Biden concedes he didn't understand how big an effect Abbott plant shutdown would have on baby formula

By Nikki Carvajal, Kaitlan Collins and MJ Lee, CNN

    (CNN) -- President Joe Biden conceded Wednesday he didn't understand how big of an effect the shutdown of an Abbott baby formula plant in Michigan and subsequent recalls would have on the baby formula supply until April.

His admission came moments after formula manufacturers told him, during a White House roundtable on the crisis, that they knew immediately how bad the shortages could get. The White House has previously said it had been working on addressing the shortages since February.

Biden, responding to questions about how quickly the administration acted, claimed: "I don't think anybody anticipated the impact of one facility -- of the Abbott facility." Abbott was not at Wednesday's event.

"Once we learned of the extent of it and how broad it was, we kicked everything into gear," he added.

Pressed by CNN's Kaitlan Collins on the comments from manufacturers that they knew immediately what the impact would be, Biden responded: "They did, but I didn't."

National Economic Council Director Brian Deese worked to explain later Wednesday how the situation had devolved into the current crisis.

Speaking to CNN's Jake Tapper on "The Lead," Deese faulted Abbott Nutrition as too sluggish in coming to an agreement with the government on steps to reopen its plant, citing the delay as exacerbating the situation.

The top adviser said Biden had been informed of the looming problem once it became clear that Abbott's facility would not come back online quickly, even though other officials inside the White House had been working on the issue earlier.

"It took too long for Abbott to agree to a consent decree, and once it was clear that that facility was not going to be able to come back online sooner, then it was clear we were going to have a more significant challenge," Deese said.

"At that point, the President was informed, and he directed us to use all the available tools we had available to address them," he said.

Multiple formula manufacturers said Wednesday during the roundtable that they immediately knew the effect the Abbott plant shutdown would have on formula supply.

At one point, the President asked Robert Cleveland, a senior vice president with Rickett, if the company was surprised that the Abbott closure had "this profound effect immediately."

"No, sir, we were we were aware of the general impact that this would have," Cleveland responded. "From the moment that that recall was announced we reached out immediately to retail partners like Target and Walmart to tell them this is what we think will happen."

Cleveland said the company told retailers to order the inventory they had on hand and worked with them to push inventory in distribution centers to store shelves.

"And then of course, as the recall has gone on, more specific impacts have been felt. We've learned and adjusted to those as well," Cleveland continued. "But no, we knew from the very beginning this would be a very serious event. I met early on with those CEOs, and they were there they were trying to figure out how they can move quickly."

Representatives from ByHeart, Bubs Australia, Reckitt, Perrigo and Gerber attended the meeting virtually to update the administration on how they'd scaled up production.

Last month, Biden pushed back when asked if the administration should have reacted faster to the shortages, telling CNN's Jeremy Diamond: "If we'd been better mind readers, I guess we could have."

"But we moved as quickly as a problem became apparent to us," the President continued, "and we have to move with caution as well as speed."

Biden said it was important to "make sure what we're getting is, in fact, first rate product that's why the FDA has to go through the process."


White House struggles to answer questions


Biden's spokesperson struggled to answer questions on the crisis later on Wednesday afternoon.

The White House previously claimed the administration was working "24/7" on the problem since February when safety issues with Abbott formula products arose, which White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre continued to claim Wednesday despite the President's comments moments before that he wasn't aware of the seriousness until April.

"We've been working on this issue since day one of the recall," she told reporters during a press briefing. "The recall happened on February 17. On February 18, USDA issued detailed guidance to states on how to seek waivers in their WIC programs."

She added that other manufacturers had stepped up production, which she claimed, "wouldn't happen without the work that we have done for the last three months."

Pressed by CNN on why the President didn't know how serious the issue was -- even when multiple manufacturers said they did -- Jean-Pierre repeated that the administration had "been working on this issue from day one since the recall."

"What you hear from the President is his frustration with the issue itself, with American families having to deal with and what they're going through," she said.

Asked if someone failed to inform the President fully, Jean-Pierre said she hasn't spoken to him about those comments yet.

"I know that he just said that a few moments ago, so I would have to ... to talk to him about the April date," she said. "But what I can tell you is what he has seen, and this I know for certain, is that seeing the empty shelves is unacceptable."

Asked if the administration response would have been different if the President knew how serious things were before April, Jean-Pierre responded she was "not saying when the President knew or didn't know ... I know he spoke to that himself. So, I'm gonna let that stand."

Once again pressed on if the President was unaware of the "around the clock" work, she seemed to admit that was possible.

"I mean, the President has multiple issues crises at the moment," Jean-Pierre responded. "When he walked into the administration, he talked about the multiple crises that we needed to deal with as a country."

At one point, Jean-Pierre seemed to change tactics, saying she hadn't heard the President's comments.

"You're asking me to confirm something," she said, "and I mean, I was in my office. I did not actually hear what the President said."

This story has been updated with additional reporting.

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