James S. Brady Press Briefing Room Washington D.C. January 25 1:17 P.M. EST
Good afternoon. Happy Monday to everyone. A couple of announcements at the top: First, as a part of this administration's accessibility and inclusion efforts, starting today, we will have an ASL — an American Sign Language — interpreter for our daily press briefings. Today's interpreter, Heather, is joining us virtually. The President is committed to building an America that is more inclusive, more just, and more accessible for every American, including Americans with disabilities and their families.
Next, I wanted to share a few updates from the COVID response team. First, today, the President will sign a presidential proclamation to reduce the spread of COVID-19 through travel, especially as we see faster-spreading variants emerging across the world. This proclamation is part of the Biden administration's whole-of-government, decisive, and science-driven response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Of particular note, on advice of our administration's medical and COVID team, President Biden has decided to maintain the restrictions previously in place for the European Schengen area, the United Kingdom, Republican — Republic of Ireland, and Brazil. With the pandemic worsening and more contagiant [sic] variant — contagious variants spreading, this isn't the time to be lifting restrictions on international travel. And in light of the contagious variant B1351, South Africa has been added to the restricted list.
Additionally, beginning tomorrow, international travelers to the United States must provide proof of a negative test within three days of travel to airlines prior to departure. The President is taking these steps on the advice of his COVID-19 and medical team.
And we're already working as a real partner to the states to address their needs to vaccinate the public. This weekend, West Virginia asked the Biden administration for assistance at an understaffed vaccine distribution center. At the President's direction, FEMA was deployed to help support the vaccination site. This comes as part of the President's order last week that directs FEMA to stand up vaccination centers and support states' vaccination efforts. We look forward to continuing to be the partner of the states moving forward.
Last, on the COVID — last update on COVID, I wanted to briefly preview the first of our public health briefings, which will begin this Wednesday and will be done regularly for the foreseeable future. These will be science-led briefings, featuring our public health officials and members of our COVID-19 response team. These briefings will typically happen three times a week to provide the American people with key updates on the virus and our government's response. They're a reflection of our commitment to being transparent and honest with the public about the pandemic and the work our whole-of-government team is doing every day, and you will all be able to participate within those, of course, as well.
Finally — I think — finally, this morning, President Biden issued an executive order setting the policy that all Americans who are qualified to serve in the armed forces of the United States should be able to serve. Today's action revokes the Presidential Memorandum of March 2013 , 2018, and also confirms the revocation of the Presidential Memorandum of August 25th of 2017.
Today's action fulfills another campaign promise. With this EO, no one will be separated or discharged from the military or denied reenlistment on the basis of gender identity. And for those transgender service members who were discharged or separated because of their gender identity, their cases will be reexamined.
President Biden believes that gender identity should not be a bar to military service and that America's strength is found in its diversity. America is stronger at home and around the world when it is inclusive.
Last thing — sorry, I said it was the last, but a lot — a lot going on here. This afternoon, the President will sign an executive order that takes an important step to support American manufacturing. With this "Buy American" executive order, the President is already making good on his commitment to building a future that is made in America by all of America's workers.
Through the Buy American executive order, the President will put to work the early $600 billion in taxpayer dollars that goes toward federal contracting in support of American manufacturing and good-paying jobs for America's workers. The EO directs agencies to close loopholes in how "Made in America" products are measured so that we can close loopholes and ensure — increase the amount of a product that must be made in the U.S. for it to qualify under Buy American law.
He will also appoint a senior White House official to oversee this policy to ensure it's actually enforced and that all agencies are seeking small- and medium-sized American businesses to make the products they need.
The EO will also tighten and make public the waiver process so that American workers and manufacturers can see how federal dollars are spent and where they're going.
So I will stop there. And, Jonathan, why don't you kick us off?
Thank you, Jen. We know you have to leave at two o'clock, so we'll just get started right now. Two topics for you, please: one foreign and one domestic.
Overseas first: Over the weekend, there were dozens of significant protests in Russian cities over the arrest of Alexei Navalny, which were put down harshly by police there. What sort of U.S. response is being considered? What sort of actions or sanctions could occur? And when does the President plan to speak to President Putin?
First, I'd like to point all of you to a statement that was released this weekend by the State Department, strongly condemning the use of harsh tactics against protesters and journalists in cities throughout Russia. These continued efforts to suppress Russians' rights to peacefully protest and assemble and ex- — and their freedom of expression and the arrest of opposition figure Alexei Navalny and the crackdown on protests that followed are troubling indications of further restrictions on Russian civil society.
So I'll just reiterate our call from here on Russian authorities to release all those detained for exercising their universal rights and for the immediate and unconditional release of Alexei Navalny. We also urge Russia to fully cooperate with the international community's investigation into the poisoning of Alexei Navalny and credibly explain the use of a chemical weapon on its soil.
And last week, we announced that the President issued a tasking to the intelligence community for its full assessment of a range of activities, including of course the SolarWinds cyber breach, Russian interference in the 2020 election, its use of chemical weapons against Alexei Navalny, and the alleged bounties on U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. That is ongoing. That review is a 100-day review, so we'll have an update on that when it concludes.
Actually, let me — I apologize, I may have misstated that. It's not — I don't have a timeline for the timeline of the review; it's something that's ongoing. There's — it's a priority, of course.
And has a call been scheduled with President Putin?
I don't have any calls to predict for you at this point. But obviously, the President is picking up the phone, engaging with a range of foreign leaders — Europeans and others. There's more planned in the next couple of days, and we'll have readouts as those occur.
Okay. And one on here at home: The President has repeatedly stressed the urgency of the COVID relief package, the need to get something done now. With that in mind, you know, considering the reaction of Republican lawmakers to outreach that was done over the weekend, should there be a more narrow focused on the virus and vaccine that could be done sooner?
And while we know that these White House officials have talked to the Hill, can you please speak to the President's personal involvement? Who has he spoken to?
The President has been personally engaging and engaging with Democrats and Republicans. We're not going to read out all those calls for you because those are private conversations, and we feel that's the most effective way to get this package moving forward. As you know, there was a call that occurred yesterday that we did a brief readout on from that call — part of our ongoing engagement to talk with Democrats and Republicans.
And I'll convey this is how, in the President's view — and we talked about this, this morning — this process should work. He puts his policy forward, his vision forward, and then Democrats and Republicans can engage and give their input and feedback on what they think is going to work and how to move this package forward. So, in our view, this is working exactly as it should work.
And — but, in terms of the — is there concern — Democrats themselves — Senator Sanders has — an independent, of course — and Speaker Pelosi have suggested that reconciliation should be considered now, that time is wasting; there isn't time for this sort of back — legislative back-and-forth.
Well, the President himself has conveyed the urgency of moving this package forward, and that's certainly something he has also conveyed privately to Democrats and Republicans.
And it's not just him; there's urgency to the American people for this package to move forward because we are going to hit a cliff — an unemployment cliff — unemployment insurance cliff, I should say — in March, where millions of people won't be able to have access to unemployment insurance. We're going to hit a point where we won't have enough funding for vaccine distribution. Nobody wants to have the conversation — no member of Congress — in May or June when there — we don't have the funding to put back — to reopen schools, I should say.
So, there's an urgency he has conveyed. I will say, as it relates to reconciliation, just to take a step back. Everybody watching is not as in the weeds on the Senate process as all of you. So let me just take a moment to explain.
Reconciliation is a mean — a means of getting a bill passed. There are a number of means of getting bills passed. That does not mean, regardless of how the bill is passed, that Democrats and Republicans cannot both vote for it.
So, the President obviously wants to make this bipartisan. Hence, he's engaging with members of both parties, and he remains committed to that moving forward.
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