The Memo: Trump goes 'America First' on virus

The Memo: Trump goes 'America First' on virus
© Greg Nash


President TrumpDonald John TrumpSessions accepts 'Fox News Sunday' invitation to debate, Tuberville declines Priest among those police cleared from St. John's Church patio for Trump visit Trump criticizes CNN on split-screen audio of Rose Garden address, protesters clashing with police MORE brought his "America First" approach to the forefront of the coronavirus crisis this week when he threatened to pull U.S. funding from the World Health Organization (WHO).

In a letter to the WHO’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Trump admonished the organization for “missteps” in responding to the virus — errors that he claimed had been “extremely costly for the world.” Trump also contended that the WHO “is clearly not serving America’s interests.”

The letter late Monday was Trump’s latest, and most serious, shot across the WHO’s bows. The withdrawal of U.S. support would likely have a devastating effect on the organization, given that Washington contributed almost $900 million to the WHO’s budget in 2018 and 2019.

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But Trump's move is also part of a broader pattern where critics contend that the president is abdicating American leadership in a global struggle. Even before this week's letter, Trump’s criticisms of the WHO had caused consternation in foreign capitals.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, with whom Trump has long had a frosty relationship, said on Monday that “no country can solve this problem alone. We must work together.”

A spokeswoman for the European Commission, Virginie Battu-Henriksson, made a similar point Tuesday. “Global cooperation and solidarity through multilateral efforts are the only effective and viable option to win this battle as we have underlined several times," she said, according to CNN. "This is the time for solidarity, it is not the time for finger pointing or undermining multilateral cooperation.”

Even Trump critics acknowledge that the WHO’s performance has been flawed during the coronavirus crisis. In particular, the United Nations body has been widely condemned for being too credulous about claims from China in the early days of the pandemic that there was no evidence of COVID-19 being transmitted between humans.

But Trump has also seemed to take delight in thumbing his nose at the international organization, just as he has previously blasted other multilateral organizations like NATO, or international accords such as the Paris climate agreement or the Iran nuclear deal.

Trump on Monday acknowledged to reporters that he had rejected an invitation to speak at a virtual meeting of the WHO, adding that he considered the body “a puppet of China.”

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The president also appears to want to keep the United States at a distance from international efforts to find a vaccine for the coronavirus. 

Politico reported earlier this month that the administration had stayed away from meetings organized by the WHO and, separately, by the European Union, aimed at bolstering global efforts toward researching a vaccine and distributing it fairly, should one become available.

On Tuesday, the administration announced that it had signed a $354 million contract with a company in Richmond, Va., to manufacture some medications used to fight COVID-19. Those medications, and the ingredients that go into them, have until now been made overseas.

Trump supporters shrug their shoulders at critics who accuse him of undermining multilateralism, instead suggesting he is making an overdue stand for American priorities.

Brad Blakeman, a veteran of President George W. Bush’s administration, defended Trump’s actions both on the WHO and more generally. 

“The president is right in evaluating the return on investment, and it is terrible from the WHO,” Blakeman said. “All they ask for is our money and they have done a horrible job in management.” 

More generally, Blakeman asserted, the question that needed to be asked of any international institution was “Are they keeping up their end of the deal?”

“NATO was not, the president called them on it and now they are doing a heckuva lot better. The president called NAFTA a terrible deal and he has renegotiated it. The president has had great success in calling out agreements and institutions that were not acting in the best interests of America,” Blakeman said.

The Republican Party is also seeking to make an asset of Trump’s approach. The Republican National Committee emailed reporters Tuesday, highlighting the deal with the Virginia company and a coronavirus-related assistance program to American farmers. The subject line of the email was "the America First coronavirus recovery."

The president’s approach is being viewed dimly even by traditional American allies overseas, however.

Former British prime minister Tony Blair — who has traditionally been seen as keenly pro-U.S. dating back to the Iraq War — told the BBC's "Newsnight" on Monday that “the absence of global leadership, which you would most normally expect from the U.S., has been shocking to me throughout this.”

Blair added: “There is no doubt at all the world would deal with this pandemic better if the main counties were coming together and agreeing things.”  

Earlier in the crisis, an opinion column by Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole went viral across the Atlantic. O'Toole contended that Americans were “locked down with a malignant narcissist who, instead of protecting his people from Covid-19, has amplified its lethality. The country Trump promised to make great again has never in its history seemed so pitiful.”

On Tuesday, Foreign Policy magazine reported that “In the post-pandemic cold war, America is losing Europe.”

The magazine noted a poll from Germany’s Korber Foundation, released Monday, which found that Germans were in essence evenly divided as to whether the United States or China was their most important partner. Thirty-seven percent named the U.S. in that role and 36 percent named China.

For better or for worse, however, there is no way now that Trump will back down from the America First approach that plays so well with his base — and in which he himself so fervently believes. 

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.