Trump Holding Off on Threats Against WHO Over Virus Response

Trump Holding Off on Threats Against WHO Over Virus Response

15:57 - President Donald Trump is holding off for now on his threat to slash U.S. contributions to the World Health Organization over its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, according to people familiar with the matter.

One person who has appealed to Trump is United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who, through the U.S. ambassador to the UN, made the case that there will be time to apportion blame for the pandemic but it’s not appropriate while the outbreak is still growing.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres Interview

Antonio GuterresPhotographer: Christopher Goodney/Bloomberg
Guterres’s appeal is just one consideration the administration has been weighing, but the UN chief acknowledged WHO missteps in the pandemic, specifically by the agency’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, one person familiar with the conversations said.

Tedros has become a pariah among some Trump supporters, who have sought to blame the pandemic on the WHO as scrutiny of the president’s actions has increased and public approval of his handling of the crisis has fallen. They blame the WHO and Tedros in particular of being too accommodating to Beijing and of failing to adequately warn the world of the threat posed by the virus, which first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

The U.S. has since become the epicenter of the global outbreak, with more than 582,000 reported cases and more than 23,000 deaths. Trump said Friday that he would make an announcement about U.S. funding for the WHO this week.

“As you know, we give them approximately $500 million a year, and we’re going to be talking about that subject next week,” he said April 10 at a White House news conference. “We’ll have a lot to say about it. We’ll hold it.”

The U.S. has contributed about $893 million to the WHO’s operations during its current two-year funding cycle, according to the organization. China has given about $86 million over the same period.

The White House Office of Management and Budget has been working on options for the president to reduce funding to the WHO, according to one person familiar with the internal deliberations. One possibility, according to another person, is that the administration would put a stop on funding to the organization for a set period of time -- possibly for several months or until the end of the current fiscal year.

In an interview with the John Fredericks Show in Richmond, Virginia, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said the U.S. is “evaluating the resources that we provide to the WHO.” The intent is to “make sure, in the first instance, that they are delivering for the American people, that we’re getting good value for the money that we’re spending,” he said.

Some aides to the president argue that cuts to the WHO now could be counterproductive because it is one of the few agencies with access to some of the world’s most vulnerable populations in Yemen, Libya and Syria, which could all be hit hard by the virus, according to one person.

The president has sought in the past to cut U.S. contributions to the World Health Organization, even before the virus outbreak. In its proposed 2021 budget, the administration called for reducing voluntary contributions to the WHO by more than half, to about $58 million.

Trump repeatedly praised China and its president, Xi Jinping, for its handling of the coronavirus outbreak in January and February. But he said Friday that the WHO is “very, very China-centric. China always seems to get the better of the argument, and I don’t like that.”

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The White House and the U.S. Mission to the UN didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment. A State Department spokeswoman declined to comment.

Although proposing cuts might be popular with Trump’s base, a move against the global health agency in the middle of a pandemic could also boomerang against the president with the broader public.

Rather than slash U.S. funding, Trump may decide to impose a minimal cut now and revisit the issue later in the year, after the coronavirus outbreak has abated, two of the people said. Some of the president’s congressional allies have suggested summoning Tedros for a hearing before the U.S. Senate.

Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, has said he will block further U.S. funding for the WHO until its leadership -- including Tedros -- is replaced.

‘Not That Time’
UN officials pointed to public comments Guterres has previously made, saying that the world should examine how the coronavirus outbreak got out of hand, but not until after the pandemic has abated.

“Once we have finally turned the page on this epidemic, there must be a time to look back fully to understand how such a disease emerged and spread its devastation so quickly across the globe, and how all those involved reacted to the crisis,” he said in an April 8 statement. “The lessons learned will be essential to effectively address similar challenges, as they may arise in the future.

“But now is not that time,” he said. “Now is the time for unity, for the international community to work together in solidarity to stop this virus and its shattering consequences.”

The WHO declared the coronavirus outbreak a global health emergency on Jan. 30, the same day the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed the first case of person-to-person spread in the country. The UN agency also urged against imposing international travel restrictions, a step Trump took against China the following day.

Trump has repeatedly said his critics and the WHO were wrong about his restrictions on travel from China, claiming the decision saved thousands of American lives.

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