we’re seeing progress, and that’s a good sign.  And the President will speak to it shortly. 

Q    Thanks, Jen.

MS. PSAKI:  Go ahead. 

Q    Thanks, Jen. 

MS. PSAKI:  Oh, okay.  We got to wrap up in a second here.

Q    Thanks, Jen.  Following up on Jennifer’s and Bob’s question again —

MS. PSAKI:  Okay.

Q    — on G7.  And that is that Tony Blair wrote a pretty scathing op-ed claiming that President Biden’s decision put politics over policy.  And also, the question is here: First of all, would the — how does the White House respond to that? 

And also, there’s this lingering question that the President has had this impulse to get out of Afghanistan.  He even had an interaction with former diplomat Holbrooke that said — where Holbrooke said, “Listen, we have a duty to these people.”  And the Vice President, reportedly, had answer to that.  What is your response?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, I would first say that that was clearly more than 10 years ago. 

Second, if it happened — which I have no confirmation of.

Q    That’s true.

MS. PSAKI:  But I would say, first, that the President has been in touch directly with Prime Minister Boris Johnson — who is the current leader of the UK — and has been clear with his G7 partners about what his objectives are, his commitment to the mission, the progress we’re making, and the factors that he has considered.  And that is something he’s in touch with current leaders about. 

We also understand that allies and partners of ours, and adversaries — for a different reason — have advocated for the United States and our men and women in the military staying longer. 

But as the President of the United States and the Commander-in-Chief of this country, he has to factor in their security, their safety.  And that is his responsibility, even if it’s not theirs. 

Thanks, everyone.  You’re going to see the President shortly.

4:23 P.M. EDT

Source: Whitehouse

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