President Donald Trump said Friday that the U.S. government would be directing money away from the World Health Organization.
“Because they have failed to make the requested and greatly needed reforms, we will be today terminating our relationship with the World Health Organization and redirecting those funds to other worldwide and deserving urgent global public health needs,” he said in the Rose Garden.
The president and other Republicans have largely blamed WHO leadership for providing incomplete and inaccurate information about the coronavirus as the pandemic began in China.
The announcement, which came during what had been billed as a news conference but featured no opportunity to ask the president questions, followed previous threats from Trump and top administration officials.
“China has total control over the World Health Organization, despite only paying $40 million per year, compared to what the United States has been paying, which is approximately $450 million a year,” Trump asserted Friday during an event largely about U.S. policy toward Hong Kong.
There were no immediate details about where the money would be redirected, with another payment to the WHO expected in September. However, national security adviser Robert O’Brien suggested a few potential beneficiaries when speaking to reporters at the White House last week.
“It failed the world terribly in this pandemic, and the president’s said whatever money we do not put into the WHO, that money that’s been generously provided by the American taxpayers will go to public health around the world,” O’Brien said on May 21. “Now, how that’s set up, whether we provide it directly to hospitals, NGOs, the Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, folks like that around the world, or if we set up some sort of structure, that remains to be seen.”
O’Brien has used particularly harsh rhetoric with respect to the WHO.
“I’m not sure that the WHO can be reformed, and that we can save the WHO. But, it would have to be a very different WHO than the WHO we’ve seen in the past decade,” he said. “The WHO of the past decade is corrupt. It’s actually been dangerous. It hasn’t even been helpful. It’s been dangerous in this pandemic, as we’ve seen. And it became politically influenced by China.”
Replacing the WHO by funding other global health organizations is not as easy as it sounds since they serve different functions and may not accept government funding. That’s the case with Doctors Without Borders, also known as Médecins sans Frontières, which eschews federal funding to avoid political conflicts.
“More than 90 percent of our funding comes from private donors. Our operations are carried out based solely on medical need and are devoid of any political, military or other agenda,” the group said in a statement. “The World Health Organization serves a unique role through its mandate to act as a coordinating authority for global health issues. No other entity, including MSF, is mandated to serve this purpose.”
West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III was among the Democratic lawmakers urging the president to change course after Friday’s announcement.
“The entire world is battling COVID-19 right now and in West Virginia, we continue to see additional cases reported. The United States cannot eliminate this virus on our own and to withdraw from the World Health Organization — the world’s leading public health body — is nothing short of reckless,” Manchin said. “Throughout our nation’s history, the United States has always risen to lead the world through crisis and I believe we must continue to do that now.”
The medical community also swiftly condemned the decision. The American Medical Association urged Trump in “the strongest terms possible” to abandon the move.
“This senseless action will have significant, harmful repercussions now and far beyond this perilous moment, particularly as the WHO is leading worldwide vaccine development and drug trials to combat the pandemic,” AMA President Patrice Harris said in a statement. “COVID-19 affects us all and does not respect borders; defeating it requires the entire world working together.”
Experts fear that pulling out of the WHO will only cede more influence to other countries like China, which would be the biggest benefactor, said Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard University Global Health Institute.
“This will distract @WHO — but others including China will step in to fill gaps,” he tweeted. And we won’t have a seat at the table on key decisions of WHO.”
The president’s decision drew praise from congressional Republicans, however.
“I will always stand with a President who puts the American people ahead of communist sympathizers. The United States disproportionately subsidizes the WHO, which in turn promulgates false Chinese propaganda instead of sharing the truth about the COVID-19 pandemic. I am glad our taxpayer dollars will now be used for other global health efforts,” North Dakota Sen. Kevin Cramer said in a statement.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, the chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee that funds the foreign operations budget, has previously expressed support for putting pressure on the WHO by withdrawing funds.
“Cutting off funding at this time is the right move. This is a critical time for worldwide public health and we cannot afford China apologists running the WHO,” the South Carolina Republican said in mid-April. “I support a suspension of funding by the United States until there is new leadership at the WHO.”
Congressional Democrats have disagreed with Trump’s approach to the WHO in recent months.
“Let’s be clear: mistakes made by the WHO do not justify your halt in funding; nor do they excuse the serious failures of your Administration in confronting this pandemic. Indeed, had your administration worked more closely with the organization in the early stages of this crisis, it may have helped reduce the massive outbreak we’ve seen in this country,” Democrats on the House Foreign Affairs Committee wrote to the president in an April 23 letter.