Trump WHO cuts meet with furious blowback
President Trump’s decision to suspend funding to the World Health Organization (WHO) is meeting with furious blowback from business groups, Democrats, foreign leaders and health groups, who say he is jeopardizing the global response to the pandemic.
While Republicans, some of who have joined Trump’s criticism of the WHO, have not slammed the decision to halt funding, the White House is coming under attack from many other directions over the issue.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, usually an ally of Republicans, said Trump’s action cut against U.S. interests.
“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,” said the group’s executive vice president Myron Brilliant.
The American Medical Association called it a “dangerous step.”
“During the worst public health crisis in a century, halting funding to the World Health Organization (WHO) is a dangerous step in the wrong direction that will not make defeating COVID-19 easier,” said the group’s president, Patrice Harris.
The move sparked swift international criticism as well.
“Deeply regret US decision to suspend funding to @WHO,” tweeted European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borell. “There is no reason justifying this move at a moment when their efforts are needed more than ever to help contain & mitigate the #coronavirus pandemic.”
U.N. Secretary General António Guterres added it 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.”
Congressional Democrats said they are exploring ways to push back on the move, but their options may be limited.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told The Hill on Wednesday that he will push for language in the next coronavirus response bill to protect the WHO funds.
“We can solve this legislatively, we will be back,” Murphy said, noting he is also exploring whether the move violates existing law. “I intend to pursue language in that package that would protect the WHO funds from rescission.”
Democratic aides said Trump’s move is illegal, given that Congress already appropriated funding for the WHO and Trump does not have the power to unilaterally suspend it. They pointed to a January report from the Government Accountability Office saying Trump’s suspension of Ukraine aid was illegal, saying the same principle applies.
“We are reviewing all of our options, including asking GAO for an opinion given their opinion that the President’s hold on Ukraine funding was illegal,” said a senior Democratic aide.
But in terms of actually forcing Trump to reverse course, Democrats may be limited to trying to pass a provision restoring funding in the next coronavirus response bill. That would be a tough lift given that it would require congressional Republicans and the Trump administration to agree.
Congressional Republicans were largely silent on the move on Wednesday.
“Democrats will continue to prioritize a global response to this pandemic, including through the World Health Organization as appropriate, in future emergency funding bills and in regular fiscal year 2021 appropriations,” said a House Democratic aide.
Leading Democrats also accused Trump of lashing out at a useful scapegoat in the hopes of distracting the public from his own failures in responding to the coronavirus.
“A weak person blames others,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement. “This decision is dangerous, illegal and will be swiftly challenged.”
Trump made the announcement at a Tuesday briefing. It followed escalating attacks against the WHO, which initially criticized travel bans like the one Trump imposed on China. Trump and other Republicans have also said the WHO was not forthcoming and too reliant on Chinese assurances in the early stages of the coronavirus outbreak.
The World Health Organization did praise the Chinese government’s response to the virus in January. Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in January he had “very candid discussions” with Chinese leadership and praised the “very rare leadership” of President Xi Jinping.
But Trump also praised China’s response early on.
“China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus,” Trump tweeted on Jan. 24. “The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency. It will all work out well. In particular, on behalf of the American People, I want to thank President Xi!”
He also praised the WHO itself on Feb. 24, tweeting: “CDC & World Health have been working hard and very smart. Stock Market starting to look very good to me!”
By weakening the response in the developing world, experts warned the move could lead the virus to continue to spread and circulate worldwide.
“We may think we don’t ‘need’ @WHO but much of the developing world does,” tweeted Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute. “They rely on WHO expertise. If others are less effective in fighting the pandemic, they become sources of infection spread for the world.”
Democrats acknowledged that there is room to fault the WHO response, but said that cutting off funding is not the answer and would only increase China’s influence over the body.
“Clearly, multiple failures at both the national and international level led to the pandemic disaster that we are facing today,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.).
“Cutting back on America’s support and involvement will mean that the United States does not have a full seat at the table during these discussions, and will only magnify the already troubling influence of China at the WHO,” he added.
Murphy said the WHO has made mistakes, but “the WHO didn’t make any mistakes that the Trump administration didn’t make.”
“The WHO was too easy on China but so was Donald Trump,” he said.
Trump said the U.S. would be reevaluating the $400 million to $500 million it spends each year on the WHO, which has a biennial budget of about $6 billion.
Tedros said at a press conference Wednesday that the WHO is “assessing” the impact on its funding and “we will try to fill any gaps with partners.”
Samantha Power, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under former President Obama, said the move would also cut off U.S. funding for other health programs such as polio eradication and fighting HIV.
Peter Singer, special adviser to Tedros, tweeted Wednesday that the WHO has shipped protective equipment for health workers to 133 countries, and sent test kits to 126 countries, among other steps.
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