The White House on Monday blew off criticism over President Biden being on vacation and offering a “no comment” this weekend during the catastrophic fires in Maui, the deadliest wildfires in the U.S. in more than a century.
Press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre was questioned by CNN’s Kayla Tausche on whether the American people should see the president working the phone rather than spending time on the beach during the crisis, after Biden spent the weekend in Rehoboth, Del., and returned to the White House on Monday morning.
“You all have gotten pool reports on who the president has connected with,” Jean-Pierre said, referring to the White House press pool reports and Biden’s interactions with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
“The [FEMA] administrator has been there for two whole days, two whole days on the ground by the president’s request to make sure that the government has what they have, the local government has what they have, the people of Maui have what they have,” she added. “When you talk about a dozen agencies on the ground, helping and assisting … hundreds of FEMA personnel. That’s what — that’s what matters.”
Biden on Sunday morning, during a bike ride in Rehoboth, replied, “We’re looking at it,” when asked about whether he would go to Maui. Later on Sunday, following a stop at the beach, he responded “no comment” when asked about the rising death toll in Maui.
Jean-Pierre was pressed again by Tausche about the White House response to critics who suggested that the president should not have been vacationing during the wildfire.
She responded that the president is “deeply concerned” to the point that he has mobilized a whole-of-government response. She pointed to the 300 FEMA personnel on the ground, 50,000 meals brought in and thousands of cots and blankets.
Jean-Pierre also said the American people can expect to hear from the president directly on Maui, not elaborating on the timing of such remarks.
“You could expect to hear from the president on this issue, clearly it is something that is deeply concerning to him,” she said. “You’ll hear from the president on this … certainly, he’s the president.”
FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell joined the briefing from Hawaii on Monday and, when asked about Biden visiting the devastation, she said that her focus is on not disrupting operations.
“Right now, we want to make sure that they have all of the resources and the space that they need and not disrupt operations,” she said, referring to the federal government responders.
“At this point, we just want to make sure that we are working to help this community identify everybody that’s missing, and we need to stay focused on that right now,” Criswell added.
Jean-Pierre highlighted Monday that Biden has signed a major disaster declaration, which allows all federal resources to help with the wildfire response. And, she said, the president has spoken to Criswell multiple times as well as Hawaii Sens. Mazie Hirono (D) and Brian Schatz (D).
Jean-Pierre also pointed numerous times to his comments Thursday, during which Biden spoke about the federal response to the wildfires as part of remarks on the one-year anniversary of the PACT Act.
Biden said he approved of a major disaster declaration for Hawaii, directed a surge in first responders and has kept in touch with Gov. Josh Green (D) and Criswell throughout the day.
The wildfire on the Hawaiian island is the deadliest in the U.S. in more than a century with at least 96 confirmed deaths, and search and rescue missions are still underway, suggesting that toll will likely rise.