Apr 14, 2020 - World

Aides prepare options for Trump to shun WHO over coronavirus

President Donald Trump arrives for the daily briefing on the coronavirus

Photo: Madnel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

President Trump's team will present him imminently with options to snub the World Health Organization over its coronavirus approach — from outright cuts to redirecting funding — people familiar with the plans tell Axios.

Driving the news: Trump vowed a week ago to put "a very powerful hold" on money to the WHO, which he's targeted for blame as the pandemic has spread.

  • "The WHO really blew it. For some reason, funded largely by the United States, yet very China centric. We will be giving that a good look," Trump tweeted last week.
  • He'll get a boost from Florida Sen. Rick Scott and GOP colleagues who today asked WHO for an accounting of its early handling of the coronavirus outbreak in China.

The other side: WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has defended his organization's response to the novel virus, and said last week that Trump's threats to cut off funding amounted to "politicizing COVID."

Details: Trump administration officials tell Axios the amount of funding to be withheld has not yet been determined, but that options fall along two tracks.

  • The most likely route is to reprogram U.S. funds that were allocated for the WHO, moving them to other international organizations that can administer them for comparable purposes, officials said.
  • A more dramatic, but less likely, approach is to send a rescissions package to Congress, rescinding from the federal budget funds already allocated to WHO. A similar approach was adopted in 2017 when the U.S. cut $285 million from its funding to the United Nations.
  • Social distancing makes the second option unlikely since lawmakers can't easily vote. "We're not anticipating doing that action with Congress not being around," one administration official said. "We're looking for action that can be done very quickly."
  • The White House Office of Management and Budget is still drafting options to present to the president, who will ultimately decide how much money and in what way he would like to withdraw funding.
  • One official said the process is complicated because it involves multiple agencies and different pots of money.
  • The White House declined to comment on this story.

By the numbers: The WHO's 2018-2019 budget was about $6 billion, and the U.S. is by far the biggest donor of any country, contributing more than $400 million to the organization last year.

  • "The United States remains by far the largest contributor to the World Health Organization, as we've been since 1948. Our contribution exceeded $400 million last year, 10 times that of China,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters in March.

Behind the scenes: Trump's national security team has rallied around the idea that the U.S. needs to go beyond statements and make the WHO feel some pain for missteps in handling the coronavirus pandemic and its deference to China, according to officials involved in the internal discussions.

The Trump administration believes the WHO was too deferential to China in the early days of the outbreak, according to three officials. Specific complaints include:

  • That the WHO publicly supported China's deceptive early claims about the virus — even saying in mid-January that human-to-human transmission had not been proven.
  • That the WHO was slow to declare the virus an emergency even as it was spreading rapidly around the world.
  • That the WHO did not push harder against China — either rhetorically or in practical terms — during its early cover-up. International experts weren't let into Wuhan until mid-February, for example.
  • And lastly — this critique being the one Trump most often raises — the WHO said Trump's travel restrictions against China were unnecessary.

Trump himself has been extremely frustrated about WHO's role, particularly after being informed about how much the U.S. is contributing vs. how much China is contributing.

  • It feeds his reflexive view that the U.S. is a sucker when it pays more into international institutions than other countries and isn't treated "fairly." It also reinforces his belief that China receives more deference than it deserves.
  • And it gives Trump somebody else to blame and a way to deflect from his own missteps in handling the virus.

What they're saying: "The president announced last week that he wanted to look at WHO funding because of, not only their complete and utter incompetence on this but also a lot of other global pandemics, like SARS and Zika," one Trump administration official told Axios.

  • "So OMB is currently identifying resources, figuring out where the monies are and then drawing up what plans and what options there are for the president and he will decide ... The president will decide this week," the official added.
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