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WASHINGTON — A day after using his daily coronavirus briefing to angrily denounce the press, President Trump on Tuesday turned to another familiar adversary, announcing that he planned to withhold U.S. funding to the World Health Organization over what he claimed were missteps in handling the coronavirus outbreak, which has killed 125,000 people around the world, including 23,000 in the United States.
“With the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have deep concerns whether America’s generosity has been put to the best use possible,” Trump said at a Rose Garden briefing (COVID-19 is the disease caused by the coronavirus). “The reality is that the WHO failed to adequately obtain and share information in a timely and transparent fashion.”
U.S. funding to the Geneva-based organization — which totaled $893 million over the last two years — is decided upon by Congress. Presidents can put holds on funds, and Trump seemed to say that his administration would indeed withhold some portion of the money designed for the WHO while investigating the organization.
But the president provided few specifics of that investigation, saying only that WHO funding would be withheld — before eventually being released — for a period lasting either two or three months.
Never an enthusiast for international arrangements, Trump had signaled his displeasure with the WHO during last Friday’s coronavirus briefing, implying that its epidemiologists had worked with China authorities to conceal crucial details of the outbreak. He also complained about the fact that China’s roughly $40 million contribution to the WHO is only about 5 percent of what the U.S. donates.
Trump charged that the WHO did not move aggressively enough to obtain information from China about the coronavirus.
“The WHO failed to investigate credible reports from sources in Wuhan that conflicted directly with the Chinese government’s official accounts,” he said.
The anti-WHO rhetoric was even sharper on Tuesday than it had been the previous Friday. Trump said it was “disastrous” for the WHO to “oppose travel restrictions from China and other nations,” a reference to a Jan. 27 notice from the WHO advising against “unnecessary restrictions of international traffic.” He contrasted that guidance with his own decision, four days later, to suspend travel from China to the United States.
“Look at the rest of the world. Look at parts of Europe,” Trump said, arguing that the coronavirus became a pandemic (itself a WHO designation) because other nations failed to impose travel restrictions. Such restrictions would have been virtually impossible to impose within the European Union, where passport-free travel is a founding principle.
It is also not clear how effective Trump’s travel ban has been. Close to half a million people were still able to travel from China to the United States after the president’s ban was imposed. And virologists have concluded, from studying the genomic fingerprint of the coronavirus, that the majority of the cases that have devastated New York City in recent weeks originated in Europe, not China.
“The WHO’s attack on travel restrictions put political correctness over life-saving measures. Travel bans work for the same reasons work,” Trump said. “Pandemics depend on human-to-human transmission.” He later noted that the WHO incorrectly asserted that human-to-human transmission was not a factor in how the coronavirus spread. That assertion, made in a Jan. 14 tweet from the official WHO account, has since been disproven.
Placing a funding hold to signal anger at how American money is being used abroad is not a new tactic for the president. Nor is it one without political risks. Trump’s decision to withhold congressionally appropriated military funding from Ukraine during the summer of 2019 led to his impeachment by the House of Representatives in December. A subsequent Senate trial acquitted him of abusing power and obstructing Congress. That was in early February, by which time the coronavirus was almost certainly spreading across the United States.
The virus originated in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, and Trump initially blamed China for concealing the scope of the disease. But having recently signed a trade deal that will have China purchase an additional $200 billion in American goods, he is understandably reluctant to directly criticize Beijing’s authoritarian leaders.
Criticizing an international organization based in Switzerland that has little effect on Americans’ everyday lives carries little political risk and, moreover, fits perfectly with Trump’s protectionist views. At one point doing Tuesday’s briefing, he compared his skepticism for the World Health Organization to his suspicions of the World Trade Organization. China figures prominently in both institutions.
A WHO team did spent two weeks in China in mid-February, subsequently releasing a report that praised the nation of 1.4 billion people for containing the scope of the disease within its borders. The leader of that team, the Canadian epidemiologist Dr. Bruce Aylward, has said that if he were infected with the coronavirus, he would want to be treated in China.
“They know how to keep people alive,” Aylward told Yahoo News last month.
Despite his threatening tone, Trump left plenty of ambiguity about what the outcome of his WHO-directed investigation would be, saying that his administration would “engage” with the organization in the hope that it makes “meaningful reforms.”
He did not say what those reforms should be. And though there are some Republican legislators who share his views on the WHO, it is not clear just how much appetite there will be, when members of Congress finally return to Washington, to devote time to WHO funding when more pressing coronavirus-related matters will surely be at hand.
Even so, a president who has been desperate to find someone to blame appears to have comfortably settled on a target. “It would’ve been so easy,” Trump said of the WHO’s perceived mistakes, “to be truthful.”
Click here for the latest coronavirus news and updates. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please refer to the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.