Political

Biden holds 1st formal news conference, faces questions on pandemic, migrant surge

Official White House Photo by Adam SchultzBy MOLLY NAGLE, SARAH KOLINOVSKY, and MICHELLE STODDART, ABC News

(WASHINGTON) — President Joe Biden held the first formal news conference of his presidency Thursday — a tradition that came later than in previous presidencies and looked dramatically different because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

He waited until his 64th day in office to take extended questions from reporters, longer than his 15 predecessors over the past 100 years.

He began by announcing he’s now set a new goal of 200 million vaccine doses by the end of his first 100 days in office.

While Biden touted the benefits of his $1.9 trillion COVID relief plan and advances in helping the economy recover, he faced immediate questions about the growing challenges that have taken some focus away from his effort to sell his legislative victory, including Republican opposition to his agenda on immigration and gun control.

“I got elected to solve problems,” Biden responded. “There are a lot of problems,” he said, but he argued those were “long-term problems” while he needed to put all his focus on dealing with the pandemic and the economic fallout.

“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,” Biden said.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection has struggled to handle the influx of unaccompanied minors crossing the border, which is only expected to increase in coming months, and media access to the facilities housing children has been extremely limited and tightly controlled.

When asked by reporters about whether his and his administration’s messaging was leading to the migrant surge, Biden pushed back, saying the influx happens every year. He also contended many of the current problems were prompted by the failures of former President Donald Trump.

“So what we’re doing now is attempting to rebuild, rebuild the system that can accommodate what is happening today,” Biden said. “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.

ABC News Chief White House Correspondent Cecilia Vega pressed Biden on the conditions for migrant children, particularly at a facility in Donna, Texas. Images from the facility released earlier this week showed the overcrowded facility.

“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 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?” Vega asked.

Biden said that the conditions were “totally unacceptable.”

“That’s why we’re going to be moving a thousand 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 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,” Biden said.

Also asked about was the politically fraught issue of gun control, after a mass shooting in Atlanta left eight people dead last week and 10 were killed during a shooting in a grocery store in Boulder, Colorado, on Monday.

Biden has called on Congress to take action on the issue, but has yet to put forth his own legislation on guns — despite a campaign pledge to send a bill to Congress on his first day in office to repeal liability protections for gun manufacturers and close background check loopholes.

Another topic that came up was foreign policy. In his first two months in office, Biden has seen escalated tensions with Russia and China, renewed missile tests from North Korea and a looming May 1 deadline to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

The late date for the event is not the only change from previous administrations. As the country continues to contend with the coronavirus pandemic, the event looked sharply different.

Biden was also asked whether he will run for reelection in 2024.

“My plan is to run for reelection,” Biden said. “That’s my expectation.”

He brushed off the questions about whether he thought he might be running against Trump once again saying he “doesn’t even think about that.” But he did respond to a question about whether Vice President Kamala Harris would be his running mate in 2024.

“I would fully expect that to be the case,” Biden said. “She’s doing a great job. She’s a great partner.”

While previous press conferences saw rooms packed with the White House press corps, Biden’s news conference had only 30 reporters socially distanced in the White House East Room.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

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