President Trump’s announcement Tuesday that he will suspend congressionally approved funding for the World Health Organization (WHO) drew a torrent of criticism from Democrats, health experts, business groups and global leaders.
What Trump said: During his coronavirus briefing Tuesday evening, Trump said he would halt payments to the WHO pending a 60-to-90-day review of its pandemic response, charging that the UN agency had made a series of deadly mistakes in trying to combat the global outbreak. Trump said his administration would “assess the World Health Organization’s role in severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus.” He added: “So much death has been caused by their mistakes.”
Wait, what is the WHO? Founded in 1948 and based in Geneva, it is the United Nations agency responsible for global public health. It now has 194 member states and more than 7,000 employees in 150 offices across the globe. During health emergencies, the WHO says it seeks to identify and mitigate risks, support the development of necessary tools and “support delivery of essential health services in fragile settings.”
The WHO is funded through membership fees and voluntary contributions, and the United States is its largest donor. For the 2018-2019 biennial funding cycle, the United States reportedly paid $237 million and another $656 million in voluntary contributions for a total of $893 million, or about 15% of the agency’s roughly $6 billion budget.
Shifting blame: Seeking to deflect blame and fend off criticism over his slow response to the spread of the virus, Trump has joined some congressional Republicans in targeting the WHO, ramping up his attacks in recent weeks. He has called the WHO “very China centric,” criticized the group for opposing his decision in late January to restrict travel from China, and charged that the agency “pushed China’s misinformation” about the coronavirus and failed to properly investigate early claims about the virus’s ability to spread from person to person.
“In effect, Mr. Trump was accusing the world’s leading health organization of making all of the mistakes that he has made since the virus first emerged in China and then spread rapidly,” Michael D. Shear and Donald G. McNeil Jr. write at The New York Times. As numerous news outlets have noted, Trump himself praised China’s pandemic response in January, as his administration was negotiating a trade deal with Beijing.
Global context: “The question of whether the W.H.O. was not aggressive enough in recommending action against the virus has been raised in other countries. Some governments have noted that the organization’s leadership did not challenge China’s assertion in mid-January that there was not human-to-human transmission of the coronavirus,” the Times notes. “But the W.H.O. did issue urgent advisories throughout January about the potential dangers from the virus and announced that it constituted a ‘public health emergency of international concern’ a day before the Trump administration made a similar declaration.”
The blowback: “World leaders have urged Trump to rethink the decision, with China calling for the U.S. to fulfill its obligations, Germany and New Zealand calling for unity, while Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the WHO was not immune from criticism,” Forbes’s Isabel Togoh notes.
While some congressional Republicans publicly supported Trump’s decision, condemnation for the move was widespread. Among the reactions:
- The American Medical Association called Trump’s decision “a dangerous step in the wrong direction” and urged him to reconsider.
- House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the decision “senseless” and another example of Trump’s ineffective response to the pandemic. “This decision is dangerous, illegal and will be swiftly challenged,” she said.
- WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Wednesday that he regrets Trump’s decision. “The United States of America has been a long-standing and generous friend to the WHO and we hope it will continue to be so,” he said.
- U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a statement that the WHO “is absolutely critical to the world’s efforts to win the war against COVID-19” and that now is “not the time to reduce the resources for the operations of the World Health Organization or any other humanitarian organization in the fight against the virus.”
- Bill Gates, whose Gates Foundation is among the largest voluntary donors to the WHO, criticized Trump’s move in a tweet: “Halting funding for the World Health Organization during a world health crisis is as dangerous as it sounds. Their work is slowing the spread of COVID-19 and if that work is stopped no other organization can replace them. The world needs @WHO now more than ever.”
- U.S. Chamber of Commerce Vice President Myron Brilliant said that while the business group supports reforming the WHO, “cutting the WHO’s funding during the COVID-19 pandemic is not in U.S. interests given the organization’s critical role assisting other countries — particularly in the developing world — in their response.”
Can Trump really halt WHO funding? As Pelosi’s comment above indicates, Democrats say withholding WHO money would be illegal. “President Trump is violating the same spending laws that brought about his impeachment,” said Evan Hollander, spokesman for the House Appropriations Committee, according to The Washington Post.
“It’s unclear exactly what mechanism Trump intends to use to withhold WHO funding, much of which is appropriated by Congress,” CNBC’s Berkeley Lovelace Jr.s reported. “The president typically does not have the authority to unilaterally redirect congressional funding.” The administration reportedly may argue that the president has the right to redirect WHO funds to any “global aid” program, a position some Democrats reportedly said may be accurate. A senior Democratic aide told the Post that Democrats were reviewing their options, “including asking GAO for an opinion given their opinion that the President’s hold on Ukraine funding was illegal.”