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Biden celebrates Ketanji Brown Jackson at White House amid COVID concerns

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(WASHINGTON) — President Joe Biden celebrated Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s confirmation to the Supreme Court at a large-scale event at the White House on Friday amid new concerns about COVID spreading among Washington’s power players.

Biden, donning his trademark Aviator sunglasses when he stepped out onto the South Lawn, said it was “not only a sunny day.”

“This is going to let so much sun shine on so many young women, so many young Black women,” Biden began.”We’re going to look back and see this as a moment of real change in American history.”

Biden recalled the promise he made in the 2020 presidential campaign — ahead of the South Carolina primary — to nominate the court’s first Black woman.

“I could see it as a day of hope. A day of promise. A day of progress. A day when once again the moral arc of the universe — Barack used to quote all the time — bends a little more toward justice,” Biden said.

The president hailed Jackson’s performance at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings — where he said Jackson showed that she’ll be an impartial, fair and thoughtful justice, and called her a “brilliant legal mind with deep knowledge of the law and judicial temperament … that is calm and in command. And humility that allows so many Americans to see themselves in Ketanji Brown Jackson.”

While he thanked the three Republicans who broke party ranks to vote for Jackson, who were invited but not in attendance at Friday’s event, Biden blasted those on the committee for their treatment of his first nominee.

“It was verbal abuse, the anger, the constant interruptions, the vilest, baseless assertions and accusations,” Biden said. “In the face of it all, Judge Jackson showed the incredible character and integrity she possesses.”

As the event kicked off Friday afternoon, scores of guests gathered on the lawn, chatting and taking photos with a flag-draped South Portico behind them under a sunny April sky as the Marine Corps band played patriotic tunes. Jackson’s parents, Johnny and Ellery Brown, who grew up under segregation in the South, her husband, Patrick, a general surgeon, and their two daughters, Talia, 21, and Leila, 17, were front row to witness the historic moment.

Kamala Harris was the first to deliver remarks at the outdoor event on the White House South Lawn, calling it a “wonderful day” before a cheering crowd, and offering the public a powerful image of the first Black female vice president alongside the first Black woman to soon sit on the Supreme Court.

“The young leaders of our nation will learn from the experience, the judgment, the wisdom that you, Judge Jackson, will apply in every case that comes before you — and they will see, for the first time, four women sitting on that court,” Harris said to applause.

When she is sworn in after Justice Stephen Breyer retires at the end of the term, Jackson will also serve on the first-ever high court where white men constitute a minority of the membership, and become the first former public defender and first Florida-raised judge to sit on the Supreme Court.

Her Senate confirmation by a 53-47 bipartisan vote Thursday marked a big political win for Biden’s long-term legacy — and his short-term efforts to energize Democrats. But a cluster of positive COVID cases since Monday, including some like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi who have had contact with Biden, has raised questions about whether the celebration could turn into a superspreader event.

Jackson, the first Black woman nominated and confirmed to the Supreme Court in its 233-year history, joined Biden in the Roosevelt Room Thursday afternoon to watch Democratic senators and other supporters break out in applause when Harris announced the vote.

But what should be considered a celebration for Democrats and the Biden White House risks being overshadowed by the pandemic Biden said this week is “under control.”

A growing number of Washington officials have tested positive for COVID, including two Cabinet members, two White House staffers, and at least 13 members of Congress.

Harris was in “close contact” with her communications director who tested positive, but she presided over Jackson’s vote in the Senate chamber without a mask just two days later. According to guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, someone deemed a close contact should “wear a well-fitting mask for 10 full days any time you are around others inside your home or in public.”

“After consulting with a White House physician and reviewing CDC guidance, which we do for all engagements, the Vice President presided over the Senate while practicing social distancing — with limited and brief interactions from her chair. In addition, the Vice President tested negative today, and will continue to maintain strong protocols and follow the CDC’s guidance,” a White House official told ABC News.

The highly transmissible BA.2 variant appears to be closing in on Biden, 79, after he also appeared with Pelosi at two White House events this week — even sharing a kiss at one — prior to her positive COVID test.

Some 200 guests were invited to Friday’s ceremony including Jackson’s family, all current and former Supreme Court justices, Cabinet members, some members of the House, Democratic members of Congress from Florida — Jackson’s home state — and all 53 senators who voted for Jackson’s confirmation. No justices will attend, however, ABC News has been told.

While Biden is sure to want Republicans on hand for the victory lap as he aims to shore up the court’s credibility and Jackson’s vote, all three who voted for Jackson won’t be there. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine won’t be attending after she also tested positive for COVID this week, Sen. Lisa Murkowski was traveling to Alaska and Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, who gave Jackson a standing ovation in the Senate chamber, won’t attend either, his office said, but didn’t explain why.

The White House insists it won’t be a repeat of former President Donald Trump’s infamous and maskless Rose Garden event in October 2020 at which he nominated Amy Coney Barrett to the court, but with hugging and maskless photos likely as part of Friday’s festivities, the White House risks appearances at odds with CDC protocols and public messaging it has touted.

While the White House has said Biden and his inner circle follow the strictest COVID protocols for safety, Kate Bedingfield, the White House communications director, notably is now acknowledging that it’s possible the president will test positive for COVID “at some point.”

“The president is vaccinated and double boosted, and so protected from severe COVID. We take every precaution to ensure that we keep him safe, we keep the vice president safe, the first lady, second gentleman, our staff here,” she said on CNN Friday morning. “But, you know, it is certainly possible that he will test positive for COVID and he is vaccinated, he is boosted and protected from the most severe strains of the virus.”

While masks are no longer required at the White House, senior administration officials say the president continues to be tested regularly and people meeting with him are also required to be tested. All White House employees also undergo regular testing.

When pressed on Thursday by ABC’s Senior White House Correspondent Mary Bruce if those protocols also apply for other individuals meeting with the president, such as invited guests, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said they assess each event on a “case-by-case” basis.

“Now, if you are at an event, obviously there are assessments made on a case by case. But if somebody is going to be in close proximity, standing next to him, sitting next to him on a stage, that would be obviously different than a broad group of attendees,” she said.

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