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CNN NEWSROOM

President Biden Holds a Press Conference. Aired 1:30-2p ET

Aired March 25, 2021 - 13:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[13:30:00]

One final note. Since we passed the American Rescue Plan, we're starting to see new signs of hope in our economy. Since it was passed, a majority -- majority of economic forecasters have significantly increased their projections on the economic growth that's going to take place this year. They're now projecting it will exceed 6 percent, 6 percent growth in GDP.

And just this morning, we learned that the number of people filing for weekly unemployment insurance fell by nearly 100,000 persons. It's the first time in a year the number has fallen below the pre-pandemic high.

So there are still too many Americans out of work, too many families hurting and they still have a lot of work to do. But I can say to you, the American people, help is here and hope is on the way.

Now, I'll be happy to take your questions.

Zeke, Associated Press?

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President.

You mentioned your progress on COVID-19, I'd like to ask you about some of the other issues facing your presidency. One of the defining challenges you face in the coming months is how to deliver on your promise to Americans on issues like immigration reform and gun control, voting rights, climate change. All of those right now are facing stiff, united opposition from Republicans on Capitol Hill.

How far are you willing to go to achieve those promises that you made to the American people?

BIDEN: Well, I'm going to -- look, when -- when I took office, I decided that -- it was a fairly basic, simple proposition, and that is I got elected to solve problems. And the most urgent problem facing the American people, I stated from the outset, was COVID-19 and the economic dislocation for millions and millions of Americans.

And so that's why I put all my focus in the beginning -- there are a lot of problems -- but all of my focus on dealing with those particular problems.

And the other problems we're talking about, from immigration to guns and the other things you mentioned, are long-term problems, they've been around a long time. And what we're going to be able to do, God willing, is now begin one at a time to focus on those, as well, and -- whether it's immigration or guns or a number of other problems that face the country.

But the fundamental problem is getting people some peace of mind so they can go to bed at night and not stare at the ceiling wondering whether they lost their health insurance, whether they're going to lose a family member, whether they're going to be in a position where they're not going to be -- they're going to lose their home because they can't pay their mortgage, or the millions of people who are going to get thrown out of their homes because of the inability to -- to pay their rent.

So we're -- we're going to move on these one at a time, try to do as many simultaneously as we can. But that's the reason why I focused as I have.

And here's the deal: I think my Republican colleagues are going to have to determine whether or not we want to work together or they're -- decide that the way in which they want to proceed is to -- is to just decide the -- divide the country, continue the politics of division.

But I'm not going to do that. I'm just going to move forward and take these things as they come.

QUESTION: And just a -- just a follow-up, Mr. President, can your presidency be a success if you can't make progress on the -- those four challenges,climate change, immigration reform, gun control, voting rights?

BIDEN: Well -- well, I plan on making progress on all of them, but that's going to be for the American people to decide.

I think -- you know, I -- I doubt whether -- maybe you did, maybe others did -- I -- I -- I thought -- many of you thought there was no possibility of my getting the -- the plan I got passed passed without any Republican votes. Pretty big deal, got passed, growing the economy, people's lives are changing. So let's see what happens.

All I know, I've been hired to solve problems -- to solve problems, not create division.

OK, how about Yamiche?

QUESTION: Thanks so much, Mr. President.

You've said over and over again that immigrants shouldn't come to this country right now, this isn't the time to come. That message is not being received. Instead, the perception is you -- that got you elected as a moral, decent man is the reason why a lot of immigrants are coming to this country, entrusting you with unaccompanied minors.

[13:35:00]

How do you resolve that tension? And how are you choosing which families can stay and which can't -- can go, given the fact that even though with Title 42 there are some families that are staying? And is there a timeline for when we won't be seeing these overcrowded facilities with -- run by CBP when it comes to unaccompanied minors?

BIDEN: Well, look, I guess I should be flattered people are coming because I'm the nice guy. That's the reason why it's happening -- that I'm a decent man, or however it's phrased, that, you know, that's why they're coming, because you know, Biden's a good guy.

Truth of the matter is, nothing has changed. As many people came -- 20 percent increase in children at the border in my administration; 31 percent in the last year of -- in 2019 before the pandemic in the Trump administration. It happens every single, solitary year. There is a significant increase in the number of people coming to the border in the winter months of January, February, March. It happens every year.

In addition to that, there is a -- and nobody -- and by the way, does anybody suggest that there was a 31 percent increase under Trump because he was a nice guy and he was doing good things at the border? That's not the reason they're coming.

The reason they're coming is that it's the time they can travel with the least likelihood of dying on the way because of the heat in the desert, number one. Number two, they're coming because of the circumstances in country, in country.

The way to deal with this problem -- and I started to deal with it back when I was a United States senator -- I mean, a vice president, put -- putting together a bipartisan plan of over $700 million to deal with the root causes of why people are leaving. What did Trump do? He eliminated that funding. He didn't use it. He didn't do it.

And in addition to that, what he did -- he dismantled all the elements that exist to deal with what has been a problem and will -- and has been -- continued to be a problem for a long time. He, in fact, shut down the -- the number of beds available. He did not fund HHS to get people, to get the children out of those -- those Border Patrol facilities where they should not be, and not supposed to be more than a few days, a little while. But he dismantled all of that.

And so what we're doing now is we're attempting to rebuild, rebuild the system that can accommodate the -- the -- what is happening today. And I'd like to think it's because I'm a nice guy, but it's not; It's because of what's happened every year.

Let me say one other thing on this: If you take a look at the number of people who are coming, the vast majority, the overwhelming majority of people coming to the border and crossing are being sent back, are being sent back. Thousands, tens of thousands of people who are -- who are over 18 years of age and single people, one at a time coming, have been sent back, sent home. We're sending back the vast majority of the families that are coming. We're trying to work out now with Mexico their willingness to take more of those families back. But we -- that -- that's what's happening. They're not getting across the border.

And those who are coming across the border who are unaccompanied children, we're moving rapidly to try to put in place what was dismantled, as I said. For example, of all the children who are coming across the border, over 70 percent are either 16 or 17 years old. We're not talking about people ripping babies from mothers' arms, or little 3-year-olds standing on the border. Less than, I think it's 1.5 percent fall in the category of the very young.

So what we're doing is we're providing for the space, again, to be able to get these kids out of the Border Patrol facilities, which no child, no one should be in any longer than 72 hours.

BIDEN: And today, I went to -- for example, I used all the resources available to me; went to the Defense Department and -- and the -- the secretary of defense has just made available Fort Bliss, 5,000 beds be immediately available -- 5,000 beds on the on the Texas border.

So we're building back up the capacity that should have been maintained and built upon that Trump dismantled. It's going to take time.

And the other thing we're doing, I might add -- am I giving you too long an answer? Because if you don't want the details...

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

BIDEN: No, no. But I mean, I -- I -- I don't know how much detail you want about immigration. Maybe I'll stop there and (inaudible).

[13:40:00]

QUESTION: My -- my -- my follow up question is, one, if you could talk a little bit about which families -- why they're being allowed to stay -- with (ph) the families that are being allowed to stay, why they're being allowed to stay.

And in addition to that, when it comes to the filibuster, which is what Zeke was asking about, there's -- immigration is a -- is a big issue, of course, when it (ph) related to the filibuster. But there's also -- Republicans were passing bill after bill trying to restrict voting rights. Chuck Schumer is calling it an existential threat to democracy.

Why not back a filibuster rule that at least gets around issues including voting rights or immigration? Jim Clyburn -- someone, of course, who you know very well -- has backed the idea of a filibuster rule when it comes to civil rights and voting rights.

BIDEN: Well, look, I'm going to deal with all of those problems. The question is the priorities as they come and land on my plate.

Let's go to the first question you asked -- the first of the second questions you asked, and that is: what about dealing with families, why are not -- some not going back? Because Mexico is refusing to take them back. They're saying they won't take them back, not all of them.

We're in negotiations with the president of Mexico. I think we're going to see that change. They should all be going back -- all be going back. The only people we're not going to let sitting there on the other side of the Rio Grande by themselves with no help are children. And what we're doing there -- and it's an important point to understand -- I know you understand, I don't mean to say it that way -- an important point to focus on.

The vast majority of people under the age of 18 coming to the United States come with a telephone number on the -- on a wristband or come with a telephone number in their pocket in the United States, a mother, a father, a close relative -- a grandma or a grandpa. What was happening before is it was taking literally weeks and weeks, and maybe even months, before anybody would pick up the phone and call to see if there really was someone there.

Well, we've set up a system now where, within 24 hours, there's a phone call made as that person -- that child crosses the border. And then a verification system is being put in place as of today to determine quickly whether or not that is a trafficker being called or that is actually a mom, a dad and/or a close relative.

They're establishing that right off the bat if it, in fact, is mom or dad. Dad says, to take the extreme case, I've got a birth certificate. Then, guess what, we're getting that kid directly to that parent immediately.

And so that's going to reduce significantly -- there's two ways to reduce child populations in circumstances that are not acceptable, like being held at a Border Patrol station. One is to get them to the place where they have a relative and set a date as to when the hearing can be held.

BIDEN: The second way to do it is put them in a Health and Human Services facility that we're occupying now, both licensed beds around the country that exist as well as, for example, federal resources like Fort Bliss to get them safely in a place where they can be taken care of while their fate is determined.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

BIDEN: Filibuster. The filibuster.

You know, with regard to the filibuster, I believe we should go back to the position on the filibuster that existed just when I came to the United States Senate 120 years ago. And that is that it used to be required for the filibuster -- and I -- I had a card on this, I was going to give you the statistics, but you probably know them -- that it used to be that the -- that from -- between 1917 and 1971 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 being abused in gigantic way.

And, for example, it used to be you had to stand there and talk and talk and talk and talk until you collapsed. And guess what? People got tired of talking and tired of collapsing. Filibusters broke down and were able to break the filibuster and get a quorum and vote.

So I strongly support moving in that direction, in addition to having an open mind about dealing with certain things that are -- are just elemental to the functioning of our democracy, like the right to vote, like the basic right to vote.

[13:45:00]

We have amended the filibuster in the past. But here's the deal, as you observed, I'm a fairly practical guy. I want to get things done. I want to get them done consistent with what we promised the American people. And in order to do that in a 50/50 Senate, we've got to get to the place where I get 50 votes so that the vice president of the United States can break the tie, or I get 51 votes without her.

And so I'm going to say something outrageous. I have never been particularly poor at calculating how to get things done in the United States Senate. So the best way to get something done, if you -- if you hold near and dear to you that you like to be able to -- anyway.

I -- we're going to get a lot done. And if we have to, if there's complete lockdown and chaos as a consequence of the filibuster, then we'll have to go beyond what I'm talking about.

OK, hang on. Sorry. Oh, Seung Min, Ms. Kim.

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President.

To follow up on the filibuster, so do you believe it should take 60 votes to end a filibuster on legislation or 51?

BIDEN: If we could end it with 51 we'd have no problem. You're going to have to -- the existing rule, it's going to be hard to get a parliamentary ruling that allows 50 votes to end the filibuster, the existence of a filibuster. But it's not my expertise in what the parliamentary rules on how to get there are.

But -- our preoccupation with the filibuster is totally legitimate, but in the meantime we've got a lot we can do while we're talking about what we're going to do about the filibuster.

Let me get here. OK. Cecilia Vega.

QUESTION: I'd like to circle back to immigration, please.

You just listed the reasons that people are coming, talking about in- country problems, saying that it happens every year. You blamed the last administration.

QUESTION: Sir, I just got back last night from a reporting trip to the border where I met 9-year-old Josev (ph), who walked here from Honduras by himself, along with another little boy. He had that...

BIDEN: Astounding.

QUESTION: ... on him and we were able to call his family. His mother says that she sent her son to this country because she believes that you are not deporting unaccompanied minors like her son. That's why she sent him alone from Honduras. So sir, you've blamed the last administration but is your messaging in saying that these children are and will be allowed to stay in this country and work their way through this process, encouraging families like Josev's (ph) to come?

BIDEN: Well, look, the idea that I'm going to say, which I would never do, that if an unaccompanied child ends up at the border, we're just going to let them starve to death and stay on the other side -- no previous administration did that either, except Trump. I'm not going to do it -- I'm not going to do it.

That's why I've asked the Vice President of the United States yesterday to be the lead person on dealing with focusing on the fundamental reasons why people leave Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador in the first place. It's because of earthquakes, floods, it's because of lack of food, it's because of gang violence, it's because of a whole range of things that, when I was Vice President, had the same obligation to deal with unaccompanied children. I was able to get it slowed up significantly by working with the heads of state of those communities, to do things like -- in one of the major cities, the reason people were leaving is they couldn't walk through the street because they were getting -- their kids were getting beat up or shot or in gang violence.

Well, what I was able to do is not give money to the head of state because so many are corrupt, but I was able to say OK, you need lighting in the streets to change things, I'll put the lighting in. We got a contractor, we got the type of lighting, we paid directly to the contractor, did not go through the government, and violent crime was significantly reduced in that city. Fewer people sought to leave.

When this hurricane occurred -- two hurricanes, instead of us going down and helping in a major way so that people would not have a reason to want to leave in the first place because they didn't have housing or water or sustenance, we did nothing. We're going to do a lot in our administration. We're going to be spending that $700 plus million a year to change the life and circumstance of why people leave in the first place.

[13:50:00]

That mother did not sit around with -- on -- on the kitchen table and -- and say "you know, I've got a great idea. Why I'm going to make sure my son gets taken care of is I'm going to put a" -- how old was he, or she?

QUESTION: He -- he is nine. I also met a 10 year old.

BIDEN: "A -- a -- a 9-year-old, I'm going to send him on a thousand mile journey across the desert and up to the United States because I know Joe Biden's a nice guy and he'll take care of him." What a desperate act to have to take. The circumstances must be horrible.

So we can do something about that, that's what the vice president's going to be doing. What I did, when President Obama asked me to come and deal -- I was in -- I was in Turkey at the time, he said "you've got to come home and take care of this." So we put together a plan that had an impact.

And so the question here is whether -- how we go ahead and do this, what we do. There's no easy answer.

QUESTION: A quick follow up, if I may. Do you want to see these unaccompanied minors staying in this -- this country or should they be deported eventually?

BIDEN: Well, the judgment has to be made whether or not -- in -- in this young man's case, he has a mom at home. There's an overwhelming reason why he'd be put in a plane and flown back to his mom.

QUESTION: A final follow, sir. You mentioned circumstances that must be horrific. The Customs and Border Protection facility in Donna, Texas -- I was there -- is at 1556 percent capacity...

BIDEN: Yup.

QUESTION: ... right now, with mostly unaccompanied minors. There are kids that are sleeping on floors. They are packed into these pods. I've spoken to lawyers who say that they -- some of these children have not seen the sun in days. What's your reaction -- what -- what is your reaction to these images that have come out from that particular facility? Is what's happening inside acceptable to you? And when is this going to be fixed?

BIDEN: I -- I -- is --- that's a serious question, right? Is this acceptable to me? Come on. That's why we're going to be moving a thousand of those kids out quickly. That's why I've got Fort Bliss opened up. That's why I've been working from the moment this started to happen to try to find additional access for children to be able to safely -- not just children, but particularly children to be able to safely be housed while we follow through on the rest of what's happening. That is totally unacceptable.

Ken?

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President. I wanted to ask you about Afghanistan. You face a May 1st deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from that country. As a candidate, in foreign affairs you wrote that it is past time to end these forever wars. Can you commit to the American people that by May 2nd the U.S. will no longer have forces in Afghanistan?

BIDEN: 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.

So what we've been doing -- what I've been doing and what Secretary Blinken has been doing has been, we've been meeting with our allies, those other nations that have NATO allies who have troops in Afghanistan as well, and -- and if we leave, we're going to do so in a safe and orderly way. We're in consultation, as I said, with our allies and partners and how to proceed, and Secretary Blinken is meeting in Brussels this week with our NATO allies, particularly those who have forces there. And General Austin is -- just met with Kiani (sic), and I'm waiting for the briefing on that. He is the -- the -- the "leader," quote, in Afghanistan, in Kabul. And there's a U.N.-led process that's beginning shortly on how to mechanically get people -- how -- how to end this war.

But it is not my intention to stay there for a long time, but the question is, how and on what circumstances do we meet that agreement that was made by President Trump to leave under a deal that looks like it's not being able to be worked out to begin with. How -- how -- how's that done? But we are not staying a long time.

QUESTION: You just said "if we leave." Do you think it's possible that (inaudible)...

BIDEN: We will leave. The question is when we leave.

QUESTION: Do you -- sorry. Do you believe, though, it's possible we could have troops there next year?

BIDEN: I -- I -- I can't picture that being the case.

OK, Kristen?

QUESTION: Thank you very much, Mr. President.

[13:55:00]

Given the conditions that were just laid out at the migrant facilities at the U.S. border, will you commit to allowing journalists to have access to the facilities that are overcrowded moving forward?

BIDEN: I will commit when my plan very shortly is under way to let you have access to not just them but the other facilities as well.

QUESTION: How soon will journalists be able to have access to the facilities? We've obviously been allowed to be inside one, but we haven't seen the facilities in which children are packed together to really give the American people a chance to see that. Will you commit to transparency on this issue?

BIDEN: I will commit to transparency, and as soon as I'm in a position to be able to implement what we're doing right now. One of the reasons I haven't gone down, my chief folks have gone down, is I don't want to become the issue. I don't want to be, you know, bringing all the Secret Service and everybody with me to get in the way. So, this is being set up and you'll have full access to everything once we get this thing moving.

QUESTION: OK, just to be clear, how soon will that be, Mr. President?

BIDEN: I don't know. To be clear.

QUESTION: OK. And do you bear a responsibility for everything that's happening at the border now? I hear you talking a lot about the past administration. You decided to roll back some of those policies. Did you move too quickly...

(CROSSTALK)

BIDEN: To roll back what, I'm sorry?

QUESTION: ... policies. Did you move too quickly to roll back some of the executive orders of your predecessor?

BIDEN: First of all, all the policies that were under way were not helping at all, did not slow up the amount of immigration, and as many people coming. And rolling back the policies of separating children from their mothers, I make no apology for that. Rolling back the policies of remain in Mexico, sitting on the edge of the Rio Grande in the muddy circumstance with not enough to eat, I make no apologies for that. I make no apologies for ending programs that did not exist before Trump became president that have an incredibly negative impact on the law, international law, as well as on human dignity. And so, I make no apologies for that.

QUESTION: I must ask you about foreign policy, Mr. President. Overnight, we learned that North Korea tested two ballistic missiles. What, if any, actions will you take? And what is your red line on North Korea?

BIDEN: Let me say that number one, U.N. Resolution 1718 was violated by those particular missiles that were tested. Number one. We're consulting with our allies and partners and there will be responses if they choose to escalate. We will respond accordingly. But I'm also prepared for some form of diplomacy, but it has to be conditioned upon the end result of de-nuclearization. So, that's what we're doing right now, consulting with our allies.

QUESTION: And just very quick follow-up.

BIDEN: You've only got another hour now, OK?

(LAUGHTER)

QUESTION: Diplomacy, can you define what you mean? And former President Obama warned the incoming President Trump that North Korea was the top foreign policy issue that he was watching. Is that how you assess the crisis in North Korea?

BIDEN: Yes. OK. Hang on a second here, Kristen.

QUESTION: Thank you very much, Mr. President.

I want to go back to voting rights. And as Yamiche mentioned, Republican legislatures across the country are working to pass bills that would restrict voting, particularly Democrats fear impacting minority voters and young voters, the very people who helped to get you elected in November.

Are you worried that if you don't manage to pass voting rights legislation, that your party is going to lose seats and possibly lose control of the House and the Senate in 2022?

BIDEN: What I'm worried about is how un-American this whole initiative is. It's sick -- it's sick. Deciding, in some states, that you cannot bring water to people standing in line, waiting to vote? Deciding that you're going to end voting at 5:00 when working people are just getting off work? Deciding that there will be no absentee ballots under the most rigid circumstances?