White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre defends Biden keeping distance from gun talks

"GMA" co-anchor Robin Roberts asked if Biden is personally lobbying senators.

ByLibby Cathey and Yi-Jin Yu
June 7, 2022, 9:29 AM

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, who took over as President Joe Biden's chief spokesperson just over three weeks ago, told ABC's "Good Morning America" on Tuesday that Biden is "very encouraged" by gun safety negotiations in Congress as lawmakers urgently try to reach a deal in principle this week in the wake of recent mass shootings.

"This is a priority for him. This is a very serious issue for this president, but right now, we're watching what Congress is doing, because we can't do this alone, he cannot do this alone, and we're very encouraged," Jean-Pierre told "GMA" co-anchor Robin Roberts, who pressed her on whether Biden was personally lobbying senators after the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, in which 19 children and 2 teachers were killed.

"So, I'll say this, the president has been very clear," Jean-Pierre continued. "He made his speech on Thursday. He spoke directly to the American public to continue to lay out the importance of dealing with gun violence, how this is destroying schools clearly and communities and how we have to act now and we cannot wait any longer."

"But he wants to give the Senate and Congress on the Hill some space to have that conversation," she added. "It sounds very promising. We are encouraged by it."

Jean-Pierre said the White House Office of Legislative Affairs has had direct communication with the negotiators "dozens of times."

"So, that is how we have been really dealing with this -- making sure that we can do whatever it is that we can do on our end and getting updates from them as well," she added.

PHOTO: Karine Jean-Pierre appears on "Good Morning America," June 7, 2022.
Karine Jean-Pierre appears on "Good Morning America," June 7, 2022.
ABC News

The exclusive interview comes as Biden has called for lawmakers to act on gun safety legislation, but Senate negotiators are considering a package much more narrow than what he asked for.

Biden called for an assault weapons ban, and if not, he said, then to raise the age to buy assault weapons from 18 to 21. Instead, lawmakers are considering measures like expanded background checks, incentives for states and localities to institute red flag laws, and increased funding for school security and mental health programs.

Throughout negotiations, Jean-Pierre has been on the defensive on Biden’s involvement as some have questioned whether the president should be taking a larger role in talks. She has argued Biden has been involved for decades and is giving senators "a little space" to work.

At Monday's press briefing, Jean-Pierre indicated that even if the senators ultimately propose a package that falls far short of the wish list Biden outlined in prime-time remarks last week, incremental changes would be acceptable to Biden. When reporters pressed her on the president's lack of personal involvement in the talks, she confirmed Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy's assertion that he has spoken with the White House every single day since the negotiations began -- but that can be on the staff level, not directly with Biden.

In addition to responding to gun violence, Roberts asked Jean-Pierre what else Biden was doing to tackle inflation and address abortion, two other key issues voters are focused on in this midterm election year.

“The president is going to continue laying out his plans. He did an op-ed last week laying out the three, four things that he's planning to do, giving the Federal Reserve some space of independence because they have the most impactful tools, if you will, to really deal with inflation,” Jean-Pierre said, adding that Biden ordered more oil to be released from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and supported the sale of E15 gas in response to rising gas prices. “We're going to do everything that we can to attack inflation.”

As for abortion, Jean-Pierre said, “The president and the vice president are committed to continuing to fight for Americans’ constitutional rights as is afforded to them with Roe v. Wade.”

“The president has continued to tap into the different agencies like [the Department of Health and Human Services], to make sure that we fortify Title X and we're going to continue to talk to groups and figure out how what else we can do. But really, we have to get Congress to act on this,” she said, referring to the federal program that let clinics refer people seeking abortions to a provider.

Jean-Pierre made history when she took over from Jen Psaki on May 13, becoming the first Black woman and first openly gay person to hold the position of White House press secretary.

When Jean-Pierre anchored her first White House briefing last year, as she was filling in for Psaki, ABC News Senior White House Correspondent Mary Bruce asked her about making history at the podium.

"It’s a real honor to be standing here today," Jean-Pierre said. "I appreciate the historic nature, I really do, but I believe that being behind this podium, being in this room, being in this building, is not about one person. It’s about what we do on behalf of the American people."

PHOTO: White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre arrives for her first press briefing as press secretary at the White House in Washington, D.C., May 16, 2022.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre arrives for her first press briefing as press secretary at the White House in Washington, D.C., May 16, 2022.
Andrew Harnik/AP

Jean-Pierre told Roberts Tuesday her historic appointment has meant so much to her.

“What I hope and what I didn't have when I was growing up is that any young girl or young boy, when they look up, they see me, that they know that they can dream big and even dream bigger,” she said. “The reason that I'm here is because we have a president who believes and understands what it means to have representation and understands that representation does indeed matter.”

Previously, Jean-Pierre was principal deputy White House press secretary, and during the 2020 presidential campaign, she was then-candidate Kamala Harris's chief of staff. She also served in the Obama White House as the regional director in the Office of Political Affairs for the northeast. Before joining the Biden campaign, she was a senior executive at MoveOn.org and an MSNBC analyst.

Jean-Pierre was born in Fort-de-France, Martinique, to Haitian parents, who later moved briefly to France and then immigrated to the U.S. and settled in Queens when she was five. They later moved to Hempstead, Long Island, where her father worked as a cab driver, and her mother, as a home health care aide. Though Jean-Pierre wasn't born in Haiti, she calls herself a "proud Haitian-American."

She and her partner have one daughter, Soleil.

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