After a few uneventful White House press briefings, Monday’s episode drew a number of interesting exchanges on the border crisis, the coronavirus pandemic, masking, schools, and President Biden’s Wednesday address to a Joint Session of Congress.
And after having been off to get married, Fox News’s Peter Doocy returned with a bang in an exchange on the administration’s continued masking despite having long been vaccinated.
Doocy started his round of questions by asking about why Vice President Harris has yet to visit the U.S./Mexico border and specifically her latest dodge being “we have to deal with COVID issues.”
Harris has been tasked with alleviating the issues at the border, but Psaki maintained that her focus wasn’t actually on the border but “addressing the root causes in the Northern Triangle” and thus (virtual) meetings with foreign leaders to “ensure there are systems put in place to reduce the amount of migration.”
Doocy took this excuse and broadened it to wonder why would Biden or Harris travel anywhere if the virus was such a problem.
Psaki deflected by citing the need to move children more quickly “out of these Border Patrol facilities...and get them into spaces where we can do social distancing, and when we can ensure these kids have access to health and medical experts and educational resources.”
After an exchange about a now-dubious claim from the New York Post about Vice President Harris's children's book being given out at one U.S. detention center for illegal immigrant children, Doocy’s last set of queries followed on the theme touched on by New York Magazine’s Olivia Nuzzi at April 12's briefing, which was why has Biden continued to wear masks.
“Why was President Biden the only world leader at the Climate Summit Zoom who was wearing a mask,” wondered Doocy.
Contributing to an unhelpful narrative that getting vaccinated wasn’t worth it if one’s behavior can’t change, Psaki bragged that Biden and White House staff were continuing to fully adhere to mask-wearing so as to set an example (click “expand”):
PSAKI: Well, I would certainly have to ask her team about that specifically, but I would tell you also that her focus is not on the border. It’s on addressing the root causes in the Northern Triangle and that’s why the majority of her time has been spent on working with — on a diplomatic level, she is going to speak — have a bilateral meeting with the President of Guatemala this afternoon. She’s going to speak with the President of Mexico next week and she’s working with them to ensure there are systems put in place to reduce the amount of migration coming from these countries, but also to address the root causes and that’s really what the President’s asked her to do.
DOOCY: Then I guess — if not — with regard to her specific statement, is there a White House concern when you guys are planning presidential or vice presidential travel, but more about COVID at the border than other places that she has traveled recently?
PSAKI: We certainly know that the number of people who were in facilities — the reason we have been so focused on expediting, moving kids out of these Border Patrol facilities is because we want to reduce the public health impact in these facilities, and get them into spaces where we can do social distancing, and when we can ensure these kids have access to health and medical experts and educational resources and we’ve made some progress on that front, even over the last few weeks since you got married, I will say, on that exact issue. So, look, but if the President or a Vice President goes down and visits a facility like this, you have to potentially clear some parts out. There’s a lot of security that comes. Our focus here is on solutions, on making progress, on moving these kids out of these facilities, and getting them connected with sponsor homes with family members, if possible. And that’s really where the president’s focus is at this point in time.
ABC’s Mary Bruce went next and one of her questions went as far as asking whether Biden will “be wearing a mask” while giving his address to Congress seeing as how even the person speaking on the House floor has to wear one.
Fast-forward to the back end of the briefing and Real Clear Politics’ Philip Wegmann continued his streak of leaving Psaki peeved.
Seeing as how no reporter had brought up former Secretary of State John Kerry’s leaked remarks about Israeli military actions to Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, Wegmann made that his first question.
Hilariously, Psaki refused to answer: “We’re not going to comment on leaked tapes.”
Wegmann then had the exchange of the day with this back-and-forth over his latest story about governors voicing disapproval with the fact that President Biden has yet to dial into a single one of their weekly coronavirus conference calls.
Psaki tried to downplay it as just “one” or “two” governors, but when Wegmann noted that more spoke to him, but would only do so on the record, she decried anonymous sources.
She also insisted that the briefings are never meant to include the President and thus there’s not “a big controversy here” (click “expand”):
WEGMANN: I've heard from a number of governors who are frustrated that they have not heard directly from President Biden on these weekly coordinating COVID calls. Why hasn't he joined those weekly calls?
PSAKI: And how many governors?
WEGMANN: Say what?
PSAKI: How many governors have you heard from?
WEGMANN: I’ve heard from a number, but it hasn’t — in terms of —
PSAKI: Like how many? One, two?
WEGMANN: Well, I’m actually curious to see how many times he’s joined those calls and if there’s a reason why.
PSAKI: It was never his — but I’m — I’m curious to the answer to your question too.
WEGMANN: Well, no. It’s in our story. We had —
PSAKI: I think there were two in your story.
WEGMANN: There were two in my story, and there were others who didn’t go on the record, but we reflected that in this story.
PSAKI: Okay. So two governors and some anonymous governors. I will say that the intention was never for the weekly call, the COVID call that is led by our COVID coordinator, to be a part of — for the President to be leading that call. That — the intention was for our COVID coordinator to be providing an update directly from the President, directly from our work across the federal government to get the pandemic under control and what we’ve done in that call is provided weekly updates on the number of doses that are going out to states, which is — have increased nearly every week. We’re talking about an average of about 28 million out to states now. It’s an opportunity to have an engagement, have a discussion about where there are challenges in the system, how to better operationalize, better communicate, which was a complaint that we came in and tried to solve when we came into office. So that was the intention. I can assure you that the American public, governors hear quite a great deal from the president on his plans to get the pandemic under control and he has — it’s an excellent hands with his COVID coordinator.
WEGMANN: To clarify, he has not joined. Does he have any plans in the future to join those calls?
PSAKI: We’ve never conveyed it as a call that would be a part of his agenda. So I’m not sure there’s, like, a big controversy here.
Ah, anonymous sources. Nice to know that, like with leaked material, it depends on the partisan tilt as to whether the administration cares.
To see more of the White House briefing transcript with softballs from Bruce and NBC’s Geoff Bennett plus an exchange between CBN’s David Brody and Psaki, click “expand.”
White House Press Briefing
February 26, 2021
1:46 p.m. Eastern
GEOFF BENNETT: Looking ahead to Wednesday to the President’s speech before joint session of congress, could you give us a sense of how the speech is coming together and the President's involvement in it, how he want to use that speech, and his appearance there to — to sell the remainder of his legislative agenda?
1:54 p.m. Eastern
MARY BRUCE: On the speech on Wednesday — you know, obviously, your first joint address is a big moment for any new president, but this is not going to be a joint address like we’ve seen before because of the pandemic. A lot of the pomp and circumstance won’t be there. The audience will be scaled down. No guests, et cetera. How is the President modifying his approach to the speech to sort of accommodate these unusual circumstances?
2:04 p.m. Eastern
KAREN TRAVERS: And schools, obviously, this was the key part of the presidents hundred day agenda. Nearly half the schools are open full-time but the vast majority of students are learning online at least some of the time during the week. They’re full-time virtual or hybrid learning. If the buildings are open but the students are learning remotely a significant portion of the time, does the President view that as a success and will he declare that this week?
PSAKI: Well, I don't think we sing data since the early April data that was reflective of February. The data is quite old at this point in time and we’ve seen across communities and states, there's been is the vacant amount of progress of schools opening five days a week, of students being in school learning. Now, some school districts have given the option of students, if their parents choose, to stay remote and that is in some school districts the options they have chosen. I expect we will have more data on March not until probably early May or late April time. That will give us a greater assessment and we have every confidence we will be over 50 percent of schools open five days a week.
TRAVERS: And no data — new data before day 100 this week?
PSAKI: Well, it’s — the data is done by the Department of Education, so we can’t really change the data release timing but we are confident given what we've seen happen across the country that we are going to meet that goal.
2:11 p.m. Eastern
DAVID BRODY: A question on unity. You know, you talk about — earlier, you said you wanted to bring or the president wanted to bring the country back, so I guess the question is he has not met with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, according to Kevin McCarthy. What does that say about unity and also there are other legislative issues as it relates to H.R. 1 and a commission to study packing the Supreme Court, as you would say, and there's a lot of other lists as well. Budget reconciliation, so there are a lot of folks — you talk about tens of millions of people — they’re concerned about that this doesn't seem like unity at all.
PSAKI: Do you think tens of millions of people are concerned about him not meeting with Kevin McCarthy?
BRODY: No, I think tens of millions of people are concerned about HR. 1 and budget reconciliation and going that 50 vote threshold. I think that’s the concern.
PSAKI: I’m not sure the polling bears that out, but I will say that
PSAKI: — the President's view is that bringing the country together is bringing the making people together so when I say he is focused on re — bringing — you know — bringing people together, bringing Democrats and Republicans together, he’s not talking about solving bipartisanship in the — this zip code here. He's talking about proposing policies that address the crises that we’re facing, whether it's getting the pandemic under control, putting people back to work. A lot of those policies he has proposed, whether it’s the American Rescue Plan or American Jobs Plan, are supported by the vast majority of the American public. Democrat, Republican, independent, they certainly want to see him working with — with Republicans and Democrats here and he's absolutely doing everything he can to do that. He's had a number of Republicans down here to the Oval Office. He’s looking forward — we’re — we’re going to be review their proposals and I think certainly people see that, see him rolling up his sleeves and ready to work with people of all different viewpoints.
BRODY: So, just real quick, what about the infrastructure bill the Republicans have? Whatever it is, 800 billion or so? Why not just take that, call it unity, call it a deal and then move on to some of the other legislative priorities within — within the total construct?
PSAKI: Well, David, as you know you need 60 votes. You can talk to Republicans in the Senate and see how many votes they have, but I will say that where we are now is that we are certainly taking a look at the proposal. Right now. there is deep in the weeds, sometimes nerdy conversations between staffers, members of congress. We have lots of follow-up question. I'm sure they have follow-up questions. We’re sharing ideas. That’s actively happening now. He’ll invite some members next week — bipartisan members — to come to the oval office and have a discussion about it and what the path forward looks like.
Editor's Note, 04/27/21: This post has been updated to reflect the change in reporting to reflect the lack of veracity to the Post's claim about Harris's children's book.