Joe Biden finally held his first press conference since taking office today, and faced a grilling – plus a couple of awkward moments.
US President Joe Biden faced a grilling from reporters today, particularly on immigration issues, as he held his first formal press conference since taking office on January 20.
Mr Biden was on his feet for about an hour, and started by announcing a revised goal of conducting 200 million COVID-19 vaccinations in his first 100 days.
The President had an initial target of 100 million shots, which the United States passed last week on his 59th day in power.
“I know it’s ambitious, twice our original goal, but no other country in the world has even come close to what we are doing,” he said.
With that out of the way, Mr Biden proceeded to take questions from 10 reporters. Not one of them asked about the coronavirus pandemic – a fact that didn’t escape the notice of viewers.
The US is still averaging more than 50,000 new infections each day, which is down from a peak of over 250,000 in January, but still the second-worst rate in the world behind Brazil.
It is also averaging more than a thousand deaths.
The reporters also failed to press Mr Biden for specifics on gun control, which has become a salient issue again following the mass shootings in Atlanta, Georgia and Boulder, Colorado.
The press conference included a few of Mr Biden’s characteristic verbal stumbles. At one point, about two minutes into an answer about the Senate’s filibuster rule, he appeared to lose his train of thought.
“I’ve never been particularly poor at calculating how to get things done in the Senate. So the best way to get something done, if you hold near and dear to you that you like to be able to … anyway. We’re ready to get a lot done,” he said.
Read on for a breakdown of all the major questions raised during the press conference, and Mr Biden’s responses.
This will be the chunkiest part of our summary, because immigration got far more attention than any other issue.
There has been a surge of unaccompanied minors arriving at the United States’ southern border with Mexico since Mr Biden took office, and it has caused overcrowding in the country’s strained immigrant facilities.
The President’s political opponents, and much of the news media, are describing the situation as a “crisis”. The Biden administration prefers to call it a “challenge”.
PBS reporter Yamiche Alcindor told Mr Biden his message that immigrants should not come to the border “is not being received”, and asked how he would resolve the matter.
She said migrants were under the impression that Mr Biden was a “nice guy” and they would therefore not be deported.
“Truth of the matter is, nothing has changed. As many people came – a 28 per cent increase in the border under my administration, 31 per cent last year before the pandemic. It happens every single year, there is a significant increase in the winter months,” the President said.
“Does anybody suggest that there was a 31 per cent increase under Trump because he was a nice guy? That’s not the reason they’re coming. The reason they’re coming is it’s the time they can travel with the least likelihood of dying along the way.”
It’s true that there is normally a seasonal surge in migrants crossing the border during the early months of the year, but the current numbers are particularly high.
Mr Biden’s own Secretary of Homeland Security, Alejandro Mayorkas, recently conceded the US was “on pace to encounter more individuals on the southwest border than we have in the last 20 years”.
“The way to deal with this problem is to deal with the root causes of why people are leaving. What did Trump do? He eliminated that funding. He dismantled all the elements that existed to deal with what had been a problem for a long time,” Mr Biden continued.
“What we’re doing now is attempting to rebuild the system that can accommodate what is happening today.
“If you take a look at the number of people who are coming, the vast majority are being sent back. Are being sent back. Thousands, tens of thousands of people who are over 18 years old and single have been sent back, sent home.
“We’re sending back the vast majority of the families that are coming. That’s what is happening. They’re not getting across the border.
“What we’re doing is we’re providing for the space to be able to get these kids out of the Border Patrol facilities, which no child should be in longer than 72 hours.”
ABC News reporter Cecilia Vega brought up the case of a nine-year-old boy who had walked all the way to the US from Honduras without an adult. She had spoken to the boy’s mother.
“His mother said that she sent him to this country because she believes that you are not deporting unaccompanied minors like her son. That’s why she sent him alone,” Ms Vega said.
“You’ve blamed the last administration, but sir, is your messaging in saying that these children will be allowed to stay in this country encouraging families to come?”
There was a lengthy pause as Mr Biden collected his thoughts before answering.
“The idea that I’m going to say, which I would never do, that an unaccompanied child at the border, we’re just going to let him starve to death and stand on the other side. No previous administration did that either, except Trump,” said Mr Biden.
“I’m not going to do it. I’m not going to do it. That’s why I’ve asked the Vice President to be the lead person on focusing on the fundamental reasons why people leave in the first place.
“It’s because of earthquakes, floods, lack of food, gang violence, a whole range of things.
“We’re going to do a lot to change the reasons why people leave in the first place.
“That mother did not sit around and say, ‘I’ve got a great idea. The way I’m going to make sure my son gets taken care of is I’m going to send him on a journey across the desert and up to the US, because I know Joe Biden’s a nice guy and will take care of him.’
“What a desperate act to have to take. The circumstances must be horrible. So we can do something about it. That’s what the Vice President’s going to be doing.”
CONDITIONS IN MIGRANT FACILITIES
In a follow-up question, Ms Vega grilled Mr Biden on the overcrowded conditions in migrant facilities. She mentioned a facility in Donna, Texas which is currently at 1556 per cent capacity (no, that’s not a typo).
“Is what’s happening inside acceptable to you, and when is this going to be fixed?” she asked.
“That’s a serious question, right? ‘Is it acceptable to me?’ Come on,” Mr Biden shot back.
“That’s why we’re going to be moving a thousand of those kids out quickly. That’s why I got Fort Bliss opened up. That’s why I’ve been working to try to find additional access for children to be able to safely be housed while we follow through.
“It is totally unacceptable.”
Fort Bliss, a US Army facility, has been approved to host 5000 new beds for unaccompanied migrant children.
BLOCKING THE MEDIA’S ACCESS
NBC News reporter Kristen Welker asked whether Mr Biden would “commit to allow journalists” to have access to the overcrowded facilities. At present, the media has only been allowed to view one of them.
“I will commit, when my plan very shortly is underway, to let you have access to not just them, but to other facilities as well,” he responded.
In other words, not yet.
“We haven’t seen the facilities in which children are packed together, to really give the American people to see that. Will you commit to transparency on this issue?” Ms Welker followed up.
“I will commit to transparency. As soon as I am in a position to be able to implement what we’re doing right now. One of the reasons I haven’t gone down is I don’t want to become the issue. I don’t want to be bringing all the Secret Service with me,” said Mr Biden.
“This is being set up and you’ll have full access to everything once we get everything moving.”
Ms Welker asked when, exactly, that would be.
“I don’t know,” Mr Biden said.
She asked whether he accepted responsibility for the current situation, pointing out that he had spent a fair amount of time blaming the Trump administration.
The short answer to this was no. Mr Biden said he did not regret his executive orders rolling back Mr Trump’s policies, which he signed during his first days in office.
“I make no apologies for ending programs that did not exist before Trump became president, that have a negative impact on the law as well as on human dignity,” he said.
WITHDRAWAL FROM AFGHANISTAN
Last year, the Trump administration reached an agreement with the Taliban which set a deadline of May 1, 2021 for all US forces to leave Afghanistan.
Asked whether he would hold to that deadline, Mr Biden strongly implied the answer was no.
“The answer is that it’s going to be hard to meet the May 1 deadline, just in terms of tactical reasons, it’s hard to get those troops out,” he said.
“What we’ve been doing has been, we’ve been meeting with our allies who have troops there as well, and if we leave we’re going to do so in a safe and orderly way.
“It is not my intention to stay there for a long time.
“We will leave, the question is when we leave.”
Asked whether some US troops might remain into next year, he said he could “not picture that being the case”.
Mr Biden was elected on a promise to reach across the political aisle and work with Republicans. They say he has already fallen short of that promise.
Most significantly, the $US1.9 trillion COVID relief package passed by Congress earlier this month was not supported by a single Republican.
Zeke Miller from The Associated Press told Mr Biden all his looming policy priorities were “facing stiff, united opposition” from the Republicans.
“How far are you willing to go to achieve those promises?” he asked.
“Look, when I took office, I decided that it was a fairly basic, simple proposition. And that is, I got elected to solve problems,” the President said.
“They are long term problems, they’ve been around a long time. And what we’ll be able to do, god willing, is be able to focus one at a time on those as well, whether it’s immigration or guns or a number of other problems.
“My Republican colleagues are going to have to determine whether or not we want to work together, or decide that the way in which they want to proceed is to just decide to divide the country, continue the politics of division. I’m not going to do that, I’m just going to move forward and take these things as they come.
“Let’s see what happens. All I know is, I’ve been hired to solve problems.”
Later, Mr Biden was asked about remarks from the Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell, who recently said he had only spoken to the President once. He also said Mr Biden had become “left-wing”.
“He ought to take a look at his party. Over 50 per cent of them must be over that edge as well, because they support what I did,” Mr Biden replied.
He was referring to public support for the relief package. Polling showed about three-quarters of Americans supported it, including a majority of Republican voters.
On a related point, Mr Biden was repeatedly asked whether he supported abolishing the filibuster, a procedural rule which essentially means legislation in the Senate can be blocked unless it has the support of at least 60 senators.
With the current balance of power, that means the Democrats need at least 10 Republicans to vote with them for a bill to proceed.
Mr Biden has previously expressed opposition to getting rid of the filibuster, but today he said it had been “abused” for too long.
“Between 1917 and 1971, when the filibuster existed, there were a total of 58 motions to break a filibuster. That whole time. Last year alone, there were five times that many. So it’s been abused in a gigantic way,” he said.
All of those uses of the filibuster last year came from the Democrats, by the way, as they were the minority party in the Senate.
Mr Biden still stopped short of endorsing abolition of the rule, though he implied he was moving in that direction.
“I’m a fairly practical guy. I want to get things done. I want to get them done consistent with what we promised the people. And in order to do that with a 50-50 Senate, we have to get to the place where I get 50 votes. And so I’m going to say something outrageous – I have never been particularly poor at calculating how to get things done in the Senate,” he said.
“If we have to, if there’s complete lockdown and chaos as a result of the filibuster, then we’ll have to go beyond what I’m talking about.”
Ms Welker also brought up North Korea, which just launched a pair of ballistic missiles. She asked what Mr Biden would do about it, and what his “red line” would be with the Kim regime.
The President appeared to read this answer from his notes.
“We are consulting with our allies and partners, and there will be responses. If they choose to escalate, we will respond accordingly,” he said.
“But I’m also prepared for some sort of diplomacy. But it has to be conditioned on the end result of denuclearisation. So that’s what we’re doing, consulting our allies.”
CBS correspondent Nancy Cordes asked about the push from Republicans across the country to tighten restrictions around voting. Democrats have interpreted it as an attempt to disenfranchise minority voters, who form a crucial chunk of their base.
Ms Cordes asked whether Mr Biden was concerned about losing control of both the House and the Senate in the 2022 midterm elections.
“What I’m worried about is how unamerican this whole initiative is. It’s sick. It’s sick,” the President said.
“Deciding, in some states, that you cannot bring water to people waiting in line to vote? Deciding that you’re going to end voting at 5pm, when working people are just getting off work? Deciding that there will be no absentee ballots except under the most rigid circumstances?
“The Republican voters I know find this despicable. Republican voters. Folks outside this White House. I’m not talking about the officials, I’m talking about voters.
“I am convinced that we will be able to stop this, because it is the most pernicious thing. This is gigantic, what they’re trying to do, and it cannot be sustained.”
RUNNING FOR RE-ELECTION
Ms Cordes also asked whether Mr Biden was planning to run for re-election in 2024, pointing out that Mr Trump had already set up a re-election committee by this stage of his presidency.
“My predecessor needed to,” he quipped.
“My predecessor. My predecessor. Oh god, I miss him.”
To be clear, that was sarcasm. It doesn’t really come through in the text.
Mr Biden then said that yes, he did intend to run for re-election.
Later, CNN’s Kaitlan Collins asked whether this meant Mr Biden was definitely going to run. He clarified that he was not planning so far ahead, but did intend to run.
“Oh come on, I have no idea. I have no idea if there’ll even be a Republican Party,” he said.
“Look, the way I view things, I have become a great respecter of fate in my life. I set a goal that’s in front of me to get things done.”
HIS STANCE TOWARDS CHINA
Bloomberg News reporter Justin Sink asked about a series of policies aimed at China, such as whether Mr Biden was now “more likely” to maintain US tariffs on the country than he was a couple of months ago.
Instead of addressing the specific policies Mr Sink raised, Mr Biden spoke more generally about his attitude towards China and its President Xi Jinping.
“They only touch a smidgen of what the relationship with China is really about,” he said, seeking to justify the dodge.
“I’ve known Xi Jinping for a long time. I spent hours and hours with him alone, with an interpreter, going into great detail.
“He doesn’t have a democratic bone in his body. But he’s a smart, smart guy. He’s one of the guys, like Putin, who thinks that autocracy is the way of the future, that democracy can’t function in an ever complex world.
“So when I was elected, he called to congratulate me, I think to the surprise of the experts on the call we had a two-hour conversation. And we made several things clear to one another.
“I made it clear to him again that we’re not looking for confrontation, although we know there will be steep, steep competition.
“We will insist that China play by the international rules. And in order to compete effectively, we’re going to deal with China effectively.
“We are going to hold China accountable, to follow the rules, whether it relates to the South China Sea or Taiwan, or a whole range of other things.
“No leader can be sustained in his position unless they represent the values of the country. And I said, Americans value the notion of freedom. America values human rights.
“As long as you and your country continue to so blatantly violate human rights, we are going to continue in an unrelenting way to call to the attention of the world and make it clear what is happening.”
GUN CONTROL MEASURES
Asked whether he would sign executive orders to tighten gun control in the US, Mr Biden said the answer was yes, but he did not provide a time frame.
“It’s a matter of timing,” he said.
“As you’ve all observed, successful presidents better than me have been successful in large part because they’ve known how to time what they’re doing. Order it, priorities, what needs to be done.
“The next major initiative is to rebuild the infrastructure, both physical and technological, in this country, so we can compete and create really good paying jobs.”
He went on to talk about infrastructure at some length, implying gun control was not among his top priorities. No reporters followed up.