Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jen Psaki, May 20, 2021 | Beaufort County Now | Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jen Psaki, May 20, 2021

Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)
Press Release:

James S. Brady Press Briefing Room  •  Washington D.C.  •  May 20  •  1:07 P.M. EDT

    MS. PSAKI: Hi, everyone. I think I got a little ahead of the two minutes, but seems okay. Seems okay.

    Okay, one item for all of you at the top. The unemployment data released this morning show us reaching the lowest level of new claims since the beginning of the pandemic, and the moving average has been cut by more than a third since President Biden took office just four months ago.

    We know the policies the President has enacted are making a difference. Today's four-week average of 505,000 new claims is down from 752,000 the week the American Rescue Plan was signed and badly needed economic relief started getting out of the door to families and communities around the country.

    Who doesn't love a chart? So here's a little chart of the weekly unemployment claims, just to show you all the trend.

    These numbers can be volatile, so we caution against reading too much into any single report — and, obviously, we're looking at trendlines over time — but the trend is clear. In addition to declining unemployment insurance claims over the President's first three months in office, the economy has created an average of 500,000 new jobs a month — eight times more than the average of the three months prior.

    And this is a direct result of President Biden's vision to build our economy from the bottom up and the middle out.

    With that, Darlene, why don't we kick it off.

    Q:  Thanks, Jen. So, on the Middle East: Yesterday, the White House said the President had spoken to the Prime Minister, called for a significant de-escalation. The Prime Minister, in turn, said he was going to push forward with the operation in Gaza.

    So, the question is: You know, where does that leave the President and the administration today? And also, what does what happened yesterday say about his level of influence with the Prime Minister?

    MS. PSAKI: Well, first let me say, Darlene, that our objective, as we've talked about a bit in here, is to take every step we can — through diplomatic channels, through quiet and intensive diplomacy — to bring an end to this conflict.

    Just to bring us back to a little historical reference here — which I lived through, many of you did as well — back in 2014, the conflict on the ground went on for 51 days — 51 days. We're at about 10 days now. Now, every day that passes and lives are lost — Palestinian lives, Israeli lives — is a tragedy.

    But our approach here and our strategic approach here is to continue to communicate directly, stay closely interwo- — interlocked with the Israelis, with partners on the ground to do everything we can to bring an end to the conflict.

    We have seen reports of a move toward a potential ceasefire. That's clearly encouraging. Obviously, we can't get ahead of any agreements that may be brokered.

    But I would say that — to go back to answer your original question there, Darlene — we've had — we've now held more than 80 engagements with senior leaders in Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and across the region, either in person or by phone.

    And again, that our view and our approach has been to use our — the role of the United States and the relationships with countries on the ground to conduct our efforts quietly and through diplomatic channels.

    Q:  Do you have anything on a call between the President today and Al Sisi and Egypt?

    MS. PSAKI: I expect we'll have a readout shortly. I can confirm they had a call.

    And just to remind you, part of that engagement is a reflection of what we've been talking about a bit in this briefing room — was the important role that a number of countries in the region can play, including the Egyptians, in bringing an end to the conflict. And they have an important role to play in influencing Hamas. Hence, the President had a conversation with him this morning. I expect we'll have a readout shortly.

    Q:  And just one, quickly, if I can switch to infrastructure.

    MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.

    Q:  Senator Capito has raised the possibility of using unspent COVID-19 money to pay for infrastructure. Is that something the White House would be open — an approach the White House would be open to?

    MS. PSAKI: Well, again, I know there'll be a range of ideas and proposals that will come forward from Senator Capito, from other Republicans, and other Democrats as well. The President's bottom line — as you've heard me say a few times before — is that he does not want to raise taxes on people making less than $400,000 a year.

    We certainly, in that scenario, would need to assess whether these funds are needed and not take them away from fighting the pandemic that we continue to battle every day.

    Go ahead.


    Q:  Thank you, Jen. A couple of topics quickly. First, House Republicans are claiming that they have "significant circumstantial evidence" that COVID-19 originated in a lab. Has the White House seen any circumstantial evidence that it did not originate in a lab?

    MS. PSAKI: Well, I think, first, I would caution you against disproving a negative there — which is never the responsible approach, in our view, when it come — when it comes to getting to the bottom of the root causes of a pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands of people in the United States.

    I will say that our view continues to be that there needs to be an independent, transparent investigation — and that needs to happen with the cooperation and data provided from the Chinese government.

    We don't have enough information at this point to make an assessment.

    Q:  And part of the reason some of these lawmakers say that is, is because China is not cooperating right now. At what point would President Biden call President Xi and say, "We've got 587,883 dead Americans. We're just trying to figure out if this happened — if COVID originated in one of your labs. Let us in"?

    MS. PSAKI: Well, I would say that we have made that call publicly many times. We have conveyed that privately. And we have certainly communicated that they were not transparent from the beginning; that's not acceptable.

    There's an opportunity now, in the next stage of this effort, for them to be transparent, to participate in an international investigation that can bring a conclusion to the origins and provide information that we — Republicans, Democrats, everyone in this country — would love to have access to.

    Q:  On Nord Stream, I know that there's a lot of talk about Nord Stream and Keystone, and I'm just trying to help our — help people understand it.

    MS. PSAKI: Is there?

    Q:  Well, yes. President Biden blocked the Keystone XL pipeline here because he said it would undermine the U.S. climate leadership and undercut our ability to urge other countries to the ambitious climate action. So how is he urging other countries to take ambitious climate action if he's letting other countries build Nord Stream 2?"

    MS. PSAKI: First, we're hardly letting any country or other countries build Nord Stream 2. When the President took office, 95 percent of this pipeline was built.

    We've continued to convey that we believe it's a bad — a bad idea, a bad plan — and we have also put in place and taken actions over the last several days to make that clear — in large part because our view is that it's a Russian geopolitical project that threatens European energy security and that of Ukraine and in the East — and Eastern Flank NATO Allies and partners. Hence, there's a geopolitical concern about this pipeline, and we've taken steps over the last several days to make that clear.

    Q:  So, a lot of concerns — and it seemed like there was the ability by the U.S. government to sanction some officials to stop the project at like 95 percent, but you're not doing that. And I'm just wondering why?

    MS. PSAKI: In what way were we — we're going to be able to stop a project in another country that's had — been built 95 percent?

    Q:  Or make it more difficult. Make it more difficult with the sanctions on some of these officials involved.

    MS. PSAKI: Well, we have imposed sanctions on four Russian entities, four Russian vessels that engaged in sanctionable activities. We've also imposed sanctions on nine vessels belonging to the Russian government. This is the largest number of entities listed under this act to date.

    So we have certainly taken significant steps, and we've also made clear — in public and private channels — our opposition to this plan.

    Q:  And then, quickly, on Israel. Progressives in the House and Senate are hoping to block $735 million dollars' worth of weapons to Israel. Would the President ever go along with that?

    MS. PSAKI: Well, let me first say that the State Department is — oversees arm sales, and any confirmation of those specific details or notifications that may have gone to Congress. So I would let them speak to that specific proposal you're asking about.

    I will say that we've had a long-abiding security and strategic relationship with Israel. That has been certainly the case for decades.

    Q:  As a candidate though, President Biden boasted that he was the only one in the race who had ever brought world leaders together to solve a major problem. There's a major problem in the Middle East right now, so why aren't the leaders and the people there benefiting from all of his foreign policy experience?

    MS. PSAKI: Do you not count the 80 engagements we've had with countries around the world, including the President's call with the leader of Egypt, the four calls he's had with the Israeli Prime Minister —

    Q:  Well, I —

    MS. PSAKI: — and the fact that there have been reports of a ceasefire — of a movement toward a ceasefire?


    Q:  Well, I — I would say: Do you not count him telling Benjamin Netanyahu, who he says he's known for a long time, to — they want to dees- — or that he expected a de-escalation by yesterday, and Netanyahu just ignoring him?

    MS. PSAKI: Well, first of all, I would say that we are continuing to work toward that, and that we have — believe that they are in a position to start winding their operations down.

    And certainly, that is what we've been conveying and that is what we expect to happen in short order.

    Q:  So, last one: The President says that foreign policy is something he has done his entire life.

    MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.

    Q:  Is it working?

    MS. PSAKI: I would say that you ca- — if you look at the fact that the American co- — the global community believes that America is back, has a seat at the table; that we're going to continue to lead in the efforts to get the climate crisis under control; to lead in the efforts in engagement around the world, certainly bringing about an end to this conflict, but also moving toward diplomacy in — as it relates to North Korea; and moving toward a place where the United States is — returns to the place of being a leader in global forum as we hope to be at NATO, I would say we're certainly working on changing the tide of the last four years.

    Go ahead.

    Q:  There are decidedly mixed signals coming out of both the Iranians and the Europeans on the chances of a nuclear deal being struck. Can you tell us who's right?

    MS. PSAKI: Oh, I don't know if I can — I don't know if I'm going to take — assess in that exact term, in that — in exact phrasing.

    But I will tell you this: We remain engaged as a party in these discussions. Obviously, our discussions, as you know from following this, are through indirect talks through the Europeans. We continue to believe that our efforts, as it relates to bringing an end — or preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, need to happen through diplomatic channels. And those talks and engagements are continuing.

    We always know — from having lived through these negotiations before — there will be bumpy roads, there will be different assessments, but we're continuing to work toward progress.

    Q:  Sure. On South Korea, the President is seeking to tap into the U.S. vaccine supply as part of his visit. How does the White House view such requests from advanced economies like South Korea? Is there a higher bar? Can you give us some color on that — on those requests —

    MS. PSAKI: Do you mean — just for clarification — so you mean the President of South Korea is looking to tap into —

    Q:  Correct.

    MS. PSAKI: — our vaccine supply.

    Q:  One hundred percent.

    MS. PSAKI: You know, I certainly — we certainly expect that the leaders will discuss ways the United States can support the South Koreans' fi- — South — support South Korea in its fight against COVID-19, as well as how we can work together to combat the pandemic around the world.

    And certainly, they will raise a range of issues. I know they've noted that this is one that they intend to raise, which is, hence, why you're asking me about it.

    I will say that, as it relates to the vaccine supply that we've announced, we are going to be sharing with the world, we will look at that, and we will make decisions — which are still ongoing — with a couple of criteria in mind: how to do it equitably, how to ensure we're reaching parts of the world that need help the most, how to do it in a way that's fair and has a regional balance.

    So I don't expect that assessment to be made in advance of tomorrow. But certainly, we welcome the opportunity to discuss with them how we can work together to address the global pandemic.

    Q:  Sure. One more question on South Korea. John Kerry and others have called on South Korea to double its 2030 targets for carbon-cutting emissions, saying they won't go far enough to meet the 2050 goals. Should we expect any movement on that? Should we expect South Korea to come a little bit higher on those 23 — 2030 goals as part of these talks?

    MS. PSAKI: Well, we are working with South Korea in areas of mutual interest. And certainly, climate ambition, addressing the climate crisis that's facing the global community is part of that. Sectoral decarbonization and clean energy deployment, we expect will be a part of the discussion. And we are looking forward to enhancing technical exchanges on economy-wide decarbonization aligned with the global goal to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions.

    So I certainly expect that addressing the climate crisis — what we can do mutually, what steps they can take, perhaps what steps we can take — will be a part of the discussions. But, in terms of what the outcome of it will be tomorrow, I'm not in a position to get ahead of that.

    [ ... ]

    Read the full trancsript HERE.

You can visit a collection of all White House posts by clicking HERE.

Go Back

Back to Top