James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:19 P.M. EST
MS. PSAKI: Hi, everyone.
MS. PSAKI: It’s so nice to see everybody’s beautiful faces. You too, Steve Holland. David Sanger. (Laughter.) Just calling out some especially beautiful faces in the room. Yes. Handsome devils. (Laughter.) Okay.
Just wanted to note one thing before we get started. As you all know, later today the President will sign the Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment Act into law. The bill amends the Federal Arbitration Act to make it easier for victims of sexual assault or harassment to go to court instead of being forced into arbitration by their employer.
This law will affect the more than 60 million workers who are subject to mandatory arbitration clauses in the workplace, often without realizing it until they come forward with a claim against their employer.
President Biden has long spoken against forced arbitration clauses in employment contracts, and today marks an important milestone in empowering survivors of sexual assault and sexual harassment and protecting employee rights.
The bill would not have been possible without bipartisan work, including from those members of Congress who will be in attendance today: Representatives Bustos and Representative Griffith, and Senator Gillibrand and Senator Graham.
I also wanted to note, it is Ayesha Rascoe’s last day in the briefing room — (applause) — seat, before — yes, thank you for all of your work. And she’s going on — I mean, you’ve already announced this; I feel like I’m announcing news, but it’s been announced — to host “Weekend Edition” for NPR.
As an NPR listener, I look forward to being in my sweatpants and coffee and listening to you this weekend.
So, congratulations, and thank you for all of your work on behalf of the American people.
With that, Colleen, why don’t you kick us off?
Q All right. So, I wanted to ask about oil prices.
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q They’re already above 111, or so, dollars a barrel. Pelosi has come out also in support of banning Russian oil. So why keep the carveout, you know, especially when oil — with the argument that Putin is bene- — is going to not benefit from oil? You know what I’m trying to say.
MS. PSAKI: Yes, I think I do know what you’re trying to say.
Well, our objective and the President’s objective has been to maximize impact on President Putin and Russia, while minimizing impact to us and our allies and partners.
And I know you’ve heard me say this a few times before, but we don’t have a strategic interest in reducing the global supply of energy. And that would raise prices at the gas pump for the American people, around the world, because it would reduce the supply available. And it’s as simple as: Less supply raises prices. And that is certainly a big factor for the President in this — at this moment.
It could also — it also has the potential to pad the pockets of President Putin, which is exactly what we are not trying to do.
So, as the President has said, we carved out payments for energy, trade, and transport from our financial sectors — sanctions with that in mind.
I would also note that we are also take — we have been taking steps to degrade Russia’s status as a leading energy supplier over time. That includes, of course, shutting down Nord Stream 2 or preventing Nord Stream 2 from operating. That’s why we’re surging LNG to Europe to help accelerate its diversification from Russian gas. And I think you’ve also seen European leaders talk about the need to reduce their reliance and to diversify.
And we are continuing to look at other options we could take right now to cut U.S. consumption of Russian energy. I mean, for us, if you look at publicly available data, it’s only about 10 percent of our imports. But again, reducing the supply out there would have an impact on prices and on prices at the gas pump.
Q I guess the question is: If oil is already so expensive, isn’t he already benefiting from a very — from the — from an already costly, you know, price of oil? How does he stand to benefit if you continue to allow that?
MS. PSAKI: If it reduces further, it makes it more expensive. So I think we look at it through that prism.
Q On the cost of this, I mean, the President has sort of braced American people for this, right? He said that defending democracy and liberty is never without a cost. So is it just that banning all Russian oil and gas imports — that’s just a cost that he thinks is too much for the American people to bear?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think there’s two different pieces here: banning royal — royal? — banning Russian imports — right? — or what he has done is carved out payments for energy, trade, and transport from our financial sanctions. They’re slightly two different things.
And the President — the volatility in the oil markets, as the President has been predicting and as you referenced he talked about in the speech he gave last week, is a direct result of the fact that President Putin invaded Ukraine, and that has created volatility.
One of the — the big reason, of course, that the President announced the release of the strategic — of 30 million barrels from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and the coordinated release is to address that and ensure we are doing what we can to put more in the marketplace.
But again, our — his prism he looks at this through is how can we maximize impact on President Putin while minimizing it on the American people.
Q And President Zelenskyy has called on Russia to be stripped of its ability to vote in the U.N. Security Council. Does the U.S. want Russia to be removed as a permanent member?
MS. PSAKI: We don’t see that happening. We certainly understand — you know, they have a permanent seat on the Security Council. Of course, that is why it is so particularly disturbing that Russia, given its particular responsibility for upholding the U.N. Charter, is actively subverting the Charter and abusing its position.
The fact is, they have a permanent — we don’t — we’re really focused on isolating them, really — on isolating Russia and holding them accountable. And, as you know, that’s what we and our allies are focused on doing.
Q President Zelenskyy is calling, again, for a no-fly zone over Ukraine. Is that something you’re giving any thought to at all?
MS. PSAKI: Again, the reason why that has not been a step the President has been willing to take or we have been interested in taking is because a no-fly zone requires implementation. It would require, essentially, the U.S. military shooting down Russian planes and causing a — prompting a potential direct war with Russia, something — the exact step that we want to avoid.
Q And the President of Finland visits tomorrow. Does the President want to talk to him about joining NATO?
MS. PSAKI: Well, the President is looking forward to welcoming the President of Finland tomorrow to the White House to continue their conversations about enhancing our strong bilateral relations.
I would note that they have spoken twice in the last few months — once on December 13th and again on January 18th. I would expect they will discuss the U.S.-Finnish defense relationship, which is very strong and, in fact, complements Finland’s close partnership with NATO. Along with Sweden, Finland’s status is as an Enhanced Opportunity Partner for the Alliance, which helps ensure strong defense and close security ties in the Baltic Sea region.
But it remains — for any country — up to that country and up to members of NATO to determine any path forward there.
Q And lastly, Russia has been cracking down on independent media and dissent at home. What’s your reaction to that?
MS. PSAKI: We have seen that and are deeply concerned. Let me give you some specific examples because, as journalists yourself, I think it will — you will hear it as quite jarring.
One moment. Sorry, I just want to find all the specifics in here. Thank you for your patience. One second. Okay.
Okay. The Kremlin right now is engaged in a full assault on media freedom and the truth. Let me give you some examples.
Today independent media sites, such as Ekho Moskvy radio and TV Rain are off the air and threatened to block — or they kicked them off the air and they threatened to block online platforms such as VOA Russia.
They have — we’ve seen Russia prohibit Russian media from referring to what they are doing in Ukraine as, quote, a “war,” or, quote, an “invasion,” or, quote, an “attack.” They are banning their use of terms even, allowing media to use only government-sourced information to report on the war.
They’ve called a spesial [sic] — special session of the parliament to consider a bill to make “unofficial” reporting on Russia’s further invasion punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
They have arrested more than 7,300 protestors — some immediately after they began to protest Putin’s war of choice.
They have b- — they have blocked and shut down social media sites, such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
And they have limited the amount of dollars citizens can take out of the country.
What they are trying to do is block any information about what they are doing to invade a sovereign country, and they’re taking severe steps to do exactly that.
Q Just to follow up, is the administration moving closer to banning Russian oil imports?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have any assessment of that for you. I just wanted to note the difference between them, or that there are several different components of options.
Q I guess the question is: What’s the calculus in waiting if it’s ultimately the step that the United States is going to take?
MS. PSAKI: Well, there’s an — there’s a policy process that is undergone for any decision that is made. Sometimes those move rapidly. And often there are a range of factors that are discussed as those decisions are made.
Q The Pentagon noted today that that Russian convoy that’s about 40 miles, at least, long is still stalled largely, they believe.
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q Does the President still think though that ultimately Russia is successfully going to take Kyiv?
MS. PSAKI: That continues to be their aspiration. I think the Pentagon also noted that they now have 90 percent of their military combat power pre-staged at the Ukrainian border — is now in Ukraine.
They’ve launched more than 480 missiles at Ukraine in the invasion. That’s about — up from 450 Thur- — since Thursday. So, they are continuing to make — take aggressive steps and move towards their ultimate objective, which is taking over Kyiv and taking over the country.
Q Any assessment on timing for that?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have an assessment to offer from here.
Q Last question.
MS. PSAKI: Oh, go ahead.
Q Is there any situation where President Biden would sit down with President Putin in person again, so long as Russian forces are in Ukraine?
MS. PSAKI: I can’t make an assessment of that, Kaitlan. Right now, they’re invading a sovereign country and continuing to escalate every day. We’re never going to take diplomacy ever off the table. But again, now is not the moment for that.
Q But why not rule out an in-person meeting if he — his forces are in Ukraine, a sovereign country?
MS. PSAKI: Again, we have discussions internally about what the best steps are to deescalate what is clearly a horrific conflict on the ground. Now is not the moment. We’re not planning a meeting between them or an engagement or a call. The President has been very, very clear about that. But we’ll have those discussions internally and weigh the range of factors.
Q Thanks, Jen. We understand that new U.S. sanctions against oligarchs are going to be announced this afternoon —
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q — and individual oligarchs might be named.
MS. PSAKI: Yes.
Q How is the White House choosing which oligarchs to sanction? Do you start with the richest ones or the ones with the closest ties to Vladimir Putin?
MS. PSAKI: We look — one of the big factors is, of course, the proximity to President Putin. We want him to feel the squeeze. We want the people around him to feel the squeeze. I would — I don’t believe this is going to be the last set of oligarchs. Making them a priority and a — and a focus of our individual sanctions is something the President has been focused on.
Q And I understand that a travel ban is going to be but one component of this announcement. What about oligarchs who are already here? Will they have to leave the country immediately?
MS. PSAKI: Let me check on that for you. I think we’ll have some sort of backgrounder on this to get you more details. And the President will have more specifics himself in about 30 to 45 minutes —
Q Got it.
MS. PSAKI: — depending on how close we are in time.
Q Okay. The President announced the other night a ban on Russian aircraft traveling over U.S. airspace. As far as you know, have there been any incursions on U.S. airspace by the Russians since then? And what would the U.S. do if a Russian aircraft were to violate that airspace?
MS. PSAKI: I’m not aware of any incursions. I’m certainly happy to check on that. And I can check — I’d really point you to the FAA on that, but — and I’ll see if there’s more we can offer.
Q Okay. And then, finally, you know, we all saw the news about the January 6th —
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q — committee and, you know, their belief that there was criminal activity. I wanted to get your reaction to that.
And also, does the President believe that former Vice President Pence should volunteer to testify before the committee?
MS. PSAKI: Well, let me first reiterate something you heard the President say: The former President subverted the Constitution in an attempt to overturn a lawful and fair election. His actions represent a unique and existential threat to our democracy. And the President has been clear that these events warrant a full investigation. Part of this is what we’re seeing play out. And what you just mentioned has been reported over the course of the morning.
We, of course, respect the independence of the Department of Justice. That gives confidence to the American people. That’s how it should always be. And they will make a decision — a decision about how to move from here.
As it relates to Vice President Pence, I would say: The President believes that anyone who is asked should participate in the process of getting to the bottom of what happened on January 6th.
Q Thanks, Jen. On gas, you just said that, you know, “less supply raises prices,” it’s not in our strategic interest to reduce the supply.
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q We also know, you know, the President, as recently as yesterday, talked about increasing domestic manufacturing to bring down prices on inflated items like goods. So why not apply the same logic to energy and increase domestic production here?
MS. PSAKI: Well, there are 9,000 approved oil leases that the oil companies are not tapping into currently. So I would ask them that question.
Q Is there nothing that the administration can do to get those providers back to pre-pandemic levels?
MS. PSAKI: Do you think the oil companies don’t have enough money to drill on the places that have been pre-approved?
Q Just asking.
MS. PSAKI: I would — I would point that question to them. And we can talk about it more tomorrow when you learn more.
Q Do you think that opening the Keystone Pipeline and having more energy-friendly policies might do that?
MS. PSAKI: The Keystone Pipeline has never been operational. It would take years for that to have any impact. I know a number of members of Congress have suggested that, but that is a proposed solution that has no relationship or would have no impact on what the problem is we, here, all agree is an issue.
Q So during that — those years where it would, you know, take to bring down prices, as you’re saying, we should just continue to buy Russian oil?
MS. PSAKI: Well, again, Jacqui, I think you’re familiar with a number of steps we’ve taken: a historic release from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.
Q But that didn’t bring down prices — last time or this time.
MS. PSAKI: Well, we can — well, let me finish. What we can do over time and what this is a rema- — reminder of, in the President’s view, is our need to reduce our reliance on oil.
The Europeans need to do that; we need to do that. If we do more to invest in clean energy, more to invest in other sources of energy, that’s exactly what we can do to prevent this from happening in the future.
We welcome any Republicans from joining us in that effort.
Q As long as we’re buying Russian oil, though, aren’t we financing the war?
MS. PSAKI: Well, Jacqui, again, it’s only about 10 percent of what we’re importing. I’ve not made any announcement about any decision on that front, but our objective here and our focus is making sure that any step we take maximizes the impact on President Putin and minimizes it on the American people.
And anyone who’s calling for an end to the carveout should be clear that that would rise — raise prices.
Q Thanks, Jen. On the oligarchs sanctions: I know they haven’t even been announced yet —
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q — but I’m wondering if you could tell us like if there are criteria that you’ve laid out for them to eventually get unsanctioned. So the idea being that you would incentivize them to pressure Vladimir Putin to end the war by laying out certain criteria that would essentially —
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q — get them unsanctioned.
MS. PSAKI: That’s an interesting question. I mean, right now, obviously, we’re in the middle of an invasion, so I don’t think now is the moment where we are giving anybody that sort of an off-ramp, but I can certainly check if there’s more that we have conveyed to them.
Q What about the broader universal sanctions? I mean, the same answer that there’s no real criteria being laid out of, like, what steps the Kremlin needs to take for them to get unsanctioned too?
MS. PSAKI: I mean, I think right in this moment, they’re marching toward Kyiv with a convoy and continuing to take reportedly barbaric steps against the people of Ukraine. So, no, now is not the moment where we are offering options for reducing sanctions.
Q And then one more on the domestic front. Senator Manchin had laid out something of a counteroffer to what the President had described during the State of the Union on his domestic agenda. It was involving a deficit reduction, tax reform, and drug price cuts, and some climate provisions. Have you heard from him about his ideas or is there communication? And what did you think — what did the White House think of that proposal from Senator Manchin?
MS. PSAKI: There have been ongoing communications with every member of the Senate — Democratic Senate and many, many, many Republicans. I’m not going to detail those from here. The President has conveyed that he sees a lot of components where there should be broad agreement on in what he has proposed, and he talked about them the other night. Some of them is the ability to negotiate the cost of prescription drugs. Everybody thinks the cost of prescription drugs should be lower.
The President certainly believes in taking steps to reduce the deficit. He — this government, we reduced the deficit over the course of last year. That’s something he already has a record of doing. And, obviously, taking steps to make the tax system more fair is something he believes in.
But there are a lot of components that there’s a lot of passion behind on Capitol Hill, and there needs to just be continued conversations about that.
Q I want to ask you about this suppl- — the emergency funding request —
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q — that was sent up to the Hill this morning.
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q About a third of it would go toward medical countermeasures — the antivirals the President talked about in —
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q — the State of the Union, the — and the antibodies. Do you see us getting to a point where the availability of these treatments might mean that vaccine requirements are neither necessary nor justifiable?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t think I can make a prediction of that at this point in time. I mean, the vaccine is still the best and most effective way — and the doctors will say this, right? — to protect people from hospitalization and death.
The pills are certainly an important development — scientific development. But the best step anyone can take continues to be to get vaccinated.
Q A quick question — a follow-up to Jordan’s here about Manchin’s proposal to Build Back Better that Manchin says is dead. Is it — is the transformation formalized here? Is it no longer “Build Back Better” and now “Building a Better America”?
MS. PSAKI: That is formal. But no one cares about the type — the name in the American public. They care about what’s in it and what it’s going to do. And so, that’s what we’re most focused on.
Q Jen, thank you. I have a couple. I want to try —
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q — one more on the potential oil ban.
MS. PSAKI: Yep.
Q It feels like — because you now have Republicans and Democrats calling on the administration to ban oil from Russia. As you’ve laid out, there are a range of different options under consideration. What would the administration need to see in order to make a final decision?
MS. PSAKI: Need to see how? Tell me more.
Q Happening on the ground. What would need to happen in order to prompt a final decision on an oil ban?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t know that we look at it exactly through that prism. Obviously, we have not held back in taking significant historic steps that are crippling the Russian economy right now. I think there’s no question about that. And the President has led the world in doing exactly that.
But what factor we’re looking at here is the impact on the gas pump for Americans and reduction of supply in the marketplace. A reduction of global supply would have an impact on raising prices. So that’s the prism we look at it through.
Q There is — there are some interim steps that could be taken instead of a full outright ban that would potentially mitigate the costs on gas prices. Is there a sense that this is at a tipping point and that some of those interim options (inaudible)?
MS. PSAKI: We are continuing, Kristen, to look at other options we could take right now to cut U.S. consumption of Russian energy, but in the context of maintaining a steady global supply of energy.
So, that’s what we’re trying to balance.
Q Okay. Let me ask you: Is there any discussion about sharing U.S. intelligence with the Ukrainians about what is happening on the ground in real time?
MS. PSAKI: We have been sharing it real time.
Q You have been? Okay. And is there a sense that the communication has been enough to give them what they need in order to be in a defensive posture, in order to fend off the Russian forces to the best of their abilities to the extent that they can (inaudible)?
MS. PSAKI: Well, without getting too far into details of what we do, for obvious reasons, we have consistently been sharing intelligence that includes information the Ukrainians can use to inform and develop their military response to Russia’s invasion. That has been ongoing, and reports that suggest otherwise are inaccurate.
Q The world is watching as this convoy is lined up outside of Kyiv. The U.S. has been very clear you are not going to send in military forces. Is there anything the West can do to stop the convoy in its tracks, short of military action? Are there any possibilities that are under discussion?
MS. PSAKI: Well, one of the reasons the President pushed to expedite the delivery — or the approval and delivery of a security package over the weekend was to give them — the Ukrainians — more support, more equipment, more defensive weapons to utilize in this moment. But we are not reconsidering or taking steps that would prompt a war between the United States and Russia.
Q And if I could, there was a little bit of breaking news as we were coming out here —
MS. PSAKI: Okay.
Q — and you may or may not be aware of it. Ukraine has said it has agreed with Russia to create safe corridors, backed by ceasefires, to evacuate civilians, deliver aid. Is the U.S. aware of this? Will the U.S. assist in this? What can you tell us about this?
MS. PSAKI: We will continue to assist efforts by — efforts supported by the Ukrainians. I obviously haven’t talked to our national security team about this yet.
MS. PSAKI: I will venture to do that. And we can get you all any more specifics from here after the briefing if that’s helpful.
Q Thank you, Jen. President Putin spoke today with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman about the sanctions Russia is facing and specifically about global energy supply. Given the volatility of oil prices, does President Biden have any plans to talk to the Saudi Crown Prince?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I — a couple of weeks ago, I would note, Brett McGurk and Amos Hochstein made a trip to Saudi Arabia to talk about a range of issues, including global market — global energy markets, as well as Yemen. And we will continue to have a range of ways we engage with the Saudis.
Q But the President has no plans to talk to the Saudi Crown Prince?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have anything to predict for you at this point in time.
Q And President Zelenskyy has said Russia’s actions clearly constitute a war crime. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson also said that Russia’s targeting of civilians fully qualifies as a war crime. The President wouldn’t go that far when he was asked yesterday. Why has he been reluctant to label Russia’s actions a war crime?
MS. PSAKI: Well, there is a process and we have stood up a process internally — an internal team — to assess and look at and evaluate evidence of what we’re seeing happen on the ground.
That is a standard part of our process in the U.S. government. I would note that we work very closely with our international partners, and we will provide any information that we surface through that process.
You know, I think we’ve seen on the ground that — that a — reports of a range of barbaric tactics, reports of targeting civilians. That’s all factors that we look at.
And again, that interag- — that process that has been stood up would provide any information to the ICC or any other international body taking a look at this.
Q (Clears throat.) Excuse me. Are there any discussions now, or have you guys had in the — in recent weeks — recent days, I guess — it feels like weeks — with European allies about preparing staging zones for Ukrainian insurgency, perhaps to provide training and other assistance?
MS. PSAKI: Well, there’s — right now our focus is on supporting the current Ukrainian government and leadership. And that includes expediting assistance, expediting military defense assistance, engaging closely with them. And we’ll stay focused there.
Q Representative Adam Smith today on MSNBC said that we — the United States — are providing some intelligence to the Ukrainians, but not providing the type of real-time and targeting that you see the U.S. military getting in war. So why is arming the Ukrainians with Stingers and Javelins appropriate but not providing them targeting intelligence for those weapons?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think this is similar to what Kristen just asked. I would just say that there’ve been a range of reports out there that are false. We can’t get into details of all of our intelligence sharing for obvious reasons. But we’ve continued and consistently shared a significant amount of detailed, timely intelligence on Russia’s plans and activities with the Ukrainian government to help Ukrainians defend themselves.
We’ve been doing that for months. This includes information that should help them inform and develop their military response to Russia’s invasion. That’s what’s happening — or has been happening.
Go ahead, Ayesha.
Q Thank you. I know people have asked a lot about, you know, the price of oil, but I want to come at it in a little bit of a different way. The fact is that the price of oil is high, it is very unlikely to go down anytime soon, and more than likely will go up. What is the White House looking at? I know that there was the strategic release of oil, but are there other things that the White House is looking at to help consumers at the pump — maybe to, you know, direct subsidies, maybe more biofuels, maybe easing the Jones Act?
Like what is the plan for Americans who are going to have to be living with these high oil prices?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would say, first, on the release of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, it first goes to an auction, and it’s a process that will proceed. And a lot of that will happen over the course of the coming week. So we haven’t seen, obviously, all of the direct impact of the announcement that was just made two days ago. But a range of options remain on the table. I can’t get into all the details of those.
But the President is quite focused on making sure that we are taking steps to reduce the impact, to ensure there is supply necessary out there. Obviously, tapping the Strategic Petroleum Reserve is part of that; engaging with global partners around the world who may be big global suppliers about putting more oil in the system — that is part of the discussion; ensure there are a range of domestic options.
But there have been ongoing discussions and consideration, some of that you’ve saw with the announcement of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve released just two nights ago.
Q And what does the White House say to American consumers? Like should American consumers right now be thinking, “Okay, I’m going to have to pay a lot more at the pump going forward”? Should they be taking that into consideration when they’re buying cars? Or, you know, should they try to buy more fuel-efficient cars or saving their money? Like what should they be doing practically at this moment, considering the price of gas is going to affect them?
MS. PSAKI: Of course it is, as I’ve been saying. And that’s why we’ve been focused on it for weeks, if not months, to ensure we are taking every step, the President is taking every step to reduce that impact.
The release of the — his Strategic Petroleum Reserve — 30 million barrels that he announced just the other night — again, that process is just starting. It’s a bit of a process to get that going. And that will hopefully have an impact in getting more supply out there.
We — but we would say directly to consumers: The President is going to do everything we can to reduce the impact, to make sure that we are working with our partners around the world to address the volatility in the global oil markets, to consider a range of options that he can continue to take to reduce the impact that they’re feeling at the pump. And this has been front and center on his mind since the beginning of this conflict.
Q And just — there was a call with Quad leaders —
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q — today. India has a military relationship with Russia. Is that — was that discussed at all? Is there talk of — you know, talking to India about that relationship that it has with Russia? Is there anything that the U.S. plans to do on that?
MS. PSAKI: Well, what I can tell you about the call — and we’ll have a more comprehensive readout soon if it’s not already out — is that the President felt it was a constructive conversation. He asked members — he suggested — or they all discussed, I should say — having members of their national security team follow up from there. But I’m not going to get into more details about the conversation beyond that.
Q Thanks, Jen. Pivoting to the Supreme Court.
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q Can you respond to some of the criticisms that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell laid out about Ketanji Brown Jackson? I think he said that she won’t shun court packing and that she’s only had two opinions on the D.C. circuit level.
MS. PSAKI: Sure. So, as I think you’re referencing, Ketanji Brown Jackson — Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson has obviously started to have meetings on Capitol Hill that have been ongoing.
I would note that, as it relates to the first question, the Constitution is clear that the number of questio- — of Justices is a question for Congress, not the Judiciary. And a number of you have actually pointed out this morning that during Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation hearing, she was asked a question about court packing or court enlargement. And she said, quote, “That is a question left open to Congress.”
I’d also note that, yesterday, Senator McConnell also said that there was, quote, “no question” that Judge Jackson was qualified for the Supreme Court. And earlier in the day, he said they’d had a good meeting.
I think there’s no question that, as a judge who has been confirmed three times by — by the Senate, someone who has a long record as both a jurist who has ruled in the direction of Democrats and Republicans, that she is someone who’s eminently qualified for this job, which is why the President nominated her.
Q One more on the State of the Union.
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q The President repudiated the phrase “defund the police.” And I wonder if you can talk a little bit about the genesis of that line in the speech. Was it about rising crime in American cities or Republican attacks?
And there’s also been criticism, you know, that he did not talk about police accountability more in the State of the Union. I wonder if you can respond to that as well.
MS. PSAKI: Sure. Well, on the first part of the question, that’s been the President’s view for decades. He’s never been a supporter of defunding the police. He made that clear on the campaign. There has been attempts to mischaracterize his position and the position of, frankly, a number of his Democratic colleagues.
And, yes, it is true that in the State of the Union the President felt it was important to speak to safe communities, the steps that he would continue to support to ensure there was funding for local police departments. But that has been his position for decades. It was simply a restatement of that.
On the second part of your question, I would say that the President has been clear many times that he believes that we need to continue to ensure police departments have the funding they need, that there are strong relationships and partnerships built with communities, but that there also needs to be steps that are taken to ensure there are accountability measures put in place.
He was a strong supporter of the bipartisan discussion about police reform that unfortunately stalled but remains — you know, a consideration of an executive order remains under consideration.
I would also note that there are a number of steps that the Department of Justice has taken — banning chokeholds, et cetera — at the federal level that the President is proud that he — that has happened in his administration.
Q Jen, I wanted to return to this question of finding off-ramps for Putin that we discussed. So, from your many years in the State Department in a situation like this, that’s the first thing that diplomats begin to try to think about. You need something face saving if you were going to get him to reduce the amount of violence and going into Ukraine.
What kind of ideas are you kicking around here that might provide a way for him to find a more graceful way out of this before you’ve got the kind of large-scale civilian casualties you’re clearly worried about?
MS. PSAKI: Yeah, I think one, David, we have had — provided many off-ramps to President Putin through the course of the last several months. I know there have been a range of discussions about transparency measures, about positions of missile defense systems that have been undertaken for the last several weeks.
It’s going to be very hard to have a — for diplomacy to succeed without military de-escalation. And whatever we do, we’re going to do that in lockstep with our partners and allies.
Secretary Blinken is leaving today for Brussels. He’s going to meet with NATO, the EU, and the G7 allies and partners to continue our close coordination before heading to Poland, Moldova, and the Baltic countries.
But, again, our effort and our focus right now is continue to work with our allies and partners to implement these sanctions, put the pressure on, and leave the door open to diplomacy, of course. But it’s difficult to do that in the middle of a war.
Q So if there is de-escalation, if you could get a ceasefire, for example, in — before Kyiv turned into more of a ruin, is the administration willing to then suspend some of the sanctions that they’ve recently announced?
MS. PSAKI: I’m not going to lay out conditions from here. I think those are conversations — there’s a range of conversations, if there are de-escalatory steps, that we would have with our European partners. And obviously Secretary Blinken will be playing a front-and-center role in doing exactly that.
Q One last one for you. President Zelenskyy, in a news conference he gave a few hours ago, said that the West should recognize that where Putin is headed toward, he said, was Berlin. His point being that he wanted to take this war beyond Ukraine. Is that the administration’s current assessment based on what Putin has said in public, in his conversations with Macron, with the President, and so forth?
MS. PSAKI: I think we all watched the speech — which now feels like it was a year ago, but was only last week — where he made clear he had broad ambitions of what he wanted to achieve.
It is also true, though, that NATO has never been more unified, thanks in part to President Putin’s aggression. And there are a range of countries that are exactly in that region who are NATO partners and Allies. And President Putin would have to make a decision to go into a country where there is a NATO Alliance, where there’s Article 5 obligations, you know, should he decide he wants to proceed beyond.
So, I don’t have a new assessment from here, other than —
Q But he could go to Moldova or Georgia. They’re not NATO members.
MS. PSAKI: Certainly, I understand that. But, you know, again, David, I don’t have a new assessment to offer. But we are also closely watching, of course, what President Putin does and is doing since he delivered that speech last week. But I don’t have anything new beyond what he has himself said publicly.
Q Pivoting back to the President’s State of the Union speech. On Tuesday, he said that he wants to secure our border and fix the immigration system. That’s a bit of a shift from last year’s speech to Congress, where he spoke more about trying to find the root causes of why people are migrating.
Why was there this sort of shift in messaging, kind of focusing on securing the border? And is that a new priority or is — has — have priorities changed on immigration for the administration?
MS. PSAKI: No, I would say, first, the bill that the President proposed on his first day in office included smarter security and border protections. And also, it included a more humane path for migrants entering the country.
Both of those remain priorities for the President. He believes that the sys- — the immigration system is broken, it’s long overdue to fix it.
He also believes — and worked on this very closely as Vice President — that addressing the root causes is one of the central steps we need to remain focused on, even as we’re trying to address the current circumstances at the border.
Q Then why was it important for the President to say to sec- — you know, advocate for securing our border? I know he’s been criticized heavily, you know, by Republicans, by certain folks on how he’s handled immigration at the border. So, was that important for him to say in his speech?
MS. PSAKI: Well, that’s part of his bill that he proposed, so it’s consistent with his policies.
Q And one last question: Has there been any discussion on ending Title 42? I know we’ve talked — the President even talked about it on Tuesday — about how we’re moving past the pandemic. This is obviously a policy that’s been kept in place because of the pandemic. Has there been any discussions on ending that?
MS. PSAKI: Well, that is a decision for the CDC to make. I believe Dr. Walensky said yesterday that she’s reviewing that decision. So, I can’t get ahead of any decision she makes, but she is looking at that, and that’s an assessment they make from the CDC.
Go ahead, Karen.
Q Thanks, Jen. Back to oligarchs and the sanctions: You had said earlier that you want Putin to “feel the squeeze” and the people around him to “feel the squeeze.” How does the administration feel that these sanctions could actually change his behavior and result in de-escalation? You know, what evidence is there that the sanctions like this would work for what you want to achieve right now?
MS. PSAKI: Well, it’s a factor. It’s not the only factor. Right? But what we’re talking about here is seizing their assets, seizing their yachts, and making it harder for them to send, you know, their children to colleges and universities in the West.
These are significant steps that will impact the people who are closely around President Putin. It’s not the only step we’re taking. Obviously, the financial sanctions and the steps we’ve taken have crippled the financial sector so much in Russia that they’ve kept the stock market closed for a couple of days.
So, it’s just an effort to get close to the people around President Putin.
Q And Canada announced a new program to expedite refugee arrivals and says there’s no limit on how many can apply. Is there a conversation in the administration about raising the refugee cap to accommodate Ukrainians that would want to come here?
MS. PSAKI: You know, I have to check and see if the cap would actually need to be raised. We have said that we continue to be open to receiving refugees, of course; that what our focus is on, given the vast majority of them have expressed an interest in going to European countries and neighboring countries, is being the largest provider of humanitarian assistance in the world, something that we increased over the course of the last several days — and Samantha Power made an announcement about that — and continuing to provide assistance that way. But we remain open as well.
I think it’s just, again, important to note what the preference is of the vast majority of the refugees who are leaving Ukraine.
Go ahead. Oh, we got to wrap up in a second, but go ahead.
Q Yeah. President Zelenskyy, earlier, said — you know, calling for a no-fly zone again — said, “If you don’t have the strength to close the sky, then give me planes.” Is the United States open to sending more air support to Ukraine?
MS. PSAKI: Again, I’m not going to get into more details of what the Department of Defense may or may not consider. But what I will tell you is that we’ve continued to provide a range of defensive assistance, something we have increased only — only increased — over the last several days. But we are not considering taking steps that would put us in direct conflict with Russia.
Q Is there any concern with — you know, you’ve laid out the explanation for why steering clear of sanctioning Russia’s energy sector at this point. Is part of the calculation — in terms of how much to ratchet up — you know, worrying that Putin will at some point determine that the U.S. has already joined the conflict everywhere but the battlefield and will retaliate?
Is that part of — is that a factor in the administration’s decision-making, in terms of how far to go? Or is that already factored in?
MS. PSAKI: I’m not sure I understand the question.
Q Well, the sense that Putin may retaliate against the United States, whether through cyberattack, some — you know, some other measure. Is trying to avoid that and trying to maybe not go past a certain line, potentially — is that something the administration is —
MS. PSAKI: I would say that the sanctions — the financial sanctions that we have issued are on par with what we have done to Iran. They are significant, they are historic, and they are crippling the sector.
So, I don’t think we have held back in any capacity, aside from making sure we’re prioritizing the impact on the American people. So, no, I would not say that’s how we view it.
Okay, everyone. I’m sorry. I’m sorry, guys. We’ll do this again tomorrow, and we’ll be here.
Thanks, everyone. Okay. I forgot I don’t have a mask. I looked for it. (Laughter.) Thanks, everyone.
1:59 P.M. EST