May 18, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Xi accepts, while Trump rejects, invite to address WHO

Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

President Trump declined an invitation to address a virtual gathering of the World Health Organization, which proceeded today with addresses from several world leaders but only a blistering rebuke from the U.S.

The big picture: A source familiar with Trump's thinking said he has no interest in doing anything with the WHO right now. Trump has excoriated the WHO, saying it's kowtowing to China, and he's frozen U.S. funding for the global health agency.

Behind the scenes: The WHO extended an invitation earlier this month for Trump to speak at Monday's virtual gathering of the World Health Assembly, according to two sources familiar with the situation.

Trump rejected the invitation. He delivered his rejection to the WHO leadership through the U.S. Mission in Geneva, according to these sources.

  • The WHO invited both China's President Xi Jinping and Trump to give speeches to the "high-level welcome session" of the annual global health meeting, according to one of the sources.
  • "The WHO wanted to bring these two leaders together, the biggest economies in the world, at a time when they are being cold to each other, and try to create some sense of solidarity," the source said.

Xi accepted the invitation. China's president delivered a virtual speech in which he pledged $2 billion in coronavirus aid to the worldwide response. Other world leaders who addressed today's gathering included Germany's Angela Merkel and France's Emmanuel Macron.

The U.S.' only contribution was a short and brutal one.

  • Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar gave a blistering speech attacking the WHO. Azar said the WHO failed to obtain the information the world needed about COVID-19, "and that failure cost many lives."
  • Azar added: "We saw that WHO failed at its core mission of information-sharing and transparency when member states do not act in good faith. This cannot ever happen again. The status quo is intolerable. WHO must change and it must become far more transparent and far more accountable."

Between the lines: China has faced persistent questions for its early cover-up of the virus' outbreak in Wuhan, including the arrest of doctors and censorship of references to the disease on Chinese social media.

  • But critics of America's position say the Trump administration — through its abandonment of the WHO — is retreating from global leadership during a time of crisis. And in so doing, ceding the opportunity to influence the global health security agenda during a once-in-a-century pandemic.
  • These critics also say that Trump is trying to use China and the WHO to deflect from his own early failures to respond to COVID-19.

What they're saying: A senior White House official responded to this reporting by saying:

  • "If the WHO had done its job, and not enabled China’s refusal to be transparent, the world would likely be in a very different place right now. Now is the time for answers and transparency, not a photo opportunity aimed at conveying a false sense of solidarity."
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