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White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre on threats to democracy

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

President Biden gave a rare prime-time address on Thursday where he said that so-called MAGA Republicans are a threat to American democracy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: They refuse to accept the results of a free election. And they're working right now as I speak in state after state to give power to decide elections in America to partisans and cronies, empowering election deniers to undermine democracy itself.

RASCOE: Joining us now to discuss the president's speech and more is White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre. Welcome to the program.

KARINE JEAN-PIERRE: Thank you so much for having me. And congratulations on the program. I know it's been some time, but I haven't been on since you have your new job.

RASCOE: Thank you. Thank you very much. I appreciate that. So I want to start with, what did the president hope to accomplish with this prime-time address? He's faced some criticism from some on the right about it being divisive or partisan. Does the president feel like his message is actually being received?

JEAN-PIERRE: So, Ayesha, let me start here. You know, what you heard from the president the other night - he was speaking from the heart, and he was speaking from the heart about the threats that face our country and the power we have to meet those threats, right? It was also - he's also an optimistic person. If you know Joe Biden, you know he has optimism about the future of America. But the president, you know, laid out forcefully why he believes our nation is at an inflection point and the soul of the nation is at risk. And he was very clear. He talked about equality and democracy being under attack. And he believed that we cannot pretend otherwise.

Look. You mentioned the MAGA ideology, if you will. And here's the way that he sees it. There are far more Americans of every background and belief who reject that extreme MAGA ideology than accept it. And in a powerful call to action, which is what you heard from him the other night, he said Democrats - he said independents and mainstream Republicans, as well - should come together and should unite and stand up for American democracy and our ideals. And he did that, as we all saw, right in front of the Independence Hall, which is a historic - as we all know, historic place where those ideas were created and debated. And this is an American experiment. But in order to continue moving forward, we have to fight for it.

RASCOE: In his speech, the president also expressed concerns about the outcomes of elections being honored. What exactly is the Biden administration doing to ensure that the outcomes of the November elections are not undermined by false claims of voter fraud?

JEAN-PIERRE: Well, you know, I can't get into politics from here from this particular position that I am as a government official. But what we believe is that if he used that moment to call that out - right? - he used that moment - the importance of free and fair elections and how that is very much part of our democracy and telling people, you know, there's a - it's time to stand up. It's time to make sure that folks make their voices heard. And so that's what the president was trying to make sure - that people understood this inflection point.

And you cannot have an extreme part of a party. And he didn't say mainstream Republicans, right? He believes there are mainstream Republicans who believe in protecting our democracy. But there are these extreme part of the party, that MAGA party, that we need to call out when we see that our democracy is under attack, when we see that our freedoms and our equality is under attack. He believes as president, he has the - he has the biggest bully pulpit. And it is important to him to make sure he has the loudest voice as we speak about democracy. And that's what he used that moment to do.

RASCOE: I mean, but if this is an inflection point, if democracy is on the line, what is the actual plan to protect it?

JEAN-PIERRE: Well, the actual plan to protect it is to make sure that our voices are loud and clear. It was a - the way to see that speech was it was a powerful call to action, a powerful call to make sure that people understand what is at stake, a powerful call to protect our democracy, to protect our freedoms, to protect equality. And who else can have a bigger megaphone, a bigger, powerful place to do that than the president? And as we have seen, it was well-received. Americans watched. They listened. And majority of Americans understand that. So we have to use this moment. We have - and he believes he has to use this moment to make that clear. And I think asking people to use their voice is a powerful action. We think that.

RASCOE: I want to ask you about the water crisis in Jackson, Miss. I know that the FEMA administrator was in Jackson last week and that President Biden has declared a federal state of emergency. The state of Mississippi will get $429 million from the infrastructure law, but that's for the whole state, not just for Jackson. It will cost more than a billion dollars to address the problems in Jackson. Where's the rest of that money going to come from? And why in 2022 do you have an American city without safe drinking water?

JEAN-PIERRE: So let me - look - this - you asked me a few questions here, so let me step back for a second. So, as you mentioned, FEMA Administrator Criswell and also infrastructure coordinator Mitch Landrieu - they were both there in Jackson on Friday to just assess the ongoing emergency response - right? - which was incredibly important. So let me - I know I don't have a lot of time. So just a couple of things - there's $20 million of the $450 million that has been made available to the state that Jackson - that is currently for, you know, for Jackson, Miss. You know, the state needs to make those funds available to the city. There's also a total of $1 billion that is available to Mississippi over the short and long term for water infrastructure needs and a loan. And that is coming from the bipartisan infrastructure and the American Rescue Plan.

Look - we understand that there is long-term assistance that is going to be needed for the state of Mississippi, for Jackson. And that is why the bipartisan infrastructure law was so important. That is why the American Rescue Plan - it was so important. That is why the president has made it his - part of his platform to make sure equity is at the center of everything that he does. Sorry we don't have more time, but I wanted to make sure I got that out for you.

RASCOE: I want to ask you one more question before I let you go. What do you say to those Black voters who are frustrated - oh, sorry. Actually, we don't have time for one more question. I apologize. That's White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre. Thank you so much for speaking with us today.

JEAN-PIERRE: No problem. Thanks, Ayesha. Bye-bye. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.