Did Trump abandon the World Health Organization or not?

Two weeks ago, Trump said the U.S. "will be today terminating our relationship with the World Health Organization." That may not have been true.
Image: SWITZERLAND-WHO-HEALTH-VIRUS
The World Health Organization (WHO) headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland on April 24, 2020.Fabrice Coffrini / AFP - Getty Images
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By Steve Benen

As part of Donald Trump's unfortunate campaign against the World Health Organization, the White House recently sent a letter to the international body, intending to summarize the American president's case against the WHO's recent efforts. It didn't go well: because Team Trump is careless when it comes to due diligence, the official letter included a series of "false or misleading statements."

Nevertheless, the White House gave the WHO a 30-deadline to advance a series of proposed reforms. Just 11 days later -- two weeks ago today -- Trump announced plans to abandon the world body altogether.

The news was not well received. Indeed, the Republican's decision generated sharp rebukes from foreign officials, public-health leaders, legal experts, editorial boards, and members of Congress -- including some Republicans.

But two weeks later, it's not at all clear whether the White House is actually doing what Trump claimed it's doing.

President Trump's announcement that the United States would end cooperation with the World Health Organization (WHO) in the midst of a global coronavirus pandemic has not resulted in any formal action, and American institutions are still engaged in longstanding relationships with the Geneva-based international agency.

At face value, the president's rhetoric did not appear ambiguous. "Because they have failed to make the requested and greatly needed reforms," he said in Rose Garden remarks, "we will be today terminating our relationship with the World Health Organization."

The Hill's report added, however, "Two weeks later, no steps toward a formal withdrawal have been taken. A WHO spokesman told The Hill that the agency had received no formal notification that the United States would withdraw."

This coincides with similar reporting from STAT News, which added this week that, at least so far, "none of the levers that would need to be pulled to follow through on [Trump's] decision has been pulled."

The report added that the president's announcement "has been followed by virtual silence from both top health officials in his administration as well as WHO officials in Geneva. Some legal experts find themselves wondering whether a withdrawal will happen at all."

It's possible that these observations are premature and that the administration will follow through the president's high-profile declaration. It's also possible, however, that Trump ... how do I put this gently ... just says random things that have no meaningful connection to reality.

To be sure, if the president's words were hollow in this case, it would be a positive development. The World Health Organization is far from perfect, but the idea that the United States would abandon it -- during a global pandemic, no less -- is indefensible. I'm glad the administration has failed to follow through on Trump's rhetoric, and I hope this continues.

But this nevertheless serves as an important reminder that Trump is an unreliable narrator about his own presidency. When he says he's poised to do something, there's simply no reason to accept his words at face value, and there's no reason to assume that thing will actually happen.

As regular readers know, this comes up with unnerving frequency. In 2018, for example, Trump announced delays to the implementation of a new trade agreement with our allies in South Korea. The Washington Post's David Ignatius said something memorable soon after: "I had a South Korean ask me, 'Were the president's comments about holding the new trade deal ... was that real? Did he really mean that? Or was he just ad-libbing?'

The questions were rooted in an awkward truth: no one, here or abroad, has any idea when Trump's words have value.

After Trump announced the end of DACA negotiations, the New York Times noted in passing, "It was unclear whether the president's tweets represented any change in his immigration policy, or were just the sort of venting he is known to do after reading a newspaper article or seeing a television program."

After Trump announced the imminent withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, Vox noted, "[O]f course, there's no indication that this represents actual policy as opposed to the ramblings of a president who is a strangely marginal figure in his own administration."

At a White House discussion on gun policy, Trump announced positions that he didn't mean. At a discussion on immigration, he did the same thing. Last year, the president declared via Twitter that he'd ordered FEMA to send California "no more money" to deal with wildfires. We later learned there was no such order; he simply made it up.

Vice President Mike Pence once said, "President Trump is a leader who says what he means and means what he says." It was among the more unintentionally hilarious things he's ever said.