Amid the constant buzzing of her cellphone on the podium, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki faced an onslaught of immigration questions on Monday from Fox News’s Peter Doocy and some liberal reporters about the Biden administration’s denial of the border crisis.
And in the case of Doocy’s colleagues, they brought the heat by grilling Psaki over the White House’s shameful defense of Governor Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) in refusing to call for his resignation and/or condemn his handling of nursing homes.
Doocy started with two questions about COVID workplace standards from OSHA, but then pivoted to the border with this basic but stinging question: “[D]oes FEMA's arrival at the border mean that the administration feels what is happening down at the border is a disaster?”
Psaki dismissed Doocy’s question (as well those asked by other reporters) because “I know that we always get into the fun of labels around here, but I would say our focus is on solutions” and the furthest she would go was call the situation “a big challenge” in which “the numbers are enormous.”
He followed up by wondering what part of FEMA’s mission statement would suggest that their involvement didn’t signal a crisis: “But FEMA, specifically, their ‘mission is helping people before, during and after disasters.’ We’ve heard you say that it's a problem, that it's a challenge. Is it now a disaster?”
A visibly peeved Psaki said she “appreciate[s] the opportunity” to answer his questions and that “I do like your mask, but I will say that FEMA is there to help ensure that the people who are at the border, who are coming across the border, have access to — can — to HHS and ORR shelters that we can swiftly place them with vetted families.”
Doocy later closed by noting that FEMA’s “plan for” migrants to “receive shelter and transfer” “for 90 days” would undercut the Biden administration’s message that “now is not the time to come.”
Instead of admitting that they have an open borders policy, Psaki said that’s not the case because while “it’s a complicated problem,” the policy remains the same that “now is not the time to come.”
A few minutes before, CNN’s Phil Mattingly also fired off another short but important question: “Given how fast-moving the situation has been, does the President believe his administration has a handle on what's happening at the Southern border right now?”
Like with Doocy, Psaki didn’t really answer Mattingly’s question. Instead, she went on a meandering statement that went for well over two minutes and said very little besides claiming they “certainly do” believe they have the situation under control though it’s been made more difficult because of the Trump administration’s supposed evils and incompetence.
Reuters’s Steve Holland continued the theme of brief yet stinging questions, inquiring about whether the Biden team views Mexico as having not “[done] enough to stem the flow of migrants.” In this case, Psaki was stumped other than to say they have had a litany of “diplomatic conversations.”
CBS’s Ed O’Keefe shrewdly asked softballs to Psaki about the importance of having President Biden, Vice President Harris, and their spouses fanning out across the country to sell the stimulus package, but then turned that on its head by wondering why Biden couldn’t also visit the border and why the federal government hasd’t allowed the public to see inside detention centers (click “expand”):
O’KEEFE: So while he does that, you know, there are a lot of Americans who see him going to take these trips this week to promote this popular law and think, “okay, but why can't he take time to go down to the border?” I know you said last week and you’ve said before it takes a lot of resources to get him there. It’s taking a lot of resources to get him to Pennsylvania and Georgia this week, the vice president out west. Why not take the time to schedule something to go there as well?
PSAKI: Well I would say that his focus is on developing solutions, pushing his team, encouraging his team to develop solutions that will expedite processing at the border, that will open more facilities that will ensure kids are treated with humanity and also treated safely and that's his focus. And so that's where he's putting his — his efforts on immigration.
O’KEEFE: And what is the status of allowing cameras into some of these facilities. We've been asking for weeks about whether or not the press will ever get a chance to see either the Border Patrol or the HHS facilities?
PSAKI: We continue to support transparency, and from here — from the White House and DHS oversees some of the facilities, HHS oversees some of the facilities. I know that they're working through how to provide access in a way that is — abides by COVID protocols and also protects the privacy of people who are being — who are staying in those facilities.
Globo News’s Raquel Krähenbühl tried towards the back end of the briefing to see if she could solicit a different answer, but to the surprise of no one here at NewsBusters, Psaki wouldn’t budge.
Even PBS’s Yamiche Alcindor tried to get in on the action and unsuccessfully pressed her luck, demanding to know why horrid conditions were “acceptable...given the fact that you said you — you were an administration that was going to be more humane” and then “[h]ow is the administration not stopping that today.”
As for Cuomo, the AP’s Zeke Miller, O’Keefe, and then The Washington Post’s Annie Linskey all brought up the embattled governor and how the White House had continued to stand by Cuomo and decline to call for his resignation.
Miller asked about “what message” had Biden “sen[t] by not calling” for Cuomo to leave and if Cuomo was “still welcome” to help chair and run the weekly call with governors.
Along with her usual talking points about Cuomo’s accusers, Psaki defended Cuomo’s participation in White House calls by arguing that they don’t want to see New Yorkers face penalties when it comes to COVID resources and vaccine distribution.
After O’Keefe wanted to know whether Biden or anyone at the White House had spoken with Cuomo, Linskey had a lengthy back-and-forth. For as much as Linskey has served as a loyal extension of Team Biden, her questions were surprisingly substantive (click “expand”):
LINSKEY: The Washington Post reported Sunday that a top former adviser who also happens to be in New York’s vaccine czar, called party officials to gauge their loyalty to Cuomo amid his sexual harassment investigation. I wanted to see if the President is concerned that vaccine distribution in New York has become politicized and is the administration taking any steps to make sure that political favoritism is not tainted — is not tainting access to vaccines for New Yorkers?
PSAKI: Well, first. Let me say we all read those stories. One was in your outlet. There are a number of other stories out there, and certainly we found them, um, concerning — about this inappropriate reported behavior. There are a number of checks in the system, I will say, the CDC has the ability to track and monitor distribution, and we've talked about this a little bit before, as it relates to equitable distribution of vaccine supply and so every vaccine box is tracked, and we know where it's going and the CDC can track that and monitor and if there are, you know — we work to ensure that it is equitably distributed and that there are not steps that are taken that are concerning. The other pieces that we work with local health officials across the state, right? We work with officials, you know, who are — who are overseeing distribution in all of the different cities, localities to ensure that they are getting what they need, that there are no breaks in the system, and we are engaged across the board, especially in a state like New York, and we certainly track any concerns that come up So, you know, there — we were concerned, of course, about the reports of this inappropriate behavior, but we also have a number of steps that are already in the system to ensure that the people of New York, the people of any state, you know, are getting the vaccine was distributed — distributed fairly and equitably.
LINSKEY: But given those reports over the weekend, did you take any extra steps to take another look at — especially in New York? Because the allegation is quite concerning. I would think for not only New Yorkers, but all Americans.
PSAKI: Of course we're constantly monitoring. I'm not — I've not been made aware of any incidents that have been raised in — in relation to this report. There are regular reports out of states that we take a look at even before this report, but if there is — I can see with our team if there's anything new as it relates to this report from this weekend.
LINSKEY: And then also, you know, Cuomo’s — following up on the earlier question. It's our understanding that Governor Cuomo not just — he doesn't just merely participate in these calls — these COVID protocols, but he is, in fact, a — leads them and is a big, um, player in terms of organizing them and so, we're curious if the President has any concerns with that? With his sort of leadership over this critical piece in, you know, the COVID response?
PSAKI: Well it would be up to the NGA to determine if they were to make a change on that front. It's also up to the Legislature and others in New York to determine if they're — if he still has the confidence of the people in the state, but our focus from here, from the federal government is, of course, supporting that independent investigation, which we adamantly do, but also working with governors across the country with the NGA, with the DGA, with others to address issues that come up or — or hear from them and listen to them and work with them on COVID — in addressing COVID, getting the pandemic under control, etcetera, and we will continue to work with a range of governors across the country.
PSAKI: But with the Trump administration, it was not set up this way. My understanding is that under the Trump administration, Vice President Pence was doing his weekly calls and this has been a shift from pence to somebody like Governor Cuomo in this point, so I'm wondering if perhaps the White House wants to shift it back towards the White House or away from the NGA, which happens to be led by governor has a lot of things going on in state at the moment?
PSAKI: Well, one of the reasons that it's been set up to engage directly with governors is that there were operational aspects of the way the last administration approached COVID and approached COVID — the distribution of vaccines — are approached, planning and engagement with governors that wasn't working. They didn't feel they had the information they needed. They didn't know when they were getting vaccine supply, and our effort was to work much more directly in a range of means, in a range of ways up and down the ranks in these states to ensure that we were addressing the local needs as they came up, so I'm — I’m not aware of any plan to shift that approach.
LINSKEY: So the President is comfortable with Cuomo essentially leading these weekly calls?
PSAKI: Again. This is up to, I think he's in that position because he is head of the NGA and it's up to the NGA to determine if that's where they want to see things moving forward.