President Joe Biden opened his first presidential news conference Thursday with a new promise to get 200 million Covid vaccine shots in American arms by the end of April – and then spent the rest of the hour defending his administration’s immigration policy and teasing openness to ending the Senate filibuster.
The questions mostly focused on the immigration crisis at the border, but ran the gamut from Biden’s plans for dealing China, running again in 2024 and protecting voting rights.
What’s below is the speed read version of the hourlong event, with key excerpts from each of his answers along with what they meant.
Subtext: Will you back ending the filibuster? First, Biden answered that he’s going to continue to focus on Covid and the economy.
Question 1: Relations with Republicans in Congress
BIDEN: 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 going to lose their home because they can’t pay their mortgage or the millions of people are going to get thrown out of their homes because of the inability to pay their rent.
But he thinks Republicans have a choice to make.
BIDEN: Here’s the deal. I think my Republican colleagues are going to have to determine whether or not we want to work together or decide that the way in which they want to proceed is to – is to just decide to 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.
And the bottom line is, Biden thinks he can get a lot done without Republicans, and pointed to his Covid relief bill as evidence.
BIDEN: All I know, I’ve been hired to solve problems, to solve problems, not create division.
Question 2: Plans for dealing with the immigration crisis
Biden said former President Donald Trump tried to dismantle the US immigration and border system and disputed that there’s a larger influx of migrants now that he’s President.
BIDEN: What we’re doing now is attempting to rebuild, rebuild the system that can accommodate 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.
He said most of the kids at the border are teenagers, not young kids, that most people apprehended are sent back to their home country and that his administration is working to place them with family members in the US much more quickly. He also said he’s working with Mexico to take back more of the families who are detained at the border.
Question 3: Biden’s position on filibuster reform
After rattling off statistics about the rise in filibusters in recent years, Biden said he supports a return to the so-called “talking filibuster.”
BIDEN: 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.
He added that he’ll go further if he has to.
BIDEN: We’re ready to get a lot done. 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.
Question 4: A follow-up on filibuster reform
Biden was in the Senate for a very long time, but now he’s President – and he made clear that fixing the Senate is not his problem.
BIDEN: 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.
Question 5: What to do about kids at the border
ABC’s Cecilia Vega told Biden she met a 9-year-old at the border whose mother sent him specifically because Biden would be more humane.
BIDEN: Look, the idea that I’m going to say, which I would never do, 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.
In Vega’s follow-up, she noted that kids are sleeping on floors and aren’t seeing the sun. So, she asked: Is that acceptable?
BIDEN: Is it acceptable to me? Come on. That’s why we’re going to be moving 1,000 of those kids out quickly. That’s why I got Fort Bliss opened up. That’s why I’ve been working from the moment this started happening 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.
Question 6: Will US troops be out of Afghanistan by May 1?
Biden has been navigating how to meet a May 1 deadline to withdraw all US troops from the country that was agreed between former President Donald Trump and the Taliban.
BIDEN: The answer is that it’s going to be hard to meet the May 1 deadline. Just in terms of tactical reasons, hard to get those troops out. … But it is not my intention to stay there for a long time.
Follow-up: Will there be US troops in Afghanistan next year?
BIDEN: I can’t picture that being the case.
Question 7: Access to border facilities housing kids
The Biden administration has not allowed journalists to independently visit facilities housing kids, but several lawmakers have visited them. Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar earlier this week provided CNN with photos revealing the conditions for dozens of children and adults in an overflow facility in Donna, Texas.
Biden said his administration needed more time.
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.
Follow-up: Did you unwind Trump border policies too quickly?
BIDEN: 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 8: Biden’s red line on North Korea
On Wednesday, North Korea launched two ballistic missiles. South Korea’s joint chiefs of staff said in a statement that two short-range missiles had been fired from the Hamju area of South Hamgyong province toward the sea, off North Korea’s east coast, at 7:06 a.m. and 7:25 a.m. Thursday local time.
BIDEN: 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.
Follow-up: What do you mean by diplomacy?
Biden didn’t answer directly, but he did agree that North Korea is his top foreign policy item to watch.
Question 9: The fight over voting rights
One reason the filibuster matters is because Democrats want to pass voting rights legislation in Congress – in part to counter Republican moves in the states to add restrictions.
As the press conference was getting underway, Georgia’s Republican-controlled state legislature was moving ahead with a bill that would set new rules on voting in a state that was pivotal to Biden’s victory – as well as to sealing Democratic control of the US Senate.
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 can not bring water to people standing in line waiting to vote? Deciding that you’re going to end voting at 5 o’clock when working people are just getting off work? Deciding that there will be no absentee ballots under the most rigid circumstances?…
I’m convinced that we’ll be able to stop this, because it is the most pernicious thing. This makes Jim Crow look like Jim Eagle.
Follow-up: What can you do besides pass legislation out of Congress?
BIDEN: The answer is, yes, but I’m not going to lay out a strategy in front of the whole world and you now.
Question 10: Running in 2024?
Trump had already set up a re-election committee at this point in his first term, the questioner noted.
BIDEN: My predecessor needed to.
My predecessor. Oh, god, I miss him. No, and the answer is yes, my plan is to run for re-election.
Follow-up: What’s the relationship like with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell?
BIDEN: I would like Republican – elected Republican support, but what I know I have now is I have electoral support from Republican voters. Republican voters agree with what I’m doing.
Question 11: More on the filibuster
Again, Biden was a creature of the Senate for most of his Washington life, and he has been hesitant about calling for total evisceration of its rules – even as he agreed that it is a relic of America’s racist past. (For more on that, head here.)
The question: Why not get rid of it?
BIDEN: (Long pause) Successful electoral politics is the art of the possible. Let’s figure out how we can get this done and move in the direction of significantly changing the abuse of even the filibuster rule first. It’s been abused from the time it came into being by an extreme way in the last 20 years. Let’s deal with the abuse first.
Follow-up: So are you running for re-election?
BIDEN: I said that is my expectation… Look, I don’t know where you guys come from, man. I’ve never been able to travel. I’m a great respecter of fate. I’ve never been able to plan four and a half, three and a half years ahead for certain.
Follow-up to the follow-up: Do you think you’ll be running against Trump?
BIDEN: I don’t even think about – I have no idea. … Look, this is – the way I view things, I become a great respecter of fate in my life. I set a goal that’s in front of me to get things done for the people I care most about, which are hard-working, decent American people really having it stuck to them…
I’ve not been able to unite the Congress but I’ve been uniting the country. Based on the polling data. We have to come together. We have to …
To me it’s about just, you know, getting out there, putting one foot in front of the other and just trying to make things better for people. Just hard-working people.
Question 12: China
Biden did not directly answer the question from Bloomberg’s Justin Sink, which was about whether he’d lift the tariffs Trump put in place. But he did go in-depth about his conversations with China’s President Xi Jinping, pledged to keep the US competitive with China and voiced his commitment to standing up for freedom and his faith in democracy.
BIDEN: I predict to you, your children or grandchildren, are going to be doing their doctoral thesis on the issue of who succeeded, autocracy or democracy, because that is what is at stake. Not just with China. Look around the world. We’re in the midst of a fourth industrial revolution of enormous consequence …
This is a battle between the utility of democracies in the 21st century and autocracies. If you notice, you don’t have Russia talking about communism anymore. It’s about an autocracy. Demand decisions made by a leader of a country. That’s what’s at stake here. We got to prove democracy works.
Question 13: Gun control
It took most of the hour to get to a question connected to the supermarket shooting in Boulder, Colorado, earlier this week, and what Biden plans to do on guns – which may not be much.
BIDEN: It’s a matter of timing. As you’ve all observed, successful presidents better than me, have been successful in large part because they know how to time what they’re doing. Order it. Deciding priorities. What needs to be done.
Then Biden pivoted to what his priorities are – including infrastructure.
BIDEN: The next major initiative is, and I’ll be announcing it Friday in Pittsburgh in detail, is to rebuild the infrastructure, both physical and technological infrastructure of this country, so that we can compete and create significant numbers of really good-paying jobs, really good-paying jobs.
He then described at length how he wants to improve airports, ports, schools, energy efficiency, water availability and more. (Also, he misstated when his trip to Pittsburgh will be – it’s next week.)
Question 14: More on the border crisis
Reporters who have traveled to the border were hard on Biden, who said he has not gone because he doesn’t want to create a distraction – but insisted his administration is going to fix things.
BIDEN: They’re already getting better but they’re going to get real, a whole hell of a lot better real quick and we’re going to hear some people leaving, okay? We can get this done.
Follow-up: Vice President Kamala Harris is now in charge of diplomatic efforts to stop people from traveling north. But those efforts won’t work overnight.
BIDEN: It’s not like somebody sitting on a hand-hewn table in Guatemala or somewhere in Mexico or in Guadalupe saying, ‘I got a great idea, let’s sell everything we have, give it to a coyote, have him take our kids across the border into a desert where they don’t speak the language, won’t that be fun? Let’s go.’ That’s not how it happens. People don’t want to leave.
He repeated that most of the people arriving at the border are not small children.
BIDEN: I realize it’s much more heart wrenching, and it is, to deal with a 5- and 6- and 7-year-old, but you went down there and you saw the vast majority of these children, 70%, are 16 years old, 17 years old and mostly males. Doesn’t make it good, bad, or indifferent, but the idea that we have tens of thousands of kids in these god-awful facilities that are really little babies, crying all night, there’s some, that’s true. That’s why we’ve got got to act.
Last follow-up: Has he talked to Republicans about immigration reform?
BIDEN: No, because I know they have to posture for a while. They’ve sort of got to get it out of their system. This is a – but I’m ready to work with any Republican who wants to help solve the problem. Or make the situation better.
And with that, he left.