Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jen Psaki, August 30, 2021
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room 2:14 P.M. EDT MS. PSAKI: Good afternoon, everyone. Okay. I have
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
2:14 P.M. EDT
MS. PSAKI: Good afternoon, everyone.
Okay. I have two updates for you. The first is one on Hurricane Ida, which is lengthy. I’m just going to give you an advance, but hopefully we’ll share a number of helpful details with all of you.
Today, as you just saw, the President and his Homeland Security team continue to monitor the impacts of Hurricane Ida, something that he was monitoring through the course of the weekend.
This was an extremely large and powerful hurricane. And as expected, early reports suggest catastrophic damage in a number of areas along the Gulf Coast. And while Ida has now been downgraded to a tropical storm, it is going to continue to inflict damage as it moves across the state of Mississippi today and into the Tennessee Valley tomorrow.
This will be a lengthy, whole-of-government, and whole-of-community response and recovery effort, and we are closely coordinating with state and local officials at every step of the way.
Today, as damage assessments and response efforts begin in the Gulf Coas- — Gulf Coast where conditions allow on the ground, we understand that responders are focused on the following immediate priorities: search and rescue operations and medical evacuations for those in distress; accelerating efforts to restore electrical power in Louisiana and Mississippi, where latest counts say — suggest that more than 1 million customers are without electricity; restoring communications where they are down; and providing emergency food, water, and shelter to those in need.
In parts of Louisiana, including New Orleans, energy companies have reported catastrophic damage to their transmission systems, and we don’t yet know how long this will take for the local utilities to repair. But clearly, that’s a big priority for everyone involved. It could be weeks to get everything fully back up and running.
Administration officials are also engaged directly with electricity sector leadership to help ensure all available resources are being brought to bear to restore power as quickly as possible.
As you all saw, the President just spoke with governors and mayors from impacted communities, and he was at FEMA’s National Response Coordination Center yesterday to receive the latest updates on the response operations and to thank the hardworking staff who are working around the clock to support state and local response efforts.
The President also approved — you may have seen this, but — last night, an emergency major declaration for Louisiana, which allows individuals in the impacted areas to apply for assistance. He also approved a pre-disaster emergency declaration for Mississippi to authorize emergency preparation and protective measures and direct federal assistance.
I just want to give you a quick overview to the federal resources that are supporting state and local efforts as of now, and — many of which were pre-positioned before the storm.
FEMA is working with its federal, state, and local partners, as well as nongovernmental agencies to support needs of areas affected by Ida. The agency positioned supplies such as meals, water, and generators to assist states with impacts from the storm.
More than 3,600 FEMA employees are deployed to Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas and are ready to provide additional support as needed.
FEMA has staged more than 3.4 million meals, millions of liters of water, more than 35,700 tarps, and roughly 200 generators.
Hundreds of additional ambulances and air ambulances have also been moved into the area.
Seven FEMA Incident Management Assistance Teams — IMATs — and seventeen Urban Search and Rescue teams have been activated, along with debris subject matter experts.
The Department of Health and Human Services is deploying a 250-bed federal medical shelter to Alexandria, Louisiana.
And the U.S. Coast Guard has 27 rotary or fixed-wing aircraft, and the Department of Defense has 60 high-water vehicles and 14 rotary wing aircraft prepositioned to assist with — with rescue efforts.
Shelters are open in affected areas throughout the Gulf Coast across the impacted states, and they are implementing steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The National Guard has also activated more than 5,200 personnel in Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, and Alabama to support response efforts.
And finally, the Air — Army Corps of Engineers has activated planning and response teams for debris, temporary roofing, and temporary housing.
Again, we are working closely with state and local officials. Even though the storm has been downgraded to a tropical storm, damaging wind gusts continue to be a threat, which likely result in additional downed trees and power outages as the storm moves to — moves Northeast. And Ida will continue to produce heavy rainfall, life-threatening flash and urban flooding, and tornadoes remain a threat.
Finally, our Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas and FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell will travel to Baton Rouge on Tuesday morning and will meet with the governor to survey damage. The FEMA Administrator will also travel to Jackson, Mississippi, that evening. And on Wednesday, she will meet with the governor and tour the damage.
The last update I wanted to provide to all of you is that, as part of our all-across-government effort/approach to preventing evictions, today Attorney General Merrick Garland is calling on the entire legal community to take immediate action to help prevent unnecessary evictions during this public health emergency.
The Attorney General’s call to action asks major law firms, law school students, and individual lawyers to work with courts, legal service providers, and non-profits through pro bono services to ensure access to justice for vulnerable tenants.
So far, over 40 major law school deans, including from Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Columbia, Howard, UCLA, and more have already committed their students and law clinics to help prevent evictions.
And presidents of several major legal organizations — including the Legal Services Corporation, the American Bar Association, and the National Housing Law Project — have joined the commitment to immediate action.
And on Thursday, we will join a nationwide emergency rental assistance program training held by the Association of Pro Bono Counsel & Law Firm Antiracism Alliance.
With that, Darlene, why don’t you kick us off?
Q Thanks, Jen. Switching to Afghanistan, as of yesterday, there were about 300 U.S. citizens who were still there who wanted to get out by the deadline. Do you have an update on that number? Are we still looking at 300 waiting to get out? Is it down to 150? Is it down to zero?
MS. PSAKI: Absolutely. Well, I know my State Department colleagues will have a more specific up-to-date number, but let me give you an update of where things stand at this point.
Of those who self-identified as Americans in Afghanistan considering leaving the country since August 14th, we have thus far received confirmation that about 6,000 have been evacuated or otherwise departed. This number will likely continue to grow as our outreach and arrivals continue. And we have been providing, as you know, regular updates to all you on evacuations.
The initial assessment, if we go back to August 14th, was that there were fewer than 6,000 Americans in Afghanistan who wanted to get out. So, as we conveyed at the time, we knew that there could be an option — one, that people who had registered had already departed; or that people had registered — had not deregistered; or that there would be additional people who came forward.
And we believe there are still a small number — I understand your exact — asking for the exact number who remain. We’re trying to determine exactly how many, and we’re going through manifests and calling and texting through our lists, and we’ll have more of a concrete number for you as soon as possible.
Part of the challenge with fixing a precise number is that there are longtime residents of Afghanistan, as we’ve talked about in here, with American passports — dual citizens, the vast majority who are still trying to determine if they want to leave or not, or have been over the last couple of days.
In some instances — in many instances, that’s because they have many family members there, but they have a range of reasons, and we’ve been working with them to assess that.
Q And then one other question on Afghanistan. The deadline is tomorrow, obviously. What can you tell us about what the President will do tomorrow? How will he mark this moment? Should the public, you know, expect to hear from him tomorrow at some point after this has all wrapped up?
MS. PSAKI: Absolutely, Darlene. Well, without getting into specific operational details — I know you’re not asking me for that, but just to preface — I think that you all can expect and the American public can expect to hear from the President in the coming days.
I don’t have anything to outline for you in terms of the specific date or time for that at this point in time.
MS. PSAKI: Go ahead.
Q Thanks, Jen. On August 10th, President Biden told me, quote, “I do not regret my decision to withdraw from Afghanistan.” After watching the heart-wrenching dignified transfer yesterday, is that still his position? Does he not regret the manner in which this withdrawal was conducted?
MS. PSAKI: Well, first, I would say that the men and women who gave their lives — and the President attended, as you noted, yesterday, to honor their service, honor their sacrifice, and had time — had the opportunity to meet a number of the family members yesterday.
We can’t — that doesn’t take the place of all of the progress we’ve — all of the work that has been done to evacuate people. But I will tell you something that has been said time and time again by the brave men and women of the military who are leading this effort: These 13 individuals sacrificed their lives to save tens of thousands of people. And that is something that is — should be honored, should be valued, and we will continue to look for ways to do that.
Q So, after meeting with the families of the fallen service members, he still sticks by his decision? He doesn’t regret at all how this has played out in the last couple of weeks?
MS. PSAKI: Well, of course, that — for any President, as I said last week, that a day or a week where you lose 13 service members is the worst day or the worst week of your presidency. And that is — remains the case.
And yesterday — and I’ve seen him since he, of course, went to Dover yesterday — he is — of course, was deeply impacted. He knows firsthand that there’s nothing you can say to a family member, there’s nothing you can say to someone who loses a child that is going to fill the black hole. That remains the case.
But I will say, if you just take a step back beyond yesterday, the President stands by his decision to bring our men and women home from Afghanistan. Because if he had not, his view and the view of many experts in military out there is we would have sent tens of thousands, potentially — or thousands, at least — more troops back into harm’s way, risking more lives and more people to fight a war the Afghans were not willing to fight themselves. Nothing has changed in that regard.
Q One more question. How was that interaction between the President and those families yesterday?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I’m obviously not going to speak to private conversations between the President and the parents of service members who lost their lives saving others. He was grateful to be there with the families yesterday and to honor both the heroic service and the incredible sacrifice of their sons and daughters.
And while his son did not lose his life directly in combat, as they did, or directly at the hands of a terrorist, as these — terrorists — as these families did that they’re mourning, he knows, as I just said, firsthand that there’s nothing you can say, nothing you can convey to ease the pain and to ease what all these families are going through. But he was honored to be there yesterday and to be able to spend some time with the families.
Q Thank you.
MS. PSAKI: Go ahead.
Q Two quick technical questions and one other question. You said 6,000 have been evacuated or otherwise departed.
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q Is that apples to apples to the 5,400 that had been evacuated? Are we now including people who had registered but forgot — or did not register on their way out? I’m just trying to understand that.
MS. PSAKI: Sure. Well, as we’re assessing, there are people, as we — as the State Department goes through and calls or emails, who say “I have departed” or “I have left.” That doesn’t change the total number of evacuees that we have obviously provided to all of you every day on planes and transport. But right now, we’re, of course, at the point where we are trying to assess and get a final number.
Q Okay. And then, from a chain of command perspective, the President has been very clear his commanders on the ground have the leeway to do what they think is necessary on the ground. For a defensive strike like we saw last night, is that something that he signs off on? Does he give the green light to that? Or is that commanders on the ground who make that decision?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I can tell you that the President has made clear to his commanders that they should stop at nothing to make ISIS pay for the deaths of those American service members at the Kabul Airport. They have the authorities necessary; it is self-defense. Obviously, there are — these are ISIS terrorists who killed U.S. service members. And the President is regularly briefed, but he has directed them to go after and to kill these ISIS terrorists who have taken the lives of the men and women serving our country.
Q Okay. And one more, kind of dealing with dual, very high-stakes issues right now inside the White House. We saw the dignified transfer yesterday; the most dangerous part of the mission right now; a Category 4 hurricane slamming the Gulf Coast. Can you talk about what the White House has been like over the course of the last 48 hours given these very, very high-stakes moments that are transpiring?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would say that addressing crises is what government is supposed to do. It’s what any president is supposed to do, what any vice president is supposed to do, and what the senior members of a president’s team are supposed to do.
And so when you have moments like this where you are facing, as you said, multiple crises — I would — I would add, of course, that we’re continuing to fight a pandemic that has — continues to take the lives of thousands of people every week — you have to rely on strong and capable team members, and you have to — you have to be nimble enough to adapt quickly.
But I think we would argue this is actually government working to do our best to function as best as we can. Is it tough? Yes. Are the days long? Yes. Is it always going to be perfect? No. But this is exactly what government is supposed to be doing.
Q Jen, back on the hurricane. Is the White House seeing reports or have any data about fuel shortages with some of the refineries impacted and rail lines suspended?
MS. PSAKI: It is something we’re monitoring closely, Jeff. We have not seen, to date, that as an issue, but we will closely monitor that and will continue to over the coming days.
Q And is the White House, along the same lines, considering or see the need for Jones Act waivers to deal with fuel shortages?
MS. PSAKI: Well, as you noted, the Jones Act, which we talked quite a bit about just a few weeks ago, there are a range of tools at our disposal that the federal government has to address fuel supplies shortages during natural disasters by issuing emergency waivers of certain fuel standards in affected area. Obviously, if warranted by circumstances, EPA’s temporary waivers can help ensure that adequate supply of fuel is available.
EPA, as well as several components of the government, are in touch with our state partners in Louisiana and Mississippi, as well as operators of refineries, pipelines, tanks, and other infrastructure to assess the situation on the ground and what needs exist to ensure the supply of transportation fuel.
We have not made that assessment at this point in time, but we do have those authorities should they be needed.
Q And just last follow-up on the Afghanistan — the meeting with family yesterday: Did the President — does the President plan to continue to stay in touch with those families?
MS. PSAKI: Absolutely. And he’s going to continue to look for ways of honoring them and the lives that were lost last week as well.
Q Thank you. Just a few others on the ongoing evacuation — with the caveat that things are changing, winding down — numbers as they get reported here versus situations on the ground.
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q We heard, through the weekend, of Americans who were told to get to the airport and then unable to do so because of the danger on the ground. If for some reason — and we don’t have a specific example just yet but there very well may be depending on when the final flights out are — what would be your message to those Americans who may get left behind who were trying to get out?
MS. PSAKI: Well, as you noted, and I appreciate the caveat, we are continuing — we remain in touch with American citizens, as I noted at the top to Darlene’s question, and we are continuing to work to evacuate American citizens. What our message directly would be that — is that our commitment is enduring and our commitment does not waver, even as we bring our men and women from the military home.
And let me just outline for you a couple of the steps that are ongoing that I expect we’ll give you updates on as details are finalized. First, on the diplomatic front, the Secretary of State has — is going to be meeting with a number of his international partners. Just over the weekend, the State Department put out a letter from a hundred countries, making clear that there must be safe passage for citizens, for Afghans who want to leave after the 31st.
On Friday, one of the Taliban leaders delivered public remarks conveying that individuals who wish to leave after the 31st would be able to do so. That does not mean we trust what they say, but there — that is a — but there is an enormous amount of international leverage that we will continue to work in a coordinated way with our partners around the world.
And there’s also, of course, a discussion about what our diplomatic presence may look like moving forward. As our Secretary of State and our National Security Advisor confirmed yesterday, our current plan is not to have an ongoing presence in Afghanistan as of September 1st, but we will have means and mechanisms of having diplomats on the ground, being able to continue to process out those applicants and facilitate passage of other people who want to leave Afghanistan. We will have more details for that, I expect, in the coming days.
And can I add one more piece that we’re working on? The other piece of this is operational, which of course is the airport and the airports; there are also regional airports. And we are currently working with a range of partners in the region about how to keep those up and operational.
We need to reopen or figure out how to work with our partners to reopen the civilian airport and ensure that that is a mechanism. That is an area where there is mutual interest by the United States, by international organizations like the World Food Program who want to get assistance in, and by the Taliban, to get these airports operational and running.
Q You anticipated part of my next one, because this ongoing conversation with the rest of the world about being able to get people out if they want to leave. Is there any sense of how long Afghans who are trying to leave, who don’t leave by tomorrow, are going to have to wait for further instruction or sense of whether or not they’re going to be able to go?
MS. PSAKI: There — well, I will — I will tell you that there’s ongoing, immediate, urgent conversations happening at a very high level with international partners now. And we hope to have more of an update on that in the coming days.
There are different components of this, right? The airport operations — it may take some time to get that going. But we are working through a range of mechanisms so that there can be an ongoing efforts to move people out who are looking to depart Afghanistan.
Q And just one final one on this because, again, based on things we’ve heard from people there, did the evacuation of non-Americans — SIV recipients or people who were applying or eligible enough to leave — effectively stop after Thursday’s attack?
MS. PSAKI: No, we have continued to work to evacuate individuals since that time. I think we’ve put out a range of numbers since then who make clear that we have continued to evacuate Afghan partners and other applicants.
Q As the U.S. — first of all, it’s approaching midnight, at the end of the 30th, now in Kabul. Is that the way you view the deadline? Or does the White House view the deadline as some point tomorrow?
MS. PSAKI: I’m not going to get into operational details of when we will continue our retrograde efforts. That’s led by the Department of Defense and our team on the ground.
Q The President said he believed — recently, you followed and said the same — that he believed that they were on pace — this was before the attack — on pace to — for the “achievement of our objectives.” So, as we approach that deadline, either tonight or tomorrow night, whatever it is, did the U.S. accomplish its objective, knowing that there will be likely thousands of SIV applicants and others still there and certainly some Americans as well? Did we achieve our objective?
MS. PSAKI: I think, first, we have — we have, to date, evacuated more than 120,000 people. That’s 120,000 lives that we have saved, including 6,000 Americans and their families, many of them dual nationals. And we are continuing. Our commitment is enduring to Afghan partners, to American citizens who may not have decided to leave. That is their right to determine when they want to leave. That commitment is enduring. But we have saved more than 120,000 lives, and I would let you evaluate your — for that for yourself.
Q When we talk about, as the U.S. prepares to leave, whether tonight or tomorrow, there are going to be billions of dollars’ worth of U.S.-made munitions — arms, military aircraft, armored vehicles — that have fallen into the hands of the Taliban here, giving them new capabilities they didn’t have before this. Are Americans less safe now because the Taliban now has access to billions of dollars’ worth of American-made weaponry?
MS. PSAKI: Well, let me unpack your question a little bit, because the U.S. military — part of their retrograde effort is to reduce the amount of military equipment or apparatus that anyone on the ground has access to. I’m not going to get into the details of how they do that, but that is part of their effort.
I will also reiterate something that our National Security Advisor said just last week: We had to make an assessment, several weeks ago, about whether we provide materials to the Afghan National Security Forces so that they could fight the fight — obviously, they decided not to fight — or not. And we made the decision to provide them with that equipment and the materiel.
The third piece I would note that’s very important here is that we have not assessed that any group on the ground, whether it’s ISIS-K or the Taliban, has the ability to attack the United States.
Whoa. We clearly need to — sorry, that was an aggressive bug. (Laughter.)
We need to ensure that remains the case, but that is not a capability that we have assessed to be the case at this point in time.
There’s a difference between the threat that is posed to U.S. men and women serving, or people who are gathering outside of the gates in Kabul, and whether these individuals can attack the United States.
Q So, I guess, the — but the simple question is — acknowledging that, you’re going to try to limit what access they do have to some of the weaponry in ways that you can’t communicate here. But at the end of the day, whether it’s not the United States that’s under risk as a function of this, are Americans around the globe — I mean, are Western interests now more at risk because the Taliban has new access to all this weaponry?
MS. PSAKI: Well, again, Peter, I would say that we — the world will be watching. We have an enormous amount of leverage, including access to the global marketplace, which is not a small piece of leverage to the Taliban, who are now overseeing large swaths of Afghanistan.
Certainly, our objective was not to leave them with any equipment, but that is not always an option when you are looking to retrograde and move out of a warzone.
But that is our clear leverage we have with the Taliban. And again, our capacities are over-the-horizon capacities — which, by the way, killed two ISIS terrorists just last week and continue to be utilized by our men and women on the ground — remain in place and remain in place in the region.
There are other parts of the world — Somalia, Libya, Yemen — where we don’t have a presence on the ground, and we still prevent terrorist attacks or threats to U.S. citizens living in the United States or around the world from growing.
Q Just last question, and then I’ll share to the next person. Is the U.S. more or less safe today than we were before the Taliban took over?
MS. PSAKI: Well, again, we are not going to do anything that’s going to allow terrorists to grow or prosper in Afghanistan or any terrorist organization. That continues to be the President’s commitment, and his order to his U.S. military over the past several days and the actions that CENTCOM have announced show that he’s going to deliver on that promise.
Q Is there any concern or disappointment here that China and Russia didn’t sign on to the letter that the State Department put out the other day?
MS. PSAKI: It remains an open letter that they are welcome to sign on. I will tell you, though, that it will be important and we will continue to engage with a range of partners, including those where we have at times adversarial disagreements with about — about the need to maintain safe passage for individuals who wish to leave Afghanistan. There are a range of international organizations and mechanisms to have those discussions, and they’re ongoing.
Go ahead, Jacqui.
Q Sorry, one —
MS. PSAKI: Oh, go ahead.
Q — other question, unrelated to this, if I might.
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q The IAEA has put out a report that indicates that the North Korea’s — North Korean’s main nuclear reactor may be restarting.
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q The IAEA says it’s a matter of serious concern. What’s the White House’s reaction?
MS. PSAKI: We are, of course, aware of this report and closely coordinating with our allies and partners on developments regarding North Korea. This report underscores the urgent need for dialogue and diplomacy so we can achieve the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
We continue to seek dialogue with the DPRK so we can address this reported activity and the full range of issues related to denuclearization.
Go ahead, Jacqui.
Q Thanks, Jen. I wanted to go to this New York Times report about the students from the American University in Afghanistan. The Times reported that they had been left behind, and they were contacted apparently to try to get out, held in safe houses for a period of time, and then were told that the evacuation had stopped. And that, separately, the university president apparently told these students and their parents that their information had been handed over to the Taliban — obviously, to give them safe passage, which has not yet happened.
But my question is: As this sort of draws down, don’t we sort of owe a group like that — where we’ve given out their information, their passport numbers, their names — aren’t we obligated in some way to ensure that they get onto these last flights, given the fact that the Taliban, soon after coming into Kabul, posed at the front of the universities, saying that this is where, you know, the Americans trained people, and they’re obviously threatened and scared by that?
MS. PSAKI: Absolutely. Well, first, let me say that there have been reports that we provided or the U.S. provided lists of people who want to leave Afghanistan to the Taliban. That’s inaccurate. That’s misreported and misconstrued.
We have also confirmed, repeatedly, that we have had to coordinate with the Taliban. And so, there have been limited, limited cases where it is possible that when buses or individuals are at a border checkpoint and they’re trying to get through, in order to get them through to evacuate them successfully, we have had to coordinate and provide details.
I don’t have confirmations of those events, but that is the scenario in the limited cases where that would happen. And in vast majority of cases — I’m not aware of any that that hasn’t been — those individuals have been evacuated.
I understand what the president of the school said. I don’t have any confirmation that that has actually happened on the ground or any — from anyone who is leading the effort on the ground.
And, certainly, our commitment remains to American citizens, to Afghans who want to leave, like these individuals and these young people who have been courageous, to get them out of the country. And we are in touch with all those individuals on the ground.
I’d also note, and as they know: It is scary, and it is a — it is a very dangerous situation on the ground. Another attack could happen at any time. And when we give these security briefings or security warnings, or tell people to move away from the gate, it is because we also want to save them and protect them.
So, what we’ve been trying to do is work with individual cases, with families, with groups to get them evacuated if and when we can.
I’d also note our commitment is enduring. I just — this is a very fluid and dangerous situation on the ground, and I just don’t have a detail on this — the current state of this particular case.
Q Okay, thank you. And then, on the drone strikes, it seems that we’re witnessing these happen, you know, with more frequency. Obviously, we have the, you know, over-the-horizon ability to get this done; we’ve got the intelligence to do it. But my question is, you know, why is it that we weren’t able to do — use similar action to prevent the attack that happened on Thursday?
And then, part of that is: Because we now are, you know, hearing reports of how these are being carried out — one of the drones had to fly eight hours, I think, from UAE — is there any concern that we’re limited in our ability to respond in a timely manner if we’ve got eight hours of flight time and then they can only hang out over the target for, like, four or five hours before they’ve got to turn around and go back? Is there a future, sort of, ongoing worry that we’re going to be behind the eight ball again?
MS. PSAKI: Well, first, I would say the fact that we have had two successful strikes confirmed by CENTCOM tells you that our over-the-horizon capacity works and is working.
In terms of the specific threats, what we — when we had — what we had with respect to the Kabul Airport, we, of course, had been warning about for days, which was the potential for the rising threats — the rising threats from ISIS-K, that such atta- — an attack could take place and could take place at any moment in time.
What we can do and what our commanders on the ground do who have access to all this information as well is mitigate risks. We can’t eliminate risk. And if we were going to continue to evacuate tens of thousands of people — American citizens, Afghans, our partners — we had to mitigate risk; we couldn’t eliminate it. And that’s — that’s how we proceeded.
Now, the President has been clear to his military and to the commanders on the ground that force protection is of utmost concern. And I know my colleague at DOD confirmed the closure of gates earlier today. There have been steps that have been taken. And obviously, as we’ve gone through the retrograde process over the last couple of days — and it has been incredibly dangerous — there are steps that have had to be taken as these threats have increased.
Q And the last one, just on overland groups: As I understand, we’re, you know, looking for other ways, after our military pulls out, to get people back and out, but has this been at all hampered by Putin, you know, rejecting a U.S. effort to put counterterrorism forces or bases for drones in Central Asian countries bordering? I know Putin also, in that reported June meeting, spoke for China in that. Did we ever get an answer from China ourselves on their position on this?
MS. PSAKI: I can’t speak to these private diplomatic conversations from here, but I can tell you we have a range of partners in the region who we continue to work with and have discussions with so that we can maintain the over-the-horizon capacity.
Go ahead, Ashley.
Q Thank you. Going back to the President’s meetings with the families at Dover yesterday: The sister of one of the Marines killed in the airport attack told the press that the President’s comments struck her family as “scripted” and “shallow.” And she said, quote, “You can’t [F] up as bad as he did and say you’re sorry. This did not need to happen, and every life is on his hands.” So my question is: How — can you talk a little about how the President thought the meeting with the families went? And also, what responsibility, if any, for these deaths does he think he bears?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think the President made clear, as the Secretary of State and our National Security Advisor made clear that we’re all responsible. And their response- — they feel a responsibility. And the buck stops with the President. And I think you heard him say that on Thursday when we — he spoke to the loss of life of these servicemen and -women, as soon as it — shortly after it had happened.
It is certainly the — the right of any individual who met with the President yesterday to speak publicly about their experience, but I’m not going to speak about the President’s experience beyond what I’ve said already.
Q And following up, you mentioned that the President absolutely plans to stay in touch with those families. Is there the possibility he may attend any funerals or speak at any funerals?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I will say: What’s important to remember here is that this is the worst thing that’s happened ever in the lives of these family members, and last Thursday or Friday was the worst day of their lives. And what role the President plays or doesn’t play is probably not front and center for them.
But he’s only going to do things that are of comfort to the family, are supportive of remembering the lives that have been lost, and he’s going to continue to look for ways to do that.
Q Two quick questions. First, on Afghanistan. The drone strike that the United States conducted appears, according to family members in Afghanistan, to have killed 7 children, as part of 10 people. Does the President feel the same sense of responsibility and loss for those lives as he does for the American service members?
MS. PSAKI: Well, first, let me say that we take efforts — take steps from the United States to avoid civilian casualties in every scenario, and probably more than almost any country in the world. I can’t speak to or confirm the numbers or cases of civilian casualties in this case. There is an investigation.
I will note that in the CENTCOM statement that they put out yesterday, what they — last night, I should say — what they noted is that there was also the explosion — there were explosives in this vehicle that could have led to additional damage. There’s an investigation to determine how this happened. But, of course, the loss of life from anywhere is horrible, and it impacts families no matter where they’re living in the United States or around the world.
Q And then my second question is about American families: 7.5 million Americans are set to lose unemployment benefits next month — not just their federal supplement but all benefits. Given the expiration of the eviction moratorium, what’s going on with the Delta variant, has the President considered asking Congress to extend those benefits further?
MS. PSAKI: Well, if Congress were to vote to extend — to extend the eviction moratorium, the President would sign that into law, and he’d be happy to do that.
Q No, the benefits — the unemployment benefits. Would —
MS. PSAKI: We — look, I think he made a decision based on where things stand and our economic recovery at this point in time. There’s additional assistance that continues to go out to people across the country — which you are very familiar with and know well — whether, it’s the Child Tax Credit or additional funding that is still being distributed by the American Rescue Plan.
Our objective continues to be to work with states and localities to keep people in their homes, make sure people have the assistance they need. That’s why there was a range of programs and a range of assistance the President advocated for, fought like hell for, and signed into law that is going to be implemented over the course of the next year and not just ending this summer.
Q Thank you.
MS. PSAKI: Go ahead.
Q The President regularly talks about the fact that he’s the fourth President to deal with Afghanistan. He made a point in his April speech to say he’d called President Bush. I’m wondering, has he been in touch with President Bush, President Obama — I’m going to assume he hasn’t been in touch with President Trump, but I’ll ask anyway — about this over the past few weeks as this withdrawal has played out?
MS. PSAKI: I’m not aware of any calls he’s had with those Presidents over the last few weeks.
Q Jen, on — the EU voted to implement new travel restrictions. It’s, obviously, up to the individual countries on whether they want to allow U.S. citizens and U.S. travelers into their countries. Obviously, we have not been letting many of those same — people from the same countries come to the U.S., but what’s the administration’s reaction to the EU taking that step?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think it’s, first, important to note that today’s announcement by the EU impacts people who are unvaccinated and not people who are vaccinated. And we concur- — continue to encourage people to get vaccinated. And the fastest path to reopening travel is for people to get vaccinated, to mask up, and slow the spread of the deadly virus.
We continue to work across federal agencies to develop a consistent and safe international travel policy. This includes travel from Europe. This will involve stepping up efforts to protect American people, including by potentially strengthening testing protocols for international travel. It may also involve ensuring that, over time, foreign nationals coming into the United States are fully vaccinated, with limited exceptions.
No decision has been made yet, but these internal discussions have benefited greatly from our engagement with our international partners.
Q And just a smaller thing related to the hurricane: Are you anticipating that the President will visit Louisiana at some point? And do you think that that will likely be later this week? I know things are obviously fluid at this point —
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q — but since you have the Homeland Security Secretary already going there tomorrow.
MS. PSAKI: Right. It is different, as you all know, for the President of the United States to travel somewhere, from the Secretary of Homeland Security, given the footprint. The President would not want to go if it were to impact — until it does not impact recovery and rescue efforts on the ground.
So, I don’t have any prediction of that at this point in time. We will see how the next few days go.
Go ahead, Karen.
Q Thanks, Jen. We’ve had reports of hospitals down in Louisiana that are full of COVID patients trying to evacuate some patients. They’re having issues of roof damage, some generators failing. Can you give us a sense of the scope of the impact on hospitals in that region and what the federal government is specifically doing about that?
MS. PSAKI: Absolutely. So, first, let me say that I know there have been a range of reports out there but, as of late last night, no hospitals had run out of oxygen — as of late last night. That is something, of course, that we are watching very closely.
We have — prior to the storm, we had more than 300 federally deployed healthcare personnel on the ground supporting COVID surge response in Louisiana and Mississippi. The Department of Veterans Affairs has made beds available, prior to the hurricane, to support local hospitals and will be available to assist in response. And HHS and FEMA are working to assess/deploy additional assets as needed.
So, on hospitals: We also have approximately 39 facilities, as I understand, using generator power. And we are, of course, working around the clock to get power back on where we can. But this is certainly an area where we — not only did the President speak purposefully several — over the course of the last few months, and many of our high-level officials have spoken out about the need for people to get vaccinated, but we’ve also worked preemptively to put in place generators, equipment, emergency personnel to help address — and I expect as we continue to discuss with the governor and health administrators, we’ll determine what additional assistance we can provide.
Q And just a follow-up on something you said in your opening — that shelters are open in the area and they’re implementing steps to prevent the spread of COVID. Can you give us more details on what’s being done in those shelters?
MS. PSAKI: There are steps, including social distancing wherever possible — which, I know sounds challenging, but we’re working — that is being worked to implement; masking wherever possible; and, again, I would note that the President and several other high-level members of the administration made a strong case over the course of last couple of months for individuals to get vaccinated. We had seen increases in numbers of vaccination in the region, although not simply not enough to prevent the spread.
Go ahead, George.
Q Can you give us any kind of update on the American hostage that the President mentioned the other day, Mark Frerichs?
MS. PSAKI: Sure. It is — the case of Mark Frerichs is someone — is a case that has been raised repeatedly by our officials from the State Department, and also managed — the State Department is working closely with the Special Representative — Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs and the Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation. They’ve continued to press the Taliban for his release, continued to raise the status in senior level engagements in Doha and in Islamabad.
Obviously, that is overseen — is of great importance to the President, but is overseen in the day-to-day operations by the State Department, who would have any additional updates if there are any.
Go ahead, Patsy.
Q Thanks, Jen. So, President Biden has said that there is a thorough security screening process at the Kabul airport for everyone who is not a U.S. citizen or permanent resident. So he says that anyone arriving in the United States would have undergone a background check. Can you clarify where this vetting process is taking place? Because our sources have said that the President has instructed Ambassador Ross Wilson to essentially be more permissive to just get as many people on planes first, and then vet later. Can you confirm that?
And then I have another question to follow up.
MS. PSAKI: I mean, I don’t think that’s a secret. That is something we’ve conveyed clearly.
And that is also one of the reasons why we’re so grateful to several dozen countries out there — some of whom are serving as lily-pad countries, where individuals are going as, for many of them, their screening process is continuing before they proceed to the United States.
Q Okay. And can you respond from — respond to allegations from groups assisting evacuations that it’s very difficult to get deserving Afghans out because procedures that were given to the Marines on the ground and officers on the ground change constantly, sometimes even daily?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would first say that it’s an incredibly difficult and challenging security situation on the ground, as is evidenced by the fact that 13 men and women gave their lives on Thursday and we dealt with rocket attacks overnight. And of course, force posture and the protection of our troops is going to be a top priority.
But I would note that we’ve still evacuated — if you subtract the nearly 6,000 American citizens, that’s 114,000 people — many of whom are Afghans, others are partners — who we’ve evacuated from the country — SIV applicants and others — and saved their lives. So, that would be my response to that person.
Q Can you clarify, though, how many of those people from the 120,000 — when will you give breakdowns of the nationalities, how many are SIVs, how many are third-country nationals? When can we expect that?
MS. PSAKI: I would expect that would come from the Department of Homeland Security, and they’re working through that now.
Q There’s a wildfire bearing down in South Lake Tahoe right now. Is the administration tracking its advance? What plans does it have for this? And, you know, what are your thoughts on the fires that have been going on right now?
MS. PSAKI: Yes, absolutely we are tracking the wildfires and — and ones that have unfortunately continued in different parts of the West, it seems, over the past several months.
I would note that even as the President did regular briefings on hurricane preparedness, which of course have made us equipped to deal with the moment we’re facing in the Gulf Coast, he also prioritized preparing for fires and fi- — and ensuring that — that communities have the resources they need and that we have the response needed.
I can check with our FEMA team and see if there are specific resources that are being deployed there at this moment in time and get back to you on that as well.
Q And obviously, the administration is trying to boost pay for firefighters so they get more firefighters on the frontlines.
MS. PSAKI: Absolutely, yes.
Q Is the administration confident that the resources are what’s needed, you know, given that initiative?
MS. PSAKI: Well, that is our objective, but we will continue to assess if additional resources are needed. And again, I would note that when the President came in, he looked at the impact of wildfires and the fact that, in the past, there has been cases where we didn’t have the resources needed and he wanted to preemptively take steps to prepare for that, to make sure we had those resources as we went into fire season.
Yamiche, go ahead.
Q Thanks so much, Jen. One on Afghans that helped the United States and helped U.S.-funded NGOs and contractors: Is there any estimate on how many may be left behind?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think, Yamiche, what we’re working through right now is — how many left behind who have applied for programs or —
Q Yes, how many may be left behind after the deadline.
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would say, first, Yamiche, that — I just wanted to make sure I understood your question — that our commitment to working with not just any American citizen who has not yet decided to leave but others who stood by our side, fought by our side — that’s enduring. That will continue.
That is one of the reasons why our Secretary of State has been so focused on working with international partners, assuring that there was this statement by 100 countries out there, sending a clear message.
I’d also noted earlier the statement by the Taliban about safe passage, and why we’re working through what the mechanisms and modes are — will be for our diplomatic presence even as we’re not anticipating having one directly on the ground after the 1st.
Q And if there’s no number — it seems maybe that you’re not going to get into — I wonder —
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think the difficulty of getting to a number, Yamiche, is that there may be people who haven’t even applied yet, so we can’t count those people. If they’re eligible, then we’ll — and they want to depart, we’ll work with them.
Q And related to that, what is the President’s message to veterans who are feeling even hurt, maybe a bit embarrassed — people that I’ve talked to — who say that they feel like there are people who help them, who even in some cases saved their lives, who are now being left behind after the deadline, whether it’s tonight or tomorrow. What’s the message — what’s the message from the President to these veterans?
MS. PSAKI: Well, first, we’ve been closely engaged with a range of veterans’ groups because we’re grateful, of course, for their service and also for their advocacy for so many of these brave translators, interpreters, and others — tens of thousands of whom we’ve evacuated. But you’re right, there could be some that are still there who may not have applied or have not been able to depart the country yet.
Our message to them would be: We remain committed. These are our partners. These are our allies who have courageously stood by our side for the last 20 years. That’s why we’re so focused on ensuring we have a mo- — means and mechanisms of having diplomats on the ground, being able to continue to process applicants and facilitate the passage of other people who want to leave Afghanistan.
Q And a quick one on the hurricane. Louisiana is going to see highs of 80s. There are reports of no water, no power. How — what’s the plan to get to people who may not have cellphone service, who may not have access to the Internet, who are stuck in their homes given the circumstances that they may be dealing with.
MS. PSAKI: Well, this is why I did such an extensive laydown in the beginning because, as you know, it’s not just one thing, right? We are working to — working with — with indiv- — with companies who — to get the power back on. That could take weeks. We don’t know.
We have also — preemptively had set up a range of resources — food, water, and other resources that we can get to people on the ground. And we have deployed an across-government entities and resources — whether it’s from FEMA, to the Health and Human Services, to the Coast Guard — to get out to communities to save lives, to recover, to get people to food, water, and assistance that they need.
Q Thanks, Jen.
MS. PSAKI: Go ahead.
Q Thank you, Jen.
MS. PSAKI: Okay, last one. You got under — you got under Darlene’s, you know, thumb there.
Q Thank you. Two quick ones. The Washington Post reports that the Taliban offered to stay out of Kabul and let the United States forces secure the city. We told them that we only needed the airport. Is that reporting accurate?
MS. PSAKI: I have not seen this reporting. I’d have to look at it.
Q And then, a moment ago, you said that some of the reporting about the United States giving lists of the names of Afghans or SIV or Americans to the Taliban was inaccurate at times and misconstrued. I’m wondering if you can just clarify a little bit more, because last week the President said that, you know, there had sometimes been instances where maybe a bus is coming through and some names have been given. But then he also added that “I can’t tell you with any certitude that there’s actually been a list of names. There may have been, but I know of no circumstance.”
MS. PSAKI: I think that’s entirely consistent with what I just said — what I — or, several minutes ago. What I was conveying is that reports or suggestions that we were giving a preemptive, proactive list of Afghans or any individuals who wanted to leave the country to the Taliban are inaccurate.
And what the President said and what I also said, maybe in slightly different phrasing, is that there — there could be cases where on-the-ground commanders who are coordinating with the Taliban to get people through checkpoints to get — save their lives, get them evacuated — were saying, “Here’s individuals we need to get through.” And in any case that we’re aware of, those individuals came — got through.
But again, these are — these are — this is coordination that’s happening on the ground. And I think we can all agree there’s a big difference between providing a list of people who want to depart proactively and working at the moment on the ground in a coordinated, tactical way to get people out and evacuated and save their lives.
Q So it’s a prudential, on-the-ground decision, rather than a general massive list?
MS. PSAKI: Absolutely. Thank you, everyone.
Q Iran-related question, Jen. One Iran-related question.
MS. PSAKI: I’ll be back tomorrow —
MS. PSAKI: — and I’ll be here. Thank you, everyone.
3:01 P.M. EDT