US President Trump said Tuesday that he is suspending U.S. funding for the World Health Organization pending an administration review of its early response to the coronavirus outbreak in China.
The suspension threatens to undermine the WHO, the United Nations agency for international public health, as it seeks to coordinate governments in the battle against a pandemic that already has left more than 125,000 people dead in about 200 countries.
But the announcement was consistent with Trump’s efforts to deflect blame for his delay in declaring a national emergency until mid-March, after weeks of dismissing the threat, and for his personal disdain for international organizations.
Trump accused the U.N. group of mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus after it was first detected in Wuhan, China, in early January.
“The WHO failed in this basic duty and must be held accountable,” Trump said during a news briefing in the Rose Garden.
It wasn’t immediately clear how much money is blocked by Trump’s order, or for how long. The U.S. directed $453 million to the U.N. agency in 2019 through different U.S. programs and agencies, according to a senior administration official.
Trump suggested that U.S. funding was “on hold,” not cut, but that it could be redirected to other needs.
Trump faulted the WHO for not doing more to raise the alarm in Wuhan, and said it “willingly took China’s assurances” about the transmission of the virus.
He also criticized the agency for advising against imposing travel restrictions on individuals coming from China into February, after he had imposed a temporary travel ban on visitors from China on Jan. 31.
More broadly, Trump alleged that the U.N. agency was too close to China, saying the WHO “defended the actions of the Chinese government, even praising its so-called transparency.”
Trump had also praised China’s government, and its president, Xi Jinping, for transparency.
“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!”
In another tweet two weeks later, Trump suggested that the coronavirus would go away in April, after the weather warmed, and again praised Xi, stating that "[g]reat discipline is taking place in China, as President Xi strongly leads what will be a very successful operation.”
With the U.S. death toll nearing 26,000 and Trump’s administration under intense public scrutiny because of its slow public health mobilization, the president on Tuesday flatly denied that he’d said what he said.
“I don’t talk about China’s transparency,” he told a reporter who referenced his tweets, speaking over her attempt at a follow-up question. “You know, if I’m so good to China, how come I was the only person, the only leader of a country that closed our borders tightly against China?”
Before the briefing had concluded, Democrats and public health officials expressed their outrage over the suspension of U.S. support for the WHO.
“Withholding funds for WHO in the midst of the worst pandemic in a century makes as much sense as cutting off ammunition to an ally as the enemy closes in,” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee.
He suggested Trump was trying to deflect attention from the laggard federal response to the crisis by blaming a little-known U.N. agency for its operations in China.
“The White House knows that it grossly mishandled this crisis from the beginning, ignoring multiple warnings and squandering valuable time, dismissing medical science, comparing COVID 19 to the common cold, and saying, ‘Everything will be fine,’” Leahy added.