The president has a new talking point, and per usual, it’s a thinly veiled distraction that if acted on could cause untold harm.
During one of Donald Trump’s daily press briefings on the ongoing coronavirus pandemic on Tuesday, he added yet another enemy to his grievance list: the World Health Organization. Trump used the occasion to gin up a conspiracy narrative in which the WHO withheld critical information that would have helped prevent this whole mess in the U.S., possibly at the behest of China. Then he announced the U.S. would hold all WHO funding now, during the peak of the pandemic, and obviously for no reason other than to look tough, before immediately walking that back.
“The WHO ..receives vast amounts of money from the United States, and uh, we pay for a majority of, the biggest portion of their money,” Trump said. “And they, uh, actually criticized and disagreed with my travel ban at the time I did it, and they were wrong. They’ve been wrong about a lot of things...they seem to be very China-centric.”
“And we have to look into that, so we’re gonna look into it...because they really are, uh, they called it wrong. They called it wrong,” Trump added. “They really, they missed the call. They could have called it months earlier, they would have known, and uh, they should have known, and they probably did know...We’re gonna put a hold on money spent to the WHO, we’re gonna put a very powerful hold on it, and we’re gonna see.”
Trump then claimed ignorance when asked whether it was a good idea to cut funding to an organization which is shipping hundreds of thousands of coronavirus test kits to the international community. When asked whether cutting funding at the height of the pandemic is a really stupid idea, Trump lied that he hadn’t actually said the White House is holding the funds and instead said he meant to threaten it.
“I’m not saying I’m going to do it, but we’re going to look at it,” Trump said. “...No I didn’t, I said we’re gonna look at it, we’re gonna investigate it, we’re gonna look at it. But we will look at ending funding, yeah.”
The U.S. has paid the WHO $893 million during the current two-year funding period, per Stat, which is about 14.67 percent of its budget. The WHO has long been short on funding and losing this money would severely compromise its ability to respond to the pandemic, which as of Tuesday evening is now at over 1.4 million confirmed infections and 82,000 deaths globally.
Let’s be crystal clear about what’s going on here: This has nothing to do with the WHO’s relationship with China and everything to do with the president’s frantic attempts to point the finger at any and all possible scapegoats now that the U.S. is the world leader in cases (about 400,000, with nearly 13,000 deaths). While the WHO has tread on eggshells on issues that could antagonize China, it is also influenced by other powerful member states, and the real issue is that does not have the resources or degree of cooperation necessary to coordinate a unified global response to the virus. There is nothing that cutting its funding would do but make the situation worse.
However, the WHO has come under criticism for praising China’s harsh response to the coronavirus while not challenging the nation’s suspect official figures. The agency might not have had much of a choice under a global health system subject to the political whims of sponsors, and it has contributed immensely to the overall fight against the virus. But that criticism has provided an easy opportunity for the right-wing media to explain away the White House’s massive failures handling the epidemic stateside. (Conservative outlets like the National Review have all jumped to agree with the president and portray this as a very serious and sober policy proposition rather than, say, another pointless ritual in invincible ignorance.)
Those failures include slashing pandemic preparedness programs, widespread blunders and delays in testing for the virus, Trump’s downplaying of the crisis and refusal to mobilize federal resources until it was too late, and political infighting and incompetence within the administration. U.S. officials chose not to use the WHO’s virus tests even as red flags were everywhere that the country was not prepared.
Trump is completely incapable of handling this situation. Whether he’ll carry out the threat against WHO or is just bluffing, though, is an open question. Trump has previously blamed the Obama administration, the media, state governors, General Motors, and hospitals for the fumbled U.S. response to covid-19.