May 26, 2024

Press Briefing by Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre and FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell

Press Briefing by Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre and FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell

James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

2:05 P.M. EDT

Q    Hey, hey.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Hey, hey. 

Q    Happy birthday.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Oh, thank you.

Q    Happy belated. 

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Lucky number 13.  Yes, thank you.  Thank you so much. 

Okay, in just a moment, I will turn it over to FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell, who is joining us from Hawaii to share an update on the response to the Maui wildfires, much of which she briefed the President on last night.

So that you know, she has been in Hawaii since 2:00 a.m. Saturday morning.  So, she was there for two full days.  And, as you know, she’s still there right now. 

But before I do that, I want to once again say, as the President said last week, that he and the First Lady are praying for families who are grieving their loved ones and for everyone who has suffered devastating losses of land and property as a result of the wildfires in Maui. 

The President continues to stay closely engaged with his team and state and local officials to ensure our robust whole-of-government response continues. 

Yesterday, he received two briefings from FEMA Administrator Criswell on the ongoing federal response — a written update in the morning and a phone call last night. 

The President has stayed engaged with Hawaii Governor Josh Green, and they’ve spoken twice in recent days to make sure he gets every resource he needs. 

The President also spoke by phone on Friday with Senator Hirono. 

With all of these officials, the President has had a comprehensive discussion about the remaining challenges, the need to prioritize the safety and health of residents who have been displaced, and long-term recovery. 

As the President said in his remarks last Thursday, he is committed to ensuring Hawaii has everything they need in the days, weeks, and months ahead. 

Early last week, the President began marshaling a whole-of-government response to the wildfires.  Within hours of receiving the state’s disaster declaration request last Thursday, he approved it and ordered all available federal assets to support the response.  He dispatched the FEMA Administrator, the U.S. Fire Administrator, and other officials to work with state and local officials to assess the needs on the ground.  And they are providing regular updates to him and the White House team. 

There are already more than 300 FEMA employees on the ground aiding response efforts.  FEMA has provided 50,000 meals, 75,000 liters of water, 5,000 cots, and 10,000 blankets to the county government for distribution.

The Coast Guard and the Navy Third Fleet supported response and rescue effort the day after the fires first started, and the Marines provided Black Hawk helicopters to fight fires on the Big Island. 

With that, Administrator Criswell will provide an update regarding the federal response. 

Deanne, over to you.  Thank you for joining us. 

ADMINISTRATOR CRISWELL:  Yeah, absolutely.  Good morning, Karine.  I just want to make sure first that you can hear me okay. 

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Wait — could — I think we need to turn it up, guys.  You want to try one more time, Administrator?

ADMINISTRATOR CRISWELL:  Yep.  Does this sound any better?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Much better.  Thank you.  The floor is yours.  

ADMINISTRATOR CRISWELL:  All right.  Thank you very much.  And good morning, everybody. 

As you just heard, I did arrive here on the ground very early Saturday morning at the direction of the President.  And it gave me the opportunity to spend two full days — one full day with Governor Green and the second full day with my staff, as well as members of the governor’s staff — to get a true understanding of what the impact is here on the ground. 

I met with some of our federal officials that have been deployed.  And I also had an opportunity to talk to survivors and hear from them — really some harrowing stories of survival as they evacuated from the area and sought shelter. 

And while we are here, and as we continue to closely monitor the situation on the ground, we are continuing to prioritize the safety and the well-being of the Hawaii residents in coordination with our state officials and all of our federal partners. 

As residents continue to mourn the loss of their friends, their loved ones, their neighbors; the loss of their homes and their way of life, we know and ha- — let them know that we are mourning with them. 

Nothing can prepare you for what I saw during my time here, and nothing can prepare them for the emotional toll of the impact that this severe event has taken on them. 

And as you heard, I have been in continuous communication with the President since these fires started.  I have been giving him updates and his team updates, letting him know what the federal family is doing to support everything that Governor Green has asked for. 

A part of that, at the request of the state of Hawaii, FEMA has activated our Transitional Sheltering Assistance program, which is now available for eligible residents who were displaced from their home.  This is FEMA’s hotel program.  And this will allow them to move from shelters into pre-identified hotels or motels temporarily as they develop their long-term housing strategies.

That — this is in coordination with the governor, as he has also stood up a program to provide Airbnb rooms or other hotel rooms to support residents.  And we will be working in close coordination with each other to make sure that everyone finds a temporary solution as they begin to develop their plans for rebuilding. 

We’re also focused on getting funds into people’s hands so we can help with some of their critical urgent needs.  This is called Critical Needs Assistance.  And it provides $700 initially to provide food, water, first aid, medical supplies — other, just, critical needs that they need right now. 

This is in addition to what they will also be able to be eligible for in cash assistance for the loss of their homes or the loss of their personal property. 

So, I encourage anybody who has not registered for FEMA assistance yet to go to DisasterAssistance.gov or contact 1-800-321-FEMA to get into the system and start this process. 

We also have over 300 personnel on the ground.  Many of those can help you also register, as we understand that connectivity is still scarce in some areas. 

The response and recovery efforts — I just want to note — in Hawaii are going to be a whole-of-government approach.  We rely on the experts of dozens of par- — our partner agencies to make sure that we have all of the right resources to support the recovery needs for this area and to make sure that we are successful in providing relief to survivors. 

We also want to make sure that we are getting all of the appropriate information out to survivors.  So, we are working with our state and local partners to ensure that our outreach and our messaging is also culturally responsive and that we can get messages out to people so they know what is available for them. 

We have been on the ground since day one.  We have an office here on Oahu that is staffed with personnel and integration members that work side by side with the state of Hawaii each and every day, so we were able to able to quickly integrate in with the governor’s team as these fires started to arise. 

Our regional administrator was also on the ground already for a pre-existing meeting.  And so, he was able to connect with the governor as these fires were starting to make sure we were moving the right resources, and our federal partners, as you’ve heard — the Coast Guard and the Department of Defense — for providing lifesaving rescues as this fire was evolving. 

The coming days and the weeks, they’re going to be tough.  They’re going to be difficult as people process what they have lost and what the road ahead looks like.  But we are going to be with the people of Hawaii, as I have committed to the governor, every step of the way. 

We are already seeing a tremendous amount of efforts and resiliency across the community, because they are coming together to support each other as they work through what this is going to look like in the future.  And together with our voluntary agencies and our federal partners, we will be in Hawaii every step of the way to help residents take control of their recovery and help them rebuild in a way that is going to make them more resilient. 

And with that, I’ll turn it over to you for any questions. 

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Okay.  Thank you. 

All right.  She’ll take a few questions. 

Go ahead, Nancy. 

Q    Thanks, Karine.  Administrator Criswell, it’s Nancy Cordes from CBS News.  As I’m sure you know, there was a serious housing shortage in Hawaii even before this disaster happened.  Is FEMA looking at building any kind of temporary housing or temporary schools on Maui while people work to rebuild, given the fact that it’s going to take them potentially several years to rebuild their homes?  And even if they’re out there right now looking for someplace for their families to stay short term, it’s possible they won’t find it.

ADMINISTRATOR CRISWELL:  The governor and I spoke at length about the housing shortage and what the challenges were going to be.  He had already conducted a housing assessment, and it had plans in place for things that he was going to do to increase the housing stock here. 

What that’s going to do is it’s going to give us a place to start from, because he already had plans in place on where he wanted to expand housing options.  And we can combine that with what — with our federal programs to help make that a reality. 

This is going to require every tool that we have in our toolbox.  We are not going to be able to rely on all of the traditional programs that we do in the continental United States.  And so, we are working very closely with the governor to better understand all available options, whether that means longer term we bring in tiny houses or our transitional housing units to help him create the communities that he wants. 

We’re not taking anything off the table, and we’re going to be very creative in how we use our authorities to help build these communities and help people find a place to stay for the longer term. 

Q    And then I know that it’s difficult to get staff and resources and equipment from the continental U.S. to Hawaii in an expeditious manner, but do you believe that you now have the staffing that you need to do a house-by-house search of the disaster area looking for the deceased in an expeditious manner?

ADMINISTRATOR CRISWELL:  Yeah, I mean, as I said in my opening remarks, you know, we have an office right here on the islands, and so that allowed us to integrate immediately.  And it was through that coordination that we were able to move our initial Urban Search and Rescue teams very quickly to get into the area and begin the process. 

As we have learned what the extent of this search and recovery mission is going to look like, we have sent more personnel, as well as more cadaver dogs, to come into the area.  And they are working in conjunction with the Maui Fire Department and the sheriff’s office to make sure that we are doing this in a very methodical way but one that is also very respectful of the community to make sure that we find everybody that is unaccounted for. 

And so, I do believe that we have the right amount of personnel on the ground integrating in with the local officials to do this. 

Q    And what’s your best estimate of how long that process will take?

ADMINISTRATOR CRISWELL:  We had some initial estimates of how long it might take, but this is a really complicated situation.  The dogs can only work so long because of how hot the temperatures are.  There is also hot spots, and so we have fire crews that are helping to cool down the areas so the dogs can go in there.  I’d hate to give an exact estimate because we want to make sure that we are precise and methodical and respectful as we go through this. 

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Go ahead, Steve.

Q    Is it possible for the President to visit without interfering with the rescue effort?

ADMINISTRATOR CRISWELL:  I think right now our focus is on making sure that we are doing everything we can to account for everybody that has been unaccounted for.  And the President has given me the space to make sure I’m bringing in all of the appropriate federal personnel and resources to do that.  And so, we will continue to do that.

Right now, we want to make sure that they have, you know, all of the resources and the space that they need and not disrupt operations right now. 

Q    So, no — no visit by the President is on schedule at this moment?

ADMINISTRATOR CRISWELL:  (Inaudible.)  We just want to make sure that we are working to help this community identify everybody that’s missing, and we need to stay focused on that right now.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Go ahead.

Q    Thank you, Administrator.  Just to be clear, has the federal government been able to fulfill every request that the state has made so far for assistance?  And are there any delays that you are aware of right now, given, obviously, the unique challenges of Hawaii’s location?

ADMINISTRATOR CRISWELL:  You know, the — the resources that are needed — we continue to work with the governor and his team to better understand what they need.  And as soon as they make a request, we make that — we get that request in the process. 

One thing that I talked with the governor and his team about is: Even if you think that you might need something a week from now or two weeks from now, let us know ahead of time so we can get that resource moving.  If we don’t need it, we’ll turn it around. 

So, at this point, I have no awareness of anything that we have not been able to meet, and we will continue to build up our presence here on the island to support this.  This is going to be a long-term recovery operation. 

We have the resources we need today.  And as we continue to identify what the needs are, we’ll continue to move more in.

Q    And you mentioned the — how, you know, obviously, this is an ongoing, lengthy process.  Cadaver dogs so far have only covered about 3 percent of the fire area.  You know, I think 96 victims have been discovered so far.  Can you give us a sense just of how much — how many people should — how much should we be braced for?  And are we talking hundreds of deaths here?

ADMINISTRATOR CRISWELL:  You know, I would, again, defer you to the state for what they think the total estimate will be. 

You have to understand the situation on the ground right now.  It is extremely hazardous.  There are structures that are partially standing that engineers have to clear first to make sure it’s safe for the search and rescue teams to go into, make sure it’s safe for the dogs to go into.  We also have to make sure the dogs are able to continue their job and — right?  So, they have their own work/rest cycles.

And so, again, we j- — we want to make sure that we’re doing this as quickly as possible, but that we do it in a way that’s methodical and appropriate and culturally sensitive to make sure that we are going to be able to account for everybody.  And so, we need to give them the space and time to do that.

We have brought in additional canine dogs — cadaver dogs.  They are on the ground today, and I believe there’s a few more coming and additional search and rescue personnel to come in and support this effort.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Go ahead, Seung Min.

Q    There are, I believe, tens of thousands of active-duty military personnel in Hawaii.  And I believe the Pentagon said this morning that they haven’t yet gotten involved in any of the recovery efforts yet.  Does FEMA see a need to get that personnel — that military personnel in Hawaii involved in the recovery efforts, in the aid-distribution efforts, anything along those lines?

ADMINISTRATOR CRISWELL:  The Department of Defense is one of our strongest partners, and we work with them on all of these different types of severe weather events that we are responding to. 

We are in communication with INDOPACOM here as to what resources we can utilize as we go into the recovery effort.  We have already mission assigned the Army Corps of Engineers to help support the debris mission.  And we will continue to work with the governor, again, to understand what resources he needs.  And we will bring in whatever federal partner we can to support that. 

It’s very nice that we have a large military presence here that we can tap into that helps expedite getting those resources in place faster.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Go ahead, Jordan.

Q    Thanks, Administrator.  The administration included $12 billion for the — FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund in the supplemental request sent the Congress last week.  Given the extent of the wildfire damage, do you amp- — anticipate asking for more, essentially, to plus-up that request?  And — and will you submit that to Congress?

ADMINISTRATOR CRISWELL:  You know, as we were monitoring the health of the Disaster Relief Fund, what we take into account — we were anticipating what the deficit would be later in September.  We took into account events just like this so we could support the initial response efforts. 

And so, we do have adequate funding to do the response that we’re doing right now.  But we will need additional funding to ensure that all of our other recovery projects can continue and not get delayed until the next fiscal year.

Q    Administrator, it’s Kelly O’Donnell from NBC.  Can you speak to the issue of ongoing communications?  In the earliest crisis, that was a problem and people getting information, whether it was the warning systems or any of that.  But with towers down and difficulty, how much is the inability to communicate with the citizens, with each other still an ongoing part of what you’re dealing with?  And what can be done to augment communication capabilities?

ADMINISTRATOR CRISWELL:  No, I can’t speak to the initial communications and the warning.  What we are really focused on right now is making sure that we do have continuous communication to help people understand what resources are available, what the next steps in the process are going to be, and where they can go to get more information.

There’s going to be plenty of time for us to go back and learn some lessons from how the initial event unfolded.  But we really need to stay focused right now on making sure that they have accurate information on what res- — resources are available, to make sure that they understand that they can register for assistance with FEMA, and that we are going to be able to provide them some additional support throughout this recovery process.

Q    And if I could just follow up on that.  But cell towers are down; people don’t have access to their devices.  Is there a concern that people aren’t able to get the information simply because of the — the extent of the devastation?

ADMINISTRATOR CRISWELL:  There are some cell towers down.  But where I was yesterday — I went into two different shelters on Saturday, another one on Sunday, and people had communication.  They had cellphones. 

But we also have personnel in the shelters, and there’s multiple shelters around the island.  And we are continuing to send people into the shelters.  The Red Cross is there.  Our personnel are there.  And we’re going to stand up a disaster recovery center here in the coming days, which will be a one-stop shop that will have federal personnel, state and local personnel, as well as the insurance industry so people can start this process of rebuilding.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Go ahead.

Q    Thank you.  Kayla Tausche, CNN.  On funding, FEMA’s own estimates have suggested that even just part of the recovery could cost north of $5 billion.  Where are your estimates currently?  And how much are you communicating to Congress and the White House that you’ll need for this recovery?

ADMINISTRATOR CRISWELL:  There are a lot of reports out there right now talking about what they think that this potential is — what the potential cost of this disaster is going to be.  FEMA has not put out any initial estimates.  I think that there’s a lot of other reports that are out there. 

It’s really far too early to tell what the total cost is going to be.  But as we continue to get better fidelity on the impact, as we can get into the area and assess the true extent of the infrastructure damage, that’s when we’ll have a better idea of what the total cost will be. 

But we really have to ensure right now that we are doing everything we can to account for the missing and make sure that it’s safe for our responders to go in there and do this additional work. 

Q    And as you account for the missing, as these search and rescue efforts ramp up, do you have reason to believe that there any survivors who aren’t currently accounted for?

ADMINISTRATOR CRISWELL:  I — I needn’t speculate on that.  I mean, if there’s — I think what we’re going to find is people that have relocated somewhere, and they’re going to get reconnected with their family members.  And sometimes it’s just a matter of making sure that we can make that connection. 

The state has set up a family assistance center to help with that process.  But as far as the area itself, what we’re going to be doing is really looking for those that — that were left behind and making sure that we have our teams in place to help find those (inaudible).

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Okay.  Way in the back.

Q    Referring to reports about the activation of the warning sirens early on, do you anticipate there will be an investigation of this? 

And then when we look at other cities across the country that may be facing a similar threat due to increased vegetation dryness from climate change, is there a preventative plan in place going forward for those cities after seeing what has happened in Hawaii?

ADMINISTRATOR CRISWELL:  I mean, I would defer you, again, to the state on — on what they’re going to do to evaluate the response to this situation.  As — you know, as a emergency management and first responder community, we always want to look at the lessons learned so we can improve. 

As far as the vegetation piece, there are a lot of things going on.  We currently, as directed by Congress, have a wildfire commission that has been meeting to provide recommendations to Congress on what we can do to support the — building resilience within the wildland-urban interface.  And that report is due to Congress later this year.  We think it’s going to have some really good recommendations and suggestions on what we can do.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  All right.  Thank you so much, Administrator.  Thank you for all that you’re doing.  And thank you for joining us today.

ADMINISTRATOR CRISWELL:  All right.  Thank you, Karine.  Have a great day.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  All right.  Safe travels.

Okay.  So, just as a reminder for those — for all residents out there to continue listening to the state and local officials and register for disaster assistance.  And this is a website that the Administrator just shared with all of you, and I’ll just repeat it: www.DisasterAssistance.gov.  Again, www.DisasterAssistance.gov.

And we will — we will be in Maui, supporting the survivors of this tragedy, as you just heard from the Administrator, as long as it takes, providing all the resources needed for recovery.

But before we go on, I have a couple more things, and then I’ll get to your questions.

As all — as all you know, on Wednesday is the first anniversary of the President signing the Inflation Reduction Act into law.

Throughout the week, the President and his administration will travel across the country to recognize the impact of this historic law.

And tomorrow, the President will travel to Wisconsin — Milwaukee, specifically — where he will visit a clean energy manufacturing company.  And the Vice President will travel to Seattle, Washington, and visit a company leading in the construction of energy-efficient buildings.  She will be joined by the Second Gentleman and also Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm.

On Wednesday, the President will hold a celebration in the East Room, where he will speak alongside Agriculture Secretary Vilsack, EPA Administrator Regan, Speaker Pelosi, Leader Schumer, and many others.

Also Wednesday, Senior Advisor John Podesta and Domestic Policy Advisor Neera Tanden will join us here — here at the briefing room.

These officials and others traveling throughout the week will discuss how the Inflation Reduction Act is key to Bidenomics and building the economy from the middle out and the bottom up. 

It does that in five key ways.  The Inflation Reduction Act is the largest investment in climate action in history and puts us on a path to reduce emission by 50 percent by 2030.

Secondly, the Inflation Reduction Act invests in America, with more than $110 billion in private sector investments in clean energy manufacturing announced in the last year alone.

The Inflation Reduction Act is lowering energy costs, with several utility companies already announcing consumer rebates, including $400 million from Florida Power & Light.

The Inflation Reduction Act is lowering healthcare costs by capping insulin at 35 bucks for seniors, saving nearly 15 million Americans 800 bucks per year on health insurance, and allowing Medicare to negotiate lower prescription drug prices.

And lastly, the Inflation Reduction Act is making the wealthy pay more of their fair share by cracking down on wealthy tax cheats and requiring large corporations to pay a 15 percent minimum tax.

That’s quite a lot of good done by one piece of legislation — a historic piece of legislation — and the President and his team are excited to bring that message to the American people throughout the week.

And with that, Seung Min.

Q    Okay.  Thanks, Karine.  Can you — what was — can you discuss at all the President’s personal reaction to — as a father — of the Special Counsel being appointed to inves- — to continue the Hunter Biden probe?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  So, let me just first say — and you’ve heard me say this before — that this case was handled independently by the Justice Department under leadership of a Trump-appointed U.S. attorney, as you all know.  This is consistent with what the President has been saying for a long while now, going way back to his campaign days, that he would restore the Department of Justice independence from political interference from the White House.  And this is — want to make sure that we continue that.

Since the White House hasn’t been involved — just to be clear, again — certainly, I would refer you to any — any questions about this specifically to Department of Justice and, certainly, to Hunter Biden’s personal representatives.

I will say this — and you’ve heard this from the President — is that he loves his son, and he is proud of him overcoming his addiction and how he’s continuing to build his life.  But I don’t have anything else to add to that.

Q    And I wanted to follow-up on his statement on the negotiations with the U- — involving the UAW that he issued earlier today.  And can you discuss a little bit more why the President felt compelled to issue that statement now?  We have a month out.  Is he concerned about the pace of the negotiations and that the prospects of a strike are increasing?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  So, look, the President — the White House has regularly — fairly regularly urged employee — employers and unions to continue negotiating in good faith to reach an agreement that benefits both sides.  And this is what, certainly, the President is doing with this statement.

He feels strongly that the transition to a clean energy economy should provide a win-win opportunity for auto companies and also union workers.  That is what is stated in his — certainly in the statement that you — that you saw from the President.  Because he’s — truly believes that.

And again, it is fairly regularl- — regular that we do this — regularly that we do this.  And so, as we have said many times, the President believes in collective bargaining.  And that’s what we want to see here.

Go ahead, Jordan.

Q    Thanks, Karine.  Given what the Administrator said about the perils of the President traveling to Hawaii now, does he want to travel there eventually to survey the damage and meet survivors?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  So, obviously, I don’t have anything to announce at this time.  Look, we’re going to continue to have conversations with the Administrator — certainly, the governor in — in Hawaii, on what the opportunities might be, what that may look like for a trip.  But right now, we just don’t have anything to share.

Q    And any plans for him to speak publicly about the death toll?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  You’ll hear from the President.  You’ve heard from him already on Thursday.  Certainly, you’ll hear from him, you know, continuously this week, as he’s going to be traveling tomorrow.  I just don’t have anything to share on that. 

But, look, this is something that the President, clearly, is deeply concerned about.  That is why you heard — we have the — the Administrator Zoom in — right? — clearly from — from where she is in Hawaii to talk directly to all of you, to take your questions.

You heard from her there’s more than 300 personnel — FEMA personnel on the ground.  There are more than a dozen federal agencies who are taking actions, and that is including the Coast Guard, the U.S. Navy — you heard me say that at the top — the Department of Defense.  And FEMA has staged more than 50,000 meals, 75,000 liters of water, and thousands of cots and blankets.

And we’re going to continue to be available to them.  We’re going to continue to do a whole-of-government response in Hawaii — in Maui, specifically — to make sure that they have everything that they need.

And, look, you’re going to continue, certainly, to hear from us on this issue.

Q    I just really quickly want to follow up on Seung Min.  What’s the level of concern inside the White House about a potential work stoppage at U.S. auto plants, given the, you know, tense nature of that negotiation?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  So, look, I’m not going to get into hypotheticals from here.  What I can say is the President believes in collective bargaining.  That’s what he continues to encourage.  That’s what the statement basically lays out. 

And we saw — we saw how that worked well — right? — with the Teamsters and UPS.  They were able to come to the table and come to a mutual beneficial agreement of both sides. 

We saw that with the West Coast ports.  We’ve seen this many times before play out.  And that’s what the President wants to see.  That’s what he supports.  And we — we’re just going to have to be hopeful and be positive that they will come to an agreement.

Go ahead.

Q    Thank you.  The President told donors that China is a “ticking time bomb” and that China’s growth rate is about 2 percent.  China estimates their growth is higher than that.  Where did the President come up with that number?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Look, as you know, the President speaks very candidly — and he’ll continue to do so — about the PRC and our legitimate differences and disagreements.   The President has been — has not shied away from that in the last two years.  It should come as no surprise that sometimes he will have taugh- — tough — tough things to say about each other.  Right?  And we certainly are not alone in that — in those — in those comments. 

So the President believes that diplomacy, including the recent high-level engagements undertaken by U.S. officials over the past few months, is the responsible way to manage our competition.  Diplomacy is the way that he believes is the best way to lead forward, especially as we’re talking about our foreign policy, our national security. 

And so that’s what the President’s going to continue to do.  But obviously, he’s never shy — he’s never shied away on sharing his comments candidly.

Q    Secondly, a top Israeli official, Ron Dermer, is visiting Washington this week.  What’s the status of these talks between Israel, Saudi, and the United States aimed at a normalization deal?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  So this is part of a broad — you know, a broad spectrum of — well, they’re going to have — talk about a broad spectrum of issues.  But this is part of a regular routine engagement.  Nothing new here. 

As we’ve said in recent readouts of engagements with all — with our Israeli partners, we agreed to continue to work together on several issues and stay in regular contact.  And this is certainly part of — part of that conversation — part of the agreement that has come — that both sides have come to agree on.

Go ahead, Mary.

Q    Following up on the special counsel.  You’ve said the President wasn’t in business with his son.  But now that this investigation is in the hands of a special counsel, which does have some more sweeping authority, just to be clear, can you say with certainty that David Weiss isn’t going to unearth any connections between the President and his son’s business dealings? 

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Look, I’m going to continue saying what I have said before: The President was not in business with his son.  That still stands. 

And just don’t have anything else to add.  I’ve been very clear about that.  The President has been very clear about that. 

Anything else specific to this case, I would have to refer you to Department of Justice.

Q    Can you say at all — it certainly seems that you all thought this was behind you a couple of weeks ago.  You know, now the President’s son is facing a poss- — a possible criminal indictment right in the middle of an election.  Does — is the President frustrated that this plea deal has fallen apart?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  So here’s what I can say about — about all the ques- — the both questions that you just asked me: Look, so, if you think about what Republicans in Congress have tried to do for years — right? — they have been making claims and — of — and allegations — right? — about President on this front over and over again.  And month after month, year after year, they have been — they have been investigating every single angle of this and looking at — and looking at — for any evidence to back their allegations.  That’s what have –they’ve been done for years, for months, and we’ve seen it over the past several weeks. 

And what’s been the result of that if you ask yourself what we have seen from that?  They keep turning up documents and witnesses showing that the President wasn’t involved, never discussed these business dealings, and did nothing wrong.  There’s been zero evidence showing — showing otherwise.  And so that’s what we have seen over the past several months.  That’s what we have seen over the past several years.  So I’ll leave it at that.

Go ahead.

Q    Thank you, Karine.  There’s been a — plenty of criticism over Weiss’s appointment as special counsel from the folks who criticized the deal — plea deal he pushed through that was later rejected.  But now, the attorney for Hunter Biden also suggested that if Special Counsel Weiss brings any more charges than have already been brought, it would be because something other than the facts and the law have come into play, suggesting that he could potentially buckle to political pressure. 

So, you’ve had criticism coming from a lot of different areas over Weiss.  How can the White House assure people that the case involving the President’s son is being handled fairly?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Anything that has been stated or said by Hunter’s representative, I would have to refer you to his representatives.  That is not something that I will respond to.

What I can say — and I’ve said it at the top when I was first asked this question — is that the Department of Justice is independent.  That is what the President believes.  He believes that this White House will not politicize the Department of Justice. 

This was done under the leadership of a Trump-appointed U.S. attorney, as you all know.  And so I’m just — I’m not going to add anything else to that.

Q    Will the White House support Weiss going before Congress to answer questions for the sake of transparency?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  That is up to the Department of Justice.

Q    Okay.  And then on Iran, former Vice President Mike Pence said that the unfreezing of those assets would amount to the largest ransom payment in American history. 

And then you also had the Israeli Prime Minister, Netanyahu, saying “arrangements that do not dismantle Iran’s nuclear infrastructure will not stop its nuclear program.  It will only provide it with funds that will go to terrorist elements sponsored by Iran.” 

So most, if not all, Americans support bringing home hostages.  But is the administration not also concerned that at the same time it’s talking about giving Iran $6 billion, they’re considering putting, you know, Marines on commercial vessels to bolster security against this state?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  So a couple things.  You asked me two questions.  So I’ll take the — the first one.  So I want to be clear that — that the negotiations for the release and return of the United States are ongoing — to the United States of these five individuals.  They are ongoing. 

Just to be even more clear, what is being discussed isn’t a payment of any kind.  These aren’t U.S. dollars.  They aren’t even taxpayer dollars.  What’s being pursued here is an arrangement for — and the Iranian people can — with the oversight of the U.S. Treasury Department, Qatar, and at — and aid organizations — avail themselves of Iranian funds that have been held in a South Korean account since 2018. 

This money that — this is the money that the previous administration allowed Iran to make and keep in a special accounts.  They let Iran — Iran spend billions of dollars of it and got nothing in return. 

So the only thing we’ve discussed with Iran is a process through which these funds could be assessed for humanitarian purposes.  We have fully visible — we have fully visibility about where the money was going and for what purpose.  We are discussing a good deal here.  We’d still limit — we — still limiting how they can use their own money through this deal. 

The Iranian people, with whom we have no quarrel with, must just get a break from the oppression and the hunger and the poverty the regime in Tehran has inflicted upon them.  So that’s — want to make sure that’s really clear.

As it relates to a nuclear deal, this positive step is not linked to any other issue.  This is not about anything else.  And we have not changed any aspect of our overall appro- –approach as it relates to Iran, which continues to be focused on deterrence, pressure, and diplomacy.  As I said early, the diplomacy is a really important part of how the President likes to move forward when it comes to foreign policy. 

And this is about bringing home these U.S. citizens, reuniting them with their loved ones.  That’s what this is about — nothing else.

Q    Does this at all harm U.S.-Israel relationship at this very critical time now?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Look, this is about bringing home U.S. citizens, bringing them home to their families.  That’s what this is about.  It’s not about anything else.  And we’ve been very clear about that.  And we’re going to make sure we do everything that we can to get these U.S. citizens who were wrongfully detained — let’s not forget that — wrongfully detained back home to their families, and that’s the President’s priority. 

Go ahead.

Q    Karine, thanks.  Two questions about the border.  Congressman Castro said that — was calling on the White House to end all cooperation between Customs and Border Patrol and the Texas Department of Public Safety until after the Justice Department’s lawsuit is concluded against the state.  Does the White House have any response to that?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  I don’t have a response to that.  I just know that the — as you know, the Department of Justice is dealing with the legal aspect of this.  I don’t have any response to — to the —  to the to the congressman. 

Q    And then, also, if there is any comment on a three-year-old child — migrant child — died while traveling on a bus chartered by Governor Greg Abbott that was going from Brownsville to Chicago. 

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Well, that’s — certainly, any — a loss of any child is devastating and heartbreaking.  So, certainly, our condolences goes out to the child’s family.  That is horrific news and horrific to hear that. 

You know, I do have to say, you know, Governor Abbott has an opportunity to work with us on this, on an issue that certainly is — is an important one for the American people — when you think about the border, when you think about dealing with a broken system. 

But what he continues to do is continues to move forward in a dangerous and un- — and taking unlawful actions.  And it is undermining what we’re trying to do, what the President is trying to do — trying to deal with a — with a broken system in a humane way, trying to do it in a way that is effective.  And we have seen his border plan management be effective. 

And it is unfort- — -fortunate that he continues to do this.  And it doesn’t just put, sadly, young migrants at risk or migrants at risk, but it also puts at risk the Border Patrol who are trying to do their job.  And he gets in the way of that every day. 

And so, I am very sad to hear about the death of this three-year-old, certainly.  And our hearts go out to — to his family. 

Go ahead.

Q    Has the President been given any advice that he should not speak about Hawaii at this point?  Because when he spoke the other day, he added that to planned remarks.  The death toll has now roughly tripled.  It’s now the worst in history. 

He had an opportunity — he could have stopped by to see us when he arrived back.  Do you expect that he will have any kind of standalone comments about the new level of loss and devastation? 

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  So, I — I could — you could expect to hear from the President on this issue.  Clearly, it is something that is deeply concerning to him when it comes to the fi- — the wildfires that we have seen in Maui. 

That’s why we, again, had the Administrator here.  That’s why she was on TV the last couple of days, talking — being on the ground, she can speak directly to this — right? — being on the ground — 

Q    I’m asking about the President’s voice in this.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  No, I — I — no, I just said you’ll — you’ll hear from the President on this.  I don’t have anything to announce at this time.  But certainly, this is — he’s the president.  Right?  You’re going to hear from him.  You heard from him on Thursday.  And then you’ve heard from — you heard from the Administrator for the past several days. 

And so, what the President wants to make sure is that — is that Maui and — has — the government of Hawaii has everything that they need to support the people on the ground.  It’s been a devastating devastation, as we have seen.  You’ve just mentioned the loss of life. 

You just heard from the Administrator, who has said that she has been on the ground for two whole days.  And they — we have been there since day one. 

You’ve — you heard that there is 300 personnel on the ground.  So, this is something that the President takes very seriously.  And you’ve heard from — from the governor of Hawaii, saying how he appreciates the efforts and what we’ve been able to do from the federal government. 

Of course, you’re going to hear from the President.  Don’t have anything to share at this time.  But let’s not forget: We did hear from him on Thursday — right? — when he was in Utah ahead of talking about the PACT Act, which is, as you know, something — it was a year anniversary — an issue that is incredibly important to many Americans.  And he took that time to — to speak to it. 

So, I’m sure you’ll be hearing from the President.

Go ahead.

Q    Aside from the statement from the President, has President Biden spoken to any family members of wildfire victims or plans to in the future?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  I don’t have any calls to — to — to speak to at this time.  But I can say that, as you know, he’s been in — he’s heard from the governor a couple of times.  He’s been updated by the Administrator a couple of times over the past couple of days.  And he is staying in close communication and close touch with — with the Administrator.  And also, his team is regularly updating him on what is occurring. 

Q    And secondly, a number of Democrats and progressives have called for this moment to be labeled a climate emergency.  Has the President considered that — that justification of that label for this instance?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  So, a couple of things: I know we’ve had — he’s been asked this question a couple of times.  I’ve been asked the question a couple of times.  This is a president has — who has taken the climate crisis very seriously. 

He has called it an emergency since day one, saying that it is climate — climate change is one of the four crisis that he — crises that we had to deal with coming in — he had to deal with coming into the administration.  And he sees it as an existential threat of our time. 

And for — for that reason, what he did automatically was declare climate as a basis for emergency action under the Defense Production Act.  Let’s not forget what that does.  It set aside $500 million from DPA to jumpstart heat pump manufacturing and build out our electric grid.  It deployed tens of millions more — from DPA — to stand up solar manufacturing and source critical materials for EVs — electric vehicles — and used the DPA to restart a factory to produce equipment to fight wildfires made worse by climate change. 

So, this is something that the President has taken very seriously.  And if you look at — if you think about the Inflation Reduction Act — as you hear me speak to many times — you heard — or hear it’s — we’re about to celebrate the one-year anniversary of that, which has — which has given — which has given the most investment in dealing with climate change than any other piece of legislation. 

And, you know, what Republicans in Congress are trying to do — they’re trying to take that away.  They’re trying to repeal IRA.  And that is a problem. 

And so, while we’re trying to deal with this existential threat, this climate change crisis, the President is doing everything that he can to make sure that we are dealing with this with an — with a — in a way — in a way that actually leads to results.  And that’s what the President is going to continue to do. 

Go ahead. 

Q    Hi.  On — on Hawaii, has the President been — (a cellphone rings) — briefed specifically on the issue surrounding the local response, such as the fact that the alarm didn’t go off?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  I’m sorry, the — the music distracted me. 

Q    Yeah.  And that’s fine.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  I’m sorry. 

Q    So, has the President been briefed specifically on the issues surrounding the local response, such as the fact that the alarm didn’t go off, or the fact that some people are saying now that there wasn’t a clear evacuation plan? 

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  So, look, I know that there is an investigation going on on that particular question that you’re asking me, so I’m not going to get ahead of that. 

(A cellphone rings.)

You got — you got control of that, my friend? 

Q    I’m — I’m going to turn it off.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Okay.  All right.  There’s only a briefing happening right now. 

Q    It’s off.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Okay. 

And so, there is going to be investigation done on that.  I’m not going to get ahead of that.  So, certainly would refer you to the state officials. 

We are — what we’re focused on — and we’ve been — I’ve been very clear, the Administrator has been very clear on providing residents of Hawaii with all of the support and resources that they need at this time. 

And so, that’s going to be our focus.  And we’ll let the investigation — the local government deal with the investigation. 

Go ahead.

Q    To the back?

Q    Thanks, Karine.  NPR has obtained a trove of inspection reports regarding these ICE detention facilities –privately — privately controlled ICE detention facilities.  And some of these documents show that there were egregious behaviors going on, negligent care.  I knew during the 2020 presidential campaign, Biden committed to ending these for-profit ICE detention facilities.  That has not happened so far. 

Can you explain why the administration still is relying on them?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  So, I have not seen the report.  That’s something that I would want to talk to our team about before responding to your particular report. 

You know, I think the President is still committed to that — to what he — what he laid out during his campaign.  Just don’t have anything here to share beyond that, beyond his commitment that he is certainly going to foc- — going to continue to stay focused on — but I just don’t have anything specific on where we are with that particular —

Q    Can I ask you one quick —

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  — particular ICE detention closure. 

Q    I’m sorry — one quick follow-up there.  My understanding is that the ACLU has said that under President Biden, a larger percentage of ICE detainees are in these privately run facilities when compared to the Trump administration.  And I just want to understand how that is possible, kind of, with the commitment that you all have had — expressed to moving away from detention facilities.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Well, look, let me first say that, you know, we’ve been very clear.  We want — this is a broken system that we have done everything that we can to make sure we move forward in a humane way.  Right?  That is something that we have been committed to and that is a path that we certainly have gone down.

As it relates to the ICE detention, the private detention, again, I would have to go back to the team and see where we are with that.  I have not seen the — this investigative reporting that you all have done. 

But I want to make sure I answer it in a fulsome way.  So, I need to just make sure I check in with the team, and we’ll get back to you on that.  All the — all the questions that you have I’m sure the team will get — we’ll get back to you on that.

Go ahead.

Q    Thank you.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  And welcome — welcome to your — to the briefing room —

Q    Thank you.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE: — in your new role.

Q    Thank you.  I appreciate it, Karine.

You mentioned earlier the fact that David Weiss, as U.S. attorney, was appointed by former President Trump.  That has been a fact that many Democrats, many allies of the White House have used to defend the plea deal that was previously in place, as well as the five-year timeframe that this investigation had been — had been taking. 

And so, I’m wondering, you know, if the President believes that appointing a special counsel or transitioning Weiss to special counsel bolsters the independence of that investigation.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  That is something I’m just not going to speak to.  We believe in the independence of the Department of Justice.  I’m just not going to speak to that from here.

Q    And on Hawaii, how does the White House respond to critics who have suggested that the President should not have been vacationing at the beach over the weekend as the Maui crisis became the worst wildfire in a century?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  So, a couple of things.  And I’ve said this multiple times: The President is certainly deeply concerned about — about the people in Maui to the — to the point where he has mobilized a whole-of-government approach here, as he d- — he has done many times, to deal with these wildfires in Hawaii. 

From the beginning, we — you’ve heard directly from the Administrator: From day one, FEMA has been on the ground dealing with this.  There’s more than 300 personnel — FEMA personnel.  We’ve talked about the 50,000 meals.  We’ve talked about 75,000 liters of water, the thousands of cots that are out there and blankets.  And this is — there is more than a dozen — a dozen federal agencies who are — who are dealing with this issue right now that — that we’re currently seeing in Maui.

And it is a devastating sight.  And the President and the First Lady has been very clear about offering, certainly, their condolences and making sure that we continue this whole-of-government approach.  That is not going to stop.  The President has also committed to being there for the government of Hawaii, the people of Maui for as long as it takes.  And sadly, we have seen this before. 

And so, look, you heard yesterday he received two updates from the FEMA Administrator Criswell, who was on — as she’s on the ground, as you just heard. 

As the governor — Governor Green stressed yesterday, as well: Within six hours of receiving Hawaii’s requests, President Biden signed a major disaster declaration and ordered all available federal resources in the state to help with the response.  And Governor Green described this as having provided amazing support for recovery because the President was able to do that within those six hours.

Senator Hirono, who I said the President spoke to just last night — he [she] thanked the President for the immediate support federal agencies have delivered for residents of Hawaii.  And so does — has — so has Senator Shortz — Sha- — Shartz — Schatz.

And so, look, you’ve heard from the President.  I’m going to quote him from what he said on Thursday, which is I’ve — he’s directed — he’s directed what we surge — what we surge support of these brave — brave firefighters and first responders and emergency personnel working around the clock.  He said, “I’m going to make sure the state has everything it needs from the federal government to recover,” because the President is deeply concerned and is going to continue to be there for the people of Maui, the government of Hawaii for as long as it takes.  And that is his commitment.

Q    So, should the pe- — should the American people be seeing the President on the phone, working the phones, talking to officials, rather than seeing him on the beach?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  The pr- — you all have gotten pool reports on who the President has connected with.  You all have heard from us when the President has talked to the governor, when the President — you heard from me when — about talking to the senator.  You heard directly from the Administrator. 

You know, and you’ve heard from the governor and the senators on the ground, saying how much they appreciated the work of the federal government, the work from this President.  And I think that matters.  I think that matters that the folks who are on the ground, the elected officials, are saying that they’re receiving the help that they need to deal with this devastating issue. 

And that’s what you’re going to continue to hear from this administration.  And that’s what you’re going to continue to see. 

Again, the Administrator was there for two whole days — two whole days on the ground, by the President’s request, to make sure that the government has what they have — the local government has what they have, the people of Maui have what they have.  And that’s what you’re going to see.

When you talk about a dozen agencies on the ground, helping and assisting more than si- — more than — hundreds of FEMA — FEMA personnel, that’s what matters.  That’s what matters for — to make sure that they’re actually seeing on the ground the people who know how to work this, who know how to deal with these type of devastating events, who can be helpful to them on the ground doing just that — by the request of this President.

MS. DALTON:  We have time for one more.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  Go ahead.

Q    On the supplemental that was sent to Congress: On the Ukraine portion, I’m curious if you can detail any conversations maybe that have already been going on with the Hill about the — the swiftness of that process and, secondly, if there’s any concern from the President or the administration about what has been, up to this point, pretty broad bipartisan support for Ukraine aid starting to slip.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE:  So, look, we — look, we are grateful for the par- — bipartisan support that we have seen on Ukraine since Russia’s unprovoked war.  We are grateful for it.  It’s been a full-scale invasion, as you know, from Russia.  We are confident that that support is going to continue as we work together to make sure that the Ukrainian people have everything that they need to continue to fight bravely for their freedom.  That is what we’re hoping to continue to see.  And — and we believe that we will continue to have that.

As it relates to our engagement with Congress, senior administrator officials — including the OMB Director, Shalanda Young, and our Legislative Affairs shop — have had numerous — numerous conversation, numerous calls with lawmakers on the ground with both parties to explain exactly the need and the highlight f- — and highlight the emergency nature of this request.  So, we’ve been having those regular conversations. 

We’re continuing to engage with members of Congress.  That’s something that we have done, that we do pretty regularly and — to underscore the importance of this — of delivering these bipartisan — remember, this has been — done in a bipartisan way.  And we believe that this will continue in a bipartisan way. 

Remember, these are — the Ukrainian people are — are fighting for their democracy.  They’re fighting for their freedom.  And we — we believe that it is important that we continue to support them in — let’s not forget — this — the — Russia’s unprovoked war — full-out — full-out war on the Ukrainian people.

With that, we’ll see you on Wednesday here in the briefing room.  Thanks, everybody.

Q    Thank you.

2:56 P.M. EDT

Official news published at https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/press-briefings/2023/08/14/press-briefing-by-press-secretary-karine-jean-pierre-and-fema-administrator-deanne-criswell-2/