WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump and his top aides are working behind the scenes to sideline the World Health Organization on several new fronts as they seek to shift blame for the coronavirus pandemic to the world body, according to U.S. and foreign officials involved in the discussions.
Last week, the president announced a 60-day hold on U.S. money to the WHO, but other steps by his top officials go beyond a temporary funding freeze, raising concerns about the permanent weakening of the organization amid a rapidly spreading crisis.
At the State Department, officials are stripping references to the WHO from coronavirus fact sheets, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has instructed his employees to “cut out the middle man” when it comes to public health initiatives the United States previously supported through the WHO.
The United States will now attempt to reroute the WHO funds to nongovernment organizations involved in public health issues, according to interviews with U.S. officials and an internal memo obtained by The Washington Post.
“The Secretary has asked the State Department and USAID to identify and utilize alternative implementers for foreign assistance programs beyond the WHO,” read a memo sent to State Department employees in recent days.
At the United Nations Security Council, the Trump administration has delayed a resolution responding to the health crisis, which the French have been trying to advance for weeks, because it disagrees with draft language that expresses support for the WHO, European officials said.
U.S. opposition to the WHO also prevented health ministers at a virtual G-20 meeting from issuing a joint statement on the pandemic earlier this month.
The White House is imploring allies to question the organization’s credibility and push claims that its employees routinely go on excessive “luxury travel,” as one White House official, Sarah Makin Acciani, told a group of surrogates in a recent phone call without offering evidence, a transcript of which has been obtained by The Post.
“It has been impossible to find a common ground with the U.S. about the views on the work and role of WHO,” said a senior European official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe diplomatic discussions.
WHO officials initially hoped they could stave off a halt in U.S. funding and a messy public confrontation by making a symbolic concession to Trump, but discussions between the organization and the U.S. ambassador to the WHO, Andrew Bremberg, failed to ease tensions.
Trump, who has said the outbreak could be contained with “very little death” if the WHO had done its job, reiterated his complaints during a Group of Seven conference call this month. World leaders cautioned that it would be unwise to “switch horses” in the middle of the race and that an investigation into mistakes could be made after the crisis subsides, European officials familiar with the conversation said. After the call, several G-7 leaders issued public statements in support of the WHO.
The Trump administration’s moves could prove far more damaging to the WHO than the temporary halt in funding, said experts who reviewed the State Department memo and tracked U.S. actions.
“A 60-day pause to U.S. funding is a headache for the WHO but not necessarily an existential crisis. That said, if State starts giving funds to other implementers to carry out health programs the WHO would have overseen, there is a risk that the U.S. starts spreading resources out in an inefficient, fragmentary fashion,” said Richard Gowan, a senior fellow at the International Crisis Group.
“If this crisis has taught us one thing, it is that we need better international coordination to handle global heath challenges,” he added.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services, Katherine McKeogh, said the Trump administration “seeks to refocus the WHO on fulfilling its core missions of preparedness, response, and stakeholder coordination.”
Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, said that the WHO had shown a “clear bias towards China, even though China contributes a small fraction of what the U.S. does each year.”
“From repeating inaccurate claims peddled by China during the coronavirus pandemic to opposing the United States’ life-saving travel restrictions, the WHO put Americans at risk,” she said.
The WHO, born out of the ashes of World War II “to promote and protect the health of all peoples,” is designed to identify emerging contagion and “support the delivery of essential health services in fragile settings,” according to a statement on its website.
Trump and his top aides have criticized the organization for not thoroughly vetting information from China about the virus and taking too many of its statements at “face value,” the president said.
“So much death has been caused by their mistakes,” Trump told reporters at the White House in reference to the WHO.
Trump has said the organization “pushed China’s misinformation” and is inherently “China-centric,” a criticism shared by other governments due in part to Beijing’s lobbying on behalf of key individuals for influential WHO postings.
But critics say the president is scapegoating the WHO to distract from charges that he responded slowly to the pandemic and waited too long to implement protective measures that would have saved lives in the United States. They also question the value of seeking alternatives to the WHO at this juncture.
The institution’s defenders note that since late January, WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has held near-daily news conferences about the virus and warned leaders that the window for stopping its spread was quickly “closing.” Officials from the Trump administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were embedded in the WHO and continue to work with it, even as Trump publicly rails against the agency.
Former administration officials said the Trump administration supported Tedros in his bid for the position and even met with him in the White House. Among those who have spoken regularly with him since his election is Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter, officials said.
On Tuesday, the State Department rolled out its plan to reroute money that went to the WHO but did not name any specific group it would fund and could not say whether the United States will coordinate with the organization on health matters going forward.
“We cannot tell you,” said John Barsa, the acting administrator of USAID, noting that the administration was still carrying out a review of the policy.
Pompeo has suggested that the United States, which contributed $553 million to the WHO in 2019, may withhold all funding to the organization in the future. On Wednesday night, he declined to rule out the possibility that the United States would seek Tedros’s removal as a condition for resuming funding.
“It may be the case that the United States can never return to underwriting, having U.S. taxpayer dollars go to the WHO,” he told Fox News host Laura Ingraham.
Pompeo has also raised the idea, in private discussions with other officials, of launching a parallel structure to the WHO that would receive U.S. coronavirus funding, said two officials familiar with the discussions.
The Trump administration’s moves against the WHO have concerned Democrats and some Republicans who view undercutting the institution as risky in the middle of a global health crisis.
“I’m reluctant to think that the middle of the fight is the time to eliminate one of the partners in the fight, no matter how many concerns you have about what they’re doing,” said Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., who chairs the Senate panel overseeing health funding.
There is also concern that the United States, which donates more to the WHO than any other country, could lose influence to China, which on Thursday committed to giving $30 million to the organization.
Critics of Tedros say he and his deputies failed to question China’s claims in mid-January that there was no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the coronavirus, and that they missed opportunities to urge nations to take preemptive action.
An Ethiopian national and microbiologist by training, Tedros has also come under attack from 17 House Republicans, who last week called on him to resign, saying the WHO plays a “vital role” but that they have lost confidence in him.
Organizations that work with the WHO have said that while it could have responded to the pandemic more quickly, attempts to undercut it are misguided.
“WHO is not a mere ‘middle man.’ WHO plays an indispensable multilateral role and is the only organization with the global capacity, reach and mandate to support the response to a pandemic that is threatening every country on Earth,” said Sheba Crocker, vice president of humanitarian policy and practice at CARE.
The Trump administration is considering keeping some funding for the WHO to fight polio and the coronavirus in seven countries, Bloomberg first reported on Friday. The move could serve as an acknowledgment that certain WHO programs are not easily replaceable, but one senior U.S. official cautioned that no final decision has been made on the exemptions.
Some conservatives defended rerouting funds away from the WHO, arguing that the organization has paid insufficient attention to emerging pandemics and that channeling money through it is no guarantee that health crises will be handled in a more efficient way.
“WHO spends a lot of money on things other than communicable diseases,” said Brett Schaefer, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation, noting the organization’s work on heart disease, cancer and health emergency programs.
While acknowledging that funding piecemeal global health efforts could lack a global perspective, he countered that the U.N. system, which includes the WHO and the U.N. Children Fund, can also be “fragmented and duplicative.”
U.S. attendance at WHO-related events has also begun to slip, officials said. On Friday, the United States did not participate in the launch of a World Health Organization global effort on vaccines and drugs related to coronavirus. WHO leaders “really, really” hoped for U.S. attendance and asked Washington repeatedly to participate, a WHO official said. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar did not take part in this month’s virtual G-20 meeting of health ministers because he was celebrating Easter, a spokeswoman said.
For weeks the U.N. Security Council has been working on a resolution calling for a global cease fire pertaining to armed conflict in response to the pandemic. A draft offered by the French and viewed by The Post urged member states to “share timely and transparent information regarding the outbreak of COVID-19” and “support the full implementation of the WHO International Health Regulations.”
That reference to the WHO was opposed by the United States, European officials said.
A State Department official said the U.S. continues to support a global cease fire in principle but also needs to look out for its “legitimate” interests.
A recent version of the resolution, crafted by Tunisia and France, includes placeholder language in the hope of resolving the WHO dispute later on. A “compromise related to the language on WHO” will be decided on “at the end of the negotiation,” reads a draft obtained by The Post.
As the negotiations drag on, European officials view domestic American politics as an obstacle to an effective response to the crisis.
“The U.S. administration is very fixated on the reelection campaign and on who can get blamed for this catastrophic covid-19 situation in the U.S.,” said a senior European official. “They are blaming WHO and China for it. Therefore it is very difficult to agree on a common language about the WHO.”
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The Washington Post’s Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.