Trump’s new threat escalates battle with WHO over China

May 19, 2020, 5:00 AM UTC

President Donald Trump escalated his threats against the World Health Organization over its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, saying he would permanently cut U.S. funding if it does not make sweeping reforms.

In a four-page letter detailing his many grievances with the WHO, Trump called on the group to “demonstrate independence from China,” renewing a complaint that led him in April to temporarily suspend U.S. funding. He posted the letter late Monday on Twitter.

“If the World Health Organization does not commit to major substantive improvements within the next 30 days, I will make my temporary freeze of United States funding to the World Health Organization permanent and reconsider our membership in the organization,” Trump wrote to Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

In his tweet, Trump called the letter “self-explanatory.” Still, he gave no other details about the reforms he was seeking or what specific changes might unlock funding.

Trump made the letter public hours after Chinese President Xi Jinping addressed the Geneva-based group’s governing body, the World Health Assembly, by video link and promised to devote $2 billion toward fighting the pandemic over the next two years while urging greater international cooperation to defeat the virus, which has infected 4.8 million people worldwide and killed more than 318,000.

Trump announced on April 14 that he would temporarily suspend U.S. funding to the WHO, accusing the group of being too supportive of China.

Administration officials indicated at the time the freeze would last 60 days pending a review. But Trump wrote in his letter that the review “confirmed many of the serious concerns I raised.”

It listed several examples of what he said were the WHO’s inaccurate statements about the virus and its praise of the Chinese government’s response.

The president said the United Nations agency “consistently ignored credible reports” of outbreak in Wuhan, China, last December, then “belatedly” declared it a public health emergency in late January. He said the organization was “inexplicably against” his decision to curb travel from China at the time, even though it “strongly praised China’s strict domestic travel restrictions.”

Trump’s decision to halt financial support to the WHO in the midst of a global pandemic is unprecedented, and it set off a fierce internal debate within his own administration over the extent of the funding freeze.

Some Trump administration officials have argued that the WHO should receive far less than the $400 million to $500 million it gets each year from the U.S., believing the money should go to other organizations focused on public health.

But others have suggested that the funding suspension be used as leverage to force the WHO to adopt changes to what the administration sees as its pro-China bias. Those officials caution that a permanent, broad-based cut could harm efforts to fight the virus, as well as diseases like HIV, polio and the measles.

Trump’s critics have accused him of targeting the WHO and China in order to deflect attention from his administration’s handling of the virus crisis, which has received poor marks from voters in surveys as the November election approaches.

He consistently praised China’s handling of the virus in January and February, even after he was told by the intelligence community on January 28 Beijing was withholding key data about the virus.

“Just had a long and very good conversation by phone with President Xi of China. He is strong, sharp and powerfully focused on leading the counterattack on the Coronavirus,” Trump tweeted on Feb. 7.

As recently as late March, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo was highlighting U.S. contributions to what he said were “important” institutions, including the WHO. Even Trump himself had earlier praised its work in battling the virus.

Yet as the virus spread across the U.S., Trump began accusing the organization of many of the same complaints detailed in Monday night’s letter.

Trump’s decision marked a last-minute success by hardliners within his administration to keep denying funding to the WHO. As of Friday night, internal advocates for the group believed they had reached a compromise in which the U.S. would commit to restore some funding — equal the amount China pays each year.

That left open the possibility of even more money for the WHO because the promised money only covered the annual dues the U.S. is assessed and not the hundreds of millions of dollars more it makes in voluntary contributions every year.

A Reversal After Leak

But Trump later reversed himself after an earlier draft of his letter was leaked to Fox News, and Tucker Carlson and Lou Dobbs went on air to criticize the compromise plan.

“Lou, this is just one of numerous concepts being considered under which we would pay 10% of what we have been paying over many years, matching much lower China payments,” Trump wrote in a tweet Saturday, after the draft was leaked. “Have not made final decision. All funds are frozen. Thanks!”

It’s not clear how much reform the WHO can actually carry out on its own.

As with almost every organization under the United Nations umbrella, such changes would require approval from the countries that belong to the agency, which include China and many developing countries that rely on the agency for crucial medical assistance and were caught off-guard by the Trump administration decision to freeze funding at the height of the coronavirus crisis.