Another step backward: Trump halts World Health Organization funding

The hope was that cooler heads would prevail and support for the World Health Organization during a pandemic would continue. Alas, that's not what happened
Image: World Health Organization
The headquarters of the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland on April 8, 2019.Jamey Keaten / AP

The first sign of trouble came last week during a White House press briefing. Apropos of nothing, Donald Trump declared that his administration is "going to put a hold" on U.S. funding for the World Health Organization. He added, "We're going to put a very powerful hold on it." Soon after, the president said he hadn't actually decided to halt funding, shortly before he denied saying what everyone had just heard him say.

Regardless, the fact that he briefly retreated left open the possibility that cooler heads would prevail and U.S. support for the World Health Organization would continue as the pandemic continues to wreak havoc across the planet. Alas, that's not what happened.

President Donald Trump announced Tuesday that he is halting funding for the World Health Organization pending a review of its response to the initial coronavirus outbreak after the organization criticized his restrictions on travel from China. Trump accused the WHO of "severely mismanaging and covering up" the coronavirus crisis, specifically the initial outbreak in Wuhan, China.

There is some question about whether the American president has the solitary authority to halt congressionally approved funding for an international body. Indeed, as NBC News reported, congressional Democrats last night insisted that he does not.

A spokesperson for the House Appropriations Committee called Trump's announced move "a desperate attempt to deflect blame," adding, "The President does not have the unilateral authority to withhold the United States' contribution to the World Health Organization."

While those legal questions remain unresolved, this is a multi-faceted mess. Critics of the WHO can make a plausible case that the organization was a bit too quick to give China the benefit of the doubt as the crisis got underway, but it's not like Donald Trump has any real credibility on this point -- he, too, was quick to give China the benefit of the doubt at the time, even praising Beijing's "transparency."

What's more, if the American president is concerned about the WHO being too cozy with China, yesterday's announcement will make matters worse, not better. As Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) explained last night, "Now, more than ever, the United States should be increasing our funding to the WHO, and if necessary use that as leverage to push for reforms. That is how we can enable and strengthen a global response to COVID-19. Moreover, removing our funding and influence at the WHO will leave a vacuum that China will be more than happy to fill."

At yesterday's White House press briefing, a reporter asked the president why cutting off WHO funding during a pandemic would be beneficial. Trump hardly even tried to answer the question.

And that's probably because there is no answer, at least not a good one. The Republican is searching desperately for people and institutions he can blame for his administration's missteps, and yesterday's announcement was an obvious part of that misguided effort.

What's more, it was also part of a broader pattern in which Trump has lashed out at leading global institutions that help represent the pillars of international stability. Over the course of his term, the American president has identified a series of international bodies he sees as foes, fools, or frauds: the World Health Organization, the World Trade Organization, the United Nations, NATO, and the European Union.

A couple of years ago, The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg spoke to administration officials about how they define the "Trump Doctrine" and he heard a few summaries. One senior White House official with direct access to the president and his thinking, said, "The Trump Doctrine is 'We're America, Bitch.' That's the Trump Doctrine."

Yesterday's announcement on WHO funding is very much in line such a philosophy.