Aboard Air Force One
En Route Jackson, Mississippi
10:08 A.M. EDT
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Hey, everybody. I have a couple things at the top and then I’ll hand it over to the Administrator, who’s standing to my right, as you all know.
Good morning. Today, we’re headed to Rolling Fork, Mississippi, where the President and First Lady will meet with community leaders and residents devastated by the powerful tornadoes that struck this close-knit town and neighboring areas last weekend.
In Rolling Fork alone, 13 people tragically lost their lives. Their loved ones are grieving immense loss as they begin the daunting task of sorting through the wreckage and rebuilding a town that is now unrecognizable.
President Biden and the First Lady will reaffirm their commitment to supporting the people of Mississippi as long as it takes. They’ll thank the first responders who worked around the clock to rescue survivors and get people to safety. And they’ll receive a briefing — a briefing from federal, state, and local officials on the ongoing response and recovery efforts.
The President and First Lady will be joined by Governor Reeves, First Lady Reeves, Senator Hyde-Smith, Congressman Thompson, Mayor Walker, and additional state and — state and local and Tribal officials, as well.
At the President’s direction, we have over 300 federal personnel on the ground supporting recovery efforts.
Today, the President will announce that the federal government will cover 100 percent of the cost of the state’s emergency measures for the next 30 days. These measures include removing debris, operating shelters, and paying overtime to first responders. He will also announce that FEMA will open Disaster Recovery Centers in storm-ravaged counties to help residents access the federal resources available to them.
With that, I will turn it over to Administrator Criswell, who was on the ground in Mississippi on Saturday, to provide an update on the response effort to date.
ADMINISTRATOR CRISWELL: Thank you, Karine. Good morning, everybody. Yes, as — as you just heard, we are on our way over there. We have over 300 personnel from FEMA on the ground, as well as many of our federal partners.
I think, as you know, we’re looking at thousands of damaged and destroyed homes across several counties in Mississippi. But we also know that there’s damage to infrastructure, to the water systems, to the power grid, much of which is beginning to come back online. But some of it, that will require some long-term rebuilding, and we want to make sure that we’re doing that in a way that’s going to make those facilities more resilient.
We also heard stories of the post office in Rolling Fork, where we’re going to go, that was damaged and concerns that people had because that’s where they get their medicine from. But the Postal Service has been able to set up a temporary facility so we can make sure that those — those services continue to be supported in the community.
I would say, to date, right now we have on the ground, from FEMA, members of our Incident Management Assistance Team that are embedded with the state EOC to help coordinate the efforts. Also, our Disaster Survivor Assistance Teams, which are going door to door in all of the declared counties, not only helping them register for assistance, but also trying to get a better understanding of what their needs are so we can bring in and help coordinate the thousands of volunteer agencies — volunteers from several different agencies that are also on the ground helping.
And we also have our Mobile Emergency Response System resources there supporting some of the communication needs in several of the counties.
Partners that we have on the ground to date, right now, are the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the American Red Cross, the United Way. We also have Civil Air Patrol, Department of Energy, Health and Human Services, and again, countless volunteer agencies.
And we’ve also mission-assigned some agencies to begin the recovery assessment to help determine what it’s going to take to help these communities rebuild. So far, we’ve mission-assigned and have on the ground, or will be arriving shortly, members from HUD, USDA, the Army Corps of Engineers, HHS, and Commerce.
We’ve had people on the ground since I was there on Saturday, and they continue to come in, and we’re going to continue to bring in the right resources from across the federal government, as well as our federal agencies, to support their recovery efforts.
Q Is there — how long do you think the recovery assessment is going to take?
ADMINISTRATOR CRISWELL: It’s just ongoing, right? I mean, it starts on day one with what those immediate recovery needs are going to be. When we bring in these agencies to help with the recovery assessment, a lot of it is technical assistance. I think, as you’ve heard the President say, you got to know what to know, and that’s what these agencies are there to do, right? They’re there to try to help them figure out what it is they’re going to need to do so we can bring in the right resources to help them get there.
Q And is there any effort to set aside more funds for — to sort of proactively set up storm shelters as we see, like, more storms in these areas so that people have a place to go when they anticipate stuff?
ADMINISTRATOR CRISWELL: That is a great question. We’ve already invested — I have a number — and I can get it to Karine to give to you — of how much money we’ve spent in the past to build storm shelters in these communities, just in Mississippi.
We’re going to work together. I’m here with Secretary Fudge today. And we talked about — we both have programs that can help homeowners build safe rooms in their homes. And we want to make sure that we’re aligning our programs to do that, but also to work with the state on how they can build additional storm shelters through some of our hazard mitigation programs.
Q How concerned are you about the potential for severe thunderstorms and more tornadoes potentially today?
ADMINISTRATOR CRISWELL: We are always watching the weather, and I’m very concerned about the amount of storms that are coming in and the storms that we might see today.
You know, after this storm, I talked with the National Weather Service, and they were comparing what the weather systems are looking like now to that which of what we saw in 2011 where we saw the Joplin, Missouri tornado and the outbreaks in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
And so the most important thing that we can do is help make sure people understand what their risk is, especially as we’re seeing it build, and help them know where they’re going to get information, because we know that they come fast. We want them to be able to take immediate action to protect themselves and their families.
Q Did they have enough warnings about these tornadoes? Was there enough alerts going out?
ADMINISTRATOR CRISWELL: Yeah, I believe there is, right? I think everybody receives information in different ways. We were watching this weather system develop all through the day on Friday. The most important thing for people to do is know how they’re going get information, because they all receive it different.
If you have sirens in your neighborhood, you’ll know that that’s one way that you’ll get it. The National Weather Service uses our emergency alert system to cell- — to send warnings over cellphones. They also come up on news, right?
And so people just need to know where they’re going to get that and watch this as we’re starting to see it develop. We can predict that we’re going to have severe weather. Exactly where it’s going to happen, that’s — that’s the piece that we don’t know until it gets almost right on top of them.
Q How long was it on the ground? And what was the top airspeed? Do we — do we know that at this point?
ADMINISTRATOR CRISWELL: I don’t have the top airspeed. I know that the initial reports are that the tornado was on the ground for somewhere around 100 miles and for about an hour or so.
The National Weather Service is doing their assessment to determine exactly what that was. But when I was in Rolling Fork on Saturday, in Rolling Fork, they said it was 15 seconds in that community. Right? And so 15 seconds —
ADMINISTRATOR CRISWELL: One-five. They said they heard the warning, they took shelter, and it was about 15 seconds later that it was — oops, I’m sorry — that it was gone. And you see this destruction for something that was just seconds on them themselves.
Q Is there any concern that the existing infrastructure in a place like Rolling Fork — I mean, we’re landing in Jackson, Mississippi. There’s an ongoing water crisis there. Is the infrastructure at a point in Rolling Fork and the surrounding area where — even with this 30 days of funding, are there concerns beyond that that this community will be able to have access to — to what they need?
ADMINISTRATOR CRISWELL: I think that they’re making great strides already in repairing the infrastructure. I was able to talk with the mayor of Amory just this morning. He said they’ve lifted all of their boil water notices and that the power is expected to be 100 percent restored here shortly.
I know in Rolling Fork some of the same things. I think what we need to do is — as those facilities were damaged, we want to make sure, as they’re rebuilding them, we’re rebuilding them to a higher code that has greater wind resistance — right? — and gives them greater protection against these high winds.
Q Governor Reeves has been a critic of this administration. Can you describe how the collaboration with his administration has been during the recovery?
ADMINISTRATOR CRISWELL: Governor Reeves was incredibly grateful for our visit. I called him early in the morning on Saturday, before he had even gone out to do his assessments. He gave me some of his initial impressions, and then he was with me and Secretary Mayorkas all day on Saturday to make sure that we were seeing what he was concerned about. And so, the relationship has nothing — been nothing but cordial.
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: And he’ll be on the ground today with the —
ADMINISTRATOR CRISWELL: Yes, he will be.
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: — with the — with the First Lady.
Q Is 30 days enough? Or will the federal government be there for as long as it takes?
ADMINISTRATOR CRISWELL: Oh, we’ll be there to the very end. Right? We will be there for the years ahead as they go through the recovery process. What the 30 days is, is 100 percent so we can help get that debris out of there. Right? We want to push it out as quickly as possible so these communi- — communities can begin their rebuilding process. That requires overtime as well. And so we know that these communities could be cash strapped, and we want to get that funding flowing, make sure that they don’t have any hesitation about what it’s going to take to help begin this recovery process.
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: All right. The — the President is asking for —
ADMINISTRATOR CRISWELL: Okay.
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: — the Administrator.
ADMINISTRATOR CRISWELL: Thank you very much.
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Thank you so much. Thank you.
Okay, I two things at the top, and then we’ll get going. Two more things at the top.
Okay, one second. Okay. So, today is Transgender Day of Visibility. It’s a day where we celebrated the joy, strength, and courage of transgender Americans and their families and loved ones who support them.
As President Biden has said, these are Americans who serve in our military and help keep our nation safe and free. And they are Americans who strengthen our communities and make them better.
But, unfortunately, as you all know well, this community is under relentless attacks from Republicans across the country. Rather than uplifting or supporting everyone in our communities and focusing on issues that matter to the American people, they want to target transgender Americans and take away their freedoms. They don’t want to talk about lowering costs for working families. They don’t want to talk about things that would make Americans’ lives better. They don’t want to talk — take away — they want to take away people’s freedoms and their access to healthcare.
And so, today and every day, this administration recognizes trans community — the trans community — and stands alongside it. The President has their back, has your back, and we have your back. And we will not stop fighting for you.
Yesterday — one last thing. Yesterday, in honor of César Chávez Day, the First Lady and Julie — Julie Chávez Rodriguez, Chávez’s granddaughter and current Assistant to the President and Director of the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, planted César Chávez roses in the White House Rose Garden.
The César Chávez roses in the White House Rose Garden will be on display for members of the public during spring garden tours this weekend. In 2002, the red César Chávez rose was created as a collaboration between a California rose grower and its laborers as a dedication to the memory of Chávez and his advocacy for farmworkers’ rights.
In 2022, 20 years later, in the observance of César Chávez Day, the First Lady attended and delivered remarks at a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services naturalization ceremony at the National César Chávez in Keene, California.
With that, Colleen, kick us off.
Q Okay, two things. Any comment on Trump’s indictment?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: So, you heard from the President just earlier this morning on the South Lawn before taking off for — for this trip to Mississippi. Look, we’re just not going to comment on any ongoing case. And I’ll just leave it there.
Q And then second, has the President spoken with the family of Evan Gershkovich?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: So — well, I don’t have any conversations to read out to all of you. You also heard the President speak to — to Evan’s — to Evan’s situation at the moment. I wish I had breakthrough news or a breakthrough update for all of you. I just do not.
The State Department is working very hard to get a counselor, as I mentioned yesterday, to Evan, which is something that we do for all Americans that are detained. And — and we’re just doing our best to actually get — have contact with him.
Q Can I ask, on that — the — the U.S. does do things for Americans no matter what their designation. But once somebody is designated “wrongfully detained,” the amount of effort and the amount of stuff that the U.S. does for them dramatically changes. How quickly do you think the State Department can make that determination? Do you see that coming in a matter of days or weeks? Or is it going to take, as it sometimes does, months?
And, you know, obviously, it’s a process, and you’ve said that before, but will the President — is the President telling Secretary Blinken and the State Department to move more quickly than they normally do or as quickly as they can to get this done?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: So, Michael, I can tell you for certain this is a priority for this President. Really, truly, for any American that is detained, it is a priority for this President.
And so, there is a process, as you just stated, that the State Department is going through, and they have to go through this process and — before he can be named or said to be wrongfully detained.
Also, there’s privacy concerns. This is incredibly — as you can understand, we have to be very careful about this and mindful. So there is privacy situation connected to every — every one of these cases.
But this is, again, a priority for this President. It is a priority for the National Security Council. It is a priority for the State Department. And I’m going to leave it there, but we are doing — they are doing everything that they can to move —
Q But that didn’t answer the question, though. The question was: Is the President going to — first of all, how long will — do you think it will take? And is the President going to tell the Secretary of State to speed it up?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Michael, I — I understand the question, and I actually answered it. Every American that is detained, it is indeed a priority. This is the — something the President has said from the beginning of this administration. Every —
Q How did that answer the question?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Because I just told you. It’s a priority. This is a priority.
Q The question was: How long will it take? And — and is the President going to tell the Secretary of State to accelerate it?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Michael — Michael, I am telling you that there is a process. There are privacy concerns —
Q No, you’re saying things that aren’t the answer to the question. But I’m asking you: Will you answer the question?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: You may not like the answer to the question —
Q It isn’t an answer. (Laughs.)
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Okay. We can go back and forth, but you also have colleagues who want to ask me questions —
Q Karine, was the President — was he briefed?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: So, I feel like I’m answering the question. Steve, you go.
Q Was — was the President briefed on the Trump indictment? Did he watch any of the news coverage?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Look — look, we found out — all of us, including the President, found out about — about the news yesterday, just like every other American, through the news reports.
And he was — his chief of staff, Jeff Zients, let him know what occurred through media reports, just like — again, just like all of you found out. Was not given a heads up. Again, through media reports, that’s how we learned about the — about — about the indictment yesterday.
Q On the debt limit: House Republicans have said they may introduce a standalone item to increase the debt limit that would also include spending cuts. Would the President be willing to sit down with Speaker McCarthy and negotiate over that? Or is his bottom line still that the Republicans need to release a budget?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: We’ve been very clear — very, very clear — we are not negotiating on their — over something that is their constitutional duty to get done. This is — when you think about the debt limit, when you think about what happened three times in the last administration, this is something that Democrats came together with Republicans to make sure that we dealt with something that was incredibly important to taxpayers.
There’s — this should be done without negotiation, when it’s — when we talk about the debt limit. It should be done without conditions. And so, again, we’re not negotiating. This is — we’re talking about the full credit of — of this nation. And so, we should not be holding that hostage.
Now, separate and apart, as we have been saying over and over again, if the House Republicans want to talk about a budget, want to show us what they — what they value, what they see as fiscally responsible and show that to the American people and want to have that conversation, the President is happy to do that.
We put out our budget three weeks ago; they still have yet to do that. And so, we want to see. Let’s see their budget. Let’s see what the cuts that they want to talk about. And that is what we will negotiate on.
Q So, bottom line: standalone bill, not enough for Speaker McCarthy to get a meeting.
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: What we’re saying — what we’re saying, and we’ve been very, very clear about this: The debt limit should be — should be dealt with without conditions, without negotiations
Q On the Trump indictment, are you — is the White House concerned about the possibility of civil unrest? And is there any federal support being offered to New York or elsewhere?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: So, what I will say is: The President certainly — and we’ve said this many times before — he supports Americans who want to protest peacefully. And I’m just not going to get into speculations from here on what may or may not happen.
Clearly, we are always prepared. This administration is — and this government is always prepared. But just not going to get into speculation from here.
Q Do you share the Kremlin’s assessment that journalists that are accredited in Russia are safe?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Look, we know — and I’ve — I said this yesterday, as well. When we hear — when — when it comes to Americans being detained, we know that this is something — sadly, a tool that — that the Kremlin has used for a long time. This is not unusual, what — what they — what we’ve seen.
But we’ve been also very clear, the State Department has been very clear: Russia is not safe for Americans. And so, if you are an American and you are currently in Russia, we — we suggest — it is a Level 4 there — that you leave. The State Department is willing to help in any way to make that happen.
We’ve also said: Do not travel to Russia. It is not safe for Americans.
I’ll leave that there.
Q Does the White House or does the President have a message to any voters who believe that this Trump indictment is political?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: I — again, we’re just not going to comment on an ongoing — an ongoing case. Not something that we’re going to be commenting on. We don’t — we’ve been pretty consistent and prudent about that. We’re just not going to comment on it.
Q A lot of Republicans are accusing or saying there’s some political element. I mean, do you want to respond to that at all, Karine?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Look, I’ll say this: You s- — you’re seeing the President and the First Lady head to Mississippi — Rolling Fork, Mississippi, today to survey a disaster that occurred over the weekend to make sure that he is there for the community and to let them know that we are here for them today, tomorrow, and in up- — and for as long as it takes.
You heard directly from the Director of FEMA, and — and that is something that the President want- — that’s his job. That’s what he sees his job as: to be there for the American people in this time.
And so, look, the President has always been focused on delivering on his economic policy, making sure that we’re lowering costs for Americans, making sure that we’re protecting the freedoms of Americans.
If you think about national abortion ban that we see that Americans — that Republicans are putting forth, if you think about — I just talked about Trans Visibility Day; we talked about the anti-LGBTQ legislations that are in state legislatures, the anti-trans legislation that are across — that — that we’re seeing across the country, the President is going to fight for Americans’ freedom. He’s going to have their backs day in and da- — day out.