WASHINGTON — In his first network television interview since taking office, President Joe Biden acknowledged that it will be “very difficult” for the United States to reach herd immunity at the current rate coronavirus vaccines are being administered in the country and that his administration would utilize all 32 National Football League stadiums as mass vaccination centers to help in the effort.
“It is a national emergency,” Biden said on “CBS Evening News with Norah O’Donnell,” referring to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and its effect on schoolchildren and the workforce.
Biden indicated that the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic was “even more dire than we thought.” Biden has used the Defense Production Act to direct companies to ramp up manufacturing of vaccines and protective equipment. On Thursday, National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell told Biden that all 32 stadiums would be made available as mass vaccination sites.
The president also told O’Donnell that he thinks about “the price so many of my grandkids and your kids are going to pay” for not being able to attend school in person.
“I think it’s time for schools to reopen safely. Safely,” Biden added, noting that officials with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would be releasing guidelines in the coming week about minimum requirements for schools to reopen. “You have to have fewer people in the classroom. You have to have ventilation systems that have been reworked.”
In portions of the wide-ranging interview, which aired Friday and Sunday before the Super Bowl, Biden discussed the pandemic, foreign policy and why he believed former president Donald Trump should not have continued access to intelligence briefings.
Biden said that he would not handle relations between the United States and China “the way Trump did,” and that he would refuse to lift sanctions against Iran until its leaders committed to stop enriching uranium.
Biden acknowledged that he had not yet called Chinese President Xi Jinping but added that “there was no reason not to call him.” He offered Xi praise but warned that things would be different under the Biden administration.
“He’s very bright. He’s very tough. He doesn’t have — and I don’t mean it as a criticism, just the reality — he doesn’t have a democratic, small D, bone in his body,” Biden said. “I’ve said to him all along that we need not have a conflict. But there’s going to be extreme competition. And I’m not going to do it the way that he knows. And that’s because he’s sending signals, as well. I’m not going to do it the way Trump did. We’re going to focus on international rules of the road.”
Biden and his officials have indicated a willingness to take a more aggressive posture toward China, while maintaining that it is perhaps the most important relationship for the United States. Shortly after Biden was inaugurated, the Chinese government announced sanctions against more than two dozen outgoing U.S. officials and advisers, which the Biden White House dismissed as an “unproductive and cynical move.”
The president has spoken on the phone with several other world leaders, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke to his Chinese counterpart last week. In a summary of the call, Blinken struck a firm tone, saying he had “made clear the U.S. will defend our national interests, stand up for our democratic values, and hold Beijing accountable for its abuses of the international system.”
Blinken has previously said he believes China is committing genocide against its Uighur people in the Xinjiang region, a declaration that the Trump administration had made in its last days.
As he had frequently on the campaign trail, Biden noted in the CBS interview that he had a long relationship with Xi from when he was President Barack Obama’s vice president.
“I probably spent more time with Xi Jinping, I’m told, than any world leader has, because I had 24, 25 hours of private meetings with him when I was vice president,” Biden told O’Donnell. “Traveled 17,000 miles with him. I know him pretty well.”
In the portion of the interview that aired Sunday, Biden also had a simple response to one of the most pressing foreign policy questions for his new administration.
“No,” he replied, when asked whether the United States would drop sanctions on Iran as a first step toward reviving negotiations.
“They have to stop enriching uranium first?” O’Donnell asked.
Biden nodded his head slowly in the affirmative.
With that, Biden appeared to reject Iranian demands that the United States make the first move to revive the 2015 international nuclear agreement.
Biden has long said that the ball is in Iran’s court. As a candidate, he pledged that once Tehran stops nuclear activities that violate its commitments under the agreement, the United States would rejoin it. Trump had pulled the United States out of the agreement in 2018, calling it a giveaway to a dangerous and untrustworthy country.
The agreement, the signature foreign policy accomplishment of Obama’s presidency, is largely dormant. Iran’s parliament has set a Feb. 21 deadline for the United States to drop Trump-era sanctions or risk an end to some international inspections of Iranian facilities.
Biden is under pressure from European allies to restore the agreement, but his administration has not committed to any timeline.
There are various proposals to jump-start negotiations or allow a mutual return to the deal by Washington and Tehran.
These include allowing Iran to ease its domestic economic crisis by selling oil, using existing foreign exchange reserves or receiving a coronavirus-related loan from the International Monetary Fund while U.S. sanctions remain in place.
Biden’s top national security aides held their first Iran strategy session Friday.
In a portion of the interview that aired Friday, Biden said Trump should not have access to intelligence briefings, as former presidents typically do even after leaving office. Biden cited Trump’s “erratic behavior unrelated to the insurrection,” referring to the pro-Trump mob that overran the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 in a violent siege that left five people dead.
“I just think that there is no need for him to have the intelligence briefings,” Biden told O’Donnell. “What value is giving him an intelligence briefing? What impact does he have at all, other than the fact he might slip and say something?”
Biden’s remarks were a step further than the stance he and other officials in his administration had previously taken on the issue, when they said they would seek guidance from intelligence professionals.
Former White House officials and political analysts have expressed fear that Trump could divulge classified information, either unintentionally or for personal gain.