(CNSNews.com) – White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre on Thursday was unable to say exactly who at the White House made President Biden aware of the baby formula shortage or exactly when he was told.
“I became aware of this problem sometime in — after April — in early April, about how intense it was,” Biden said after a virtual meeting Wednesday on accelerating infant formula production through Operation Fly Formula.
When pressed about exactly who told the president that there was an issue, the press secretary would only say “senior White House staff” informed the president.
CNN White House Correspondent Kaitlan Collins asked the press secretary on Thursday, “And on formula: Did the president have any conversations with any cabinet secretaries or the FDA commissioner once he was confirmed in February about the formula shortage before April?”
JEAN-PIERRE: I don’t have any meetings to read out specifically on that for you. Look, you know, as — as more — as you all know, the President spoke to — to this yesterday: As more abnormalities were seen in supply and sales started to decrease in April — you know, because people have asked about this — senior White House staff made — made the president aware of the problem, and this was in April. I don’t have any calls to read out for you.
COLLINS: Which senior White House staff made the president aware?
JEAN-PIERRE: I — so, as you know, the president deals with issues on a regular basis and that — that boils up to him, and it’s just an — there’s no specific person that I can call out to you, but it’s the regular way that we — we move forward through the regular channels. I don’t have a specific person, but that’s — that’s kind of how it goes on any issue, not just this one. It goes through regular channels, and senior — senior White House staff usually brief him on different issues.
Another reporter asked the press secretary whether the president expressed disappointment in his staff that he was not informed about the baby formula shortage sooner and whether he’s concerned about the information flow at the White House.
The press secretary replied that Biden said the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) “moved too slow,” and he has called for a review of what happened.
REPORTER: And just one more on baby formula. I know you got a lot of questions about this yesterday. I’m wondering if you had an opportunity to speak with the President since his comments yesterday, when he said he was not informed about the situation until May.
Is there — is he — has he expressed any disappointment in his staff for not bringing the issue to him earlier? Are there any concerns about the information flow in the White House that — given the manufacturers told him very directly they knew this would be a problem in February and he didn’t know about it until months later, has he expressed concern about that gap and how that squares with the whole-of-government approach you outlined yesterday?
JEAN-PIERRE: So, just so that we take a little bit of a step back — you know, Abbott is a major manufacturer and has been clear to the American people that they had shortcomings. They — they made that clear very, very recently.
The FDA administrator has spoken to this as well. He said the FDA moved too slow, and it has asked Steve Solomon to lead a review into what happened. The White House took urgent actions as it became clear a shortage emerged and existing actions were not so sufficing.
It’s hard to understand the scales of actions: DPA, at a historical pace; Operation Fly Formula, expe- — expediting timelines for millions of bottles from three to four weeks, to 72 hours — these are incredibly important of what we were able to do; and 80 million safe bottles being imported and counting.
We understand that there’s more work to be done. We understand what families are feeling, but this is — we have to remember how this started. We have to also remember what the FDA Administrator said as well. He has spoken to this, and so, this is — you know, this is something that we’re going to continue to work on.
REPORTER: Right, but that doesn’t answer the question about when the President was informed and whether or not he is satisfied with his staff not telling him about what has become a major problem —
JEAN-PIERRE: Well, he spoke —
REPORTER: — for two months.
JEAN-PIERRE: He spoke to when he was informed — that’s his — he spoke to that yesterday — which was in April, and you’re asking me about the process and is he disappointed? Look, again, I’m telling you, the Administrator of FDA spoke to this. They moved too slowly. He — and said that Steve Solomon is going to lead an after-action review on what happened, and when the shortages emerged and actions by the FDA and USDA did not suffice to prevent any consumer impact, the White House led urgent — an urgent, emergency, administrative-wide action with FDA — Fly Formula, as I just mentioned.
REPORTER: But that’s the FDA Administrator; that’s not the president. Those are two different individuals.
JEAN-PIERRE: No, but I’m telling you the process. I’m telling you what happened. I’m telling you that the FDA moved too slowly. I’m telling you that this happened on the side of Abbott, and this — what FDA tried to do at first was they — they — they called out Abbott for safety concerns. Right?
The most important thing here is that we have — we have — we have to make sure that babies have fa- — safe formula. We have to make sure that American families feel comfortable. So, FDA did their part here, but he also admitted that they moved too slowly, and once we saw that the supplies were not meeting the demand, we acted.
We took urgent action. So that is the — that is the way that it happened. That is the way the timeline was laid out, and so that is — I’m — you may not like my answer, but that is the way that we see it — in answering your question there.
NBC News White House Correspondent Kelly O’Donnell asked the press secretary, “And can we ask you to go back on the issue of who briefed the president on baby formula? To say there was no specific person is not a satisfactory answer. When you have senior assistants to the President, there’s a paper trail, I’m sure, about briefings to the president. There’s a Domestic Policy Council. There’s a Chief of Staff. At some point, we need to know who would have been the most likely person to talk to him about that.
JEAN-PIERRE: I think what I’m trying to say is there’s so many issues that come up that is presented to the president —
JEAN-PIERRE: — as you know.
O’DONNELL: We do know that.
JEAN-PIERRE: You’ve covered — you’ve covered many administrations, and there are just regular channels that that happen that go to the president.
O’DONNELL: It looks like it’s evasive to not have the most senior people in the White House willing to say, “I had a conversation with the president about it” or “I had…” or “We talked about it in this context or that context,” and we’re also all reporting on the consumer side of it — of what you’re doing, putting out and trying to get information, but we’re also trying to understand the information flow in this White House, and it’s important for us to get that answer, which is why we’re going to keep asking it until we get that answer.
JEAN-PIERRE: No, you have every right to keep asking. That’s why I’m here. Look, really, Kelly O., he’s briefed on countless priorities. He is the president of the United States. There are regular channels. He is briefed by his senior White House staff, and that is just the process that we have.
O’DONNELL: So, should we assume it’s the Chief of Staff then?
JEAN-PIERRE: I’m — I’m not going to confirm who it was; I’m just letting you know that there are regular channels that we use, and, you know, it’s senior — again, senior White House staff that elevate issues to him when the time comes, and they’re just regular channels, and that’s — that’s what I have for you to share there.
CBS News White House Correspondent Ed O’Keefe followed up on Kelly O’Donnell’s lines of questioning on the baby shortage formula, saying, “To follow up on what Kelly was asking about regarding the baby formula shortage: You were asked earlier by a few people — I want to just ask this again, with all due respect. Were you able to speak with the President about when he was informed in April?”
JEAN-PIERRE: I — here — he talked about it himself. He said he was informed in April. So I don’t — I don’t think I need to — the president mentioned that. He said that. So I don’t need to clear that up. You heard directly from the president on that.
O’KEEFE: Part of the reason we — I ask it, at least, is you talked yesterday about February 17th and February 18th. And what we were trying to figure out is when exactly in April was he told. Was it April 1? Was it April 30th? Was in April 15? Somewhere else in there?
JEAN-PIERRE: I — I don’t have a date to share with you. What I can tell you is he spoke to this yesterday, and he said it was in April, so that — that matters too.
O’KEEFE: Take it down — take it down a level from him into the staff of the White House, and part of the reason there’s so much curiosity about this across town is because, as you know, there have been stories written over the last several days and weeks about how things are going here in the West Wing, how things are operating.
And so, when we ask, “Who was told, either by the FDA or the Department of Health and Human Services or the USDA, here in the West Wing — who was told first? How did that get from that person, eventually, to the president?” It’s completely understandable. There are thousands of things going on across the federal government today —
JEAN-PIERRE: There are thousands of things —
O’KEEFE: But here’s the issue —
JEAN-PIERRE: — we were just talking about gun violence.
O’KEEFE: — something else could crop up suddenly as an unforeseen crisis, like this one. And so we’re trying to get a sense of how do things operate here inside the West Wing and how they eventually rise to the level of presidential involvement that then lead to things like invoking the Defense Production Act five — four or five months after the initial flags were raised.
JEAN-PIERRE: So, Ed, the president was briefed through his regular channels, as he is briefed on countless priorities that the President of the United States has to deal with. There are countless issues, countless priorities that I talk about here all the time, every day, about different priorities that we have to deal with, whether it’s the economy, whether it’s COVID, whether it’s climate change, whether it’s foreign policy issues that we have to deal with and assess. That is how we run the White House; it’s how any White House is run.
O’KEEFE: Right —
JEAN-PIERRE: So there are regular channels of White House senior staff, and that’s how it gets elevated. You’re asking me for a specific name. I’m telling you how the process works, and I’m telling you how it goes from White House staff to regular channels to the president.
O’KEEFE: Part of why this is intriguing is because we know, from what you’ve said, from what your colleagues have told us and what we’ve learned in our reporting over the last year and a half, is that he’s a voracious consumer of information from across the federal government, and whenever he gets briefed on something like this, he asks a lot of questions, and he usually puts it to the staff to come back with him with some solutions or some answers to these questions.
So the idea that he was told about this in April and then it didn’t get elevated until mid-May when Congress and when the press started raising bigger questions about this begs the question of, “Well, then what happened in April, when this very curious, very detail-oriented president, in briefings, would have been told about it and when steps were taken that are now underway?”
That’s part of what is so intriguing and curious about this situation, and why we’re so desperate for information. Because normally in these situations, we’re told, “Oh, well, here’s what he wanted to know, and here’s who he tasked with doing it,” but we’re not getting it this time.
JEAN-PIERRE: No, I — look, we’ve laid out timelines over and over again.
O’KEEFE: No, you gave us two dates and then tell us, “Generally, in April he was told about this.”
JEAN-PIERRE: Okay, so, by late — let me try again. Let’s try this again. By late — by late in April, sales — sales were going down and shortages were appearing. So that is what we — we learned in late April, and since then, through May, across the administration, we’ve aggressively invoked the DPA and used it three times, as you just mentioned, and that’s because of the president’s leadership; launched Operation Fly Formula, again, because of the president’s leadership; secured 80 million safe infant formula bottles from other countries; and cut red tape and issued WIC waivers in all 50 states, because that’s what happened in April that triggered our involvement in the way that we did throughout May in doing these four very specific things.
Look, USDA — you know, they took immediate action, but USDA and FDA cut red tape and increased supply. A reminder: There was more supply on the market after the recall than prior. That did not happen by — that didn’t happen by accident. So these actions were designed to bridge demand while Abbott worked through its safe- — safely opening to — safely open and manufacture a product that met FDA’s gold standard.
So they were acting at USDA, FDA were acting from the moment that the recall happened. But again, the sales were going down and shortages were appearing in late April. And that’s when —
O’KEEFE: So that’s when he was told?
JEAN-PIERRE: Well, he said — in late April — right? — and this —
O’KEEFE: You said in early April.
JEAN-PIERRE: In — in April. I’m sorry. In April. Okay. He said in April — in early April. The point that I’m making is: What we started to see in April were sales were going down and shortages were appearing, and when that happened, we triggered — we — the president made sure that the DPA happened, the Operation Fly Formula happened, and that was what — that was our focus there, and we wanted to make sure we got as much supply out as possible because, again, we saw the sales were going down.
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