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Press Briefing by Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, December 9, 2022

  • Politics

James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

1:12 P.M. EST

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Good afternoon, everybody.  All right, Happy Friday. 

Okay, so we are rounding out another big week here at the White House and a lot of great news for the American people.

The President traveled to Arizona, underscoring how his economic plan continues to create jobs, revitalize American manufacturing, strengthen our supply chains, and give families more breathing room.

For the first time in almost two years, the national average gas price is lower than its level was one year ago.

Senator Warnock will continue representing the people of Georgia.  He ran on the President’s message: We must strengthen Social Security and Medicare, lower prescription drug costs, and protect a woman’s right to make her healthcare decision. 

The President announced historic relief to protect the hard-earned pensions of hundreds of thousands of union workers and retirees thanks to the American Rescue Plan.

And yesterday, President Biden kept his promise to bring Brittney Griner home and reiterated his commitment to securing Paul Whelan’s release.  The President will never give up. 

As Russia continues to wage its brutal war against people of Ukraine, today the Biden-Harris administration is announcing a new $275 million security assistance package to help Ukraine defend itself against Russian aggression.

This package will provide Ukraine with new capabilities to boots its — to boost its air defenses and counter the threats Ukraine is facing from Iranian UAVs, which Russia is using to attack Ukraine’s critical infras- — infrastructure and kill Ukrainian civilians. 

Today’s announcements also includes critical equipment that Ukraine is using so effectively to defend itself on the battlefield, such as more ammunition for HIMARS and Ukraine’s artillery. 

And now, our favorite thing, is the week ahead, so just giving you a quick look — actually, it’s more than a quick look.  We have a lot to share for our next week.  

On Monday, the President and the First Lady will travel to Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall in Arlington, Virginia, to participate in a United States Marine Corps Reserve Toys for Tots event.  They will join spouses of senior Department of Defense and leadersh- — and service leadership and local military children in sorting donated toys for distribution to families in need ahead of the holidays.

This engagement is part of the First Lady’s Joining Forces initiative to support those who serve, including families of service members and veterans, caregivers, and survivors. 

And he’ll — we’ll also have National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan right here in the press briefing room on Monday to preview the African Leaders Summit.

On Tuesday, the President will host a ceremony on the South Lawn to sign the Respect for Marriage Act, accompanied by Members of Congress, members of his Cabinet, and stakeholders.

On Wednesday, the President looks forward to hosting the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit.  This summit will underscore the value the United States places on our collaboration with Africa on the most pressing global challenges and opportunities, as well as on the Biden administration’s commitment to revitalizing global partnerships and alliances.  

We expect to engage a wide range of African and U.S. stakeholders to illustrate the breadth and the depth of American partnerships with African governments, businesses, civil — civil society, and citizens — partnerships based on dialogue that harness the creati- — the creativity of the peoples — of our peoples. 

In the morning, the President will deliver remarks at the U.S.-Africa Business Forum.  Later in the day, he will host a small group multilateral meeting with leaders.

In the evening, the President will host the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit Dinner in the East Room. 

The President will also observe the 10th anniversary since the tragic Sandy Hook shooting.  We will have more details on that next week. 

On Thursday, the President will continue his participation in the Africa’s Leaders Summit.  He will participate in the leaders’ sussion [sic] — session on partnering on the Africa Union’s Agenda 2063, the continent’s strategic framework for inclusive and sustainable development based on pan-Africa — Africa unity, self-determination, freedom, progress, collective prosperity.  Afterwards, he will participate in a family photo with the leaders.

In the afternoon, the President will participate in the leaders’ session on Promoting Food Security and Food Systems Resilience.

And then, on Friday, the President will head to Wilmington.  He will remain there over the weekend.

With that, it’s all yours, Zeke. 

Q    Thanks, Karine.  Did the President get a heads up from Senator Sinema in advance of her announcement this morning that she would reregister as a Democrat?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  So —

Q    As an independent.  Sorry.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  So I will say this: As always, we do not discuss private conversations that we have with members of Congress.  Don’t have anything else to share outside of that.  But we are just not going to share any private conversations that we have with Congress.

Q    But can you talk about the President’s reaction?  Was he surprised at that?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Well, I put out a statement.  And that — as you know, I speak for the President of the United States, so he sees and we see Senator Sinema as a key partner on some of the most historic pieces of legislation that you all — all have covered in this administration, when you look at the past 20 months, from the American Rescue Pan- — Plan, to the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, to the Inflation Reduction Act, to the Respect for Marriage Act, from the — also the PACT Act.  All of these piece of legislation have been historic, and we have partnered with Senat- — Senator Sinema.  And so, look, we understand her decision to register as an independent in Arizona. 

The way we see it and understand it, it does not change the new Democratic majority control of the Senate.  And we have every reason to expect that we will continue to work with her successfully.

Q    And on a different topic: yesterday’s prisoner swap. Does the President believe that the deal that was struck by his administration with the Russian administration to free Brittney Griner was a fair one — that that was a fair arrangement?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Look, and when I’ve talked about this yesterday as well — the — here’s the way that we have seen this: You know, when you talk about “fair,” Brittney Griner is an American citizen who was being held unjustly; she was being held unjustly under intolerable circumstances.  That was what was happening to Brittney Griner.  And so that means something to the President. 

He believes, you know, the — when you have an American passport, it means something.  And so he wanted to do everything that he could to make sure that he brought her home. 

And we were presented with an option, as you know — we’ve laid this out; you’ve heard from my NSC colleagues as well — where it was either Brittney or no one.  That was the option that we were pro- — were given.  And so the President wanted to keep his — his promise in making sure that he brings American citizens home who are being wrongfully detained abroad. 

That is a promise that his administration is continuing to — contin- — continuing to fight for.  And so that’s what you saw.

You saw the same action that he took with Trevor Reed, he took with Brittney Griner and others.  Almost a dozen other — other wrongfully detained Americans have come home under his administration, and he is going to continue to work very hard — and his administration — to work very hard to bring Paul Whelan home.

Q    So is it fair or not?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  The way that we see it is that this was an opportunity to bring an American home.  That’s how we saw the deal that was presented to us.  And what was — what was occurring is, in the past week or two, we saw that from — the Russians were — were willing to release Brittney Griner for Mr.  Bout.  That was what was presented to us. 

They were not willing to — and I said this yesterday — to negotiate in good faith for Paul Whelan.  And so it was either Brittney Griner — one American — or no American.  And so that’s how we see the negotiation that was presented in front of us.  And that’s the very difficult decision that the President had to make.  And we were able to bring her home safely. 

Go ahead.

Q    I understand you’re not —

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Oh, I’m sorry.  Go ahead.  I was going to —

Go ahead.  Okay.  

Q    I understand you’re not going to detail private conversations, but just to be clear: Was the White House given a heads up that Senator Sinema was going to be —

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  I’m — I’m just not going to go into details. 

Q    Did you learn of this from public reporting?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  I’m just not going to go into details on any private conversation that we have. 

Q    But when did you learn?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  I — I’m — I’m just not going to go into details or layout any private conversations that we have with Congress.  That’s something that we normally do.  Just not going to do that.

Q    But that suggests that a private conversation did occur.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  I — I’m not — I’m — (laughs) — Mary, I’m just not going to go into details on this.

Q    Well, let me try this then: Just two days ago, you said that Warnock’s win gave you a little bit more breathing room, a little bit more ability to deliver for the American people.  Does Sinema’s decision to leave the party take away some of that breathing room?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Look, as I said — and I — and I put out a statement on this, as you all know — as I said — that we see — we understand Senator Sinema’s decision to resi- — register as an independent.  The way that we see it, it does not change the majority, or it doesn’t change the complexion of what our Democratic majority is going to look like in the Senate.

Q    How, then, does it impact you?  I mean, you’re saying that this decision won’t change at all how you work with her?  Or you said that you expect that — or you’re — you have every reason to expect that you will continue to work successfully with Sinema.  Where does that expectation come from?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Because she has voted with the President 93 percent of the time, because she has worked with us on key priorities of this administration.  When you think about his economic policy — I just laid out all of the different historic pieces of legislation that we have been able to get done, and she has played a key role in that. 

When you think about the CHIPS and Science Act, when you think about the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, those are pieces of legislation — there are other — there’s other long list of other things that she’s worked with us on — that’s 93 percent. 

And so we think that partnership will continue.  We do not see a change in our Democratic majority, as it relates to the Senate.  So we are very confident. 

I’m going to call, actually, on Alex, in the back, because of what ha- — occurred yesterday.  I know Brett is not here, but I wanted to give you an opportunity to ask a question.

Q    I appreciate that.  Thank you.  I wanted to ask about if the President has spoken with any gun violence prevention advocates or victims’ families ahead of the Sandy Hook anniversary, and also if he has made plans to talk to lawmakers next week about his call for an assault weapons ban.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  So I don’t have anything to preview at this time on any calls that the President might — might make or will make.  The President has talked about Sandy Hook being the worst day in his — in his eight years as Vice President.  And you can expect him to mark this sad day next week, as I laid out in the Week Ahead. 

On Wednesday, as you all saw, the President joined survivors and families impacted by gun violence to deliver remarks at the 10th Annual National Vigil for All Victims of Gun Violence, organized by the Newtown Action Alliance.

The vigil was a service of mourning and loving remembrance for all who have fallen victim to the ongoing epidemic of gun violence in America. 

And as you all know, the President has done more than speak about gun violence; he’s actually taken action.  He fought relentlessly to take action as well.  He has done more executive  — taken more executive action at this time in his presidency than any other President.  And so — look, and let’s not forget, he signed the most significant gun safety legislation in 30 years, this summer.  But he feels that is not enough and we need to do more. 

And so he continues to call for the assault weapons ban.  He did that on that day — on Wednesday — when he — when he was there with families and friends, speaking of — of this moment.  And he’s never going to stop showing up and speaking out. 

And I have said this before: He believes his role as President is to make sure that we continue to put this — continue to push this into the dialogue, so making sure that the American people understand how important it is to talk about getting the assault weapons ban.

Go ahead.

Q    Karine, thank you so much.  I want to follow up on Mary’s question when she asked you why you feel confident that you’ll be able to continue to work with Senator Sinema successfully and you cited her voting record.  But just to put a fine point on it, has the administration been given assurances by anyone within the senator’s office or the senator herself that she is going to continue to work with you?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  I’m just not going to divulge or speak to any private conversations that we have with members of Congress.  That is something that is not unusual.  That’s something that I’ve said many times before.

Understand the question.  What I’m saying is her actions speak to what we’re trying to lay out here.  Right?  Ninety-three percent that she’s voted — she’s voted with the President over the last 20 months.  I’ve listed out the historic pieces of legislation that she has been — played a significant role — that she’s played a key partner role with us. 

And so — and, you know, we don’t see a change in the Democratic majority with her deciding to — to register as an independent.

Q    Do you expect her to caucus with Democrats?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Look, I — we don’t see a change in the Democratic majority.  And so we see this as a decision that she has made, but we do not see a change in our Democratic majority.

Q    And let me ask you this way — and then I do have one on Brittney Griner.  Does Senator Sinema have the support of the President in this decision and moving forward into 2024?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  So, cannot speak to 2024.  I’m covered by the Hatch Act.  And as far as I understand it, she hasn’t announced her plans for 2024 yet.  So I — just not something that I’m going to speak to.

Q    Does she have the support of the President right now —

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Oh, absolu- —

Q    — in this decision?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Well, we see her as a key partner.  We don’t — we understand her decision to register as an independent. 

Q    Let me ask you about something that Vladimir Putin said today.  As you know, he held that press conference, and he said more prisoner swaps may occur between the U.S. and Russia.  He said, quote, “Everything is possible.”  What does the U.S. make of that?  What does the administration hear in those words?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  So we’re just not going to talk about any ongoing diplomatic conversations.  We’ve been very clear that we want the American people to know that their safety and security is among our highest priority when — when it comes to aggressively doing everything that we can to bring Americans home who are being wrongfully detained — bringing them home safely. 

But I’m not going to get into any diplomatic conversations from here.

Go ahead.

Q    Karine, thank you.  Now that Brittney Griner is back on U.S. soil, has President Biden spoken to her or does he plan to?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  So I don’t have any — any calls to preview.  As you know — as you know, the President spoke with her, Brittney Griner, yesterday morning in the — in the seven o’clock, eight o’clock hour, right before he came out to speak to all of you and to give the announcement.  And in the room was her wife and the Vice President and Jake Sullivan and also the Secretary of State.  And you — we’ve also — we’ve already read out what — what that conversation was like. 

I do want to give a little bit more of — a little bit more information on where we are this morning.  We can confirm, as you all know, that Brittney Griner arrived at Saint — at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston early this morning.  She has been reunited with her wife, Cherelle. 

U.S. officials who met her on the ground said she was in very good spirits, appears to be in good health.  She was immediately taken to Brooke Army Medical Center where she is being offered a range of support options following her time detained in Russia.

Q    Do you know if she’s home or when she might go home?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  So I’m not going to get ahead of what’s going to happen next.  What I can tell you is where she is currently today.  Every individual is different, and those decisions are up to them and their families.  They’ll take as much time as they need. 

What we can say, typically, upon arrival, people are offered a wide range of additional support, including full medical checkup, a mental health checkup, and additional means of support. 

All of this is voluntary, so it is up to her and her family.

Q    Can you confirm the report that Russia wanted Vadim Krasikov, who is a Russian assassin being held in Germany, in exchange for Paul Whelan?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  So I ca- — I cannot go into any specifics or any negotiation’s information from here. 

As you know, we are working very hard to secure Paul’s return.  And so I don’t want to get — don’t want to get ahead of what’s currently happening.  And I just want to leave it there.

Q    Okay.  Well, did the U.S. have any conversations with a third party when they were negotiating the prisoner swap?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  I’m just not going to get into specifics on any of the negotiations. 

What I can tell you was that we realized — and I think I — I said this a moment ago — we realized about a week or two ago that Russia was willing to do a negotiation to release Brittney Griner, and that was grit- — grittney — Brittney Griner for Mr. Bout.  And that’s what they offered. 

They were not — they were not negotiating in good faith when it came to Paul.  They categorized him very differently — and we’ve talked about that — unfortunately, in an illegitimate — illegitimate charges that they levied against Paul. 

And so at this — at this time, we were not able to — we were not able to secure his release. 

I don’t want to get into any specifics about negotiations as we continue to have those conversations to secure Paul.

Q    And just one more quick one.  In order to get an American back, is the U.S. only willing to swap a Russian national, or would it consider trying to work with another country to get someone else?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  I — I — I get your question, and I understand.  I just cannot get into what we will or will not do — any of the negotiations.  We have Americans out there who are wrongfully detained, being held hostage, and we want to make sure that we get them home safely.  And negotiating from here or giving information on the internal mechanics or process certainly would not be — be prudent.

Q    Okay.  Thank you.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Go ahead.  Go ahead.

Q    Thanks, Karine.  China is easing its COVID-zero restrictions.  I’m wondering if you could talk about whether that’s something that the White House supports or doesn’t, and, specifically, how you see it playing out for U.S. manufacturing that has operations in China.  Do you think it will sort of improve supply chains because there’ll be less restrictions on workers, or is there concern, both medical and economic, about if there are wide-scale outbreaks of COVID in China now that they have eased this policy?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  So, any PR- — any policies of the PRC — I’m certainly not going to comment about them from here. 

What we have been very clear about is: China’s COVID policy is not a policy we are pursuing here.  In the United States, we are focused on what works, like encouraging Americans to get their updated vaccine — which we try to do as often as we can from here and also just more broadly in the administration — and making testing and treatment easily accessible.  That is our — that is our — going to be our focus.  We’re just not going to comment on PRC’s policies.

Q    And then Fox Business had a report today that Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan is on a shortlist to replace Janet Yellen if and when she decides to leave the administration.  I’m wondering if you could comment on that at all.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  So, as Secretary Yellen said herself just last month, she has no plans to leave.  It seems to be — that report, to us, seems to be pure speculation.

I’m going to go — go ahead. 

Q    Merci, Karine.  Two — I have two questions.  The first one is on —

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  At first, I thought you were going to talk to me in French. 

Q    I was going (inaudible) —

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  I was going to be like, “Oh gosh, I hope my mom is not watching.”  (Laughter.)

Q    First thing is on the statement that came out today about Canada and the U.S. taking coordinated act- — sanction against Iranian officials connected to human rights abuse.  I’m trying to figure out why this coordination with Canada in this very instance. 

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  First of all, it’s good to see you.  It’s been a while — a long time. 

Q    Thank you very much.  It’s been a while.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  I know I made a joke, but it is good to see you. 

So I just want to say at the top, the United States is committed to supporting the Iranian people and imposing costs on those responsible for the brutal crackdown.  We continue to coordinate with allies and partners and find ways to confront Iran’s human rights abuses, both in public and also in private.

The joint U.S.-Canada statement today is an example of this effort.  We took coordinated sanctions against — actions, pardon me, today against Iranian officials connected to human rights abuses, including those committed as part — committed as part of the ongoing brutal crackdown aimed at denying the Iranian people their human rights and their fundamental freedoms, their fundamental rights.  So we’ll continue to support the Iranian people.

I can’t speak to, you know, Canada.  You would have to speak to their government, as I’m sure you do often.  But I can’t speak to a different country’s reasoning for — their own reasoning for taking action.  But clearly, this is an important action that shows support for the Iranian people as we’re seeing this truly brutal crackdown on the civilians there.

Q    Thank you.  My other question is on the — next week’s summit, the African Leaders Summit.  I’m just — I mean, we’re going to get into details, but I’m trying to figure out how much do the Chinese intense economic involvement and the Russian — through Wagner — military involvement is playing a role in the President’s willingness to engage even more intensely with the leaders?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  What I can say: Our focus next week is going to be on Africa.  That’s going to be the focus of the summit.  This summit is an opportunity to deepen the many partnerships we have on the African continent.  We will focus on our efforts to strengthen these partnerships across a wide range of sectors, spanning from businesses to health to peace and security.  But our focus will be on Africa next week. 

Okay.  Go ahead.

Q    Can you provide any updates on what the President is doing to push forward the government spending bill?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  So look, we — I’ve talked about this many times, and we believe, you know, getting the government funding done is critical.  And it’s going to be important.  And this is something that we encourage and continue to talk to Congress about getting this done. 

I talked about how Shalanda Young is leading — certainly leading that effort — our OMB director — and she knows how to get bipartisan deals done here. 

And look, we were able to get government funding done in a bipartisan way last year.  We believe it should be done in a bipartisan way this year.  There is enough time to get this done. 

We are talking about critical resources that the American people need.  When you think about public health, public education, our national security, these are all incredibly important, and it should be done in a bipartisan way.  And there’s enough time to get that — get that moving.

Q    And as families are facing rising school lunch debt, can you also provide an update as to what the President is doing to push forward free school meals for all?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  So the President, as you’ve heard him say, is proud that his American Rescue Plan provided additional emergency food and nutrition assistant for those in need, building on our $60 million investment in farm-to-school initiatives. 

Our National Strategy on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health, which we released in September, includes a provision on creating a path to free healthy school meals for all children.  As a first step in reaching this goal, the administration is committed to working with Congress to expand access to healthy, free school meals to an additional 9 million kids over the next decade.  But, obviously, this has been a priority for this President since the beginning of his administration.

Go ahead. 

Q    Thank you, Karine.  Just a follow-up on Iran and human rights.  Iran just executed a man for his involvement in the anti-government protests.  Other detainees also face the possibility of the death penalty related to the protests.  Can you speak more specifically on those instances?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  So we denounce these draconian sentences in the strongest terms.  These sentences are meant to intimidate people and suppress diss- — dissent, and so they will not work. 

And Iran’s leadership continues its violent crackdown.  As they do that on peaceful protestors, they should know that the world is watching. 

I just talked about a letter that — that was signed by our allies calling — calling — really calling that out — continuing to do that. 

So the United States is committing to supporting the Iranian people and imposing costs on those responsible for the brutal crackdown. 

Just today, again, we announced the sanctions to hold Iran accountable for human rights abuses.  We continue to coordinate with allies and partners and find ways to confront Iran’s human rights abuses, both — again, as I said earlier — in public and in private.

We will stand with Iranian civilians as they are fighting for their basic freedom, their — their basic human rights.  And we will continue to denounce that.

Q    Okay.  And another question on Saudi, please.  Does President Biden plan to follow through on his statement that there will be consequences on Saudi Arabia following their oil production cuts?  Or is the understanding now that gas prices have stabilized, so perhaps it’s not as urgent for those consequences to happen? 

And just more broadly speaking, does the growing ties between Saudi and China — does that play a role in the administration’s reassessment of relations with Saudis that were promised to us?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  So there’s a couple of things there.  You kind of laid out a couple of items that I’ll touch on.  So, look, the gas prices that we’re seeing currently, that are going down, is because of the work that this President has done.  It’s because he took historic action to tap into the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.  And because of those actions, we’re seeing prices go down.  So I want to be very, very clear on that. 

So, as far as the relationship, the review that you’re asking me about: We are assessing our relations with Saudi Arabia methodically and strategically — as we have done over the last, you know, 80 years of this relationship — in a bipartisan way. 

And it’s — we’re going to do this in line with what’s in our interest.  And we will judge the way forward based on their actions, as well as our ongoing consultations with partners and allies and also the new Congress that is going to be before us very soon, and the Saudis as well.

I don’t have anything more to share.  But, again, remember, this is an 80 — as you know, an 80-year history.  And as — we have reevaluated, over the course of those eight decades, in a bipartisan way, and that’s how we’re looking to move forward.

Q    And just really quickly — last one — on Taiwan.  Can you comment on the timing of the $425 million arms sales with Taiwan earlier this week, which happened on the same day that the President went to Arizona to visit the TSMC plant, which is, of course, part of the effort to get ahead of the strategic rivalry with China?  Is there any kind of messaging here that these two events happened on the same day?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  So there’s no connection.  I can say pretty affirmatively there’s no connection there.  This was a package of upgrades on pre-existing sale.  I think we’ve talked about that here before, in the — in — in the briefing room.  We continue to support Taiwan’s self-defense, consistent with our long-standing One China policy.  So no change there.

Go ahead. 

Q    Thank you, Karine.  I’ve got two questions for you: the first about the coronavirus pandemic and then one about Twitter. 

On the pandemic, the former vice president of the EcoHealth Alliance has a new book out, and he says that he’s convinced that COVID-19 leaked from a Wuhan lab.  To my knowledge, he hasn’t produced any direct evidence, but he speculates that risky U.S.-funded research caused the pandemic.  Does the U.S. government have a response to that?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  So I would refer you to the NIH on that.  But a couple of things — and EcoHealth as well for specifics here on the question that you have.

But we do not know the origins, as you know, of COVID because of the — of China’s lack of transparency.  As I’ve said before, you know, this is something we, including the President, have pressed China on repeatedly.  NIH has exhaustively communicated the oversight of its scientific work and its purpose to ensure pandemic preparedness. 

It quite — it’s quite wonky, as you know.  And so, again, I would refer you to NIH.  Again, it’s very in-depth, and this is — that’s the place that I would refer you to to get more specifics. 

Q    And just a very brief follow-up before turning to Twitter.  Dr. Fauci’s agency recently resumed funding for the EcoHealth Alliance.  Is there any concern about that, given its past risky — risky research in Wuhan?  And if you’re not able to speak to that, I was wondering if you could perhaps invite Dr. Fauci back here to take some more questions.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  (Laughs.)  I would refer you to NIH.  They would provide you with the information directly.  So, I’ll just leave that there.

Q    Okay.  Then on Twitter, Elon Musk this week fired the former FBI general counsel, Jim Baker, who was serving as a top Twitter lawyer.  Musk alleges that he may have been involved with countermanding his attempts at transparency.  And I was wondering if anyone in the Biden administration was in touch with Baker, either regarding moderation decisions that critics call “political censorship” or regarding his transparency efforts recently.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  So, it’s up to private companies to make these types of decisions.  We were not involved.  I can say that.  We were not involved.

And as I’ve said several times this week already, we’ve talked — we’ve had this conversation many times in this briefing room just the past couple of days.  You know, of course, it’s up to these companies to make their own decisions about the content on their platform and to ensure content flows their on standards and — on their own standards and policies.  Don’t have anything more to share.

Q    Just very briefly on the not involved — not involved in speaking with Baker about this transparency effort by Musk.  Is that what you’re saying, that the Biden administration wasn’t involved with that?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  We were just — we were just not involved.  Just answering your question: We were not involved.

Go ahead.

Q    Thanks, Karine.  This is, I think, probably a process question to some degree, but the official commutation order for Viktor Bout was signed by the President on December 2nd, which was, I think, five days before everything actually transpired.  Why five days?  Did that mean, like, the deal was done then, or you — you did it in preparation for a deal?  How did — how does that actually work?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  So, as I’ve stated before — well, you just stated it — that — about the clemency.  Look, we knew about a week or two ago that there was going to be a deal for Brittney Griner and that was what the Russians had presented to us.  And they wanted — the deal, right? — the — to secure her return was Mr. Bout for Brittney Grin- — Mr. Bout for Brittney Griner.  And so that was the deal that we — was presented to us, and that’s how we moved forward.  Because we wanted to make sure we brought one American home.  It was either no American or one American. 

And so that — that process was about a week or two ago.  I can’t go into details, specifics on the five days or when things were signed.  I don’t have that information to provide for you at this time.  But we learned that about last — a week or two ago.

Q    But preparatory, nothing was final until Brittney Griner was in the custody of U.S. officials?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  You know, I kind of laid out, kind of, the process yesterday or on how that all worked.  I don’t have that in front of me to share with you at this time. 

But what I can say is in the past week or two we learned from — from the — from the Russians that they were willing to release Brittney Griner for Mr. Bout.  And we tried throughout the past several months.  As you know, the past six months, since we heard from Secretary Blinken back in July saying that we were in intensive conversation to get — to get Brittney home, to get Paul Whelan home, in every — in every conversation over the last several months, we worked very hard to get the both of them home.  That was always a priority. 

And, again, it wasn’t until very recently that we learned that they were only willing to make a — make an arrangement for Brittney Griner.  And Paul Whelan, as I’ve stated many times before, was just seen differently, in an illegitimate way.  And so the President wanted to make sure that we brought — we brought an American home.  And that’s what we saw yesterday.

Q    Karine, just one quick one.  In terms of — legislatively, I know you guys are very much in the lame-duck zone right now.  But has the week either changed or kind of spurred the planning for the next Congress — legislatively, how you guys approach the next Congress?  And has — was that shifted at all by what happened this morning?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  What happened this morning?

Q    Yes.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  No, not at all.  I mean, that’s — that’s the point that I’m trying to make here.  You know, you have a –you have someone, Senator Sinema, who has, you know, voted with the President 93 percent of the time on key, important, historic pieces of legislation.  And I listed them out earlier.  I’m not going to bore you by doing that again, but they were important legis- — pieces of legislation that you all covered and we’ve talked about in this briefing room. 

And so, we do not see — we understand why she would want to register as an independent, but we do not see the Democratic majority changing with this decision that she’s made.

Go ahead.

Q    I just want to ask you on the oil price cap.  So, there’s 20 oil-laden tankers now sort of stuck trying to get out of the Black Sea into the Turkish Straits.  I know that Treasury officials have been in touch with Turkish officials on this.  And are you looking at escalating that conversation, you know, to a higher level?  Are you frustrated with Turkey’s reluctance to back away from this rule —

(Laughter from the Press Corps offices.)

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Somebody is having a good time.  Okay. 

So, as you said, we’ve been in touch with Turkey about how the price cap only applies to Russian oil and explained that the cap doesn’t necessi- — necess- — nessitate [sic] — necessitate additional checks on ships passing through Turkish waters.

Our understanding is that virtually all of the delayed tankers are not carrying oil from Russia and are not affected by the cap. 

So, Turkey has made clear they share our interest in a well-supplied market, in allowing a seaborne oil to transit the — transit the Turkish Straits.  They have made clear their goal is to resolve this issue as quickly as possible.

And so, again, we’ve been — we’ve been in touch with Turkey, and this is how we — how we’re moving forward.

Q    But it doesn’t seem to be resolved at all.  I mean, there’s 28 tankers now.  And now, on top of it, you know, you’ve got the Turkish officials saying they don’t see any reason to rescind that rule.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Well, in our conversation they want to resolve this issue.  And we are, again, having those conversations with Turkey.  And we feel like we are going to get into a place where this will get resolved.

Q    Okay.  And then let me follow up on the oil production.  The Russians have said they could cut oil production to sort of avoid, you know, having to sell below the cap.  You know, are you at any — in any way sort of considering that this oil price cap was not a success or will not be a success because of these various responses?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Look, the — we’re not surprised by Putin’s reaction and response and what Russia is saying.  Look, the price — the price will lock in a discount on Russian oil, especially in light of the $100 per barrel they earned just a few months ago, and it can be adjusted over time to prevent Russia from further profiteering from its war.

And we see this as an opportunity.  This is an unprecedented action; demonstrates the unity of the United States and our allies and partners. 

So, again, you know, I’m not going to be — when it comes to, you know, slowing, limiting their flow, we’re not in the business of responding to a hyb- — hypothetical as well, but wanted to lay out how we see this process moving forward.  And we don’t — and we don’t know what will happen.

But as we have said, we are focused on limiting Putin’s ability to profit from rising prices to fund his illegal war, while promoting stable — stable global energy markets.  This is not about — this is not about Russian oil of the market. This is about the cap — the cap at this level maintains clear incentives for Russia to continue exporting, and we believe that it should.

Q    Can I just ask you a domestic question?  So, Maxwell Frost was denied, you know, an apartment — or an application because of really bad credit.  Are you — I know that you’ve looked at housing inequities and problems facing people of color, in terms of getting housing and just fairness in the housing market.  This practice of, you know, requiring credit applications and then fees — that carry a fee — seems to be something that’s happening all over the country.  Is there anything that the White House or that the Biden administration can do to curb what, you know, seems to be a predatory practice in some cases where people are, basically — you know, they — in order to even get a chance to getting an apartment in this very tight and difficult housing market, you have to pay money upfront?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  So, look, the President and the administration understands that Americans are struggling with the high cost of housing.  That is something that we have seen throughout these past several years, and that’s why the President released his Housing Supply Action Plan that we have talked about.  And it’s to ease the — that burden — that burden of housing cost over time, by using a mix of administrative and legislative actions to boost the supply of quality housing in every community.

Just last month, the White House hosted a range of tenants and tenant advocates for listening sessions along with federal agencies.  And we’ll have more to — more conversations like these, and we’ll add — you know, we’ll add to the topics that you’re just laying out.

But again, that’s why the President took initiative with his plan.  I’ve talked about the different specifics of the plan and how it’s going to help folks who feel that burden, because we also understand that housing costs, again, is one of the things that has a big effect on people’s lives and livelihoods.  So, this is a priority for this administration.

Go ahead.

Q    Thanks, Karine.  I wanted to ask an earlier Russia question another way.  So when Putin says that nothing is off the table with future prisoner swaps, what, in your view, is the best way for the American people, who may just be turning into this issue based on what happened with Brittney Griner, to actually think about what Putin is saying?  Should it be seen as a substantive offer to engage?  Should it be viewed with skepticism?  Should it heighten hopes that Paul Whelan could be brought home?  I’m wondering if you can just set expectations based on the current state of play between our two countries.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  So, I can say this, and the President said this yesterday: He is committed to getting Paul Whelan home.  That is a commitment that he has made to his family, and that is the commitment that he’s made to the American people.

And more broadly speaking, the President, since the beginning of his administration, has said that his — one of his top priorities is making sure that all Americans who are — who are being wrongfully detained and held hostage are brought home. 

And, you know, we have seen this multiple times throughout this past 20 months: again, Trevor Reed we saw, in April, the President bring home; Brittney Griner, clearly, yesterday; and about 12 other American citizens.

And so, the President is going to stay committed to that.  I’m not going to get into what President Putin says or did not say or — I’m just not going to get into his head.  That’s not something that we do from here.

What I will say is that we are going to continue to negotiate in good faith to get Paul home.

Go ahead, Karen.

Q    To follow up from the other day on the NDAA: The House has now passed this legislation.  It does rescind the military vaccine mandate, which you made clear the President does not agree with.  Will the President sign this legislation or veto it?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Again, I’m just not going to get ahead of the President.  This is something that the President decides on.  We’ve been very clear where we stand on the vaccine mandates. 

And we have said it many times before: You know, Republicans in Congress have decided that they’d rather fight against the health and wellbeing of our troops than protect them.  And we think that it’s a mistake.

Look, I’m not going to — again, not going to get ahead the — any final votes that may occur.  You talked about the House.

Every year, the NDAA has some provisions we support and some we don’t.  So, the President will judge this in its entirety.

I note — again, I noted that the House is moving on this, but I’m just not going to get of — of any decision that the President is going to make.

Q    So, he has not yet made a decision (inaudible)?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  I just haven’t — I have not spoken to him about this, and so I’m just not going to get ahead of him.

Q    Thanks, Karine.  Senator Sinema didn’t travel with the President earlier this week to Arizona.  So, do you know when the last time that they spoke was?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  I don’t have — I don’t have a — the last time that they spoke.  So, don’t have anything to share with you at this time on that piece.

Q    And while he was in Arizona, he called her, quote, “a tremendous advocate for the people of Arizona and a leader in so many issues important to the state.”  End quote.  Does he regret making that statement, which could —

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Not at all.

Q    — be viewed as an endorsement, given today’s news?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  I mean, he says this about many congressional members when he visits a state.  I’ve — I’ve been on many trips with him.  You’ve been on trips with him where he says that.  He thanks them for the passport to their state, and he actually talks about the work that he’s done with that congressperson or senator in Washington, D.C.  That is very, very common.  You can look at almost any — every speech that he’s made while he’s visited a state, and he talks about and lists how these congressional members and senators, House members have — he’s worked with them to deliver, whether it’s the bipartisan infrastructure legislation, whether it’s the American Rescue Plan, whether it is the Inflation Reduction Act, or all.

So, that is not uncommon.  He does that pretty — very regularly.  I would say every time he goes to a state, he lifts up the congressional members who — who are — who are, you know, who represent that state.

Q    And on another topic: This is the point in the administration — I think, to Justin’s point — where people do start thinking about leaving.  Have any members of the President’s Cabinet informed him of a decision to leave in the next few months?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  As far as I know, no.

Go ahead.

Q    Thanks, Karine.  Has the U.S. reached out directly to Syria to seek Austin Tice’s release?  His family issued a statement saying the NSC has failed to meet with the Syrians to work with them.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Look, you know, I don’t want to get — again, I’m trying to be very careful here.  I’m not going to get into any negotiations or personal conversations that we may be having with — with a wrongfully detained or someone who is being held abroad.  We want to be very careful here.  Don’t want to get into diplomat- — diplomatic conver- — diplomatic discussions. 

What I will say is that this President is committed — as I’ve said many times, as he has said — to do everything that he possibly can to bring home Americans who are wrongfully detained and held hostage.  And that is a commitment that you have seen — he, you know — he has, you know, promised and kept over the past several months.

Q    And following up from earlier in the week, do you know if the President has counted the votes to determine if he will seek an assault weapons ban during the lame duck?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  I don’t have anything more to share beyond what I said a couple of days ago. 

Q    So you don’t know if he’s counted the votes yet?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  I just don’t — I haven’t — I haven’t — I don’t have an update for you at this time. 

Okay, go ahead.

Q    Thanks, Karine.  On the — on the economy.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Of course.

Q    So, we saw the — we saw the Producer Price Index come down a bit, but it’s still above 7 percent.  The Federal Reserve Chairman says that core inflation may be moving sideways.  We get a CPI inflation reading again next week.  So if Americans don’t see significant progress on inflation, does that mean the Inflation Reduction Act — early next year — hasn’t worked?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Well, it — okay, let’s step back for a second. 

So, near-term inflation expectation fell this month, so that’s important.  We saw that in the data, so it’s important to call out.  The Producer — the Producer Price Index rose at its slowest annual rate since May 2021.  So that is data points that we saw in — in the index today.

Americans are beginning to see a much-needed break in inflation, but we have more work to do.  And so gas prices have fallen about $1.70 since June and are lower than they were a year ago, before Putin’s war.  That’s because of the work that this President has done to bring gas prices down, to deal with an issue that matters to the American people when it — when we look at the economy, which is inflation and cost. 

So, millions of Americans shopping for health insurance plans continue to save $800 per year thanks to the Inflation Reduction Act.  So, yes, it’s been beneficial, and we see that it is working.

And in six weeks, President Biden’s plan to bring down prescription drugs, predic- — prescription drug prices and energy costs goes into effect.  And that’s going to matter for the American people as they think about — when they sit around their kitchen table — you hear the President talk about this — at the end of the month, trying to figure out how they’re going to pay for items in their house.  And these — what I just listed out — or in their lives — is going to matter: lowering costs — healthcare costs, lowering energy costs.  We’re already seeing that it’s going to have a real effect on American families.  And so I will leave it there.

Q    Yeah, but you had said the inflation — before the midterms, you told me that the Inflation Reduction Act should bring down inflation early next year.  So if it doesn’t do that significantly, is that seen as, then, a failure?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Well, that — first of all, you’re — that’s a bunch of hypotheticals that you’re asking me.  I’m — what I laid out was something that economists said by looking at the Inflation Reduction Act, by examining it and know- — understanding what it’s going to do for the American people.  You’re bringing up a hypothetical.

What — what I said was, again: What we — what was — what was the analy- — analysis that was done by economists.  And I just laid out also how we see the Inflation Reduction Act is actually going to help the American people, and that matters. 

And, you know — you know, I have to say, Ed, you — and just going back to the past several months as well — look, the Inflation Reduction Act was a piece of legislation that was signed by the President that was only passed by Democrats.  And what you saw from Republican officials over the past several months is how they wanted to get rid of it because they were upset about Social — Social Security.  They wanted to put Medicare on the chopping block, and they have no plan to lowering costs. 

So what you’re seeing from this administration, what you’re seeing from this President, what you’re seeing from Democrats in D.C. — in Congress, is that they are taking action to lower costs for the American people.  And that matters.  And that’s what we’re going to continue to do.

Q    An end-of-the-year housekeeping question, following up on what I think Karen was asking about: The House has already voted on the NDAA; the Senate will most likely take it up this week.  Should the Senate expect to know what the position of the President is on the bill before they vote on it?  Will —

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  I mean, we’ve been — I mean, we’ve been very clear, when I’ve been asked about the vaccine mandate, we thought that was a mistake.  You know, and it wasn’t just from the President.  It was also from — you — we — the Senate and Congress received a letter from Secretary Austin saying how important — how they — he believed in how important the vaccine mandate was. 

What I’m saying is: We want to look at — and the President — and not just this President, other presidents — have been able to judge the package in its entirety.  And so that’s what we’re looking to do. 

And — but we’re also going to be very vocal, as we have been, on what happened and occurred with the vaccine mandate in the NDAA.

Q    And then on another end-of-the-year item: Obviously, there’s the spending package, which was discussed earlier.  Is there anything else beyond the spending package and the NDAA that is on the list that the President has for things that he would like the House to accomplish before control turns over to the Republicans in January?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Well, we’ve — we’ve actually laid that — laid that out a couple of times.  You know, we — we believe that — the President believes that we should get the government funded, as I just mentioned, including what we need to respond to the disasters, continue to defend democracy in Ukraine, and fight — and fight the new COVID variants. 

We’re going to — we’re going to sign the Marriage — he’s going to sign the Marriage Equality Act, which is something, clearly, that the President supported.  And so, look, we’re going to continue to work with Congress and continue to encourage Congress to get this stuff done. 

He also believes we should pass the Electoral Reform Act.  He believes we should pass the Defense Authorization bill — right? — and that the permitting bill should be also something that we should move forward with. 

So we kind of listed out some of the things that are important.  We hope to finish confirming the judicial nominees the President made earlier this year. 

So those are just a few of those items that I’ve listed out before that we are certainly focused on. 

Q    Thanks, Karine.  

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  All right.  All right, thanks, everybody.  Have a great weekend. 

2:03 P.M. EST

Source: White House