WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump announced Tuesday that he will suspend payments to the World Health Organization in response to the United Nations agency’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, as the organization is in the midst of combating a global outbreak that has killed thousands and crippled world economies.
Trump’s announcement was expected, as he seeks to deflect blame for his early dismissal of the virus as a threat to Americans and the U.S. economy. It is not yet clear how the United States will cut off money to the main international organization focused on fighting the pandemic, or whether Trump is setting conditions for a resumption of U.S. payments.
“We have not been treated properly,” Trump said, as he announced a suspension period of 60- to 90 days for U.S. funding.
Conservative allies of the president have begun focusing on the WHO as complicit in a Chinese coverup of the outbreak in late 2019 and early 2020, before Trump moved to respond. The finger-pointing allows Trump to deflect blame from his own initial reaction to the outbreak as of no consequence to the United States. Trump also resents the WHO for opposing his decision, in late January, to block most air travel from China.
The virus is believed to have originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019. While China later locked down the city and imposed other major restrictions, U.S. critics have said that the Communist Party’s initial impulse to conceal the extent of the outbreak cost the rest of the world time to react.
“The WHO pushed China’s misinformation about the virus,” Trump said at a White House news conference.
The United States leads world in coronavirus deaths as the confirmed total passed 20,000 several days ago.
Trump said the halt in funding will continue “while a review is conducted to assess the World Health Organization’s role and severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus.”
After Trump spoke, U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres defended the health body without directly criticizing its largest donor. He said it is “not the time to reduce the resources for the operations of the World Health Organization or any other humanitarian organization in the fight against the virus.”
Trump is attempting to make the case that an accurate assessments of the risk at the outset could have given the U.S. government a jump on the need for social distancing and other preventive measures and lead time to procure additional tests, masks, respirators and other equipment now in short supply.
“The outbreak could have been contained at its source with very little death, very little death, and certainly very little death by comparison. This would have saved thousands of lives and avoided worldwide economic damage,” Trump said Tuesday.
At issue are ongoing voluntary U.S. payments to the U.N. health body, based in Geneva. The United States is the largest single donor to the WHO, with “assessed” or mandatory funding and larger voluntary contributions that often go to fund specific projects or crisis responses.
“The world have chosen to rely on the WHO for accurate, timely and independent information to make important public health recommendations and decisions,” Trump said. “If we cannot trust that this is what we will receive from the W.H.O., our country will be forced to find other ways to work with other nations to achieve public health goals.”
Republicans in Congress are seeking documents from the WHO and calling for investigations of contacts between WHO officials and Chinese government officials. The White House backs those efforts but could hold up funding before results are in.
“The money is not guaranteed if WHO does not do its mission,” a senior administration official had said before Trump announced the hold.
The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the administration has not decided how to proceed, said the quarrel is less with the organization’s health professionals and more with its political leadership.
The United States has committed to provide the agency with $893 million during its current two-year funding period, a State Department spokesperson said. The figure comports with donor information provided by the WHO, which lists the United States as the largest donor.
Trump stopped short Tuesday of calling for the resignation of WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, which some conservative allies including Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., have advocated.
Congress has ignored Trump administration budget proposals that would slash funding for the WHO, instead approving funding levels that have remained roughly $400 million or higher for several years.
Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., asked the administration to expand contributions to the WHO to help in the global response to covid-19, the disease the novel coronavirus causes. In a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo late last month, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said the United States should do more to meet the WHO’s call for $675 million for pandemic response.
“Given the WHO’s indispensable role, it is imperative that the United States increase contributions” beyond $14.7 million pledged to date, Menendez wrote.
He also asked Pompeo to address what he said is an approximately $41 million shortfall in U.S. disbursements of WHO funds approved by Congress.
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The Washington Post’s Colby Itkowitz contributed to this report.