Congress must stop Trump from withdrawing from the WHO

On Monday night, President Trump sent an official notification to United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres of U.S. withdrawal from the World Health Organization (WHO). His letter coincided with the highest ever global spike in COVID-19 cases over the 4th of July weekend, when 13 U.S. states also reported record-setting new cases. 

If the U.S. withdraws from WHO, it would be among the more ruinous presidential decisions in recent history. The president is not free to act unilaterally. His order requires congressional approval and cannot take place for a year. Congress, the courts, and the public all have the power to stop a reckless decision detrimental to our national interests. 

We have joined more than 750 leaders in academia, science and law urging Congress to act. COVID-19 demonstrates how deeply our security is connected to outbreaks in other countries. It is folly to imagine that the U.S. can disengage from the international fight against COVID-19 while also reopening a globally integrated economy. This is even before we consider the ethics of cutting funding for lifesaving work on everything from AIDS, Ebola and polio to mental health and heart disease.  

Let’s start with what WHO is doing to respond to COVID-19. U.S. national security depends on WHO’s coordinated disease surveillance, research, and emergency response. WHO is distributing life-saving personal protective equipment and millions of test kits to 135 countries, conducting “solidarity trials” for a COVID-19 vaccine joined by more than 100 countries,  launching the “Partners Platform” for real-time tracking of the virus, and leading the “ACT Accelerator” for new COVID-19 diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines. The WHO also deploys the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network (GOARN) with more than 100 emergency medical teams responding to disease outbreaks worldwide. Beyond COVID-19, WHO runs the Global Influenza Surveillance and Response System (GISRS), which is the linchpin for seasonal flu vaccines. By withdrawing, the U.S. would be on the outside looking in as the world responds to an unprecedented pandemic.  

Then there are the legal constraints on the president and Congress’s authority. While the president has significant powers in international relations, he lacks the legal authority to withdraw unilaterally without congressional approval. The Constitution is silent on the process of withdrawing from a treaty. But when the U.S. joined WHO in 1948, it did so under a joint resolution of Congress — Public Law 643 — explicitly authorizing the president to become a WHO member and appropriating the first funding to the organization. President Truman’s statement joining WHO acknowledged that he was “acting pursuant to the authority granted by the joint resolution … and subject to the provisions of that joint resolution.” 

With the U.S. having joined WHO through an act of Congress, President Trump would need Congress’s approval to leave. Rather than give that approval or stay silent, Congress should pass a resolution expressly prohibiting such a withdrawal. As Justice Robert Jackson famously wrote in Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer (1952), “When the President takes measures incompatible with the expressed or implied will of Congress, his power is at its lowest ebb.”

On two fronts, Congress was explicit in 1948. First, the joint resolution required “one-year notice” for withdrawal. Thus, the U.S. cannot leave before July 6, 2021, at which point Trump may not be president. Second, that joint resolution requires, in an exercise of Congress’s exclusive power of the purse, that before any U.S. exit, “the financial obligations of the United States to the organization shall be met in full for the organization’s current fiscal year.” Thus, the Trump administration violates the law if it tries to discontinue current funding. Congress should exercise its power of the purse by enacting Representative Lowey’s markup of the state & foreign operations bill directly appropriating the dues and contributions needed for the WHO to do its job.

Congress is not the only actor with the incentive and power to stop a U.S. exit. The courts of law and public opinion both have influence. Many private and state actors will be harmed by the president’s unreasoned action. The WHO plays an essential, less visible, role in supporting health by partnering with Americans and U.S. institutions. St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., is among more than 100 U.S. “WHO collaborating centers.” St Jude’s collaboration with WHO aims to cure 60 percent of children with a set of common cancers worldwide by 2030. A WHO partnership with the University of Vermont connects Vermont’s burgeoning health technology sector with health care systems worldwide. These are just two examples, among many others, in which WHO collaboration benefits Americans and the world. All this would be undermined by withdrawal and defunding.  

Exiting from the WHO is antithetical to U.S. health and national security interests. The president does not own public health or our relationship with the WHO. At a moment of global crisis, there could not be a more disruptive decision in the fight against the pandemic — but Congress, the courts and affected Americans all have time to undo his error. They should.

Lawrence Gostin is the director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University Law Center. Harold Hongju Koh is the Sterling Professor of International Law at Yale Law School. Matthew Kavanagh is the director of the Global Health Politics and Policy Initiative at the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law.

Tags Climate change skepticism and denial Donald Trump Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network World Health Organization

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