James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
2:00 P.M. EST
MS. PSAKI: Hi, everyone.
Q Happy Friday.
MS. PSAKI: Happy Friday. So, we are joined by our National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, today. He will give a brief update and then take some questions from all of you.
And with that, I will turn it over to Jake.
MR. SULLIVAN: Good afternoon. Thanks, everybody, for giving me the opportunity to be here. I’d like to make a few comments on the situation in Russia and Ukraine, and then I’d be happy to take your questions.
We continue to see signs of Russian escalation, including new forces arriving at the Ukrainian border.
As we’ve said before, we are in the window when an invasion could begin at any time should Vladimir Putin decide to order it. I will not comment on the details of our intelligence information. But I do want to be clear: It could begin during the Olympics, despite a lot of speculation that it would only happen after the Olympics.
As we’ve said before, we are ready either way. We are ready to continue results-oriented diplomacy that addresses the security concerns of the United States, Russia, and Europe consistent with our values and the principle of reciprocity.
We have continued to make that clear to Russia in close coordination with our European allies and partners.
We are also ready to respond decisively, alongside those allies and partners, should Russia choose to take military action. Our response would include severe economic sanctions, with similar packages imposed by the European Union, the United Kingdom, Canada, and other countries. It would also include changes to NATO and American force posture along the eastern flank of NATO. And it would include continued support to Ukraine.
The President held a secure video conf- — conference today with key allies and partners to coordinate our approach to this crisis. The participants were the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, Poland, Romania, the Secretary General of NATO, and the presidents of the European Union.
We have achieved a remarkable level of unity and common purpose — from the broad strategy, down to technical details.
If Russia proceeds, its long-term power and influence will be diminished, not enhanced, by an invasion. It will face a more determined transatlantic community. It will have to make more concessions to China. It will face massive pressure on its economy and export controls that will erode its defense industrial base. And it will face a wave of condemnation from around the world.
If, on the other hand, Russia truly seeks a diplomatic outcome, it should not only say so, it should pursue that diplomatic outcome.
We are prepared to do that. We have put concrete proposals on the table. They are now out there for the world to see. We’re prepared to engage on them and to discuss the principles and parameters of European security with our European partners and with Russia.
Whatever happens next, the West is more united than it’s been in years. NATO has been strengthened. The Alliance is more cohesive, more purposeful, more dynamic than at in any time in recent memory.
In terms of immediate next steps, President Biden and his team will remain in close contact with our allies and partners to coordinate both on the potential for diplomacy and on any response that is necessary should Putin decide to order military action.
We are continuing to reduce the size of our embassy footprint in Kyiv.
And I want to take a moment to echo what both President Biden and Secretary Blinken have already said: We encourage all American citizens who remain in Ukraine to depart immediately.
We want to be crystal-clear on this point: Any American in Ukraine should leave as soon as possible, and in any event, in the next 24 to 48 hours.
We obviously cannot predict the future. We don’t know exactly what is going to happen. But the risk is now high enough and the threat is now immediate enough that this is what prudence demands.
If you stay, you are assuming risk with no guarantee that there will be any other opportunity to leave and no prospect of a U.S. military evacuation in the event of a Russian invasion.
If a Russian attack on Ukraine proceeds, it is likely to begin with aerial bombing and missile attacks that could, obviously, kill civilians without regard to their nationality. A subsequent ground invasion would involve the onslaught of a massive force.
With virtually no notice, communications to arrange a departure could be severed and commercial transit halted. No one would be able to count on air or rail or road departures once military action got underway.
Now, again, I’m not standing here and saying what is going to happen or not happen. I’m only standing here to say that the risk is now high enough and the threat is immediate enough that prudence demands that is the time to leave now while commercial options and commercial rail and air service exist, while the roads are open.
The President will not be putting the lives of our men and women in uniform at risk by sending them into a warzone to rescue people who could have left now but chose not to. So, we are asking people to make the responsible choice.
With that, I’m happy to take your questions.
MR. SULLIVAN: Yeah.
Q Thanks, Jake. I know you don’t want to get into the intelligence, but can you give us any sense what has changed over the past 24 or 48 hours to lead to your new level of concern?
MR. SULLIVAN: Well, first, I would say: When I appeared on the Sunday shows last weekend, I made the point that we were in the window, that Russian military action could begin any day now. And that remains true. It could begin any day now. And it could occur before the Olympics have ended.
I’m not going to get into intelligence information. But if you look at the disposition of forces in both Belarus and in Russia — on the other side of the Ukrainian border, from the north, from the east — the Russians are in a position to be able to mount a major military action in Ukraine any day now. And for that reason, we believe that it is important for us to communicate to our allies and partners, to the Ukrainians, and to the American citizens who are still there.
I want to be crystal-clear though: We are not saying that a decision has been taken — a final decision has been taken by President Putin. What we are saying is that we have a sufficient level of concern, based on what we are seeing on the ground and what our intelligence analysts have picked up, that we are sending this clear message. And it remains a message that we have now been sending for some time. And it is — yes, it is an urgent message because we are in an urgent situation.
Q But just to clarify: So you now believe that Russia has all the forces it needs to mount a full-scale invasion of Ukraine?
MR. SULLIVAN: What I’m saying is that Russia has all the forces it needs to conduct a major military action. I’m not sure exactly what you mean by, quote, “full-scale invasion,” but Russia could choose, in very short order, to commence a major military action against Ukraine.
Q Has NATO told the President that it will call up the NATO Response Force of Americans who have been put on that short leash? And is the President prepared to send additional unilateral forces to our partners in the border region of Ukraine?
And is it your judgment and the judgment of U.S. intelligence and the U.S. government that Putin is behaving as a rational actor in his judgments at this point?
MR. SULLIVAN: So, on the question of the President authorizing more unilateral U.S. forces to Europe: He’s been clear all along that he is open to doing so as circumstances warrant.
But I want to be very clear about something: These deployments of U.S. service members to Poland, to Romania, to Germany — these are not soldiers who are being sent to go fight Russia in Ukraine. They are not going to war in Ukraine. They are not going to war with Russia. They’re going to defend NATO territory, consistent with our Article 5 obligation. They are defensive deployments. They are non-escalatory. They are meant to reinforce, reassure, and deter aggression against NATO territory.
In terms of the U.S. forces that have been put on heightened readiness to be deployed in the event of a NATO decision to deploy them: The President had the chance, as part of the discussion today, to hear from the Secretary General. No decisions have been taken in that regard, but those forces standby should a decision be taken by the North Atlantic Council to call up the NATO Response Force and a request comes in for American forces to be a part of that.
Finally, I can’t get inside the head of President Putin. I’m not going to speculate as to his motivations, his intentions, or, at this point, his decisions. All I will say is that we are ready either way.
If President Putin wants to engage in diplomacy, we are prepared to engage in diplomacy. We would like to find a diplomatic path forward, and we’ve sketched out the parameters and principles for that.
If President Putin chooses to move forward, we will work in lockstep with our allies and partners to respond decisively.
Q Thanks, Jake. It sounds like you’re saying that the assessment previously — that Putin has not yet made a decision — still stands. So, I guess based on that, is it your estimate that it’s more likely that an invasion could happen now than previously believed?
MR. SULLIVAN: Look, it’s hard to assign percentage probabilities to any of this. We have to think about the range of scenarios that we confront, and it’s our job to be ready for all of them.
So, what I will say is that the way that he has built up his forces and put them in place, along with the other indicators that we have collected through intelligence, makes it clear to us that there is a very distinct possibility that Russia will choose to act militarily, and there is reason to believe that that could happen on a reasonably swift timeframe.
Now, we can’t pinpoint the day at this point, and we can’t pinpoint the hour, but what we can say is that there is a credible prospect that a Russian military action would take place even before the end of the Olympics.
Q In the warning that you just delivered to Americans who are in Ukraine, saying that they should get out now while they still can, do you have a picture of how many Americans right now are in Ukraine?
MR. SULLIVAN: I would refer you to the State Department for the specifics on this because —
Q They said they don’t know.
MR. SULLIVAN: — I don’t want to do it off the top of my head. There is basically two categories: There are those who have registered with the embassy and those who have not registered with the embassy. In the first category, obviously, they have a number, although some of those folks have already left and didn’t deregister. In the second category, we don’t know because, of course, no American is obligated or required.
So, you can’t fix a perfect number. But they’re the ones who are best positioned to be able to explain what our current picture is of American citizens in Ukraine.
What I can do is stand before the world media and send a very clear message to all Americans. And to any American who’s in Ukraine right now who needs help — needs financial help or needs logistical help to take advantage of a commercial option to get out: Please call the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv because we stand ready to provide that help.
Q Thanks, Jake. I got two quick questions. One, are you looking at this being some kind of attack on Kyiv, on the Donbas, on another region? Do you have any sense of that?
And then, what is the level of confidence that the intelligence community has in what they’re hearing about this plan, especially about the potential for it to come before the end of the Olympics?
MR. SULLIVAN: When you say — I’m sorry, can you repeat the second question?
Q Just around the confidence that the intelligence world has around whether this will happen before the Olympics.
MR. SULLIVAN: The intelligence community has sufficient confidence that I can stand before you today and say what I have said, which is that there is a distinct possibility that Vladimir Putin would order a military action and invasion of Ukraine in this window, in this time period, and that could include the time period before February 20th, before the Beijing Olympics have been completed.
And so, they believe that that — everything I have just said is well-grounded in both what they are seeing on the ground and what they are picking up through all of their various sources.
Now, to your question about what type of action it would be: We’ve been clear that it could take a range of different forms. But I want to be equally clear that one of those forms is a rapid assault on the city of Kyiv. That is a possible line of attack, course of action that the Russian forces could choose to take. They could also choose to move in other parts of Ukraine as well.
The last point that I would make — and I know this has been the subject of a fair amount of back-and-forth between the administration and the press over the course of the past week: We are firmly convinced that the Russians, should they decide to move forward with an invasion, are looking hard at the creation of a pretext — a false-flag operation — something that they generate and try to blame on the Ukrainians as a trigger for military action.
And we are calling that out publicly because we do believe that if Russia chooses to do that, they should be held to account; the world should not believe that a false-flag operation that they conducted is a legitimate casus belli for going into Ukraine.
Q Thanks. Thanks, Jake. You mentioned that you do not want to say that Putin has made a decision. But can — does the United States believe that the President — pardon me, that President Putin has made a decision? Because PBS NewsHour just reported a little bit ago that the United States does believe that Putin has made a decision and has also communicated that decision to the Russian military. Is that accurate?
MR. SULLIVAN: The report that you just referenced, which I have not seen yet, it does not accurately capture what the U.S. government’s view is today.
Our view is that we do not believe he has made any kind of final decision — or we don’t know that he has made any final decision. And we have not communicated that to anybody.
Q To follow up on that — it’s my colleague, Nick Schifrin, who’s doing that reporting. And he’s citing three Western and defense officials who say the U.S. does believe that Putin has made up his mind, has communicated that to the military, and that they’ve been shown intelligence on that. You’re saying that’s not true?
MR. SULLIVAN: What we have communicated to our Allies and partners — all 30 Allies in NATO, plus a range of other partners — our latest intelligence information. And it does not include a statement that Vladimir Putin has definitively given an order to proceed with the invasion.
Q You haven’t been shown anything from your NATO Allies either?
MR. SULLIVAN: I’m sorry?
Q You haven’t been shown any evidence or briefed on intelligence that speaks to that from NATO Allies?
MR. SULLIVAN: We have not seen anything come to us that says a final decision has been taken, the go order has been given.
What I will say — and the reason I’m up here talking in the way I am to American citizens, the reason we are taking the various actions we’re taking, the reason the President convened our closest Allies and partners from across the NATO Alliance and the European Union is because we believe he very well may give the final go order. That is a very distinct possibility. but we are not standing here before you today and say, “The order has been given. The invasion is on.”
It may well happen. It may well happen soon. But we are not saying — I think the way that you’ve just characterized it — and I have not seen this PBS report yet, but as you’ve characterized it, that does not capture the communication that we are making to our NATO Allies, nor what we understand internally.
Q Jake —
MR. SULLIVAN: Yes.
Q Given the risk that you’ve laid out, the fact that you’re not 100 percent certain that Putin has made a decision yet — we have seen other world leaders meeting with Putin. Has there been any more thought to President Biden engaging with him directly?
MR. SULLIVAN: I would expect that President Biden will engage by telephone with President Putin, but I don’t have anything to announce for you on that right now.
Q And just — because this is getting so close now and the concern that you’re weighing towards the American people, is there a need to provide some underlying evidence of just what you’re seeing that shows Americans — this is a country that went through Iraq — and concerns about what the intelligence is showing? Does the administration see a need to just provide underlying intelligence?
MR. SULLIVAN: Well, let me just start with a fundamental distinction between the situation in Iraq and the situation today.
In the situation in Iraq, intelligence was used and deployed from this very podium to start a war. We are trying to stop a war, to prevent a war, to avert a war. And all we can do is come here before you in good faith and share everything that we know to the best of our ability, while protecting sources and methods so we continue to get the access to intelligence we need.
But there’s another big difference between what happened in 2003 and what’s happening in 2022, and that is — in that case, it was information about intentions, about a hidden thing, stuff that couldn’t be seen. Today, we are talking about more than 100,000 Russian troops amassed along the Ukrainian border, with every capacity out there in the open for people to see. It’s all over social media. It’s all over your news sites.
So you can believe your own eyes that the Russians have put in place the capabilities to conduct a massive military operation against Ukraine, should they choose to do so.
And then, finally, I would just say: If you look at the course of the past few months, as we have said, we predict there will be a buildup of this kind. Our information is telling us that the Russians are likely to move in these ways. Thus far — in November, in December, in January — that has borne out.
So I think when you take all of that together, we put forward a credible case. But it’s not my job to stand up here and convince any of you of anything. It’s your job to ask the questions and do what you can do. All I can do is, based on the best information I have available — that I can share, that the President can share, the Secretary of State can share — put that out there in close consultation with our Allies and partners. That’s what we’ve done.
Q At what point, Jake, would you expect the country would hear directly from the President on this and the risk to world order of Vladimir Putin rolling tanks or bombing a foreign capital?
MR. SULLIVAN: Well, first, the country has heard from the President directly on the Ukraine subject many times over the course of the past three months, and they will continue to.
So it’s not like President Biden has been silent on this question. He has been very vocal on it. He has spoken to every aspect of it. He has read out his calls on it — with world leaders, his meetings, et cetera. But he will continue to speak directly to the American people as we watch the situation unfold.
Q But no plans for any kind of address to the nation from the Oval Office? No kind of speech specifically about this issue with prepared remarks?
MR. SULLIVAN: I don’t have anything to announce in terms of a speech or prepared remarks at this point.
Q Thank you so much. So, you and other administration officials have been quite transparent in describing the strategy towards Ukraine to us, the press. Do you believe that that strategy is actually helping to reduce tensions? Or do you feel that that may be part of the reason why it’s boxing Vladimir Putin even further in airing your strategy so publicly like this?
MR. SULLIVAN: So, only one country has amassed more than 100,000 troops on the border of another country with all of the capabilities and capacities to conduct an invasion. That country is Russia; that country is not the United States.
So, the fastest way to deescalate this situation for all involved would be for Russia to choose to deescalate its mobilization of forces.
The United States is responding to the active, sustained buildup of military pressure on Ukraine. We are doing so in lockstep with Allies and partners. And at the same time, we have been extremely forward-leaning in our willingness to engage in diplomacy to address the mutual concerns of Russia, the Europeans, and the United States when it comes to European security.
Q Thank you so much, Jake. Two questions for you. Next week, the Vice President is going to Germany for the Munich Security Conference. Why isn’t President Biden going? Wouldn’t it be a good time to engage with his allies in person? Is he doing enough to avoid a war?
And the second question: Next week, the Brazilian president is going to Russia to meet with Vladimir Putin. How does the White House see this visit and the timing of this visit? And do you guys expect anything from the Brazilian president during his meeting?
MR. SULLIVAN: If you simply looked at a catalog of the engagements the President has had with his allies and partners, including the engagement he had today, that catalog alone would be a rebuttal to the proposition that he’s not doing enough to rally the West and to offer Russia a credible diplomatic path out of this. That’s included phone calls. It’s included meetings. It’s included video conferences. It’s included just countless sustained effort over the course of months, and we will continue with that.
And we’re also very proud to have the Vice President representing the American delegation at the Munich Security Conference.
Q But what about the question about the Brazilian president meeting with Vladimir Putin next week?
MR. SULLIVAN: The Brazilian president is obviously, you know, free to conduct his own diplomacy with other countries, including with Russia, and I really don’t have anything else to add on it today.
Q Thanks, Jake. You mentioned the possibility of an assault on Kyiv, specifically. What is your sense, if Putin does decide to invade Ukraine: Is he looking to invade and take over the entire country or a part, like Crimea in 2014?
And just one follow-up as well. How do you explain the disconnect between the rhetoric that we’re hearing — or the warnings we’re hearing from you and other Western countries and what seems to be a playing down of the risk from Ukraine itself?
MR. SULLIVAN: So, I won’t speak to the decisions that the Ukrainian leadership is making in terms of how they’re communicating on this issue. I will only say that we are coordinating extremely closely with them. President Biden has spoken multiple times with President Zelenskyy. I speak nearly every day with senior aides to President Zelenskyy. Secretary Blinken is deeply engaged with both his counterpart and the President in Kyiv.
So we will continue that level of coordination, sharing of information across every dimension of our government. But I can’t characterize why it is that they’re choosing their course.
I can only say that, based on the information we have, we’ve chosen to be as transparent as possible with what we see as a significant risk of military action in Ukraine.
And as to your other question, I can’t obviously predict what the exact shape or scope of the military action will be. As I said before, it could take a variety of forms. It could be more limited. It could be more expansive. But there are very real possibilities that it will involve the seizure of a significant amount of territory in Ukraine and the seizure of major cities, including the capital city.
MR. SULLIVAN: Yeah.
MS. PSAKI: I’m going to let Aamer go.
Q The President’s departure is at 2:25.
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q And so, if people want to leave, they need to leave now?
MS. PSAKI: If people want to leave, they should leave now. We’ll proceed, but —
Q Jake is not one of those people. (Laughter.)
Q Jake, you’re good.
MS. PSAKI: People that are going to the departure for the President, you should depart now. But Jake will —
Q Jake, real quick. Do you think that — do you —
Q Jake? Jake? Thank you.
Q — do think that Russia —
MR. SULLIVAN: Sorry, I’m just going to give people a moment to, I guess, if they have to.
Q Yeah, the pool has to depart.
MR. SULLIVAN: Okay. Yeah, all right.
Q Thank you, Jake. I’ll wait until people get out.
MR. SULLIVAN: Okay.
(Members of the press depart the briefing room.)
Q Thank you for taking my question. Did the U.S. wait too long to arm Ukraine, especially with respect to weapons that could defend against an airstrike like you laid out? Did they wait too long to move U.S. forces to NATO countries? And does the President still view the idea of pre-invasion sanctions as a stupid question?
MR. SULLIVAN: So, as to the question of waiting too long on arming the Ukrainians: Over the course of the past year, the United States has provided more than half a billion dollars — $650 million — in defensive assistance to Ukraine. That’s more than has ever been given by any President in any year at any time. And that began more than a year ago under the presidency of Joe Biden.
Second, we have made good on the commitment to get those deliveries into the hands of the Ukrainian armed forces. Those are defensive weapons intended to defend Ukraine against aggression. They are not meant for offensive purposes against any country.
So we feel very proud of the contribution and commitment that we have had to helping the Ukrainians be able to defend themselves.
With respect to the question of the deployment of forces to defend NATO territory: Our view is that, in addition to the 80,000 strong U.S. force presence in Europe today, that — showing in Poland and Romania, in particular, but also through the deployment of air squadrons to the Baltics, as we had a few days ago, and other significant moves we’ve made — a carrier in the Mediterranean that, for the first time in 30 years, actually flew the NATO flag as well as the American flag — that we have been forward-leaning and robust in defending and reassuring our NATO Allies.
And you don’t have to take it from me. You can talk to the President of Poland or the President of Romania about the satisfaction they have with the fact that the United States has stepped up alongside other NATO Allies to deter and reassure and reinforce our presence along the eastern flank.
Q What about the pre-invasion sanctions? You didn’t answer that part of my question. Is the President looking at sanctions ahead of an invasion any differently than he has been up until this point, given the escalation that we’re seeing from Russia?
MR. SULLIVAN: The President believes that sanctions are intended to deter. And in order for them to work — to deter, they have to be set up in a way where if Putin moves, then the costs are imposed. We believe that that is the right logic, both on its own merits, but equally importantly, we believe that the most important fundamental for anything that unfolds in this crisis, whether through diplomacy or as a result of military action, is that the West be strong, be united, and be determined to operate with common purpose.
And he believes that the sanctions approach he’s taken in lockstep with our European partners, the Canadians, and others puts us in a position for the West to be able to respond to this contingency in the most united and purposeful way possible. That will pay dividends for us in this circumstance, but it will also pay enormous strategic dividends for the United States in the years and decades ahead.
Q Thanks, Jake. Our understanding is that there was a sudden meeting last night in the Situation Room to talk about Russia. And now you and Secretary Blinken are obviously using sharper rhetoric about the timing of the invasion. I know you don’t want to get into specific intelligence, but is there something that prompted the meeting last night and that has changed the administration’s assessment overnight?
MR. SULLIVAN: So I’m not going to speak to internal deliberations, and I’m not going to get into the specifics of intelligence information.
What I am going to say is that for some time now, including out of my own very mouth, we have been talking about how we had entered the window where any day now a military action could be taken. That was the formula I was using several days ago.
Now, as we gain more information, our view that military action could occur any day now and could occur before the end of the Olympics is only growing in terms of its robustness — so that I can stand here and say that is a very, very distinct possibility.
But I just want to say two things. First, we can’t predict the exact determination that Putin would make if and when he makes a determination. So all we can say is that the strong possibility of action, the distinct possibility of action in a relatively near-term timeframe — including along the timeframe that I’ve laid out, that Secretary Blinken talked about — that is backed up by our view of what’s happening on the ground, and it’s backed up by information that we continue to acquire day by day, including over the course of the past few days.
All right, yes. Yes.
Q Do you believe that —
Q Jake, why would — why would — can you delve into a little bit more: Why would Russia risk provoking China with an action during the Olympics? And secondly, can you just speak more broadly to the China-Russia — what looks like an emerging alliance here on certain issues? And how much does that concern you?
MR. SULLIVAN: So I’d say three things about this. First, you know, Russia’s calculus vis-à-vis China — whether they’re going to make Beijing upset or not — you know, that’s kind of between Russia and China. And Putin will obviously have to decide what he wants to do on that front.
China also has its own decisions to make. And to the extent that they are giving a wink and a nod or a green light to a Russian invasion of Ukraine for no justified reason — I believe that China will ultimately come to suffer consequences as a result of that in the eyes of the rest of the world, most notably in the eyes of our European partners and allies.
And then, finally, I would just say that we do not believe that China can compensate Russia for the economic losses that would be sustained in the event of an invasion, due to sanctions and export controls and the like.
Just one more thing on the broader issue of China and Russia, because there was quite a bit of hype about the statement that they put out. And it was a notable statement that we have taken careful — a careful look at.
I’ve said this before, I want to say it again — and then I’ll leave because Jen is now standing up, and I think it’s — (laughter) — it’s well past my time to go: The United States, under the Biden administration, has confidence in us and in the West. We are 50 percent-plus of global GDP. China and Russia are less than 20 percent. We have innovation. We have entrepreneurship. We have freedom.
And when you put all of that together, the tools and capacities that we can bring to bear — now that we are more united, more purposeful, more dynamic than we have been in a very long time — we are well situated to be able to deal with any threat or challenge that would be posed to us by any autocracy in the world, including the two that you just mentioned. So let me just leave it at that.
Thank you, guys.
Q You don’t think China can bail them out from sanctions, right, Jake?
MS. PSAKI: To be clear, you can come as long as you want. (Laughter.) I just don’t want to get in trouble with your team when we ask you to come back the next time.
Q Can we get a read on the pool situation?
MS. PSAKI: Absolutely. I apologize for the confusion. So he’s — the President is still in a meeting. Karine here is going to monitor when he gets out of the meeting, when you all need to depart. Aamer or others, if you want to come back. Sorry, we did not want you to miss the President’s departure, but we had a little miscommunication internally.
Q This is for the chopper? I just want to make sure.
MS. PSAKI: We — yes. And he is still meeting, so it will not leave without him. We have been assured of that.
Okay, I don’t have anything at the top. I know you’ve covered a lot of topics, but I know there’s a lot going on in the world, so why don’t we go to whatever else — or that — that you’d like to discuss.
Q Well, on that — if you could just stay on that — what should we expect this weekend? Things have obviously escalated or moved forward. Is the President going to be talking to European leaders? What should we expect this weekend as this moves forward?
MS. PSAKI: Sure. Well, as you know, the President just spoke with a number of his European counterparts, as well as Prime Minister Trudeau. I believe we put out — did we put out — have you seen a readout yet of our — of his call with Prime Minister Trudeau? If not, I will give it to you right now. Have you seen it yet in your inbox?
Q I don’t think.
MS. PSAKI: Okay, this is what happens when you don’t bring your phone out here. (Laughter.)
So here you go: Today — Prime Minister Trudeau was obviously a part of the planned meeting as well. He also had a separate meeting with him where he — they discussed the ongoing blockade of key bridges and crossings between the United States and Canada, including Detroit/Windsor, Sweetwater/Coutts, and Pembina/Emerson.
The two leaders agreed that the actions of the individuals who are obstructing travel and commerce between our two countries are having significant direct impacts on citizens’ lives and livelihoods.
The President expressed his concern that the United States — that United States companies and workers are experiencing serious effects, including slowdowns in production, shortened work hours, and plant closures. The Prime Minister promised quick action in enforcing the law. And the President thanked him for the steps he and other Canadian authorities are taking to restore the open passage of bridges to the United States.
In turn, the Prime Minister also thanked the President and his administration, the Governor of Michigan, and U.S. officials for all of the assistance that we have provided to resolve the disruption. And the two leaders agreed to stay in close touch.
In terms of this weekend — I just wanted you to have that component; another important thing happening right now. In terms of this weekend, as you know, the President will be in Camp — at Camp David, which is fully equipped to have engagements of all sorts, includings with his — including with his national security team or European counterparts.
We are making these decisions about who he’ll engage with on a day-by-day basis. We will keep you all abreast of that as we have done to date. But he is — he’ll be at Camp David, and I would expect that he’ll be engaged closely with his teams here, as well as his foreign counterparts.
Q And on Supreme Court.
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q When will President Biden meet with Senate Republicans on the Judiciary Committee? And also, just a point of clarification —
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q — from the interview with Lester Holt. About — I believe he said “about four people” that he’s doing the deep dive on. Three and a half, four and a half? (Laughter.) Where —
MS. PSAKI: There’s no three and a half people, Aamer.
Q If you could just offer — are we down to four finalists?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I’m not going to build on what the President said. It is natural that as this process has proceeded, that the list would become smaller. That’s a natural part of the process.
But again, as he said many times, he is looking at a range of qualified individuals, strong legal minds, individuals with strong credentials who have strong character and a dedication to the rule of law.
But in terms of the specific numbers: I understand your question. It’s natural to be growing smaller. But I don’t have any — anything to build on to what he said.
Q And as far as Senate Republicans?
MS. PSAKI: He will continue to consult closely with Democrats and Republicans. That will continue into next week. But I don’t have anything to preview for you at this point in time.
Q Thanks, Jen. The diplomats that are being moved out of the U.S. embassy in Ukraine, where are they going? Are they going to other countries? Are they being taken to safer locations within Ukraine? What can you tell us?
MS. PSAKI: It’s a great question. I’d really refer you to the State Department. Typically, when we reduce a presence at an embassy, that means they depart the country, but I can certainly check with them and get you more details on that. Typically, it means they would return to a home base.
Q And then, what’s the administration’s current assessment of Putin’s strategy in the Black Sea? Is it to cut off Ukraine’s naval access?
MS. PSAKI: In terms of the exercises?
MS. PSAKI: I mean, our assessment is that this is a part of ongoing escalatory actions, whether it’s military exercises or the buildup of more troops that we have seen at the border.
In terms of what it means and what he’s preparing for, I would point you to what our National Security Advisor just said, which is that, you know, we continue to watch closely, to assess. Our role here is to prepare for a range of — a range of steps he might take. But beyond that, I don’t have any prediction of what that means.
MS. PSAKI: Go ahead.
Q Thanks, Jen. Has the U.S. shared the latest intelligence with Ukraine? And do — does the U.S. feel that the Ukrainian government is properly preparing its citizens for the possibility of a war? Because it seems like they keep downplaying it.
MS. PSAKI: Well, I’m not going to speak for how the Ukrainian officials, leaders speak or engage with their citizens. But we do engage very closely with them — sharing of information — as we do with our European counterparts. And that has been the case at every point in this process.
Q And is the State Department doing anything right now to help Americans get out of Ukraine, or just warning them to get out on their own?
MS. PSAKI: Well, we have been warning for several weeks now, if not longer, that American citizens should depart. And I think you heard our National Security Advisor give a pretty stark warning of what would happen — on purpose — what would happen if Russia were to invade, and the difficulty of not just being in the middle of a military zone, but also the difficulty of departing or getting out, and the fact that departure — means of departure could be cut off. And that was, we feel, important for American citizens in Ukraine to understand.
We have been conveying that if American citizens don’t have the means to depart, that we would provide assistance for those purposes. That has been the case for several weeks now.
Q If we don’t know if Putin has made up his mind, why are we hearing this warning from Jake Sullivan that Americans should get out, ideally within the next 24 to 48 hours specifically? I don’t believe we’ve heard that window from him before.
MS. PSAKI: Because I — we recognize that if President Putin were to decide to invade, that this would make it a very difficult circumstance on the ground for American citizens. We don’t have an assessment, as he — as you heard him say, of him making that decision. But he could make that decision at any point. And we want to be very clear and direct with American citizens about the risk that that would pose to them, that the risk — the risks that would be posed to any civilian if they remain in the country.
Q And this is now the second evacuation of Americans in the course of —
MS. PSAKI: It’s not actually an “evacuation.” To be clear, American citizens can depart Ukraine. There are means of departing Ukraine. This is not a country where we are at war, where we have tens of thousands of troops who have fou- — been fighting a war for 20 years. So, it’s incredibly different.
Q Correct. You are correct in that. But you’re — it’s the second time we’ve urged American citizens to get out of a country.
MS. PSAKI: Actually, we’ve urged American citizens to depart a number of times. And that is —
Q Well, I’m referring to Afghanistan —
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think this —
Q — because the question is —
MS. PSAKI: — but let — let me finish here, because I think it’s important for people to understand: We urged American citizens to depart Kazakhstan. We urged American citizens to depart Ethiopia. This is a responsibility that the State Department and our diplomat — diplomats who are serving there and serving around the world take on to keep American citizens safe.
And it may — it may not be front and center on the news in the United States, but those are conflict areas and zones where we are constantly monitoring.
Q But these are the two major events that have happened under this administration. And what does the —
MS. PSAKI: I would say the —
Q — what do you guys say —
MS. PSAKI: — people in Ethiopia would differ with that, as would the people in Kazakhstan or other parts of the world where there has been — they have been under dangerous circumstances and they look to the United States to provide up-to-date information of their safety and security in the country.
Q The President has frequently talked about getting out of Afghanistan as a major event. It has impacted his polling. This isn’t a current event that is underway. The question is: What does the administration say to critics who are looking at these two events and questioning his administration’s foreign policy approach?
MS. PSAKI: Who is questioning us? Give me names.
Q Plenty of Republicans.
MS. PSAKI: Like who?
Q I could name off any number of Republicans. I think that —
MS. PSAKI: I’d love to know a name.
Q Goodness. Mitch McConnell.
MS. PSAKI: Okay. Well, here’s what I would say to Mr. McConnell: The President ended a 20-year war in Afghanistan — a war that had cost us thousands of American lives, billions — trillions of dollars, and was a failed enterprise after 20 years. He was the first President to do that after many of his predecessors failed to take exactly that step. We knew it would be complicated. We knew it would be challenging. He had the courage to get our troops out of there and end a 20-year war.
This is entirely different because we are not ending a 20-year war. We are trying to prevent war here. We are trying to keep American citizens safe in Ukraine by encouraging them to depart, by providing them information about what the security circumstances are on the ground.
And I think it’s important for the American public to understand the significant differences between these different scenarios.
Q Back to the Supreme Court for a moment. Can you rule out that the President would be meeting with any of his candidates this weekend at Camp David?
MS. PSAKI: Here’s what I can tell you: There’s not plans for that. But I can tell you that it could be as early as next week. I would not echo reporting that it is definitely next week.
Q Given the heightened state of concern about Russia and Ukraine, does that at all affect the timetable for the President on his Supreme Court pick, simply because of the time and attention he would need to devote to that?
And because Senate Democrats were very upfront saying they were encouraging the President to move quickly, do you sense that there is an increase in the tempo for the President to move on his selection process?
MS. PSAKI: We remain on track for the President to make a decision and an announcement on who he’s going to nominate to the Supreme Court this month — in the next few weeks. That was his intention from the beginning, remains his intention now. And he will continue to read a range of cases, study the materials about a range of candidates. That has not been changed by whatever decision President Putin makes.
Q Jen, in the NBC interview, the President said he rejected the findings of the after-action report about the State Department and the military response to Afghanistan. Does that mean the President has ruled out any action that might be viewed or read as accountability?
MS. PSAKI: Well, Steve, I think it’s important for people to understand there was no “after-action report.” The Washington Post report was not an after-action report; it was based on a range of FOIA documents — which is their right to do — based on individual interviews of members of the military, including many who were not a part of policymaking decisions in the Situation Room — some were, many were not. But that is not an after-action report.
There was also a report from CENTCOM on the attack at Abbey Gate, on Friday, which the President certainly stands by. And that was important work — vital work, a formal report and review that was done internally.
So, I just want to separate the two for people’s understanding.
What the President was rejecting is the notion that there weren’t a range of preparations done in advance over the course of last spring and last summer.
And it’s important to remember that we made the decision — he made the decision to end a 20-year war. He came into office without any plan — well, there was a — there was a deadline, but without any plan for departure or for helping the — the Afghans who had served by our side for 20 years. We put in place — and this is in the same documents — beginning last spring, a plan — a range of contingency plans should we need to bring American citizens out or bring Afghans out.
We put in place — we positioned military troops on the ground, working with Department of Defense, back in early summer, to ensure that we could execute on that plan.
And in every single meeting last August, the President asked the team and often ended the meeting with this: “Is there anything you need to implement what your plans are? Is there anything you need on the ground?” He always ended with that.
I’d also note that he always raised the question of whether we needed to evacuate our embassy and people — our Americans who were serving in our embassy there. That decision was always posed to the group at the table. That decision was not made until August 12th.
So, reporting that suggests otherwise is incorrect. That is the — that is the state of play that happened last summer.
Q A question on inflation, since this is the first time we’ve —
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q — had a briefing since those numbers came out. The President has said the administration is going to continue to be all on deck to try and bring prices back down. Can you give us a sense of what that really looks like? Because, you know, you’ve pointed many times to parts of the Build Back Better agenda. That remains stalled. In fact, one of Senator Manchin’s big objections to the bill was the high rate of inflation. So, if the Build Back Better plan sort of remains at this impasse, what’s plan B to try and bring down some of these costs?
MS. PSAKI: Well, there’s a couple steps that the President is very focused on as it relates to addressing inflation. One, I would note that economists and the Federal Reserve still predict that inflation will come down — will moderate over the course of the year.
And the President has also said that he supports the steps that the Federal Reserve — an independent body — has announced about recalibrating over the course of the coming months. And he’s obviously nominated a number of individuals to fill the board, which is an essential part of addressing this.
But I would also note: Beyond that, how the President really looks at this is how you’re addressing core costs for the American people.
So, you referenced the Build Back Better plan. First, we believe there’s a path forward, and the President is going to continue to fight for it. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have gone to Virginia earlier this week and talked about negotiating the price of prescription drugs.
So, his view is that in order to address costs that have been affecting inflation but also affecting families for many decades — the cost of prescription drugs, the cost of child care — we need to move that forward.
But it’s not just that. We also need to address supply chains in the short term at the ports, rebuild our manufacturing infrastructure, make sure that we are implementing the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, and continuing to press for the competitiveness legislation that will help ensure we have funding for chips for manufacturing of cars here in the United States.
And you’ve also heard him talk a fair amount about promoting competition. And that addresses issues — like we’ve seen price increases in the meat industry and others. And that will help bring down costs for Americans.
So, there is certainly a significant, an important, a vital role that the Federal Reserve plays. They are independent. He wants that board to be completely filled.
But there are a number of other steps we are working to take to lower costs for the American people.
Q And just one follow-up on the question about the embassy in Kyiv.
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q You said that you’re continuing to reduce the size of the embassy. To be clear, you’re not talking about closing the embassy just yet, so what size are we talking about? How much of a reduction here?
MS. PSAKI: I would really — I can check with the State Department. It’s a good question. But they really have purview over those numbers. And that’s where we are in the process at this point in time.
Q Jen, what does the White House make of the reporting that former President Trump is still in touch with Kim Jong Un?
MS. PSAKI: Well, former President Trump is not the President. And we — President Biden is the President, and he is the one who conducts diplomacy on behalf of the United States.
Q And on one other topic: I see that the President spoke with the Prime Minister Trudeau —
MS. PSAKI: Yes.
Q — about the blockade. What is the White House doing to help, sort of, alleviate that — the trade issues that he raised in that call?
And more broadly, is the White House or is the government preparing for any kind of similar types of demonstrations here?
MS. PSAKI: Yeah, so two different questions.
MS. PSAKI: So let me try to answer them both. So, we’ve continued — obviously, the President speaking with Prime Minister Trudeau about this is part of our effort. But our team — Liz Sherwood — Dr. Liz Sherwood-Randall, other members of our administration have been in close touch with their Canadian counterparts over the last few days about how to address this blockade and the challenge it is posing to the supply chain.
I mean, fundamentally, how we view this is that the impact of these protests, while we certainly believe in peaceful protest, is impacting — has the potential to impact — and this is why we are very focused on this — communities; workers being able to travel back and forth across the bridge who are going to work, who may work on different sides of the border; the ability to get food on the table to American families, to get auto parts to manufacturers who are trying to make vehicles.
So, this is — whatever their intended, stated purpose is, this effort is going to have — has the potential to have a huge impact on workers and the American public.
But to go back to your question: We are in very close contact with Canadian officials. We’ve also taken steps to help detour routes so that a number of these trucks can move in different routes and be able to cross the border.
So, for example, while the Windsor-Detroit Ambassador Bridge continues to remain closed, Port Huron is fully operational. Customs and Border Patrol is rerouting traffic to Port Huron where all nine commercial lanes are open. The Detroit-Windsor Tunnel is open, which is a way that individuals who are trying to work on different sides of the border are able to travel as well.
And Secretary Mayorkas has also spoken with local officials in affected and potentially affected states, as has — Secretary Buttigieg has been deeply involved with this as well.
On your second question: You know, we are, of course — on reports of a similar “Freedom Convoy” — I think you’re asking about, right? — in D.C. — event in D.C. in early March, the Department of Homeland Security, obviously, put out a statement on this the other night. They’re aware of these reports. They’re taking all necessary steps to ensure that the convoy does not disrupt lawful trade and transportation or interfere with federal government and law enforcement operations.
On reports that this convoy is causing disruptions at the Super Bowl, the Department of Homeland Security — or
could, I should say — the Department of Homeland Security is surging additional staff to its incident command post. There’s strong cooperation with the California Highway Patrol, the Los Angeles Police Department, and state and local authorities.
And the Department already has a lead field coordinator and emergency operations center in place, as would be standard protocol, given this is a large event — the Super Bowl. And they will build on that. There’s already 500 DHS personnel providing extensive air and maritime security resources.
So, we are in both close touch with our Canadian counterparts, also with local officials through our Department of Homeland Security. Our Secretary of Transportation is also deeply involved in this. And we’re working to address this on all fronts.
Q Thanks, Jen. Just to follow up on Jeff’s question — is it still accurate to say that the Biden administration has not heard back from the North Koreans, despite the outreach?
MS. PSAKI: Correct.
Q Okay. And on the conversation that President Biden is expected to have with President Putin, is that happening today?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have anything to predict in terms of the timing.
Okay. And I think we have to wrap it up. You want to do the last one, quick?
Q Yeah, Jen. Real quick. Well, can I ask you on two things, first of all?
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q First of all, following up on what you said earlier, confirming that interviews with Supreme Court candidates could begin as early as next week, does he have in mind how many he wants to interview? Is it just a few? You know, is there a number that he has in mind? And how long do you expect that process — the interview meeting process to go? Just next week or further?
MS. PSAKI: Well, what I can tell you is that the interview process for any president typically happens very late in the process. And in terms of a specific number, I’m just not going to get into that level of detail.
Q And then one more question — I’m asking for a colleague — regarding his position on the bankruptcy law for student loan debt. President Biden voted repeatedly as a senator to make it harder for student loan borrowers to erase their debts through bankruptcy, like other secured debts, such as credit cards.
Two years ago, as a presidential campaign [sic], he campaigned on overhauling the bankruptcy law to ease student debt, in addition to his pledge to forgive $10,000 per student in federal student loans. Why hasn’t he acted, to this point, on the bankruptcy law, in addition to the pledge on debt forgiveness?
MS. PSAKI: I’m happy to check on the status of that legislation. I don’t know where it is in the process. But what I could reiterate for you is that the President has forgiven $15 billion in student loans, benefiting more than 675,000 student loan borrowers since he took office.
No one has been required to pay a single dime in federal student loans, and he extended the hiatus of payment until May to give people some extra breathing room. I’ll check and see the status of that.
Q Pfizer pulling the application for the authorization for the vaccines for under five. Is there a White House reaction to that?
MS. PSAKI: I know they’re going to do a briefing — the FDA is. So, I will leave it to them to speak to their data.
2:53 P.M. EST
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism